Modern Drummer ~ November, 1999

By Robyn Flans

Vinnie Colaiuta speaks much the way he plays the drums - descriptively, eloquently, and with sensitivity, reverence, and awe - which makes his reflections on other drummers quite an educational experience. Vinnie is insistent upon not dissecting anyone's technique. It is even his contention that the details of these drummers' playing are not important. What is important is that they exist and reverberate.

Vinnie marvels at his heroes, noting: "It's beautiful to behold how people can take the same instrument and the same amount of tangible rhythmic information, and yet be so different."

Peter Erskine

I first met Peter when I was a student at Berklee. He was playing in the Stan Kenton big band, and Steve Smith and I went to see him together. He sounded so great, and I loved watching him play. We actually struck up a friendship and a correspondence. He wrote me some letters with some great words of encouragement. He is a wonderful man as well as a brilliant musician. He made a great impression on me on many levels.

Peter is one of those guys who, when you see him, just oozes prodigious talent, with a maturity that is part and parcel in it - like an "old soul" kind of talent. There was one very uptempo track on an early Stan Kenton record that Steve Smith exposed me to. I don't recall the title, but it was amazing, and Peter handled it with such grace. It's the difference between the running of a man who is trying to escape from jail and that of a gazelle. There's a lot of elegance there.

Louie Bellson

If ever there was someone worthy of the title "mentor", Louie Bellson is it. When I hear his name, I immediately think of "maestro." He is class personified, and so positive. There's so much love in his playing, in his technical ability and what he does with it, and the love he transmits with it. He's a shining example of something we all need to always be mindful of. If I wore a hat, I would immediately tip it when I see Louie. He's the grand master.

Steve Smith

My old drum buddy. He's one of those guys who keeps growing and growing. One has to wonder, How far can you grow? Where do you stop? Steve has always been the consummate student of the drums. What I look at him, I think, That guy's there; that guy's got it. He's always been there, yet he never stops striving to grow. He's an awesome drummer, and of the very best I know. He's also a dear friend. When I think of him, it warms my heart.

Elvin Jones

Elvin is one of the people who redefined modern drumming for all of us. I can't say enough about the importance of what he has done. He's tapped into something very large in the muse and made it his own, via his own identity. He's tapped into such powerful elemental laws of music. But the most important thing is the amount of love with which he manifests what he manifests. What he is actually saying is very powerful.

Buddy Rich

That kind of gift is like a comet in terms of how rarely it comes through human history. Enough has been said about Buddy to pass the point of redundancy, so I can't do much more than reiterate what a freak of nature he was. To say something about him "redefining drumming" almost doesn't apply, because many people didn't think what he did was attainable. One of two things can happen as a result of witnessing something like that. One can mavel at that kind of anomaly - which is a gift - and consequently become inspired by it without being intimidated. Or one can say that one is going to saw one's arms off. Fortunately for me, I marveled at it, and being a young kid, it made me want to play. It was almost like a father throwing a stone really high, and a kid, with a child's innocence, not even concerned with achieving that height, having fun throwing the stone in the same way the father did. Once you start getting hung up in your own insecurities or whatever else happens as an adult, it can get in your way of appreciating the beauty of what Buddy did.

Jack DeJohnette

The way Jack plays is like a magician. He's almost a conjurer, but I mean that in a good sense, not one that suggest negative sorcery. It's one of those indefinable elements that he defines when he plays. With Tony, Elvin, and Jack, the identity is so strong. What Jack does is representative of his identity, yet in and of itself, it is something where he's made the intangible tangible.

Tony Williams

My personal drum hero, who I called "the genius of the drums." If there were ever profound truths spoken on the drums, Tony did it for me. He who has ears to hear, will hear it. During the latter portion of his life especially, Tony reached people on a primal level. The immediacy and impact of what Tony plays will reach you on that level whether you cognitively understand it or you don't.
I first heard about Tony Williams at a high-school stage-band event. There were several bands from various high schools playing, and one of the drummers I met asked me who my favorite drummer was. When you're fourteen or fifteen, you could be in a variety of different places, and there's a lot of information that can get gleaned. It's one thing to see and be influenced by someone and have the understanding of what you're being influenced by be rather immediate. It's another thing to be influenced at that age by someone else in such a way that the understanding of what they're playing isn't so immediate, perhaps entailing a certain amount of maturity. To make a long story short, when this other drummer asked me who my favorite drummer was, I said, "Buddy Rich. Who is your favorite drummer?" He answered, "Tony Williams." I said, "Hmmm, who's that?" he told me about a record called Ego. I went to a record store where I waw it hanging on a wall. I bought it, put it on my turntable, couldn't understand any of it, and thought, "This is interesting." I wasn't used to hearing drums played that way. About two weeks later, I put it on again - and it was as though I had suddenly become stricken with understanding. All of a sudden I got it.

Billy Cobham

He came out of nowhere! To be able to do what he did would obviously require an amazing combination of musical talent and physical ability that is probably akin to The Hulk. He's one of those people who also had such an impact that he spawned a slew of imitators, one of which was myself. He had an amazing, brutal technique with finesse, with that sort of weight-lifting muscle, which is a spectable to behold. On top of all that, he was so funky! He is one of the most important drummers of our time, and one of the major influences on my playing, to the point where I was a Billy Cobham freak. When The Mahavishnu Orchestra first appeared on the scene, my whole brain did a 180! There were some pivotal points that happened concurrently in my life: the appearance of The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Tower of Power, some later Miles Davis records, and Tony Williams' Ego.

Bill Bruford

I always loved the way Bill played with Yes and King Crimson. He struck me as a very intellectual drummer who always seemed to do something very clever. He had so many musical surprises, not only in the way he would play his part, but in what he would choose to do texturally and the choice of instruments he would use. I've gotten to know Bill over the years, and he's a lovely guy and a very interesting man. I always get the impression that there's more going on in his head than people can understand.

Harvey Mason

Another great influence on me. Harvey embodies such a well-rounded, excellent musician. When you hear Harvey, you can hear how elegantly well-schooled he is - yet at the same time he is so funky, and slippery. You know this guy really knows what he's doing! In his stellar studio career, he's been involved in so many influential records that really have shown "how it's done."

Ringo Starr

He was the first guy I remember seeing on TV where it was, Yeah! That's cool! A real character, almost a caricature of a drummer in a band. Interestingly enough, it wasn't until later on that I realized the hidden profundity of what he did. I went from being a kid seeing him and going, Gee, that's fun. I want to be a drummer, to realizing what he really had inside of him. It's been said before and I'll say it again, nobody plays like Ringo. What a character.

Dave Weckl

You can really tell that this guy wanted to play the drums. He's been so imitated because he's had so much to offer. He's such a shining example or what can happen with the right combination of talent, dedication, and just getting down in it and doing your homework. He is one of the greatest.

Josh Freese

I met Josh when he was something like twelve years old. He was actually the ring bearer at my wedding. His father used to sneak him into The Baked Potato to see me play when he was a kid. I remember seeing him once when he was playing at Disneyland, and I thought, There you go, this kid has really got it! He's a big talent and he's really going to go places. He's just one of those guys I have to be a little proud of.

Dennis Chambers

Freak of nature number two. "Dennis the Menace" is something I remember calling him. When you see Dennis, you've got to shake your head in disbelief at the amazing superhuman speed and power that he has. But because of the way he does it, with the twinkle in his ere, you gotta laugh. He has incredible chops, but the feel he has is so funky and gut-bucket greasy. If there was ever a natual, that guy is it. And then he turns around and plays with John McLaughlin, playing music that most people woule spend years intellectualizing and keeping inside a classrom. Dennis brings it to life without counting it - and chewing gum at the same time. I love that guy.

Simon Phillips

What a powerhouse! I was exposed to Simon when I was in Frank Zappa's band. He played on something that Zappa had produced called "The Dead Girls Of London." He was a well-known studio musician in England when he was young, so he's another one of those guys whose talent is obvious. I think probably he was widely influenced by Billy, but he really made it his own. He embodies power and finesse in the best possible way.

Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez

The whole thing with the clave played with the left foot has become something that so many drummers have had to "get down." But when I've seen it in a contrived manner, it turns me away from it. Horacio was probably the first guy I ever saw do it, and he does it honestly. Everything else he plays around it is so right. He was so graceful and eloquent when I saw him play last. I think he's one of the new breed in terms of recognition, and someone who is really doing something wonderful for the drums.

Jeff Watts

That's my homeboy. We're both from Pittsburgh. Out of all the people who came up in the new breed of - if you want to call them jazz players - Jeff is the one who has impressed me most profoundly. He has it going on, as far as I'm concerned. He has really tapped into some very deep stuff.

Abe Laboriel Jr.

That's someone you look at and say, "He is the anointed one, the gifted one." I feel very blessed to be able to recognize that gift, which has no reflection on whether I do or do not have it myself. I am sure that many people would agree with me when I say I recognize that that man is truly gifted.
Frankly Speaking

Vinnie Colaiuta came to most drummers' attention as a member of Frank Zappa's band. His phenomenal playing on Zappa's challenging music stands as some of the most innovative drumming of all time. Being a drummer for Frank Zappa puts Vinnie in some stellar company. Here are his reflections on some other alumni of the Zappa band.

Aynsley Dunbar

I love the way Aynsley played on those records. Frank really brought our qualities in musicians that others may not have gotten our of them, which I think was the case with Aynsley.

Ralph Humphrey & Chester Thompson

I remember hearing Ralph on some of the Zappa records before I was involved. I thought, Listen to this guy, he's really good. The same with Chester. I'm sure Frank chose them for their roles. You could tell that Ralph was very educated. When he's out there watching you play, you know he knows everything you're doing. You ain't gonna get anything by him! He's a very astute drummer and very knowledgeable, which I respect highly.
Chester was the get down, groovin', really greasy drummer. I love the way Chester brought Frank's music to life and the feel he put to it. He treated that complex music with such playfulness, and brought it down to earth. He didn't keep it in the cerebral realm that it was in. He became the soul of the band, executing stuff of that complexity with the gut that he did. He's such a joyful player. Chester has so much ability, and yet he is such an amzing team player. That role can be so underestimated in an age where everybody wants to be a star. Nobody understands how important it is to be that. Chester undertakes that role with such life and soul that he takes it beyond where it needs to be. yet he never gets in the way, despite how much capacity he has. He deserves more respect and attention for the importance of what he's contributed.

Terry Bozzio

Terry really embodies uniqueness and big talent. It has nothing to do with how many drums he plays, it's what he does. He's really taken the step to be himself and make an important statement for the drums and for his vision. Terry, to me, is a visionary.

Chad Wackerman

Chad is an unsung hero. He came into that Zappa arena and handled it so eloquently and so well that people have taken him for granted. He's another drummer who deserves to be taken more respectfully. He's a beautiful guy and a great musician, the testimony of which is on his solo albums. When I heard his first solo album, that told me all I needed to hear, regardless of what he had done with Frank. Again, he who has ears to hear, will hear that. It's understated, in a sense. It's not put in your face to be advertised. Chad just does it, and you either get it or you don't.