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.
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.