Sometimes it’s difficult to say “No”. In the midst of all my practicing, rehearsing, and promotion duties preparing for the coming concert performances of Presto Ballet, I was asked to record a drum track in a low-key studio session. For me, recordings have become an aural scrapbook, so I always try to accommodate session work. One day I’ll listen back to all those different recordings and say, “Wow… so that’s what I was up to for all those years!” Despite everything else going on, I decided to squeeze this one in for the sake of posterity.
I would be playing the song “Teen Town” from the group Weather Report, the seminal jazz fusion band. They achieved great success in the genre from the mid to late 1970s, on into the 1980s. Many famous master musicians performed in the various line-ups, among them Jaco Pastorius, one of the great jazz bassists of all time. He influenced many who came after him, particularly because of his mastery of the fretless bass. As with many brilliant artists, he was a victim of mental illness and substance abuse, and met an untimely demise after a violent altercation with a barroom bouncer. Such a meaningless passing for so gifted a musician.
The session was organized by Ken Coffman, a promoter putting together a Jaco Pastorius tribute project with bassist Spencer Campbell. They wanted my rendering of the song’s studio version so Spencer could play along to a “drums only” track in his preparations for playing Jaco’s style. I spent a couple of weeks practicing the piece, transcribing a note-for-note version of the original – check it out. My goal was to get the performance as close to this chart as possible. I learned that Jaco himself played the drums on the original, and apparently there was a hi-hat overdub part. I had to cover the bases without doing an overdub, so the song was challenging even though it was less than three minutes in length. What’s interesting is Jaco didn’t necessarily play like “a drummer”. Some figures were very difficult to execute because of his phrasing. Eventually the parts became memorized in my hands, so I wasn’t always looking at the chart.
The recording took place at London Bridge Studios in Seattle. A bit of history – London Bridge is where many famous and important Seattle recordings were made. It played a prominent role in bringing the “Grunge” sound to the charts with bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains. The studio even has a Wiki page. I’ve recorded there several times with the wonderful owner/producer/engineer Jonathan Plum. He has always pulled great tones out of my drums, and the big sound room at the studio is perfect for many musical settings.
Once the session got rolling we recorded the note-for-note version of “Teen Town” in three takes, the second one being the best performance. After that, Ken threw me a curve ball. He wanted to have a special improvised drum track that followed the song, but really showcased some flamboyant drumming. He wanted to hear some chops. This was intimidating because although I have some jazz fusion influences, that style has not been my focus in the last several years. Generally, I plan like crazy when I know I’m going to record. In this situation I had to “unlearn” everything and just let it flow. And guess what – it wasn’t half bad! I can hear the spontaneity in the performance, and instead of over-analyzing in the control room, I embraced the chaos! In playing this fusion music, I employed some fusion of my own – mixing careful, thought-out playing with reckless abandon… and liking it! Isn’t it nice when the unexpected turns out better than you expected? Moral of the story: When you decide to say “Yes” instead of “No”, just go for it!
We actually filmed the session, primarily as an assessment tool for me. You can really examine certain elements of your playing which just isn’t possible with an audio-only recording. Here’s some links to the videos –
Teen Town (original version)
Teen Town (improvised version)