The Other Side of the Story
No story is complete when you just hear one side. The great philosopher Herbert Spencer in his book “First Principals” speaks of the truth as being “two truths” meaning that no one side of a truth is wholly true. I find this highly intriguing!
“If both have (truths) have bases in the reality of things, then between them there must be a fundamental harmony”
“Fundamental Harmony” I like that.
One side of my story is that I am known as a drummer. I started playing as a sideman, supporting the band, when I was fifteen. When I was 25 I led my first gig at a jazz club in Kansas City because I wanted to play the music I loved, the stuff that excited me most. I wanted to play what I wanted to play. So I did.
There was only one problem: I hadn’t written any of my own music. After a while, I became uncomfortable with playing covers, even if they were the hippest, coolest songs I could find. I felt incomplete as an artist unless I was out there presenting my own musical vision.
I wanted to present the other side of my story.
I’ve always been writing. Luckily, I documented most of it. Either on cassettes, mini-discs, hard disc recorders or just plain ol’ pencil and paper. By 2016 there were an enormous amount of ideas. So I sifted through them all, finding the most promising stuff. Most of them were grooves or vampy ideas.
I desperately wanted to finish these ideas and hit the bandstand with all my own original music. The distance between where I was and where I wanted to go was vast; melodies and arrangements needed to be written, charts for the band (ones they could read easily)
I knuckled down and started working; piano study with a local great, Bob Himmelberger, made a huge difference in the possibilities I could realize as a composer and after two years of piano lessons, several rough drafts and revisions, I had 13 new songs to record.
Before I recorded them though, I took them out to KC and played a show of my music with a great group of young cats. The response was amazing. People liked my music! Not to mention the band played my stuff well, and that was a great feeling. The show went really well and I found the confidence to go record the music with my NYC band.
I chose to work with Michael Carvin as the producer. As soon as Carvin signed on, the project took on an intensity. He picked Systems Two studios in Brooklyn, a legendary studio with amazing people running it. We sat down and read through the music, discussing the concept. A lot of planning went into it and we left no stone unturned.
These days, especially in NYC, when you want to work with great musicians, you’re usually going to have one or two who are busy and can’t commit. It’s the bandleader’s quandary. Luckily, all of the musicians I wanted to work with were available.
Mark Peterson: A wonderful spirit and human being. He's played with Stevie Wonder, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Sharrock.... how's that for a resume? Being around Mark is always elevating and optimistic. Mark plays incredible electric and upright bass. I knew he’d bring the anchor that I needed. Oh, and he’s from Missouri, too, so we have that geographical connection which is an intangible that's difficult to find..
Klaus Mueller: I met Klaus at the New School in NYC. We were playing in the brazilian ensemble, playing a lot of Hermeto Pascoal and Jovino Santos Neto music. We made a connection immediately and I have always loved playing with him. His touch and rhythm are impeccable and his harmonic thing is quite deep. Klaus doesn’t miss a thing. On top of all this, he’s adventurous and daring in the music, but never to the point of dropping the ball. A real gem of a player.
Vic Juris: Vic is sometimes touted as "unsung" but if you ask any musician around New York about Vic, they will respond with respect and props. My first experience with Vic was when we recorded Steve LaSpina’s “Destiny” album on the SteepleChase label. I have been a fan since. In my opinion, Vic has created his own vocabulary, which is the ultimate for a musician and few ever get there. Vic’s experience and sensibilities were perfect for my music, especially since I wrote most of it on guitar. Vic brought life to the songs and added nuances that I could’ve never dreamed of. That’s why he’s Vic!
Peter Schlamb: I met Peter in Kansas City in like, 2013 or something like that. He was all over those vibes. Then I heard his album “Electric Tinks” and I loved his vision as an artist, so I called him to play my music when I debuted it in KC in 2017. He really brought a lot of imagination to the music and I couldn’t consider doing a record without him. Peter brought it all to the session and then some. I am extremely grateful that he was in NYC to be on the album. He’s a one of a kind, like all the cats on the record.
The Producer: Michael Carvin
In this session I learned what a real producer does. Carvin has made a lot of records. As a Motown studio drummer, he learned from Barry Gordy. We’re talking HITS! I 100% trusted him, yet I had didn't exactly what to expect, only that it would be all business and that we would have fun, too.
Carvin guided us through the music with a decisive hand. He kept us on point. Sometimes, musicians need a no nonsense decision maker who is thinking of the sound of the album, the way it’s going to make people feel. Keeping the musicians from getting too wrapped up in the minutia of their individual sound and thinking about the big sound, the group sound. With Carvin, it's all about SOUND.
Through two days of recording, Carvin worked respectfully, with intensity, with discipline, with humor, with love. It was really something else. After many years of studying with Carvin as a drummer, in the studio many of those lessons came to fruition. I learned what a real producer is. I learned how to handle musicians, engineers, studio owners. I even learned more about myself; how to trust myself.
Most of all, the session reinforced the maxim: Surround yourself with the best possible and good things will happen.
As the session came to a close and cats were packing up, everybody had a sense of “what just happened?” about them. In a good way. They all had a grin on their face. It hadn’t been like work. In fact, it felt like nobody wanted it to end.
Systems Two Recording Studio: A Family Affair...
We recorded "The Other Side of the Story" at Systems Two Recording Studio in Brooklyn. Nancy and Joe have been running this legendary studio since 1974. I met with Nancy before the recording and I could hardly contain my excitement and was awestruck at the vibe and layout. This studio had it exactly right. High ceilings, wonderful drum booth, visibility, breathing room... And talk about microphones, woah! Max Ross is also a beautiful cat, wonderful engineer and positive spirit to have in the studio. It makes a big difference.
Mixing with Dave Darlington at Bass Hit Studios, NYC
Every now and then you meet a person who has all the combined qualities you’re looking for: optimism, work ethic, cool personality, experience, creativity. Dave Darlington is the best engineer I’ve ever met. I don't like tagging him with the label of "engineer" because he's a composer and musician, too. His experience speaks for itself, winning Grammys with people like Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and Sting. He’s like one of the “secret weapons” of NYC musicians. Cats “in the know” go to Dave.
I have a 15 year history with Dave, I met him in 2005 when I was mixing a hip-hop record and his knowledge and depth struck me instantly. This dude knows music. After a few mixing sessions with Dave, my standards for sound were forever changed. I learned a lot from watching him and just being around such a craftsman of sound, I tried to absorb as much of that magic as I could.
Since then, I've work with Dave on several albums: "Acknowledgement" "Progressive Jump Rope Beats" are two of them. I also played drums on his album "D-Tour".
Carvin and Dave have a history, too, and they worked in tandem like clockwork. Dave took Carvin’s descriptions of the sounds he wanted and realized them into the mix. It was uncanny! No matter how abstract Carvin’s suggestions could seem, Dave turned into into tangible sound.
I’m beginning to think that mixing is my favorite part of making a record. It’s just so rewarding to hear that album come together and then sit back and listen to a beautifully crafted SOUND.
I could go on about Dave, but I’ll just say that when you hear “The Other Side of the Story”, you’ll know. Trust me.
Artist: Debra Marleen Smith
I didn’t know what I wanted for the cover of this album, but I knew what I didn’t want. Not another picture of myself! Something artistic, something interesting to look at. Something that can resonate with the music.
My search ended one day when I was looking at Instagram. A friend from high school who now lives in Kansas City, Debra Marleen Smith, had posted something that was infinitely interesting. I couldn’t stop looking at it. And, I’d never seen anything like it.
Debra has her own fingerprint as an artist. That’s difficult to realize, weather it’s in music or visual art or whatever… To get out of our own way and allow ourselves to be who we are, can sometimes take a lifetime. Debra has become true artist, all the way. She has an identity. She stands for something.
Just in the way Debra creates her art is intriguing; Textiles. Fabrics. All cut up and reassembled, composed. Statements. Improvisations. Embracing what she loves and going with it.
I asked Debra if she’d be interested in working with me on an album cover and she said yes.
Photography and Design: Chris Drukker
Anybody who has an insight into life is going to have an insight into art. I’m typically impressed with people who are somewhat obsessed with life’s intricacies, especially when the obsession is music. I met Chris Drukker one time when he was photographing two of my students. When I saw the photos, I was knocked out because he captured them in such majesty, honesty, optimism and poignancy. He captured them as DRUMMERS. It was beautiful and I knew I wanted to work with him.
Through the past few years I’ve gotten to know Chris and come to be almost in awe of his knowledge of music and musicians. He knows everybody on the scene. He’s photographed ‘em all. And so, when I chose to have Chris come to the studio while we were recording, I trusted him because I knew he’d respect the vibe. And he did.
Chris captured the session beautifully. You could feel his respect for the musicians and the music.
It can’t be an easy job, to come into a dark recording studio and capture musicians on film while they are at their highest concentration. I don’t envy that. It takes a special temperament; a tenacity mixed with compulsion to create art, to capture the rarest of rare moments that tell the story.
And lastly, Chris Drukker has done the graphic design art for “The Other Side of the Story” and that’s the finishing touch. When I saw his design, it LOOKED like a Chris Drukker fingerprint. There’s a good reason he’s done 700+ albums in his time. He’s got the touch. That’s for sure.
Making an album is a very personal process and one reveals oneself; good, bad or otherwise. In my mind, an artist is one who realizes their creativity honestly and in alignment with who they are. That's what I set out to do here and I hope you all enjoy listening to "The Other Side of the Story".
When I was 13 or 14, some local musicians recognized my talent and told my father that I was a good drummer, but if I was going to be a great musician, then I needed to play some piano.
I got lessons. I tried, but it didn't work out. It wasn't the right time. I was restless and distracted. We couldn't afford a piano, so we got this little electric keyboard that was difficult to play and without any real inspiration from the instrument or the teacher, I quit.
Then came music school.
I earned a scholarship to The Conservatory of Music at Kansas City. For playing drums. When I got to school, my first class was Piano 101, 8am. I stuck with it. I learned my major scales in all 12 keys. But then, when second semester came, I dropped out. Too much theory, not enough actual music. I was't making any music with the instrument that I enjoyed. It was all theoretical.
As the years went by, I regretted not staying with piano. I picked up guitar, easily and taught myself all the basic chords. But the piano remained a mystery.
I even became intimidated by the piano. Mostly because it just confused me and I couldn't play even the most simple of songs on it. Whenever I'd try to sit down and learn something, I just got frustrated because I couldn't get my mojo on it like I could drums and guitar.
More years went by, finally I bought a keyboard, a decent one. I wrote my first tune on it. I'd get a melody going that I liked, then I'd ask friends what chords went with the melody. I really should have been able to figure that out, but I leaned on friends who were happy to talk music theory at me, leaving me in the dust after one or two concepts.
I tried a few more times to deal with it. At the New School in NYC, and then again with friends who said they could teach me. It always ended the same way: frustration and the wall between me and the piano getting taller and thicker.
Then, I found a guy in my neighborhood. A real teacher who happens to be a great jazz player. Cool! I went to him, paid him, and sat down to learn.
We stared off with major scales, the 5 kinds of 7th chords and that was my mission. I created a practice journal and kept detailed track of my progress. In a few months, I could play "Satin Doll" by Duke Ellington. Progress at last!
Where most musicians would go straight over my head with theoretical talk, my new teacher kept it totally simple. Suddenly, things began to stick. I learned inversions of the chords, a task that took several months, but I did it.
In time, I found that I preferred practicing piano to practicing drums. I enjoyed making music, chords, colors. I got addicted to it.
Then, after the first year of study, I was playing songs like "Ladybird" and "Confirmation". I learned all these Tri-Tone Subs for the 2-5-1 progression. Now it was starting to sound a little like Bill Evans! This made me very happy.
Then, I made a huge leap and bought a Yamaha piano. A beautiful upright U-1. I played a chord and listened to it ring out..... The sonics of the strings seemed to change colors as the chord faded. It fascinated me. I sat there all day, playing chords and listening.
Then something really cool happened. I played a gig on drums with a piano trio, and I felt like I didn't have to play so much. In fact, there were many times when I stopped myself from instinctually jumping in and playing the beat right away, I listened more. The drums became something different.
The next gig it happened again, this time even more. I could let the bass and piano be heard more clearly. I found myself finding ways to not play as much cymbals, so that I could hear the sonics of the bass and piano. Suddenly, even playing standards became infinitely more interesting and the possibilities became open ended.
I'd heard drummers talk about the piano changing their hearing, but I never understood until now.
Another cool thing that happened: I started finishing tunes that I'd started, but couldn't finish. I put melodies on these cool vamps I'd written, then added a bridge or another section. My tunes started to make sense, started to sound like what I wanted to write. This was/is exciting! I learned about chord tones, passing tones, leading tones. Ah moments came left and right.
So, I write this post for drummers who are maybe intimidated of the piano, maybe they don't know where to start. My best advice, find a teacher who lives close to you and who is consistent. Also, they must know what you want out of it. Do you want to be a concert pianist? Probably not. You need a basic understanding of music as a whole, and as far as the piano is concerned, you just need to be able to play enough to get what you want out of it. The right teacher is key. Take your time and find the right teacher, not just a friend who can help you with some theory, not a buddy who wants to trade piano lessons for drum lessons. Get a real teacher. one who has a track record. One who has a method worked out.
The piano is such a joy now and it's only getting better. I'm really glad I gave it another chance.