I first heard the phrase “song drummer” from Jack Bruno, as he summarized his own career, and suddenly it all made sense.
A drummer can play the drums, and show what he can do on the instrument, or, in a radically different mindset, he can play the song, putting in what it needs, and leaving out what it doesn’t need.
Jack has played some big gigs, like Tina Turner, Elton John, and Joe Cocker. He played with Billy and The Beaters a few times, and amazed me how he could sound like he'd been playing with us for years when he was hearing us for the first time.
I've known and appreciated Jack for years, and finally got the chance to put him on one of my own songs.
He played soft eloquent brushes on "I'll Leave The Moon On For You," overdubbing to a track I'd put together with a drum machine. Here's Jack in my studio a few weeks ago:
Sideman, Not Star
So much of my life as a musician has been hearing, and appreciating, what great musicians have done, and can do. Much of that came from listening to records, from Stan Getz on “Girl From Ipanema,” or Junior Walker on “Shotgun,” on up through Larry Carlton on “Kid Charlemagne.” I was listening to great players making great music on their instrument. That’s the inspiration and learning part. And it still is.
Most of my gigs as a musician have been playing songs, beside or behind singers. I’ve been a “sideman,” rather than the “star,” because the singer is the person with the direct connection to the audience. This is the natural order of the cosmos. “Sidemen” are not supposed to be stars.
When I'm onstage with a singer, the time may come for a solo, and I might be the “voice” that connects with the audience, as a brief side dish. But basically the singer is the main course.
Every now and then, a horn player might have a hit record, from Al Hirt through Herb Alpert and on to Kenny G. These examples encouraged us horn players. But they were exceptions that proved the rule that instruments support the singer.
The Song's The Thing
There’s another level, where the singer is just a conduit for the song. At this deeper level, it’s not the singer that the audience is listening to, it’s the song. Seen that way, the singer and the musicians onstage are a team, working together to deliver the essence of the song to the audience.
Of course, learning to play an instrument or to sing onstage means acquiring skills, and that takes time and serious effort. And testing the results of those efforts is the only way to show what we’ve learned. The organic community of musicians naturally has rituals of sharing “licks” and techniques that impress or help each other. Getting “better” is good, but if the motive is to win a contest over a rival, the mind is devoted to flawed goals which inhibit rather than enhance the music.
Suddenly, when I heard the phrase “song drummer,” I understood the reality that a musician could rise above, or grow beyond the schoolyard mindset where showing off what one can do is a worthy game. It was not about competing with other musicians, but cooperating with everyone else in the larger artistic purpose of the song and its performance. It’s a servant attitude.
It takes humility, sensitivity, and maturity. It makes everything better, from the inside out, starting with the music.
Nothing To Prove, Plenty To Groove
I always knew Jack was a great drummer, but I couldn’t think of any “great licks” that he played. I knew that it always felt great no matter what he played. His great sound and great intuition were one seamless unit. There was nothing to prove. Which left plenty to groove. (OK, it’s a cheap rhyme. But it’s true.)
It might be appropriate to mention Ringo as a song drummer. He always played what worked well for the songs, and never sought attention for himself. His famous solo on side two of Abbey Road is famous not because of its musical content, but the emotional context: he didn’t want to do it. The other Beatles had to convince him to step out into the spotlight, if only for a few seconds.
And now that we’re speaking of British drummers, I want to shift attention to Charlie Watts, whose love of jazz led him to make an album in which beautiful arrangements of great songs take center stage, and the drums themselves are barely audible.
The album is called "Long Ago and Far Away." The cover photo shows Charlie wearing an fashionable 1940’s suit and tie, with a long raincoat, hands in pockets, leaning against a lamppost. The album features 14 standards played by his quintet of fine British jazz players, along with a 24 piece orchestra, playing lush arrangements behind an American singer, Bernard Fowler.
It’s simply beautiful. It catches the elegant standard set by the Frank Sinatra records of the early 50’s, as revived later by people like Natalie Cole and Linda Rondstadt in the 70’s and 80’s. Even Rod Stewart jumped on that bandwagon, with a three volume set of American Songbook classics.
But Charlie’s contribution is unique, in that he occupies a place in the British rock royalty, and has devoted his time, talent, passion, reputation, and resources into a project that honors the great American songwriters of the 20th century.
Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Dorthy Fields and Jimmy McHugh - they’re all there, and a dozen more. There’s even a song by Louis Armstrong, “Someday (You’ll Be Sorry),” which is a beautiful bluesy ballad.
The album was released in 1996, but I only heard it a few days ago, so it’s fresh in my mind. It feels timeless, because it is. And that has given me an appreciation for the fine work that was done, out of pure love for the music. It is a great example of a “song drummer.”
And there are plenty more of them in the world, and they are doing us all a great service. Thanks, Jack, Ringo, Charlie, and all the rest of you Song Drummers.
Blogging Bryan 17December2018