Steve Smith is one of the most respected drummers in the world today. His distinctive style has propelled the playing of Jean Luc Ponty, Larry Coryell, Journey and his fusion group, Vital Information. Steve is an endless student of rhythm. Recently he has been focusing on performing Indian music with Zakir Hussain in the new supergroup Summit that also features George Brooks, Kai Eckhardt and Fareed Haque. Steve just released a two DVD set on which he interprets the history of US Beat and Drumming. Abstract Logix recently caught up with Steve.
AL: YOU ARE CONTINOUSLY LEARNING AND EVOLVING.
SS: I see music as a path through life that offers limitless learning and experiences with many facets. There is the mystical; surrendering to the moment and becoming one with your instrument, one with the other musicians you are playing with and then we all become one with the music. This is what all musicians want to do — transcend space and time and be in the moment, channeling the music of the Great Beyond. In order to find that kind of freedom with demanding, high level music, this requires using the intellect; great knowledge of music, the physical; a highly developed instrumental ability, and wisdom; the experience to know how to interact with the musicians you are playing with. Because I mainly play with high-level musicians I’m often learning new and insightful musical concepts. I’m always refining my playing technically, through daily practice and a relaxed approach. I’m also learning new combinations of rhythms and phrases mainly through the study of Indian rhythms.
AL: WHAT HAS IT BEEN LIKE PLAYING WITH ZAKIR HUSSAIN?
SS: First of all it has been a humbling experience. Zakir knows so much about rhythm and is such a master of drumming he can be intimidating to play with. But when he plays he is open and very responsive, he is truly a great jazz musician — in the moment and very aware of what all the other musicians are playing.
AL: HOW DO YOU LISTEN TO HIM AND ADD YOUR OWN CONTRIBUTIONS?
SS: For me to play with another drummer is not a typical situation, but I love playing with Zakir. I take a supportive role when I play with him and let him take the lead most of the time. In the group Summit, this concept works well.
AL: HOW HAVE INDIAN RHYTHM FORMS CONTRIBUTED TO YOUR MUSIC?
SS: The Indian approach to rhythm has highly developed unique concepts. I am in the process of learning as much as I can about this system and incorporating the ideas into my playing. It’s most useful when I play with Indian musicians, but it’s also useful in some jazz / rock music. One thing that learning some of the Indian phrasing has helped me develop is longer phrasing ideas that go way over the bar line.
AL: YOU MUST FIND SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE EAST AND THE WEST.
SS: As far as similarities, both have to feel good and groove. Both are based on rich traditions. As far as differences, with the Western approach — in general — the actual rhythm played, either as an accompanist or as a soloist, is incidental; the main concept is about the feel of the music. With the Indian approach there is much emphasis placed on the actual rhythm played and how the combination of rhythms are constructed. There is a logic and a symmetry to the rhythms they use and there are lots of rules about what is hip. We really don’t have anything that rhythmically corresponds to that in the Western Rhythmic Lexicon.
AL: WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR MUSICAL HIGHLIGHTS?
SS: Playing with Zakir in Summit — which also includes George Brooks on sax, Kai Eckhardt on bass and Fareed Haque on guitar — is always a musical high point for me. When I played with Steps Ahead, in the various incarnations, was always great music. Playing with the Buddy Rich Big Band and with the small group Buddy’s Buddies is always fantastic. I love playing with my group Vital Information and when we toured with Vital Information in 2003 with Bill Evans as our special guest that was an incredible experience. One of most memorable situations was making a record with the country singer Ray Price. We did a whole record in three days playing everything live in the studio, full rhythm section, strings, horns and Ray sang live — no overdubs or clicks, real music played by live musicians.
AL: WHAT ABOUT TIMESCAPE WITH AYDIN ESEN AND BARON BROWNE?
SS: This was another peak experience. Aydin is a genius musician and I love his music. His music was very hard to play, but once we got past the learning phase it was magic. That trio with Aydin, Baron and I definitely reached The Zone of effortless, high level communication.
AL: YOU HAVE PERFORMED WITH PRASANNA.
SS: I learned his music by listening to his recordings and heard how the Tavil player, Ghatam player, Mrdangam player and Kanjira player approached his music. I tried to put myself in that head space when I played with him. Many times I didn’t use cymbals because those drummers don’t use cymbals. I developed some new concepts like using the left beater on my double pedal to muffle and change the pitch of my bass drum. I also had to learn many new rhythms in order to play his music. When Prasanna and I play it’s like playing with a great jazz player, the improvisation is free and there is good communication, but it’s within the context of the Carnatic tradition. I’ve been learning about the rules of Carnatic music so I try to keep my playing within that context, but I can’t help but bring something unique to the music because I am essentially a U.S. drummer. In a way I feel this is my most unique work, adapting my playing to the Indian concepts, I’ve never heard another U. S. drummer do this.
AL: YOU RECENTLY PERFORMED WITH THE GREAT VIKKU VINAYAKRAM.
SS: Vikku is a great composer and teacher as well as a genius player. He showed me one of his extended rhythmic compositions — which I loved learning — and he was very easy to play with, his feel is very groovin.’ He brought a different concept to the group Summit. Vikku plays more from the Carnatic tradition of two drummers playing the music together. By contrast, Zakir has the Indian approach plus the element of playing the music like a jazz / latin percussion that is coloring the music, similar to a Weather Report type percussionist.
AL: THERE ARE SPECIAL ISSUES WHEN WITH A TABLA PLAYER.
SS: Playing with a tabla player requires a light touch because the drum set is much louder than tablas. I’ve developed a kit and an approach for this situation. I use a Sonor Jungle Kit, a small drumset with a 16 bass drum, a 10 rack tom and a 13 floor tom. The snare drum is a 12 Sonor Designer drum with a Remo Fyberskin head. I used Remo Clear Ambassadors on the toms and Remo Clear Emperor on the bass drum, with just felt strip muffling. The cymbals are all Zildjian, Re-Mix 12 hi hats, Re-Mix 17 ride, 18 K Flat Top Ride, a 8 K splash cymbal, a 9 China Splash. I use bundled rods instead of sticks with this setup because the sound blends well with the tabla without being overpowering. In January there is a CD being released on Magna Carta called “Modern Drummer presents Drum Nation”. This recording has tracks by many different drummers including Terry Bozzio, Bill Bruford, Tim Alexander, Brain and others. You can hear the drum setup I described on this recording. Zakir and I (along with the members of Summit) play a duet tune called ‘Mad Tea Time’; this tune is full of Indian rhythmic devises.
AL: ANYTHING YOU WOULD LIKE TO TELL ASPIRING DRUMMERS THAT ARE TRYING TO INCORPORATE INDIAN POLYRHYTHMS IN THEIR VOCABULARY?
SS: Before you get into Indian Polyrhythms you first have to master the simplest polyrhythm which is 3 over 2. I have a section in my new “Hudson Music” DVD Steve Smith Drumset Technique and History of the U.S. Beat that is devoted to this concept. After that, learning to count the rhythms out loud, either by using the Indian Konakol syllables or by simply using numbers, is essential. After learning 3 over 2, then go up the rhythmic scale. Keep a basic pulse and play 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12, first over one beat and then play the rhythms over 2 beats. If you can play a 3 over 2 polyrhythm in your feet (play 3 with the hi hat, 2 with the bass drum) then play all the rhythms over that you are playing 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 over the 3 and the 2 at the same time. I demonstrate this in the “Hudson DVD 25th Anniversary of The Collective”. With this approach you are playing layers of rhythm, which is what Polyrhythms are- one rhythm layered on top of another. Thanks a lot for your time Steve.
AN URGENT PLEA FROM JOHN McLAUGHLIN: Guitar icon releases exclusive video to raise awareness and funds for COVID relief in