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Carl Allen - New York State of Mind

It beats laying bricks ...

 

by Scott Donnell (DW's Edge Magazine)

 

 

 

 

You’ve heard of a drummer’s drummer? Well, Carl Allen is a thinking man’s drummer. He’s articulate, well-informed, and certainly in-tune with every aspect of the Jazz drumming institution. His reverence and insatiable appetite for the art form are readily apparent and therefore infectious. Professor Allen is a motivator and a realist; a seasoned player and an educator. Indeed, he resides in The Big Apple, but it’s his practical, no-nonsense, and purist approach that qualifies him as having a New York state-of-mind.

 

Scott Donnell: Talk a little about how drummers can develop their own voice.

    Carl Allen: This is an excellent question. I’d like to preface it by saying that in my opinion, specifically when we’re talking about Jazz, one should possess some basic knowledge of the tradition, because part of what we are attempting to do when we play is to add to the existing language and vocabulary of the idiom. That being said, there are a number of ways to develop your own voice. I have often said that great musicians are also great thieves. In music, we steal or borrow ideas from what we hear. I don’t think that the masters left us all of this great music for us to merely copy and regurgitate. We have to find a way to take ideas and make them our own. For example, take a solo from a recording. Learn it, and then find a way to change that same information, such as patterns, musical phrases or other ideas, and make them personal. This is nothing new, but it still works.

 

SD: How did you cultivate your playing style?

CA: As I mentioned, I took a lot of what I heard on recordings and in live performances from some of the masters. I transcribed them, learned their vocabulary, and explored a lot. One of the great lessons that I learned early on is that it takes courage to explore what it is that you are hearing, but it’s very necessary. I grew up listening to and playing a lot of styles of music long before I started playing Jazz. Gospel, R&B, Soul, and Funk are where I ‘lived’ before I started visiting Jazz, so to speak. When I was around ten years old, I started to really hear melody and wanted to adapt that approach to the drums. I can recall a conversation that I once had with the great Freddie Hubbard. We were on the road and I remember telling him that I didn’t think I was hearing the drums the way that I was supposed to hear them. He said, “What do you mean?” I replied, “I hear what Blakey, Tony, Elvin, Higgins, and others are doing, which I love. I want to do that, but also do what you, Miles, Monk, Dexter, Trane, and others are doing.” He started laughing his head off. I thought, “Oh man, I am in trouble.” He then encouraged me to follow my vision and said that as I long as I did what I was supposed to do as a drummer, that I could explore this conversation. In a way, he gave me permission to start asking what has become my favorite question: what if? Once I felt like I could explore more, I started learning ‘non-drummer’ solos, but playing them on the drums. This led me to taking ideas from other non-Jazz musicians and trying to apply it to what I was hearing. I still do it to this day.

 

SD: In a strange way, is there a Jazz drumming rulebook?

CA: I am not sure if there is a rulebookcper se for Jazz drumming as much as therecis for just making great music. I’m sure itcmay be different for others, but for me, it’s simple. Here are a few of my rules:

The Ride Cymbal: This is where it starts for me when playing Jazz. I always say that you should be able to swing the whole band with just your ride cymbal. Play great time, make it feel good and make it dance.

Play Great Dynamics: Listen to others more that you listen to yourself.

Contribute to the Conversation at Hand: This means playing something that makes sense conceptually, stylistically, and is pertinent to what’s happening at that moment.

Sound: The sound of your instrument has to compliment the music. This goes not only for the tuning of the drums, but the tone as well.

Concept: Be aware of the concept of the music. In order for the music to swing or dance it has to feel like Jazz. Be in the moment. Nothing else really matters. Make others (musicians and the audience) feel something. Have fun.

 

SD: How do you teach Jazz?

CA: I think with Jazz music, like other genres, you learn by doing. It’s a language, a culture, and it’s social music. You have to be around it; listen to live performances, a ton of recordings, and be prepared for a lot of trial and error. When I was with Freddie, he never told me how to play and he allowed me to explore and make mistakes. If something didn’t work he’d just say, “Try something different,” and I knew what that meant. It wasn’t until years later that I understood the value of being able to just figure it out. More importantly, you have to want it. This also means accepting that phase where you will sound bad before you sound good. Some musicians have a hard time with this, but I think that it’s part of the growth process.

 

SD: In today’s world, how do you achieve a career as a Jazz drummer?

CA: Although the music and the business have changed immensely over the past thirty, or so, years, many things still remain the same. Learn your instrument. Learn the music and the lineage. Learn as much about the business as you can. Show up on time, be prepared, and be nice. This is a people business; relationships and resources are cyclical, so this is very important.

 

SD: Does your kit change from gig-to-gig?

CA: I know that the obvious answer to this question would be, “Yes.” However, in my case, it doesn’t change much. I may add an additional floor tom, second snare, or go between one or two mounted toms, but that’s about it. If it’s a Big Band gig I may use a 20” bass drum. There are times, if I am doing a commercial or movie soundtrack, I may use a 22” bass drum, but that’s rare in recent years. I try to adjust my touch more than anything. A friend of mine says, “Your touch produces your sound and not the other way around.” He’s a pianist, which means that he’s playing a different instrument just about every day. Years ago, I was on a gig in Paris along with Art Blakey and Billy Higgins. We all had to play the same drums, which were horrible (this, of course, was before I started playing DW). Both of those guys sounded amazing and I really sounded horrible. After the gig I was furious. I was kicking chairs and complaining about the drums. Art said, “What’s wrong?” I proceeded to tell him about my drum rider. He laughed and said, “Do you play the drums or do the drums play you? If you could really play, it wouldn’t matter.” He walked away laughing. I was about twenty-two years old at the time. Lesson learned.

 

SD: Describe your sound.

CA: I would like to think of my sound as warm, clear, and recognizable. I never have any muffling on my drums or anything inside of them. I like for my drums to be open, resonant, and singing. I want those around me to feel the wood and warmth of the drum.

 

SD: How do you create your signature sound?

CA: I create my signature sound through exploring. I’ve spent years experimenting with not only creating different sounds, but also changing up my set-up from timeto- time. I think that sometimes we take our set-up for granted. I like for it to feel like it’s part of me and an extension of my body, if you will. Art (Blakey) used to talk to me about posture and how important it is. This, I do believe, has had an effect on my sound. Speaking of sound, I also work on drawing a sound out of the drum by focusing on playing into the drum versus playing off of the drum. I use both techniques. I once asked Elvin Jones what he practiced with his feet and he said, “The same thing I do with my hands.” I’ve always remembered this and try to do the same. For me, the key is having a balanced sound.

 

SD: Does a Jazz drummer have to use coated heads and tune up high?

CA: There was a time when I would say, “Definitely, yes.” Hearing and spending time around Tony Williams changed all of that for me. In his later years, he used clear black dot heads. I dare anyone to say that he didn’t get a great sound from the instrument or make it sound like Jazz. Al Foster is a great example of someone who tuned their drums low and still sounded amazing. There are many others, as well.

 

SD: What’s the perfect workhorse snare drum?

CA: This is not a fair question. (Laughs). I love snare drums! For years, I swore by wood snare shells, but recently I have been going between a 5x14” Collector’s Maple Mahogany and a 6.5x14” Nickel over Brass snare drum. I salivate whenever I play either of these drums. I have many snares and when I’m recording, I’ve been known to bring three or four with me.

 

SD: Who’s the Elvin of 2016?

CA: If we’re speaking specifically of the younger guys, I’d say Eric Harland, Marcus Gilmore, or Kendrick Scott. Of course, there’s also Jeff “Tain” Watts and Brian Blade. There are so many amazing drummers out there!

 

SD: Who’s the Tony of 2016?

CA: Obed Calvaire is someone that I really dig. Some of the other younger guys in this vein are Jonathan Barber, Jason Brown, McClenty Hunter, Jerome Jennings, Bryan Carter, and Justin Brown. I am so proud of all of these guys. There is a kid named Kojo Roney, who is the son of Anton Roney and the nephew of trumpeter Wallace Roney; I think he’s eleven now. It’s just sick the way that he has really digested Tony’s concept for tuning, comping, and just playing the instrument. Check him out. He’s also a great kid and he’s very well-balanced. There are others that I feel are also doing great things and blending styles together; guys like Marcus Baylor, Mark Whitfield, Jr., Terreon Gully, and Jamison Ross.

 

SD: Have you discovered new talent?

CA: Several years ago, I started a production company. My aim was to primarily focus on talent that I believed deserved more attention. This would not only be the younger musicians, but some of the older masters that I felt had been overlooked. This included Nicholas Payton, Roy Hargrove, Eric Harland (he was eighteen years old at the time), Brian Blade, Cyrus Chestnut, and many others. I taught at The Juilliard School for twelve years; the last six as the Artistic Director of Jazz Studies. During my tenure there I was able to help nurture many of today’s active players like Jerome Jennings, Ulysses Owens, McClenty Hunter, Lee Pearson, Marion Felder, Bryan Carter, Lawrence Leathers, Aaron Diehl, Mayuko Katakiura, Ben Williams, Kris Bowers, Joe Saylor, Phil Kuehn, Jonathan Batiste, Etienne Charles, Marshall Gilkes, Yasushi Nakamura, and many others. I must say that I had a lot of help from a great faculty that included Ron Carter, Kenny Barron, Rodney Jones, Kenny Washington, Billy Drummond, Steve Wilson, Ron Blake, Steve Turre, Wycliffe Gordon, Eddie Henderson, and I think of a lot of the young drummers who are out here working have studied with me at some point, and they’re playing with the likes of Gregory Porter, Michael Bublé, Chris Botti, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Kurt Elling, and many others. I am just trying to do for the next generation what Blakey, Elvin, Higgins, Tony, Max, Roy Haynes, Mel Lewis, and Philly Joe did for me. I am happy to say that I’m not alone in this endeavor. As the old adage says, “It takes a village.”

 

SD: You’ve been with Drum Workshop for almost two decades. How has DW evolved in your eyes?

CA: For me, DW drums have always sounded great. I remember right after I signed with you guys, I visited the factory and we discussed sizes, sound, feel, etc. Don Lombardi and John Good said, “How about we just send you something and you can let us know what you like and don’t like about them. Then, we can make some changes to make it your kit.” The drums were perfect right out of the box! I do think that DW has a much broader range of sounds now than they did twenty years ago. The Jazz Series are amazing, as are all of the other drums that they make. One major difference for me is the 13” mounted tom. Until I started playing DW, I found that the 13” toms of many other brands sounded somewhat tight or choked. DW had the first 13” tom that had a wellbalanced, round, full, and warm sound. Sounds like I’m describing a person, huh? Funny! (Laughs). DW drums have so much personality to them. They defy the odds in the sense that you can tune the drums up or down and use the same kit in a variety of settings. Years ago, I played a short stack kit; I used these drums on Big Band, Funk, Pop, Gospel, and Jazz gigs and recordings. They’re very versatile. I love those drums.

 

SD: Why did you choose DW so early on?

CA: When I first signed with DW they didn’t have many Jazz drummers at all. I was intrigued by this. Initially, I just endorsed the hardware. On my first visit, I just stopped by the office when I was driving from LA to San Francisco. John Good gave me a tour of the facility, and at one point we went into a room with drums set up. I just stared at them like I was in a trance. John said, “Why don’t you sit down and try them?” I thought to myself, “Okay, I’ll tap them for a bit.” I had no plans on leaving the company that I was with at the time. Once I started playing I couldn’t stop! I was playing with my eyes closed. I played non-stop for about 30-to- 40 minutes. When I opened my eyes, the room was full of people! I had never had that feeling playing drums before. I was sweating and breathing hard. I looked at John and Don and said, “Where do I sign?” That was it. I was hooked and still am. When I first got with DW they didn’t have any lightweight hardware. I remember having a conversation with Don about this. I felt that this was a market that no one was addressing. I think he was somewhat skeptical, initially. I know that Jim Rupp had also spoken with him about it from a consumer’s perspective. I was looking at it not only for me, but thinking of all of the guys that I would see taking drums on the subway in New York or taking them up five flights of stairs to their apartments. I’d see drummers come up with their own homemade version of hardware, so I knew that there was a need. Needless to say, DW has to keep up with the demand. The new Ultralight hardware is just mind-blowing for me. Not to mention that my drum tech (and his back) loves it. Thanks, you guys!

 

SD: Which DW Custom Shop shell configuration do you want to try next and why?

CA: I must admit that every day I look at what DW has posted on Facebook. The drums are a work of art. I’m very curious about the new Pure Oak drums. They seem like they’d be warm and resonant. I heard Sheila E. play some on the site and they sounded amazing. She’s incredible, so I expected no less. As for snare drums, I’m interested in checking out the Concrete (snare) drum. I have some ideas for different kinds of combinations of materials, as well. I have a confession to make. Whenever I get new drums, guys come to me with comments like, “Man, how did you come up with that idea?” I’ve been dealing with Garrison (DW Artist Relations Manager) for years and he’s a wizard. Whenever we are discussing a new kit, I may give him an idea for a color and then say, “Just surprise me.” What he comes up with always blows me away! Louie Garcia in the paint shop is also a genius. These guys deserve some kind of gold medal.

 

SD: What would you recommend to a drummer that wants to purchase their first DW kit?

CA: In terms of which model or series, I would say that it depends on the music that you’re playing and your budget. I was never in agreement with the idea that PDP drums are a ‘budget line’ of drums. I’ve used them many times via backline companies and they all sounded great. I’ve never played a bad DW kit. I am curious about the Mini Pro kit, too. I haven’t heard one yet. I’d like to see DW do more with the 16” bass drum. I would just recommend being open to possibilities because if one is not familiar with DW drums and they have a preconceived notion of what they want, they may be surprised...pleasantly so.

 

SD: What’s on your schedule for 2016?

CA: 2016 is looking to be a busy year, starting with the Jazz Cruise with Christian McBride and Dianne Reeves. January-April, I’ll be touring with The Mack Avenue Super Band with Christian McBride, Gary Burton, Sean Jones, Tia Fuller, and others. In between tour dates, I’ll also be doing a lot of clinics at schools and music stores. Other things on the horizon for 2016 include touring with a project called The Art of Elvin. It’s a band that pays tribute to Art Blakey and Elvin Jones. We played PASIC in 2014 and had a great time. People were so supportive and showed so much love that I decided to try to keep this band going, so we will be touring throughout the year. I’ve also been playing with the legendary saxophonist Benny Golson for more than twenty years and we’ve recently recorded a new CD, so we’ll tour for the new release, as well. One of the gigs that I have been doing for about eleven years now is being part of the rhythm section for the Thelonious Monk competition. This happens every year, and part of my duties includes playing behind twelve-to-fifteen semi-finalists. We rehearse with each of them for thirty minutes and perform the following day. I enjoy it because it’s a challenge to make each one of them feel comfortable, as if I am in their band. For me, it’s all about serving the music. I love doing a lot of different kinds of gigs and projects, so there will be many great things happening.

 

SD: If you could do anything musically, what would it be?

CA: Art Blakey used to say, “Music is supposed to wash away the dust of everyday life.” I take this to heart. It may sound simple, but I want to play music on the highest possible level, while inspiring others to be the best that they can be. Playing music reminds me of growing up in church. My mother was a Gospel singer in the choir and she was my best friend. Whenever I play, I just want to make her proud. When she passed away in May of 2001, I was in New Zealand doing free clinics and performances. I was at a point in my life where I felt a pull in my spirit to give back. When my sister called to tell me of my mom’s passing, she told me that I couldn’t come home until I finished the tour. I had four more days to go, but we were taught to finish whatever we started. I get such a thrill playing and teaching. It’s kind of all the same for me.

 

SD: What’s on your drumming bucket list?

CA: There’s so much that I’d still like to do. I would love to play with Fred Hammond, Marvin Sapp, Sting, Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon, and James Taylor, to name a few. Surprised? I love a lot of different kinds of music. Musicians tend to get typecast, but I love it all.

 

SD: What has been the most gratifying musical experience of your career?

CA: There have been many, but when I get to spend time with someone one-on-one or in a clinic situation and you get to see and hear the immediate change in their playing, it’s an affirmation of the importance of sharing this gift that we have. Another one that comes to mind was playing with Freddie Hubbard in Berlin (with special guests Woody Shaw and Dizzy Gillespie). When Freddie introduced me to Dizzy he said, “Hey Diz, this is my drummer Carl Allen.” Man, I thought I would pass out just hearing him say that to Dizzy. Wow! I played with him for eight years and during that time I was also the Road Manager and Musical Director. He even played some of my music! It’s still unreal to this day. One of the best life lessons that all of the aforementioned legendary musicians taught me is that music is a fraternity. It’s a privilege and an honor to be a part of what so many great people have spent their lives building. It has to be respected and never taken for granted. I remember meeting the great Ndugu Chancler the first time and he was so nice and gracious to me that it scared me, because I had assumed that if he was this nice, he must have thought that I was someone else. (Laughs). I thought, “Once he finds out that I’m not that person, his approach to me will change.” I said, “Hi, Mr. Chancler, my name is Carl Allen.” He said, “I know who you are. How you doing?” I’ve never forgotten that love and that warmth. He and I are close to this day. The great Billy Higgins said this about playing music: “Carl, it beats laying bricks.” I agree, and I know that I am a blessed man to be able to do so.  -HC-

 

- reprinted with expressed written permision DW's Edge Magazine -

                                                                      

 

_______________________________________________

 

 

Scott Donnell is the Editor for DW's Edge Magazine. He's been involved in the percussion industry since 1997 and serves as the V.P. of Marketing for Drum Workshop. He states: "The Cutting Edge is not just a play on words. The fact is, DW’s mission statement is to solve problems for drummers, create the instruments and gear that can inspire musicians, and take the art form to new and uncharted place isn’t just a catch phrase or a way to label our latest product designs. It all goes back to our mission statement and our belief in a Darwinian approach to making drums and gear, while constantly refining and reinventing the tools needed to craft new rhythms and new beats — Play on."

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