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Steve Gadd: The JazzTimes Interview

A wide-ranging chat with the prolific drummer

Steve Gadd
Steve Gadd (photo: Rob Shanahan)
Steve Gadd drumming with Stuff at the 1980 Berkeley Jazz Festival
Steve Gadd
Chick Corea and Steve Gadd, backstage at the 1980 Berkeley Jazz Festival

It would be neither a stretch nor a slight to call Steve Gadd a drummer’s drummer. Over the last 40 years he has developed a recognizable but adaptable style, always working in service of the groove. He’s best known for some indelible performances on pop classics from the 1970s: Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” Rickie Lee Jones’ “We Belong Together,” Steely Dan’s “Aja.” He has long been the drummer of choice for Eric Clapton, and he’s prominently featured on a pair of recent albums by British art-rock icon Kate Bush. But he grew up with jazz, and has worked memorably with pianists Chick Corea and Michel Petrucciani, guitarists George Benson and Al Di Meola, and countless others.

On his own recordings, Gadd usually favors an earthy mix of funk and soul-jazz. His new album, Gadditude (BFM Jazz), includes tunes by Keith Jarrett and Abdullah Ibrahim, and a roster made up of Gadd’s fellow sidemen in James Taylor’s band: trumpeter Walt Fowler, guitarist Michael Landau, pianist and organist Larry Goldings and bassist Jimmy Johnson.

Gadd, 68, reflected on his career in two phone conversations over the summer: first from his home in Phoenix, Ariz., and then from the road, driving to Los Angeles for a festival date with saxophonist David Sanborn and pianist Bob James.

I wanted to start somewhere most of your interviews probably don’t, which is your philosophy as a bandleader. Do you have one?

I really don’t have a philosophy; I just like to get great players together. All the bands I’ve put together are with guys I enjoy getting together with musically-and also just friends. This band, we’ve played a lot together because we back up James Taylor. It just sort of seemed like a no-brainer. And the record company was very supportive, so we just did it.

One thing that stands out on this record and your previous one, Live at Voce, is the Hammond B-3. Is there a special place in your heart for organ combos?

I grew up listening to organ bands. I love it. I’ve always loved the kind of grooves you get, and the intensity, and the excitement that a live organ band can get. It meant a lot to me growing up, and I’ve heard some grooves in those small clubs that were spiritual. It just surpassed any problems you had, and you were wrapped up in how good the music felt. Whoever I’m playing with, I like that aspect to be a part of the music, where the groove is strong.

Let’s talk about those early days. You grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and encountered a lot of jazz there. Who do you remember seeing?

Gene Krupa, I saw him play live in a little club. He used to come to the clubs in Rochester, and my dad and mom would take me to see him play. I saw Art Blakey in the same club. Max Roach. All of these guys, I could sit close enough to touch ’em. It was called the Ridge Crest Inn. I saw Oscar Peterson play there with Ed Thigpen. Papa Jo Jones played there with Tommy Bryant and Ray Bryant. God, I mean, I saw Jack Franklin play with Kai Winding’s band. Roy McCurdy, I used to see him play, because he’s from Rochester. There was another club called the Pythodd where they had organ groups. It was unbelievable the amount of music that was happening in Rochester when I was growing up.

I understand you were also into tap dancing, which is something you had in common with Papa Jo Jones and others. How important was that?

Well, I think that whatever you do musically is important, but tap dancing especially, because it’s all rhythms. It’s all different combinations of things that you do with both of your feet. I haven’t analyzed it, but I’m sure in some way it translates to the drums. And I loved it. I wasn’t doing it to help my drumming. I did it because my brother did it and we did it together. I liked tap dancing; I think it’s a great art form. There were so many different styles of guys that did it in this country. It’s unbelievable. They’re like musicians in that they ad lib when they dance, and it’s beautiful.

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Originally Published