SKF NOTE: This is the second installment of the complete transcript of my 1983 interview with Dave Weckl for Modern Drummer. MD published a much shorter version of this interview in April 1984 as an Up and Coming profile of Dave Weckl, which still holds up well. Here’s the back story.
SKF: Do you remember the first time you heard Buddy?
DW: I don’t remember, to be quite honest with you. It might’ve been the West Side Story medley. But, I think I was seeing him on The Tonight Show before. I don’t really remember that transition, where I went from the Jack Sperling era into that. But, I remember The Roar of ’74 album with the chart Time Check on it. That was always neat to play.
SKF: So you first heard Buddy in his later recordings rather than the recordings he made in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s.
SKF: Jack DeJohnette?
DW: I didn’t get into Jack until much later. Gadd, too. I started listening to Steve much later. The first time I heard [Steve Gadd] was on Chick Corea’s Humpty Dumpty track. I liked to freak out when I heard that. But, I was, like, 17 years old when I heard that.
The only thing about age that I kind of regret is that there was so much happening. Like, I would have loved to have been around at the time that Steve was just coming up, to see him playing with Stuff. I believe he first came on the scene with [Chuck] Mangione in Rochester, [NY]. Once he started hitting it — forget it. He was on everything.
SKF: Did you graduate from the University of Bridgeport?
DW: No. After my first semester of full-time studies I went part-time, because I didn’t have time to practice as much as I wanted to. I had started working quite a bit. My first summer there was great. I was at a point of practicing 10 to 15 hours a day. I was away from home. I didn’t really have anything to do. I didn’t really know anybody yet.
I just split up the day. I’d get up early and practice for 3 or 4 hours on the drumset. I had it all split up as to what I wanted to do. This was during the time my friend was in Maynard’s [Ferguson] band. I really wanted to get on Maynard’s band. So I spent a lot of time learning Maynard’s charts and listening to that type of thing, and really concentrating on all those aspects.
Then there would always be the technical and reading end of it that I’d want to work on.
Studying time is always important to me. I started playing with a click track because I started listening to myself on tape and saying, “Wait a minute.” It felt great while I was doing it, but when I listened back to it it was all this nervous young energy. I wasn’t really speeding up, but my playing always had so much of an edge. It just sounded frantic. And I was always in the habit of playing a lot. I’d always tend to overplay, and that could always push it an edge.
So I started working with a click track a lot, really working on all the subdivisions, trying to make sure that everything was perfect.
That was one aspect of my practice routine. Then I’d just sit down and play and try to loosen up. I’d still use a click track, but I’d play really loose around it and incorporate the jazz end of it. That’s when the DeJohnette thing came into it.
I started listening to [Jack DeJohnette] and I could hear where he had come from. Back in the early ‘70s I did some research on Jack too and found a couple of albums on the old CTI label. They record some concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, and Jack did those 3 albums.
If you listen to those things — I don’t want to say [Jack] sounds like someone else — but he did sound like somebody else. And it was completely different. It just didn’t sound like Jack sounds now. He had low-tuned drums. Basically a low-tuned snare drum.
SKF: I believe [Jack] used to us single-headed drums quite often in those days. [SKF NOTE: As of this writing, 33 years since this interview, I don’t know how often Jack used single-head drums. My statement here, well-intentioned, is almost certainly based on a Sonor Drum endorsement ad in which Jack is playing single-head drums, and also, Jack’s drum sound on certain albums.]
DW: I don’t know if he was using them on that particular thing. But that album set me back for a minute. I loved it. It was great. It really showed me where he came from.
It seems like he just all of a sudden stopped and said, “Well, wait a minute. I’m just not going to play that shit anymore. I’m not going to play that way with that type of feel.” And he, like, all of a sudden loosened up, changed the tuning of his drums — he did everything. It seems like he went through a period of time where he was playing different. Because [Jack] was with Miles [Davis] before that — and they were out there, man. They were really taking it out.
Then the CTI things were so straight ahead. It just didn’t sound like Jack at all.
SKF: I’ve thought about that too. Jack and Steve Gadd seemed to come on the scene, really popular, at about the same time. For a while they were both doing a lot of studio dates. Then Jack seemed to pull away from that scene.
DW: Yeah. There’s a Chet Baker album called, She Was Too Good To Me, on CTI records. Jack and Steve are both on it. And in some of it, I can’t tell them apart.
SKF: When did you first hear Jack?
DW: A couple of friends turned me on to him. I think they were Jack’s own albums with the New Directions band. It was completely different than what I was used to hearing.
SKF: Have you seen [Jack] perform?
DW: Yeah. He’s something else. He’ll scare you to death. He was something I really enjoyed.
SKF: What was the band you were in called Nite Sprite?
DW: Nite Sprite is actually still going on. That was pretty important to me in terms of my progression. That band started happening late in ’79 in Connecticut. The bass player, Paul, was going to school with me up in Bridgeport. Fred, the sax player, was going to school up there too. Paul got guys from up there and guys from down this way — and formed the whole thing.
Actually, it was together already, and they got us as new members in the band. That was a whole different thing for me because I never really listened to Weather Report before that. When we first started, [Nite Sprite] was very fusion oriented. We did a lot of funk, fusion things.
SKF: Was it a copy band?
DW: Actually, no. There were a lot of original tunes happening that the keyboard and guitar players wrote. It was fusion oriented, but it was good. That turned me on to a whole different thing by listening to Weather Report’s tunes. We did a lot of their stuff. Black Market. Birdland.
[Nite Sprite] was good for me. It taught me how to play. That was a good outlet for me to hear myself back in situations where what I was playing didn’t fit in. It wasn’t working. It made me play simpler. I went through a transition period of hardly playing anything. I couldn’t stand to hear myself. That’s what it got down to.
I think that’s true with everybody, though. I don’t think anybody is really ever happy with what they do. I guess it gets to a point where you are [happy].
SKF: You must have taped yourself a lot.
DW: A lot. That’s the best way to learn. And you have got to be objective about it too. You’ve got to sit there and listen, and not say, “Oh wow. That lick was neat.” Instead, you should say, “Well, how does it feel? Does it feel good? How am I locking up with the bass player? Is that really the right groove to play during that section?
But that’s what [Nite Sprite] gave me the chance to do. Man, I took those tapes and analyzed them to death.
I was with the band for 3-and-a-half years. We were playing at some jazz clubs downtown — which actually leads up to the band I’m working with now. We’re playing at Seventh Avenue South in New York City. Also, at Mikell’s, and The Other End. We were playing there for a couple of years.
Now, I’ve been in contact with Peter Erskine for years. Ever since I came up here to school I just started calling him when he lived in California — just because I loved the way he played.
SKF: Was he at the Kenton Clinics you went to?
DW: No. I went there after he left [Kenton’s band]. But a friend of mine that I went to the clinics with was pretty close to Peter. He was always writing to him and saying how he was such a nice guy. Peter always returned his letters.
So I just started calling and [Peter would] always talk to me. I didn’t want to sound like some dumb little school kid.
SKF: What kind of questions did you ask him?
DW: I just wanted to know what he was doing; if he was planning on moving to New York, or when Weather Report was going to be in town. Then, of course, [I asked] the stupid questions about snare drum tuning and that type of thing. I didn’t really like to ask too many questions like that. It was just basically to tell him that I really loved the way he played, and I just wanted to see what he was doing.
That was kind of neat. We were in touch for a couple of years and then [Peter] came to New York, and he started playing up here a lot. It was funny. I was in Seventh Avenue South seeing him play with somebody. I don’t even remember who it was. It might have been Steps [Ahead] before he was really a part of it. He was just, like, in town.
It was a night after a recording, and I was there. Peter had broken a snare drum head and he didn’t have one. But, for some strange reason, I had an extra snare drum head in the car. It was a new head. I brought it in and gave it to him. It was great because he didn’t have another head, and he didn’t have another drum.
It was fun to be able to do that. You don’t have to put that in the article. It don’t mean [anything]. But it was nice.
To make a long story short, [Peter Erskine] came to hear me play at Seventh Avenue [South] with Nite Sprite. We hung out and talked, and he really enjoyed the show. I sort of lost contact with him after that for a while. [Then] I just called him up one day and we were talking about everything from telephone bills to the music business.
[Peter] asked me if I was interested in playing with this band called French Toast. Steve Ferrone usually did the gig, until he started getting real busy and was always out of town. The band wanted to work more, but Steve wasn’t around that much. I guess they had called Peter to do the gig, and he did it a couple of times. But he told me he didn’t want to do it because it was too loud.
French Toast consists of Anthony Jackson on bass, Michel Camilo plays keyboards, and there’s two percussionists: Sammy Figueroa and Gordon Gottlieb. There’s three horns: Lew Soloff, Jerry Dodgion, and Peter Gordon — who’s the leader and French horn player.
So I said, “Yeah, great.” I’d been following Anthony for a while too, and he was incredible. I’d always wanted to play with somebody of that caliber.
I got to sit with the charts for about three days, off-and-on. It was great. I got to do the gig — and that was some experience. The music is basically a lot of Latin stuff, funk stuff. It’s a very diversified book. A lot of straight ahead things — enough to balance it out. It’s really a lot of fun to play because everybody’s part is really very important.
It’s a great outlet. It’s almost the type of thing where you can get away with playing a lot if you fit it in the right place. It’s not really about that, either. Mainly it’s just so musically incredible. It’s just so much fun to play with. Michel was originally a percussionist from Santo Domingo. He’s a drummer’s keyboard player, he plays so percussive. All three of us basically have the same ideas and concepts about phrasing. We get into some things where we just take it so far out.
SKF: Throughout your life have you had trouble finding good bass players?
DW: It was always a problem. The most important thing that I look for in a bass player is where the time sits and how it feels. That’s something that the drummer and bass player have to lock into immediately. And you have to either have the same ideas and concepts, or at least be able to go with one another.
I run into a lot of bass players who overplay, that don’t sit enough in the groove. If they overplayed and still kept good time — it might be cool. But a lot of guys tend to want to play a lot of notes. And then their time isn’t really happening. It’s so hard because that just limits the drummer. You have to just basically play quarter notes when somebody else is playing a lot of notes. Somebody has to balance it out. Everybody can’t be playing every 16th note in every measure.
Anthony Jackson has taught me so much of what the groove is about. I’ve never played with anyone like him. He’s amazing. The grooves are so fast, and he has a tendency to play a lot of notes sometimes. But there is never a question as to where the time is. And it always fits. Boy, it’s unbelievable.
SKF: When you listen to records are you conscious of what the bass players are doing? Do you have favorite bass players?
DW: Oh, yeah. For different styles, of course.
I had the opportunity to play with Eddie Gomez also up in Waterbury, CT. Sonny Costanzo, a trombone player I worked with a lot, was responsible for getting Eddie up there. I did tours in Europe with Sonny’s big band. Sonny had a Monday night jazz thing happening there and he’d get all kinds of guest artists. He had George Coleman.
This particular time he had Eddie Gomez. That was one of my first big goals. Ever since I’d been listening to Eddie I would have just loved to play with Eddie. He just makes it sing. The time is incredible. It always swings. It always feels great. He’s just a pleasure and a joy to play with and listen to.
SKF: How about rock bass players?
DW: That’s a good question. I guess I’d have to say Tony Levin. He’s been around for a long time and I’ve always admired the stuff that he does. I didn’t really get into listening to bass players until Eddie — and then when the funk started happening with the thumb thing on bass. I started listening to bass players later, and then went back and started listening to Chuck Rainey things. I enjoy listening to Marcus Miller. He’s somebody I’d love to play with.
SKF: When did it first dawn on you that there was a musical relationship between the drummer and the bass player?
DW: Well, I always listened to a lot of records. What taught me more about that relationship than anything, was playing with bass players who didn’t understand [that relationship].
You have to work together. A lot of that is really inner feeling. You hear that [expression], “Well, does he have it?” Is it really an inborn sense? Some people have it better than others. I don’t know if I want to say I believe that. But the more I play and see different things, the more I realize that it is an art. No matter who it is, that one person is the artist of his own thing. Nobody else can do it the same way.
I don’t think you can actually teach someone how to interpret a chart. I guess you can, but…. It’s an inner thing to have a piece of paper thrown in front of you and make music come out of it. That’s the artist’s interpretation.
SKF: I’ve noticed that the main focus of music education is on how to play your instrument. But once a person has accomplished that — then what? How do you go about selling yourself and your talent?
DW: That’s a hard thing. That’s something that was going through my head as little as 6 months ago: What do I do? How do I go about meeting these people without sounding like some little kid who’s just saying that he wants to play? It’s such a touch situation when you’re trying to get to know somebody — because they’re just people too. You tend to look at these guys and say, “Wow,” because I know I most certainly did when I first came to New York. I went to all the clubs and saw all these great players playing. You put them on a pedestal and look up to them. They are great, but they are people too.
I just started approaching it [by] remembering that they were just people. I thought I’d just show my face, let them know who I was, and not push the music thing too much. How many times does somebody hear, “Hey, I’m a drummer too. Wow, you sound great. If you ever need a sub — here’s my phone number.”?
SKF: You wouldn’t do that?
— End of part 2. To be continued —