Steve Gadd and Friends
Catalina Jazz Club, November 11, 2009
By Steve Krugman
That black Yamaha drumset with 10” and 12” bass drum-mounted toms and hanging floor toms: there are few drum configurations, or instruments of any kind, that hold the same iconic impact, or are as readily identifiable and associable with a specific musician. Among drummers there are maybe Buddy’s marine pearl Slingerlands, Tony’s canary yellow Gretschs, Ringo’s black oyster Ludwigs, or Bonzo’s Amber Vistalites. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s #1 Strat, or Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstein, perhaps? Notwithstanding the odd badge or lug variation, none has been more constant, signature and influential as Steve Gadd’s black Yamahas.
Entering Catalina Jazz Club on Wednesday, November 11, that instrument seemed lit like a velvet-roped museum artifact by an aura of legend. Steve Gadd—and those drums—were in the house. Surprisingly, it was his first-ever Catalina date. We were there to catch the late set and do a video interview with the man afterward. Typically backing hall of fame artists on major league tours, the opportunity to witness him perform in a club is rare. Clearly, this realization was shared by the near-capacity crowd densely filing into the venue on the second night of a three-night run with Steve Gadd and Friends. Catchy name. If Chick Corea can title an album that Gadd appears on, “Friends,” and put Smurfs on the cover, then I suppose we can forgive the generic appellation as justified, and credit the promotional artwork for its Smurflessness. No matter. The friends in question here are long-time sax partner Ronnie Cuber on baritone, B3 heavyweight Joey DeFrancesco, and Joey’s guitarist Paul Bollenback. By the hospitality of Catalina herself, we were seated up close and stage right, just behind the Colonial credenza-like Hammond. Between the furniture-grade instrument to my left and a structural ceiling post to my right, I was afforded a partial view of the glowing black Yamahas.
The band mounted the stage up two or three steps on our side, with Gadd last to summit. Watching him take the stage and approach his instrument, I marveled at how many times he must have done that very thing, and on the grandest stages in the most celebrated venues all over the world. He was simply going to work. If you were to take away the instruments, lights, and adoring audience, it would be difficult to know just what kind of work these men were preparing to do; they could all very well have been mistaken for hourly help if you didn’t recognize them as world-class musicians. The most successful and arguably influential drummer of our time, was attired in a crumpled white tee and blue work pants. And his Friends were not upstaging him sartorially. I mention this only because I see both the irony and virtue in it. These men did not look like successful, accomplished artists or…anythings; but because they are, they didn’t need to. Much like the band’s name, all things image and appearance were dismissed wholly as trivial, and overlooked as meaningless artifact in the shadow of high artistry. As well it should be. It could also be argued, I allow, that seeing performers who appear to have just rolled out of Prevost bunks adds to the element of intimacy that a small club provides. With this humble entrance, the set was to begin.
I am going to contend that an exact accounting of the set-list itself is irrelevant, both because it is and because I didn’t actually get full note of it. Sor-ry. I had a Macallan and a Steve Gadd demanding my attention, plus it was dark. The drummer counted off the first tune, a standard—in every respect—70s swing arrangement, with trademark reverence to tempo and feel. Dry quarters on the ride. Relentless timekeeping. Deliberate comping. All dry. All fat. All in control and grooving. All Gadd. This was indeed a fanfare announcing the band—“We’re here!”—and hit the upper range of dynamics for the night. The encore, Caravan, hit another dynamic peak, and together with the opener functioned as hard covers to the mostly soft and patient narrative of the set. The second composition was a highlight and a better indicator of the band’s musical approach for the evening. It was a reggae-leaning original with a hypnotic riff from Bollenback that entered at a low simmer and boldly rode a low-rising arc through the solos, exiting quietly back out. Similarly, they followed with a version of Sister Sadie that had Gadd maintaining a pulsing 16th note pattern with brushes on his first floor tom in unwavering commitment to controlled exposition. When he finally incorporated the full drumset during his solo, he had accrued broad untouched sonic territory in which he reveled to great effect. The overriding philosophy seemed to be: always allow room to expand. These guys were not going to play themselves into a corner with volume and notes. Also at this point in the few notes I took, I wrote, “No one plays brushes as sticks like Gadd.” It’s true. He gets a physicality, and tone, and articulation from brushes when he plays them vertically that is unique to him.
Gadd held onto the brushes for the next couple. Another standard in “Georgia,” was lovely and lyrical, and provided a wide canvas for Cuber and DeFrancesco to stretch out with expansive, soulful and masterful solos. It becomes clear on a ballad like this one that Gadd doesn’t shift between support and lead modes—he remains constantly in music mode. Equal intensity and focus go into supportive ballad-timekeeping with brushes behind a soloist, as they do for the drum solo in Aja, let’s say. There was no rush and nothing to prove—a condition ideal for music making. They followed with a then characteristic soft groover—an original, maybe Gadd Gang era?—and somewhere along the way Gadd switched back to sticks and was holding quarters on the ride again. Yet another “no one does that like Gadd” moment. It’s a small revelation at best to recognize that Steve Gadd is a devout disciple of the quarter note. His internal time is wide. No matter how he subdivides, pulse is always clearly implied. There’s something about those quarters on the ride that reveal the raw stuff of how he feels music. It is essential and it is powerful. As quickly as Jake and Elwood Blues swing open the door to The Triple Rock Baptist Church, the mid-tempo groove converted to a double-time gospel two-beat. Gadd’s core devotion was unshaken. Can I get a witness?
What I described in my notes as “16th note Booker T-y, mp” was next. Mezzo piano—as any dynamic—is relative, and this was just a notch up from the quietude of much of the set. Gadd channeled some Al Jackson Jr. on this one, directing what could have been a busy, syncopated, dated funk jam into a clean and chill 16th hat, 2 and 4 crosstick, timeless soul feel. It was a choice, and it was a telling choice. At first, the approach seemed almost too simple and somehow incongruent to the music informing it. But, of course, after surrendering to Gadd’s committed pocket, I was left to throw figurative hands up and silently declare, “Brilliant!” Does it have to do with my pre-inclinations and him being who he is? Probably. Who cares. Soon abandoning Al Jackson and Booker T for Steve Gadd and perhaps Chick Corea, soul turned Afro-Cuban with a drum solo over a songo ostinato. Yeah, he can solo pretty O.K., too. Throw in a killing shuffle and encore with a jumpy version of Caravan—alright, every version of Caravan is jumpy—and you have the second set of the second night of Steve Gadd and Friends at Catalina.
One of the first questions I asked him on camera was something like, “You have a lot of friends. Why these friends?” Nice, right? He answers for himself, but empirically, it’s not really much of a question. He could have simply responded, “Did you just hear those guys?” and glared at me reprovingly. Luckily he did not. These friends are obviously heavy players, but they—and the instrumentation—also happen to cohere remarkably together. We are talking an organ trio plus baritone. That’s a soul-warming brew. There were times when arrangements would break down to Gadd and DeFrancesco alone: I could happily make an evening of that. DeFrancesco has the kind of dominant technical athleticism that oftentimes can bully the sensitive musical intuitiveness in some players—sometimes 16th-note triplet exhibitions like to push whole-note introspections ass-first into a locker and kick-slam it shut. There exists no such power struggle in his playing. He’ll assuredly sit on a whole note for bars if he feels it, and tear up and down the keyboard when he feels that. All the while, it’s easy to forget that his left foot is orchestrating contrapuntal bass lines on the pedalboard that swing and groove as high and hard as any bass player. Gadd would later tell me that Joey “cares about the pocket.” A high priority, and high praise from him. Ronnie Cuber is an old friend of Gadd’s from the 70s, and they’ve been involved in many bands and sessions together over the years. In Cuber’s hands, that low-end frequency and soulful timbre of the baritone is given full voice and expression by a cat with something to say. Symbolically, he provided a meaningful balance between old friends and new. The newest of Gadd’s friends in the band was Bollenback, who has played in DeFrancesco’s band for over a decade. With a round and fluid sound, tasteful parts, and soaring solos, he added much to the melodic, compositional and artistic whole. The name may well be generic, but this group of friends certainly is not. “Why not these friends?” would have been the more appropriate question. But rhetorical interview questions are really more Barbara Walters’ territory; I most likely, and deservedly, would have gotten that reproving glare in return.
Writing about Gadd is tricky. His body of work over the last forty years is monumental—in its scope and influence. It’s difficult to detach the legacy from the man and observe his playing objectively; it’s also difficult to remark on the most remarkable things that make Gadd Gadd, without being redundant redundant. See? We all generally know why he’s great by now. These established truths were borne out in the show Wednesday night, and I see no real need, nor possess any real interest in outlining them here. There was something revealing, though, in having the opportunity to see him play and then interview him immediately afterward. It exposed some things beyond his musical endowments that contribute to his overall Steve Gadd-ness. Most noticeably, he’s relaxed, soft spoken, and gentle. A bit of time with him imparts his thoughtful and sentimental sides. Have you ever seen Bruce Springsteen interviewed? The connection was pretty immediate for me. It’s a slow paced, chilled-out, halting, contemplative cadence peppered with “you know”s that pulls you in and holds you expectant. It may partially be an East Coast thing(?!), but it’s more than that. It also may merely be associative, but suggests to me that Springsteen brand of sensitivity and toughness; intellect and brawn; wisdom and innocence; eloquence and commonality. Sentiment without the sap. In-the-momentness. Observational acuity, simplicity and honesty that are often marks of great artists. Perhaps some of those shared qualities that help make Springsteen a brilliant songwriter also contribute to Gadd being a great musician. He spoke to aspects of his focus and motivation that clearly also help set him apart: “There’s always something negative that you can think about (on the bandstand)…you have to not go there and try to remember what’s happening, and stay on the bright side of things.” It may seem trite, but it speaks to something important about the performances he’s known for. When Gadd plays he is present. He is focused on making music. He cares: about the pocket, about the musicians he’s with, and about conveying feeling to an audience. He is fully confident, trusting, and emotive. He is intense. I got a glimpse of how these things are integrated in the player and the man, and the continuity was interestingly, though not surprisingly, corroborated.
A Disturbing Analogy
The set itself was compelling and satisfying due to the musicians and musicianship on stage. The approach was tantalizing. Disturbing, I realize, but Steve Gadd and Friends were collectively a musical dominatrix, bounding the audience in furry handcuffs and slowly, patiently, torturously teasing it repeatedly to the brink and back, until finally…well, you get the idea. Delightful. Still, for what it’s worth, the whole thing could have taken place on any given night in 1974. The band doesn’t proclaim to be breaking ground and it didn’t. It doesn’t need to. How much ground-breaking from one guy do you need? A few friends, a few standards, a few original vehicles to get on stage and make music between dates with Eric Clapton and James Taylor, and there you have it. I say let’s have more of it. It was a privilege and inspiration to hear him in such an intimate setting, and it’s safe to say that any room the band plays, truly becomes Steve Gadd and Friends for the night.