Music

Steve Gadd: Drummer still 'laying it down,' 50 years on

by Frank Spignese

Contributing Writer

You know Steve Gadd. Even if you think you don’t, you probably do. A drummer who has played on countless studio sessions, Gadd has solidified himself as one of the most sought after timekeepers in modern music. From James Brown and James Taylor to Chet Baker and Chick Corea, he’s rolled with royalty. As Corea himself once said, “Every drummer wants to play like Gadd because he plays perfect.”

Gadd has the body of work to back the lip service, too. To list just 10 percent of his collaborations here would turn this article into a glorified Wikipedia entry.

The Steve Gadd Band will journey through Japan from Dec. 8 to 20 with a lineup that features Grammy Award-winning pianist Kevin Hays. While Gadd’s studio session work shows him proudly playing in service of the song, his own outings give him a chance to cut loose and bring the house down. A featured guest on the tour will be seasoned guitarist David Spinozza, who holds a special place in Fab Four lore, being the only musician to record with both John Lennon and Paul McCartney following the breakup of The Beatles.

“David is an old friend of mine and he likes to play the grooves,” Gadd says, ahead of the tour. “David brings another kind of tenor to the band and it’s a lot of fun. And it’s good to be with an old friend again.”

While not solely a smooth jazz musician, Gadd, 74, was instrumental in the early days of the upstart genre, famously backing Grover Washington Jr. on the 1981 crossover smash “Just the Two of Us.” He was featured more prominently on a number of albums from the pioneering CTI Records label in its 1970s heyday. Helmed by producer and well-known eccentric Creed Taylor, CTI released stylized and meticulously arranged LPs that were “smooth” before the moniker had even been coined. Star artists like Hubert Laws, George Benson and Bob James kept jazz hip and contemporary as the genre overall took a dip in popularity. Gadd was a mainstay of the CTI studio.

“Creed Taylor and (producer) Rudy Van Gelder had a formula for making records,” he says. “They pretty much stuck by it, and it worked. They had a thing where they could get it done in a reasonable amount of time — it sounded good, it felt good. They were able to put the right people together. They did a lot of good things.”

One less-heralded pit stop in Gadd’s storied career was his all-star instrumental group, Stuff. Releasing a handful of studio and live long-players in the late 1970s, Stuff was a danceable funk and soul collective that brought together a number of in-demand New York session musicians, including guitarists Eric Gale and Cornell Dupree. Members of the jazz intelligentsia turned their noses up at the time, but the music has aged well. Sonically landing somewhere between Weather Report and The Meters, Stuff now sounds like a precursor to the jam band phenomenon that would kick off 20 years later.

“The Stuff albums just sort of happened because there were guys that had fun playing together,” Gadd says. “So that gave them an opportunity to have fun at night. It wasn’t for the money. One thing lead to another and we were off with a record deal. But it started out because we loved each other musically and felt really great on the bandstand. It was a lot of fun.”

Gadd has also made his presence felt here in Japan, appearing on releases by veteran jazz musician Masahiko Satoh and, more recently, jazz pianist Ai Kuwabara.

Veterans of sound: Steve Gadd Band, fronted by the drummer (front right), features bass, guitar, keyboard and trumpet. | BLUE NOTE TOKYO 2018
Veterans of sound: Steve Gadd Band, fronted by the drummer (front right), features bass, guitar, keyboard and trumpet. | BLUE NOTE TOKYO 2018

Two of Gadd’s most lauded moments came a few years apart in the mid-’70s. The first was his drumming on Steely Dan’s 1977 track “Aja” on which he soloed in cahoots with saxophonist Wayne Shorter. The muscular, soaring burst of improvisational spark gave Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen the jazz street cred they had craved since their debut.

Gadd’s other defining moment was his iconic opening snare riff on Paul Simon’s 1975 track, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.”

The snip-snap solider stepping intro is one of the most recognizable percussive openers in popular music. The song was also a massive hit, topping the charts in both the United States and Canada. Gadd says the use of the riff came about almost accidentally.

“Part of the song came together pretty easily, but the verses nobody was happy with,” he says. “We kept trying different things, Paul would go in the control room and listen. I would stay in the drum booth, practice different things. When we got closer to the track then we’d all go in and listen and Paul heard me practicing this thing, this little military thing and that’s how it came about.”

While he has played with a plethora of performers, Simon was the artist that first had a hand in getting Gadd’s signature sound on Top 40 radio. The two of them had a fruitful relationship that carried on up until Simon’s embrace of world music in the mid-’80s.

“It was a great experience for me to work with Paul. He’s a great writer and I learned a lot about making records, searching for different sounds, because he is meticulous about his music and the use of space,” says Gadd. “Two things don’t have to be playing at the same time. If one thing is playing, give it room and then when the other thing wants to play … wait for space. Everybody doesn’t have to be playing all the time.”

Other highlights from Gadd’s collaborations with Simon include his tricky beats on the hit single “Late in the Evening” and his lovingly subdued accompaniment throughout the introspective “Heart and Bones” album.

With a career spanning 50 years so far, Gadd still finds himself in high demand. He has served as Eric Clapton’s main drummer since the late 1990s and the infamously reclusive Kate Bush recently enlisted his talents on her last two comeback outings. His shows with Steve Gadd Band in Japan will have the main man front and center but still willing to share the spotlight with his selection of musicians and friends.

When asked about his musical philosophy, he responds with a democratic demeanor that reflects the humble roots of his upbringing in the city of Rochester in upstate New York.

“For me, it’s whatever makes the music feel the best,” he says. “It’s about laying it down for other people around you and hoping that everybody sounds the best that they can. I’m trying to help that happen.”

Steve Gadd Band kicks off its tour of Japan on Dec. 8 in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, before moving on to Oita, Nagoya, Osaka, Tokyo and Sapporo. For more information, visit www.drstevegadd.com.