SKF NOTE: In 1984, when I sat down to talk with Les DeMerle, he was a superb drummer and bandleader, as comfortable with swing tunes as he was with fusion or rock-based tunes. You’ll find more of the interview back story here.
Scott K Fish: Let’s talk about jazz and rock rhythm sections. What makes for a blue ribbon rhythm section?
Les DeMerle: The most important thing is that everybody have good communication with each other. Even if you have the smallest qualm with a bass player or a drummer — you should talk about it. Otherwise, it’s like a disease that can spread through the band.
I’m very lucky. I’ve always had good rapport with bass players.
If you’ve got players with good technique it’s even more of a problem, because then you have cats who want to play busy. Then you have to talk to each other and say, “Well, if I’m going to get hot here, maybe you could support what I’m doing. And if you’re going to get hot there, then I’ll support what you’re doing.”
If you’re hot all the time it doesn’t’ make it.
A lot of drummers and bass players don’t do that. I’m just talking about the bass and drums now because they’re most important.
No matter how good the band is, if the drummer isn’t making it, it ain’t going to go anywhere. A band is only as good as its drummer.
And the bass is second. You could have Jaco Pastorius in there, but if the drummer isn’t making it, it ain’t going to go nowhere. You’re better off telling the drummer to go home, and try to swing the band with the bass alone.
The drummer and bass have really got to be in unison.
SKF: How do you function with both a piano player and a guitar player in a rhythm section?
LD: That’s important. As much as the bass and drums have to be together, the relationship between a guitarist and a pianist is even more critical. They have to, first, get it together harmonically. Then they have to be able to fit into the rhythm section.
SKF: Do you find it easier to play with a guitar player or a piano player?
LD: With a guitar, I think, you tend to have a little more room, because he’s not constantly playing chords and notes. He’s either playing single lines or chords.
But my preference would still be piano, bass, and drums.