Dave Weckl: Groove Perspectives

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Dave Weckl
By Karen Miller

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Drummer Dave Weckl’s first instructional videotape was titled Back to Basics. Following a meteoric trajectory to success in the ’80s, Weckl has fast-forwarded to the challenging responsibilities of leading his own eponymous band.
With their second Stretch Records release, Synergy, he’s arrived back at the “jamming with friends” stage that helped forge his musical concepts from the beginning of his career.

While playing with a fusion band, NiteSprite (interestingly enough, a Chick Corea composition’s title), Peter Erskine recommended Dave for his first big NYC gig with pianist Michel Camillo’s band (née French Toast), featuring bassist Anthony Jackson; this in turn was followed by a seven-year relationship with Chick Corea’s Elektric and Akoustic bands. But the story behind the synergy Dave feels with current bandmates keyboardist Jay Oliver and bassist Tommy Kennedy goes back to his mid-teens.

“We all grew up in the St. Louis area,” Dave recalls, “and when I was about 15 years old, I met Tom Kennedy at a Stan Kenton music camp. We figured out that we lived close to one another, so my dad used to drive me over to Tom’s house, and with his brother Ray, a great keyboard player, we started playing a lot together. Although Tommy plays mostly electric on my records, his first instrument was the upright acoustic bass. I used to do all my bebop jamming with Tommy and Ray.

“Tommy knew Jay, and actually introduced us. I discovered, like me, he was more into the pop end of the jazz style, groups and artists like Pat Metheny, Gino Vanelli, Tower of Power, Earth, Wind and Fire, etc...We both also had a very strong big-band background, which was very popular in the Midwest, we’re talking 1975, ’76. That was a very memorable period of time for me, very profound in that I really learned a lot. We used to play all the time, and would frequently invite Tom over too, this time with his electric bass.”

Fast-forward to Dave’s last CD, his first featuring Tommy and Jay (although longtime partner Jay has been involved with most of Weckl’s endeavors) along with saxophonist Brandon Fields and guitarist Buzz Feiten. Visions of John Belushi’s spiritual revelation in the church scene of the original Blues Brothers film dance through my head and I hear “the band...the BAND!”

“Rhythm of the Soul was still a project conceived by Jay and I, with us doing all the writing and then putting the band together, recording maybe 60 percent of that CD live,” Dave explains. “But with Synergy, it’s the first time I’ve been afforded the luxury to have a group to write for, to approach the whole process differently, and to record it all LIVE.

“The band had been together for a year and a half, and I wanted to include everyone as much as possible in the composing process, and attempt to bring the chemistry that we have onstage into the writing. I think it worked very well. We’re trying to approach what we do from a very honest, artistic, creative standpoint, incorporating a lot of different styles of music that we like.

“I think what makes this CD interesting and what makes the band interesting is that we all have so many influences, yet share the same conceptual ideas about putting it all together. That kind of mentality is fun for me, mixing and matching things, like playing a funk tune while also allowing spontaneity and interaction. For me, it’s the best chemistry of a group of musicians I’ve ever worked with to date.

“We have a lot of communication going on, we’re having a good time doing what we do, a lot of interplay and there’s a positive connection onstage, and it comes out through the music that way, so people really see that and relate.

“That’s the thing about instrumental music: if you’ve only got three or four guys, no matter what you do, everything starts to sound alike after awhile.

But with five guys, I feel that we can play more part-oriented, orchestrated music with enough texture changes to keep it interesting. And also, with the stylistic differences, it goes on from there...that’s my goal, to try to get a little bit to everybody. Bring in a lot of different styles, and keep it interesting for a lot of different listeners.

“Everyone in this band has really strong groove and time capabilities. Buzz, the guitar player, especially makes this band different for me, because he’s bringing in that more rock-oriented Mississippi-Mud, swampy, bluesy element that a lot of jazz-schooled guitar players just don’t possess. That really offsets things in a different way, and I was specifically looking for that in the guitar chair. It’s a lot of fun and Buzz really makes it work.

“The band is kind of still in its infant stage, we’re just now in our second year of touring. It definitely is not easy to take a five-piece band out there in this climate with this kind of music...I’m able to pay the guys enough to make it worth their while, and things are getting better. People are coming and checking it out, and the idea is definitely to carry on...we learned a lot doing this last CD, and we’re all into carrying on the same type of protocol with the next one.”

Dave continues, “I’ve been doing most of my [previous] records in my garage at home, where everything was primarily overdubbed and we took as much time as we needed.” But the tracks for Synergy were recorded live in four days, with minimal overdubs and fixes, and mixed in a week, which he feels “was pretty quick, it was definitely the quickest I’ve ever had to do a record. I could’ve used another week to mix, it was not how I enjoy working, but we did it, we pulled it off. It was really the first time that I was in an actual studio big enough to accommodate the whole band.”

With a “live” studio element as the focus of this CD, could we perhaps expect an actual live-in-concert recording in the future? After first commenting that “we’re in the middle of living out this record and promoting it and going on the road, not thinking about the next one,” the drummer admits “I’ve brought that up to management and record company people, and I always get the same answer: live records don’t necessarily sell as well. The biggest downside for me for live recording is, I prefer not to be in a situation where you have to live with what you get on one or two nights. To actually go out there and record a whole tour, the financial debit for that is out of line, it’s just not feasible. I think I prefer to have a little bit of control in the studio to at least have the flexibility to be able to do multiple takes.

“Soundwise it’s always very difficult to do, when you’re dealing with this many instruments, along with the electric aspect, to get optimum sound without a lot of leakage. Necessary fixes sometimes become impossible, and can open a whole other can of worms. I take a great deal of care in our presentation, of how everything sounds, and I’ve been on the other side of the mixing console quite a bit to understand how a lot of that works. We’ve done one live taping with this group that is available to the public, a segment of the Modern Drummer festival weekend last year (1998), available on Warner Bros. Publications. We play three songs on that particular video.”

Speaking of instruction, besides Dave’s many tapes available through DCI/Warner Bros., he’s also involved in a new venture, The Player’s Circle, in a combined effort with Jay Oliver.

“It’s basically a small publishing company” (just on the verge of merging with another major one), Dave explains, “so we can have more time in the creative process to make products and not worry so much about the manufacturing end. The idea with at least the first project (a play-along Rhythm of the Soul for all the instruments) is something that we’re still working on completing, with the drum and keyboard versions available now (see the web site: playerscircle.com), with the bass version on it’s way to print as we speak.

“We’re going to do it for all the instruments, so that hopefully existing bands, or school programs with small group studies, could have the packages, with the charts, and be able to play the songs, practicing to the CD (without their instrument) and listening to the R.O.S. CD to find out how we approached it. It’s very informative as far as instruction. In my package, I did a lot of talking about my concepts and my approach to playing the songs. The package is called the In Session Series, with the idea being to let the student feel like he is sitting in on a real recording session. We have many more ideas in the works, one of which will be another play along for the Synergy CD, at least for the drums.

“To be able to take your instrument out of the mix and play along is always something I wanted to do. I always had in the back of my mind gee, it would be so great if I could take the drums out and just play along the way I wanted to. That’s the whole concept with this, which to my knowledge hasn’t been done before to an actual studio session.”

In addition to his hectic clinic and touring schedule (updates available online at the web site: www.daveweckl.com) to promote the new CD, there’s something else fast-forwarding through Dave’s life in a basic way: daughter Claire Elyse, described by dad as “a beautiful little girl who makes everything a little bit more pleasant. She’s just all-important in my life at the moment.” At the time of this writing, she’s “26 months now, and she’s already got me wrapped real tight around her little finger. It’s great, she’s wonderful.”

Gearbox

Dave plays Yamaha Maple Vintage drums. I started using two bass drums (22x16 and 18x16) when I started my band. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for quite some time, to have a dead-sounding ‘funk’ bass drum, and a higher-pitched ‘bebop’ bass drum all in one kit. It works well for texture changes in the bottom end within the context of one song, for example.” His setup for Synergy also includes 8x10, 8x12, 12x14 and 14x16 toms, with a 5.5x14 Yamaha aluminum-shell Dave Weckl Signature Series main snare, augmented with two auxiliary snares: a Yamaha Maple-shell 5x13 Dave Weckl Signature model and a Steve Jordan Cocktail Kit 6x8 snare. All drums are fitted with Remo heads: clear Ambassadors on the bass drums; clear Emperors on the tops and clear Ambassadors on the bottoms of the toms; coated Ambassadors on the Weckl snares, clear Ambassadors on the Jordan snare.

Dave uses Zildjian cymbals: 20” K Custom Ride, 17” Brilliant K crash, 19” A Custom crash, 12” Brilliant K splash with a 6” A Custom splash upside down on top of it, 15” Azuka with three rivets, 13” Ks for the main hi-hat (both top cymbals), 14” K top (on the bottom) with a 14” A Custom crash (on top) for the auxiliary hi-hat, 14” China on top of an 18” Brilliant K Dark Crash, and finger cymbals.

He also endorses Shure Bros. microphones and their “in-ear monitor system” (instead of headphones), LP percussion accessories, the Rhythm Tech “hat trick” hi-hat tambourine, Vic Firth drumsticks (Dave Weckl Signature Model), Bag End speakers, Ddrum electronic drums, and XL Specialty Percussion “Protechtor” drum cases.

Listening pleasures

“I have to say when I’m on tour (at least 50 percent of the year), I really don’t listen to a whole lot of music...I used to, but that was before I was the bandleader! When I’m off the road, preparing for a new recording, I usually seek out new and old material to inspire me.” New things include the drum and bass genre (“strong in London, NY and much of Europe at the moment”), music from the African, Cuban and Brazilian cultures, ethnic musics of Bulgaria, Russia, and Armenia.

Old recordings “that I missed along the way or want to revisit” include “old bop from Coltrane with Elvin or Philly Joe, Ellington with Sonny Greer, all of Tony Williams’ stuff, anything with Jack DeJohnette or Peter Erskine on it.”

Dave also mentions his two most profound influences, Steve Gadd and Buddy Rich (“especially his mid-’60s big bands”), the Brecker Brothers (“together or separate”), early Billy Cobham, old Earth, Wind and Fire, Al Jarreau, (bassist Larry) Graham Central Station, and Tower of Power. “Sometimes, to chill out,” the drummer concludes, “I enjoy listening to ambient mood music, in the sense of old Brian Eno...no drums, mostly synth and piano stuff.”

Originally published in November 1999

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