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!
Yesterday, Ginger Baker died. He lived as only he could, as only a drummer could, following the rhythm to wherever it took him. And it took him to some pretty amazing places.
As a big fan of rock and roll and jazz, I always wanted to infuse the two and create my own sound. Well, Ginger did that before I was even born. It's really interesting, Kurt Cobain once wrote in his journal "Rock and Roll and jazz drumming do not mix". Well, I guess they forgot to tell Ginger Baker.
Much has been documented about Ginger in recent years and I'm glad the public at large got a chance to learn about him. I do have something personal to add that might be entertaining, so here's my Ginger Baker story...
I was loading my drums into a beautiful mansion just outside of Kansas City to play with a jazz group for a wedding. Not expecting anything eventful, I was pretty relaxed and just looking to make some good music and maybe eat some good wedding food.
As I walked in, the band was buzzing about something, or someone. They all looked at me and came running up with excitement. "Guess who's here!" they asked with grins on their faces.
"Ginger Baker!" They searched my face for a reaction.
"Oh!" I thought, Ginger Baker... wait a minute.. "THE Ginger Baker?"
"Yeah! His buddy is a bass player and that's who's getting married and Ginger is here for the wedding." (The bassist wasn't Jack Bruce, he was playing in a band with Ginger in LA, circa 1991 or 92)
As I set up my old vintage yellow, satin flame Gretsch drum kit, my mind started working on me. Part of me thought it was no big deal. The other part thought it was a very big deal. I thought back to listening to Ginger's drum solo on Cream's "Toad" and thought, oh man, this dude is a legend. And he's here. And I'm the one playing.
I looked out upon the wedding party and Ginger's red hair caught my eye. It WAS him. My nerves kicked in. Damn!
Trying to forget about it, I started playing and kept my mind on my work as best I could. Don't let anybody tell you that musicians don't get nervous or rattled when there's another musician in the house checking them out. The best of the best take notice when another player, especially if they play the same instrument, is in the house.
Somewhere during our first set, I looked up from the drums to see Ginger Baker standing across the room, looking directly at me over his glasses, his eyes were a bright blue and there was a kind of manic energy behind them. Keeping his stare, he looked at me hard, almost glaring, and would not look away. I was too young to decipher what this look was all about; intimidation? interest? Can't say.
He stood there for a long time, uninterested in the wedding and not really hanging around with anybody, he was just standing there alone, watching. The longer he watched, the more uncomfortable I got, I could feel his stare and his bright blue eyes felt like they were burning holes right through me.
On the break, all the guys in the band pushed me to go speak with Ginger. I honestly didn't know much about him or his career. I didn't want to approach him, but then something in me thought I'd never get the chance again, so I better go do it.
I popped the drum head off my bass drum, got a magic marker from the bartender and went to ask Ginger for his signature. It was the only way I could think of to go speak to him.
I walked up to the table he was at with the drum head and asked him if he would sign it. His reaction was one of disdain, as if he was gonna throw up. "Oh God!" he said and rolled his head away from me like he was really gonna puke. I mean, they guy was disgusted with me. I was ready to walk away in shame.
"It's ok" I said, "I didn't want to bother you." My shame turned into a little bit of anger and hurt. I mean, Buddy Rich had given me an autograph AND a photo and all he said was "Make it snappy!" Elvin Jones has shaken my hand and thanked me for being at his show. Tony Williams had thoughtfully answered my question at a drum clinic. Louis Bellson had been an absolute gentlemen towards me when we met. Roy Haynes had taken his whole break to talk to me about boxing with me once. But this, this was waaaaay different.
But then, the people at his table chimed in "Awww, go ahead Ging... you're a celebrity! You're famous!" They goaded him on. "Go ahead Ging!"
Then, he reluctantly toned down his disgust, took the drum head and marker from me and asked "What's your name?" His eyes bore straight through me once again.
And then, in that beautiful British accent, he asked "Two T's??" his voice lilted, almost in a mocking tone as if I were a little boy, which hey, I was only 20 or 21 at the time, so yeah, I was a boy to him.
"To Matt. Ginger Baker" he signed carefully and slow, not just scribbling it down. I thanked him and went back to my drums somewhat mortified and wondered if I'd just done the dumbest thing possible. The autograph was really cool looking and I dug it, even tho it was totally illegible, it looked awesome.
As years passed, I actually felt some embarrassment about having the autograph, I felt it was "un-hip" because I really didn't know Ginger's playing that well and I gave it to a friend to keep. He had it for about 20 years. Then, I saw the Ginger Baker documentary "Beware of Mr. Baker" and I learned a lot about him that I didn't know; Ginger's reverence for Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Art Blakey, his love of African rhythm, his experience with Fela Kuti... and I now wanted that drum head back. My friend obliged and I got it back. Now, the head meant a lot more. I listened to all his recordings with a fresh ear and his playing and contribution to music took on another meaning.
Yesterday when I heard of Ginger's passing, I thought of that day, of his firey stare, his reaction to me and of what this guy must have lived though. I don't blame him for reacting that way, it's really in line with who he was. Autographs only mean as much as you ascribe to them, it's the playing that counts. But, I'm keeping the drum head, it's just a cool thing to have and it reminds me of a surly old drummer named Ginger Baker who lived full out, didn't pull punches and did his thing all the way.
Rest peacefully Ginger. And thank you for the autograph.
Before I went full-bore into a music career I explored all kinds of other interests: baseball, BMX racing, soccer, wrestling, karate and boxing. Of all of these, boxing left the biggest impression on me. While, yes, taking a punch to the face will certainly leave a lasting mental impression, and hopefully not a physical one, the aspect of boxing that has stayed with me for life has been.... THE JUMP ROPE.
Jumping rope has a rhythm, feel and continuity that really inspires me. One day, I was jumping rope and I thought about the African triplet rhythm and the shuffle. I heard these rhythms in my head as I worked out with the rope and thought... how can I take this further?
So, I starting creating beats in Pro Tools that felt right for the jump rope rhythm. Like a scientist, I went through draft after draft. Each time, taking the tracks to the gym to test them out and then going back to the lab.
I started this process in 2006 in my small Manhattan apartment in New York City.
As I dialed in the tracks, I began composing various programs to enhance different attributes: Endurance. Warm-up, Speed, Power. Interval training for weight loss.
Honestly, I was not thinking about enhancing my drumming with this, but I began to realize that the jump rope was working wonders for my playing.
First, it was a healthy and positive exercise. The music biz is rough, especially for drummers, who have to haul a ton of gear, set it up, play it all night, tear it down, load it up and take it home. If you add unhealthy life habits to that like drinking, getting high, sleeping in till noon... well, you're gonna hit a wall sooner than later.
I mean, ever look at a guy like Kenny Aronoff? That guy is a beast!! He's got to be in his 60s by now and look at him, he looks amazing and plays his ass off!
So anyway, I began to feel much more connected with my core rhythm and it translated into my drumming which became much more effortless and fluid. 20 minutes with the jump rope on the day of a performance paid off huge. When I sat at the drums, they seemed to play themselves.
It doesn't matter what kind of music you play. It works for any music.
Sometimes, things other than drumming can influence our playing, either good or bad. I had tried weight lifting in my younger years and it always tightened me up, so I stopped. I wanted to enhance my playing thru exercise and once I dropped the weights for the jump rope I've never looked back. Sure, I still lift light weights, but no bulking up. The rope can maintain muscle tone, too.
So, drummers, maybe you'd like to try my idea. Check out my "Progressive Jump Rope Beats" album at......
Wishing you all the best in music, health and drumming..
A few thoughts about Canopus Drums
I started hearing about these new "Canopus" drums from musicians around New York. A bassist asked me "hey man, they got a set of Canopus drums down at Cornelia St. Cafe and they sound amazing and open. You ought to check them out.." And, sure enough, the next time I played Cornelia, I was struck by how open and tonally expressive the Canopus were. I made a note of it, for sure.
In 2010 I was in Frank Ascensa's drum shop in the Bronx when I met Eliot Zigmund, the great drummer who was with Bill Evans in the 70s (Eliot is STILL great, he's at the top of his game). I had some old Sonor drums I was having the edges re-cut and I was thinking of buying some new drums. Eliot asked "Why don't you try Canopus? I think you'd like them." He invited me to his house and we played the Canopus club kit in his living room and they just sang beautifully. I was very impressed.
On the way home I stopped off to see my friend Frank Colonnato at the Long Island Drum Center shop in Nyack, NY and there was an amazing Canopus RFM kit sitting there, waiting for me. I played them, they sounded open and full, especially the snare, a beautiful 5.5x14 with die cast hoops and the Canopus Vintage snare wires, it sounded bigger than a 6" deep drum and had more guts than any snare I'd ever owned. It was perfect. So, I promptly stepped outside to call my wife and explain to her how I was going to pull off buying these new drums. "What's the name of them?!?" She kept asking.
The drums sang so much more open than any other drums I'd owned. I found the Canopus to be especially easy to tune and hear the tonalities more specifically. Granted, I had been playing on 60s vintage drums since the early 90s, this was my first "new" drum kit in quite some time, but the alignment and congruity of the Canopus allow them to sing and have tone that no other drums I'd owned ever had.
In 2011, I very gratefully and happily signed with Canopus Drums.
In 2012 I ordered two more Canopus kits, the Club Kit and a "pop" type kit with a 20" bass drum. I enjoyed them immensely and recorded a couple of records using those drums. I used the RFM drums on my album "Suit-up!" in 2013 and took the Club Kit out on scores of gigs, the 15" bass drum always sounded amazing, filling up the room with a full tone.
Canopus Club Kit
In 2015 I switched out my RFM series for a Neo-Vintage M1 kit. The past few years had taught me a lot about bearing edges, hoops, various woods… all kids of nuances about drums I hadn't known. After playing the Canopus kit at Smoke in NYC several times, I found I liked the Neo-Vintage drums a lot because of their tone and feel, which comes from their rounded bearing edges, die cast hoops and poplar wood in the shell design. The perfect kit for me has evolved into a Canopus Neo-Vintage kit with 12" 13" toms mounted from stands, 14" 16" floor toms, 5.5"x14" snare and 18" un-drilled bass drum. Rounded "baseball bat" edges, die cast hoops.
Canopus is doing several things aside from just their drums; the bolt tight washers, their amazing snare wire, the speed star bearing, are all examples of intelligent re-imagining of drum designs. The bolt tights change the feel of a drum, just slightly, taking a bit of the edge off, softening the feel a little bit because the hoop is resting on a bed of leather washers instead of a metal-on-metal. I feel it most in the snare drum. I also feel it gives a slight more depth to the sound of a drum. Their snare wires are the best going, artistry applied to every detail make the wires more sensitive and light, so that the drum breathes. I can't say enough for the snare wires, they are simply amazing! And the Speed-Star, I was shocked at the difference in my vintage yamaha pedals from the early 90s, the re-imagining of the bass drum spring pulley gives a pedal a major upgrade in smoothness, speed and power. You have try it!
The Speed-Star Bearing Rocks!
So that's it, I'm just psyched to be playing drums that are a total joy to play and I don't find myself wanting something more from them, they're opening me up as a player, I can relax into the drum, all the tones are there, the depth is there. I spent 20 years trying to nurse along my 60s vintage drums, carrying them around NYC banging them all up, felt like walking on eggshells. The vintage drums, they always needed work, I was always on Ebay looking for parts, and they never sounded right, even after I had them re-cut. The old drums were cool, still had a lot of soul, but they were limited. I had to move into the present! The Canopus have the soul of a drum from the past, but with all the modern design upgrades of the present. http://www.canopusdrums.com
I've been chasing a cymbal sound for 30 years and never even really came close to finding it. Maybe that's a part of being an artist, or it's part of "the journey" in being a musician, chasing something that we never quite find. Or maybe, that magical sound keeps evolving, but whatever it is, I'm still chasing it!
Cymbals are the X factor of the kit for me. Drum sounds are more predictable, more attainable to me, because you can choose the woods, the bearing edge cut, the hoop and you cane TUNE them, choose various kinds of heads and combinations of heads. With cymbals, insofar as their intrinsic sound and feel, you can choose a certain alloy, a certain weight and profile, but still, you kind of get what you get.
Of course, there are many things that go into your cymbal sound; your touch, your stick, your intention, the part of the cymbal your play on, the dynamics and of course, YOU. However, cymbals have that mystical, otherworldly thing that goes beyond description and has remained a mystery to me for years.
Over the years I have gone thru so many phases: Old Ks that always had some kind of weirdness, Old As that sounded good, but still had a clumsy sounding bell, Sabian HH Sound Controls that had a beautiful oceanic sound but too much so, Paiste Traditionals that had this sort of clangy sound to the bell, Bosphorus Master Vintage that had a beautiful under stated woody sound, but void of musical overtones and Sabian Artisans that are a little too thick... why does it have to be so confusing?
And of course, it's one thing to find a cymbal that you love, but quite another to have a whole set that works together. (maybe that's another post in itself)
Of course, cymbals ain't cheap. So, if you're on a budget, as most musicians this day in age are, it's a constant quest of turning over cymbals, buying/selling, to find something that you really love. You have to be absolutely tenacious and unyielding in your quest, and also gotta have some luck!
So, last night I had a chance to visit a cymbal smith, Jesse Simpson, in Brooklyn last night. It was well worth the trip. As I stepped into his shop, I felt like I was transported to an alchemists lab. Finally, I was going to get some answers and some knowledge about cymbals that could help me evolve my conception of cymbals.
Jesse answered all my questions and filled me in on some of the things that determine the sound and some of the things that don't effect the sound quite so much. I learned about the cymbal "profile" the hammering patterns, the balance of thickness in a cymbal, the lathing, etc... Jesse explained some of the myths of breaking a cymbal in (burying it, playing it really loud with heavy mallets, turning it inside out 50 times) It was fascinating to finally get some knowledge and de-mystify some of this stuff. And Jesse is just a cool dude, he's not out to soak anybody for cash, he's not looking for accolades... he just digs making and modifying cymbals. Clearly this man has a passion for what he is doing. Respect and admiration to him for going for it!
I also brought in a few of my Paiste traditional series cymbals that have always had some kind of "clangy" tones in them and Jesse evaluated them and explained to me why that is. I love those cymbals about 70% and the other 30% keeps me from really wanting to play them that much. So, Jesse is going to "modify" the cymbals with some additional hammering and lathing to bring out the qualities that I feel the cymbals are lacking. I'm very excited!
So, the quest continues, but I now feel I am closer to the answer than before. I will keep tenaciously searching, digging and feeding this obsession until, well, let's just leave it at that... until....