Peter Erskine: Upholding the Legacy

Peter Erskine discusses orchestral playing, his series of play-along apps and autobiography No Beethoven, and the dynamics of endorsement deals

Words: Brent Keefe   Images: Rob Shanahan

A drummer’s personality is usually evident in their playing, and Peter Erskine’s drumming combines a mixture of humility, experience, taste, a deep sense of swing and musicality, warmth and much more. His experience ranges from early big-band tenures with Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson, through fusion gigs with Weather Report, Steps Ahead and Yellowjackets (briefly), and countless sideman gigs with artists including Diana Krall, Joni Mitchell and the recently departed Kenny Wheeler. Peter has more recently been found increasingly (though not exclusively) in orchestral settings and his most recent UK visit was a short orchestral tour with singer Mary Chapin Carpenter. Drummer chatted with Peter over breakfast on the morning of his appearance at London’s Royal Albert Hall and our discussion began as Peter explained how the Chapin Carpenter connection came about.

“Mary Chapin Carpenter had invited Vince Mendoza to work on her latest album Songs From The Movie and Vince asked me to play on the recording. By most outward appearances, it doesn’t seem like I’m doing much, but it was interesting listening to Vince speaking to Matt Rollings, who produced the recording and who is also playing piano on this short tour. They have done this project with a few other drummers when I wasn’t available, and Vince highlighted how crucial the drum chair is and how challenging it is for the drummer and bass player to play this music because it’s so exposed, while requiring the discipline to go for the absolute most barebones approach to drumming possible, in terms of note choice and note placement. In that sense, it really is a game of inches, and you are playing for the song and trying to be the motor that keeps everything together. Additionally, I think I also function as the human presence of reassurance for Mary Chapin; she will often look over and I will be looking at her and give her a warm smile to reassure her that everything is okay. That’s important for a vocalist because a vocalist is very exposed. I think many of them develop a type of armour, enabling them to battle their way through any setting, but the song is much more pleasant to listen to if the singer doesn’t need to do that.

“I have said this before but an orchestra is a large boat to steer and the challenge, when you have a song with lyrics, is supplying the necessary rhythmic information without stepping on any words or playing something that is stylistically inappropriate. It’s not just a case of count it off and play time; my radar and antenna are pretty sensitive and on high alert the whole time just to make sure that things are moving the way they ought to, and I find that the way I phrase and the way I breathe with a phrase will filter into the orchestra pretty quickly, if they are paying attention. If you get an orchestra with the attitude that this is just a ‘pop’ gig, then there’s not a whole lot you can do to change that. We did it with the New York Philharmonic and the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington and they got it. At the first rehearsal they were ok, and then they started to hear how everything was happening and then they played it with all the seriousness of a Mahler symphony but with a nice little drum beat to it, and the orchestra members appreciate that the drum beat makes it simpler for them to play. I take some of the onus of counting and their entrance-making out of it, just like when I’m playing with a big band. I really try to serve it up on a silver platter for everybody. I’m just like one of those characters in Downton Abbey who has a very interesting private life, but I’m not the leading man.”

Having had experience of a variety of conductors, Peter highlighted the importance of a good conductor.

“Conductors are really important. There is a tremendous amount of psychology that’s involved in the relationship between the conductor and the players. I’ve seen good conductors inspire orchestras to their highest heights; I’ve seen good conductors lose an orchestra; I’ve seen bad conductors do nothing or talk too much; and I’ve seen good conductors with an orchestra that just decided to not show up artistically, and that’s happened with some well-known orchestras too. I was talking to the principal bassoonist of the New York Philharmonic and I was just emotionally moved and amazed by how well they were playing the music. She played this one three-measure phrase and I was almost in tears because it was so beautiful, and when I complimented her on this, she said, ‘We have to take it to the edge of the cliff every time we play because if we don’t, people ask, ‘What happened?’ Here is a group of musicians who are very aware of the responsibility of the legacy that they have, and you can extend that, whether you are part of the specific ensemble or not, to the legacy of the music or the legacy of the instrument. I mean, the drums are fun to play but there is a tradition… there is a legacy and, as much fun as I have playing, I take that legacy part of it very seriously.”

Peter seems to increasingly be found in orchestral settings and this, as he explained, is largely due to Mark-Anthony Turnage. Peter was keen to point out, however, that he still remains active in the jazz world.

“It’s all thanks to composer Mark-Anthony Turnage that I have this other life. Mark-Anthony, who also composed the opera Anna Nicole that I played in London in 2011, recently wrote a concerto for drum set and orchestra for me and my family. The movements are named after my family members: the first movement is ‘Maya and Taichi Stomp’; the second movement is ‘Mutsy’s Habanera’, Mutsy being my wife; the third movement is ‘Erskine Blues’; and the fourth movement is called ‘Fugal Frenzy’, which is an insane fugue for drum set and three or four percussionists. There’s not quite as much bebop as I used to play, but in the concerto I have to come up with some bebop and insert it in the open cadenzas. They are a fun part of that piece because I can indirectly quote and thus pay homage to any number of drummers, including Earl Palmer, Shelly Manne, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes and Vernel Fournier.

“I’m also still doing a fair amount of small group and big band playing, primarily in Los Angeles, although Europe is starting to pick up again. Most recently I toured and made a live recording with the Italian pianist Rita Marcotulli and bassist Palle Danielsson, recorded with a young pianist named Paolo di Sabatino, and just did a trio recording with a wonderful pianist from Milan called Massimo Colombo. They are all great players and it’s really fun to be a part of their projects and get to know them. I’ve also just recorded with the British-based American saxophonist Dan Reinstein, who is also an eye doctor. He’s working with a couple of local producers and because of geographic logistics, I’ve added drums to some existing tracks, but it feels pretty live and I’m proud of those tracks, including one where I used a two drum set approach, which worked really well.”

No Beethoven

In 2013, Peter’s excellent autobiography No Beethoven was physically published (following its initial digital release). While candid, Peter was keen not to offend anyone mentioned in the book.

“I was gratified to know that people get a sense that even though there are a lot of behind-the-scenes stories, they are not at the expense of anyone’s reputation or personal feelings. I suppose if I have any motto in life it’s ‘do no harm’. I see no reason to put out a book that portrays somebody in a way that is inaccurate or not complimentary.

“We are releasing a German paperback edition with many additional photos in October, and I’d like to emulate this German edition and do a special reprint of the English edition. The iPad version has thousands of pictures and I think you can also install software on a PC to read iBooks, and that’s worth doing just to see all of the photos.”

Essential Apps

Peter has also embraced the current technology and released a series of play-along apps, as he explained.

“We have released five apps so far. Our original app was Joy Luck, which was the first trio album that I had done where all of the instruments were isolated. Then we did Jazz Essentials 1 and 2, Afro-Cuban and The Code Of Funk, which is drummer specific and based on David Garibaldi’s book. The cool thing about the Garibaldi app is that you can take the drum tracks and solo any individual channel such as the snare, for example. It’s like being able to hang out in the mix studio with Tower Of Power. I think that’s one of our most exciting titles.

“Our developer, Lucas Ives, is a brilliant guy, a great developer and an excellent musician. The apps allow us to take the play-along platform paradigm and do something really hip with it and we did our best to choose song forms, tempi and keys that are the most relevant and necessary for developing musicians to master. The tempi are fixed on each tune – some other apps allow you to switch tempos but those have MIDI-generated performances. Those are fine if you just want to practice some technical things, but ours are genuinely swinging tracks with real musicians playing real instruments and there is no substitute for that. All of the apps include PDFs, which are instructional and also include transcriptions. Typically, one play-along track minus one instrument would cost $0.99 in America, so an album’s worth of material minus one instrument would cost 10 dollars. This app allows you to create your own mix for almost the same price, so any instrumentalist can use it by removing their own instrument from the mix. It’s great for individual musicians preparing audition material and for schools, and we are generous with the license – if a school has 25 iPads under one account, for example, they can use the app on all of them for one purchase price.

“In terms of future plans, I definitely want to do a Brazilian play-along and I’d love to do a big band one, but that will require some planning and financing because big bands are expensive. I’ve also got to decide what music to present. I’ve got a library of possible material, but the most obvious idea would be to do something with Bob Mintzer. A lot of Bob’s charts are still very popular but not so readily available.”

Endorsement Dynamics

In closing, Peter discussed his endorsements, explaining some of the reasons for change.

“I’m proud of my tenure to date with DW and seeing the Jazz Series became a reality. I claim no credit for the design of it, other than suggesting that they get the kick drum off the ground, but I did a lot of testing and reinforcing of certain ideas. The ‘Frequent Flyer’ kit was my idea, as was the name. The idea was to produce a kit that you can you fly with at minimal expense and that also functions as a great second kit that doesn’t require you to ‘steal’ components from your primary kit. I’ve played it in all settings, from big bands to small groups, and it records superbly. I recently used it on a recording of saxophonist Dann Zinn’s Shangri La album, and it’s one of the best drum sounds I’ve ever had.

“The switch to Remo has also just completely reinvigorated me and I especially love the Fiberskyns and the P3 on my kick drums. However jaundiced a view you may have about relationships between a professional drummer and a drum company, it’s almost always a 50/50 combination of drum or hardware features that you are comfortable with, in terms of your playing personality, and the relationships made with the people at the company. It’s not a case of one manufacturer’s drums being better than another – you just feel a rapport with something; it feels good or you like the way the drum set sounds when you put these heads on it. The other 50 per cent involves the personalities of the people that you are working with. When a company grows, they have to bring in more people and so you might end up dealing with different people to those you dealt with initially. All of a sudden, you’ve got some guy who doesn’t know you from Adam and talks to you like a jerk and you think, ’Wait a minute! I’m 60 years old. I don’t need this. These other guys know how to talk to me, so I’m going to go with them.’ Others may switch companies because they might be guaranteed a certain number of clinics, but I’m not a guy who is going to make his living doing drum clinics; I play with other musicians or I write. I like doing workshops but you won’t see me doing a clinic tour. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, it’s just not my thing.” 


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