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Victor Lewis: The Drummer's Spirit

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: Thanks for your candor about your cohorts. Now let's move on to your work as a drummer. First of all, in recording studios they often isolate the drummer in a separate room so they can mix the sound in any way they like. I've always felt badly for the drummer, in a little room with a window and a headset. How do you feel about that?

VL: It varies. Some rooms don't make you feel so isolated. And some rooms make you feel that you're in another building in another time and place from the group. Sometimes, I couldn't even see the band. It's worse when they try to isolate the drummer in a studio that wasn't built that way. One time, I was placed in a hallway and couldn't see anybody! They segregate the musicians for mixing purposes, but a lot of the great jazz records were done without so much isolation or even with as many microphones as they use now. The problem with using many mikes is that they dis-assemble the sound, and unless the engineer is really good at putting it back together again, the result is disappointing, not the best sound. For my money, the engineers from the '60s and '70s were better than after that. When digital recording came in, it's very cold-blooded, and it will only seek what you program it to look for, as opposed to analog, which picks up more of the nuances, including the ambience of the room. What can compare to Rudy Van Gelder's recordings from the 1960s?

AAJ: Simplicity and spontaneity is so much a part of jazz. You don't want the recording to lose the feeling and atmosphere of the session.

VL: Exactly. I totally agree.

AAJ: Let's talk about your style of playing the drums. Jim Miller, an outstanding drummer in Philadelphia, remarked to me that what he appreciates about your drum technique is that it's especially "musical." I would say that it "sings" and "flows."

VL: It's been my goal for some time to not be just a drummer but to be a total musician and to participate in the musical dialogue and also to bring up the right texture.

AAJ: "Texture" is a good word for that special quality you exemplify.

VL: I think I was influenced in that regard when in college I majored in classical percussion. From that experience, I don't think of driving a drum set. I think of being a percussionist in an orchestra, where you embrace the sounds.

AAJ: Did you play the timpani, where you have to adjust the pitch? I'm very struck by how well your playing flows, resonates. It's a very beautiful sound, which you can't say for all drummers.

VL: I like to have what I do be transparent and organic at the same time.

AAJ: Somewhat related to what you said about "channeling" the music, do you ever have a sense of "floating above time" rather than punctuating it?

VL: On a good day, time isn't in increments. It's flowing.

AAJ: It's as if you're above time, watching it?

VL: Right! I like the way you put that! I like to think that on a good day, it's almost like you can sit back and watch yourself play.

AAJ: I'm interested in world music, and I wonder if you have any sense that your drumming goes back to African trance music, which was imported to the U.S. through the Carribean and New Orleans at the end of nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. There are early recordings of African trance drummers, and the rhythm is remarkably similar to jazz.

VL: Oh yeah. For sure. It's the dialogue. You've got the guy who's "talking," so to speak, on his drums, and then you've got the other guys who are "responding" on their instruments. In my opinion, the rhythms from Africa are the basis of all rhythms that exist. You mentioned Third World music. I see that as the future of music. I tell my students, "The future of music is going to be the synthesis of everything you guys like." For example, Dizzy Gillespie started checking out the Latin bands, and he ended up doing that stuff with Chano Poso and absorbed that influence into his music. So I'm really into the fusion of diverse music from around the world. When American jazz musicians discovered Brazilian music, it had a big impact on the jazz perspective. I really see the future of music being a combination of elements from different countries.

AAJ: Which particular musical cultures do you personally relate to the most?

VL: The Brazilian. No question about it. It's funny, because I never actually went to Brazil with Stan Getz. He played in Brazil a lot, but by the time I was working with him, I think he had had enough of the bossa nova days. By that time, he had only one medley of bossa nova tunes in a set to please the crowd. For him, the bossa nova days were over.

AAJ: In the later years, Getz returned to bebop and hard bop as his main fare. It's interesting you are attracted to Brazilian music, yet you don't often perform it.

VL: I don't play it a lot, but I listen to it a lot and keep up with the concepts. It's not only the rhythm that I like but the sense of romantic harmony. The Brazilians are a romantic people, and I think I'm a hopeless romantic!

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