Cindy Blackman: Talking Drums
She has been touted as one of the hottest drummers in the business,” by the Star-Gazette and today is regarded as one of the top drummers in the world. Cindy Blackman is a stalwart, highly adaptable musician who easily moves from straight-ahead jazz to rock to funk to fusion and other musical ports of call.
Blackman has recorded several jazz albums under her own name, and has performed with acclaimed artists including Pharoah Sanders, Ravi Coltrane, Ron Carter, Sam Rivers, Cassandra Wilson, Angela Bofill, Buckethead, Bill Laswell, Joe Henderson, Lenny Kravitz and others.
Her latest album, Another Lifetime, is a heartfelt salute to her musical mentor and former teacher, the legendary Tony Williams. While Blackman is sometimes referred to as a disciple of Tony Williams, she continues to forge her own path. Joining Blackman on this ambitious salute is a star-studded, Who’s Who line-up featuring Mike Stern (guitar), Doug Carne (organ), Vernon Reid (guitar), Patrice Rushen (keyboards), Benny Reitveld (bass), Joe Lovano (tenor saxophone), and others.
Abstract Logix: Tell me more about your most recent album, Another Lifetime. What were some of your goals when you set out to create it?
Cindy Blackman: I really wanted to make a record that expressed the creativity, feel and intellect that Tony displayed each and every time he played.
AL: What vision did you have mind for the album?
CB: I was hoping to evoke the same kind of excitement that I feel when listening to Tony Williams Lifetime.
AL: Do you think, now that it has been released, that you were ALle to bring all your goals for that recording to fruition?
CB: Some yes and some no … There were many other songs that I wanted to record but as they were quite involved, it wasn’t possible. Especially given the amount of time we had to record and rehearse. We did all the sessions in one day and rehearsed at the same time.
AL: Is it possible to encapsulate and share some of the many things that Tony Williams taught you?
CB: I learned so many incredible things from watching and listening to him. I pattern my technique after his. He played with such clarity, strength and finesse that I had to learn his way of playing. He played every stroke and didn’t rely on bounce. He also lifted the sticks off of the drum head, thereby “pulling the sound out of the drum.” His entire concept from technique to interplay, his drum sound— everything, is exactly what I strive for and to enhance in my own playing.
AL: Unfortunately, I don’t have liner notes from Another Lifetime; are all the songs your arrangements of Tony Williams’ material? Or do you have original tunes on it as well?
CB: Most of the songs are from Tony’s records and some with new arrangements, as I wanted to try to do what he would have done, which would have been to play them in a different way. There are some originals on there also, some of which we created on the spot in the studio.
AL: What, in your learned opinion, are some of the factors, techniques, innovations, etc., which made Tony Williams such a brilliant drummer?
CB: Ah, there are so many, Tony was an innovator on so many levels! He was a sound innovator and he innovated conceptually, technically, and compositionally as well. Even his drum set up was innovative. The way he accompanied a soloist and played in the rhythm section pushed, accented and complimented. He was never redundant.
AL: I know it may be tough to speculate, but since you knew Tony personally, if he were alive today, where do you think he’d be headed, musically? What kinds of music do you think he’d be exploring and creating?
CB: Well, I would hope that he’d still have his Quintet and would still play with the magic combination with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter … But, I heard that he was going to start an electric band an heard some of that on group— this time a metal band. And man, that would have been the best metal band ever! But his love of composition, orchestration and beautiful music tells me that he would have also continued in that direction as well. You can hear some of that on his album, Wilderness.
AL: You once said in a previous interview, “I want to really expound on some concepts that, to me, are the highest in the improvisation of music.” What are some of those concepts? Can you discuss them in greater detail?
CB: Yes, I want further refine and expound on the concepts of sound, technique, conception … especially concerning the way the drums participate in music. I constantly want to find ways to make the percussiveness of the drums more melodic and yet still have all of the drive, dynamics , feel and color that you get when listening to the greats like Art, Philly Joe, Max, Roy, Elvin, and of course Tony!
AL: Over the years I’ve heard many drummers, some more “musical” than others. What—in your expert experience/opinion—makes a drummer “musical” versus a being solely a good time-keeper?
CB: Playing in the moment and not just playing what you practice in a drum room is one key. Learning harmony, or at least root motion, melody and phrasing is another. Listening and reacting to the music and soloists, and not just playing back every lick you hear them playing is a very important key as well. Playing with dynamics, intellect and heart are yet other very important elements.
AL: You also said that one of your goals is “to become a virtuoso.” What are you doing to achieve that? In other words, having identified that as your goal—quite admirable!—what steps, procedures, practices, etc., are you doing to achieve that?
CB: Some of what I do for that has to do with “living my instrument” … I play my drums constructively and with purpose. I practice not only for this gig or that one, but rather I practice for my continued advancement on the drums. I standardize certain exercises and make new ones up constantly.
AL: What are some of your current projects? Where does the rest of 2010 and in to 2011 take you?
CB: I am very excited about my Another Lifetime Band! We are starting to do gigs and will tour this year as well. In that situation, I am able to express every side of myself and the things that I like to play from all of my musical influences. Currently the band features Marc Cary on keyboards, Aurelien Budyneck on guitar, and Felix Pastorius on bass. The band is smoking!
AL: You’ve already performed and/or recorded with so many great players. Who are some of the musicians whom you’d like to work with, but haven’t had the opportunity to do so already?
CB: I’d love to work with Herbie Hancock at some point. He’s my favorite piano player because of his chordal and harmonic concept as well as his rhythmic ideas, style, touch and sound are the most innovative on the music scene today—still! It’d be great to work with Alan Holdsworth, I love his sound and what his musical concepts. I really dig Steve Vai and am curious to see what our collaboration could sound like. AL: What music/musicians are you listening to and/or learning from these days?
CB: I listen to a lot of Miles Davis, Tony Williams, Gil Evans, John Coltrane, Stockhausen. I also listen to Sly & the Family Stone, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and Jimi Hendrix.
AL: Are you still studying Kabbalah? How would or do you express your spirituality through music these days?
CB: I express my spirituality through music by consciously making efforts to share and spread Light to everyone and anyone who sees and hears my music. I want to evoke the feeling of Love. Without even saying a word to people, I want them to feel that spark of Love … And I feel that if enough of us feel it, we will then evoke change in proactive and positive ways.
AL: A slightly esoteric question: If your drums magically start speaking English (they already “speak musically” thanks to your brilliance as a drummer!) what do you think they would say about you? How would they describe your relationship with them?
CB: Ha, nice question; original too! They’d probably say that I love them and show it by constantly playing and caring for them. That I like to hit hard and a lot. That I love to get all of the dynamic sounds from ppp to fff out of them. That I love to transform their percussiveness into melody. That I love to tune them. And, that we are best friends, lovers and soul mates. They’d also say we have great fun together!