I was performing at a jazz series in West Orange, NJ with a trio and the leader had told me to bring a small kit, so I brought the "truth kit" which is a bass, snare, hi-hat and ride. No toms. I call it the truth kit because there is no hiding behind a bunch of toms and cymbals. You're totally exposed, musically, especially your snare drum control.
When I arrived I noticed that there was a lot of room for us to set up and I thought, dang!, I could've brought my whole kit! But, you got to work with what you got to work with, so no complaints, just do your best.
All night long I was called upon to solo, either trading 4s, 8s or taking choruses. Now, doing this on a the truth kit exposes your snare drum ability quite dramatically. I'd played the truth kit around NYC for 10 years, so it wasn't a big deal. But even at that, soloing on that small kit forces you to mine deeper, to draw more sounds and vocabulary out of the snare.
I also had the training of Michael Carvin, who had me go back through the Wilcoxon book and really deal with the rudiments. I'm thankful for that experience. It gave me a much deeper well to draw from.
As the last set came to a close and I began packing my drums up a man came up to me, quite excited. I recognized him, it was T.S. Monk. Son of Thelonious Monk. "You're an old soul!" he said. I didn't know what he meant exactly.
"Yeah man, you are an old soul. I haven't heard anybody play a snare and bass drum like that since I heard Ben Riley with my father!" he said, quite excited.
Now, this is maybe one of the highest compliments I've ever received and I tried to figure out why he would say something like that, but I realized he had no reason to gas me up, he was sincere and I was really taken by it. Any comparison to Ben Riley was very humbling and also exciting to hear, but even more, it was gratifying to meet someone who truly appreciated the challenge of making music on the truth kit. Especially soloing on it, which is really tough.
"Art Blakey gave me my first kit and Max taught me the rudiments." he told me and we started a wonderful conversation about the rudiments and how the snare drum is the key to it all. T.S. was all about the rudiments. Max had him dealing with the rudiments first, which is how it should be.
He went on to tell me about Ben Riley and Max Roach and mastering the snare and we vibed for quite a while. It got me thinking about how the drum kit started with bass drum and snare drum in New Orleans. And how, if you listen to the truly great masters of comping, like Billy Higgins, the dialog between the snare and bass drum is always happening. This is a staple of be-bop playing that Kenny Clarke brought into play.
I mean, if one can't make it happen with the snare and bass drum, then how are a bunch of toms and cymbals going to help?
I was really feeling good to think that T.S. liked my playing and that all the years of playing the truth kit had paid off by giving me a deeper control of the snare drum. Not many people had noticed but he did. Not only knowing the rudiments, but getting a great sound from the snare is so, so key. We spoke about that at length. His excitement was palpable and it doesn't take much to get me going, so I really dug T.S. for being so positive and enthusiastic for the snare drum.
I later looked up a video that T.S. did called "Bid 'Em In" in which he plays brushes and I wasn't disappointed. His hands are clean, strong and swinging! And what a heavy composition and subject. Check it out.
I took a lot away from meeting T.S. Firstly, you never know who's out there listening. Every performance is Carnagie Hall! There are no little performances. I've looked out into the audience and seen people like Al Foster or Roy Haynes or Ginger Baker listening. Secondly, the rudiments are not nerdy, nor is practicing. Third, it's nice to be appreciated by someone great like T.S., but it's best to be appreciated by the music itself. The drummer who controls the snare will have a much better chance of controlling the kit, therefore, the kit will be more agreeable to you and thus, the MUSIC!