For nearly three decades in music Steve Smith has proven himself as one of the finest technicians worldwide on the drum kit. Adept at nearly every style from fusion (Jean-Luc Ponty, Steps Ahead, Vital Information), pop (Journey, Mariah Carey), and straight jazz (Buddy’s Buddies, Jazz Legacy) through to his original iconoclastic work on the Tone Center label, Smith’s formidable technique has earned him innumerable accolades and awards both from connoisseurs and contemporaries. In 2010 he continues his experiments with Indian music with “Raga Bop”, his collaboration with Carnatic guitarist Prasanna Ramaswamy and sax maestro George Brooks. Prior to the group’s tour of North America, Smith took time out to talk to Abstract Logix via phone from his New York residence. In part one of this two-part interview Smith talks about his interest in Indian music and the genesis of the exciting new project.
Abstract Logix: What initially got you into Indian music?
Steve Smith: In 2001, a tabla player named Sandip Burman hired me to do a tour. At that time he was really trying to make a name for himself. He had just played with the Flecktones and he put together an all-star band and by doing that was successful in booking a tour of the USA. The group was Jerry Goodman, Howard Levy, Victor Bailey, Randy Brecker, Paul Bollenback and David Pietro. It was a very good band. Really, nobody knew Sandip but we all knew each other so everyone said they’d do it. Sandip was living in Chicago and he had dictated his music to Howard Levy orally and Howard wrote it down. At the time Howard didn’t really know much about Indian music, so when Howard wrote the charts of Sandip’s tunes some of the charts had each measure in a different time signature. There’d be a bar of 9/8, a bar of 7/8, a bar of 5/8 and then another bar of 9/8 and so on. One of the reasons that Howard and Jerry decided to call me was that they knew I was a good reader and could play odd time signatures. We had just made an album for Tone Center called “The Stranger’s Hand”, with Oteil Burbridge on bass. They called me to do the tour and that was my introduction to Indian music.
I didn’t know anything about the music but during that tour I figured out a couple of things. The first thing was that I learned how to play with a tabla player, as far as volume goes. I altered my drum set radically and ended up using a small Sonor jungle kit that has a 16” bass drum and just a couple of flat ride cymbals and splash cymbals and I was using brushes and bundle-like sticks. I found that the tabla was much softer than any jazz situation that I was ever in, even compared to an acoustic bass and piano trio. Playing with a tabla player is even much softer than that. So I developed an approach to playing with tabla players. The next thing that happened is that as the tour progressed I was able to see that the music was not really in a lot of odd time signatures but each tune was in one time signature but the phrasing of the rhythms could have the appearance of odd time signatures if you didn’t understand the music. I started to see the rhythmic structure that was inside the music, which was very interesting to me. For instance, one of the songs that Howard had written out with lots of different time signatures was actually in 4/4 but he didn’t realize that. I started to notice the rhythmic symmetry, the phrasing and patterns and explained it to him. And then a light bulb went off in that way where it was all very interesting to us. Unfortunately that tour ended on 9/11 because of the tragic attacks that happened, the remainder of the tour was cancelled. But during that tour I developed a curiosity about the Indian rhythms.
A year later when I was teaching at a drum camp in Gemany in 2002 there happened to be a thavil player named Karuna Moorthy who was teaching Indian rhythms and basic konnokol. I went to his class every day for a week. He was very clear at teaching the fundamentals of Carnatic rhythm theory and konnokol. Karuna is a very good teacher and because I have an extensive musical background, it’s not like I’m learning the music from nothing. I have a lot to relate it to as far as western music and rhythms. As a result of that I was able to learn the concepts very quickly and understand them easily. After the drum camp I worked on the rhythms by myself, practicing over the next year, and then I met George Brooks on a gig with Larry Coryell. Larry was playing a gig in the San Francisco area and hired Kai Eckhardt, George and myself as his “local” band. George and I talked about Indian music because I learned that he was into Indian music and was putting together his group Summit. He was in the stage of organizing the line-up and asked me to be the drummer. That was a fantastic situation and opportunity so I jumped at that chance, and Zakir Hussain was the tabla player in that group. In 2003 we recorded an album and Zakir really appreciated the fact that I could play at a very low volume and play all these rhythms with him. When we recorded that first Summit CD he and I played in the same room together about five feet apart. At first he very surprised that that worked because he was used to overdubbing or being in a different room from a normal kit drummer, but as it turned out we could play together. We had a strong rapport because he realized that I respected not only his playing but that I could play at a volume level that was comfortable for him. That was a fantastic opportunity for learning that developed over the course of more than three years where we played a number of gigs and tours with Summit, the entire time I was learning from Zakir. And the method of learning on the job is really crucial to becoming a great musician. You can take lessons and practice by yourself but it doesn’t become something that you own until you play with the musicians and have the music happen on stage. And that really occurred during those years with Summit where I could internalize the rhythms, play the music and have great musical experiences with Zakir and the entire Summit group.
AL: So when you were playing with Zakir was it coming from a Hindustani vocabulary, or a Carnatic thing when it was in Summit?
SS: Well I would say it was initially more from the Carnatic side because that’s what I knew and those rhythms tend to be a bit more universal when it comes to fusion projects. Zakir is well versed in Carnatic rhythms because of his association with Shakti and specifically Vikku Vinayakram. Zakir would also show me some of the Hindustani rhythms, and of course they’re different but they’re related so they’re not radically different. Sometimes I would learn rhythms that he would teach me and I really couldn’t tell you if their background was Carnatic or Hindustani but he would show me rhythmic compositions and I would memorize them or write some notes so I would remember them and then memorize the rhythms and we’d perform them. I’d say my association with Zakir was as valuable an experience as a jazz musician getting a gig with Miles Davis. It was a game changer in that it was a fantastic learning environment from a master that’s a once in a lifetime type of opportunity. And we’ve continued to play and have had different musical experiences. For instance Zakir invited me to come to Mumbai, India to play the Homage to Abbaji [the annual concert dedicated to the memory of Zakir’s father Allah Rakha]. That event is amazing because it starts around six o’clock in the morning and goes until ten o’clock at night. People play all day and over 3,000 people attend so it’s quite incredible. In 2009 Zakir had four nights at Carnegie Hall where he could do whatever he wanted and one of the nights he had a four-piece group, Masters of Percussion, that was Vikku Vinayakram and Giovanni Hidalgo, Zakir and myself so I was able to play an exciting concert with him at Carnegie Hall. That was fantastic.
In 2003 and 2004 I was playing with Summit and through the Indian grapevine Prasanna heard that I was a western drummer playing Indian rhythms and so he hired me to play some duet gigs. I didn’t know about him but he tracked me down and called me up. Those turned out to be really interesting and great opportunities. We were playing in a setting that was, in a way, traditional for Indian music because there was a melodic instrument and a percussion instrument, but the instrumentation was very modern because it was a drumset and an electric guitar. I learned a lot from Prasanna because in order for me to play his music I had to learn a lot of Carnatic patterns and concepts in order to accompany him. He uses a lot of Carnatic patterns and devises in his improvising. So again, that on-the-job learning really expanded my rhythmic knowledge and musicianship. And there’s been other fantastic musicians that I’ve had the opportunity to work with. I’ve played quite a bit with Vikku Vinayakram and he always greets me with a lesson, or a new composition within the first five minutes of saying hello. It’s all very natural, it’s simply his way of relating. Then I have to learn his rhythmic composition right away and he’ll want to play it that night! And another fantastic musician who is very well versed in both north and south Indian rhythms is Pete Lockett. Pete is British and lives in London and we’re always looking for opportunities to play together. I’ve worked a lot with Pete Lockett lately and he’s also an excellent teacher. He shows me a lot of rhythms and worked with me on my konnokol because he’s really fantastic at konnokol. In fact I had him perform on my Vital Information album called “Vitalization” where I incorporated a lot of Indian rhythms into the music. I’ve been working the Indian rhythms into my concepts, whether it’s solo drumming, Vital Information or other group situations I’m involved in.
What led directly to the creation of the Raga Bop Trio was the latest George Brooks Summit record called “Spirit and Spice”. One of the things I really enjoy about working with George Brooks is that he still writes music with pen and paper — not a computer demo — and comes in with a chart and we work out all the details of the groove and tempo and the form of the song. One of the downsides of modern technology is that a large part of drummers job is done for him by the composers when they program the drum parts into the computer demos. A big part of what used to be valued as a creative part of a drummer’s life was being presented with music and the drummer had to come up with an interesting drum part, that is not so much a part of today’s drummers’ world. If we go back to 1976, where I first got my start on the international touring scene with Jean-Luc Ponty, he hired me to play in his band and play on his record “Enigmatic Ocean”. He handed me charts and said “the tempo is about here,” he counted it off, we played the music and I needed to come up with drum parts. That was common for every musical situation I was in up until more recent times, where that creative part is generally much less. With the new Summit record George came to my house and just the two of us worked on the music before we rehearsed with the other band members. So I was in on the ground floor of helping the music take shape. We found that it sounded pretty good with just the two of us playing together which recalled another situation of a duo which was me and Prasanna. I mentioned, “Do you know Prasanna,” and he had heard of him but didn’t really know him. Then I suggested we do something with the three of us. There are different ways of looking at the construction of this trio, one way you could look at Raga Bop Trio is it started as a duo: drums and guitar, and we added a sax, or a drums and sax duet adding a guitar. Anyway, we liked the idea, so after we were finished with the Summit album we booked some time to get together with Prasanna and jam for a few days. In fact in those three days we came up with all of the music for the “Raga Bop Trio” album. George and Prasanna brought in some compositions they thought would work and we rehearsed them and came up with a couple of original pieces, we had a very successful collaboration. Next we booked recording time at a studio in Northern California, Prairie Sun, which has a little living facility where we could go and live and record. We spent four days there and recorded the entire album during that time. We made the record by getting together in a room and playing, we didn’t construct it with computers and overdubbing. Prasanna and I were in the same room and George was in the vocal booth and we played the music and that’s what you hear on the record.