Exclusive Steve Gadd interview and Live Gig Stream from Ronnie Scott’s

Renowned jazz and session drummer Steve Gadd is performing three sold-out nights at Ronnie Scott’s this week as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, which fans from around the world can also watch thanks to the club’s exclusive live stream tomorrow night.

Ahead of this, in an exclusive, un-published interview, Gadd spoke to Mark Youll about touring, influences, ambitions, his rise to fame and why he's still drumming for some of the greatest artists in the world at 70.

Steve Gadd needs no introduction. In fact, before he could be introduced as "the most influential drummer alive" at last May's World's Greatest Drummer Concert, the audience packed into the sizeable Northampton theatre were already up on their feet, applauding the very presence of a man who's royal reputation and legacy precedes him. A man that has played on hundreds of albums and as many international tours, and is still first call drummer to some of the biggest artists in the world.

Gadd's appearance at the aforementioned drum event (alongside U.K greats Ian Palmer, Pete Cater, Steve White and a 12-bit big band raiding the repertoire of Buddy Rich) concluded a busy week of seven shows for the now silver-haired sticksman, six of which he had already played with Eric Clapton at the Albert Hall. But looking back, it's been non-stop for Gadd ever since his first studio date back in 1968, Gap Mangione's Diana in the Autumn Wind, a lush, orchestral jazz record that put to work some of the swing and rudimental chops he refined in the army three years before entering the session and shows business. From there he went on to make some great albums with such jazz luminaries as Bob James, George Benson and David Sanborn in the early 1970's, all before his big break in '75 and a track from Paul Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years LP, "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover". Almost overnight, the song's seductive meld of military rolls and tight pocket playing brought him to the attention of every major artist and hot-shot producer in New York, and eventually the world.

A game-changer of his generation, Gadd today puts his success down to luck, and being in the right place at the right time. "I lived in New York for twenty years, so in order to be in this business, unless you're in a self-contained band that's successful, you've got to go to those places where there's an industry, like New York, L.A or London. I went to New York and I met some people and got lucky. Being there for twenty years has helped me stay in the business, because I'm still working with people I met years ago and fortunately, I'm still meeting new people..."

Some of the people Gadd met in New York, notably session veterans like bassist Jimmy Johnson and guitarist Michal Landau appear on his latest album, 70 Strong. Surprisingly the drummer's seventh outing as a leader, it's typically varied stylistically (slick funk, country ballads, breezy swing and shuffle blues tunes) and crisply delivered by a top-drawer band that also features trumpeter Walt Fowler and organist Larry Goldings. As the title suggests, the album is also a celebration of sorts to mark the drummer's recent birthday.

"I'm seventy and still doing it, I'm happy about that." he says, leaning back into his chair, the stage behind him littered with drum sets and rows of orchestra stands. "I love to play, and I feel like I'm in good shape. I'm probably in better shape now than I was in my thirties and forties because I'm more health conscious now. I've got a great family, my marriage is still together, Carol (Gadd) and I still love each other, that's a big accomplishment. I love my kids, they are healthy, and those are the things that I'm happy about. There's a lot of sacrifices in this business, from being on the road..."

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What has kept Gadd either on the road or in a studio for what is fast approaching fifty years, is his commitment to the music, whether it be rock, pop, soul, latin, jazz or jingles. "I think any music I did (in the past) is important to what I do now" he enthuses. "I played in an orchestra, I played in a drum corp, I played in a big band in the army, I played with small groups, organ groups, R&B groups, but you can apply all of this to what you are doing now and make it work for you." Without question, the most discussed aspect of Gadd's drumming is his impeccable time and seductive feel. And while he is quick to assemble names like Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Louis Bellson, Cozy Cole, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Jimmy Cobb, Jack DeJohnette, and Joe Morello as key early influences, he adds that his approach to the drum set and motivation as a musician also came from players outside the jazz arena.  

"When I was a kid I listened to all those guys..." he admits."...they all played a little bit different and were all very inspiring to me. Right on down the line there was a certain sort of playing that I loved. But then I heard guys that weren't so much busy players, but heavy groove players and that inspired me too. So I was inspired by players from either end of the spectrum, both the busy and simple players, and I've tried to do both."

Those unfamiliar with Gadd's monstrous, matchless kit style (and sound) could do worse than dig out records such as Alive by Chuck Mangione, One by Bob James, Chick Corea's The Leprechaun, Pirates by Rickie Lee Jones, Smokin' in the Pit by Steps, Michal Urbaniak's Fusion III , or October Road by James Taylor for a succinct over-view of his recorded work. Visually, some discs to dissect drum-wise would be Paul Simon's Live from Philadelphia from 1981, Stuff's seminal Montreux gig from '76, or any of his swing-heavy shows with Michel Petrucianni's trio. There's also two all-important tuition tapes he made in the early 1980s, Up Close and In Session, the latter a fly-on-the-wall film documenting the drummer in various studio situations with equally gifted sessions such as Eddie Gomez, Will Lee, Jorge Dalto and a long-time comrade of Gadd's on countless sessions and tours, the late, great pianist, Richard Tee. "I've been lucky enough to play with some great musicians." Gadd declares. "...and if you're playing with guys that can really play and listen, and you do it enough, you can get real comfortable at it. That's what the goal is. If you want to play a style of music then you have to go out there and create the opportunity to play that sort of music..."

A matter of months after he arrived in New York in late '72, the then-26 year-old Gadd was playing on average three sessions a day, more often than not ahead of a late-night club date with bands such as Stuff and Mike Maineri's White Elephant group. By 1975 he was even busier and celebrating the fact he'd played on his first of many number one singles, Van McCoy's 'The Hustle', a disco hit that kick-start a run of much-discussed drum cuts in Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" ('75) Chick Corea's "Nite Sprite"('76) and Steely Dan's "Aja" ('77). The latter track (featuring what many would argue is the defining drum solo of his career) is one Gadd agreed to revisit for the World's Greatest Drummer event. Weighing up the fact he had not played the song since '77, his recital of it that night was nothing short of breathtaking, leaving members of the audience stunned and slack-jawed. One of the lucky few to view the big band-arranged Steely classic was this writer, who, taken aback by Gadd's power and projection in light of his lightness of touch and simplistic approach, later detailed his performance as one that "cradled the soul" in a magazine review.

While Gadd himself is not one for praise, looking back or celebrating past glories, he does believe plenty can be sourced and learnt from the players and music of yester-year. "I think there's some young players out there that look hard at the past." he insists." There are guys that are inspired by what's happened before, guys like Mark Guiliana or Chris Dave, that you can tell have listened to the older guys and have taken inspirations and made them their own. I'm sure there's a lot more players like that too. There's a certain school that love Tony (Williams), Elvin (Jones) and Jack DeJohnette. It's in their heart and soul. I also think there's a lot of great drummers coming out of churches now and these guys work with Beyonce or Usher or Rihanna. Those artists put together certain sort of bands; and a lot of those players may have come out of the church and they do those jobs fantastic."

For the work-mad Gadd, reaching seventy hasn't slowed down his pace or passion for his art. In fact, these days he's working nearly as solidly as he did in the '70s. The next few months entail a promotional tour to support 70 Strong, another European tour with saxophonistMichael Blicher and Hammond-wizard Dan Hemmer starting in January, and new releases in the new year from James Taylor and Edie Brickell; so it's looking more likely that a 90 Strong release could be on the cards. "I love to work so whoever wants me to play would be great for me..." he says with a smile. "There's a lot of great players out there and it's nice to always meet new people. New musicians help you grow. That's what moves me, meeting new people and playing new music. Whatever comes down the road I'm happy with, I'm just trying to keep it in the moment. Getting the opportunity to play with guys that can really play, that are good listeners, it's a joyous experience. When it comes together and everybody can hear, it's a lot of fun. When you feel the groove, that's what inspires you to keep on going after it. Not all nights are good, but it's the high points that you keep striving for, they keep you going..."

– Photos by Jon Frost

The Steve Gadd Band play Ronnie Scott's from Nov 16-18 as part of the London Jazz Festival. 70 Strong is out now on the BFM Jazz label – click here for details on the Live Stream from Ronnie Scott’s

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