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Keith Carlock

Jazzed Magazine • October 2016Spotlight • October 19, 2016

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_dsc0685_carlock_hdEasily one of the most celebrated and prolific drummers of his age, Keith Carlock has been bringing jazz drumming – either blatantly or through subtle insertion – to the forefront of popular culture since the ‘90s. He’s leant his talents to the likes of Steely Dan, James Taylor, Chris Botti, Walter Becker, Wayne Krantz, Toto, and Sting, among many, many others.

Carlock’s immediately identifiable style is virtuosic, no question – but more importantly it’s impactful, emotional, and eminently tasteful. Acclaimed classical composer and educator Earl Kim distinguished certain true musical talents with the following: “He [or she] hears every note he [or she] plays” – The idea being that fully engaged minds do nothing accidentally.

Keith Carlock hears every single note and beat.

JAZZed was recently able to speak with Carlock about his lifelong career as a fan, scholar, performer, and teacher of music.

Can you talk about your first meaningful exposure to music and, specifically, drums?

I always joke that I came out of my mom’s womb already knowing that music was my passion. Of course I’m exaggerating, but from as early as I can remember, I had the music bug. I have two older siblings and they were always playing records around the house growing up. One of my earliest memories when I knew I had an interest in drums was seeing Buddy Rich regularly appearing on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. Seeing “Animal” on “The Muppet Show” was another. I was naturally drawn to the rhythm of music right away.

Once my parents realized that – and luckily they supported it – they purchased a toy drum set when I was two or three years old. And it just stuck from then on. I played by ear at first, listening to whatever music I could get my hands on and trying to figure out what the drummer was doing. It was mostly popular music of the ‘70s – rock, soul, R&B. I grew up in Mississippi, which has a very rich musical history, so I think without knowing it at the time that influence was seeping into my development. By age five, I knew this was what I wanted to do! Eventually I got a real drum kit around the age of nine or 10 and almost immediately found myself in a “garage band” with some friends in the neighborhood.

It was incredible to start at that early of an age playing music with other people and learning how a rhythm section works together, and how all the parts work together, etc. The other guys were older and more experienced which also motivated me. I played in several other bands before I made it to middle school. One of the bands was working dances and clubs already. I was 12 years old playing with a group of 30 year olds that really encouraged me and made me feel I had something worth nurturing. My parents supported this and would go with me to all gigs to get me in! It was amazing to have that kind of real experience at such a young age.

Were there any early instructors or music educators who had significant early impact on your development?

Yes, there were many. A local teacher in Clinton, Mississippi where I grew up who first taught me the rudiments on the snare drum was Brian West. He was the first teacher I had. He taught me how to play the double stroke roll and other basic rudiments. My middle school and high school had a great band program. I played in marching band and symphonic orchestra. David Wilson was the high school band director who really influenced me in a lot of ways, not only musically, but made me realize a lot about growing up, being responsible, taking care of business, achieving goals, all that great life stuff! Greg Tyson was also the drum teacher in high school who was another influence who turned me onto DCI drum corps and got me deeper into rudimental corps style drumming.

I had another teacher Bud Berthold who played in the Jackson Symphony. He took the rudimental stuff even further with me and also worked a lot on applying rudiments to the kit. Then, I was turned onto another real pro in town George Lawrence. He was my drum set teacher in the later high school years who really kicked it up several notches. We got into some serious listening and learning other styles on the drums. He and another teacher I had briefly, Quinous Johnson, turned me onto jazz, fusion, Latin, more intricate funk studies and independence exercises.

You’re primarily known for your work as a jazz/fusion drummer. When did you first get drawn to jazz and why?

Growing up listening to soul music, blues, pop radio, rock, metal and prog rock, the next step for me was checking out fusion music. It was more sophisticated writing using jazz harmony, odd arrangements, unusual form, odd time signatures, et cetera… but also had an element of improvisation which I was just starting to discover. Everything in my world up to that point was mostly backbeat driven, and heavier from underneath. But once I heard straight ahead jazz/be-bop, I had to figure out what that was and what was going on! It completely blew me away. I fell in love with it because it was so foreign to my ears.

I’m sure there are people that may know me from playing with Steely Dan whom I’ve been working with since the late ‘90s and touring with on every tour since 2003, or maybe they know me from my work with Sting, John Mayer, Toto, James Taylor, and other artists outside of the jazz world. Then they may find the jazz stuff if they dig a little. But the cool thing is that all these artists have a jazz element in their music somewhere. It’s all related. It’s all music.

I love more structured situations, playing a show with those artists in the bigger venues and I also love playing in an intimate club improvising all night. I need both, so I try to keep all these things going as much as possible. When I moved to NYC in 1996, I hooked up with guitarist Wayne Krantz soon after. That became a long-term musical situation that still exists today when we can get our schedules together. That trio with Wayne and Tim Lefebvre really put me on the radar in NYC and later beyond, once we started touring more. That trio really became a big part of my sound and identity. I’m very proud of what we accomplished. It was an exciting time for me playing with those guys at the 55 Bar in NYC every Thursday and we became a true “band” and developed a truly unique sound and approach to the music.

I’ve also been working with guitarists Oz Noy and Mike Stern over the years – all different approaches with those guys. I get to play more straight-ahead swing when I work with Mike. Steely Dan always has an opening tune at the beginning of the show live that’s straight-ahead, as well. They are huge jazz fans and obviously you can hear that influence in their music. It’s all very inspiring playing with so many incredible musicians.

While at North Texas State, were there any instructors whose methods really resonated with you and, if so, why?

Ed Soph really turned things around for me. I had to do a complete overhaul with my hand technique. Coming from the drum line stuff and using more wrist in those days, I had a limited sound and feel. Studying the Moeller method with Ed and also utilizing more fingers in my hand technique opened everything up for me. I had to learn how to get the right sound, feel, touch, and dynamic blend on the kit to play jazz and also other music that needed a more organic and more “loose” feel. Also, Ed was the first teacher I had that taught music on the drums. Everything before was going through books and working on patterns, groove ideas, independence, et cetera. But Ed taught musical concepts on the drums, and that changed everything for me. It opened up a completely different world. Improvising, thinking about phrasing, working on touch and sound, thinking about the length of notes, orchestration within a solo, playing melodies on the drums, the list goes on and on… Those are just some of the concepts that made an impact. Great stuff!

You’ve played and collaborated with so many significant, high profile acts. While it would be silly to ask if you had a “favorite,” was (or is) there a band situation where you felt you pushed yourself and grew the most?

I think they all have been great and I’ve learned so much from all the experiences. Steely Dan has been an amazing one, though. Working with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker for all of these years, whether recording or touring, has been incredible. I have grown a lot with that experience. The focus and attention to the details in their music has taught me so much, and has made me more consistent night after night and my groove playing stronger. Playing with Steely Dan has to be one of the ultimate drum schools. All of those classic recordings of all those great session players are just amazing. It has been fun dissecting that stuff over the years, really focusing on those details. It never gets old, I’m a fan!

The trio with Wayne Krantz was another that really shaped my style and sound. A lot of the music was improvised, so that pushed me to find things every night within that creative context. And I found other ways to play grooves that were more of a non-repetitive approach. Wayne has a very unique way of playing guitar, his rhythm playing alone is just incredible. Playing with Wayne really gave me a vehicle to create and find new things within my playing.

I put out an educational/ instructional with Hudson Music entitled, The Big Picture: Phrasing, Improvisation, Style and Technique back in 2008 or so [It came out in October of 2009 – Ed.] and part of that DVD features the trio with Wayne Krantz and Tim Lefebvre performing and breaking down what exactly we are doing and the approach to the music. I’m really proud that we had an opportunity to document that.

Do you have a preferred method of instruction, yourself – private lessons, standard classroom setting, masterclasses?

I haven’t done a lot of private lessons. My schedule just hasn’t allowed enough consistency at home for that to happen other than the occasional one off private lesson. I have done many clinics and masterclasses over the years all over the world and I really enjoy doing them. I recently did a clinic tour in the UK and also in Italy last year. I break it up into a performance, and some demonstrations, talking about technical and musical concepts, and open it up for questions in which the audience can take it where they want the subject matter to go. Some people want to just get inside of your head a little. Some just want to hear me play up close in an intimate setting, or maybe are curious about the music business and how I found my way into that. It can go in a lot of different directions and that keeps things interesting for the audience to get involved.

What do you find to be most rewarding about teaching younger players? Most frustrating?

I was once in their shoes, soaking it all up and had dreams to become a professional player. It’s very rewarding to share what I’ve learned and to hopefully make a positive impact in their development in some way. Finding the players weaknesses and making them aware of those but also keeping things fun and praising the good stuff is a fine balance.

It’s only frustrating if they don’t have the hunger to work out the problems and conquer the weaknesses. There are so many more distractions these days with all the gadgets and plethora of information at your fingertips. Technology is amazing, but I do miss the days of buying a new release at the record store on Tuesdays and just listening to it for months over and over, soaking everything out of it because you can’t help it. It takes over. I find it frustrating that younger players don’t have that kind of focus because of all these distractions today. They don’t seem to put the work and time in to become great – they want it all right away with a quick fix. It’s not going to happen. So, that’s a challenge for sure. Maybe it’s not their fault. Our culture is just changing so fast with all of this tech stuff. But, I do think the more serious students who “get it” will find their way and work hard to achieve greatness and not settle for mediocrity. 

Any final thoughts or words of wisdom to share with those currently teaching or studying jazz drumming?

Go back and study the originators of the music, know where it came from and how it evolved. I love playing straight ahead jazz, but unfortunately it’s only a small fraction of the work I am involved with most of the time. But, I’m so glad I studied the music and had great teachers along the way stress the importance of this music. It has made me a much better overall drummer and musician. I draw from my jazz education all the time within all types of music. I always play with an improvisational spirit because of that. Being interactive and “joining in on the conversation,” so to speak, within the music where that is appropriate. So my point is, whether you see yourself only being a jazz drummer or not, studying the art form gives you so much more to draw from and will make it easier to adapt to many other musical situations. 

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