There are drummer jokes for most musical occasions but almost all of them feature a punchline mocking the drummer’s intelligence. Talk to a good player and they’ll be thoughtful and wise; focussed and passionate. I talked to three great drummers – all set to be the star of the show for a few moments or more at this year’s Jazz Festival. All of them sure that it’s not at all about being the star of the show. It’s about one thing and one thing only: serving the music. And they are in that position as a result of dedicating the majority of their life to the instrument.
Ari Hoenig is an American drummer and educator. He works entirely in jazz and has been at the drums since the age of 12. Born to musician parents (his father a vocalist, his mother a violinist) Hoenig was born to play. He was on the fiddle at three years old, at the piano by six. He says the drums came into his life as a chance to express himself and “have some independence with practicing” being that “they were the only instrument my parents didn’t play”. Educated at the University of North Texas College of Music and William Paterson College in New Jersey, he wasn’t sold on jazz initially. “After playing a variety of styles of music jazz was the one most open to improvisation which was essential for me”, he explains. Adding that it was most definitely not a case of “love at first listen”. The music grew on him and along with his studies it has always been about experiencing the music, both live and on recordings – though “probably more live music than recorded”. Hoenig has played with many of the greats, from Pat Metheny and Gerry Mulligan to Wynton Marsalis, Dave Holland and Toots Thielemans. In the year 2000 he released his first solo drum album, Time Travels. Both that and its 2002 follow up, The Life of A Day, showcased the melodic possibilities of the drum kit. From there he formed the Ari Hoenig Quartet and has dedicated himself to small combo jazz across the last decade and a half.
Wellington drum hero Anthony Donaldson grew up the son of a pipe-band drummer. And though that was his “first understanding” of drums and drumming it wasn’t what turned him onto the instrument.
After a brief attempt at the guitar (“a failure I never really talk about”), Donaldson heard Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies album and Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats. Both records left a lasting impression. He’s clear that despite both records being by legendary guitar players, “for me it was about the drums”. The music from the then burgeoning European jazz label, ECM, was the final motivator. At 17, with great music on his stereo always, Donaldson made the call, “that was it – from that day on I was sure I would play drums. For life. I was hooked”. He worked every day for five years on lessons and practicing – “locked away working on rudiments, studying records too” and helped to form Primitive Art Group. Their sometimes chaotic, challenging and energetic avant-garde jazz came from the school of Art Ensemble of Chicago and crucial recordings such as George Russell’s Electric Sonata for Souls Loved By Nature. Donaldson believed his own voice on the drums started to appear through all the listening and playing. He took his love of great jazz drummers (Tony Williams) and ventured off into the world of pop and rock, though always on the indie side, appearing on the classic Front Lawn debut album, Songs From The Front Lawn, and a brief tenure with Wellington cult act, the Spines. Most recently he has returned to indie rock in the form of TEETH, a band fronted by Luke Buda of The Phoenix Foundation and featuring his old Six Volts/Front Lawn chum, David Long. But for the most part Donaldson has tinkered about with jazz and improvisation. He shows no signs of slowing or giving it away, believing “right now I’m peaking, if anything. I have good ideas, I play with good people, great musicians and it is about sharing these ideas, serving the music and finding a place for a type of music that leans on the avant-garde”.
Dave Weckl is an American drummer who majored in jazz studies at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut and found himself in the New York fusion scene of the early/mid-80s. He worked with a range of pop and rock stars (Madonna, Robert Plant, Paul Simon) as well as jazz legends (George Benson and Michel Camilo) before connecting with Chick Corea and playing across various line-ups and recordings as part of Corea’s bands for seven years.
“There was always music playing at my house growing up”, he says. “I started playing when I was seven, but I must have heard the drums well before that”. Like Donaldson his first musical attempts were via the guitar (“but I didn’t like it”) and he “gravitated towards hitting things” so it was from box lids and pots and pans to “a cheap and small drum kit”. A neighbour showed him the basics. After some private study he was in the high school jazz band and studying the instrument through college.
“I developed the ability early on to listen to and copy drummers on records. It was rock at first and then Dixieland jazz records that my father owned, these presented a bit more of a challenge”, he explains. “Jack Sperling, the drummer on those Pete Fountain Dixieland records was my first drum hero and then it was on to Buddy Rich and soon after Steve Gadd. His influence has stayed with me to this day”.
It’s jazz and fusion mostly for Weckl, which suits him just fine (“I get to do it all with one group in any given night”). He says there’s nothing like the power and sound of a big band with everyone firing and takes the responsibility of driving that sound very seriously. “It is about really playing together and all of us working to make the music happen. As a drummer you are in control of a lot of the dynamics, which means you need to be listening to everyone all the time”.
These three drummers combine over a century of collective experience and continue to practice, research, and educate. Donaldson gives lectures on the history of the drum kit, individual players, and key recordings. Hoenig will deliver a masterclass as part of his New Zealand visit and Weckl often performs drum clinics and says he still aims for 1-3 hours of practice a day, even when on the road.
No jokes from these three, but plenty of punch in the musical lines they have mastered.