Q&A with Steve Gadd: Leader Disc Documents Hometown Concert


Drummer Steve Gadd’s new concert CD/DVD, Way Back Home, was recorded in Rochester, New York.

(Photo: Courtesy of Bill Zules)

Steve Gadd’s drumming has enhanced the music of a remarkably long list of musicians from the jazz, rock, pop and funk worlds.

Even if you don’t immediately recognize the name, you likely know his work. Paul Simon’s hit single “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” opens with Gadd’s beat, and the drummer has also toured and recorded with George Benson, Eric Clapton, Chick Corea, David Sanborn and Steely Dan (appearing on the classic 1977 album Aja).

During the past few years, he has been focused on his own project, The Steve Gadd Band. Recent entries in his extensive discography include the studio albums Gadditude and 70 Strong, both on the BFM Jazz label.

His new live CD/DVD, Way Back Home, documents a joyous hometown show in Rochester, New York. The album features Gadd alongside veteran partners Michael Landau on guitar, Jimmy Johnson on bass, Larry Goldings on organ and Walt Fowler on horns. (In addition to being Gadd’s working band, this group is also James Taylor’s touring band.)

Gadd recently spoke to DownBeat by phone from his home.

When did you start playing drums? Were they your first instrument?

I started when I was about 3 years old. Other than what I had to study when I went to college, I’ve only played drums.

Which artists influenced you as a drummer?

The first people I started to listen to were Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. They [both] spoke to me. [But] all the drummers I heard were speaking to me, and I was copying them.

What are your first recollections of playing professionally?

Well, I played for dances when I was in high school. I started making money, and “professional” would be when you’re working and making money, right? So, I started making money when I was in high school playing drums. While I was in college, I also played professionally. I played with Chuck Mangione and Gap Mangione, Tony Levin and Chick Corea. There were many bands in Rochester I worked with.

After I got to New York and started getting some work, everything started to fall into place. But until then, I was just doing whatever I could. The process was enjoyable, even though I wasn’t really making money. It was great to have that musical outlet when I got out of the Army. I’d take rehearsal bands and whatever gigs came up, even some that didn’t pay. Before you know it, you’re getting paid. It’s like a light switch going on. You’re not just scuffling; you’re doing what you gotta do.

I was staying with my friend Tony Levin at the time. Because of Tony, a lot of things fell into place for me to work. I still keep in touch with him.

You’ve been focusing on your role as a leader lately. Has something pushed you in this direction, going out and recording with your band?

You have to create other methods of playing music. And doing it this way, it helps me be more in control of my schedule, so I can try to have more time with the family.

I’m 71 now. I feel good, I feel healthy, I still love to play. I eat right, I exercise. I don’t think about age much, but the people around me thought it would be a good idea to call [my previous] album 70 Strong.

How did you decide which tunes to include on Way Back Home?

On the new release, there are some things that weren’t on the other two albums. There’s some new material. It’s the first time I’ve gone back to Rochester with my own band in a lot of years. It was really nice for me, [being] there with family, friends in Rochester. On the video, there’s some footage with some of the friends I grew up with being interviewed.

I’ve got other projects coming up this year outside the band. I can’t talk about all of them yet, but I’m going to Europe with my band for a few weeks. When I get back to New York, I’ll be doing the Blue Note with Chick Corea, then going to Japan in November. There’s more of an audience over in Europe for this kind of music; audiences there are more responsive. The interest in this kind of music in general is bigger in Europe than in the States.

What do you mean by “this kind of music”?

Instrumental music—it’s just music. There’s a lot of different genres we try to cover.

Way Back Home includes a version of “Bye Bye Blackbird” which, with your brushwork, sounds like something out of another era.

I just like to play good music, from all eras. Way Back Home is a good representation of what we do with the band. I love brushes. I grew up listening to guys playing brushes. There’s always something to try and get better at, and brushes are challenging, too, coming up with different patterns, trying to get comfortable playing faster tempos. It’s a work in progress, but I love it.

For a drummer-led recording, the album doesn’t drift off into lengthy drum solos. Why is that?

I try not to overplay. We do drum solos when we play live, but that’s not the goal. The goal for me is to get the music flowing.

Are you involved with jazz education?

I do clinics. I don’t do them all the time. I’ve been involved in some music camps. It’s good to be able to do that, to meet the people and hear other people. When you’re teaching, there’s a lot of ways to ask the same question, and to answer the same question. In teaching you’re trying to keep the line of communication understandable.

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