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Keeping It Simple

Matthew Kassel
Contributing Writer
matthew.kassel@mail.mcgill.ca

I started playing the drums in grade nine when my parents bought me a drum set for my birthday. I don't remember wanting a drum set, or for that matter, wanting to play music, but I started taking lessons anyway, and I began to enjoy them. In the second, and last, year of lessons, I decided to switch to practicing jazz drumming. I had been listening to jazz for about a year or so, going to the library, taking out records—among them, Coltrane Plays the Blues, Mingus Ah-Um, Speak Like a Child--and thinking there was something about jazz I liked, something about the rhythm, the openness. I felt as if I could hear the musicians thinking. I didn't know anything about harmony then. (I still don't know much.) But I could intuit when the soloist had slipped into the bridge, or when a chorus had cycled through.

I began jamming with friends--playing lots of funk and blues and some spacey stuff. We were into Soulive and [Medeski, Martin and Wood] and Sound Tribe Sector 9 and The String Cheese Incident and Bela Fleck and Victor Wooten and Led Zeppelin and The Dead. Occasionally during a jam, I'd lay down a simple triplet ride pattern, trying to get us swinging. But the bassist never walked, didn't understand a chromatic line, and the guitarist couldn't solo. This didn't frustrate me, but I still wanted to play jazz. My drumming, I knew, was shoddy, but I was working on it, practicing eight bar trade-offs alone in my attic--where my drums were--imitating Joe Morello's five-four pattern from "Take Five," simplifying and cutting out my fills.

I was emulating Philly Joe, Art Blakey, Donald Bailey. I knew I could never play like them, but I could keep time, and at least I wasn't trying to play like Brian Blade or Chris Dave or Jamire Williams, whose playing, to me, existed for the sake of idolatry.

One day after gym class, perhaps in grade 11, I started talking to a bassist a grade below me who dug jazz. He said he was forming a jazz band, he had a guitarist and pianist, but he was still looking for a drummer. Could I jam with them? I agreed and we met up at my house over the weekend to run through some standards. I was a little unsure of myself, but damn did it feel good to play jazz for the first time, probably because the guys I was playing with understood the vernacular--especially the guitarist who rarely ever read from lead sheets and, I learned later, had spent the previous summer memorizing Charlie Parker solos and John Coltrane's tortuous solo on "Giant Steps."

I felt as if I didn't belong among these musicians who clearly understood and played jazz better than me. But they liked my playing and we decided to look for gigs around town. Our first gig took place at the local coffee shop (we would end up playing there about four times in our tenure as a local jazz band). We played "Take Five," some blues pieces, "Chameleon," some originals, "Cissy Strut." No one showed up to watch besides my friends. As pleased as I was that they came, I remember wondering why anyone would want to listen to us. We weren't particularly good. At the end of my sloppy solo on "Take Five," I dropped my drum stick and had to use my left hand to play the snare in order to complete the song.

As our band continued to practice and perform, I continued to simplify my drumming. Simplicity, to me, represented wise restraint, but it was also a defense mechanism against complexity, which scared me: I didn't know how to handle it, when to use it. So I tried not to, although it did creep into my playing when confusion struck.

When I graduated from high school and came to McGill, I didn't want to give up playing the drums--it eased my nerves. A bit more confident with my playing, or at least my ability get through a jazz standard, I searched for jazz jam sessions around town. I figured I knew enough jazz standards to comfortably fit in to a jam, and if I didn't know one called, it would probably be AABA, 32 bars, like most of the tunes I played with my band back home.

So one Tuesday night in October, I nervously went off, drum sticks in hand, to take part in a jam session at Montreal's most popular jazz club, Upstairs. When I walked in, I told the host--who happened to be the house drummer--I wanted to play, and he wrote my name down. I sat down and watched the musicians, most of them drummers, come up and play. Some drummers seemed nervous, unsure, their playing flighty. Others couldn't swing, or wouldn't--I couldn't tell. But I liked that this jam was so egalitarian, that in this bourgeois jazz club, young college kids like me could come in, have a beer, and actually go on stage to perform for members of an audience that had decided, of their own volition, to come and see live music.

When my name was called, my hands shook a little. I had thought of two songs to recommend, "Blue Monk" and "On Green Dolphin Street," but as I realized, the guitarist who had also just stepped up to the stage would choose the songs he knew best. And then there we were, strolling smoothly into "Younger Than Spring Time." I was calm, keeping it simple, staying within my means. I caught the eight-bar trade-offs, and then we were back into the head, but I didn't know exactly when the song would end. So when the pianist looked up at me quizzically as we rolled on unnecessarily into extra bars, I created a rhythmic vamp and we were done. Not bad.

Then came "Billie's Bounce," which I knew. But I didn't hear them count off and had to stutter into the song about eight bars late. Things were going well after that until the trade-offs. I'm assuming I had more trouble counting bars at a faster tempo because I ended up playing a four-bar solo first, then a sixteen-bar solo. All the while, the pianist with whom I was trading tried to make sense of my asymmetrical approach, furrowing his brow, smiling with a bit of levity. Finally, emerging from the whirlwind of trade-offs, we returned to the head, played it twice, and concluded in unison. The house bassist, to my surprise, graciously shook my hand as I left the stage, thanking me for playing. Then I sat down in the crowd and had another beer, evaluating in my head what had just happened.

I returned to that club three more times to play in the following two years. Each time I have gone my heart beats faster and faster until the moment I sit down and start playing. I'm not sure why that is the case. I am not a confident drummer: that is the main reason I try to play simply. But perhaps focusing on simplicity, in whatever way, calms me.

I'm not sure if I'll return to the club again, though. I enjoy going, but now that I'm in a rock band, I don't know what they'll think of me.

Matthew Kassel is a fourth-year at McGill University studying political science and Arabic. When he can, he writes--often about jazz. Find some of his work at http://coldjazz.blogspot.com/.