Monday, September 05, 2011

My Vinnie Year - part 1 - "My left hand is kind of funky."

It was actually more like three or four years closely studying Vinnie Colaiuta's playing, but this sounds better. Anyway, '87 was when I was really deep in it- or so I thought- and he happened to get a lot of press that year. I had been chipping away at transcribing Joe's Garage since '84, I saw his legendary PASIC performance in '85, which of course made a big impact, and spent '86 and '87 absorbing some of his thing through Gary Chaffee's Patterns series of books. My bassist friend Kirk Ross had moved to LA and sought him out and befriended him; Kirk would send me bootleg cassettes of Vinnie's gigs, and passed along my crappy transcriptions to him.

So here, from Vinnie's web site, is part one of some stuff I was immersed in at the time, first some excerpts from Vinnie's 1987 interview in Modern Drummer, with Robyn Flans:

RF: You made a comment recently that you would like a teacher to revamp your technique. Could you explain that comment?

VC: [laughs] It's self-explanatory. I was looking for somebody who I could sit down with and say, "Hey, look. Here are my hands. What do you think of them?" I'm at a crossroads, where I'm just doing whatever is coming out and not really thinking that much about how I'm hitting the drums. Consequently, I've developed some bad habits, I think.

RF: What kind of bad habits?

VC: My left hand is kind of funky.

[...] The posture of my left hand is not so good. My sitting posture is weird now. I was going through a little changing thing before. It was a period that had to do with my changing the way I approach the drums, and it changed the way I thought about playing.

[...] It made me feel a certain way, and I just wanted to approach the drums from that angle when I played, which is part of the reason I sat so low.

[...] I've [since] raised my seat height.

[...] I was starting to develop some lower-back problems. One night, I made a move while I was playing, and I was frozen still. I screamed out, and it was horrible. So I've been gradually changing it; I'm still changing it, because I want to get better leverage. My right foot feels weird, which I think is partially because it's still healing since I fractured it.

[...] I was on a sampling session for Yamaha, of all things. I actually hit the bass drum so hard at a weird angle that I fractured my heel bone. I had to stand up and hunch over the bass drum, slide into the thing, and pull my leg back off it. I had to do that, because when I sat down to play the drum like I normally do, the producer and engineer said that it was insufficient to produce a good sample. I disagree with that, because I've sampled my drums on records that sound great-Joni Mitchell's album, for one, where I did all the samples. I just smacked the bass drum good one time, and bingo, it sounded great. They didn't like the fact that I bury the beater in the head. I don't pull it back off the head. I leave it in there, which some people think is wrong, but that's the way I play. I was trying to pull it off the head, so I tried playing with the heel down and snapping it up, and I tried to play it with the heel up and snapping it up, and adjusting my seat height. I can do it, but not with the amount of volume that I can when I really stomp on it and lay into the drumhead. Finally, I found a way of doing it, but after half an hour of doing it as hard as I could, my foot gave out.

[...] I knew that was definitely not the way to play a drum. But I had to go to an extreme to produce a sound they thought was right. It was my mistake to be so stupid. I should have just said, "You guys are crazy. I know how to play a bass drum." The guy wasn't a drummer and didn't know anything about playing drums.

RF: What is it exactly that you want to work on?

VC: My grip-trying to make my hands more symmetrical. I don't really think it's possible to be completely symmetrical. Your body isn't symmetrical. It seems that way, but it's not. I'd like to strive for more technical consistency. I'm not even sure right now if there is a middle-ground way of playing that will work for everything. I think my problem is that I'm psychologically affected by different kinds of music, and that causes me to hold the sticks differently and hit the drums differently.

RF: Can't a certain consistency become bland?

VC: Not if it enables you to execute your ideas without any mental blocks. But if you're talking about consistency in terms of it being middle-of-the-road and never having those peaks that everybody lives for, then definitely, that's a bland diet. I mean more technical consistency, because I figure that, if I'm going to be in it all these years, I want to come out of it with something.

RF: What do you want to come out of it with?

VC: A really good ability on the drums in terms of a scholarly approach, which I've always had anyway. But sometimes I get away from it. I want to maintain a good balance on the instrument from a scholarly point of view, so that I really know the axe, instead of being some kind of stylistic hotshot, if that makes sense. There's so much out there to learn. I can't just lay back and say, "I'm going to slack off, because I've been playing so many years. I don't need to get any better chops or get my time better." You can always improve. There are things I want to do that, if I buckled down and practiced again, I know I would be able to do easier.


RF: Can you worry so much about technique that you lose your feel?

VC: Yes, if, when you're playing music, you're just thinking about your chops. Before, I wasn't talking about thinking about my chops on a gig. Don't get me wrong and think I'm saying, "I want to clean up my act on the instrument, and all I need to do is clean up my chops." That's not what I'm saying. I think it's to my advantage to revamp the way I hit the drums, because it makes things a lot easier. But also, I need a little refresher course on things I haven't played in a long time. It's funny how I took a lot of things for granted when I was playing with Frank [Zappa]. I didn't take them for granted, really, but I was so hung up doing them that I didn't realize a lot of stuff I was doing and learning. I haven't played that stuff in a while. Who plays odd times anymore? Once in a while, you hear it in Chick's band or something, but that's it. When that stuff was popular, everybody and his mother did it. You heard so many records where they were doing odd times, but a lot of it sounded corny, too, and that gave it a bad name.


RF: Why do people say someone has cards missing from the deck when they're talking about creativity? Why is that necessarily crazy? Why, when you say, "A little bit of Vinnie," isn't it just special creativity? Why does it translate to crazy? [...]

VC: We were referring to that stigma I had attached to me. I've done some things that weren't exactly the norm. Speaking of which, I was recently doing stuff and being myself, and I didn't think I was as nuts as I usually am. But people were telling me that it was creative and they liked it. I was wondering if I had matured and my maturity is that I'm not being as crazy; or if I'm making it fit better; or if the stuff that was once really so crazy is not so crazy anymore. Maybe the other musicians are able to assimilate it better, so to them, I sound more mature now, and what I'm doing is not so off-the-wall. That stuff comes out when I'm not thinking about anything, and I just sit down and let it go. That's how my personality is, too. I don't want to stifle that part of my personality so that it doesn't happen on the drums anymore. I hope there's a way to improve my personality without letting it affect my drumming, so suddenly I don't become some inside player who is always predictable and careful. I am semi-worried that, if I alter my personality, it will change my playing.

RF: Why do you want to alter your personality?

VC: Self-improvement. Recently, I was thinking about how I was when I was a kid, learning to play. What came out was me, before I tried to copy how a bunch of people played. Then I tried to do what Tony [Williams] did and understand Elvin [Jones], and out of all that came a new me. But before all that, what came out was purely me, with no input from anyone.

RF: What was it?

VC: It was whiter. I had listened to a bunch of Motown records, so I understood time, meter, feel, and all that, but I was also into Buddy [Rich] and chops. It was before I discovered what hipness meant.

RF: What is hipness Vinnie?

VC: That's a good question. I don't think I've got the answer to what hip is. To me, [Jack] DeJohnette is still hip. He was hip ten years ago, and he's hip to me now. I think hip can change. I went into a film date and it said, "Hip funk feel" on the chart. I played what I thought was hip, but it didn't coin¬cide with the notes that were written for the key¬board player and the bass player. When I played so that my part would mesh with what they played, it was not hip. It was something that would have been hip five years ago. Hipness is transient. You've got to change in order to continually be hip. On the other hand, there are things that were hip five years ago that are still hip. Maybe it's because they were ahead of their time, or maybe they're just hip. It all depends on your definition of hip, too.

RF: So back to when you were unhip-BH: Before Hip. You've said you were blown away by Tony Williams, so how do you take such a strong influence, or several influences, and still remain Vinnie?

VC: I understood where he was coming from, and I was so blown out by it because it opened up a whole new world of rhythmic conceptual understanding. It was textural, musical, rhythmic understanding. Before I tapped into it, I'd been content with being what I was, but now I was no longer content with that. Somehow, over the time of copying it and trying to play that way, it stopped being, "He's playing like Tony." Suddenly, I was playing like Vinnie. The grey area was when I stopped playing like Tony and started playing like me. I guess I always played like me, but I was striving to imitate Tony. Once I stopped striving to imitate him, the influence was irreversible. It was imbedded in me. It was going to come out whenever I would hear something musically and react to it in a way where my mind would just know, "Those wide-open triplet flams would be perfect right now; it just so happens that I got those from Tony." Finally, I stopped thinking, "This is a Tony lick."

RF: What influence of Tony do you hear in your playing?

VC: Coming out with little surprises. He's fearless. He's also moody. He was always such a creative genius to me.

RF: So how did that influence you? I'm sure you didn't say, "He's a creative genius, so I think I'll be one."

VC: I knew Tony was a creative genius, and I loved the way he played. Somehow I knew I could absorb it, because I could understand it. It's not like you're telling yourself that you're a creative genius who can create that, but you can understand it enough that maybe you can creatively interpret it and have it come out your own way. I could understand Tony intuitively, which is part of the reason I was so knocked out by him. He hit me on a gut level so hard that I would just crack up listening to the guy. If I couldn't have understood it like that or have been moved by it, then I might have doubted my own creativity. On one of his earlier records, Spring, he played a solo drum piece called "Echo," which exhibited so much maturity. He was light years ahead.

RF: Speaking of soloing, I'd like to discuss what you think about when you solo.

VC: I think, overall, I'm just trying to say something based on what has already happened and how it's affected me emotionally. If it hasn't affected me, or if it's affected me in a way that I'm not exactly sure of, or I feel so much has been said by the time it comes to my solo, then it's no comment.

RF: What do you do when it's no comment?

VC: If I can't make a statement off of anything, I'll just start from scratch. We're talking last resort, but overall, I'll try to work off of what has just affected me. If I have to just play, like at a clinic, usually it's good to have a few ideas and a sketchy form. It's going to start, have an "A" section, a "B" section, and a "C." Sometimes I might have a sketchy form, but I'll never hit "C." Once it gets to "B", it may go somewhere else, which is good. That means that at least I have enough momentum to let my creative flow take over. Or else I may try to draw from the muse - anything. I'll just try to be blank and let whatever comes out, come out. That, to me, is sometimes scary. I think there must be others who can relate to the fact that a lot of times it's hard to just go there blank because it's scary. Not only is it scary, but it can go against the grain of, "I've learned so much; I have to think about something. How can I go out there and think about nothing after I've learned my instrument?" That's what Charlie Parker said, too. You learn all the stuff, and then you just break the rules. It's scary, but if you can overcome it, who knows? I'm not saying it's good to do it, necessarily, but I can understand why it is scary. I'll get all uptight and pressure myself: "What am I going to play?" If I just think, "Who cares? I don't know what I'm going to play," I'll go out there and things will come out. I realize it's okay. It was there anyway, but I was afraid of the unknown.

RF: That's where having the arsenal of facility comes in handy, so you can draw from those resources.

VC: Absolutely, if you've got the technique. But have you ever noticed that, sometimes, people who don't have technique just sit down and play? And they may play stuff you would never think of.

RF: That's back to the BH.

VC: Right, Before Hip, and the illusion of the first time. That whole attitude can keep things fresh.

RF: So how do you go back to BH when you have all this AH - After Hip - stuff in your capabilities?

VC: I can't speak for everybody, but part of the process may be, "Hey, I need some New Hip: NH." You can forfeit some of your technique and try something new. It depends on what you need. If you need something so fresh that it means holding drumsticks like clubs and just bashing, then that's what you need. If you need something else that all that After Hip stuff is not giving you, it may mean going back. For me, it's meant going back to a technical approach of how I approached it before I found out what hip was, and being Able to execute hip things with the Before Hip technique. Once I found out how to play hip, I thought that the technical approach I had learned was unhip. Now I’m finding out that it's not necessarily unhip to be technically correct if you can think hip. That's what I'm going through right now. I had learned this one way, andthen I thought the reason I was playing corny was because of the way I approached the drums technically. Now I'm finding out that that's baloney. That's part of what has given me a new freshness. Another thing is trying to convince myself, "Don't be afraid; just let it happen," and having a new attitude. It's a combination of things for me. For someone else, it may be different. All of us have our own different revelation points. Sometimes it's seeing someone who just blows you away. Herbie [Hancock] and I once had a conversation about how, when people get in wrecks or go through certain things, their lives change. That's how it is in music. That makes me question whether or not the musical person and the person person are different.

RF: I feel that who you are as a person has to come through the music.

VC: So does Billy Cobham. But then again, you could have had the worst disaster of your life but not take it on the bandstand. I saw Steve Gadd play at the Country Club with Chuck Mangione once, while Steve's wife was in the hospital after something horrible had happened that day. He played unbelievably.

RF: I saw the same show, and he played really emotionally-passionate and full of fire.

VC: It was some of the best drumming I've heard in my entire life.

RF: I don't say it has to affect your technique or your facility, but there might be an emotional fire, which might be the effect of something that happened.

VC: On the other hand, it's almost horrible to say that he played so well despite that.


RF: You go for stuff that people haven't heard.

VC: Maybe so, or in a way. I don't know if I consciously try.

RF: That's what happened at the PASIC in Los Angeles two years ago.

VC: But all that comes from my influences, too, like Jack [DeJohnette].

RF: What do you hear of Jack's in your playing?

VC: I'm not going to say I hear a lot of Jack DeJohnette in my playing in general. But when I heard a short segment of the PASIC performance, I thought of Jack, because I heard this velocity of notes being executed on certain sound sources that reminded me of some of Jack's things. I knew it came from hearing Jack on Live Evil and those records when he was with Miles. I admire that about Jack.

RF: Can you recap what happened at the PASIC in '85?

VC: Tim [Landers] and I played along with some stuff that we put on tape to play with, and we just took it out. I played really intense.

RF: Why do you think everyone was really blown away?

VC: I really don't know. Maybe because they just couldn't figure out where I was coming from.

RF: Why not?

VC: Just because I was playing so much densely packed stuff, and rhythmically, it was pretty hard to decipher.

RF: People want to know how you do things, and you always say, "I just do it."

VC: It's really hard for me to explain. I think teaching helps, but that's different than my explaining it right now, because then I've got to deal with the students' specific problems, their mental blocks, and their talent. I might not be able to explain something to a student, but I can play it and the student might wonder, "Why didn't I think of that," because he or she understands it instinctively. Some people just hear things. I remember telling some kid how to subdivide and he understood it, but he didn't know how he would be able to hear it. I said, "You're just going to have to play it and think of it this way until you can hear it." Hopefully, he'll be able to make the transition from math to music. The whole time that it's math, the music is in there. You just have to get it out. If you've got that ability to hear it, even while it's math, it's music. You're just nurturing it. In our last interview, I remember talking about a guy in Frank's band who didn't know what the stuff was, but he could figure it out. He just heard it. You didn't have to tell him about no math. Theory makes it easier for you to communicate that stuff to someone body else or to put it on paper. Your interpretation - your ability to make music with it - is another thing.

RF: So why were you thinking about being a kid?

VC: Because then, I wasn't going through the hang-ups of my sticks not being comfortable in my hands. I played, I felt comfortable, I executed things in that one way I knew how to do it, and everything was okay. It was easier. I had my one way playing, and I did it. I remember that when I went to Berklee and heard all the other people, it was, "Gosh, I can't play that way, but I like what they're doing an I want to be able to do it. I can't play that way if I'm technically executing things this way and my ride cymbal is down here . . ." So I changed. I learned to execute things in order to be hip and conceptually do things. But my pure technique kind of suffered a little bit. And to this day, it's suffering a little bit. That's why I want to go back to, not Before Hip, but the comfort that came with BH. I want to be as comfortable with all this After Hip stuff as was when I only knew that one way of doing it.

RF: Do you have any idea of how to get back to that?

VC: Just by trying to reconstruct my technique a little bit, and making myself believe that there's a way to find some kin of middle ground and let it apply to every thing I play. I'm not so sure that it's going to physically happen as much as it is just way of changing my thought a little bit. don't even think it's all that major. I think everybody goes through it at different stages. In order to stay fresh, you have to change how you look at drums and music

1 comment:

Antony said...

Thanks. Great interview. I'm glad to see the pros obsessing over the minutiae of grip, foot technique etc.

He's wrong about burying the beater tho.