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Working the Rhythm Section: Tom Lawton, Lee Smith, and Dan Monaghan

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: And sometimes they literally create a whole new sense of time and rhythm. Like what happened in Kansas City in the 1930s. With drummer Jo Jones and others, the emphasis shifted from the bass drum to the ride cymbal, which completely changed the whole feeling of swing. Later, with bebop, drummers like Kenny Clarke took it even further.

DM: The bebop drummers didn't feel the need to hammer out quarter notes on the bass drum when there was a bassist in the band playing the same rhythm. The timekeeping then got shifted to the ride cymbal, and the bass drum was used as another color to accompany the soloist.

AAJ: Is it not also true that the cymbals gave a greater sense of flow to the music than the bass drum?

TL: Certainly, the cymbals give a lighter feeling.

LS: It's one of the differences between mainstream jazz drumming and, say, R&B. With the latter, the emphasis is on the bass drum and snare drum. Whereas, in jazz, you get the sense of movement from the cymbal. It's a lighter flowing feel as opposed to nailing the beat.

AAJ: I imagine the ride cymbal facilitates more spontaneous improvising as well.

TL: The use of the ride cymbal started long ago with Jo Jones and others. Then, Mickey Roker, Max Roach, and those guys carried it further, but it's even more important today. They play over the bar line, and the first beat of the bar is there but it's not overly accented. In my opinion, the entire teaching of strong beats is wrong. The first beat should serve as a mental anchor, but it's not necessarily accented, unless it's a musical intention. Traditionally, we're taught that one and three are strong beats and two and four are weak beats. But in practice, it doesn't work that way. Once, I was listening to the Keith Jarrett Trio, and they were stretching the time and the feel in an amazing way! I listened to it many times and could hear how almost every time, one of them played the beat exactly on "one." Often it was Jack DeJohnette's soft "ping" on the cymbals. That gave them the flexibility to stretch the time around it. I always say that what I call the "inner squareness" of the time enables you to keep the place, but then that allows you to walk the tightrope of the feeling that you want to convey.

AAJ: It almost seems as if you're "painting" the sound, with very subtle differences in the colors of the rhythm as well as the sonority, which also shapes the rhythm. It's interesting how the mind puts all that together to form an overall "picture" of the music.

TL: Talking about sound color, the way that Dan orchestrates on the drums is great, the way he uses the various timbres of the whole drum set—that really affects the feel as well.

How Early Listening Experiences Influence the Sense of Rhythm

AAJ: Let's focus a little more attention on each of you as individuals. Lee was influenced by rhythm and blues when he was young. Tom, you said you came up on classical and rock. Dan, what first got you interested in playing drums?

DM: Rock bands. Probably the most profound musical moment in my whole life was in 1984 when I heard Van Halen's "Jump" on the radio. That affected me more strongly and differently than anything else has ever affected me. It grabbed my soul, like it said, "This is for you!"

AAJ: So how come you didn't become a rock drummer?

TL: He is! He still does rock shows!

DM: That was my dream in high school and college—to be a rock drummer. And even in the last ten years, I do some rock shows, and they are exceedingly fun! But as a rock drummer, you have a particular function, and if you start to get too creative, you stray from your purpose and it doesn't work. Like you can't be an impressionistic "touchy-feely" drummer in, say Led Zeppelin! You have to fulfill your function. I had too much wanderlust for that.

AAJ: So how did you go over to jazz?

DM: My parents were classical musicians. My father was interested in all kinds of music. He would get records from the library for me to listen to, like Buddy Rich live at the Chez (Big Swing Face Live, Pacific Jazz, 1967). Even then, I was struck by the snare drum sound on that record, and I still am. My dad also got me Weather Report—Heavy Weather (Columbia, 1977) with Joe Zawinul's tune "Birdland." Later, he brought home Wynton Marsalis: Live at Blues Alley (Columbia, 1987).

But I really came into jazz drumming through Tony Williams' Lifetime jazz-rock fusion band, and also hearing Jack DeJohnette. Then I got into Miles' quintet with Herbie Hancock, then worked back to Miles' sextet with Cannonball Adderley and Trane.

LS: One of the things that got me into jazz was that the players whom I considered to be overall better musicians were into jazz. The first instrument I studied was the trumpet, and the guys would always talk about Miles and other jazz musicians. And these guys that I talked to were the ones who could play really well. They could read music well, they could improvise. I was impressed with how much they could do which the classical musicians didn't do at all. So I figured that jazz could offer me a sense of growth that other types of music couldn't.

AAJ: Lee, we all know that your son, Christian McBride, is one of the greatest bass players today. Did you teach him?

LS: Yes, I taught him.

AAJ: His style is different from yours. Perhaps it has to do with the generations. Is there a difference between his generation and yours in the way you play?

LS: The difference between Christian and me is not so much the result of our respective generations. It has more to do with how we were exposed to the music. When I was coming up, I heard a lot of great musicians on the radio, but I didn't know any personally. All I had was the passion. Christian was exposed to me and other musicians on a personal level. Also, my parents were somewhat negative about my pursuing a career as a working musician, whereas Christian grew up in an environment with working musicians.

TL: For me, even though I didn't play jazz growing up, my dad had 78 rpm records of Coleman Hawkins and Fats Waller, so I did hear some jazz. But it wasn't until I accidentally heard The John Coltrane Quartet on the radio playing "Brasilia" that I really got hit with the jazz bug.

What's Coming Up for Lee, Dan, and Tom

AAJ: So, as we round off the interview, why don't you tell us something about what each of you has coming up on your musical agenda?

LS: I'm in the middle of making a new CD now. For me, I just want to keep growing as a musician. I'm starting to focus more on my writing and arranging, which I really enjoy.

DM: I have my own quartet with Mike Cemprola on saxophone, Tim Brey on piano, and Brian Howell on bass. Also, I've recently put together a big band for Larry McKenna, featuring his own writing and arranging. Any free time I might have can get easily swallowed up by those two projects. But I'm happy just being a side man. When I'm playing the drums, I'm happy. In New York, I work with John Lundbom & Big Five Chord and have done three recordings with them.

TL: I'm constantly performing and teaching, which I love, but I also have another side compositionally. Recently, I was given a commission by the Philadelphia Jazz Project and the Philadelphia Museum of Art to write an hour-and-a-half suite based on the work of the modern artist Man Ray. That piece will be premiered this year in September, 2015.

AAJ: One of Man Ray's constructions is actually of a metronome.

TL: Right. I've seen it. And I love to stretch myself and work outside of my comfort zone as much as I can. I love working with innovative musicians like Bobby Zankel, Francois Zayas, and others who are taking the music to new places.

Photo (L to R): Tom Lawton, Lee Smith, Mary Ellen Desmond, Dan Monaghan and Larry McKenna
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