Percussioni, 2003

By Roberto Baruffaldi
Photos by Paola Fabbrocino

Translated into English from Italian by Tina Marangoni

Every Little Thing He Does Is Magic

Vinnie Colaiuta is the drummer who, more than any other, embodies the spirit of the musician devoted to the music, not to his instrument. This is his major focus nowadays, and it is this quality more than any other that has assured him a splendid career, still on his way up. He posseses an incredible technical lexicon, of which he is largely unconcerned. He has the extraordinary capacity to immerse himself in the most varied and extreme musical styles, playing each of them with the experience of a specialist.

Vinnie is a splendid person with great internal riches, incredible human qualities, great humility and intelligence which have all combined to get him where he is today. We had a chance to get together for two days during "Music from Heaven" (see below).

What follows is an account of a long conversation that took place over a particular dinner away from the noise and the lights of the stage. Vinnie spoke honestly about his life and of the many sides of his career as a drummer, expressing himself very clearly, thinking over and weighing each word in an incredible way.

Regarding your career, you stopped doing long tours and went back to work in recording studios. What made you decide this?

I was tired of being on tour all the time, and on top of that my life had taken a bad turn, so I tried to take this route whole heartedly, even though I didn't know what to expect. Thank God it worked out okay, and it's still going well.

I preferred to go back to the studio scene because I like to play for the music, not in front of the masses just to show off. The motivation to play in the studio is to be heard - but not seen.

Your work in the studio was a dominant characteristic of your career, especially in the beginning. Is this really your true passion?

Yes, definitely! My true passion is to create music. Everything is centered on the songs and not on the opportunity to impress someone in the public. What I want is for people to listen, knowing that I am completely subservient to that song and to the music.

Serving the music is the main thing...

Absolutely! I'm not concerned with anything else. I try to play my way, and only think of the music.

Is it easy for you to develop a good rapport with producers and artists and to understand what it is exactly that they're looking for?

Yes, it is. If it's only about the music. You have to understand what the song requires, and not what people want to hear or see me do on a particular piece. I just let myself go completely, and play the music.

What is the first thing that you consider when you're in a new situation, whether in the studio or playing live?

Actually, there are many things to take into consideration. If I'm in the studio, I immediately try to understand what type of music I have to play, the emotional state of the people present, and what they are saying. I try to develop a good rapport with the sound engineer, oversee how the mics are positioned and work on the headphone mix, which is extremely important, the pre-production, and only after I've seen to all of this do I get to play.

In a live situation, I quickly gauge the attitude of the other musicians, whether they are receptive or competitive, and I try to communicate with them immediately, opening up completely, listening to their opinions, and trying to understand whether they play for themselves, or if they're able to play with me. I also try to obscure all my surroundings, which is not always under my control.

It's very important for me to have a drum set that I feel comfortable with, and monitors that I can hear everything with, otherwise the situation can get confusing and I end up playing too loud. I don't like to play in very large places, unless the sound on stage is very good, and I don't like playing on a drum riser, because the drums can move too much. I like everything set solidly in place, with a monitor mix that lets me hear everything I need to hear. I don't like having to dampen the drums with anything, but if it's required, try to dampen as little as possible so as not to affect the feel of the sticks on the heads too much.

What does a drummer need to become a real professional and have a significant career in this business?

You have to be able to really get into the music, any kind, and be a good listener. Communicate with the people, listen to what the bassist and the other musicians are playing, and do it with assurance. Sometimes drummers like to be in charge of a situation, but in doing so they intimidate the rest of the musicians and there's no give and take. You can be successful without being too aggressive, but you need to be sure of yourself. You must show respect and compassion towards the other musicians, and at the same time try to guide things along. I think this is most important. Obviously, you need the capacity and the skills, but technical skill alone is not enough.

Many times drummers try to play everything, hoping to be great in jazz, rock, funk, punk, latin & pop, but I don't think that being a great drummer depends on the number of styles you can play. I could consider playing in a punk band, but I probably wouldn't be passionate about it. At this point in my life, I know I could do it, but I don't want to do it just to prove that I can. We've got to be true to ourselves.

The time comes when you think about what you're going to be doing when you turn 75, and if you're still playing drums, it won't be in a punk band. You've got to believe in what you're doing, because if it isn't real, it will show, and everyone will know whether you're playing with true passion or just to show that you can do it. You can't compete with a kid who really believes in it, who is hungry, and a real punk. I'm not angry anymore; I'm not 16 anymore; I'm not arguing with my parents. I'm a man in his forties who is trying to be an artist. The style remains only a style.

The importance of being versatile still remains, and it is required to be a true professional.

Absolutely.

I think you're the perfect example of what a drummer should be. Extremely versatile and capable of playing any style well.

Thank-you! But this is important in what you would consider the professional aspect. You could come across the leader of a band who's looking for someone for his group that has the hunger and desire to be a real punk. You might be versatile and have the requisite skills to play in that band, but the leader might tell you that he doesn't really believe in you. The whole concept of being versatile works if you decide to dedicate yourself to working in the studio, but even in that context, what you play has to sound believable, because you believe in it. The reason I sound credible in so many different styles is because I believe in many different types of music. And if I didn't, I wouldn't sound convincing, aside from my technical ability.

In the past, there were some musical situations I was involved with where I had no idea what to play! Sometimes you might not understand exactly what the producer expects from you, and other times you could be listening to what they've programmed and realize that you never would have thought of that. It's interesting to see people who really think like musicians, and not only as drummers. My versatility is borne from the concept of serving the music, and I do it because I like it. I don't care if they ask me to play a country beat in the chorus of a song, even if I like the music of Chick Corea, pop, jazz or fusion.

You are considered to be one of the greatest drummers, if not the greatest living drummer, and also the most technically skilled...

This is a blessing...

But aside from that, I think that a song like "Seven Days" says more than any drum solo could. You managed to leave your mark in a style of music where it usually...

Where it usually isn't possible...

To me, this aspect of your playing is even more laudable than knowing that you can play all the strange and difficult things you've done in the past.

I think that this concept is really beautiful... It's a great ideal, but also the most difficult thing to achieve. I don't know exactly how I got there, but I know in the past I've always imagined that there was a way to achieve it, and then I did it, but I still don't know how I did it. When I played that piece, I really believed in it. At that moment it meant everything to me. I did it because I really wanted to do it that way, and I was totally sure of what I was doing.

If I think about a musician like Wayne Shorter - without making any comparisons - I think about his ability to say everything in only two notes. How does he do it? - But he does it. I see it more from a spiritual point of view.

The right note at the right time...

With the right attitude...

What did your long collaboration with Sting really mean to you?

First of all, I was a big fan of The Police and their music. I liked Sting's musical direction a lot, and I think he's the only person in the world of "pop" that hits me in a certain way, and he has a certain level of quality in his music as well as an absolutely unique personality. His music spoke to me in a very strong way and I wanted to play his music because I love it and because I really believe in it.

Do you think that is was important for your career?

Yes, definitely.

A bridge towards other directions?

It definitely did something, because it exposed me to people who had never heard of me before, and a lot of things happened as a result of it. When I joined his band, I immediately thought about what was going to happen to my career in the recording studios. But I still wanted to risk it. Suddenly my popularity became international. On the other hand, when I left his band, I did it because it was the right time to leave.

Did you record anything for his new CD which is due out in September?

Yes, I recorded six pieces, but I don't know exactly which ones will be used. I recorded on some tracks that were prepared and there were only three of us in the studio: me, Sting and Kipper (the producer). Right after that I recorded the new CD for Eros Ramazzotti. Anyway, I think that Manu Katché is also on Sting's CD and he'll most likely be doing the following tour.

How did you develop your vocabulary on the drums?

Only by listening to all the drummers that I found fascinating and who inspired me. Tony Williams was very important to me, and so were Elvin Jones and Buddy Rich, and everything in my vocabulary comes from there. It's also a question of language; It took me years to learn the "words" and the "sentences", and only then was I able to "interchange" them and use them in the most disparate ways, with unending variations, and then pick the ones that I liked best and sounded better to me. In this way you discover one thing that you like more than another, and in the end all these small things together contribute to form your identity.

I started taking note of how important it is to have a certain "touch" to execute certain phrases, and I applied it to every style of music I played, integrating it into my vocabulary. All this had a certain effect, and I started to feel that I was beginning to say something. Subsequently, this became a very physical question. For example, for many people, it's not important what drumset they're playing - but for me this isn't the case. I need to feel perfectly at ease behind my drums, because I play with a certain touch and I find it difficult to change and play on a drumset that is uncomfortable to me. I depend on how I've developed things and on my muscle memory.

It also seems that your compositional skills are well developed, as is evident from your solo CD. In your opinion, what is the main difference between being the leader of a project and being a hired musician?

There is a big difference. You know exactly how your compositions should sound, and you need to know how to communicate this to the musicians, taking responsibility to offer direction or to let them loose to play whatever they feel. It all depends on how you've written your composition. It's a big responsiblity.

I wanted to record a CD in order to realize my ideas, not so that I could be a leader; But above all to write things that were representative of my personality, because beneath it all it's a revelation of your musical mentality.

It's like a mirror...

Exactly. I like playing as much as writing, and sometimes it's like having a tooth pulled in order to give birth to something, freeing ourselves of a part of our own body - and it's very difficult.

Do you feel like trying it again?

Yes, I'd love to, but right now I'm very busy and I haven't had time to write more music, as well as my mind not being free to do it. Right now there are a lot of things going on in my life, but I will definitely do it again as soon as possible.

In the last few years you've gone through many changes in your life, yet you've managed to strike a balance between your personal life and your career. Do you think this is unique?

It depends on how I intend to have a career, which is totally separate for me. My style of playing and writing music is part of who I am, but playing is really the development of certain skills. If you're writing music, or you have a passion for painting or writing poetry, then it's something that comes to you. It doesn't have much to do with having a career, it's more like a "calling"; There's something that's pushing you strongly in that direction.

So this is a part of who I am and it's my life. It's something I need to begin with. I don't see playing or writing music as a valid or proper career. My mother understand it, my girlfriend understands it, because when I get home I probably start playing, and if I want to write I sit at the piano, but this doesn't mean I'm a workaholic. And I don't do it with the idea of making a ton of money; Only to express myself.

It's as if I started to paint something, hoping that it will eventually be displayed at some art gallery, calculating the eventual profits; This isn't the way it works. The simple fact of making a living playing music is something totally separate, it's another part of my mentality; It's business, and it's something that is separate from my private life. This doesn't mean that when get home I have to play; I could simply drum my fingers on the phone book or simply sit with the cats and my girlfriend and whistle a simple motif.

It's simply being yourself.

Sure. It's the music that comes to me, and I don't think about the economic aspect. You can only do it if you feel it.

Is this the real meaning of drumming for you, or is there something else?

Yes, absolutely. I believe that God blessed me by giving me this ability, and I need to be a faithful student as long as He gives me the strength and the passion. My responsiblity is to glorify God through this gift that He gave me, and it's also a way to pray and honor Him. If I think about all of this I understand the true meaning and I try to understand what He wants me to do, and I do it to the best of my ability. If my stage monitor distorts, then that's how it is. And it I can't play a paradiddle alternating between my hands and feet, that's okay, I'll probably be able to play it tomorrow. You've got to have the right attitude and do the best that you possibly can.

Do you think that there is any particular reason that your career has been so successful?

It's because God is blessing me and using me for and using me for His purpose. That's what I believe. Plus, people like what I do, so I think I've done and will continue to do good things. It's all guided by Him.

Probably because you're the type of person who can emote and communicate so well; Even when you're playing you have an incredible effect on everyone listening.

This probably sounds like I'm underlining, but the reason for all of this is the fact that I really care about the music, and everything I play is a result of that. People like it and that's why the call me to play, because I do it well and with a certain honesty, and as long as I continue they'll continue to call me. And you know why? Because I think about the music, not the drums. That's why I've had and continue to have this kind of career. Sure, I can play, but on top of that, it's because I think musically. The people I play with know it, and above all else, they can feel it. I listen to what the music is saying to me, and I try to express it. This is the reason. I never sit behind the drums and think about the latest trend. What's the point? If the music changes, as an analogy, sometimes it's only the color or the cut of the t-shirt, but basically it stays the same.

People have been playing the boogaloo for thirty years! It's always the same groove, and there's no difference from what was in style in the sixties; You can hear it in any recording. Hip-hop is a modern form of jazz, and it could also seem to be another form of rap, but there isn't that much difference; I know, because twenty-five years ago I was there, and I saw the whole evolution. You can give it a different name, but it's all there. "Papa" Jo (Jones) used to say that there wasn't anything new under the sun.

People are always trying to find a way to leave their mark on something. I don't worry about it at all; I just let the music speak to me, and my body totally responds to it. People like it, and this is why they call me. It's really very simple, but it's the key to it all.

Let's change the subject for a moment. A while ago, I had an interesting conversation with Steve Smith on the importance of having a teacher who could also be a guide, not only when just starting out, but even as a professional.

I think it's really important, because we all need a mentor whom we can relate to and who can guide us. We need someone to believe in, someone we can respect; This would be a great thing, something precious, and the type of relationship that is missing in today's society. But then again, if you're insecure, and before you get on stage you're wishing that your "personal trainer" was there with you, then this is wrong. We all need a guide, and Tony (Williams) is still my guide, "My dream and my drum mentor!", as is Buddy Rich. In this sense, they're in my heart. It's always been this way, ever since meeting and associating with them. Jim Chapin and Joe Morello are people I love and who I have great respect for; Respect being the most important word.

I'm curious to know if there was any artist whom you would have liked to play with, but for some reason you were unable to.

I never played with Jaco (Pastorius), and I would have liked to... (long reflective pause) but I have to say that I have been very lucky, because I've played with many great people. Right now I'm in a strange period; I'm letting myself be pulled by the current, following the flux, and on the one hand it's a good thing because it keeps me open to all sorts of opportunities that arise, but it also means that I'm not seizing the moment to concentrate on any one particular ambition. I have a lot of things to do, and many others to think about, so maybe the time has come to rest a bit, so that I can put things in order, simply because as I said before, right now I don't have that many ambitions.

Were there ever any difficult times in your career?

Yes, absolutely. I've been in situations where you couldn't communicate with others, or even when I was "forced" to play in a way that I absolutely hate to play. These were the most difficult times. There are people who just don't believe that something is perfect the first time, and this happens a lot.

If you look back on your career analytically, are you satisfied or is there something else you'd like to do?

I would have liked to reach many more people in the same way that I do today. I'd really like to communicate with younger people, so that they would have faith in me, and they could believe in what I say and not be poisoned by today's society. That they could receive the message of the Gospel; This is very important to me. I'd like to help them accept God in their minds and in their hearts, and understand the difference with all the lies that exist in the world. I'm a lot more interested in this aspect, and if there is a way to do it through music, that that's great!

But then tell me, how do you tune your drums for that? I'd like to know; I'm very curious...

No, no Vinnie, forget it...

I'm asking you seriously!

Do you want to talk about this in your interview? Well, not me, absolutely not, but now that you've touched on the subject of tuning, give me your opinion on sound and its importance for a drummer.

I think that there are many people who are looking for "their" sound, so that they can have their own precise identity. If you have a sound, and you think it's good, it helps you pull out your ideas and improve the music you're playing. For instance, I like it when my hi-hat isn't too thick or heavy, the roll needs to be sharp and precise, the toms need to be open and resonant and should have a very clean note, and I like cymbals that have a very open sound. You need to have your thing sounding exactly the way you want them, and consequently shaping your style. In this way everything becomes very personal, and that's exactly what I like. Take Jack DeJohnette and listen to his ride that's so dry; It's beautiful, but it's not what I like, because it's not part of my personality. I like to play into the cymbal and hear it open up.

As far as I'm concerned, you can't consider technique separately from sound; They amount to the same thing. You've got to use them together.

I think exactly like you. I've had this argument with several people who've told me "But your sound is in your hands. You can play anything the way you want!" But I don't see it that way. If you play on a lousy instrument you're going to end up fighting with it. Could you ever get a nice tone from a cheap violin? You can't. Maybe you should get a Stradivarius! Why should you fight with your instrument? I don't want to fight with my drumset! My drums need to respond the way I want them to. I need to feel at ease behind my drums and everything has to be where I expect it to be. The smallest details are very important.

My opinion is that we ought to be able to play everything the way we want to; not the opposite. You should never passively suffer from a bad sounding instrument, otherwise you're not behaving as a true musician in the literal sense. Our instrument is an important part of what becomes defined as our "Unique Voice", and it should convey the sound that we hear in our head.

Exactly! That's why I play Gretsch! [laughing] I think the same way. If I go into the studio to record and I show up with my drumset, people are happy because they know they like them and they know exactly what sounds good.

Let's stop so that we can get something to eat.... If you had the ability, what do you see in your future?

I don't have the foggiest idea. I'd like to write more music, and I'd like to spend some time thinking about how to do things in a slightly different way, but I haven't found the time yet. I'm in a period where it's difficult to think about the future because, as I said before, I have a lot going on and I'm in a state of flux. I'm not sure of anything.

That's the answer I expected, but I wanted to hear it anyway.

I'm happy. But tonight, you need to tell me about your tuning.

Why?

Because I want to know!

Okay, let's turn off this recorder...