Jimmy Cobb & Peter Erskine Talk Ride Cymbals

(originally published in JazzTimes)

Jimmy Cobb & Peter Erskine On Ride Cymbals

What to look for in jazz’s essential cymbal

It begins from the inside out, explains Peter Erskine, the Weather Report veteran and noted bandleader and educator also recognized for his work with Steely Dan, Diana Krall, John Abercrombie and others. “What you hear in your head is what you’ll draw out of any instrument. I expect the cymbal to do something and I can usually draw that out,” Erskine said recently from Brooklyn, his home base while playing—in the pit and onstage—for the New York City Opera’s production of Anna Nicole.

A 22-inch Zildjian K Constantinople medium ride is Erskine’s go-to ride cymbal, but two other 22-inch rides have called his name. “The [K Constantinople] Renaissance model that was developed by Zildjian with Adam Nussbaum is a tremendous ride cymbal, not quite as dark as the [regular K] Constantinople. It’s remarkably versatile. And the [forthcoming Zildjian Kerope] is the closest thing to 1950s Ks that were played by all the drummers in the ’60s. … I’m pretty flipped by it.” The most important quality? “I look for clarity,” says Erskine.

Twenty-seven years ago, Erskine joined Elvin Jones on a memorable outing to the Zildjian factory in Istanbul. “Instead of going tip-tap and that kind of thing, Elvin took both sticks and just started roaring on the cymbal, playing on the edges with the shaft of the sticks for a good minute or two,” Erskine remembers. “There was this wash of white noise. Elvin was smiling and playing this thing and he got it moving. He really opened the cymbal up, got it warmed up and loose.

“That’s one of the important things, ultimately, when you’re trying out a cymbal: See how quickly it recovers from a crash or that roaring sound back to stick articulation. Any good cymbal should function as both a ride and a crash. Any of your drumming heroes, you’ll spot pretty easily that they’ll play that way. Tony [Williams] and Elvin and Mel Lewis said that, too.”

NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Cobb, whose heartbeat ride playing and impeccable swing fueled Miles’ classic Kind of Blue album, is working with Sabian to find the right cymbals to replace a set stolen during an overseas gig. The latter cymbals, including 20-inch and 18-inch Zildjian rides, were loaned to him by Mel Lewis as a temporary replacement for another set that was stolen.

Cobb, recently heard leading his trio at the Village Vanguard and continuing to play with his “So What” Band, the 4 Generations of Miles group and Javon Jackson’s We Four: Celebrating John Coltrane project, concentrates on tonal aspects and decay rates: “One I had was between bright and dark—I could hear the beat on the cymbal, hear the wood on the cymbal and hear the quality of the cymbal. For me, I don’t want it to be overbearing. I want to be able to hear the beat and not have it resound too long. I want a quick, sharp beat to it.

“With Miles,” he continues, “one time I was using a Zildjian with a couple of tacks in it, a sizzle. My setup was a 20-inch ride [on the right] and an 18-inch ride on the left. So I would play the big one when I was playing with horns and trumpets and the little one when I was playing with the piano or the bass.”
The best ride cymbal, Cobb argues, is the most versatile. “I look for one that sounds good in all kinds of situations, a cymbal that can be substantial all the time—it fits most rooms you play in,” he says. “That’s hard to find. You have to go through a lot of cymbals.”

(A personal note: Some years ago I had the great privilege of playing bass in an entire concert with the great Jimmy Cobb, and a stage full of great players, including Larry Willis, Antonio Hart, Vincent Herring, Rob Bargad and Longineau Parsons. It was a memorial concert for Nat Adderley, at Branscomb Auditorium on the FSC campus in Lakeland, Fla. I had been asked to bring my bass for Walter Booker to play, as he had previously liked playing my bass at the Child of the Sun Jazz festivals in Lakeland. He was felled by asthma, and I was tapped to play at the last minute).

Sax Men: John Ellis, Sherman Irby, Frank Macchia (CD reviews)

Quick reviews of new releases from three saxophonists – three varied approaches to the art of jazz.

John Ellis & Double-Wide, Puppet Mischief (Obliqsound)

The New York tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist, a former Charlie Hunter sideman, honed his chops in New Orleans with the likes of pianist Ellis Marsalis and bassist Walter Payton and still spends time there; his Double-Wide band has turned in infectious performances at Jazz Fest, the Louisiana Music Factory (see below clip from the store, in 2008) and elsewhere around the Crescent City.

That NOLA vibe — street-born brass bands, Mardi Gras culture, a convivial intermingling of multi-ethnic cultures — reigns supreme on Puppet Mischief, on which Ellis is joined by sousaphonist Matt Perrine, drummer Jason Marsalis, new addition Brian Coogan on organ, and guests Gregoire Maret and Alan Ferber on harmonica and trombone, respectively. The funk is deep, the pleasure is steep, and the whole thing comes off as an irresistible rolling carnival, with musical cues variously taken from early and modern jazz, circus bands, soundtrack music, vaudeville, and even European folk music.

“Fauxfessor,” a nod to New Orleans’ piano professors (like Professor Longhair), hints at Crescent City rhythms, and the slowly flickering, almost mournful “Carousel,” with its wandering tuba, wah-muted bone and start-stop passages, wouldn’t have been out of place in a Fellini film. “Okra & Tomatoes” is swaggering and punchy, and highlighted by Ellis’s bluesy tenor turn, while instruments rise and fall on the moody “Dewey Dah”  and Maret’s soulful playing is showcased on the title track. The aptly titled “Dubinland Carnival” is a raucous-to-peaceful gem and “This Too Shall Pass” sounds like a vintage New Orleans funeral march, threatening to turn into a slo-mo gospel celebration. Feel it.

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Sherman Irby Quartet, Live at the Otto Club (Black Warrior Records)

Alabama-born Irby, a soul-jazz alto player in the mold of Cannonball Adderley, made inroads on the New York scene — playing with his own band and the likes of pianist Marcus Roberts, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and trumpeter Roy Hargrove — in the late ’90s, and released a pair of CDs on Blue Note. But he’s been a bit under the radar since, aside from playing in Elvin Jones’ last band.

Irby’s fourth disc for his own label documents a February 2008 show in Napoli, Italy, where he led a quartet on standards plus his own “Laura’s Love Song,” a shimmering, Latin-tinged ballad, and  Hargrove’s “Depth.” His sound is as big and warm and blues-drenched as ever, and his dexterity and the free-flow of his ideas are often astonishing; a case in point is the sprawling tete-a-tete with drummer Darrell Green that opens John Coltrane‘s “Countdown.” But the programming, aside from a surprisingly slow and sultry version of the Miles Davis burner “Four,” is on the staid side, and the half-American, half-Italian band is not his best.

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Frank Macchia, Folk Songs for Jazzers (Cacophony, Inc.)

Saxophonist-woodwind player and arranger Macchia, leading a heavy-hitting large jazz ensemble driven by drummer Peter Erskine, bassist Trey Henry, guitarist Grant Geissman and pianist Tom Ranier, takes on American folk songs in a manner that feels simultaneously reverential and tongue-in-cheek. Here it swings hard, there it’s cutesy, everywhere the compositions boast an appealing array of instrumental colors and cross-cutting figures.

Singer Tierney Sutton, not unexpectedly, handily finds her way into a haunting version of “Red River Valley,” while Ellis Hall gives a lift to a shifting-gears redesign of “Amazing Grace.” The leader gets some well-utilized solo time on a hard-charging, Latin-edged “Skip to My Lou,” a mellow “Tom Dooley” and a swirling, almost eerie “Kumbaya.” Not your dad’s big-band album.

David Via: Memorial

How will David Via be remembered?

As a superb drummer, whose sensitive touch and sheer musicality elevated the playing of everyone with whom he played, yes.

But also … Dave will be remembered for his passion for playing, listening to and studying jazz, his generosity in sharing his musical knowledge with everyone he knew, his sly sense of humor, his fanatical dedication to the New York Yankees, his kindness, his decency, his ability to tell some great stories.

Those were some of the themes that emerged this afternoon during  a memorial to David Via held at the Players School of Music in Clearwater, where Dave taught for about 10 years beginning in the late ’90s. He also taught at Musicology in Clearwater, and previously held an adjunct jazz faculty position at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Jeff Berlin, the acclaimed bassist and Players School director, shared fond memories about working and playing with Dave, as did Jack Wilkins, saxophonist and USF jazz studies director, whose friendship with Dave extended back to their early days in North Carolina; Matt Bokulic, pianist and Players School teacher; Vicky Berlin, of the Players School; and one of Dave’s cousins.

Berlin and Bokulic turned in a reverential reading of “Blue in Green,” by Miles Davis, one of Dave’s heroes (he also frequently sang the praises of Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Paul Motian and Adam Nussbaum, among others). Dave’s drum kit was set up nearby.

One story recounted during the memorial: Someone once asked Dave how it was possible that such a great drummer could come from small-town Mayodan, N.C. Dave’s (joking) response: “Between slopping the pigs, we listened to a lot of Charlie Parker records.”

Wilkins recalled Dave’s stories about a State Department-sponsored trip to Yemen. (And I paraphrase): The musicians barely escaped with their lives when war broke out, and Dave joked that he wanted to keep watching news coverage of the conflict to see if his abandoned drum kit wound up in the hands of the Yemen Revolutionary Marching Band.

Many of those who had played with Dave and/or taught alongside him attended the memorial, as did many of his students. Dave touched many lives with his gifts as musician, and his friendship, as was evident by the turnout – thanks to the Players for organizing the very moving ceremony.

I’m sorry that I won’t again get the chance to play with Dave, or to joke around with him, and I regret that I didn’t ever quite let him know how much he taught me about musical communication and jazz rhythm, without uttering a single word.

Note from guitarist Chuck Hill: “Ira Sullivan, at his concert this afternoon at HCC, also paid tribute to David, dedicating ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ in his memory.”

Remembering David Via, Jazz Drummer

One way of thinking about this: The famous jazzers are a dime a dozen. You know their names. I know their names. Everyone knows their names.

Then there are the guys like David Via, the great Tampa Bay area drummer and drum teacher who passed away Monday after a long illness.

Dave, who loved Tony Williams and Elvin Jones almost as much as he loved the New York Yankees, committed heart and soul to the music, fully lived in the music on stage, and shared his love for the music with everyone he met. He never sought fame, and never got it, really.

But he gained a reputation as a musician’s musician, a guy whose touch was so sure, whose feel for the drums was so sensitive, that few who played with him, or came under his tutelage, or merely heard him play, will ever forget it.

That, at least, is how I remember Dave, with whom I played dozens of trio shows over several years beginning in the mid-’90s, with LaRue Nickelson on guitar, under the name Greenwich Blue. We gigged everywhere from the old Dish restaurant in Ybor City to Borders Books & Music on Dale Mabry in Tampa to a couple of places in St. Petersburg. Dave and I and vibraphonist Sam Koppelman played a private party for the Indianapolis Colts, the third time the Superbowl came to Tampa, in 2001. We “opened” for Jay Leno, the evening’s headlining act, and I recall that big-time rock drummer Kenny Aronoff (John Mellencamp) was in the crowd. When we played, Aronoff kept his eyes on Dave.

Dave’s playing, on uptempo swing tunes, bossa novas, ballads, and practically everything else, was always supportive, creative, and highly interactive. And his brushes playing was a work of art — crisp, clean, artful, precise, and sometimes cooking so intensely yet so quietly that my rock-damaged ears had a hard time hearing all the intricacies he routinely and with no fanfare unfurled.

Now, for the facts. Dave had just turned 59 when he died, reportedly following a major heart attack. He had been out of commission for several months, following an earlier heart attack in August.

Dave most recently taught drums at Jeff Berlin‘s Players School of Music, and Musicology, in Clearwater, and prior to that he taught at the University of South Florida in Tampa for eight years.

A native of Mayodan, N.C., with the twang in his voice to prove it, Dave studied  with , and Lynn Glassock. “Many many thanks to Otis Brown for selling me my first set of Gretsch drums,” he wrote on his MySpace page.

Dave performed with a long list of name artists, including Mose Allison, Barney Kessel, Charlie Byrd, Dizzy Gillespie (right), Pat LaBarbera, Slide Hampton, Carol Sloane, David Baker, Al Grey, Buddy Tate, Nick Brignola, Jimmy Heath, Claudio Roditi, David Murray, Joe Lovano, Billy Taylor, Kenny Werner, Ira Sullivan, John Abercrombie, Jeff Berlin, Rufus Reid, Sheila Jordan, Ted Rosenthal, Larry Coryell, Frank Kimbrough and Conrad Herwig.

His discography includes saxophonist (and USF jazz studies head) Jack WilkinsArtwork (Koch, 1995); pianist Paul Tardif’s Points of Departure (Koch, 1995);  pianist Ed Paolantonio‘s Dedications; and Minas, Blue Azul (1999)

More info from Dave’s MySpace page: “David has toured extensively with Jon Metzger as part of the USIA Arts America Program in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. These tours involved a rigorous performing schedule as well as teaching numerous clinics. In the States, David has performed in numerous Jazz festivals in Washington DC, Spoleto in Charleston, S.C., Indiana, Kentucky and Clearwater. He also performs with the Billy Siegenfield Jump Rhythm Jazz Project of New York City.”

Dave, we’ll miss you, your spirit, your humor, and your great playing.