it’s a truism (also a Hepism actually) that you’re only as good as your drummer. It’s certainly true as if the drummer is unreliable the entire foundation of the band is shaky. So let’s hear it for the drummer. The thing is, if the drummer’s time is solid all’s well and that’s base one. But when the drummer is musical on top of having great time they syncopate with the melody, they push time to create excitement, they speed up and slow down as the groove requires. Drum machines can’t do this (well, they can be “humanised” but rest assured it’s not a very human process like having an arrogant bloke making a huge noise totally bossing your song may be), and one of the great losses of modern recording is that everything is on “the grid” to facilitate easy editing, squashing excitement out of the track in the process.
I give you exhibit one, “Kid Charlemagne” by Steely Dan featuring the great Bernard Purdie, who allegedly used to put two signs on stands in from of his kit at a session, one saying “You done it” and the other saying “You done hired the hitmaker”. He’s played with everyone from Gil Scott Heron on his second classic album which arguably is the first hip hop record, Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone and of course Steely Dan.
Here he lets you know he’s in the house seconds after Don Grolnick kicks off on electric piano, establishing a funky driving beat from the off. His first announcement of his manifesto is in the second half of the verse where he syncopates perfectly with the melody (“did you realise”) with a roll around the kit and across the stereo spectrum in tight with the melody. Before the first guitar solo he plays a series of syncopated fills during the turnaround (at 2.15 here) to announce the arrival of the soloist and then a whole series of showcase fills which perfectly offset Larry Carlton’s agile licks. During the second solo and the outdo again it’s fill city with Larry and Bernard engaging in scary levels of syncopation (check out the fill at 3.59 or 4.20). Bernard ticks up the tempo by a BPM or two matching the fire which Larry’s red Gibson 355 is whipping up.
And the thing is, it never sounds too busy, and the rhythm section is rock solid, Chuck Rainey’s bass locked in with the kick drum, the clarinet and electric piano on each side of the stereo. It just sounds tight as a crab’s arse at 2000 feet and funky as flip. There’s enough in this track to keep aspiring (and perspiring) drummers in study for years.
So please share and enlighten us on your favourite drum parts!