Tony Williams Smiles (1983)


SKF NOTE: A favorite shot of Tony Williams.

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Shelly Manne: Musicians Have a Great Life


SKF NOTE: I came across Shelly Manne’s obituary a few days ago. His playing had a major impact on me — and I still get excited discovering Manne albums I missed, and Manne albums newly reissued, or available for the first time.

As with Shelly’s drumming — which I detailed on this blog in 2015 — even this obituary caused me to smile when I noticed the end photo of Shelly drumming behind a very young Michael Jackson with the Jackson 5.


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Keith Copeland: Approaching Trios to Symphony Orchestras


Keith Copeland

SKF NOTE: You don’t see many wordy posts on Life Beyond the Cymbals. Now and then I find an interview excerpt where a musician covers a topic beautifully, with an answer a bit longer than usual. But it would be a sin to chop up the answer into multi-posts. 

Keith Copeland‘s words of wisdom on building an essential jazz listening library is a case in point. And here’s Keith Copeland again on how drummers can approach different size groups, as Keith did, from piano trios to symphony orchestras.


Scott K Fish: You’ve played drums in trios all the way up in size to symphony orchestras. How does your approach to drumming differ in each situation?

Keith Copeland: In a trio there’s only two other people. I have to really listen to the leader, and figure out what style he’s coming from, and provide the accompaniment/support that’s going to make him feel comfortable.

In some situations you can play busier than others because the piano player might like a busy drummer. Other pianists might like a less busy accompanist.

Then you have to understand the way the bass player is playing. Both of you are supposed to support the piano player. You have to interpret the beat the way the bass player is. Is he right in the middle of the beat? On top of the beat? A little behind the beat? You’re supposed to interpret what makes him feel good. Both of you have to agree on that so you can provide the accompaniment to the next person.

As the groups get larger the responsibilities changes.

In a quartet or a quintet you do all the things you’d do with a trio. Then, you have to understand the styles of the horn players, and what makes them feel good. Do they like a lot of activity from the drummer? Do they play off the drummer? A lot of horn players play off the drummer, just like Elvin [Jones] and [John] Coltrane. Some horn players don’t like that.

You don’t need to play a lot behind a horn solo — if that doesn’t make him feel comfortable — and you can still play fairly busy by playing off the way the piano player is comping and give some support that way. Or you can try to play off the soloist and cause excitement because he likes that exchange — and still be aware of how the piano player is comping, and of the rhythmic emphasis the bassist is providing.

The bass player may be playing more than four beats to the measure if you’re playing a swing feel in 4/4. He may be adding other rhythmic inflections to that.

You really have to have yourself together because you’re listening to three or four things at one time, trying to acknowledge them all, while still concentrating on keeping the time, and meter, and making it sound like everything is together.

When you get into big bands, the emphasis changes. You might want to get very busy and communicate with a lot of soloists. But, your main priority should be to hold the band together. In that situation the most important thing is to lock up with the bass player and provide the dynamic textures that fit.

This is where your choice of cymbals is really important. You have to have cymbals that’ll make the reed section sound good, the brass section sound good, and your soloists sound good.

I’m only using three cymbals. I use the same cymbals in all the situations we’re discussing. I picked them so they’d be able to fit a lot of different situations, depending on the way I played them, and the type of stick I use. I get a different sound out of a plastic time than I do a wood tip. For big band, sometimes I have to use plastic tips so the cymbals will cut through a bit more.

It’s important to lock up with the bass player and the lead trumpet player. If you’re interpreting the figures with the lead trumpet player, and you two agree on the placement of the notes, that section is really going to make or break a big band.

If the brass section is really together, and the drummer and lead trumpeter are really together, giving support to the rest of the rhythm section and reed section, and you’re using your ear, and you know how to keep that intensity, say, behind a sax soli, and how to give them the support they need — then you start to get to the most important aspects of a big band drummer.

It’s not true that the drummer has to play louder because you have more men. Sometimes you have to play softer. Sometimes, in the symphony orchestra, I have to play as soft or softer than when I play in the trio, because of the acoustic problems of the halls. If I play too loud there’ll be too much echo and resonance, and it will cut the clarity. The orchestra brass is way in the back, and I’m up front. I have to be very intense and precise, but not too overpowering, so that all the elements of the orchestra can be heard.

But, to sum up the qualities of a good big band drummer: you have to have really good ears, a good working knowledge of reading figures, and interpreting figures — especially with your left hand — and not let that affect your time feel.

And have a really good sense of dynamics so you can play softly and not lose your intensity. Then, just generally be aware of everything that’s happening. One of the soloists might need that excitement so, you can give it to him. But, not to the point that it throws the rest of the band or the leader trumpeter off when it’s time to come back in and play a concerted passage. That’s one of the hardest places to function.

The prerequisite to all of this is to listen to the drummers who did it the best: Sonny Payne, Jake Hanna, Mel Lewis, Kenny Clarke, Rufus Jones, Louis Bellson, and all the master who played with big bands. These are all very important people who came out of the big band era. Most of them can play well in any situation, but they happen to be experts at big band drumming.

Grady Tate is one of the greatest, most versatile drummers. Beside being able to play small group, and big band jazz, he can even fit in to today’s fusion and pop music.

Earl Palmer is another one of the old masters. He has that New Orleans tradition in his playing that fits big band, small group, rock, and R&B.

There’s not many of those guys around. If I ever try to pursue a living in studios I would want to be that kind of player.

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Buddy Rich: A Great Psychologist Who Knew How to Inspire People


Charles Owens. Courtesy San Diego Tribune

SKF NOTE: One more reflection on Buddy Rich from a musician who knew and worked with Buddy. Thank you, Charles Owens.

Buddy Rich: “I was mystified by Buddy’s drum technique. He could play a 9-stroke roll on his snare drum and a 9-stroke roll with his foot on his bass drum. No other drummer in the world could do that! And he was the first white guy I met who wasn’t prejudiced. He was the coolest cat, a genius drummer, and a great psychologist who knew how to inspire people.”

Source: Sax great Charles Owens counts Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Marvin Gaye among past collaborators, George Varga/Contact Reporter, San Diego Tribune, Nov. 7, 2017

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Miles Davis: You Have to Get Your Own Sound


Photo courtesy

SKF NOTE: This advice to upcoming musicians from Miles Davis strikes me as a lifelong pursuit. I remember Miles himself telling an interviewer how he, Miles, lost his well-known sound for awhile, and it took Miles two years to get it back. When he did, Miles said he was determined to not lose his sound again.


Down Beat contributor Howard Mandel asks, “What would Miles [Davis] tell a youngster seeking advice?”

Miles Davis: They have to get their own sound. Then, notes go with your sound. It’s like a color. My color — I’m black, brown, with a little red-orange in my skin. Red looks good on me.

You have to do the same with music. If you have a tone, you play notes to match your sound, your tone, if you’re gonna make it pleasin’ to yourself — and then you can please somebody else with it.

But your sound has to match what you think — not what somebody else thinks.

Source: Miles Davis, by Howard Mandel, Down Beat December 1984

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Recording Studios: The Feeling of Ensemble Doesn’t Exist

SKF NOTE: My introduction to percussionist Mark Stevens was as a percussionist on the 1969 album, Spirit Of 1976 / Live At Donte’s, by percussionist Emil Richards & the Microtonal Blues Band. Later I discovered an earlier album by that band, Journey to Bliss. I enjoyed both albums as ear opening travels through new percussive sounds and odd-time signatures.


Armin Steiner

It was a kick, many years later, to speak with Mark Stevens, and to help him put together an early 1980s Modern Drummer feature article on miking drums. Mark interviewed a few noted recording engineers, I transcribed the interviews, and edited them. My recollection is that I consulted Mark while editing because some of what I was hearing was new to me. I wanted to be sure I had names spelled correctly, for example.

As with most recorded interviews edited for print publication, there is plenty of material leftover, much of it good advice, or of historical significance. It always seemed to me a shame to ignore those significant leftovers until I’m dead and house cleaners toss my transcripts and tapes into dumpsters and haul them away.

Here’s an unedited excerpt from Mark Stevens’s conversation with pioneer recording engineer Armin Steiner. Most people who’ve studied or chronicled early rock and roll records should be familiar with Armin Steiner’s garage — which is now a famous West coast recording studio. At the time Steiner’s garage was just that — a garage converted into a recording studio.

Armin Steiner and Mark Stevens echo a point I heard in conversations with other recording engineers Tom Dowd and Jack Clement. That is, recording studios are dead sounding, and modern recording engineers try to use a myriad of electronic effects to reproduce the live or ensemble sound of the original recording studios.

Can they do it? No, they can’t.



Mark Stevens

Mark Stevens: I wanted to talk to you about recording drums and recording orchestras.

Armin Steiner: I think we should trace the history of what has gone down over the years: original drumming and the acoustical influence. I think there is the key to why drums sound the way they do — or the way they should, the way they mostly don’t.

Studios were designed to be used as an ensemble device. People all played and were listening to each other. The rooms were very live.

The role of a drummer in those days was mainly brushes, and cymbals, and very light things — just to keep time. In many cases the drums weren’t even miked.

When I started out in this business they used to use one drum, and an RCA-44 or a[n RCA-]77 — whatever we had available at the time — was hanging over a complete drumset. And the drumset consisted of a bass drum, a snare drum, and a couple of tom-toms, maybe a hi-hat, a couple of overhead cymbals — if even that — and everyone played and balanced each other in a rather live acoustical environment.

Even in the big band recording, very few microphones were used in those days. It was until maybe ten or twelve years ago we decided that we’d use a bass drum microphone.

But what basically has happened is that the feeling of ensemble has diminished itself to the point where studios have become totally dead. The feeling of ensemble isn’t there. The feeling of ensemble is only made through a headphone. It’s not made by musicians listening to each other.

Mark Stevens: Because of the way the studio is set up — that’s impossible.

Armin Steiner: Of course. The rooms have become so bloody dead that this feeling of ensemble just doesn’t exist. Sometimes you can’t even hear the person sitting next to you.

Mark Stevens: For me, most of the time I can’t hear the person sitting next to me.

Armin Steiner: Absolutely. So it’s all done with mirrors today. That’s why all these electronic devices — your DDL’s (Digital Delay Lines), [and] all of the other fancy electronic instruments are made, basically, to put the orchestra back in the room again.

But during this many years of transition there have been problems. The studios have gotten to the point where everything is done on an artificial basis.

I feel sorry for those people who haven’t had the background of dealing with an orchestra, or dealing with an ensemble, in a live condition. Now they have to deal with it only from what they know from records. It all comes out in a massive dose of artificiality. There’s no feeling of ensemble playing.


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Tony Williams: Drumsets Should Sound Like One Instrument (1983)


SKF NOTE: In a sidebar to this interview, Tony Williams said he was playing Gretsch drums: 24″ bass drum; 5 1/2 x 14 snare; 14 x 14, 14 x 16, floor toms; 9 x 13 and 10 x 14 rack toms. All Tony’s drums are double-head, he said, “with black dot (REMO CS) heads.

Interviewer Paul de Barros asked Tony, “Is tuning [drums] important.” Here’s Tony’s answer:


Tony Williams: Yes. I hear drummers that have maybe 12 drums which all sound the same. If you closed your eyes, you wouldn’t know where they were on the set. Or else you have guys where each drum sounds like it’s from a different set.

It’s important that the drum set sounds like one instrument.

Like, if you have a piano, you wouldn’t want the C to sound like a Rhodes, the D to sound like a Farfisa, the E to sound like a Prophet. A keyboard is a uniform system; a trumpet is a uniform system…drummers are out to lunch.

On some of my drums, the bottom head is tighter than the top head. On other drums they’re about the same. And on the bass drum the front head is looser than the batter side.

Source: Tony Williams, Drum Innovator, by Paul de Barros, Down Beat, November 1983

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