Charted territories

I remember my first band. It was called Doctor Fox. We were in the deep of France, in Besancon, my hometown, but the name of our group was “Doctor Fox”, not “Docteur Renard”.  Go figure. It was a rock quartet: drum, bass, guitar and voice. We were emulating songs from another band, an english bar band called “Doctor Feelgood”. We did our best and people liked us. There was a market for our music.

We never did any recordings, mind you, but we got to play out a little bit. We even did a mini tour. My first! Oh, dear. Don’t look at me. I’m crying.

During the tour we had the opportunity to open for “Doctor Feelgood”. We did our set, received a few applause, then went into the crowd to listen to the main act. I watched the drummer with great intensity. I wanted to learn and be one of the great. Only there wasn’t much to watch. He played the drums with authority and strength but nothing flashy, nothing extraordinary. No double ratamacue flam cheese. Yes, there is such a thing as cheese in drumming. Anyway, in the case I’m describing, none of that. He held the beat with an iron hand but without being tense. The way I would label it is what my guitar player told me after the third song: “He plays efficiently”. Just that: “Efficient”. Everything was trimmed to the minimum. The crash were used to accent, the toms to produce thunder, the bass drum to lift the crowd. Sparse, sparse! Spartan!

To this day, I couldn’t tell you if he had any technique. Later on, I saw a mock up version of him in the movie “The commitment” where the bouncer of the band replaces the drummer and makes it work precisely because he’s not a drummer. He just plays the beat and, very rarely some kicks and fills.

Now, why would that be important? I’ll tell you why, just stay awhile longer. There! Have a drink.

This is important because it means that even someone with moderate knowledge of an instrument can rock a crowd. The punk scene was based on that predicament. But it also means something far more interesting: if you are in a band and are not sure you’ve got the technical level, you can trim your parts to their minimum and play just that, night after night. You hold a steady beat and keep it like your life depends on it. After you’ve learn 1 and a half hour of music and memorize it, you’re done. You’re ready to tour the world. Isn’t that fantastic? I encourage my students to play with others, as it teaches them a lot (plus it’s a lot of fun). But the goal of these novice performers shouldn’t be to dazzle the crowd with their chops. No need for that. They can stay the whole gig on charted territories. They won’t lose the crowd. Quite the contrary.

Even in jazz. I’ll give you another example. I lived in a small town in Italy for a year. Perugia. During the summer they organize a Jazz festival played in the streets. I remember one band in particular that had attracted a big crowd. There were 20 musicians on stage playing swing music. As always, I went to the side to have a good look at the drummer. I was in for a surprise: on a riggedy stool behind a riggedy drum kit labored a man playing the jazz pattern. He seemed locked into that pattern at all tempos during the set. Sometimes, rarely, he would crash a cymbal. That’s it! Nothing else. But that stubbornness propelled the band. He was sweating, the poor fellow, under the generous sun of Italy, although I had the feeling he could have played in the arctic home of Superman and still wet his shirt.  He was giving it everything he got. I noticed I wasn’t the only one who was fascinated by his playing. He had a whole bunch of folks with their eyes on him. Here is the tricky part: the band was fantastic and composed of fantastic players. They could have had any drummer. Yet they decided to put him in charge of the kit. I could hear why. It was infectious! He held the groove with every fiber of his being and he wasn’t getting in the way of any soloist. Again, just like the drummer of Doctor Feelgood, I couldn’t tell you if he had any technique at all. But what a drummer, what a band and what a show!