In today’s entry, we return to the “Land of Enlightenment” in another excerpt from my book, Zentauria: My Season in the Warrior Utopia. As described in the first chapter, part of the conditions of my extended stay there involved integrating into their society and contributing something – which, in my case, centered largely around my drumming skills and knowledge. Cool… until you start questioning if what you have to offer will be deemed worthy in such a high-vibrational environment.
In addition to putting on a concert, I would be on the hook for a weekly “Observation Period” presentation, which is essentially an informal preview of your work, open to a respectful, curious, and highly-supportive public. So… what do I do? What do I play? What do I discuss? What do I really have to offer?
If it’s true that, subjectively speaking, we all have something special to contribute because our specific experience is unique unto ourselves… well… let’s hope it’s slammin’ so they don’t run my ass out of there!
Into the Arena (My First Observation Period)
Day 20 – 11:53 PM (Krishna’s Pantry)
Just had my first observation period yesterday afternoon, and it was a blast. I’ll tell ya, I’ve done close to 900 drumming clinic/exhibitions in my life, under every possible condition imaginable, in front of every kind of crowd, big and small, and in a number of different venues around the world. Still, I had no idea what to expect today. At about fifteen minutes before start-time, they started showing up. By five after, we had an overflow crowd, and people were squeezing more chairs into the room. It’s always nice when that happens.
Corny as this might sound, I’ve always likened that pre-show, adrenalin-charged rush of walking down a corridor and into a darkened arena to that of an old Roman gladiator being led into the coliseum to face a challenger… or a lion. The metaphors are too obvious, I know, but here’s the thing: those pre-show flutters are basically the same, no matter what the venue. They might vary in intensity, but the essence of it is similar. About the only time I’ve managed to completely shake that feeling is well into a long tour, where everything starts running together, and every possible X-factor seems to be eliminated. But such was definitely not the case today. In fact, the X-factors ran abnormally high, and I had no idea how things would unfold.
It was supposed to be a loose format where I could basically do whatever I wanted, ranging from just practicing or improvising for an hour, to taking questions, to demonstrating things, to philosophizing about life, or whatever. It was simply an opportunity for the community to see what I do and how I do it. So with a respectful nod of acknowledgment to the full house, I sat down behind the drums and started tinkering around a bit. Surprisingly, I felt comfortable within minutes. There was such a feeling of support and camaraderie in the room.
As expected, pretty much every drummer in Zentauria was there, and they seemed to be especially fascinated with the twenty-six drums that comprised my kit and the ten different foot pedals that my feet dance about to create various grooves, fills, and solo ideas. So I tried to demonstrate a few things that utilized the multi-pedal setup, after I took a few minutes to explain some of the different ideas. And fortunately, this was the kind of crowd that applauded wildly after every demonstration, which is always welcome!
One of the first questions I got was about the creative impetus behind such an elaborate pedal set-up. I didn’t hesitate. “I stole the idea from Terry Bozzio.” All the musicians busted out laughing.
“No, I’m serious,” I continued. “But there’s a deeper subtext to the story. Something really heavy happened in my personal life some years back, and I wasn’t sure if I was even going to play again. At that time, I only knew Terry as an acquaintance. But having heard what happened, he really reached out and befriended me during this period, and it was right around the time when he started doing those solo drum performances on a massive, multi-pedal kit. Up to that point, some of us were experimenting with cowbell pedals and an extra hi-hat or two, but nothing like what Terry was doing. So seeing him do his thing, on that kind of kit, at that time in my life, was really pivotal for me. It made me want to jump back into it. Naturally, I’ve always tried to do my own thing with both my drum and pedal setup. But Terry was definitely the inspiration behind it all.”
A hand shot up.
“So you actually know Terry Bozzio?” this kid asked.
Then it hit me. When would any of these drummers have had the chance to meet any other well-known players? They wouldn’t. They all seemed very familiar with the names, playing styles, key riffs, band affiliations, and so forth, having diligently studied so many recordings and videos. But none of these guys had ever seen any of the greats play live, let alone interact with them. So now it seemed that I was their exclusive liaison to an entire generation of drumming greats.
“Yes, I know Terry. I even have his cell number on my auto-dial!” I joked. They all got a kick out of that. “Great guy and, of course, an artist beyond compare.”
Mr. Bozzio: We drummers will always be chasing this guy…
My latest solo set-up: The Alphabet Kit
Just a mere 38 drums…
From there, it was a free-for-all. Drummers, guitarists, and bassists were all excitedly blurting out names of their faves, hoping I knew them personally. Fortunately, I had some kind of cool anecdote for pretty much every name they called out. And when an older drummer asked about jazz legend Buddy Rich, I had several stories for them, mainly concerning all the times I went to see him play before he passed in 1987.
“You actually saw him in person?” the guy asked.
“Hell yes, at least a dozen times.”
“What was it like?”
“It was like going to church. He was a true freak of nature,” I assured them.
“Did you ever get to meet him?”
“Yes, several times.”
Everyone seemed impressed with this.
“What was that like?” the guy asked.
“I only met him briefly on a few occasions, but he was always cordial,” I said. “In fact, I had found this rare old album he did with Louie Bellson, at a used record shop in Boston in the early eighties, and I wound up having both Buddy and Louie sign it.”
I could tell by the raised eyebrows and smiles, these people knew the magnitude of what I just said: a record in existence with Buddy and Louie dueling it out, and I got each of them to sign it? Smokin’!
One of my prized possessions…
At some point during the first half-hour, Samson dropped in with a couple of guys from the dojo. We’ve all been training together for this past week or so, and I’m clearly the low man on the totem pole there in terms of skill and experience. But here… behind the kit, I’m in my element. And when I heard Samson was a novice drummer, I had invited him to drop by my observation period and was glad to see he made it.
As it turned out, these guys came into the room just as I was working on a fairly intricate new multi-pedal, four-way independence soloing exercise. I nodded hello to them as I continued to play. Two of them grabbed seats in the back, but Samson, looking a little perplexed, squeezed through the crowd and took a chair directly to my left so he could have a better view of my feet and all those foot pedals. He seemed particularly interested in where some of these other sound sources were coming from.
A few minutes later, I paused for a moment and made a quick point about something I had just played, to one of the students. I then turned to Samson, held out my fist for a bump, and said, “What’s up, Holmes?”
He lightly bumped fists with me and said, in his best Pulp Fiction era Samuel Jackson, “Goddamn, my Negro!”
We all laughed.
“What in the hell were you just doing?” he asked.
I demonstrated the origins of this rudimental pattern with the double-pedal on the bass drum, and then showed how I brought in additional rhythms with other sound sources by placing each foot halfway between two different pedals.
Samson shot a look over to his friends and then, with his classic, wide-eyed Ali impersonation, he said, “You a baaad maaaan, Bobby Rock!” Again, the room fell out.
From there, we wound up stepping into something of a role reversal of what had just gone on at the dojo last week. So instead of him referencing the great fighters at the heavy bag, per my request, I was referencing the great drummers from behind the kit, per his request.
This included an Ian Paice-on-steroids demonstration of the verse sections of Deep Purple’s “Burn”; classic Tommy Aldridge double-bass work, sped up and expanded around my entire kit; signature Buddy Rich snare improv with tom-tom crossovers and hi-hat tricks at ultra-brisk tempos; and a barrage of Billy Cobham snare-tom excursions, rifled off between various multi-hi-hat funk grooves.
With each demonstration, Samson was over-the-top exuberant, laughing, whistling, standing up, raising his fists in the air, sitting back down, rocking back and forth in his chair. This was unbridled, unedited joy, expressed without restraint, like a hyperactive kid unwrapping birthday gifts. He really is a drummer at heart.
I continued on to more examples: Terry Bozzio-esque solo ostinatos, Vinnie Caliauta-style polyrhythmic modulations, and then a few of my own hybrid groove and solo concepts. It was a pretty thorough display of my skill-set as a drummer. But it wasn’t all just showing off, trying to impress Samson and the others (well… maybe a little bit!). It was a celebration of a life dedicated to the art form. And it was about feeling like I was earning my keep around here… like I have something of value artistically to bring to the table in this community.
So on that level, it was a great experience. With a towel around my neck and my T-shirt sticking to my back from all the sweat, I said goodbye to Samson and all the others who had gathered over the past hour. The audience seemed to be uplifted by what they had just seen. But after everyone split, I had to hold a more critical eye on what just went down. On the one hand, sure, I stepped into a flow; it felt good, and I thought I played well. On the other hand, much of what I played stemmed from a deep bag of tricks—a signature vocabulary—that I have amassed through the years, and I sometimes have mixed feelings about this… about relying so heavily on the old standby material, especially the “improvisational sequences.”
This led to a reoccurring contemplation I’ve had: at what point does one’s signature vocabulary transition from powerful to predictable? At what point do we go from recreating our authentic, heartfelt content anew, to regurgitating it in ways that simply parrot what we’ve already done? I’ve personally struggled with this through the years, and I’ve also observed the many subjective shades of this argument in the work of tons of other creative people, not just musicians. I know speakers, writers, comedians, filmmakers, even painters can all walk that razor-thin line between presenting the ever-expanding, inspired version of their original content and personal style, versus the same-old-shit, auto-pilot version of it that comes across more like shtick or even parody, God forbid.
Sure, many artists fall into that comfort zone of finding familiar, even predictable, ways to present their signature vocabulary. Even my main man, Buddy Rich, did a lot of that in many of his later-day solos, most notably when he was on The Tonight Show. Is this the end of the world? Probably not. I don’t think anyone is expected to come up with radically new content for every performance (unless total improvisation happens to be intrinsic to your particular medium). But I guess the overriding feeling for me… the main takeaway in the aftermath of today’s presentation, was this: being around these people makes me want to be better, to reach higher, to push myself to new heights. Period.
I thought for a moment about all the greatness I’d been exposed to since I got to Zentauria, and how readily everyone embraced “the next level” just because, without any obvious reward. I thought about the hours a day of training for Samson, the hours a day of writing for Rhone, and how even the simplest craftsperson around here takes his work seriously… like every day could be the last day to express it. I suddenly felt a surge of inspiration. I really want to reach for my next level and put together something extraordinary for my solo concert here. It’s time to expand, to advance, to reinvent. And at this stage of my development, it has to be done one step at a time… which seems to be the Zentaurian way.
There is a reverence for the minutia around here, to the small increments of improvement awarded to the finest attention to detail. We often look at the added extras someone might go through and feel like it’s not worth it… that it won’t matter that much in the end, so why bother? Well, let me tell you, people bother with the increments around here. As they should; as we all should. Because the difference between good and great doesn’t always come down to huge differences in preparation. Sometimes just working toward being a little better will do the trick. If a baseball player consistently gets two hits out of ten at-bats, he won’t make the big leagues. But if he can just squeeze out one more and consistently get three hits out of ten, he’ll be among the best of them. And if he can make it four out of ten, he will be immortalized.
I know this is all starting to sound a bit rah-rah motivational, but here’s another clichéd notion to think about: in the Olympics, the difference between gold and silver often gets down to a tenth of a point, or a one-hundredth of a second. At this level, it’s the minutia of effort, of preparation, and of training, that will determine whether you reflect back on your experience in elation or agony.
And I’ve had enough agony…
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