Legendary jazz drummer and composer Peter Erskine talks about his long and successful career

"Jazz is based on and built upon the blues. The blues are the core of this music."

Peter Erskine: Musicality, consistency, and a dancing flow to the beat.

Peter Erskine began playing the drums at the age of four and has been at the forefront of world-class jazz ensembles for 40 years. His first major professional work was with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, which he joined in 1972. After a three year stint with Kenton and a two year stay with Maynard Ferguson, Erskine joined Weather Report in 1978. The excellence of the partnership between Erskine and bassist Jaco Pastorius was an integral part of that group’s success. Following his four years in Weather Report, he began to play with the group Steps Ahead. Erskine’s other touring and recording credits (600 albums & film scores) include: Steely Dan, Chick Corea, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Gary Burton & Pat Metheny, Joni Mitchell, Miroslav Vitous and Jan Garbarek. He has also recorded with his own groups.


Erskine’s solo albums include: “Peter Erskine”, “Transition”, “Motion Poet”, “Sweet Soul”, “Big Theatre”, and his ECM recordings “You Never Know,” “Time Being”, “As It Is” and “Juni” as well as “History of the DRUM”, “Behind Closed Doors” and “Side Man Blue” on his own label FUZZY MUSIC. Besides touring and recording, Erskine is composing for theater, dance, film and television.
Erskine is a graduate of the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, and studied percussion with George Gaber at Indiana University. His own pedagogical efforts include four instructional videos as well as eight books and his latest DVD is “Everything I Know, a Work in Progress”. Erskine conducts clinics, classes and seminars worldwide. He is a Professor of Practice and Director of Drumset Studies at the USC Thornton School of Music, and is the Jazz Drumming Consultant to the Royal Academy of Music in London. Erskine has won the Modern Drummer magazine Readers’ Poll in the “Jazz Drummer” category 10 times, and was awarded an honorary Doctorate degree from the Berklee College of Music. His new book “No Beethoven,” contains stories that took place in the studio or on tour.


Interview by Michael Limnios 

Photos by Peter Erskine's Archive / All rights reserved

Mr. Erskine, when was your first desire to become involved in the music?
I have wanted to be a musician for as far back as I can remember. I began playing the drums at age 4, and started taking drum lesson at age 5. I have been studying music continuously ever since.

"Play for the song, not for the reaction. Learn to trust the music — and your fellow musicians — as well as yourself. Being musical will always bring the greatest satisfaction as well as career results. Most of all: enjoy what you’re doing and have fun in life."

What do you learn about yourself from the jazz music? How has jazz music changed your life?
Every style of music informs the next, so I learn not only from jazz music but also from classical music, folk music, popular music, and so on. But jazz has the highest and most rigorous standards when it comes to improvisation, or the art of composing while playing. This never-ending and always-shifting platform of improvisational awareness — whilst keeping time and providing a good beat for the other musicians – is a wonderful challenge that I enjoy every time I play.

 

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
I enjoy “best” moments with each new project or gig … and the “worst” ones usually teach me something. In other words: they’re all good.

 

What characterize the sound of Peter Erskine?
I hope it to be these qualities: musicality, consistency, and a dancing flow to the beat. I prefer not to hit the instrument too hard these days, and try to play in a way that makes the other musicians I’m playing with sound their best.

 

How do you describe your philosophy about the music?
I am most satisfied when I am able to play for the song. I find the creative and expressive moments within that framework of serving the music.

"Every style of music informs the next, so I learn not only from jazz music but also from classical music, folk music, popular music, and so on. But jazz has the highest and most rigorous standards when it comes to improvisation, or the art of composing while playing."

What does the BLUES and JAZZ mean to you & what does the DRUMS offered you?
Jazz is based on and built upon the blues. The blues are the core of this music. I’m just one of hundreds or thousands of drummers who are attracted to this greatest of musical forms. I like music that dances and swings. It all comes from New Orleans, and it all comes from Africa.

 

Do you remember anything funny or interesting from the recording time?
My new book “No Beethoven,” (available soon as an electronic book title from the Apple iBook store, etc.) contains MANY stories that took place in the studio or on tour … here is a short story about my first recording with Weather Report, after my first rehearsal/audition but before our first trip to Japan where I premiered as their drummer in concert during the summer of 1978: My first recording experience was to do a hi-hat overdub on Joe’s tune “Young and Fine.” He wanted to tinker with the feel of the fine drum track that Gadd had played, and I set up a hi-hat in a small iso-booth and played along with the track from start-to-finish while Joe watched a World Cup soccer game on TV in the control room. When I was finished, I took off my headphones and climbed around the mic stand and walked into the control room. Joe seems to be concentrating on the game. I ask, “How was it?” to the room. “How was it?” Zawinul replies. “You tell me.” And so I say, “I think it was good.” “Okay, then” he says. “Watch the game.”

"Good music is timeless, plus that band had a unique energy and quality to its music. I was lucky to be there when Zawinul, Shorter and Pastorius were creating so much memorable music." (Photo: Peter on stage with Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorius)

What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had? What’s the best jam you ever played in?
Wow … so many. Certainly the concert tours with Weather Report were memorable, but then so were the concerts with Steps Ahead, and Jaco, and John Abercrombie, and Bass Desires, and Joni Mitchell, and my own trios, and … they’re ALL memorable. I enjoyed playing in Greece with Milcho Leviev, also working with Stavros Lantsias on his new recording …

 

Why did you think that Weather Report and Peter Erskine’s beat continues to generate such a devoted following?
Good music is timeless, plus that band had a unique energy and quality to its music. I was lucky to be there when Zawinul, Shorter and Pastorius were creating so much memorable music. I listen back to some of it now and even I am impressed. Working on a possible project to release 2 or 4 CDs’ worth of unreleased tracks from Weather Report’s live concerts/on tour … incredible stuff.

 

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about and the jazz music?
Two drummers’ names come to mind: Elvin Jones and Mel Lewis. But I have also learned from guitarist John Abercrombie, and from Joe Zawinul … and Jaco … and big band leaders like Bill Holman … Zawinul was probably my strongest teacher. But, then, I cannot forget my professor from university, George Gaber. And the arranger for Stan Kenton, Johnny Richards, who told me many years ago to “listen to every kind of music.”

 

"My dream is just to continue doing what I’m doing now, always hoping for more and more people to hear good music and for the world to become to kinder, gentler and more tolerant place." (Photo: Peter & Elvin Jones)

With such an illustrious career, what has given you the most satisfaction musically?
I love playing my own music in trio, plus I enjoy big bands, and I really enjoy working with great vocalists. I have to be honest: I enjoy every playing opportunity and treat it as a gift.

 

Some music styles can be fads but the blues & jazz are always with us.  Why do think that is?
Good music, like anything else of intrinsic value and worth, is timeless. Why is ancient Greek architecture still marveled at and emulated and enjoyed over centuries of time? Because it is good, it is unique, it is classic, it is timeless. It has structure and yet remains open to interpretation and enjoyment.

 

Are there any memories of all GREAT ARTISTS you meet which you’d like to share with us?
Please read my memoirs “No Beethoven” … I have spent 2 years writing every good story from my notes and memory. With over 600 albums and film scores in my resumé, plus 40 years of touring experience … you can imagine there are plenty of good stories to tell!

 

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?
The record business is certainly VERY different from what it was when I first started in music. There are not so many large projects that can take place unless a government or community-sponsored arts funding mechanism is part of the process … not co much private sponsorship of creative projects like in the past (but some, nonetheless). I don’t know exactly what the new paradigm is, but I suspect that the iTunes and app stores will show many of us the way. The problem is with the expectation that music ought to be for free. Good quality music cannot always be recorded in someone’s apartment or garage with Logic software, etc. Synth strings are no substitute for breathing living and well-trained string players! People will pay for all of the hardware and for most all other forms of entertainment, but not music … it’s a radio mentality gone to the extreme … we can only fight this with education and clever marketing, while rethinking the entire way or network of getting our music to the people who want to listen to it. Ultimately, I am an optimist. By the way, I am entering into the brave new world of apps. My first play-along app “Joy Luck PlayAlong” has just been released. It’s a new pricing and distribution mechanism for music, and it helps musicians to play more and to play better. By approaching the business with the highest ethics as well as ethos possible, only good things can come of this … maybe not the greatest things, but good things, and enough good things are enough for me.

 

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
Play for the song, not for the reaction. Learn to trust the music — and your fellow musicians — as well as yourself. Being musical will always bring the greatest satisfaction as well as career results. Most of all: enjoy what you’re doing and have fun in life.

 

Make an account for current realities of the case of the Peter Erskine’s career
I feel very fortunate to be keeping as busy as I am. I thank my teachers, Professor George Gaber especially, for nurturing me to develop and honor long-lasting musical values.

"Good music, like anything else of intrinsic value and worth, is timeless. Why is ancient Greek architecture still marveled at and emulated and enjoyed over centuries of time? Because it is good, it is unique, it is classic, it is timeless. It has structure and yet remains open to interpretation and enjoyment."

If you go back to the past what things you would do better and what things you would avoid to do again
The only thing I would do differently would have been to study the piano more conscientiously, and also to have studied counterpoint. And maybe to have said fewer stupid things to people…but since e cannot go back in time, the best thing is to try our best to learn from our mistakes.

 

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
Right NOW is the most interesting period in my life, because I’m continuing to enjoy playing, learning and living a life filled with music, family and friends.

 

Which things do you prefer to do in your free time? What is your “secret” DREAM? Happiness is……
I don’t have many hobbies aside from music…I enjoy technology and computers, also reading and going for walks. I dabble in photography a bit. My dream is just to continue doing what I’m doing now, always hoping for more and more people to hear good music and for the world to become to kinder, gentler and more tolerant place.


Peter Erskine - Official website

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