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Sunday, 15 November 2015

Jazz journalism

So I'm stood in a bar in Amsterdam, last Thursday night, drinking cloudy Belgian beer, courtesy of my old friend Iain, and chatting to the best drummer in the world.

I am. Honest.

Usually I tell people Friendly Encounters is not reporting. Grounded in a solid groove it takes off at times into flights of fancy. It's jazz journalism.

But not this week. The Steve Gadd in this week's story is the real Steve Gadd. The me is the real me. You can even see my head bobbing at the bottom of this video taken on the night and hear my cry of pleasure at the end.

Which is a strange sound for my body to make at a jazz gig. But I hadn't realised that's what I was listening to. I was so entranced by how Steve makes his drum-kit sing.

"This is great," Iain says at the break. "Every one of those guys is outstanding. I prefer rock to jazz, so it wouldn't have been my first choice. But very well organised."

It's a sentence no one has said to me before, so I take a moment to savour it. Then I replay some of the sounds in my head. And bugger me, he's right. Somehow I've filtered out one guy tooting a trumpet, another on keyboards and a whole lot of swing, syncopation and improvisation. My dad would have loved it. They'd even played Bye Bye Blackbirda song he used to sing us to sleep with, and a staple of jazz bands since the 1920s.

The knowledge I'm at a jazz gig doesn't dim my delight, as Steve and the band play half a dozen numbers, build to a drum solo, get rapturous applause and return for the encore.

"I could listen to Steve Gadd play anything, with anything." I tell Iain in the bar afterwards. "He could make great music by hitting a fresh cowpat with two sticks of celery."

"Or a four-cheese pizza with a couple of cucumbers," he says. 

Now I've read lots of articles trying to understand what makes Steve special. They talk about his wonderful feel, but they don't analyse it much. Having watched him play from a distance of 15 feet I can tell you there's at least three elements. 

He doesn't draw attention to his drumming. It's great music he's after, not the limelight. He works with the other guys in the band to create a groove so strong you could dance six inches off the floor on it. Then there's the dynamics. His are subtle, cool, sometimes surprising. They make you feel good. 

Then there's the space he gives to other players in the band. My lasting image is not of triple ratamacues on every available surface, the drumsticks just a blur. It's of one stick moving down, nice and easy, while the other comes off the skins, or more often the cymbals. The 'tssst' sound of a clipped hi-hat closing at the right point to make your spirits soar is quintessential Steve Gadd.

Iain is all for hitting the rain-silvered pavements at the end of the show, since we've a fair walk to the hotel and don't know the way. But the band's coming into the bar to sign T-shirts, so I spend 30 euros and get in line. 

The scary bouncer catches my eye and I look away, the schoolboy words 'It wisnae me' forming and dissolving in my head. Clad in a dinner suit two sizes too small for him, this guy is big, bulging and bald. He looks like a cannonball on a column of stone. 

Until some poor sap puts his arm around Steve's shoulders and tries to take a selfie. Then the cannonball moves in fast and plucks him off, using an arm like a ballerina's thigh.

At the end of the long table, Steve stands up and has a quiet word with the bruiser, suggesting maybe he shouldn't break the nice fans. So the next selfie, he just stands and watches, twitching slightly with frustrated force.

When I get to the front, I move along the table, getting signatures on my T-shirt, and having a wee word with each musician. "I noticed you smiling a lot when someone else was soloing," I say to Jimmy Johnson, the five-string bass player.

"I was enjoying myself," he says. "How could you not? These guys are good."

And then I'm there. Stood in front of a smiling Steve Gadd, who has signed my T-shirt and is waiting politely for me to say something intelligent. So he's clearly not a reader of this blog.

Thin and wiry, his tattooed arms look just like mine. If only they were. "Imagine you're giving one piece of advice to a young drummer who wanted to get as good as you," I say to him. "What would it be?" 

"There's no secret," Steve says. "Keep playing. Practise. Listen to other musicians. Keep it simple."

I hold my hand out to shake his. "Slip me some magic, Steve," I say and float back to the table where Iain is guarding my beer. Ten minutes later we're all leaving the bar and Steve is chatting to someone next to me. On an impulse I reach out and stroke his arm, an involuntary gesture my hand does to people I really like. He looks at me, smiles and holds his hand out again. I shake it and say goodnight.

I've had hot dates that didn't go half as well. 

The final impression that comes to me, as Iain and I wander in circles through the long night, trying to find our hotel using the force, the stars and our unerring sense of direction, is that Steve Gadd isn't projecting. There's no big star aura. Despite all that talent, he's a nice guy who seems to be taking it all in. It's like he's still learning at the age of 70. I love that.

"Keep playing," Steve Gadd said to me. "Practise.

"Keep it simple."

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