Letting the Music Play You, with Paul Wertico

Today on the show we have the honour and the pleasure of sitting down with Paul Wertico. If you’re at all familiar with the all-time great drummers of the world or you’re a jazz fan then you’ll know his name and his work.

Paul is a 7-time Grammy Award winner, perhaps best known for his almost 20 years playing with jazz guitarist Pat Metheny where his distinctive “flat ride” cymbal style became a defining part of some of the group’s best known recordings.

Paul is an innovative musician and a devoted educator, including his role as Associate Professor of Jazz Studies at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts, and as author of a new book entitled “Turn the Beat Around”.

As you’ll hear us say in this interview, Paul is a man frequently associated with the very word “musicality” and so it was such a delight to get to speak with him and unpack what exactly it means for a drummer to be “musical” and exhibit “musicality”.

We talk about:

  • How Paul learned the drums and the influential music educator who helped encourage him in developing his own unique identity as a musician.
  • What it means to “turn the beat around” and how playing what he calls “front beats” can bring a unique flair to a piece of music.
  • And how it’s possible for his group Wertico, Cain and Gray to perform 100% improvised compositions together with no prior discussion, ranging from 30 seconds to several minutes long which have a coherence and structure that mean the listener would never guess they were improvised.

We also talk about practicing with a metronome versus a backing track, what role the drummer plays in different genres and situations, and how he ended up ditching the drums to just play cymbals on a tango record in Italy.

This was a blast and there’s a ton of insights and wisdom here for drummers and musicians of all stripes.

This is Musicality Now, from Musical U.

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Paul: Hi, this is Paul Wertico, Associate Professor of Jazz Studies at Roosevelt University, author of Turn the Beat Around, drummer with Wertico Cain & Gray and the Paul Wertico Trio amongst many other bands, and welcome to Musicality Now.

Christopher: Welcome to the show, Paul. Thank you for joining us today.

Paul: Hi, Christopher. I’m glad to be here.

Christopher: I was particularly keen to invite you onto the show because you’re one of the few drummers where the word musicality seems to keep cropping up when people are writing about your work over the years. And so I’d love if we could begin by me asking you, what does musicality mean to you? What is musicality?

Paul: Well, I always think of my responsibility as serving the music, so I play a lot of different styles of music, which means that sometimes I have to play grooves, sometimes I can improvise 100%, sometimes it’s swinging, sometimes it’s producing, sometimes it’s arranging, sometimes it’s recording, and to serve the music means that you want to make whatever music you’re involved the best it could possibly be. And also as a drummer, sometimes there’s drummers that are sort of the fastest drummers, almost like being the “Fastest Gun in the West”.

Paul: And even though I’ve got great technique, I think I, a lot of times am called a musical drummer, and I think that’s something that really makes it sound that I am not going to be shot up by somebody faster next year, or next month, because technique is important, and sometimes being the person that is flavor of the day is important too. But I think music is forever, and so if I can serve the music, and the music plays me, I actually don’t even think about like, “Oh, I’m going to do this, or I’m going to do that.”

Paul: Actually, I listen to the music, and the music tells me what to play, so even at age 66 I feel like I never run out of ideas because I’m not just playing licks, I’m not just playing preconceived ideas. I’m just there to interact with whoever I’m playing with and whatever music I’m playing. That’s, to me, I think musicality means being able to hear music, being able to understand form, being able to make everybody else sound good.

Paul: I always tell my students that other drummers might like your playing, that’s important. But if a sax player you’re playing with turns around and goes, “Wow, I’ve never felt this good. You just made me … Allowed me to play ideas I never came up with before.” That’s how you work, that’s how you keep a career going, and that’s musicality.

Christopher: Tremendous. Well, I feel like we could spend the whole rest of the interview just unpacking everything you put in the answer. That was wonderful, and I know I do want to circle back to a couple of things you mentioned there when we talk about the role of a drummer in different contexts. But before we do that, I think what you just described in terms of maybe letting the music play you or not being reliant on particular licks and riffs and learned repertoire. I think that goes right back to the beginning with you in your learning of music, is that right, when you were young?

Paul: Pretty much. My whole start of music was pretty interesting. I don’t know if you want to get to that now, but the way I came about being who I am was a very natural process. I never thought about being this. I never wanted to get rich or famous, I just ended up being this person that loved music and ended up playing music as my whole life.

Christopher: And so what did those early music education experiences look like? Were you taking drum lessons? Did you find it all came easy? When did you get started and how?

Paul: Great question, okay. I actually started late. My parents and I moved to a suburb of Chicago called Cary, so Cary, Illinois, and I was about 12 and my mom just said, “Oh, you should take up an instrument, just don’t take up the drums.” And that’s something I really always wanted to do. I was always beating along with pencils along with the radio. I joined the great school band in sixth grade, and my band director was a saxophone player basically. He showed me how to hold the drumsticks and how to read music and I just ended up being able to play this music naturally, and before I knew it I was the soloist in the band, I mean for whatever reason.

Paul: So then, as a graduation present when I was 14, my grandmother bought me a drum set. I asked my mom, “Can I take drum lessons?” And she said, “No, no.” She said, “Just do what you want to do,” and I was like I … Even though she’s passed I thank her till this day, because what she ended up doing was allowing me to grow in my own natural way.

Paul: So then I got into high school and I had this great band director, too, named Donald Ehrensperger, who we’re friends to this day and I dedicated my book to him. He allowed me to do whatever I wanted to do. I mean, he allowed me to improvise on symphonies, because he would say, “I like what you’re doing better than what’s written.” And to this day, when I thank him, he goes, “Oh no, you just had all this natural talent,” but to me, some band directors are very by the book, “This is the way we do it.” And you know, there’s nothing wrong with that, I guess, but for me, Donald Ehrensperger was able to just let me grow in this completely natural way.

Paul: And what’s really amazing about him, he was a trumpet player, so he wasn’t a drum student either. When I took back track a little bit, when I got my first … before I got my drum set, I sat down in a friend’s drum set when I was in grade school and I could just play the the kit. He was like … You know, I’d never sat on a drum. I could just play it. By the time I got into high school, I had this drum set and Mr. Ehrensperger was one of these guys that we had at jazz band. And at the first two years there was another student, Randy Eyles was his name, and he was a great, like, by-the-book kind of musician.

Paul: Later on he became president of the Percussive Arts Society and all that. And at that time we didn’t like each other because I was like improvising, he was like totally by-the-book. Now we’re good friends. But my point is, is that Mr. Ehrensperger, or Mr. E, as we called him, he was able to cultivate both those two extreme versions. Now, think about that as a band director. You’ve got somebody that’s a by-the-book drummer, totally talented, and someone that’s pretty much just a free spirit. And he was able to nurture both so we were both successful.

Paul: And to me, that’s what education is. It’s easy to be a cookie-cutter system because there’s a lot of kids that go through the process. But even the way I teach drums, all my students are totally individuals and I try to make them grow into what they are, as opposed to just saying, “Okay, this quarter or this semester we’re doing this, and not matter if you know it or not or you’re having problems with it.” To me it’s like you get all these different things, but as long as you get up here at the end. And that makes me, as a teacher, it’s much more fun because it’s almost like detective work.

Paul: For me, being that sort of a natural player, I have to look at what they’re doing and go, “Okay, well, okay that’s what you do. Keep that, now try it this way.” And they might not be able to do it, so I have to figure out, “Okay, maybe there’s a couple other ways I can get them to understand.” Now, it might take two tries, or three tries with someone. It might take 17 tries with someone else, and that’s what’s fun, is because going for that 17th try is like detective work. You’re absolutely involved with this person, and you’re understanding different ways, different angles to be able to get to them.

Paul: And to me that’s what teaching really is, and so that’s why I’m never bored teaching. It’ always totally interesting. I’m always listening to students because a lot of times they’re turning you on to things that you didn’t know and you’re turning them on to things they didn’t know. So in a lot of ways I think going back to Donald Ehrensperger, that whole approach of just being in the moment and nurturing individuals is what really, I think, made me who I am.

Christopher: Fantastic. Thank you, and I’m so glad you unpacked that a little bit and explained why he was so impactful and how he was able to juggle very different kinds of students in terms of their natural inclinations. You said a couple things there around nurturing someone who is a free spirit or cultivating them or how they developed, and I think probably anyone watching or listening is familiar with how that happens for the kind of book-learning musician who’s going to follow the method books, take the exams, study the repertoire, get the notes right.

Christopher: When someone comes in, and maybe you can think about what your own students in answer to this, but when someone comes in who is more of a free spirit, you’ve just described that very personalized adaptive-reactive teaching, which is terrific. In practical terms it is the actual material you’re working through with them, or the technique or the skills you’re developing with them, is that different from the book learner, or is it just a different way to get to the same endpoint?

Paul: It’s a different way of using the books. When I was young I bought tons of records; rock records, jazz records, world music records. I bought tons of books, but I didn’t necessarily go through the books all the way through, so sometimes if I’m working with a book with the students, we’ll look at the exercise and then we’ll figure out like 10 or 12 or 20 ways to utilize that exercise, because that’s what makes everybody unique. So if you look at one say, independence exercise. Okay great, you play it, you’ve got that play different tempos. Okay, you got that down.

Paul: Now, what happens if you orchestrated differently? What happens if you put accents in it differently? What happens if you play it left-handed now? So now all of a sudden instead of playing just right-handed lead, if you’re right-handed, you play open-handed. There’s millions of things, and so I think that makes my students go, “Wow!”

Paul: This is like an endless process. You’re never going to finish. So the whole idea with having musicality and having a style is what you do with whatever you’re working with that’s going to be different than other people. So Someone else, that just buys the book and goes page one, page two, page three, page four. That’s fine, I guess. I’m not going, I can’t put that down. That’s a certain discipline. But if someone just goes through page one and works on the that for a year utilizing all those different exercises, they’re going to be different than someone that just went one way through all the exercises.

Christopher: Got you. That’s so cool, and I’ve been struggling to find the right way to say it, but drums or percussion in general is just such an ideal instrument for exploring that. I mentioned to you before we hit record I’ve been learning drums over the last six months, and this is after 30 years of learning music, studying half a dozen, a dozen other instruments to a decent standard. And drums had just blown my mind, much more than I expected it to, and a big part of that is four limbs being coordinated or independent and trying to do the mental gymnastics required. But it’s also … A part of why I’ve enjoyed it so much is exactly what you just described.

Christopher: You know, if I think back to clarinet lessons or sax or guitar or piano, even in school, if there was a page of exercises, we would work our way through that page, and maybe we try it a second time with a different spin, like play it legato now. With drums, I would have never have expected that I could enjoy an hour of drum lesson where all we did was technical exercises like a whole page, just working through it in different ways, different combinations. And that’s something I love about your book, too. I’ve been exploring it myself and you frame things in that way.

Christopher: You say, “Here are the exercises for this chapter. Now try it in these four other ways.” And I think unless you’ve learned drums or tried drums, it’s hard to understand just how much fun and how open-ended that kind of thing can be.

Paul: Well, it’s funny because at Roosevelt University … I actually teach at Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, so it’s one of the college’s inside Roosevelt University. So for freshman, one of the courses that everyone has to take is “Understanding Drums and Bass”. Like in this last semester I had a trombone player, a sax player, I’ve had singers, and they have to learn how to play the bass, and then they have to learn how to play the drums, and it blows their minds.

Paul: A lot of them really sound good even though they’ve never been taught the drums because they already have a certain amount of musicality, they have good time, they understand form and everything. But the coordination really blows their minds, to be able to do that. And I’ve had some of those students from the past have actually bought drum sets and actually play drums because they had so much fun. Or their brothers or sisters might have had a drum set or whatever.

Paul: And the other thing, it just makes them understand really what we do, because that course is not just about playing the instrument, but it’s understanding like what a rhythm section is. How do you write music for bass? How do you write music for a drum chart? And so those are the kind of things it sounds like what you’re doing, so even though you’ve done all these other things, and I’m sure you’re a great musician, this just expands another part of the brain and coordination-wise. I mean, drums are so good for you, because you know, a lot of people have a hard time just chewing gum and walking down the street, right? I mean, that’s an exaggeration of course, but what we do is multitasking.

Paul: When you play drums, you’re doing three or four limbs depending what you’re doing. Sometimes just two limbs, but basically four-way coordination. You’re keeping time, you’re blending with the rest of the band, you’re orchestrating the dynamics. You’re the conductor of the band primarily, you really are, so you’re multitasking all over the place. That’s so healthy for your brain, and it’s so healthy for your body, to stay loose, to stay coordinated, and just to love being in the moment, because music, that’s the one thing we are. We are in the moment, because if you make a mistake and go, “Oh, I wish I wouldn’t have,” then you’re living in the past, you’re not in the moment.

Paul: If you think about what you’re going to do, that’s okay if you’re planning it, but something else might happen with the music that means that if you just force what you thought was going to happen inside the music, even though it wasn’t what you expected, then that doesn’t work either. So what I’m talking about the music playing you, when the music plays you, you’re right there. It’s immediate as possible. And you don’t really have to think about things, because the conscious mind is basically slow. I mean, our heartbeat, everything we do is all subconscious part of our mind. And when you really play, you’ve done the work.

Paul: I’ve even said in one interview one time, I think that’s what practice is, is when you practice, it’s like you open up the possibilities for the universe to come through you, because you’ve worked on the coordination, you’ve worked on the endurance, you’ve worked on just all the little things that you need to discipline your body and your mind to work that it’s open to anything. And once that happens, then you’re free to be part of whatever is happening that’s coming at you, which is always different.

Christopher: Absolutely. And that’s something I was particularly keen to pick your brains on and maybe share with our audience, which is all the different contexts you’ve played in in terms of different groups, different genres over the years. You obviously did almost 20 years with Pat Metheny, one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all time, you had great success with Earwax Control before that and you’ve played in all kinds of different contexts.

Christopher: Maybe you could just talk through a bit of your journey and the different stages you went through as a drummer in terms of your style or your mastery of the instrument and how you were thinking about your musicality along the way.

Paul: Well, again, I didn’t have a master plan, I didn’t think, “If I do this and that I’d be here now.” I just did what I had to do. And again, in life, I think it’s maybe just good decisions, or it’s luck, or it’s being at the place, right time, who knows? But for me, I was already teaching at three music stores by the time I was 16, so I can’t imagine what I was teaching, but people liked the way I play and so I was teaching at music stores. And as a drummer, I was already playing … I remember my dad having to pick me up at 4:30 in the morning on Fridays and Saturdays because I was already doing gigs.

Paul: And God knows what I was doing, but the thing is, I was doing what came naturally, and so I still am like that, that’s why I still play. I mean, there’s a bunch of new CDs that came out recently from the ’80s, and like I said, the First Date record which is our 25 year anniversary, and sometimes when I listen back, I’m going, “Who is this person?” You know, I end up studying myself going, “Wow! This is pretty cool.”

Paul: My journey through all that was just a natural process where I listened to a lot of music, I practiced all the time. I used to practice eight to 12 hours a day. I mean, there’s a really funny story that I was living in this really small house in Elgin, and I would get home from a gig maybe 2 o’clock in the morning, and I’d put on headphones and start jamming.

Paul: You know, it could be with Frank Zappa or Jeff Beck or Art Blakey or whatever, windows open. I had no idea of anything. And one day, my neighbor, who was a cool guy, he comes over and he goes, “Man, didn’t you hear me knock on the door at 4:30 in the morning?” I say, “No.” He goes, “You’re lucky. I was going to kill you.”

Paul: So this whole thing has just been this process of just loving music, playing it whenever I can, I guess believing in myself. Not that I wasn’t sometimes going like, “Oh, if I could just find one person that would love to play with me, that would be enough.” You go through those different points but always just one thing leading to another. And a lot of times your success isn’t gauged by the way you feel about yourself, but your career. You know, who are you playing with? Are you busy? Do people want to play with you? Do you make people happy at the end of the gig or are they completely sad that they hired you?

Paul: A lot of that process has been through the years just doing whatever came naturally, breaking in to the Chicago scene, playing with different people which led to different things. And it was a totally natural process, so it’s hard to speak about individual things, but the fact that I love music, that I worked really hard, I couldn’t wait to play the drums, I think that I found myself basically, through doing that.

Christopher: And the way you described that trajectory and the fact that you’ve played with some of the greatest musicians in the world, I have to ask you, how do you think about talent and hard work? You know, you talked there about doing what came naturally, you are obviously very adept at an early age, and people might look at that and go, “Ah, he was talented, it came easily.” But you also talked about doing 10 to 12 hours practice a day, so how do you think about that, and particularly as a teacher now, when a student comes to you and asks, “Do I have talent?” How would you approach that question?

Paul: Well, I mean, there is a certain thing where talents. For instance, like if you can hear pitch really well, or if you can hear form really well, or if you’re coordinated, or how fast your reflex time is. All these little things help. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that if you don’t have those kind of things that you’re not going to be able to be successful. I remember having a student one time. He was a student that really was switching over from piano, and on drums he just … It was really hard to be able to get him to swing. It was like one of the hardest students, so you would think, “Okay, this guy is not going to be a drummer because he can’t swing,” but then all of a sudden he gave me a disk of him playing fast drum & bass music, and he was incredible.

Paul: You don’t have to be a jazz drummer. You were saying earlier you’ve been playing for six months or whatever, and I said, “Well, you could play punk music, you can play blues music.” I mean, blues music is very complex too. It’s just people think, “Oh, the blues is simple,” but look at what’s been done with just those simple chords, just by the fact of different ways of approaching it, your sound, your style, your phrasing and everything. And so with drumming, you don’t have to play everything.

Paul: I have been lucky that I’ve played so many different types of music and I’d be able to find myself in that music because I listen to what it told me and I was able to find it. But some people, they might just play one style, and if they’re successful, that’s fine. If you listen to … Again, getting to early blues, if you listen to early Muddy Waters, if you listen to early Willie Dickson or John Lee Hooker, sometimes those drummers, they sound like they can barely play a roll, technically. But they have the greatest feel ever, and that’s something, because sometimes I’ll have people come from marching bands, so they have these amazing chops, snare drum chops. And I always say, “Okay, keep that. That’s great because you’re going to utilize that.”

Paul: But sometimes they sound kind of stiff on the kit so I’ve got to find a way to make them sound more organic, to make them sound more soulful. That’s not undoing but it’s a different approach to what they already know. So again, the talent part of it is sort of we’re all different. I mean, there’s gospel drummers that have arms bigger than my leg that can just go like this and give the biggest sound ever. And so I think it’s about finding who we are, and then being able to find what we love, working towards what we love. And then other times, things will open up from that that you and never saw that you were able to do.

Christopher: Terrific. And it’s probably clear from what I said earlier, but my top recommendation is obviously that everyone should go out and take some drum lessons because it’s enormous fun. But if they haven’t yet done that, I wonder if you can help people understand what to listen for and how they can appreciate the role of the drummer in different music they hear. Because I know for me, it wasn’t until I really got into active listening and musicality training that I started to realize just how varied and important the drummer was in almost every genre they were present in.

Christopher: Up until that point I was just like, you know, just hitting one, two, three, four? You know that was what I was really hearing. So I wonder if you could clue people in to the different kinds of drumming they might hear or the different roles the drummer is playing in a band.

Paul: Well, primarily, again, the drummer has to serve the music, so somehow they have to make the music feel good. It can groove really hard, it can flow really beautifully, it can have interesting tension and release because a lot of really great drummers … You’re playing something and you start rubbing against the groove and the time and people go, “Whoa,” and then you release it. There’s things like that.

Paul: There’s things about just sitting in the pocket and just letting the music revolve around you, because I even say, in my book, for instance, there’s the million dollar beat, or the money beat, which is just a simple boom blah, boom blah. So you think, “Oh, how is boring is that?” But what’s going on around it? There’s different bass lines, different guitar lines, different vocals. So the whole idea is how do you fit into the music to make it work?

Paul: So even playing the simplest groove, are you keeping the time steady? Are you laying back on it to make it feel relaxed and wide? Are you upfront, are you pushing it to really give it like this weird energy that’s almost like it’s so intense? Are you just sitting straight like a metronome? Which sometimes people do depending on what is it. But for instance, even when you’re recording, you know, I like playing with the click a lot of times. For me, I never get off with a click. It’s just bizarre.

Paul: So with a click, if you’re playing a pop song, maybe you want to stay steady in the middle or back. But sometimes when you’re playing jazz with a click, you want to listen to the other people too because they might be ahead or behind just the way they’re phrasing. But if there was a click going, you can’t get too far off the click, otherwise you’d get off with it. So it’s all these little disciplines to figure out how to make the music successful.

Paul: If you listen to a lot of rock from the early days, things speed up. The chorus might be faster than the verse, there’s all these different things, so you might say, “Oh, that’s bad time.” Well, it’s not bad time because the song is successful. So again, whatever it takes to make the music work for what it is, that’s really what talent is. I think it’s just understanding your role. And it’s like that in life, basically, you know?

Paul: And not everybody is going to be the alpha male all the time. It’s sort of like sometimes you have to lay back and let someone else that’s really got it take care then you support them. Sometimes you’re the one that has the good ideas. So again, it’s about not fighting what comes naturally, but understanding what comes naturally and being able to take that and make it something that people know that you are supportive of everybody. And to me that’s what talent is.

Christopher: Got you. And I’ve heard you say that a drummer should learn the lyrics of the song he’s playing for. Why is that?

Paul: Well, for one thing, I always like lyrics because to me music is also poetry, but it also makes you understand what the gist of that song is about. So if the song’s really sad or if it’s really happy, that can change the way you’re going to play a groove. And I think it also allows you to figure out where on the beat you’re going to put it, because if there’s words you don’t want to be … Say, for instance, you don’t want to be playing in front of the beat, which is going to make the person singing have to swallow their words. You’re cutting them off, so that’s when you want to play maybe middle or back to allow the flow of the notes and the words to be able to come out naturally, even though the tempo is still steady. That’s what I was talking about.

Christopher: Interesting. And maybe that touches on another question I had which was, you give the advice in your book, Turn the Beat Around to consider practicing not just with a metronome, but with actual music tracks. Why is that? What does that bring to the experience? We so often hear the advice, “Practice with a metronome, keep everything strict and perfect,” but that’s not your advice necessarily.

Paul: Well, I mean, there’s three things. There’s the metronome, which is just as perfect time, but it’s not in the end on the final track. You might be perfectly with it but sound like you’re not with other musicians. There’s a sequencer that might be part of the end track, so you got to stay with that, and then people can put it on top of it, they can bend it, but you are the foundation that’s with something that’s going to be on the track, and then there’s just playing with people.

Paul: In the early days, I would just put on tons of records, like I said earlier about like playing at 3 o’clock in the morning. If you put on great feeling tracks, they’re not necessarily perfect, but you’re playing with the greatest musicians in the world even though you’re like subbing. You’re not there with them so they’re not going to react to you, you can react to them. If you’re playing, oh I don’t know, say some Blue Note record. You put on an Art Blakey record or Wayne Shorter record or Joe Henderson record, you listen to what’s going on and then you play along with it.

Paul: And then you don’t just listen to the drummer, you listen to what the bass player is doing and what the piano player is doing, and then you learn tunes, because that’s one thing. You have to know tunes, and especially in jazz. There’s tons of classic songs that really you need to know. It also helps you with the form, because you know, there’s AABA forms and stuff, but a lot of the music I play have been 15 bar tunes or 37 bar tunes, so you have to know how the harmonic language works, and the melody. And so you play along with these so you’re not stuck just playing with a click or just going like this. Because that’s just perfect time, that has no feel.

Paul: I always tell that, that’s just pure tempo. It’s what we do to this, we put a bossa nova over it, we put a swing beat over it, we put a rock groove, we put a hip-hop groove over it. And that’s what gives this its feel. That’s the sound, that’s the human part of it. This is just the machine part of it. Playing along with records allows you to feel what the greatest musicians on the greatest records felt as they were recording, and you kind of through osmosis can understand, “Oh, this is why this feels like this.”

Paul: And the other things too, is like I did this as a young kid. I would free over like Hollies tunes or Beatles tunes. I had this AM radio in back of my head and I would play, you know, “Look Through Any Window” or like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, and I would just blow over it but can’t catch things. So I think one reason I feel that tempo and subdivisions aren’t just mathematical subdivisions but there’s also a flow. So between two quarter notes or between a measure or between four measures, it can all be subdivided into eighth notes and triplets and sixteenth notes and quintuplets. Or it can just be like you’re talking and you just flow, but you know, from here to there is.

Paul: So doing that with records, you can take a lot of chances because you’re not going to screw up what’s on the record, but you’ll be able to experiment with your phrasing, with taking chances, with getting your coordination together, and that’s really important. So you’re not only learning tunes, you’re playing with the best musicians in the world, but you’re also allowing yourself to experiment. And to me that’s music. You have to allow yourself to kinda experiment, least for me, to keep vital.

Christopher: So you said earlier that one way to think about practicing is it’s kind of doing your due diligence so that when you’re then in the moment you have the chops, you have the technique to do what you want to do. Is this a bit the same? Can someone just jump straight to playing with records and throw the metronome in the bin, or do they need to, as a foundation, have that clear strict sense of the beat so that they can then go off in more adventurous directions? Is it kind of beginner and intermediate or is it just kind of A and B and you can pick your path?

Paul: I don’t know. I was doing it really early. I think the sooner you can do a lot of different things while your brain is still fresh, because you know how it gets when you get older learning a new language, learning a new skill gets harder, so I always tell my students that this is the time to just experiment because everything’s still working, you’re still young, you haven’t hurt yourself, you haven’t locked in to certain concepts that make you rigid all of a sudden. So the younger you can do these things but still understand that what you’re doing is to serve the music, always serve the music.

Paul: So you’re expressing yourself, you’re finding yourself, you’re allowing yourself to be free, and then you’re also disciplining yourself to be just accurate and grooving. It’s like that whole dimension. You don’t want to be one or the other completely, because … I mean, you can, but for me, I want someone to really find all those different parameters. Just like when you play the drums.

Paul: I mean, I play the drums, I barely hold the sticks, and that’s how I get that certain sound. I get all the overtones and the undertones. So if you hold the sticks a little tighter, you can get a different sound. If you hold them too tight you can actually get shock up your arms. But those are different sounds, so the sticks to me are the brushes that you’re painting with, okay?

Paul: And so when you play that way, you may want to experiment. “Okay, I’m going to play as tight as possible. Oh, how does this feel to the ridiculous end,” to the point where you’re playing as loose as possible or like you’re almost dropping the sticks, and then you find the parameters within that that kind of work for different types of music. It’s all about just keeping your options open, I really believe that.

Christopher: Fantastic. I’m really glad you shared that because I know a lot of people watching this, or listening to this, particularly if they’re coming to music later in life, there can be a lot of anxiety around, “Am I doing this right?” Or, “Am I allowed to do it this way?” Or, “If I’m enjoying it, should be a bit nervous I’m not working hard enough?” And so it’s encouraging to hear you say that, that you need to find your own path, and it is a matter of knowing what all the possible avenues are for you.

Paul: Well, think about this for a second. In the old days, like when I was a kid, there were big no-nos. Matched grip was a no-no, okay? Burying the beater on the bass drum was a no-no. People didn’t play open-handed, they always crossed over. All these things that have been since just go like, “What were we thinking?” So it’s about expression, it’s about finding different things that work within the music.

Paul: And when I was growing up, rock and roll was sort of looked upon as, “Oh, that’s just kid’s music. It’s not serious music,” and all the commercials and even television shows, there was always like jazz or a big band. And then all of a sudden it turned into rock got popular and all of a sudden it was all rock. Now a lot of it is all hip-hop. Things move along. And to me, it’s also like, are you afraid of drum machines? Are you afraid of sequencers, are you afraid of all these things that make music now? Well no, it’s just another tool.

Paul: It’s the creative process behind what’s going on. And jazz when it came up too, was looked upon as like evil music. If you really look at the history of jazz, you know, people it’s, “Oh, that’s going to turn our kids into drug addicts and sexual beings.” When rock came out, “Oh, it’s going to turn our kids into drug addicts and sexual beings.” Let’s face it, man. You know, things just progress, and those that don’t progress kind of get left behind.

Christopher: So speaking of challenging the status quo and doing things that blow people’s minds a little bit, I do want to talk about your recent book, Turn the Beat Around, which I have been enjoying while I think through myself amateur drummer as I may be, it’s certainly accessible, even for someone at my level while going quite advanced.

Christopher: I feel like this is a book where you could probably explain to a drummer in one sentence or two what it’s all about, and someone who hasn’t played drums might need a bit more explanation. So I wonder if you could share with people, what’s this book all about, and why do I say challenging paradigms of the status quo?

Paul: Great question. Okay, so I came about this concept, it’s the only book ever written about playing beats on one and three, because in general people laugh at people that clap on one and three. They think that, “Oh, these people don’t know what it is,” because of the music that most of us like, it’s always on two and four. And all the millions of songs that always have the snare drum on beats two and four.

Paul: Now, in classical music, the beats one and three are your most important beats, and so I started looking for some songs that the beat was turned around, where people played on one and three. I mean, “Sunshine of Your Love”, Ginger Baker with Cream, Jim Gordon, “Bell Bottom Blues” with Derek and the Dominoes, Danny Seraphine with Chicago, “Woman Don’t want to Love Me”, Dennis Elliott with If, “Forgotten Roads”. There’s certain songs, but there’s not a lot of them, and I started going like, “Why is this?” Because if you turn it around, it’s a different feeling. It’s almost like it’s got this forward motion, and a lot of those songs, they actually go back to two and four. It’s kind of a release.

Paul: But the other thing, the reason I did it is because sometimes the one and three, which is usually on the bass drum, a lot of people just think about the snare drum, and the one and three are like really important beats in the groove. When you’re playing time you have a whole note, which is just the one, if we’re talking about 4/4. You have half notes, which is that beat one and three, you have quarter notes, one, two, three, four. You have eighth notes, triplets, 16th notes, whatever. But to really groove, to make it swing, a swing doesn’t go like this. It goes Zing, Zing! It goes all the way through.

Paul: So actually, by people playing the one and three, not only are they learning a different way of grooving, but when they went back and played the two and four, their groove actually sounded wider, they actually had a bigger sound. All of a sudden they went boom, blah, boom, blah instead of bloom, blah, bloom, blah, like where people started to push the downbeat sometimes. It really worked that way.

Paul: So that’s a book that … It’s open-ended book. You can never really finish that book because there’s so many coordination things that you can do. But also, I’m just thinking of just expanding people’s minds. My wife … we were in a Mexican restaurant recently and they were playing this sort of Mexican pop music and the drummers all playing in two and four, and we were like, “Why?” It would sound so cool if someone just did this thing, so that’s why I came up with the term “frontbeats.” Because I was thinking instead of if someone wanted to hear the beat turned around. It’s like, “Turn the Beat Around, man. Just play backbeats on one & three. Just go, “man, frontbeats.”

Paul: Okay, I know what that means, because you have frontbeats and backbeats. So that’s really what I did. And when I came out with this thing, I was really careful, because it took about two years to write this because i was teaching, playing, and I was doing stuff in Finale, and I was really careful, because it was published by Alfred Music. I didn’t want it to get out. I was afraid someone’s going to beat me to the jump and write some little article in Modern Drummer or something, you know?

Paul: Because no one has ever done this, and that’s probably why I thank my band director, Donald Ehrensperger, too, because again, it’s just me being me, but he helped me and allowed me to be me. And again, that’s what I want to do and that’s what I want my students to be able to do, is to find themselves no matter what they decide to do.

Christopher: Terrific. And I know a lot of people with us have grasped what we’re talking about and got a sense of why this book is cool and why it would be really interesting for a drummer to work through. If anyone isn’t quite on the same page, can we maybe just take that pocket groove or the million dollar beat you referred to earlier and spell out for people what’s the difference between the backbeat version and the frontbeat version and how would it sound different? What would the drummer be doing differently?

Paul: Okay. Well, if you think of classic simple million dollar grooves, you can think of Phil Rudd with AC/DC, or you think of Simon Kirke with the band Free, or you think of a lot of the different Memphis drummers or Motown drummers, just people that … Or just simple rock beats where you got boom, blah, boom boom, blah, boom, blah, boom boom, blah. And so with that, you can lay the backbeat straight down the middle.

Paul: A great drummer, Al Jackson, Jr., who was part of the Memphis scene with … He played in Booker T. & the M.G.’s. He’s on Al Green records. He laid stuff back so on “In The Midnight Hour” and a couple of these tunes, that got to be known, he laid the backbeat backwards so it was a little bit delayed.

Paul: So there’s millions of tunes that just have that simple thing. Because, boom, blah, boom boom, blah. That’s all you need sometimes. But if you go, blah, boom boom, blah, boom boom, blah, boom boom, blah, all of a sudden now you got it on the half notes. No, there is music. I mean Jewish music … Well, I mean, a great example, recently I went to see Zakir Hussain with Dave Holland in a concert, and so they had an Indian band, and they’re playing all these things in five and in seven and killing it and the audience is clapping along.

Paul: And they know this stuff. All of a sudden one of the guys says, “Okay, we’re going to play this tune that you probably know,” and it was in 4/4. So I’m in the Symphony Center of Chicago with a thousand people and they start playing, and the entire audience is clapping on one and three. And I’m like, “Wait a second.” So this audience is so rhythmically advanced that they can play in five, in seven and know where people are going to come out, yet when they felt the beat, they felt it on one and three.

Paul: So to me, it’s just an underutilized thing, and I’m thinking that hopefully producers or artists or whatever, arrangers in the future will start utilizing this as opposed to always doing it on the two and four. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with the two and four, it’s been there for years. But why not put it as frontbeats and just see what happens? And again, for those that you were saying, people that are just starting out in music, just think of the million dollar beat as bass drum on one and three, snare drum on two and four, boom, blah, boom, blah. Now, think of it backwards; blah, boom, blah, boom, one, two, three, four, and it’s a different feel. It just makes things completely feel like it’s moving forward and more urgent.

Paul: It’s almost like backbeat is kind of like an “Ah.” I mean, it’s kind of chill. One and three is like in your face pushing it.

Christopher: Absolutely. And I said to you before we were recording that I’ve been working through the book and it’s messing with my head, but in a good way. And I was really glad you gave me that suggestion to practice with music, not just a click, because I started out with just a click and it was hard to keep track in my head of where the bar lines were, because obviously if you shift things one beat, it’s much the same as it was before.

Paul: Absolutely. And also doing a fill, when you crash on the one, all of a sudden you’re crashing with a snare drum instead of crashing with a bass drum. It feels like it’s almost over the bar line or something. So yeah, it’s a definitely different discipline. If you do it with a click use … There’s different drum programs. Maybe put like … so that there is a different sound on the one, so you’ll know where the one is, and that’ll help you at first. But just yeah, and then playing with songs. And sometimes certain songs will feel great with it, certain songs might not feel as great with it.

Paul: But just recently, one of my drummers did a jury at CCPA and they did a tune by The Emotions, “A Long Way To Go”. It’s got the great drummer, James Gadson, and he is playing it backwards. He’s playing a click on one and a tom on three. And it just feels so great. It would have been totally different if he would have put it on backbeats.

Paul: There’s examples on that that I keep on finding, not many though. I mean, really, it’s not underutilized. I mean, it’s got to be a ratio of like a million to one as far as songs. I’m hoping that people will take it and maybe take that concept and really run with it too.

Christopher: Yeah, and I think this is definitely a book to check out if you’re a composer or a song writer, whether or not you’re a drummer because I really enjoyed some of the examples you talk through not of you know a track that necessarily uses this throughout but where a drummer has used it just for little section of the track and how you then return to the norm and how that plays into listeners’ expectations. It’s really cool.

Paul: Yeah, great.

Christopher: We’ll definitely have a few links in this episode to the tracks Paul mentioned and others that do use this just so you can get a taste of what it sounds like beyond our demonstrations here. But if you are a drummer definitely check out the book too and have a wild time working through the exercises.

Christopher: Paul, I wanted to talk to you in particular also about your group Wertico Cain & Gray because there’s a lot of remarkable things about it, but one is certainly that it’s purely improvised, not in the sense that some groups call themselves improvisational. You guys literally have no discussion before you get together and perform and record. And anyone listening to these recording will go, “Wow! That’s a phenomenal jazz recording. How did they arrange that?” And it was entirely spontaneous.

Christopher: And you kindly shared with me a video of one of your forthcoming releases where you can see this at action and it’s remarkable to watch, it’s very cool. I wonder if you could just clue us in a bit to how that’s possible, and maybe you could share a little bit first about your collaborators on this project and where each of you are coming from and to give listeners an idea of the trio you are.

Paul: Sure. Well, I’ll start … Wertico Cain & Gray, David Cain is a brilliant film maker, for one thing, and he plays sax and he does keyboards and does sometimes just lyrics that he’ll make up. Now, he’s funny because he’s not really like a jazz musician, which is great. We didn’t want somebody who was just going to be playing sax and sound like Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. He’s got a different thing.

Paul: Larry Gray, on the other hand, is this amazing virtuoso bass player, cellist, guitar player, pianist. I mean, I’ve known him since I think 1976 we’ve been best friends, and we just came and we started playing and it just … I mean, the first time we ever played we won, I think it was filmed, it was called Sound Portraits. We won an Independent Music Award for Best Live Album. That was the first time we ever played!

Paul: And so I think with these guys it’s not just like jazz avant-garde, which is good. It’s just composition. And all of us compose, for one thing, and all of us hear music as flowing together, we’re having a musical conversation. And it has natural compositional elements. It has cadences, it has developments. It’s not just a bunch of notes that just happen, which that’s fine too. I mean, there’s times where you just want chaos, I mean, like noise music.

Paul: I listen to noise music. I might listen to 30 minutes of just a drill that’s been slowed down, put together with a jet engine or something, you know? And that’s fine for what it is. But our music is really composed, and that comes from, I think, our experience, because you mentioned Earwax Control. Earwax Control, right when I got out of college I met these guys and everything was improvised 100% with them too, and we would really do funny things. I mean we were literally like to put a television on stage and we wouldn’t be able to see it, and then people would start laughing because on television it might be Elvis playing and we’re playing, “Kkrrr”, you know? All those kind of stuff.

Paul: We were completely insane, which was great. And again, it’s about those synapses, making your creative muscles just grow and grow. I’d been on a lot of records that’s been totally improvised. There was this sax-drum duo; Frank Catalano, great sax player. There’s an album called Topics of Conversation. There is The Sign of 4 with Pat Metheny, Derek Bailey and Gregg Bendian. That was totally improvised. That’s a three-CD set. There’s a duo drum record with Gregg Bendian called Bang!. That was completely improvised.

Paul: So I’ve been playing a lot of music where you just go in and it’s a blank slate, and what you create is the conversation of who you’re dealing with. Some musicians might just be listening to themselves, they might not interact, the ones that aren’t as fun to play. But most great musicians that know this style, it’s like you’re having a conversation. And I always say, for instance, we’re having a conversation right now. So if all I talk about is what I have preconceptions of and I’ve said a million times, I’m going to get pretty bored with myself.

Paul: So what you’re asking me, in our conversation is inspiring me to go back and think about things, and then we play off each other. And that’s what that is, it’s just basically a musical conversation as opposed to just regular conversation, talking together. And sometimes you can talk with people that are just either boring to you, or they don’t have anything to say, or they’re not listening to what you’re saying. You might talk about something that’s really important to you and they go, “Oh yeah.” You know like, “The waiter there hasn’t got my drink yet.” It’s like, “Oh thanks.” I just spilled my guts out to you and that’s what you’re listening to.”

Paul: But the really good conversations grow and they just become something that’s amazing. And musically that’s the same thing. That’s what Wertico Cain & Gray, that’s what we do.

Christopher: Fantastic. And you touched on something there which is you know, this is not just endless wandering music that never seems to go anywhere. There’s definite structure and arc to it, and a narrative for the listener. Can you give us any insight into how that’s possible? I think our audience probably understand what it means for a composer to sit down and write to form and give it some structure and think about beginning, middle and end. And they can probably think about a guitar solo where a guy gets up on stage and does a similar thing in his 8 bars, but for three people to get together on three instruments and do that spontaneously, how is that possible?

Paul: It just is. I mean, because we believe in what we’re doing, and everything that we play individually has 100% intent for each of us, but it’s also 100% openness to whatever everybody else is playing. So you’re agreeing to … You know, sometimes someone may take the lead a little bit, you let them. Or sometimes it’s just chance that everyone just went somewhere and it just turned out, so it’s a little bit of everything. The one thing it’s not is just bringing in preconceived, “This is what I’m going to do,” because that again, will ruin it.

Paul: And then when you do that, a lot of times I have no idea what they’re going to do, so if I go in with a preconceived idea, I’m going to be forcing what I already thought onto music that’s being created in the moment, and that’s not going to work.

Paul: And the other thing is that everyone’s gotten enough technique and enough musicality and everything to carry on an intelligent conversation, and they’re able to pull it off instrumentally. And what’s cool about it is because, especially Larry plays with everyone from Chicago Symphony to everybody at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, for instance. He was the house bass player for like 20 years so he’s played with all the jazz greats, he can read anything and he’s an amazing musician. David, on the other hand, he’s just a natural musician. He studied composition, but it’s funny because sometimes people go, “Wait a second, I mean he’s not really playing like jazz.” And we are like, “Yeah, that’s good, because we don’t want normal sounding stuff. We want stuff that’s been created that’s going to be us as opposed to something that you’re trying to regurgitate from someone else of what they have done.”

Paul: And so it’s not for everyone, and that’s fine. I think in a lot of ways, what you really want to do is just do things that you believe in. And then wherever they go, at least you’d know you’ve led an honest life, musically and hopefully in your real life too.

Christopher: Terrific. So the new CD from Wertico Cain & Gray is Without Compromise, which I believe is your seventh record together. You also have a new Paul Wertico Trio disc coming out First Date. Could you tell us a little bit about that group and maybe what’s similar or different to Wertico Cain & Gray?

Paul: Well, that’s a big difference in a lot of ways. For one thing it’s a guitar trio. John Moulder is this amazing guitar player. I mean, he is like one of the greatest guitar players in the world, and I’m on his records, he’s on my records. In fact I just did his new record last week. And so the bass player, Eric Hochberg is one of my dear friends forever too. He’s an amazing bass player but he also plays great guitar, great piano. And they’re both great composers as well.

Paul: The difference is that trio does play tunes. We do improvise. A lot of time there’s a tune called “8 x 12” that Eric wrote, that, it was like a tune but when I’m leader I like to take other people’s tunes and morph them into what my musical concept is, so I just used the head as almost the free head for us to blow. The difference, too, is that some of these tunes are really complex songs, they’re stuff in five and all that so that it’s a structure, and what’s we do within the structure that makes it different. And we really burn.

Paul: I mean, this new disk, the First Date … The first time I put that trio together, a friend of mine, Marek Komar, who is the president of the Pat Metheny fan club wanted me to bring a band to Germany and Poland. And just financially, you know, and for a number of reasons, it would be better to use a trio, so I was playing with John, I had done his records, I was playing with Eric, so I thought this will be a great trio to put together.

Paul: So went over there and we played 11 dates in Germany and Poland. Now one of the last dates was in Warsaw, Poland at a club called Akwarium Club, which is an amazing club, and that happened to be recorded and I put that out. I didn’t even know it was being recorded at the time, but I got a recording of it and then I put it out as Live in Warsaw! That came out several years ago.

Paul: Now this, someone found a DAT of the very First Date we did, which was in Ottobeuren, Germany. I mean, we had just gotten off the plane and been driven five hours, we were exhausted. And so it was a DAT. The sound of it, I could hear the drums and guitar really well. The bass was a little unrecorded, but it was so burning that I thought, “Okay, we’ve got to put this out as our 25th anniversary.” And so I edited it. David Cain actually helped me with the sound a little bit because he’s got the chops for film and just for working on EQs and just doing the recording process. He’s really great at both.

Paul: And I took the tunes and I figured out what would be a good 60-minute … Again, you want a record to have a beginning, a middle and end. You want to tell a story, it’s just like a book. So we finally just finished it. That should be out really soon. I mean, I gave you, I think the cover and all that when I’ve got long hair and all this stuff. And so that band should be famous, I mean, really. It’s really a burning band, but again, I don’t have an agent or manager, and usually what I do is just like gigs come so I haven’t been that aggressive with trying to book it. But since it’s the 25th anniversary, we actually have a gig this Saturday playing, which is going to be great.

Paul: And so I like playing all these different types of music, and between those two groups, that is two completely different things of me, which is great. Then I’ll do some recording dates just playing pocket, or I’ll do some other stuff. That’s part of me too. I just really feel that, as a drummer, as a musician, you don’t always play 100% of who you are. You play 100% for the music, but you do what serves the music. Sometimes it might just be the simplest groove, sometimes it might just be a frontbeat, sometimes it might be just completely going free, sometimes it’s really energetic burning stuff, sometimes it’s just sitting in the pocket and letting the music just be, you know?

Paul: All those different kind of things are what’s happening, and those two CDs are both completely different takes on it. There’s a couple other things coming up really soon, too. There’s a band called Open Frontiers International Project, that’s what I’m going with in August. That’s the sax player from Supertramp, John Helliwell, great guitar player, Raimondo Meli Lupi, who’s actually a monarch in Italy. He’s got a house with a golf course and stuff, and then a bass player, Gianmarco Scaglia who plays in my Italian trio as well. That’s a double CD that’s coming out, so that’s happening.

Paul: The piano player in the Paul Wertico Trio over there, the Italian trio Fabrizio Mocata, a great piano player. He does a lot of tango stuff. I’m on his new record, it’s called Swango. Now talk about making things happen. Okay, this is about being in the moment. When I was there with the Paul Wertico Trio with Fabrizio and Gianmarco, before one of the gigs, Fabrizio asked me to play on a track on his record, just kind of overdub it. So we went to this studio and we got there and for some reason the Pro Tools wasn’t working.

Paul: So we were there for like two hours, the guy never got it working and it’s like, “Okay.” So rather than just say, “Forget it,” we said, “Okay, we’ll come back tomorrow.” So we got there the next day after doing our gig, going to another gig, we went in and he got the Pro Tools working. I start playing with his prerecorded track, and the drums just did not sound good, it was like a tango thing. And I went, “Well, this is just … We don’t have time to work and get new heads and all that stuff.” But rather than bag it, I said, “Let me just play cymbals on this.”

Paul: So I played cymbals and it was better than if I would have played the actual tango. It came out perfect. So again, rather than giving up, rather than feeling like, “Oh, I don’t have time for this,” you’ll always find a solution. That’s about life. It’s not what happens to you, it’s what you make happen. And that’s … So all of a sudden on this tune, we came up with something better than … If the drum sets sounded good, maybe I would have played the entire groove and stuff and we wouldn’t have had this intense thing that just playing cymbals on would have.

Paul: So again, for all those people out there that want to play that might feel like they don’t have talent, that they’re too old to take up an instrument, that feel like their friends are better than them, don’t worry about it. You never know when the plane is going to go down, as I say. So the main thing you have to do is just enjoy the flow of your life, do the best you can, when you play music make the other people happy, and then you’ll be happy because you’re fulfilling a bigger cause than just yourself. And then just enjoy the journey, because the journey will never end.

Christopher: Well, Paul, I am sure it’s clear to everyone at this point just why you’re so admired among drummers and critics alike and why the word musicality is so often mentioned in the context of talking about your music. Thank you so much for joining us on the show today. We’ll certainly have links in the show notes to all the records we’ve mentioned and paulwertico.com is your one-stop shop for all of Paul’s latest news. Thank you again for joining us today, Paul.

Paul: Thank you, Christopher. It was great. Your great interviewer, and it’s my pleasure, so hopefully to see you again.

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