Percussive Notes ~ February 1995

The Official Journal of the Percussive Arts Society

by Rick Mattingly

Most people don't even bother trying to describe it in technical terms. They just call it "Vinnie stuff" - those licks and fills that defy analysis. One can throw words like "polyrhythms" and "multi-meters" at it, but the mathematical approach those terms imply seems at odds with the pure feel and animal aggressiveness that permeate Vinnie Colaiuta's drumming.

That's not to suggest, however, that Colaiuta is an instinct-only player who doesn't know what he's doing. His studies at Berklee with Gary Chaffee prepared him for the rhythmic sophistication required by his first major gig with Frank Zappa during the late '70s. Zappa himself hailed Vinnie as being the best drummer he ever worked with in terms of his understanding and feel for complex rhythms and time signatures.

However much Vinnie might be able to explain exactly what he's doing, he never sounds as though he's sitting there counting and subdividing. There's a sense of wild abandon, as if he is simply going for it with no fear of the danger involved in exploring uncharted rhythmic territory. At times, one senses that Vinnie is rushing straight towards a musical brick wall during a fill or solo, but then, at the last moment, he finds the opening in that wall and slides right back into the tune's solid groove.

Some consider Colaiuta a rhythmic god. Others prefer a much simpler explanation that absolves them of all responsibility to come to grips with what he does: "Vinnie's crazy."

That reputation caused Colaiuta some problems after he left Zappa's band and sought to establish himself in the L.A. studios. Contractors worried that he was a loose cannon who would never be able to restrain those infamous fills on straight-ahead recording dates. His quirky sense of humor and volatile personality reinforced the idea that Vinnie was nuts.

But some knew better. Several of his first sessions came as a result of Jeff Porcaro's recommendations. Colaiuta ultimately got very busy in the L.A. studios, recording with artists including Joni Mitchell, Allan Holdsworth, Gino Vannelli, Jeff Beale, Tom Scott, John Patitucci, Jennifer Warnes, Natalie Cole and Robben Ford. He served as house drummer on the Joan Rivers Show in 1987 and played tons of commercial jingles and TV show themes. Most of the sessions required very straightforward drumming, and although that facet of Colaiuta's drumming tended to be overshadowed in many people's minds by his finesse with polyrhythms, it was a talent that was very much in evidence even on certain Zappa tracks that Vinnie propelled with simple backbeats. In fact, had Colaiuta never played an odd-time signature in his life, it's likely he would still be a major player in a league with Jeff Porcaro, Jim Keltner or Kenny Aronoff, simply for his ability to make a tune feel good with a less-is-more approach.

People identify me with other things. You don't hear a lot of music any more like Frank wrote, and people still remember those things. I may have become some kind of icon because of those achievements, and I have no intentions of wanting to bury that reputation.

But the thing is, regardless of how many pulses a bar happens to contain, you're going to play it with the same consideration of feel that you would if you were playing 4/4, meaning that you're going to make it feel good no matter what it is. A bar of seven or eleven is not going to feel like four, but it may have subdivisions that give you the feeling of a backbeat for enough of a moment to get that same kind of feeling. By the same token, you can take 4/4 and stretch it like a Gumby.

Some people write in odd times just to be experimental and they actually want it to have a jerky feel. But odd times can inherently be that way unless you approach them from a different angle, not necessarily defining the downbeats in every bar. It becomes a question of, do you want to make the audience a part of this or do you want to lose them? How much of it has to be an intellectual exercise all the time? We played some odd times on the Sting record [Ten Summoner's Tales] but I don't think Sting intended for people to sit there and count the stuff out. He wanted to make it as musical as possible.

That's the beauty of someone like Coltrane. You might not understand intellectually a note of what he was doing, but you got it on some other level.

In fact, some contend that if there is an internal logic to something, your subconscious will respond to it even if you don't consciously know what it is.

Right, because the laws of nature ring true. When you listened to Coltrane you recognized something and wanted to go back to it because he was playing the truth. It's deep stuff.

In a reverse sense, Colaiuta's 4/4 playing has a ring of truth to it in the way he can drive a song with simplicity. Many drummers who are very technically accomplished cannot play simple beats with conviction.

I believe in it. It's strange because you hear something driving and feeling good, so you transcribe it and see that there aren't a lot of notes on the page. Sometimes you are surprised by that because it sounded like a lot more than it was, but that's because you can't transcribe drive and attitude.

The other thing is that no two drummers play 4/4 exactly the same way, you know? That's a mystery in itself to me - how you can identify someone through something so simple. It's way beyond how many ticks per beat and all that garbage.

Like most drummers, Colaiuta started out playing standard backbeat-oriented songs.

My first real influences were guys on the radio playing on R&B and Motown records. That music inspired me and I would always play along to the radio. When the Beatles came on TV I saw that and freaked, so Ringo made a big impact on me, and I remember watching shows like American Bandstand and The Monkees on TV.

I also remember seeing Buddy Rich on the Tonight Show around the same time I first saw Ringo. And even though I came up playing in rock bands, my high school music instructors were all very jazz oriented. They would take me to big band gigs and turn me on to all these records; I got exposed to Tony Williams when I was in junior high. I was playing in the school stage band when I was in seventh grade and I'd be doing gigs in clubs with my band director at night. I was just this kid who couldn't stay awake.

I had a couple of friends who played Hammond B3 organs, and we would do gigs with tenor sax, organ and drums, and sometimes a guitar. I was also listening to a lot of organ groups like Jack McDuff and Jimmy McGriff and Don Patterson. That stuff is great, man. It's just greasy, you know? There's nothing like it.

By the time Colaiuta went to college, he was digging groups such as Tower of Power, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever, and records such as Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, Miles Davis's Bitches Brew and Live/Evil and Tony Williams' Emergency and Ego.

It was a massive transformation of music for me that just freaked me out; I blew my lid off with that stuff. When I was at Berklee, I used to go to bed every night with headphones on listening to stuff like Miles Davis's Nefertiti album, with Tony Williams on drums. I was totally into 'Trane and Elvin [Jones].

I didn't want to isolate myself from anything; I listened to everything at that point. I was so energized by fusion before fusion was ever a bad word. I don't know why it became a bad word - probably because it got so watered down. I don't think it was the musicians who watered it down. They studied all these years to play stupid elevator music? I don't think so. Anyway, those were my early influences.

Colaiuta was also exposed to odd meters at an early age.

I saw Don Ellis live when I was in seventh or eighth grade. I couldn't believe that stuff; it was amazing. So I was hip to that before I got to college, but Gary Chaffee definitely polished it. He showed me different concepts of relating to it on drumset that I hadn't thought of, especially on a physical level with the linear thing and the sticking. He really steered me and it was great. Gary is a fantastic teacher and he has an amazing mind.

Like many young drummers who master more complex styles of playing, Colaiuta developed a certain contempt for simpler ways of playing.

I was a jazz snob for a while. When you're first learning you go through all that stuff. I used to get myself in trouble when I was playing casuals because I would get bored so I would start throwing in all this stuff. But I was young and restless and didn't have the maturity to deal with that kind of thing.

Eventually you wise up, or else you're totally blind and you think all these other people don't know what they're talking about. You start thinking, 'Hey, I'm BAD and they just don't know it.' That's some funny shit when you see guys who think their stuff is the only thing, and they're real quick to put everything down when they haven't even investigated everything that's out there. You've really got to question the validity of that.

At the same time, if you have gone through the whole gamut and can honestly say, 'Yes, I can play a backbeat and appreciate the value of simplicity, but I'm really onto something new here and nobody understands it,' you just have to realize that maybe you've developed different tastes than everybody else. You hear things differently, and you can't expect the whole world to hear as you do. If you've run through the gamut, then your thing can be totally valid, as opposed to some guy who learns to do something fairly complex and then thinks he's got an edge on things and everything else sucks.

But at some point you're hearing guitar players and bass players you dig, and you want to play with them because it feels so good, and you want them to want to play with you. It's really a reciprocal thing as opposed to going on a gig and thinking, 'Well, these guys are funky but they don't understand my stuff,' and pretty soon you start making yourself believe that they can't play because it's not grooving. Deep down inside, you know you're bull-shitting yourself.

Groove doesn't just apply to something simple. Groove is groove, period, no matter how many friggin' notes are in the bar or how dense the content of the music is and all that crap. Groove is the most natural consequence of the flow of the music. You just have to know that you're making a statement with it.

THREE YEARS AGO, Colaiuta left the relative security of the L.A. studios to go on the road with Sting. He had not played on the album that the tour was supporting (Soul Cages), and there were no guarantees that the gig would amount to anything more than a couple of months on the road.

Conventional wisdom holds that once you get established in the studios and are on several contractors' first-call list, you don't leave town to do a mere road gig. Contractors are creatures of habit, and while you're gone they will get used to calling someone else. Some of them, in fact, will feel downright betrayed by your infidelity to studio work, and when you come home looking for work again, they won't necessarily welcome you back with open arms. They'll keep using the guy who did all those cornflakes commercials for them while you were off being a rock star.

Colaiuta must have been crazy to take that gig.

It was definitely a gamble, but I never said I just wanted to be a studio player. I was presented with an opportunity that I knew I would love to do because of what it represented musically. Also, at that particular time I happened to really be wanting to do something different.

People were saying that I was working too hard and saying 'yes' to everything. Well, of course you're going to say yes when it starts happening because this is what you've worked for and you don't know when the phone is going to stop ringing. You also don't want to alienate people on a political level-and just because I'm talking about politics doesn't mean I'm crafty, shrewd or not true to people. I'm just talking about dealing with people, which is a natural consequence of what happens daily in business relationships. It doesn't mean you have to be deceptive or anything.

So anyway, people said I was working too hard. Well, I love what I do. Also, to maintain an okay lifestyle, if all I had were TV dates that didn't pay as much as record dates, I'd take even more dates to pay my bills. But you've really got to know when to start weeding certain things out, and the percentage of dates that I was not enjoying compared to the ones that were musically fulfilling was way out of balance to me. I'd be on dates and the other cats were talking about golf - not wanting to be there. C'mon. I didn't want that; I really didn't. I was definitely not ready to be sitting there reading a magazine in between cymbal rolls. No thanks, that's not me.

So I needed a specific kind of change and, thank God, I happened to get it. I'm not saying I wanted to stop being a studio player; I just didn't want to be pigeonholed.

It's funny, because I had been thinking that it would have to be someone like Sting or Peter Gabriel for me to leave town. Then Sting calls a couple of months later. I was so jacked up and ready for that! Cattle call? Sure, no problem. I felt so confident because I knew that I could really relate to that situation. A lot of guys might think, 'Yeah, well, so can I.' But can you really? You might like it, but is your playing really on that level?

As it turned out, the association with Sting was an ongoing one. Colaiuta did several tours with Sting and played on his Ten Summoner's Tales album. The album featured plenty of in-the-pocket groove, as well as tunes in five and seven in which Colaiuta proved his ability to made "odd" time sound perfectly natural. Although at the time of this interview Vinnie had no idea when, or if, Sting would call again for an album or tour, he has no second thoughts about taking the gig.

You're always gambling, and sure, it could have gone either way with my career. But considering the musical validity that people recognize Sting to have, I didn't think it was going to hurt me. If you're up there playing the best you can and you're happy and honest about it and the music is quality, people in the industry are going to congratulate you and root for you. They don't have to like the music but they can sense the integrity.

However much Colaiuta may have been bored with TV dates, could his decision to follow his heart have also been influenced by the untimely deaths of Frank Zappa and Vinnie's close friend Jeff Porcaro?

Yeah, I could agree with that one hundred percent. I was devastated, needless to say. It can't help but make you think when it happens to people who have made such an impact on you. I can only hope that would be one of the important lessons to be learned from those two, tragic events, and that I would be able to assimilate something like that.

One might reasonably assume that the recent release of Colaiuta's first solo album (Vinnie Colaiuta, Stretch/GRP) was part of the process of following his heart. While the album is certainly the most personal statement yet to come from Colaiuta, he insists that he didn't force the project simply for the sake of making his own album.

I had been writing for a long time. When you are honing your ability to express yourself, after a while your efforts cause things to happen. I didn't consciously wait for anything, and I didn't try to make something happen. I just carried on and it happened when it decided to happen.

You have to engage in a process to get a result. You can't just conceptualize a result. You might use the knowledge that there is a result to give you the impetus to fuel the process, but once you start thinking about the result too much, the process gets interrupted.

Let's say your desired result is a record contract. Rather than daydreaming about the end result and bitching that the result is not occurring, involve yourself in the process, which is an ongoing thing. To get signed, you must have some tunes, and once you've made a record, you're going to want to make another one, and another one after that, which means you have to have more tunes. So dig the process and get involved in that. If you can enjoy the process, you won't trip out on whatever results you do or don't have.

Given the opportunities for self expression that Colaiuta has been offered with the variety of artists he's worked with, were there facets of his playing that he felt had never been exposed?

The album was more an opportunity for my writing than my drumming, because nobody's heard my writing. The goal was not 'here's a lick you never heard before,' but 'here's my drumming in the context of my own music.' The album integrates my drumming into my whole musical persona. My compositions reveal my drumming, which represents my musicality, which is revealed through the compositions.

I'm not saying that my persona is not revealed through my drumming on other people's records. It is, because I'm expressing myself completely through my instrument at that moment. But I'm reacting to something else, whereas on my album, I'm reacting to my own music. It's a subtle difference, but it's a difference.

Colaiuta's drumming on the album ranges from simple and grooving to schizo and intense-always fitting the context of the particular tune.

Representing myself as a whole person, I think I serviced the tunes quite well. Playing more stuff just because I wanted my record to have the fastest single-stroke roll I ever played could have been the stupidest, most self-defeating thing I had ever done. And I didn't force anything to be perfectly quantized. Here's how I wrote it, here's how I played it tonight. It happened; don't mess with it. That's where I was coming from.

In the album's liner notes, Colaiuta states, "I'm sure that, upon listening, my influences will be blatantly obvious." In terms of the tunes, some of them do have echoes of the early-'70s fusion that Colaiuta expresses so much admiration for, and there are, predictably, hints of Zappa here and there.

But in terms of his drumming, Colaiuta has never been a clone of anyone. However innovative certain drummers have been, one can often hear their roots, as in the way Tony Williams came out of Roy Haynes, or how Dave Weckl evolved from Steve Gadd. But there are no clear precedents for Colaiuta's style, so just what did he get from the drummers he considers his influences and how did he apply it?

Tony Williams represented so many things to me. Rebelliousness. A complete iconoclast. I thought it was absolutely brilliant the way he would choose to describe musical events on the drumset as a result of improvisational dialogue between himself and another player. That really had a big impact on me.

With Billy Cobham, aside from the sheer physicality and powerhouseness of it, it was hearing him avoiding downbeats and doing things that were funky and syncopated but really clean and slick. He would use hand techniques between the hi-hat and snare drum that sounded like they incorporated rudimental training, and he would make that stuff sound funky on a drumset while he was playing grooves. And then the speed he had and the single-strokes around the tom-toms, and his approach to odd times, which was really funky. I was listening to how he constructed his solos. Even if he was trading back and forth-bebop guys would be trading fours but these guys were trading God-knows-what, elevens or something-I'd listen to the statements he would make and think about why he put this note here or that note there.

The biggest thing that got me about Elvin was his time feel. He definitely latched on to some circularity that nobody else had. It wasn't just that it was a triplet thing, but his whole time feel was so unbelievably hip and very deceiving and full. Some of the things he did were like sheets of sound that didn't belong to individual notes anymore; it sort of transcended that kind of thing.

Roy Haynes had a whole different kind of sound too. He danced on the drums, you know what I mean? I tried to assimilate that from his ride cymbal thing, which had a whole different kind of effect on me.

Vinnie suddenly stops speaking. After a long pause he says:

This is kind of opening up a Pandora's box, because I could get a lot deeper than that. I mean, I can't possibly encapsulate what I got from all those guys in this amount of time. That took place over years and years of my development, so it's really hard for me to sum it up into a few things.

His reluctance to reduce the drummers he admires to a couple of signature characteristics speaks volumes about who Colaiuta is. Perhaps the reason his own playing has such depth is because in terms of the drummers who influenced him, he didn't just rip-off a few licks from each one. He absorbed their entire approaches to drumming and applied their attitudes and concepts.

Maybe so. I don't know if I've lived enough of a life to even begin to get every thing that a Roy Haynes alone has to offer to a drummer, let alone Elvin or Jack [DeJohnette]. You can only look at them and go 'WOW' and try to groove on the totality of what they are. You can't just reduce them to a couple of characteristics. Sure, the might have signature licks, but do you think that's all they can play? They are not limited by any sense of the imagination.

People who think they can reduce these guys to a few licks are almost piteously funny to me; they are so completely missing the boat. Everybody has licks, whether they realize it or not, but it goes along with an overall style. The great drummers are still responding to what is going on around them.

NOVEMBER, 1989-The percussion industry has converged on Nashville for PASIC '89, at which Vinnie Colaiuta is one of the featured clinicians. The night before his clinic, Vinnie goes out to dinner with a group of people that includes Louie Bellson and several employees of Zildjian and Remo. When they arrive at the L&N Seafood Grill, they are told that it will take a few minutes to prepare a table for the dozen or so people who make up the party.

Everyone stands around exchanging small-talk while waiting, but Colaiuta finds an empty chair near the entrance, sits down and pulls a practice pad and pair of sticks from the bag he's carrying. A he starts working out on the pad, Bellson watches. "He's so dedicated," Bellson says, shaking his head in admiration. "He reminds me of Joe Morello - always practicing."

Indeed, Colaiuta is known as a famous "practicer" and many of his friends and associates in L.A. tell stories about seeing Vinnie going at it on a pad in the car while his wife, Darlene, is driving him to and from sessions. His behavior is often cited as an example of the extreme discipline one must have in order to achieve greatness.

But given Colaiuta's level of technical skill, is he really that obsessed at this point with getting better, or is he simply so in love with playing that he's happiest with a pair of sticks in his hand?

I just love the drums. But I don't practice obsessively like I used to. I questioned that myself a couple of years ago and wondered if it was a neurosis. If so, then maybe I should try to not be so neurotic and see if I could just relax and tell my mind it was okay not to pick up the sticks for a couple of days. You don't want to be going, "I've got to practice". Sure, you need a certain amount of commitment and discipline, but don't let it be a neurosis.

If you're not satisfied with your playing, it's good to drive yourself. But do you really have something inside that's itching to get out that you can't say? If that's the case, concentrate on what that is. Technically, you've got to get your muscle memory together because the body learns slower than the mind.

I see nothing wrong with people who want to play as much as possible because they have a lot of stuff coming out. They get on a roll and it goes on for hours. Great, man! That's the pure beauty of it. You get into that space and you love it, and there ain't nothing wrong with that.

I'm not going to say that you don't need to practice. No way. But sometimes people start thinking, 'Oh man, I HAVE to practice all the time.' If you lose your attention span after a couple of hours and want to take a break, take a break. If you suddenly want to go play again, go back and play. You have to figure out your own objectives. If you want to do a certain thing, that's the answer right there. But how much do you want to play?

Some people bitch because certain things aren't happening, but they are just sitting there making the same mistakes over and over again. Or they think somebody is going to wave a magic wand over their head. How bad do you want it? If you want it, you'll get it.

But what do you really want? Do you just want to be like someone else because you think this, that and the other thing about that person? Or do you want it because you love the music and want to express yourself through rhythm? If you want it because you love it, it will come through.

Rick Mattingly is Senior Editor of Percussive Notes and serves on the PAS Board of Directors. His articles have appeared in Modern Drummer, Musician, Down Beat and the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, he has edited instructional books by Peter Erskine, Joe Morello, Gary Chester, Bill Bruford and Bob Moses, and he is the author of Creative Timekeeping, published by Hal Leonard.

Special thanks to Shane Gormly for sending in this interview.