Vinnie Colaiuta

The Concept of Music

Percussive Notes, November 2009

The Official Journal of the Percussive Arts Society

by Mark Griffith

Vinnie Colaiuta needs no introduction. We all know his resumé and his amazing skills behind the drums. Vinnie is a great interview and a very insightful human being. He thinks about his answers and his words, and he speaks in a manner more associated with a philosopher than a musician. As you will see, every question produces a revealing answer into the mind of a supremely creative musician, who just happens to play the drums.

But Colaiuta's intelligence is applied to so much more than drumming. While spending an afternoon with Vinnie the day of a Jeff Beck show, the subjects ranged from the advantages of studying the martial art form of Wing Chun (and the differences between Wing Chun and Tai Chi), to where his drums are set up in a room and how that placement affects a drum sound, to the old days growing up in rural Pennsylvania. No matter what the subject, Vinnie is an active conversationalist. In fact, it often seems that Vinnie wants to learn about everything. I believe it is this deeply inquisitive and open nature that is one of the hidden keys to Vinnie's creative drumming (he touches on this at the end of our interview). I skipped the parts of our conversation when he was interviewing me about the history of drumming, because when you talk with Vinnie, he is so eager to learn new things that it is sometimes difficult to keep the subject on him, but I tried.

At one point during our conversation, drum craftsman Neil Longo stopped backstage to deliver a new drum to add to Vinnie's arsenal. As Vinnie walked around the room playing the drum, commenting on how it sounded completely different in the various parts of the room, and asking how the drum was made, we were given a good indication as to how finely tuned Vinnie's ears are. As valuable as Vinnie's chops are, we see that his ears have also become finely tuned instruments. How and what a musician hears is the forgotten key to every great musician, and it can't be transcribed or put in an instructional video.

As I watched Vinnie admiring the craftsmanship of his new instrument, there were little bits of knowledge flying around. As he stood on a rug in the room he exclaimed,

"Man, it's gotten to the point that I cringe when my drums are set up on carpet. You can just hear the rug destroying the sound of the drum."

Then as Vinnie walked around the room playing the new snare, he stopped suddenly and said,

"This is where this drum sounds the best."

To my ears, there was a negligible difference to how the drum sounded in the different parts of the room, but to Vinnie's studio ears, the difference was night and day! His ears are definitely as refined as his hands.

When Neil and I asked him what he looks for in a snare for live playing, his responses were startlingly revealing and simple,

"You know, I've had a bunch of snares disappear throughout the years, so now when I take a snare on the road I make sure it's one that I can replace if anything happens to it. But sound-wise, I want my live snare to be loud—especially for this gig with Jeff Beck. I don't want to have to work too hard to get a sound. And I want that sound to not only cut through, but to blend with the music. In the studio it's a different story, but live, it's that simple."

Over the years, many fans have been prone to over-analyze Vinnie's gear and musical choices, and his thoughts on live snares reminds us that, sometimes, it's not all that complicated. There is another piece of over-analyzation that Vinnie also wanted to get off of his chest.

"There have been a ton of rumors going around as to why I stopped touring with Sting, and I have heard them all. People seem to want to make themselves feel important by creating 'inside' stories about different situations where they have absolutely no insight. With Sting, what it came down to was that I was just tired of being on the road. Sting tours a lot—almost constantly— and the last time Sting was going out on tour he told me that it was going to be six months. Something told me that it would wind up being much longer than that; I just had a feeling. So I declined the tour. Two years later he was still touring; it turns out that I made the right decision. I just don't want to be out there for years at a time. However, I still play a good deal of 'one off' gigs with Sting, and we are on great terms. Again, it's as simple as that!"

The notes and the grooves Vinnie plays can be transcribed, and we can even look into Vinnie’s educational background and try to figure out where all of this information came from. But as he said to me one time regarding Elvin Jones,

"Once he starts gruntin', forget about it!"

Vinnie is a mature musician first and foremost. In a recent interview,Vinnie spoke candidly about his opinions about the state of drumming today. When I spoke with Vinnie, I opted to talk to him about music, and how the art of drumming relates to music. His two-word reply:

"Thank you!"

As with many of my interviews, let me start by asking what have you been listening to lately?

Two things, Coldplay and Coltrane.

I must admit the Coltrane doesn’t surprise me, but what is it about Coldplay that you are digging?

I like their songs. I like how the band's entire concept suits their songs. I have come to appreciate how brilliant and subtle it is when you put together a band of people that have the exact same concept of writing songs and creating music. That entire band is on exactly the same musical page. Sure, it's extremely valuable to be able to play well, but you have to be able to play great compositions. When you are being yourself within the tune, you are able to play with a sensibility that complements the music. I hear a brilliance in Coldplay's simplicity. But it's not just simplicity for simplicity's sake. They have a really strong musical concept, and to me, that's it! It doesn't matter if it's Coldplay or Astor Piazzola; it's all about committing to a strong musical concept.

What Coltrane have you been listening to?

I went through a period recently where I was listening to nothing but Coltrane. I was listening to the live Vanguard stuff, and the Coltrane and Monk record from Carnegie Hall that was released a couple of years ago. I thought that was truly amazing, but I must say that it really sort of surprised me. It wasn’t at all what I expected it to be.

Was that some of the first Shadow Wilson that you had heard?

Actually, yes. I wasn’t all that aware of him, but he absolutely killed me. He was doing some little rhythmic things on the cymbals that were way ahead of their time. Shadow was very free at the drums, and his rhythmic concept was really dancing in the same way that Roy Haynes does. Wilson's drumming had a playfulness that I really dig. As I said, I didn’t know what to expect from that record, but the instant that I heard it, it just drew me in. John Coltrane was just a fountain of ideas, and the music flowed through him effortlessly.

That recording got me thinking about Elvin a lot. Because to me, Elvin always seemed to come out of nowhere conceptually. But when I heard that record I felt that I was hearing some of the roots of Elvin's concept.

I did an interview with T.S. Monk about that recording and all of the drummers of Monk (Percussive Notes, April 2006). In my research I found that Elvin talked a lot about liking Shadow's drumming, so you are hearing the Shadow and Elvin connection correctly. When I wrote that article I went on a real Shadow Wilson listening kick.

Wow, when I get back to L.A., I am going to have to do the same thing and hit Amoeba records and look for more recordings that Shadow’s playing on.

I recently interviewed Eric Gravatt, and he brought up Shadow Wilson as well. Seems like a bunch of guys have been introduced to him through that Monk and Coltrane recording. But Buddy Rich was singing Shadow's praises for a long time. Do you know what Buddy said about Shadow's drum break on the Basie tune Queer Street?

Buddy loved that break. I had forgotten that was Shadow Wilson. You can never ignore anything Buddy said, but we as a society are inundated with so much information that it becomes overwhelming to find a few worthy facts about anything. There is just too much garbage to sift through. For most people it becomes discouraging, and they just give up. Our society has become too concerned with the newest, greatest thing,” and we focus on it for ten seconds and then move on to the next flash in the pan. That's a real problem with society in general today, and it's reflected in music and drumming as well. Since you’re the researcher and while I've got you here, I want to ask you a question. Who was the first guy to play and record the boogaloo beat?

I haven't researched that, but I'll go out on a limb and guess either Joe Dukes around 1963, or Billy Higgins in 1961 with Donald Byrd. It could have possibly even been Ray Lucas, but I'll have to check that out.

I have been wondering about that for some time; it really intrigues me.

I'll have to do my homework and get back to you on that.

Please do! I also have that Jo Jones The Drums record, and he mentions a bunch of obscure drummers on that, and I have been meaning to try to find out about all of them. I love that record.

Since you mentioned recordings. In past articles you have mentioned a specific recording that inspired you. I want to ask you to elaborate on one of them. What was it about Eric Gravatt on Weather Report's Live In Tokyo that inspired you?

I wasn't aware of Eric before that recording. I had heard Alphonse Mouzon on McCoy Tyner's Sahara and in early Weather Report. Then I heard Eric on Live in Tokyo, and he killed me. His playing had a fire and an openness that was amazing. His time feel was very unique; it had a constant wave of intensity that uplifted and fueled the music. I'm glad to hear he's back working with McCoy Tyner. You told me about a great record he made with McCoy, Focal Point; I'll have to check that one out, too. There is so much to learn! But back to Eric, he just has such a complete concept at the drums.

There's that word again, concept. What does that word mean to you?

That’s my new word. It’s the word that everyone is going to be sick of hearing me use. What does it mean to me? It is the highest understanding of how you experience music. And it is accomplished by total immersion. In a way, it's beyond a cognitive understanding. It is an inner understanding of total immersion. Developing a concept is a long process. It starts by being able to understand what music represents to you as a whole; then, understanding what that music is saying to you. Only then can you, as a musician, begin to understand what you are within the music. And it has to come to you in that order, not the other way around.

People are obsessed with technique. The how of what you play—technique—is to benefit you, so that when you play, you are taking the path of least resistance. That’s where drum technique relates to the martial arts. The only time the how becomes important is when it enables you to become transparent with your instrument. Your concept will tell you how you are going to do something within the music. Unfortunately, many people try to build a set of ideas and fit them into their concept, which for my way of thinking is totally backwards.

I'll put it this way. If you spent a great deal of time building up a Shakespearian vocabulary, and then went around talking to people in that manner, none of your ideas would be understood. You would sound like an auctioneer or something. We have to be able to communicate to each other in a way that we can all understand. A strong concept will allow you to transmit your vocabulary in a clear manner.

Concept represents your innate understanding of your place within the music. If you start thinking too much, you are not being you, and you are not being in the music. At that point, you are too busy thinking about you and what you are going to do in the music. What some people don't understand is that the music is going to do what it wants to anyway, regardless of you. But when the music is speaking to you, it's because you are inside it.

I had a teacher tell me a long time back that the music is bigger than all of us.

That's it.

How would you relate this to a younger musician who might not understand the semantics of how you explained the idea of concept? How do you get to that place?

I would tell him to start caring about the music, not just the drums. If you can go into a quiet room and put on a pair of headphones and allow the music to take you to another place, that is achieving a transcendental state on what seems to be a passive level. However, if your mind can occupy that place of present detachment, you will be much closer to getting there when you are actually playing music. That feeling should become your motivation. That feeling is the music's reason for being. It is music's essence. I guess it’s what everyone passively refers to as the zone.

Another thing people are going to get sick of hearing me say is thought is the enemy of flow. That has recently become my mantra. People are always asking me what I am thinking about when I play. The answer is, hopefully, nothing.

What happens when you can't find your place within the music? Or what if you can’t conceptualize a specific piece or style of music for one reason or another?

When you are in those circumstances, you have to first realize that you aren’t there alone. You can't be everything. You can try to be in everything, but you can’t be everything. One situational scenario I could conjure up regarding that question is, what do you do when you realize that you are the only guy in the band that gets it? You can't manifest it alone, right? That's when you have to play with the utmost confidence and forge ahead. That is very simply said, but it is very difficult!

What about when you're in a situation where you feel that you’re just not getting it?

That's an even more difficult situation. First, I try to let go of the feeling of failure. In our society, everything is black and white, victory or defeat. You have to be brave enough to stand in the face of that societal attitude and make the statement, I don’t hear anything. I don’t know what to do. That takes real bravery and courage. That is not failure.

In working, I have to be humble enough to ask for suggestions. That takes real strength. In the end, I'll try to learn from a situation so that when it happens again, I can get there quicker. I try to go into every situation with a completely open slate—an empty plate, if you will. I must have that kind of confidence.

However, regarding confidence, there is a bizarre paradox. It tells you to have confidence because of your accumulated experience, developed instincts, and skills. But on the other hand, to succeed at a task you have to realize that you don't really know anything. That's why I have to approach everything with that blank slate. This means you can be confident, but you're never really sure.

Another paradox is that at these times of perceived failure you can rest upon your bag of tricks and just start pulling out licks. I never want to do that—no way! But again, on the other hand, sometimes you'll get to a point in the music where a certain simple idea that's been played a thousand times just works, and you play it, and it's perfect.

It's what makes something like peanut butter and jelly work so perfectly. You could get creative and try to put bologna on it, but it just wouldn’t work—too much thought.

What happens when the outside world interferes and a producer says, "I'm sorry, it's just not working. We're going to get someone else"?

How you assimilate those circumstances depends on where you're at in the evolution of your career. Maybe you are trying to impose something on a situation where it doesn’t belong. In that case, it has nothing to do with whether or not you're good enough to do the gig. Maybe both parties were correct in the situation, but you just weren’t communicating. Or maybe the whole band wasn't on exactly the same musical page, which brings us full circle as to why I dig Coldplay.

As a musician, you have to be able to make an honest assessment of your own working skills. Some people never do, and they fall by the wayside and wonder why people just don't want to work with them. Or they improve on only one specific level. But that doesn't mean that it will translate into the real world, because as a musician they’re too insular and too angry. What it comes down to is they just don't make anyone else's music sound better, which has nothing to do with blazing around a drumset.

There are a lot of guys practicing to become faster, stronger, or just better—whatever that means. After a while, your fuel cells are just going to burn out. And I think that at the end of the day, that just produces a lot of anger toward and within the music. That tension gets in the way of your concept, your creativity, and the music.


Mark Griffith is a recording artist, clinician, author, drumming historian, and sideman on the New York music scene. He has written for Modern Drummer, Percussive Notes, Not So Modern Drummer, Hudson Music, and the UK's Drummer! His most recent recording, Drumatic, features music written by the great jazz drummer-composers. He is currently working on a book titled The Complete Evolution Of Jazz and Fusion Drumming.
Thanks to Mark Griffith and The Percussive Arts Society for sending in this interview! Click here to become a PAS member today...

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