Steve Gadd. If you haven’t heard of him then you have at least heard him. Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, James Taylor, Rickie Lee Jones, Herbie Hancock, Steely Dan and Chick Corea have all used him. But beyond that (and in fact Gadd is surely one of the most recorded players ever) the tunes that Steve has played on are synonymous with his seamless feel, groove and technique: 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, Chuck E.’s In Love, Late In The Evening, Aja. These are incredible performances, loaded with “Gaddisms”; that slinky hi-hat, those shuffling grace notes on the snare; that triplet feel between the bass drum and snare, or bass and toms; his ability to go from feather-light to rock-heavy. These are Gaddisms, so much a part of the way that Gadd plays, that you can hear his signature licks and chops in the playing of other drummers.
I could hear the arguments against a player like Gadd – probably for the most part in the playing of so many of the drummers he’s influenced. But listen to Aja by Steely Dan, Oh Marion or 50 Ways or Late In The Evening or half a dozen others by Paul Simon, listen for that fill in the middle of Rickie Lee Jones’ great track, Chuck E.’s In Love. That’s what you’re listening for with Gadd.
Some of his playing (the band Stuff and his own Gadd Gang) I could barely give a shit about, that soulless session-star musician’s musician rubbish that, at best, is polite dinner-jazz usually best served cold – since that’s how they deliver it.
But let’s not hold that against Gadd. He’s managed – in his signature performances – to put his feather-touch stamp on so many great songs, making pop tunes that little bit jazz-ish, giving a pop-music bounce to some Latin-jazz, adding sparkle.
And – anyway – he would be on any great drummer/drumming list for his solo on the Steely Dan track, Aja. That album’s title track and centrepiece, and there’s a drum break that Gadd nailed. Just a piece of work – some notes on a chart. And he turned it into one of those rehearsal-room pissing-contest workouts, two generations of drummers have moved on from mastering Toto’s Rosanna and thinking they’ve got the right drum sound for When The Levee Breaks and then it’s on to the flicky, dashing chops of Aja.
That subverted Méringue beat that informs Late In The Evening. The lovely slow-chug shuffles he creates for other great Paul Simon songs like Train In The Distance – or Hearts and Bones. You can spot Gadd. Rather, you can hear him. Instantly.
And the hypnotic mantra of his playing that frames the title track for Kate Bush’s 50 Words For Snow – yet another wonderful piece that only Gadd could have done. Proof too, that for all of the middle-of-the-road money gigs with James Taylor and Eric Clapton over the last decade he still has that impeccable, resourceful groove. In the swirl that is 50 Words For Snow you can almost hear how Gadd’s mind works – pulling in other colours, brushes, drums, building the groove as if stacking up the elements – and never allowing it to topple over, he’s like a drum-Jenga master.
The other remarkable thing to remember with Steve Gadd is you can laugh off the idea of wanting to listen to his work with Paul Simon or Art Garfunkle, Taylor, Clapton, Rickie Lee Jones et al – and whilst I’d never agree with you, they’re all great artists and have offered some fine work, I might almost understand that, taken as an ensemble, it can seem a bit flat, a bit colourless (remember it’s Gadd providing so much of the colour) – but then you have his work with Chick Corea, Michel Petrucciani, Bob James, Milt Jackson, James Brown, Hubert Laws, Yusef Lateef, Grover Washington, Al Jarreau and George Benson.
There’s some legends in that list – and so much versatility in Gadd’s playing.
You have to remember that so few drummers create signature grooves, ones that even non-drummers are aware of, can recognise instantly as if a business card. Gadd is, for that fact, hands down, one of the masters.
Drummers You Just Can’t Beat started life as a series of posts on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page