Will Calhoun is the relentlessly creative and widely respected drummer for funk metal pioneers, Living Colour. Voted by the readers of Modern Drummer as “Best Progressive Drummer” on three occasions, he has collaborated with musicians as diverse as B.B. King, Public Enemy, and the Rolling Stones’ Ron Wood. A graduate with honors from the Berklee College of Music, he won the Buddy Rich Jazz Masters award for outstanding performance while there, and his interest in jazz hasn’t waned.
His solo project, ‘Celebrating Elvin Jones’, honors one of the genre’s late, great drummers by recording Jones’ material with the help of some of his former collaborators. I caught up with Will in Boston, where we discussed Jones, Will’s own approach to drumming, the music he hears all around him, his opinion of simplistic drummers, and touring with the Stones.
Robert Ferraro: Will, let’s get right down to it. Why is Elvin Jones important enough that all these people came into the city on a weeknight to celebrate him with you?
Will Calhoun: We’re here for his contribution to music, and to jazz specifically, but what makes him so special is that when jazz masters drummers like Max Roach, Buddy Rich, Sid Catlett, Art Blakely and Philly Joe Jones were playing, they were speaking a certain language on the drum kit. Elvin brought a totally different dialogue and totally different language to the instrument, and he remained that outstanding unique voice.
R: He was progressive?
Will: It reminded me of a lot of things. It reminded me of heavy metal. Of rock n roll. Of indigenous music. He had a whole different approach and sound. And when you’re 10, 11, 12 years old and you’re starting to dig through records, and going out to see live shows, and you see a lot of master musicians play, and then you see something like that happen? It grabbed my attention.
R: Paint this picture for me: As an impressionable young teen in the Bronx, what were you listening to the day before you found Elvin Jones?
Will: Oh, wow. Well, I already had Coltrane records (on which Jones appeared), but I had never seen Elvin live. He was much more dynamic live. I owned a lot of Coltrane records, JJ Johnson records, and I had records of Elvin playing with Jan Hammer and Gene Purla, but seeing him perform was a total wake up call for me.
R: Where did you first see him?
Will: The Village Vanguard, when I was 14.
R: A quintessential New York experience.
Will: (smiles) Absolutely.
R: What was he doing that caught your attention?
Will: When you see him playing with brushes and you watch him bending time – it was just a very unique step. I think he set a bridge for (fellow jazz great) Tony Williams to come along and make that real connection with the drumset with both jazz and rock. I think Elvin really set and spoke the rock language, and I think Tony combined those two things.
R: What is the rock language when its coming out of Jazz? Is it just music that is more propulsive, or aggressive, or…?
Will: That’s a great question. It’s freedom and discipline. There is a lot of freedom coming from Jazz, but there are a lot of academics and a lot of technique involved. You have this freedom to say what you want to say, but its in a disciplined manner, so its not just totally wild and loose. It has some type of theory to it.
R: A lot of that is feel as well, right?
R: If I were to see the notes on the page they might not seem that different, but if I were to hear them being played, they could sound considerably different.
Will: Yes. Interpretation is really important. It’s the same thing as when you’re sitting in a circle with 8 people and you’re playing that game ‘Secret’. You say your secret and pass it around. By the time it gets back to you, its a different story. Its the same thing with music. You and I can look at the same sheet of music, and you can say, “That note looks like its short and brief”, and I can say, “That note looks short, brief…and loud.” (laughs).
R: I remember you touching on this awhile back when talking about Led Zeppelin. You said that even though someone could sit behind the kit and technically play John Bonham’s drum notes, they could never play them like him. You felt that the individuality John left in those notes, wouldn’t be there. Is music more spiritual, or mechanical for you?
Will: It’s more spiritual for me, absolutely. You can study and study and understand what something is, but, for example… in physics, you could study all of the different equations , and know what they are. That’s one thing. But if you can use those equations to build a car that doesn’t require any gas or water or air, then you’re doing something with them.
R: It should be noted that you come from a very well educated family, and you possess a higher education, so I’d imagine you could probably ‘do physics’.
Will: (laughs) I wasn’t especially good at physics. but in my class, I sat in the 3rd row. I found it intriguing and interesting because I compared it all to music. I compared Art to music. I compared Phys Ed to music. Science, Math. Everything.
R: Have you been doing this since you were small, or…?
Will: Yes. Everything sounded like music to me. People’s voices. Sneakers squeaking on the basketball court. When guys were dribbling and making moves, it sounded like breakbeats to me. When I was young and riding the trains with my Mom in New York City, I always asked her to sit near the car change door (where the subway cars connect) and she would accommodate me, even though she didn’t know why. It was because I would always hear some cool rhythms coming off those tracks.
R: I’ve heard that sentiment so often from New York City musicians – about the sounds of the city providing them with a soundtrack. Drummers and Beatboxers in particular. Do you still hear it?
Will: I do. People create rhythm, breathing is rhythm, this elevator going up and down behind us is rhythm. The rustling of your clothes is rhythm. It doesn’t have to have any type of tempo, but if it’s movement, its an expression.
R: Speaking of movement and expression, you caused me to do some crash homework on Elvin Jones. I found a documentary on You Tube about him…
Will: Oh man, its great.
R: It’s outstanding. When he starts illustrating how each drum head and drum sound represents a color to him, I was blown away. I don’t know what kind of spectrum he was on, but whatever it was, it was advanced. Can you relate to this?
Will: I can. I have a bad habit sometimes, when I’m soloing, of closing my eyes. And you do see orange and reds and blacks…it’s like an information screen that comes across my eyes. I just try to snatch whatever is cool. Some things I let go by, because some things are better left unsaid. But you can feel and see colors when you play. I know that feeling colors probably sounds interesting.
R: Most definitely.Will: I just had a meeting last night with a very high end wine company, and a physicist, a scientist, and a doctor…
R: Said very few hard rock drummers ever.
Will: (Smiles) We talked about how the brain responds to the taste of wine, the same way it responds to music. We discussed what it would be like if we described wine as having the frequencies of taste that relate to strings or bass drums, instead of describing it using words like leathery or peppery. We conducted a test where we didn’t tell people what we were doing, and we changed the music up on them while they were drinking. They actually felt the wine was fruitier or whatever, when they heard a certain frequency of music. There is absolutely a connection there.
R: I’ve always felt that there’s a musical pallet that affects how we receive music. If I hear a certain song, after another certain song, I may feel ambivalent about it. If a different type of song had preceded it however, I might have been more receptive to the second one, or maybe even loved it.
Will: That’s true, and a very good point.
R: A lot of what you’ve been sharing with us today, is consistent with the things we’ve learned about you over the years, in the sense that you bring a big intellect to your music. You constantly engage in advanced studies of your instrument, and spend considerable time in Mali and Senegal, living in their communities and acquiring musical ideas. You have the equivalent of an ivy league education in music. Can you possibly listen to a simplistic drummer and still get enjoyment out of their playing? Say, a Larry Mullen Jr of U2?
Will: Absolutely. I’m a fan of his.
R: Don Henley?
Will: I’m a fan. Charlie Watts – I’m a fan. AC/DC’s drummers – I’m a fan.
R: Describe the pleasure you get from them, as a listener who also happens to be a great technical drummer.
Will: It’s good music, and these guys are contributing to it. Specifically, they are playing drums in the band, but from a larger perspective, they are contributing to great music. There are great drummers like Steve Gadd who we all know has a lot of chops, but you can hear him on Paul Simon’s records, or even on a tv commercial…
R: Or some of Clapton’s live ballads…
Will: Yes, and its just all well done. At the end of the day, when you’re a musician and you’re dealing with humanism, you want people to feel good, even if ‘feel good’ means “just play a kick and a snare”. I mean, I’m sorry man but there are some disco songs that have cool grooves. The beat doesn’t change, but there’s just something about the way it’s being played that makes it interesting.
R: You need to take the stage shortly, and you’ve already given us a lot, but…you mentioned (Rolling Stones drummer) Charlie Watts and you made a happy face so I have to go there. What was your experience like, opening up for the Stones in ’89?
Will: (big smile) Oh man…what a classic thing. What an education.
R: And it happened early on for you guys.
Will: Dude, the album came out and Cult of Personality was not chosen as the single, Middle Man was. The label didn’t feel that Cult of Personality should be on the radio, or that it was a commercial song. It eventually hit, MTV picked it up, and it exploded. We were playing clubs the size of a garage one day, and then playing for 80,000 people the next. I cannot explain the feeling to you. R: The legend of that tour, in regard to Living Colour, was that you would come out to a nearly empty stadium, and as your show progressed and the Stones fans heard your big noise out in the parking lot, they would filter in, with the set usually ending with a packed stadium and loud ovations. Was that the deal?
Will: That is totally how it went down (laughs).
R: You guys had to know you were on your way.
Will: It was a shock. We were in the business of no guarantees, but that was a pretty good incentive to know that Mick Jagger gave a damn – he produced two songs on the first record – and the Stones treated us like kings. A lot of other artists came to see the Stones, so we got to meet a lot of musicians along the way.
Will: Networking for sure, but it was great to just be ourselves on that tour. It was great to play Middle Man and Cult of Personality and Open Letter to a Landlord and not have people know who we are, but dig us anyway. We didn’t necessarily go up there playing covers…it wasn’t like Living Colour was going to play a song the audience was definitely going to like. We were ourselves the entire time. Which makes the victory even larger.
R: Speaking of victory, let’s end on a victorious note. ‘Celebrating Elvin Jones’ has received very strong reviews across the board. In particular, Dan Bilawsky from allaboutjazz,com wrote: “With ‘Celebrating Elvin Jones’, Calhoun brilliantly captures the artistic ethos of the albums namesake, while advancing his own identity.”
Will: I have to congratulate him on being able to pull that out. When studying and researching someone, like I did with Elvin, you want to learn, but the purpose of your studying is so that you can further your own information, knowledge and career as well. Elvin Jones helped me to become a better drummer, absolutely.
Celebrating Elvin Jones is a Motema Records release, available on CD and through Amazon and Itunes.
Follow Will on Twitter: @WillCalhounDrum
Robert Ferraro is a freelance writer and broadcasting school graduate, who has produced radio talk shows, and Major League Baseball broadcasts.
Follow him on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/PopCultRob
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