Words fall short of describing the playing of Vinnie Colaiuta ['75]. It's best just to let his drums do the talking.
Vinnie Colaiuta is one of those players who has never needed to call attention to himself to get noticed. His drums do that job. Vinnie's virtuosic and highly personal style has been causing even casual listeners to do double takes since his days at Berklee. As his career unfolded, Vinnie began to attain legend status among drummers. The buzz has spread to ever-widening circles, owing to his work on countless recording sessions with some of the brightest lights in the industry. Touring and recording as a member of Sting's band from 1990 to 1997 brought him name recognition internationally.
Back in 1978, moved by the kind of youthful optimism that frequently overrides common sense, Vinnie boarded a westbound bus in Boston with his drums and $80 in his wallet. He got off in Los Angeles and started gigging in jazz clubs. Soon, he landed the drum chair in Frank Zappa's band after running the gauntlet during an audition process that withered his competition. For two years, he toured with Zappa and appeared on vintage Zappa recordings Joe's Garage, Tinseltown Rebellion, and Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar before setting his sights on the L.A. studios. His creativity, astonishing chops (checked by good taste), and stamina to handle a punishing schedule made him a natural for session work.
Since the 1980s, Vinnie has been one of L.A.'s busiest studio drummers. He's worked with pop artists like Madonna, Ray Charles, Barbra Streisand, Jewel, and Joni Mitchell, and jazz luminaries like Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, David Sanborn, John Patitucci, and Allan Holdsworth, to name just a few. He also did stints as house drummer for television programs such as the Joan Rivers Show, and played on countless jingles, TV themes, and movie scores. In 1990, after more than a decade in the studios, a desire to stretch out musically prompted his decision to take a hiatus and join Sting's band.
While he is grateful for his success, he did not want to dwell on the accolades, the poll wins, and the number of hits and Grammy-winning songs he's played on during our interview. Vinnie possesses a humble attitude about his career. "I am a very strong believer", he said. "I thank God for my gifts and feel that without the Lord, I would not have anything."
Vinnie has not spent much time analyzing what makes his playing compelling and unique. The "Vinnie Stuff," as it is admiringly termed, includes much more than his facility with polyrhythms and odd meters, those wild fills, and the ability to lock into a comfortable groove no matter what the time signature. In the final analysis, whatever "Vinnie Stuff" is, it has had an impact on contemporary music and a generation of drummers.
What led you to Berklee?
I came from rural Pennsylvania, a place called Brownsville, about 50 miles outside of Pittsburgh. When I was young, I started playing gigs all around the tri-state area [Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia]. As I was starting out as a musician, I was hearing about Berklee. A trumpet player named Paul Lanzi ['74] from the stage band at my high school had gone there. One summer, Lin Biviano's big band passed through my area and played a gig at a local playhouse. Steve Smith ['76] was playing the drums in the band. I first met him there. He told me about Berklee.
When you came to Berklee did you run into him again?
Yes, and we became really good friends. It is amazing to think of who was around Berklee in that time period. Neil Stubenhaus ['75] was teaching bass then. I also met [guitarist] Mike Stern ['75], [drummer] John Robinson ['75], and [bassist] Jeff Berlin ['74]. Music was starting to change at that time and fusion was starting to emerge, and things were really fresh for people who wanted to be involved in jazz. It wasn't only the classes, but the people that I met and got to play with that made it a very exciting time.
The people you get involved with in an atmosphere like Berklee's really shape you as a player. They really helped me. What I learned during my time there has stayed with me and enabled me to write music and understand what is going on in the formats that I work in. It was practical information that I could apply in the real world.
What was your next move after Berklee?
I hung around Boston for a few years, studied privately, and played whatever gigs I could get just to stay in that environment. Al Kooper hired some Boston musicians for a six-week tour and I did that. Tim Landers ['80] played bass, Stanton Davis ['69] played trumpet, Gary Valente played trombone. That led to some work on a record that Al produced for a guy named Christopher Morris. I went to California for a few months to work on that. It came out but got no promotion, so it didn't go far.
As a result of recording at the Record Plant, I got to see what it was like out here. Afterwards, I went back to Boston and was thinking of moving to New York, but a lot of my friends were in L.A. It was during the blizzard of 1978 that I just got on a bus and came out here to live.
I roughed it for a while playing in bars for beer money. I heard that Frank Zappa was looking for a new rhythm section. I was a Zappa fanatic in high school, so I found out who the manager was and called up and hounded him. I thought it would be a perfect gig for me. The auditions were at a big movie studio and it was like a huge cattle call, but I got the gig. That enabled me to become established here. In between the Zappa tours I would work in clubs.
After about two and a half years, I knew that if I wanted to be involved in the recording industry, I would have to stay in town. So I just tried to play around town and let my playing do the talking instead of trying to talk a big game about myself.
Finally, I got a chance to record with a band called Pages. Neil Stubenhaus was the bass player in the group. Richard Page and Steve George were in it too. The record was going to be produced by Jay Graydon. At the same time, I found out about an opening with Gino Vannelli. This was in 1981, and Zappa was beginning to rehearse for another tour. I had worked with him since 1978, so I told him I wanted to become a studio musician and that I couldn't do the tour. He was very understanding.
I ended up working simultaneously on the Pages album and Vannelli's Nightwalker record. I would record with Gino from noon to 6 p.m. and then zoom over to Dawnbreaker studios in San Fernando and record until midnight or 2:00 a.m. with Jay Graydon. That went on for a month. I earned enough money to hang out for a while playing clubs until another opportunity came along.
By the grace of God, people started hiring me for their projects. I was doing jingles and did a big band record for a writer named Patrick Williams. He was also writing for television and motion pictures at the time. The musicians on the Williams record included Robben Ford and top horn players like Chuck Findley. I was the new kid in town trying to read those charts and not make any mistakes around those players. I learned how to play with a click on the job.
How hard was it for you to break in as a studio musician?
Little by little things came up. I worked with Williams on a TV show, I did more work with Gino, and Tom Scott started using me. I played some jazz gigs with bassist Larry Klein. He was involved with Joni Mitchell at the time and called me to play on her record. Next thing I knew, Joni and Larry were getting married and I was the best man. Afterwards Joni's band went on a world tour. After that, I started doing more and more studio dates. Business built up to where I was doing sessions all day and playing clubs at night. Between 1983 and '87, things really started escalating.
By the end of the 1980s, I was doing up to four sessions each day. I was doing television, motion picture soundtracks, and records. I had drums at studios all over town but would still have to borrow a set from my cartage company at times. I would do a TV date from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., then a jingle for an hour and a half, then a record date from 3 to 9. I remember one time I was driving home at 9:30 at night after doing three dates that day. I was right around the corner from my house. My cell phone rang and it was Bobby Womack saying "Hey man, I've got a session for you." I asked him when it was, he said, "Now." I turned around and went to his session until 4:00 a.m. Things got crazy, but you don't want to say no when the phone is ringing all the time.
Weren't you also the house drummer for the Joan Rivers Show at that time as well?
Yeah, I was hired to play the Joan Rivers Show on weekdays. At the beginning, I thought it would just be a couple of hours each day. With driving and everything else, it started eating into the time I needed for studio calls. I started to sub out from that gig to do record dates. It was loose enough to do that and still come back to the show when I wasn't as busy. I did that show for about a year, but I was subbing out a lot in the last six months.
Even though I was doing all of that work and my schedule was full, I didn't feel I was getting to actually play a lot. There would be a lot of sitting around on some sessions, like movie dates. Some of the other players wouldn't even talk about music. It seemed like they couldn't wait to leave the session to go play golf. I didn't want that. I would end up coming home and practicing for an hour even if it was midnight. I started thinking that I needed something fresh, I wanted to get into a band situation again. I decided that I would even go out on the road with the right artist. Then out of the blue in 1990, I got a call from Sting. I got on a plane the next day and went to England to join his band.
You were a perfect choice for drummer in Sting's band. Songs like "Love Is Stronger than Justice" [from Ten Summoner's Tales] has the verses in seven and a chorus that goes into a country two-beat. He tapped your Zappa experience, fusion roots, and pop session expertise all in one song.
Thanks. It goes beyond diversity and just being able to play odd times or suddenly change styles. It comes down to how you do that, which has to do with your identity and how malleable you are while still being yourself. Concept is so important. When you play a groove, you have to understand its character.
Were you worried about being away from Los Angeles for long stretches with Sting?
When I took the gig, I knew that I was taking a big chance. I figured it would either kill my studio career or enhance it. Thank God it enhanced it.
How long were the tours?
The first tour was 14 months, a long time. Artists at his level go out and stay out. I had traveled before, short hops to here and there, but I worked all over the world with Sting, even in Vietnam. You start to get to know people, especially when the band comes back through an area again. The people know who all the band members are, not just Sting. Today, in most pop situations, the backup band is much more anonymous.
Sometimes the act is just a product by a couple of guys with machines. I saw an example of that when I was on the English TV show Top of the Pops with Sting. The first time we went, there was this act with a girl singing her hit tune, flanked by dancers. When we went back on the show another time, the same act was there. The singer and the dancers were different, but the name of the act was the same. You see that a lot.
Were you treated like royalty in that band?
Everyone thinks a gig like that is glamorous all the time, like being with King Farou, but it's really not. We spent a lot of time secluded on tour so that we wouldn't be dogged by the paparazzi or others. We would leave after the gig and stay in the next town or in a place people might not think of.
When we first started doing the gig we did a few Amnesty International festivals in Uruguay and Chile. We would get invited to dinner at an ambassador's or a diplomat's house, so you do rub shoulders with people you didn't expect to.
Was the travel schedule intense?
Sometimes there were four or five gigs in a week and then a full travel day to get to the next place. The gear goes in a truck and you can't get to your instrument. I would practice on a pad or if I was in a town where I knew some musicians, I might find a place to go and sit in.
What I hoped would happen in regards to my studio career did happen. I would find myself with a few days off in a city and I would get calls for a session. One time when I was in London, Warren Cuccurullo [former Zappa and Missing Persons guitarist] called to ask if I wanted to play on a few tracks on a Duran Duran album. When people found out that I was in town I would get calls. I fit in sessions for Everything But the Girl, The The, and others.
Did the sidemen contribute a lot to the creative process of putting the music together?
Yes, but they were still Sting's tunes. I had a certain degree of creative leeway. When he first went solo after the Police broke up, he hired some players from Weather Report. He became known for the musicians he was working with, and the job was thought of as a "player's gig." It was the only gig with a pop star where you got to really play. Sting comes from more of a jazz background than any other pop stars.
You haven't toured with Sting for a few years, have you been touring with any other artists recently?
It is all studio work these days. Sometimes that involves short-term travel, a few days here or week there. I am based in L.A., but I move around.
What kind of music are you generally called to play?
It varies. I work for a lot of different people. Mostly, I do records and sometimes a motion picture or a jingle. Last year, I worked on a motion picture project with Sting. I recently played on a score by Burt Bacharach for a picture that will come out in late summer or early fall. I get calls to work with new artists and those who are well known. In L.A., I play mostly pop music since that industry is pretty much centered here. Sometimes I will do instrumental projects that are pretty adventurous, but they don't get the visibility that the pop records do.
Do people call you for sessions hoping that you will bring something very different to their record?
I still get calls where people want me to come and do some "Vinnie stuff," but I can't just force that in out of context. If there is a great song and I am playing a nice track on it, I might not do things that people can identify with me. That is the way it should be; playing something else would be out of context. I can hear a track back and think that I could have done this or that, but you have to learn to make decisions like that on the spot.
I have had people tell me that if they hear one bar where I played a cross-stick, they can tell it is me. I am not doing anything but playing the way I do. I can hear one bar of Steve Gadd playing time and know who it is. What is it that he is doing that identifies him? It is just the way he plays, how he touches the drums, where he puts the time. Those are hallmarks as much as anything. I did not start out with a bag of tricks, saying these five or six things will be my trademarks. I don't even know what it is that makes people recognize my playing. If I had contrived something, I might have defeated my own purpose.
It is as simple as this. Let's say you and I both like coleslaw, but you like it with less mayonnaise then I do. It is just what you like. In music, players gravitate toward what they like. Drummers find they like certain stickings better than others, or they play a little thing on the high hat. Those little things become a style.
For instance, when I play in 5/4 time, I prefer breaking the beats in the bar into groupings of two and three versus three and two. It takes longer for the back beat to lay. It is just something I gravitate to. I didn't say, "I'll be the guy who plays 5/4 in groupings of two and three." It is just what I prefer. As you start developing musically and building a vocabulary, you just instinctively lean towards doing things a certain way. If you don't interfere with your development by thinking that you should emulate someone else and try to be something that you aren't, who you are will come out. You just have to let it happen.
Is there a favorite style of music that you would pursue as a recording artist in your own right?
I am passionate about post-bebop jazz. I like music that is rhythmically funky and has an interesting or beautiful harmonic structure.
On your first solo album [titled Vinnie Colaiuta] you explored a wide range of contemporary instrumental styles with guest players like Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, John Patitucci, Pino Palladino, and Sting.
I feel blessed that I could call them up and ask them to come and play. I had a lot of great people working on that album. I was not interested in writing throwaway tunes; I wanted a context for my playing. I didn't want to just chops out over the tunes or rip it up. To me that is like having a tasteless car with a 600-horsepower engine and a crappy interior.
Since I did that record, I haven't had a chance to go back and do another one. As for what the future holds, one really doesn't know. I would like to carry on doing this work and writing, and maybe do another project for myself. I want to play more in diverse situations. Some people expect that you have to ask for more, as if you are reaching for something better than what you have. I am very grateful for what I have, and it is only logical that I would want it to continue. There is always something to look forward to. I am a very strong believer, and feel that without the Lord, I would not have anything. That is my stance. I thank God for my gifts.
What do think of people wanting to imitate your style of playing?
That tells me that I am doing something that hits them in a certain way. As far as someone trying to fully absorb my style goes, people can learn a lick I have played, but they don't know how I think. It can be healthy to learn about someone's style if the person you are emulating has some value to you. But let's face it, people are going to call me if they want to hear my style of playing. I'm still here. You have to be yourself and ultimately you will be better off for it.
I had gotten stuck emulating people and it took me a long time to get certain things out. Every once in a while it is okay. I might say, I wonder how [the late studio drummer] Jeff Porcaro would have played this. If I play in that spirit, it is a way that he will live on. It is a way to note that he contributed something to me that was very valuable. I think that is different than imitating someone in a competitive spirit.
In the Summer 1998 issue of Berklee Today, there was a piece written as a tribute to a young drummer named Chris Yeoman who died in a car accident. Apparently, you were his musical hero, and he said to a friend that if he got to meet you, he could die a happy man. Apparently, you two did meet briefly in Nashville a few days before the accident last year.
That whole thing is beyond sad. I remember meeting him outside the studio when we were taking a break. I invited him to come in. I don't know if he got to see any of the session. It is very touching to me if I represented something that was meaningful to him. I am happy that we had the opportunity to meet. To touch somebody to that extent is success for me. It means a lot more than saying, "I'm the guy who plays on all of the dog food commercials."
In the coming years, will you keep up this pace as a session player or look into other avenues in the business?
I think about other avenues, but I am a player and I want to continue that. Writing interests me more than producing does. Producing is interesting work, but it is a whole different thing. Mainly, I just want to continue to grow in my playing and writing and see where that goes.
Looking back at your career, is there anything that you regard as a high point?
That is not something that I can fairly assess. I have been blessed to be in so many situations that were awesome. I've been very blessed in my career. My involvement with Sting has been really stellar, and I was there with Frank Zappa, a legend, and Joni Mitchell. These are people who helped to define music. How much better can it really get?