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Photography by R. Andrew Lepley
Many drummers get hired for their amazing chops and technical facility. Such technically stunning players are in abundance these days. Much more rarely a drummer comes along who not only has impeccable technique, but also embodies that crucial and elusive quality called "feel". Steve Gadd is such a player. He's been the most in-demand session and touring drummer for several decades primarily because of his astounding sense of feel. His meter is unshakeable, and the deep "pocket" that he creates in any rhythm section is without peer in contemporary music. From the burning jazz fusion of Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke, to the sophisticated pop and rock of Steely Dan and Paul Simon, to the churning blues/rock of Eric Clapton — Steve Gadd is the guy they call on to lay down the perfect groove.
We caught up with Steve in Ohio.
MF: We recently viewed you in the new Hudson DVD commemorating your Zildjian Lifetime Achievement award. That must have been quite an honor.
SG: Yeah, it was great. I was very flattered.
MF: One of the things you said in the video was great. It showed a lot of humility. You said that you felt the same about everyone out in the audience as they felt about you.
SG: Well, that's the way it works. Drummers just sort of take from each other, you know?
MF: It must have been moving, having so many great drummers in the audience, like Elvin (Jones)...
SG: Yeah, well, seeing Elvin, and Louie (Bellson), and Roy (Haynes), and I had my whole family there, my brother and his wife and all my kids and my wife... it was a great night for me..
MF: I understand you're currently on a clinic tour for Zildjian. How's that going?
SG: It's been going good. I've met a lot of nice people and I've seen a lot of nice drum shops and it gave me a chance to thank the people that work hard to try to get product to people. So you can get a chance to meet the teachers and the store owners and you thank them and talk to the students, so it was good.
MF: I had the pleasure of hearing you play with Chick Corea several years back at the Britt Festival in Jacksonville, Oregon, in a trio with Chick and Eddie Gomez. It was amazing, although afterwards the other drummers in the crowd and I were considering giving up drums. (laughs) Do you continue to play and record with Chick these days?
SG: I just did a track with him on the new album he's working on. I don't know when it's going to be coming out. At the beginning of the month, the second and third of April I did a couple of shows in Texas with Chick and Christian McBride. And it was a lot of fun.
MF: I understand you're from Rochester, New York and you attended the Eastman School of Music. Do you consider that an important part of your development?
SG: I went to Manhattan for 3 years. Then I switched back to Eastman. And John Beck was my teacher before college and in college and I think any kind of music is important in the development, you know what I mean?
MF: You play probably more different styles than any drummer that I know of. Do you have a favorite style that you enjoy the most?
SG: You know, when the guys have been playing and the music is good it doesn't make any difference what it is. It's like it brings things out of me, you know?
MF: You play with quite a variety of really special players . . .
SG: I love it and I'm very grateful for that.
MF: Nathan (East) talks about how he's fortunate too that he gets to play with a lot of different groups and a lot of different players. You probably really enjoy working with Nathan...
SG: Oh yeah, we've worked together for years and it's always . . . he's a great musician.
MF: Is there any way to describe any of the differences in a few of your favorite bass players? And the differences that maybe make interactions with each one different?
SG: Well, they're all different but the similarities are the way they listen and what they're trying to do musically. It's like, I mean, everyone is an individual so it's kind of hard to differentiate what they're doing. But what they all have in common is a musical approach to playing the music and listening with big ears and trying to set up a foundation and they bring new ideas out of me.
MF: On the Achievement DVD everybody who spoke about you said that when you had approached music with them you'd not touch your kit at first. You come over and sit down and listen to what they were doing. And they thought you had it all visualized in your head before you sat down to play. Is that really it or do you just listen and get some ideas?
SG: Well, the thing is, if you go on a session and people start talking about the music and start describing it even before you heard it, That creates problems. You start thinking about things that might not have anything to do with the music. So it's always better to just listen a few times without doing anything, and then to respond to what they said about the piece. After hearing it, you've got something to attach to what they're saying.
MF: And hopefully they're bringing you in because they want you to add something, not tell you what to do, but add your Steve Gadd thing to it.
SG: Well, you know I listen, I don't think of it that way because then I get into trouble. I think they bring me in because they say I'm a good musician and it's not about me as much as it is about the music.
MF: I just wanted to mention a few of my favorites albums you've performed on over the years and to see if you had any quick associations or memories that stand out. Some of these are a little less well-known than your classics. How about Stanley Clarke's Journey to Love?
SG: It's been a few years, but I remember Stanley's music and was just happy to be a part of it.
MF: Richard Tee's Strokin'
SG: Richard and I worked together for 3 years or so. He was like my brother and it was a lot of fun.
MF: How about Al Jarreau's Tomorrow Today?
SG: Yeah, I mean I don't exactly which album it is but the times I've worked with Al have been great. He's just a great musician and a real nice guy. I don't even remember the music as much as I remember just the way it was to hang with these guys and that's what makes it great.
MF: Right. The last one is Weather Report's Mr. Gone?
SG: I just remember I was doing some work with Jaco (Pastorius) and (French composer) Michel Colombier. We were having a good time. Jaco arranged it and it was fun.
MF: Did it come together pretty quickly when you worked with Eric Clapton?
SG: Yeah, I did my homework and listened to the stuff that we were going to play and did the best I could and then we rehearsed it. But Eric is a hard worker and rehearses hard and so, you know, you do your own work and listen hard and he rehearses like he's playing a show. (laughing) I mean, that's how he gets in shape.
MF: He doesn't hold back?
SG: No. He just goes full out, 200% all the time.
MF: Are there any young drummers on the scene these days that particularly impress you?
SG: There's a whole bunch of drummers on the scene today that are unbelievable. I know that from hearing people talk. When I'm working I don't really get a chance to go and see other guys that much but I hear people talking and there's a lot of great young guys out there and I don't know what their names are off the top of my head but they are still out there.
MF: There is talk about how jazz is maybe dying or fading out to some extent. Do you see any evidence of that or not?
SG: I don't really pay attention to that. There are guys out there that can play it and the guys that are playing it have to have a real passion for it. They've got to go and listen to the guys that have done it before them. And it will go on because there is something about their love for it that they can't explain. They have to search it out now, because when I was growing up, it was what was happening, it was like readily available. A lot of the guys that have played it have passed on, but their passion and love for it will carry the torch for other people.
MF: You have a great feel for playing sambas. Are you into Brazilian music or did that groove just feel comfortable right away to you?
SG: I used to go and hear Airto (Moreira) playing a lot in New York some time ago and I just liked to copy his feel because that is his thing and I love what he does.
MF: Is there anyone you haven't had a chance to work with that you'd really like to that comes to mind?
SG: I've liked everyone I've worked with and I look forward to playing with guys that I've worked with before and meeting new people. If they are serious about music and serious about playing, everything else takes care of itself.
MF: Do you have any side projects of your own? A band or anything?
SG: No, not right now.
MF: Have you had any bands of your own in the past that did any recording?
SG: Well, I had the Gadd Gang and did a couple of albums and then I did another one called Gadd About It in Japan. But that's about it.
MF: Looking at your choice of equipment, I know you've got sponsoring and endorsing deals with a few companies. Could you tell us a little bit about each component of your equipment?
SG: Well, I play with Vic Firth sticks and we're coming out with some new brushes that we collaborated on. I play Zildjian cymbals and I've always played Zildjians. The one I've been playing for years, I found in Armand (Zildjian's) office. And with the crashes they've done a real good job.
MF: Can you describe what it is that you like about them?
SG: It's hard to put in words. I like all different kinds of rides. The one that I really like is the one which we tried to copy. It had a lot of definition and the note was low, so it sort of created its own space to be heard. It wasn't real high-pitched so it blended in with everything. And the crashes are not real high-pitched. The hi-hats have a good feel when you play them with your foot and a lot of definition when you play them with your stick. And I like to put the heavier one on top. Of the Yamaha drums, I like the birch toms and the maple bass drums. And the new Steve Gadd snare that's coming out is the steel one with metal hoops which is I think is a real good drum.
MF: That's going to be out in January I heard.
SG: Yeah, I think that's that right. I'm real happy with that.
MF: They had a previous model and that's still selling pretty well.
SG: Yeah, I mean those drums are great. All the drums are great. But we came up with this steel snare and put those metal hoops on it and it really has got a great tone range, so there's a lot you can do with it.
MF: And then probably on top of the actual equipment, the effort and energy these companies put into the market to take care of players . . .
SG: They really work real hard to give the players what they're looking for. And I have no complaints. They have taken great care of me. They're very proud of what they do and their standards are high.
MF: Finally, you mentioned that you run a lot. How long have you been doing that?
SG: Oh, probably about 15 years. I started late, but exercising is real important. You know, the older I get the more I learn about that. It's like, trying to get some kind of balance in your life. And you know, that's what helps get a flow happening.
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