Dave Samuels: Achieving One Unified Voice

January 22, 2009

Dave Samuels

A skilled marimba player and vibraphonist, Dave Samuels has collaborated with some of the biggest names in modern jazz: Gary Burton, Pat Metheney, Frank Zappa, John Scofield, and Gerry Mulligan, among others. Through his work in Spyro Gyra, with Don Friedman in Double Image, with The Caribbean Jazz Project and on his own solo projects, Samuels has established himself as one of the preeminent voices of our time and the foremost mallet player of his generation. Additionally, Dave has been active as an music educator. After attending Berklee College of Music he joined the school’s staff in the early ’70s for a few years and returned as a teacher in the mid-1990s.

JAZZed recently caught up with Dave Samuels and learned something of his own approaches to learning and teaching jazz and the language of improvisation.

JAZZed: Let’s start by talking about some of your early teachers and band directors. Who were some influential mentors?
Dave Samuels: I had three particularly influential teachers. First was Jake Jerger, a drummer/percussionist who I studied with from the age of 6 to 17. He gave me the gift of learning the fundamentals of playing and teaching every student progresses by learning to teach themselves. He was my mentor. Second was Alan Swain, a great piano player and teacher in the Chicago area. He opened my ears to the world of harmony. Each week I would take a standard tune and try to re-harmonize it.

JAZZed: And third?
DS: Third is Renick Ross who gave me the opportunity to play vibes in his ensemble piano, vibes, bass, and voice. Renick wrote most of the music and we would rehearse three times a week. I learned how to play vibes in Renick’s band and I credit him with giving me the opportunity to learn how to play vibes in a band, not out of a book and playing in a practice room.

JAZZed: At what point did you first become interested in teaching others? Did you have a specific instructor who inspired you to teach?
DS: I think you learn to teach yourself as you learn to play your instrument. It’s true in any field that you may be interested in. Teaching means that you understand the concept and you can generalize from it. Being a great teacher means that you can demonstrate and explain a concept in many different ways no two people learn the same way. So the challenge of teaching is seeing the same concept from different angles. So, again, the three most important teachers for me in this respect are Jake Jerger, Alan Swain and Renick Ross.

JAZZed: What was your first teaching gig?
DS: I taught at Berklee College of Music from 1972-74. It was an amazing time for me. The school was small and full of great players both teachers and students. It was a very creative environment for everyone who studied and worked there. The focus of the school was on performance.

JAZZed: Can you talk some about your early years teaching? What were some challenges you came across and solutions you devised?
DS: Giving privates lessons was a challenge for me. I learned over time how to explain and demonstrate concepts from different angles. The way I explained something to one student didn’t always work with another student. I had to put aside my own agenda and figure out how the student learned. I also learned to be more open and embrace the music the student wanted to play. I found this approach to be much more successful.

JAZZed: Tell me about your work with Gerry Mulligan. That must’ve been something.
DS: Playing with Gerry Mulligan was my first opportunity to play with someone I had grown up listening to. I was moving to New York from Boston when I got a call from Gerry to play with him at the Jazz Workshop in Boston. I was recommended to Gerry by Alan Dawson, a legendary teacher at Berklee, a very good vibes player, and a fantastic drummer who had worked with Mulligan when he was playing with Dave Brubeck.

JAZZed: How long were you playing with Gerry?
DS: I worked with Gerry from 1974-79. It was a fantastic opportunity to play with someone of that caliber a totally unique voice as a player and writer.

Dave SamuelsJAZZed: Right around that time you also worked with Zappa, correct?
DS: Yes. In 1976 I was asked to be part of a group of New York musicians myself, the Brecker brothers, Lou Marini, Tom Malone, and Ronnie Cuber) to augment Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention for five nights at the Palldium in NYC. Frank was recording a live record. In Frank’s band were Terry Bozio, Ruth Underwood, Eddie Jobson, Patrick O’Hearn, and Ray White. I knew Ruth Underwood.

JAZZed: What were you playing in that ensemble?
DS: I was playing mallets and percussion. Frank loved percussion and was heavily influenced by Edgar Varesce. He was also the first person to amplify both vibes and marimba. It was an amazing experience a cross between a 20th-century avante grade ensemble, Circue du Sole, and Soupy Sales it was completely from another planet. These were Ruth Underwood’s last gigs with Frank. I was asked if I wanted to join the “Mothers.” At the time I was working with Double Image a vibes and marimba group with David Friedman and I couldn’t honestly commit all my time to playing with just Frank. I also felt that he was not looking for another soloist, but someone to be able to play the challenging parts he wrote.

JAZZed: Makes sense. We should, of course, talk some about Double Image, too.
DS: It was 1974 that Friedman and I started Double Image. We had met while I was teaching up at Berklee where we played together with two vibes. That didn’t work. We tried it with vibes and marimba and found that to be our voice. Over 35 years later, we are still performing and recording. We have developed a very unique musical language. We start every performance with a spontaneous piece, something totally improvised.

JAZZed: You’ve worked and collaborated with so many we could go on like this all day. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you to share something of your experiences in Spyro Gyra and the Caribbean Jazz Project.
DS: I first met Jay Beckenstein one of the founders of Spyro Gyra in The Tralfamadore Cafe; in Buffalo, New York in 1975. I was playing with a local rhythm section and Jay asked me if I’d be interested in recording on their album. This was their first recording and nobody knew who they were. I played on that record and then I heard from them about a year later and recorded on their first record for MCA Records, Morning Dance. I played steel drums, marimba and vibes. That record was a huge success. I continued playing on their albums usually one a year until 1982, when Jay asked me if I wanted to go on the road with them. I was on tour with Spyro Gyra from 1982-1994. We were a very close-knit family.

Dave Samuels: Pre;cis

Selected Discography: Double Image (Enja); One Step Ahead (Dire Silverline); Living Colors, Ten Degrees North (MCA); Natural Selection, Del Sol (GRP); Tjader-ized: A Cal Tjader Tribute (Polygram); Gerry Mulligan Idol Gossip (Chiaroscuro); Spyro Gyro Morning Dance (MCA); Richard Stoltzman Dreams (RCA).

Web site: www.dsamuels.com

Awards Accolades: 2008 Latin Grammy Winner (Best Latin Jazz Album: Caribbean Jazz Project Afro Bop Alliance) and 2003 Latin Grammy Winner (Best Latin Jazz Recording: Caribbean Jazz Project The Gathering); “#1 Contemporary Jazz Artist” and “Contemporary Jazz Group of the ’80s” (Spyro Gyra) Billboard Magazine; Best Vibes Player Jazziz Magazine; Best Vibes Player Modern Drummer

In 1993, I was asked by a promoter in New York Julie Lokin to put together a band for a concert in the Central Park Zoo. I called Andy Narell (steel drums), Paquito D’Rivera (sax and clarinet), and a rhythm section. That was the beginning of the Caribbean Jazz Project. It’s been 15 years since that first concert. The personnel have changed over the years, but the concept of the band has remained the same exploring the mixture of West African, European, and Caribbean musical influences with jazz.

JAZZed: You returned to Berklee in the ’90s. How did that come about and what do you currently do at the school?
DS: I was playing the Umbria Jazz Festival in 1994 with the Caribbean Jazz Project and Larry Monroe head of the Berklee International Program asked me if I’d be interested in teaching at Berklee. I got in touch with Larry later that year and started teaching the fall of 1995. These days, my teaching schedule is divided between conducting small ensembles and teaching vibes and marimba privately.

JAZZed: What do you find to be the most rewarding elements of teaching?
DS: For me, there are two elements that are most rewarding in teaching. The first is having to always re-examine how and why I play the way I do. Secondly is the exposure to new music new vocabulary and new ways of improvising.

JAZZed: What, if anything, do you dislike about your role as an educator?
DS: The bureaucracy.

JAZZed: A common complaint. Let me ask you this: how would you advise a junior- or high school music director who’s looking to introduce jazz education into his or her overall curriculum?
DS: I think the real issue here is finding music teachers who are not afraid of improvisation. Traditional/conservatory trained musicians have been instilled with a total misconception about the “how, what, and where” of improvisation. In general, music students our future music educators are never taught about the history and evolution of improvisation in “classical” music.

JAZZed: I’m pretty sure I know where you’re going here, but to clarify…?
DS: Improvisation was part of the basic fabric of Baroque music. It is a learned musical skill that musicians need to know in order to work effectively. In fact it is a skill that everyone learns unconsciously without effort and without fear. An example would be the verbal language we learn growing up. We improvise with that language every time we have a conversation with someone. Not only do we learn to speak that language, but we also learn to write that language which means that we need to know the grammar for that language.

We learn music differently. Most musicians never learn to speak the musical language. They can read, but they can’t speak without having notes written on the page. They also never learn the grammar of the musical language. Learning how to speak the musical language is not difficult anyone can do it. The challenge is to have something worth saying when you speak that language. The difference between an OK improviser and a great improviser is not the skill technique or memorization it’s the concept and content. We all learn how write in school, however that does not make us all great authors.

JAZZed: Very good points. Specifically as it pertains to vibraphone and marimba, can you describe some of the common snags in learning the instruments and offer some tips for teacher to help their students overcome these hurdles?
DS: I think some of the common problems that mallet players face is the over emphasis on technique and an under-emphasis on sound production, developing a musical personality, and composition.

I would suggest to teachers that they have their students record themselves regularly. I would recommend that students analyze the harmony of the pieces they are playing and I also suggest that students learn to take a piece they are interested in and arrange it for either vibes or marimba or both, as well as encouraging students to try and compose their own pieces to play.

JAZZed: Makes good sense. One last question: You’ve accomplished quite a bit as a performer, recording artist, and educator. What do consider to have been the highlights of your career thus far?
DS: The highlights of my career are when the music I’m playing becomes a transformational event where all the players become one unified voice. The same process can take place when teaching, when the group you’re working with becomes one unified voice.

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