Jeff Porcaro

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Julia Stoff

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prasa > Hitmen. Vol.1, no.1, 1982

HITMEN, Vol. 1, no. 1, 1982

An Inside Look at the World of the Studio Drummer


By Sam Bradley

If drummer Jeff Porcaro had never co-founded the immensely popular group TOTO his stature as an artist would nevertheless be assured. At age 28 Jeff has achieved a pinnacle of expertise and recognition accorded few players in a lifetime. Since leaving high school during his senior year to accompany Sonny and Cher in Las Vegas Jeff has toured and recorded with Seals and Crofts, Boz Scaggs, and Steely Dan. Jeff's also played on a long list of contemporary recordings with such top artists as Jackson Browne, Carly Simon, Aretha Franklin, and recently with Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen. Record producer Richard Perry has referred to Jeff as "one of the three or four drummers that every top artist and producer would love to have at their recording session."
As a youngster Jeff would accompany his father, noted percussionist Joe Porcaro, on gigs, listening to and watching many of Hollywood's top studio and session musicians. His first record date grew out of a rehearsal band headed by Jack Daugherty. Jeff reflects: "When it came time to record I thought Jack was going to go out and hire a professional player like Hal Blaine or Jim Gordon. It surprised me when he called and told me to be at the studio the next day."
The band comprised many of the city's top Jazz players, among them tenorist Don Mensa, trumpeter Chuck Findley, and guitarist Larry Carlton. Probably the most singularly exciting element was the leader's concept of using two drummers, for Jeff would be playing with his idol Jim Keltner. "Sitting up there with Keltner was a dream come true. When I was fourteen I began listening to Keltner and drummer Jim Gordon on records. I used them both as models for my own playing.
"Keltner was just in off the road with Joe Cocker's 'Mad Dogs and Englishmen' tour. I must have seen that movie eight times. During the rehearsals Jim really helped me to develop my own presence as a player. I was this young, busy drummer, and Keltner was laid-back. His time was solid. His playing was always very musical. Looking over at him while we were playing I was constantly being made aware of dynamics and just being part of the musical arrangement."
Jeff's next gig came when players from the Daugherty band were hired for a summer replacement show starring Sonny and Cher. Few thought the show would last out the summer. Jeff would continue with the show for four years, during which time his career would continue to accelerate. Eventually his strong desire for live group playing forced him to leave. 'The Kid', as his cohorts dubbed him, was definitely on his way.
Jeff reflects on that early period of his career. "There's a chain reaction that happens. I started to get calls to do record dates, and played on some things that became hits. Pretty soon I was getting more calls than I could handle.
"I felt that I had to live up to people's expectations, musically. There's a commercial style, a disco-apocalypse that's very easy to play, requiring no thought whatsoever. Yet as far as my own evaluation of my playing, I felt that there were many talented drummers that could provide a more authentic feeling...I mean if someone wants a shuffle drummer I can name ten cats who can play with authenticity and feeling in that groove. The late Al Jackson was beautiful (Stax session drummer who played with Booker T. and the MGs), but I'm not Al Jackson.
When discussing his achievement in music Jeff acknowledges "the environment and encouragement that was there in my family." An average Sunday would find the Porcaro kids -- Jeff, Steve, and Mike -- gathered in the family room, drum sticks in hand, reverberating in cadence.
"As far back as I can remember," says Jeff, "I wanted to be a musician. The players I listened to as a kid were studio players, and in my opinion some of the best all-around musicians happening. I remember hearing my uncle Emil Richards playing micro-tonal music with the Harry Partch Orchestra. I'm very thankful for that environment and for the experience of hearing so many talented players.
"It was Jimi Hendrix," says Jeff, "who was then, and continues to be, my greatest influence -- both musically and spiritually. It's difficult to put into words the magic and majesty I feel in his playing. He remains a vital force, as influential on his instrument as was John Coltrane on sax. It's funny, people have yet to really equal either man." With a sense of sadness in his voice Jeff continues, "I'm sure if he had lived I would have had the opportunity to play drums with him. We'll never know what kinds of things he could have done had he lived."
Live with TOTO, the sheer intensity and power of his chops make Jeff one of the most exciting and explosive drummers in contemporary music. His play is alive with a controlled energy bordering on frenzy. Like a puppet pulled by an invisible string Jeff will jump from his drum throne to strike and pinch his ride cymbal and return to his hi-hat without a missed beat during an up-tempo song like 'Rosanna.'
There are drummers who, having found success within one genre of music, are content to stay within the confines of that style, forever exploiting a repetitious set of beats. Jeff Porcaro is not one of them. "There's a broad area of playing which I love yet don't feel that I've developed enough experience in to play as fully as I'd like. I mean if someone in a club called an uptempo be-bop I'd like to feel completely at home with it. Cats out here in L.A. like Jake Hanna or the greats like Elvin Jones and Tony Williams play everything with such fluidity and control This is the first time since I was 18 and left home that I have a house where I can set my drums up and just woodshed. Until recently I've lived in apartments or was out on the road eight months of the year. Growing up I believed that through complete dedication and study I could obtain that level of artistry. I've come to the point now where I'm taking the time out to put in the work to reach that goal."
Besides TOTO Jeff's work with Steely Dan has been one of the most fulfilling and musically inspired contexts in which he has participated. "They were my favorite band long before I ever joined the group. The feelings and themes in their music are all moments that I feel I've been part of. The themes themselves are all applicable to a wide spectrum of human existence and emotion. Things that you feel in your gut.
"Becker and Fagen are where contemporary music should be today. They're pure musicians of the same caliber as the players they pay homage to. They listen to Bill Evans, Miles, and Mr. Parker and I think that's reflected in the quality of the things they do."
Jeff owns and plays several different drum kits; his choice geared to the musical context he'll be playing. Live, with TOTO, he used an 8-ply Pearl Rosewood kit with eight rack toms in graduated sizes and two floor toms. "I use bottom head on all of them," says Jeff. "I like the resonance you get having a membrane on the bottom of the drum."
Jeff also plays Paiste cymbals with TOTO, enjoying "the rich tonality and quick response I get when I strike them."
In the recording studio Jeff will often overdub multiple tracks of percussion and drums, conceptually dealing with a myriad of rhythm effects. An example we discussed was 'Lowdown', from Boz Scaggs' 'Silk Degrees'. "That track had a wide open groove to work with. On the basic rhythm track I played an eight note shuffle on the hi-hat with quarter note accents on the snare. After listening to the tune develop I decided that sixteenth notes would sound hip. It's always interesting to add something to your original statement and see what emerges."
The rhythm section of the hugely successful 'Silk Degrees' includes David Hungate on bass and David Paich, who co-wrote six of the album's tracks along with writing the arrangements, on keyboards. The three players began working as a rhythm section in 1972, touring with Seals and Crofts and Steely Dan prior to joining Boz. Jeff's association with David Paich goes back to their high school days where the two played in several rockin' teen combos.
From this trio, joined by Jeff's brother Steve Porcaro (keyboards), Steve Lukather (guitars), and Bobby Kimball (vocals), evolved TOTO. The group's success was almost instantaneous. Within two months their debut album 'Toto' had gone gold; it would eventually become platinum.
Four albums later the group's sound still maintains a strong blend of highly stylized rock integrated with orchestrated synthesized keyboard passages. On their recordings Jeff's drums are up-front and omnipresent, his playing dynamic and rock solid. Critics, however, citing the players' studio backgrounds have given TOTO more than their fair share of flack.
Explains Jeff: "They see us as hotshot studio hacks who, at the peak of the rock boom, decide to put out our own album as a money-making venture. We never looked at things in those terms. When David Paich and I played together in school bands it was always our dream to have our own group. We continued to have fun making music together and found other players who felt the same way. As long as that joy and energy are there we'll naturally keep going as a band."
Trying to sort out the misconceptions that success can bring, Jeff continues: "On the road sometimes drummers approach me and want to know how I've achieved the things I have in music. They say: 'First you did the Sonny and Cher show, then you got into session work...' They look at me as if I planned out my whole career -- which just isn't true. It just happened. I never politicked to get gigs; I'm not that kind of person. I don't think that way or live that way. If someone called me to do a session I was happy to take part; I still am. I like to play and enjoy the challenge of reading a chart -- it keeps me sharp. My primary reason for being there is to enjoy the music. I never thought twice about my stature or image. I've never taken myself that seriously."
To some people drummer Jeff Porcaro is a 'Pop Star'. Yet to those members of the Hollywood session world who have seen his career progress Jeff's simply a hometown kid makin' good. Talking with Jim Keltner recently about Jeff's evolution as a player, that renowned drummer summed it up pretty well: "Jeff's playing has always had a lot of heart and soul. From the first time I heard him play I knew the kid had talent."
* * * * *
Musicality is his trademark. That he has a sense of drama and sense of humor is secondary to this quality of musicality, this quality that is sorely lacking, not only in drummers, but in many cliche ridden musicians who play today's popular music. Although he once said in an interview that he attempted, in his playing, to authentically imitate different styles of drumming, he has, consciously or unconsciously, created a style of drumming very much his own. Nowadays, many try to cop his licks, try to imitate his style. He is a busy man. He is Jeffrey Porcaro. He is, at the ripe old age of twenty-eight, a ten year veteran of the Los Angeles studio scene.
Jeff's drumming, over the years, has matured. As a teen, his playing tended to be more frenetic. It was not relaxed like it is today. Not that his drumming today is boring or ineffectual. It is as explosive as ever but more controlled. He knows how to hold back and let the tension build before rumbling a melodic fill or crashing a cymbal and then catching it to mute its sound. He rarely, if ever, takes a solo, preferring instead to engage in trading ideas with the person who is soloing. He can transform a bass solo into a bass and drum duet.
In jazz, a drummer has to be aware of much more than simply where "one" is. He has to be familiar with a song's form. He has to know where the chord changes are heading. But a rock drummer's job is primarily that of a time keeper. Sure, that takes a certain talent, and it shouldn't be demeaned, but as overall musicians, rock drummers tend to be inferior to jazz drummers. But Porcaro, although he is a rock drummer, has a strong background in jazz. If he hasn't played much jazz, he has certainly listened to a lot of it growing up in the house of a jazz drummer, his father Joe, and being exposed to Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones at an early age.
No, Jeff Porcaro is not a jazz drummer, but he employs qualities such as dynamics and sensitivity to the soloist just as the best jazz drummers do. To compare Porcaro to Tony Williams or Billy Higgins wouldn't be fair because they inhabit completely different musical environments. Suffice it to say that Porcaro is not likely to fall into the cliche ridden pit inhabited by sycophants of the pop-rock world.
When you catch Porcaro playing live at a small nightclub with some of Los Angeles' premier session players like Larry Carlton, Abe Laboriel and Greg Mathieson, then you see him in an environment which transcends the blandness that characterizes most of today's more commercial music. Instead, Porcaro can "stretch out" a bit. Of course, even in a commercial setting such as the one he is in with his group TOTO, he still manages to be creative and, like drummers such as Mitch Mitchell, he infuses even the most elementary rock grooves with some very "hip" embellishment.

What is really essential, really productive is the Way -- after all, Becoming is superior to Being. -- Paul Klee.

HITMEN: Your playing on 'Doctor Wu' from Steely Dan's 'Katy Lied' is very inventive, especially the fills that you play during the last verse. Your performance felt like you got right into the heart of the song. Was it a comfortable one to play?

Porcaro: On the 'Katy Lied' sessions Walter Backer, Donald Fagen, guitarist Denny Dias and I went into the studio a couple weeks before the actual recording dates began and laid down demos of all the tunes. Then we each went home with the tapes and familiarized ourselves with the material.

That particular tune took a few takes. Becker and Fagen's music, while it's not always easy to play in terms of the technique required, always has a very real mood. I find that if I feel the music, playing it is no problem.

HITMEN: From that same album, 'Your Gold Teeth II' has a nice Jazz-waltz feel.

Porcaro: Before we recorded the tune Donald Fagen gave me a couple Charlie Mingus albums, which have a lot of 6/8 Jazz-Waltz compositions. I listened to what Danny Richmond was doing 'cause that's what they wanted the drums on 'Gold Teeth' to sound like. So what you're hearing is me playing a rather diluted version of that style.

HITMEN: The way you turn around the beat during the drum break is interesting.

Porcaro: I didn't turn the beat around so much as express the accents in various combinations of three. That feeling of three kept going throughout the tune yet the accents fell in groups of 3/4, 6/4 and 9/4. In other words the accents would correspond with the downbeats of the next phrase. Just like most jazz, when there's no lyrics and you're just blowing you're still playing a chorus.

HITMEN: Staying with the Dan, your drag rolls on 'Gaucho' are hard for many drummers to play.

Porcaro: Somewhere in the back of my mind the tune reminded me of a Bolero. Yet instead of playing it with two hands on the snare I broke my hands up between the ride cymbal and snare. Actually anybody can do that. If you can even get comfortable playing a basic rock and roll beat -- (scats) Boom, Ba, boom, boom, ba. Once you stop thinking about the beat you're playing and just relax, your left hand will play those tings naturally. It's just a matter of letting the stick bounce and picking it up in time. It's nothing you can sit down and consciously try to play. If you hear somebody playing one of those ruffs or drag rolls but as they come to the moment that it should be played and think 'Oh god, I have to play this,' it will come out sounding funny.

I don't know for sure if this is correct, yet it comes to my mind that before there was even the term 'rudiment,' and there was no drum notation, I could imagine a cat listening to a drummer play a little thummm with his left hand and saying, 'Man, did you hear that little 'drag' he played?' Then another cat said, 'What's a 'drag'? And the first guy, the one who developed the language of rudiments, said, 'Well, I think a drag is maybe four little light bounces before the major accent.' Make believe that there are no notes and somebody said play a drag -- what would you do? You'd just naturally let your hand fall and drag into the beat.

HITMEN: You told me before that you developed the drum part of 'Rosanna' from John Bonham's playing on 'All Of My Love', speeding up the tempo and adding a bugaloo bass drum figure.

Porcaro: Yeah, but the thing is I didn't go out and buy a John Bonham drum book and read the part. There are things, and I know this from my own experience, that you have to have an ear to hear before you can play them. Even if you have the best set of reading chops around, your ears have to be open enough to hear. If you're the kind of drummer that has to see something written before you can feel it, then you should quit school, stop buying books and open your ears to the music.

HITMEN: A lot of the drummers hear what you and the other players in this book have done in the studio and think to themselves: 'These cats are perfect, I could never touch what they've done.' Yet you've told me that a lot of the shuffles you recorded with Steely Dan and Boz Scaggs took awhile before you felt comfortable playing them.

Porcaro: Yeah, to this day I hear myself rushing all the time on shuffles. As I get older they're becoming easier. The more you play anything, the more in touch with your body you become and the more relaxed you feel. I'm just critical of grooves 'cause I know how they ought to sound. If I don't feel that I'm playing a groove as best it could be played I'll suggest another drummer to the producer who can play it with more authenticity. No matter how good a drummer you are, there's something about the sincere feeling that some players bring to a style that can't be equaled.