Interview with Peter Erskine
Improvisation is the highest form of pure music-making I can think of.
Last month I interviewed Peter Erskine, one of the most gifted drummers in jazzmusic.
Erskine was born in Somers Point, New Jersey, U.S. He began playing the drums at the age of four. He graduated from the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, then studied percussion at Indiana University.
His professional career started in 1972 when he joined the Stan Kenton Orchestra. After three years with Kenton he joined Maynard Ferguson for two years. In 1978 he joined Weather Report, joining the legendary Jaco Pastorius to form a formidable rhythm section. After four years and five albums with Weather Report and the Jaco Pastorius big band Word of Mouth, he joined Steps Ahead. His big band recordings with the Bob Mintzer Big Band are excellent modern big band jazz/funk performances studied by many students of drums and drumming.
His music-style spanning talent also features on Kate Bush’s 2005 album Aerial, where Erskine teams with bass player Eberhard Weber. Diana Krall, Eliane Elias, Queen Latifah and Linda Ronstadt among many more still choose Peter for his multifaceted musicality. Even Scottish and Finnish Classical Orchestras have had him as a featured musician.
Today, Erskine splits his time as a musician and that of a professor at the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California.
In 1983, he performed on the Antilles Records release Swingrass ’83.
In 2011 he appeared on stage at the Royal Opera House, London in the new opera Anna Nicole. (wikipedia.org)
Mr. Erskine, you started playing drums at the unusual young age of 4. What made you decide to play this instrument? Did you ever afterwards consider to change your instrument?
I’ve wanted to play the drums for as long as I can remember. I was also drawn to the trumpet, the piano, and classical percussion instruments … also wanted to play the cello and the electric bass for a while…I love music and the sounds that instruments make. It seems that I can make the most useful sounds on the drums, however…so this is what I do.
You’re active in music for more than 5 decades. How has jazz music evolved since you started performing? Is Jazz the right label for your music?
“Jazz” is a good label if we must have labels. But I love to listen to many different kinds of music: “classical,” “ethnic,” “pop,” “folk” … I like to play them, too … but my favorite music to play swings.
The first music that you can remember listening to included recordings your father had (Mike Brannon, jazzreview.com: http://www.jazzreview.com/index.php/reviews/jazz-artist-interviews/item/12870-): (ao) Art Blakey, Henry Mancini, Tito Puente, Julie London, Les Baxter, and the Stan Kenton Orchestra and later on he introduced you to Philly Joe Jones, Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Gene Krupa, Elvin Jones and Charlie Persip. Nowadays their music still inspires you?
Yes. My favorite music to listen to comes from these early experiences, from my childhood up through my teenage years. But I’ve added some names to the list in the years since…
The piano trio has become one of your favorite formats. “A trio is a very conversational medium; you can easily think of a triangle, where each point of the triangle is as important as the other. I really learned how to play in a trio setting working with John Abercrombie and Marc Johnson, and particularly working with Marc.” you say in an interview in 1994 (http://davecatney.org/interviews/dc02_erskine.pdf).
Is the piano trio still your favorite format? And, if so, which piano trio today do you like best?
I like trios — horn trios, guitar trios, and piano trios —but my favorite trio is usually the one I am playing with at that moment!
Charlie Parker. This year it’s fifty-eight years ago he has died . Sheila Jordan said to me in an interview: “people don’t talk about him anymore,The younger generation of jazzmusicians say they are inspired by Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Parker is a forgotten part of jazzmusic. That’s a pity, because he is an important part of the jazztradition.” Do you agree with her?
Sheila Jordan is a very wise woman.
You’ve been working with so many beautiful jazz musicians, among many others, Gary Burton, the Brecker Brothers, Bobbie Hutcherson, Jan Garbarek, Jaco Pastorius, Stan Kenton, Weather Report, Joe Zawinul. Do you still learn from your youthful colleagues and what should they learn from you? Are you inspired by them as you were by the colleagues you played with in the seventies?
I hope that I am able to continue to learn from my students and young colleagues, while they learn from me. People the world over have something to teach (to) AND learn (from) one another. LISTENING is the key, to music and to life.
In an interview, last year with Michalis Limnios (BLUES @ GREECE) you say: “Every style of music informs the next, so I learn not only from jazz music but also from classical music, folk music, popular music, and so on. But jazz has the highest and most rigorous standards when it comes to improvisation, or the art of composing while playing.” Some musicians, like Ran Blake and Misha Alperin use the term improvising music (Third Stream) for their music. How would you regard this term? Fits this heading in to your music?
Joe Zawinul gave me the best advice when he said (to) “always compose when you play.” Improvising is instant composition. Impovisation is the highest form of pure music-making I can think of … but I love the challenge, discipline and excitement of well-played ensemble music, too. When you combine the two elements (written and improvised), the results can be spectacular. The secret, I think, is to play what you as a musician would most like to hear next.
You conduct clinics, classes and seminars worldwide. You are a Professor of Practice and Director of Drumset Studies at the USC Thornton School of Music, and you are the Jazz Drumming Consultant to the Royal Academy of Music in London. You are a writer. And of course there is the Music. It appears you work night and day. What is your secret?
No secret. But I don’t have so many hobbies outside of music and my work … and, to be honest, I really should learn to relax a bit more. But I love to work at what I do. Maybe the secret is having such a wonderful wife and family (2 children): with their love and support, everything seems possible. I was also very fortunate to have had the love and support of my parents and siblings as I was growing up. Plus some very special mentors and friends over the years. Okay, that’s the secret: love.
Is there jazz in the future? Jazz is the most recorded music style by now, but do you think jazz will reach our youth? According to saxophonist and flautist Dave Liebman the future of jazz lies with how it will be absorbed and transformed by parts of the world where it is new to the people. Do you agree with him?
This same question is asked every year and every decade. I hear plenty of jazz being played by young musicians. The business is changing very much. And jazz might not be what it used to be in terms of playing opportunities…but it’s my assertion that jazz music will be with us for as long as there’s music. Part of the challenge is in learning how to coexist or flourish with technology as it keeps on changing. But as long as people love a style of music, it will never go away.
Your musical activities span a wide range of styles and combinations. Which projects do you have in store for us?
Let’s see: I will be premiering a concerto for drumset & orchestra in November (“Erskine, a Concerto for Drumset & Orchestra” by Mark-Anthony Turnage) with the Beethovenhalle Orchester in Bonn, Germany… and I am overseeing the publication of my autobiography and chronicle of Weather Report titled “No Beethoven” … releasing 3 more play-along apps for iOS devices as well as Mac and PC … working on a new book … I’d like to make a funk album … will be playing the music of MIles Davis and Gil Evans once again with Terence Blanchard and Vince Mendoza w/ the Detroit Symphony … accompanying singer Mary Chapin Carpenter on her new album and tour with orchestra …working free-lance in Los Angeles, making recording sand doing gigs with different trios (I play in at least three trios at the moment: one with Alan Pasqua and Darek Oles — our recording “The Interlochen Concert” is one of my favorites — one with Chuck Berghofer and Terry Trotter — and one with Bb Sheppard and Darek Oles … oh! Plus one with Bob Mintzer and Larry Goldings.
And new albums by Tierney Sutton, Seth MacFarlane, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Janek Gwizdala (did that whole album in less than 4 hours), plus others (played on about twenty album recordings this year) … designing a new portable drumset for DW … producing a compilation of unreleased Weather Report recordings … oh yeah, and playing with the Buddy Rich Alumni All-Star big band in Japan next month! I love challenges, and I hope to do justice to the music. And, I almost forgot, playing drums in the opera “Anna Nicole” at BAM that’s being produced by the NYC Opera … thankfully, my university has granted me a sabbatical leave to do all of these upcoming things. I’m a very lucky man! And busy, too!
Please read Peter’s (Weather Report) Biography, No Beethoven: http://www.weatherreportdiscography.org/peter-erskines-new-book-no-beethoven/