Rhythm, October 1989
quality, creativity, and Vinnie Colaiuta. Adam Seligman ventures out
to California to discover the man who's been behind Frank Zappa, Joni
Mitchell, and Gino Vannelli while remaining a leader in his own right.
WHAT IS AN individual? What makes one unique? How does
uniqueness fit into the act of creation? These questions come up again and
again when dealing with certain drummers. What is the quality that allows you
to know it's Steve Gadd who's playing on a pop song when the song itself has no
outstanding drum arrangement? When you turn on a big band song on the radio, how
can you say to yourself immediately, "It's Louie Bellson?"
As I drove out to Vinnie Colaiuta's home, I started thinking
seriously about these questions. The wide array of artists that Vinnie has
played with - like Frank Zappa and Joni Mitchell live, or Gino Vannelli, Tom
Scott and Patrick Williams in the studio - have some common denominators.
Mostly, it's the improvisational elements that are possible within the
framework of each of these artist's music - a certain "Vinnieness" in the left
field approach to the charts or songs. But when you start to look at the
singles, the pop albums, the aggressive jazz and fusion work that Colaiuta has
done, the questions become less clear.
The question that our interview centered around was what makes
an individual unique in the context of drumming. Along the way we touched on
the years with Zappa, the need to establish a career in the studio, and whether
or not playing wild is self indulgence or simply artistic survival...
Vinnie wasn't home when I arrived - a jingle had gone late.
When Vinnie arrived he sprawled out on the livingroom floor. He tossed out
answers that raised more questions, but always stayed near the interview,
albeit with some left field comments.
"A lot of people have asked me over the years, 'What do
you do to create your own individual voice?' It's a difficult thing to assess.
I've thought about it a lot and wondered whether or not it was a conscious
thing or an unconscious thing. What you obviously try consciously is to emulate
your favorite players. But hopefully if you don't get hung up on one guy's
thing, it will just come out being like you. I was really into Tony Williams'
playing, but when it came time to play Top 40 gigs, I couldn't play that way.
It was just out of context. I tried to play it when I could because I thought
it was hip. You either have to disguise it to make it apply contextually, or
realize that some things don't fit in certain contexts and just use that stuff
for what its place in music is."
How does Vinnie do that? Does he just turn off
his technique, or is it something more involved?
"You say to yourself, 'This is
a different bag, this is a more commercial bag and I have to do this now.' You
have to realize what belongs where. I think that once you understand that, it's
the first step to becoming a well-rounded, accomplished musician. You find that
everybody goes through their own personal process of editing. That applies to
drumming just like it applies to colors. Your favorite color may be red, mine
may be blue. By the same token you might want to play a certain lick leading
with your left hand because it feels good to you. I might not want to do that."
Vinnie laughs, and shakes his head as though demonstrating a
rhythmic pattern. "You might prefer a
paradiddle-diddle and I might prefer a double paradiddle. Those stickings,
because I like those stickings, will influence how I play all those types of
patterns around the drumset. That way of thinking is just part of you, and if
you let that happen and you don't inhibit it, that particular aspect of you
combined with what you've learned will fuse to create your own identity along
with other things, ideas, and concepts."
"You'll just prefer certain stickings. That's usually a
natural selection process. I use stickings to illustrate something really
tangible and concrete; it's a simple concept to grasp. Just as certain kinds of
grooves involve certain stickings - you can extend those stickings and say your
body will always tend to want to do this type of thing. That's one factor that
gives different players their style. They favor patterns and they favor sounds
and they favor sound sources and they favor the way their body wants to lead. I
don't know if it's because their mind wants to do it. You say 'I do it this way
because it feels good.' You're talking about feeling, you're talking about an
emotion and a physical sensation. But obviously it all comes from your brain
telling your body what to do."
favor certain things and then you edit out the things you don't like after
you've already learned them. It's the same thing as 'You learn the rules and
then you forget them.' Well, that's basically what all of the greats have
always said and I think that applies to identity and style."
VINNIE COLAIUTA first burst into the public consciousness
during his very heavy playing years with Frank Zappa. Rather than retell that
story again, we moved ahead with where his style and technique came from as
first heard with Zappa, then later as he revamped his playing to work in the
studio and with Joni Mitchell.
"Frank Zappa was a pivotal figure for me - I'd been
listening to him ever since I was a young kid. He always had an impact because
he was so unabashed, brazen ... his outlook on the world, it hit me at a time
in my life when I was wanting to be rebellious. It wasn't like your
run-of-the-mill heavy metal rebellion where you have chainsaw guitars and power
nuclear holocaust victims ... I don't know what these kids are trying to
symbolize; I don't know what they're trying to get across. It's some kind of
bizarre dark power trip. Zappa's thing was a whole different kind of thing,
almost a parody of society and what society had become. I could relate to that.
It reflected my whole view of society at that time."
"Musically I also found it interesting, it was very different. I always
listened to him when I was growing up. When I moved out here to L.A., I had
started listening to Live in New York and his later records. I was starting to
really get into it. I was studying it and practicing his music a lot. All of a
sudden I heard he was auditioning people, and I started buggin' him... "
"That's a whole other story. I established a real good
rapport with him as I started to get to know him. He was always a big influence
on me - I regard him as a brilliant composer, a genius. Rhythmically I had
always had an interest in things that were left of center, and things that were
different and stimulating because of what they are musically, why they exist in
nature. An example would be polyrhythms or rhythms that aren't necessarily part
of the norm in Western society at this time - or that time; rhythmic things
that provided me with mental stimulation. I realized that Zappa utilized a lot
of that rhythmic structure in his compositions, he was a big advocate of it and
it showed in his music."
"I was always a glutton for information when I was
learning. I just always tried to learn as much as I could and when 1 was at the
Berklee College of Music, my teacher, Gary Chaffee, would help me hone a lot of
this rhythmic information to a finer degree. Frank showed me how to apply it
musically to a situation that I'd never seen before firsthand. That type of
playing doesn't usually exist outside of an academic realm."
"When I say academic I'm talking about school or
situations where you have to create without media propagation. You don't hear
this kind of music on the radio because it's not Top 40. You might hear it on a
public access, school sponsored, or after-hours station, but for the most part
it's not even in the realm of the American consciousness. It's such a small
part - almost the subconscious."
"At this point it's the difference between art music and
popular music. Sometimes art music can become part of pop music after a while.
I don't know how you can make a living playing it, but somehow Frank managed to
cleverly incorporate it into his thing because that is also a part of his whole
brilliance - how he could make it all happen that way."
"The thing was I got a firsthand look at how to be that
and that was my gig. At school I could sit down with Gary and just work stuff
out. We would look at whatever musical examples existed and analyze it and just
really get cerebral about the music. It was another thing for me to get
cerebral about it with Frank and actually get to hear me with it. It's the
difference between learning it in an academic environment and applying it. At
the same time, Gary taught us to be musical about it, not just intellectual."
After several years with Frank Zappa and a series of
recordings (Joe's Garage,
and the Shut Up And Play Your
Guitar series), Vinnie decided to leave the roadwork with Zappa and concentrate
on a Los Angeles-based studio career. The reasons for that were complex but
were based both on economics and Vinnie's long standing interest in recording.
"What happened was I was playing clubs in town and
people wouldn't call me because they saw me ... I came to town and I was
blowing. I couldn't sit in clubs and just play grooves. At that time I didn't
want to do that. I was all out to the wall, that was what I wanted to he. I was
really into blowing - just coming from a different space. I'm all for playing a
great groove into the ground and playing something when it's supposed to he
played. It's all music. I like blowing too if that's what the music is supposed
to be about and it's not in the name of self indulgence."
"I'm not going to get into a big philosophical thing
about what's right or wrong. I mean, what if you want to go play a gig and you
haven't played a live gig in a year; you've been cooped up not getting a chance
to voice your own thing at all? If you go out and just play your brains out in
one night, are you being self indulgent? To me that's not self indulgent
because you need to get it out. You have to do it somewhere. Sometimes you just
can't do it when the red light goes on in the studio."
But do people want to hear that?
"There's an audience for all of that. People got hip to
me pretty fast and they enjoyed it. I was just running up against other people
who would say 'I wouldn't hire him' which I realized because I wasn't getting
any calls for the dates. But some people took a chance and they saw I could go
into the studio and play what I was supposed to play in the studio."
I posed the question of how Colaiuta, with this wild playing
experience, could go into studio work. Was he the typical choice of music
"No, I wasn't. The reason I left Zappa was I wanted to
he able to work when I wasn't on the road. I'd be off for three months and it
wasn't enough time for anybody to get to know me. I had the opportunity to
record two albums at the same time, one was
Nightwalker by Gino Vannelli, the
other was with a group called Pages, which is now basically Mister Mister.
Those were two important projects for me because I know that Gino had some
commercial success with the Brother To Brother thing, and it was a commercially
viable move for me to record with him. I know he had a pretty good audience
from that and he had had a hit. I thought it would establish me a little
better. Carlos Rios and Neil Stubenhaus had recommended me to Gino."
"It worked out where I rehearsed with Gino for six weeks
and spent a month in the studio. I was working with Gino from noon to six, and
Pages from six to whenever. This went on for a good month. We're talking about
fourteen hour days for a month, on these two projects. It helped my studio
technique. I had some problems with those things too... it was real tedious.
Gino is a real stickler, a perfectionist. Then at night, I'm working with Jay
Graydon, who's also a real perfectionist. They wanted me to be creative, but it
had to fit their stylistic mode - I couldn't go and play the way I played with
Frank with them. Definitely fusion oriented funk rock kind of stuff. It worked
out okay, the end results. That was why I left Zappa."
The next transition for Vinnie was joining Joni Mitchell for two albums
and a tour. It seemed a bit of an odd move, but Vinnie defended it vehemently.
"Most people don't think of Joni's music as a heavy drum gig. When we went out
on the road, I created a good balance between wanting to blow and the
sensitivity of the music. The band was me, Michael Landau, Larry Klein, and
Russ Ferrante. We had a really good intimate situation where we could be really
musical. We made it our thing. It wasn't 'well, this is going to be real soft
folk music.' It wasn't like that at all. We were playing some really nice
grooves and we put some weight to the songs."
With Joni Mitchell, Vinnie showcased a new side to his
identity, going from the freedom of Zappa to the process of the studio to
"We were playing songs and the song
structures that were geared to having more constant things that accompanied the
lyrics. With Frank's thing we would play songs where you would set up a groove
and play fills and the texture changed somewhat, but a lot of times you might
change the groove up; instead of the more traditional song forms with Joni
where we utilized a lot of dynamics and were creative with song structures,
like taking forms such as AABA or whatever and building it the way you would
shape a song."
Frank, the way the music was subservient to the lyrics was a completely
different way. Sometimes we would have traditional song structures but other
times we would have pieces of music where the music was subservient to the
lyric in such a way where we would play a vamp, and as soon as the lyric would
say something, we would completely change and play a different kind of groove,
different tempo, different everything, that had nothing to do with the original
groove. Then we would stop playing, go completely free and play colors for
another part. We would operate off cues - splashes - it was theater oriented in
that respect. Then there were other things that were written out like
legitimate pieces of music."
"Joni's thing was more like being creative within a song
framework and the music served the lyrics in a different way - texture changes
instead of complete groove changes. It was a very musical situation and I loved
it. It was very mature and I was really glad to have been involved in it."
On the very subject of being "involved," drummers tend to have
a close working relationship with bass players. Usually, in a group situation,
you have a regular bassist you work with who you get to know over time. As a
studio drummer, Vinnie Colaiuta has several bass players he works with
regularly on album projects, film and television scoring, and jingles. I asked
Vinnie for some thoughts on some of these players. At first he was hesitant
about leaving out a good friend or a potential employer. But after we exchanged
a list of four bass players, and noticed that we both picked the same four,
Vinnie relaxed and talked about his close working relationships with bassists
Neil Stubenhaus, Tim Landers, John Patitucci and Jimmy Johnson.
"The process for each individual is usually the same -
it's a process of listening to one another. Really working with one another
without getting in each other's way. Each musician is real mature that way.
They will really listen. It really boils down to listening real hard and just
getting comfortable. Take Neil Stubenhaus and I, for example - he knows me like
a book. He's played with me so many times that he knows how it is that I'm
playing. There's a lot of trust involved between us. Neil is a great musician."
"Say, with Tim Landers, who's also a great player, he's
worked with me a lot and he knows how I play. He listens - he's got real big
ears! That's what it takes. He's worked with a lot of great drummers so he has
a handle on it. I met Tim and Neil at Berklee when I was at school there. I met
John Patitucci when I was out here. With John you have a guy who has a
tremendous facility on bass, upright and electric, but he's not a guy who's out
there for himself, who can't work with a drummer because he needs all the
space. He's not like that. He knows how to incorporate the role of the bass
player and how to go way past that. He's very balanced, he can lay it down. A
lot of players with that much facility don't know how to be supportive. He
"You take Jimmy Johnson, he has tremendous facility arid
also can be supportive and he listens real intently too. He's a very precise
player as well. All these four players are great listeners and there's a lot of
trust between us."
Vinnie Colaiuta is best known for his studio work and his rock
and pop playing. But he began as a jazz drummer with Tony Williams as his
musical role model. Recently, Vinnie has started to show up on an increasing
number of contemporary jazz albums, many on the Passport jazz and GRP labels.
He has to a great extent become the West Coast Steve Gadd, playing everything
but known for giving that certain "Vinnieness" to a project that raises it
above the mundane. I asked Vinnie about that jazz side of his playing, having
seen him in local clubs with Brandon Fields, the Joni Mitchell offshoot Dog
Cheese, and guesting with Eliane Elias.
considered myself a jazz influenced player, but I was really into fusion too. I
liked a lot of different things, I was always like that. I went through periods
where I just listened to Mahavishnu or I went through other periods where I was
influenced by Miles Davis and very influenced by trios. Other periods I was
more influenced by rock 'n' roll. I was always a conglomerate of a mixed
upbringing. I saw a lot of validity in many different kinds of music. I like
the trio thing where there was a lot of interaction involved, where it didn't
mean the role of the drummer was to play real simple and light and barely hit
the drums. I liked when a drummer could be sensitive but completely uninhibited
dynamically and rhythmically. That doesn't mean he has to be a total monster
all the time and just play all over the place. When Tony played he would keep
time, but then he would play something unbelievably interesting because he had
the freedom to do that when it was the right time to do that."
A recent concert with Alan Pasqua, John Patitucci, and Vinnie
had inspired me after seeing a piano trio with no clearly defined leader. I
asked Vinnie to describe this type of trio playing ...
"A lot of people don't know the different sides of me
and I think that a lot of times if I haven't played with a trio in a while, I
might be a little uncomfortable sitting down and feeling at home with that kind
of music. But after a couple of gigs I feel more comfortable. The thing is I
was educated and had that influence in my upbringing to a certain extent and I
love playing it. I didn't want to approach it as the type of guy who when we
were playing in clubs had to play real soft all the time and play just so
because stylistically that was the way. There is a whole way of thinking among
bebop players that you have to play just this way and that all the rhythmic
figures go this way too. That's not my dictum, that's not what I'm about, so I
just play - I let it rip. I played loud when I wanted to, I played soft when I
wanted to, I played real inside when I wanted to and real outside when I wanted
"When I say when I wanted to I don't mean I now
impulsively want to play outside even though it has nothing to do with the
other guys because I want to draw attention to me. WRONG! I mean I feel it
would be musically relevant - I'm there, part of this event, and I'm doing it
because it's what I feel now. It's not valid because I'm thinking it out
rationally - I'm reacting and emotionally knowing that it's valid. I don't stop
to think about it, although it's not on automatic pilot either. It's
"The way I am as a person may have a lot to do with how
I play the drums. I don't know, that's a whole other kind of issue that I've
often wondered about - whether you could separate your musical being from just
the way you are. It's just who you are I think."
For Vinnie Colaiuta there's a fine line between being and
doing musically. It's in what you've learned, and who you are. It's in being an
individual, who can work with other musicians. And finally, for Vinnie, it's in