Percussive Notes, February 1995
The Official Journal of the Percussive Arts Society
people don't even bother trying to describe it in technical terms. They just
call it "Vinnie stuff" - those licks and fills that defy analysis. One can
throw words like "polyrhythms" and "multi-meters" at it, but the mathematical
approach those terms imply seems at odds with the pure feel and animal
aggressiveness that permeate Vinnie Colaiuta's drumming.
That's not to suggest, however, that Colaiuta is an
instinct-only player who doesn't know what he's doing. His studies at Berklee
with Gary Chaffee prepared him for the rhythmic sophistication required by his
first major gig with Frank Zappa during the late '70s. Zappa himself hailed
Vinnie as being the best drummer he ever worked with in terms of his
understanding and feel for complex rhythms and time signatures.
However much Vinnie might be able to explain exactly what he's
doing, he never sounds as though he's sitting there counting and subdividing.
There's a sense of wild abandon, as if he is simply going for it with no fear
of the danger involved in exploring uncharted rhythmic territory. At times, one
senses that Vinnie is rushing straight towards a musical brick wall during a
fill or solo, but then, at the last moment, he finds the opening in that wall
and slides right back into the tune's solid groove.
Some consider Colaiuta a rhythmic god. Others prefer a much
simpler explanation that absolves them of all responsibility to come to grips
with what he does: "Vinnie's crazy."
That reputation caused Colaiuta some problems after he left
Zappa's band and sought to establish himself in the L.A. studios. Contractors
worried that he was a loose cannon who would never be able to restrain those
infamous fills on straight-ahead recording dates. His quirky sense of humor and
volatile personality reinforced the idea that Vinnie was nuts.
But some knew better. Several of his first sessions came as a
result of Jeff Porcaro's recommendations. Colaiuta ultimately got very busy in
the L.A. studios, recording with artists including Joni Mitchell, Allan
Holdsworth, Gino Vannelli, Jeff Beale, Tom Scott, John Patitucci, Jennifer
Warnes, Natalie Cole and Robben Ford. He served as house drummer on the Joan
Rivers Show in 1987 and played tons of commercial jingles and TV show themes.
Most of the sessions required very straightforward drumming, and although that
facet of Colaiuta's drumming tended to be overshadowed in many people's minds
by his finesse with polyrhythms, it was a talent that was very much in evidence
even on certain Zappa tracks that Vinnie propelled with simple backbeats. In
fact, had Colaiuta never played an odd-time signature in his life, it's likely
he would still be a major player in a league with Jeff Porcaro, Jim Keltner or
Kenny Aronoff, simply for his ability to make a tune feel good with a
identify me with other things. You don't hear a lot of music any more like
Frank wrote, and people still remember those things. I may have become some
kind of icon because of those achievements, and I have no intentions of wanting
to bury that reputation.
But the thing is, regardless of how many pulses a bar
happens to contain, you're going to play it with the same consideration of feel
that you would if you were playing 4/4, meaning that you're going to make it
feel good no matter what it is. A bar of seven or eleven is not going to feel
like four, but it may have subdivisions that give you the feeling of a backbeat
for enough of a moment to get that same kind of feeling. By the same token, you
can take 4/4 and stretch it like a Gumby.
Some people write in odd times just to be experimental
and they actually want it to have a jerky feel. But odd times can inherently be
that way unless you approach them from a different angle, not necessarily
defining the downbeats in every bar. It becomes a question of, do you want to
make the audience a part of this or do you want to lose them? How much of it
has to be an intellectual exercise all the time? We played some odd times on
the Sting record [Ten Summoner's Tales]
but I don't think Sting intended for
people to sit there and count the stuff out. He wanted to make it as musical as
That's the beauty of someone like Coltrane. You might
not understand intellectually a note of what he was doing, but you got it on
some other level.
In fact, some contend that if there is an internal
logic to something, your subconscious will respond to it even if you don't
consciously know what it is.
Right, because the laws of nature ring true. When you
listened to Coltrane you recognized something and wanted to go back to it
because he was playing the truth. It's deep stuff.
In a reverse sense, Colaiuta's 4/4 playing has a ring
of truth to it in the way he can drive a song with simplicity. Many drummers
who are very technically accomplished cannot play simple beats with conviction.
I believe in it. It's strange because you hear something
driving and feeling good, so you transcribe it and see that there aren't a lot
of notes on the page. Sometimes you are surprised by that because it sounded
like a lot more than it was, but that's because you can't transcribe drive and
The other thing is that no two drummers play 4/4 exactly
the same way, you know? That's a mystery in itself to me - how you can identify
someone through something so simple. It's way beyond how many ticks per beat
and all that garbage.
Like most drummers, Colaiuta started out playing standard backbeat-oriented songs.
My first real influences were guys on the radio playing
on R&B and Motown records. That music inspired me and I would always play
along to the radio. When the Beatles came on TV I saw that and freaked, so
Ringo made a big impact on me, and I remember watching shows like American
Bandstand and The Monkees on TV.
I also remember seeing Buddy Rich on the Tonight Show around the same time I
first saw Ringo. And even though I came up playing in rock bands, my high
school music instructors were all very jazz oriented. They would take me to big
band gigs and turn me on to all these records; I got exposed to Tony Williams
when I was in junior high. I was playing in the school stage band when I was in
seventh grade and I'd be doing gigs in clubs with my band director at night. I
was just this kid who couldn't stay awake.
I had a couple of friends who played Hammond B3 organs,
and we would do gigs with tenor sax, organ and drums, and sometimes a guitar. I
was also listening to a lot of organ groups like Jack McDuff and Jimmy McGriff
and Don Patterson. That stuff is great, man. It's just greasy, you know?
There's nothing like it.
By the time Colaiuta went to college, he was digging
groups such as Tower of Power, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever,
and records such as Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, Miles Davis's Bitches Brew
and Live/Evil and Tony Williams' Emergency and Ego.
It was a massive transformation of music for me that
just freaked me out; I blew my lid off with that stuff. When I was at Berklee,
I used to go to bed every night with headphones on listening to stuff like
Miles Davis's Nefertiti album, with Tony Williams on drums. I was totally into
'Trane and Elvin [Jones].
I didn't want to isolate myself from anything; I
listened to everything at that point. I was so energized by fusion before
fusion was ever a bad word. I don't know why it became a bad word - probably
because it got so watered down. I don't think it was the musicians who watered
it down. They studied all these years to play stupid elevator music? I don't
think so. Anyway, those were my early influences.
Colaiuta was also exposed to odd meters at an early age.
I saw Don Ellis live when I was in seventh or eighth
grade. I couldn't believe that stuff; it was amazing. So I was hip to that
before I got to college, but Gary Chaffee definitely polished it. He showed me
different concepts of relating to it on drumset that I hadn't thought of,
especially on a physical level with the linear thing and the sticking. He
really steered me and it was great. Gary is a fantastic teacher and he has an
Like many young drummers who master more complex
styles of playing, Colaiuta developed a certain contempt for simpler ways of
I was a jazz snob for a while. When you're first learning you go through all
that stuff. I used to get myself in trouble when I was playing casuals because
I would get bored so I would start throwing in all this stuff. But I was young
and restless and didn't have the maturity to deal with that kind of thing.
Eventually you wise up, or else you're totally blind and
you think all these other people don't know what they're talking about. You
start thinking, 'Hey, I'm BAD and they just don't know it.' That's some funny
shit when you see guys who think their stuff is the only thing, and they're
real quick to put everything down when they haven't even investigated
everything that's out there. You've really got to question the validity of
At the same time, if you have gone through the whole
gamut and can honestly say, 'Yes, I can play a backbeat and appreciate the
value of simplicity, but I'm really onto something new here and nobody
understands it,' you just have to realize that maybe you've developed different
tastes than everybody else. You hear things differently, and you can't expect
the whole world to hear as you do. If you've run through the gamut, then your
thing can be totally valid, as opposed to some guy who learns to do something
fairly complex and then thinks he's got an edge on things and everything else
But at some point you're hearing guitar players and bass
players you dig, and you want to play with them because it feels so good, and
you want them to want to play with you. It's really a reciprocal thing as
opposed to going on a gig and thinking, 'Well, these guys are funky but they
don't understand my stuff,' and pretty soon you start making yourself believe
that they can't play because it's not grooving. Deep down inside, you know
you're bull-shitting yourself.
Groove doesn't just apply to something simple. Groove is
groove, period, no matter how many friggin' notes are in the bar or how dense
the content of the music is and all that crap. Groove is the most natural
consequence of the flow of the music. You just have to know that you're making
a statement with it.
THREE YEARS AGO, Colaiuta left the relative security
of the L.A. studios to go on the road with Sting. He had not played on the
album that the tour was supporting (Soul Cages), and there were no guarantees
that the gig would amount to anything more than a couple of months on the road.
Conventional wisdom holds that once you get established in the
studios and are on several contractors' first-call list, you don't leave town
to do a mere road gig. Contractors are creatures of habit, and while you're
gone they will get used to calling someone else. Some of them, in fact, will
feel downright betrayed by your infidelity to studio work, and when you come
home looking for work again, they won't necessarily welcome you back with open
arms. They'll keep using the guy who did all those cornflakes commercials for
them while you were off being a rock star.
Colaiuta must have been crazy to take that gig.
It was definitely a gamble, but I never said I just
wanted to be a studio player. I was presented with an opportunity that I knew I
would love to do because of what it represented musically. Also, at that
particular time I happened to really be wanting to do something different.
were saying that I was working too hard and saying 'yes' to everything. Well,
of course you're going to say yes when it starts happening because this is what
you've worked for and you don't know when the phone is going to stop ringing.
You also don't want to alienate people on a political level-and just because
I'm talking about politics doesn't mean I'm crafty, shrewd or not true to
people. I'm just talking about dealing with people, which is a natural
consequence of what happens daily in business relationships. It doesn't mean
you have to be deceptive or anything.
So anyway, people said I was working too hard. Well, I
love what I do. Also, to maintain an okay lifestyle, if all I had were TV dates
that didn't pay as much as record dates, I'd take even more dates to pay my
bills. But you've really got to know when to start weeding certain things out,
and the percentage of dates that I was not enjoying compared to the ones that
were musically fulfilling was way out of balance to me. I'd be on dates and the
other cats were talking about golf - not wanting to be there. C'mon. I didn't
want that; I really didn't. I was definitely not ready to be sitting there
reading a magazine in between cymbal rolls. No thanks, that's not me.
So I needed a specific kind of change and, thank God, I
happened to get it. I'm not saying I wanted to stop being a studio player; I
just didn't want to be pigeonholed.
It's funny, because I had been thinking that it would
have to be someone like Sting or Peter Gabriel for me to leave town. Then Sting
calls a couple of months later. I was so jacked up and ready for that! Cattle
call? Sure, no problem. I felt so confident because I knew that I could really
relate to that situation. A lot of guys might think, 'Yeah, well, so can I.'
But can you really? You might like it, but is your playing really on that
As it turned out, the association with Sting was an
ongoing one. Colaiuta did several tours with Sting and played on his Ten
Summoner's Tales album. The album featured plenty of in-the-pocket groove, as
well as tunes in five and seven in which Colaiuta proved his ability to made
"odd" time sound perfectly natural. Although at the time of this interview
Vinnie had no idea when, or if, Sting would call again for an album or tour, he
has no second thoughts about taking the gig.
You're always gambling, and sure, it could have gone
either way with my career. But considering the musical validity that people
recognize Sting to have, I didn't think it was going to hurt me. If you're up
there playing the best you can and you're happy and honest about it and the
music is quality, people in the industry are going to congratulate you and root
for you. They don't have to like the music but they can sense the integrity.
However much Colaiuta may have been bored with TV
dates, could his decision to follow his heart have also been influenced by the
untimely deaths of Frank Zappa and Vinnie's close friend Jeff Porcaro?
Yeah, I could agree with that one hundred percent. I was
devastated, needless to say. It can't help but make you think when it happens
to people who have made such an impact on you. I can only hope that would be
one of the important lessons to be learned from those two, tragic events, and
that I would be able to assimilate something like that.
One might reasonably assume that the recent release of
Colaiuta's first solo album (Vinnie Colaiuta, Stretch/GRP) was part of the
process of following his heart. While the album is certainly the most personal
statement yet to come from Colaiuta, he insists that he didn't force the
project simply for the sake of making his own album.
I had been writing for a long time. When you are honing
your ability to express yourself, after a while your efforts cause things to
happen. I didn't consciously wait for anything, and I didn't try to make
something happen. I just carried on and it happened when it decided to happen.
You have to engage in a process to get a result. You
can't just conceptualize a result. You might use the knowledge that there is a
result to give you the impetus to fuel the process, but once you start thinking
about the result too much, the process gets interrupted.
Let's say your desired result is a record contract.
Rather than daydreaming about the end result and bitching that the result is
not occurring, involve yourself in the process, which is an ongoing thing. To
get signed, you must have some tunes, and once you've made a record, you're
going to want to make another one, and another one after that, which means you
have to have more tunes. So dig the process and get involved in that. If you
can enjoy the process, you won't trip out on whatever results you do or don't
Given the opportunities for self expression that
Colaiuta has been offered with the variety of artists he's worked with, were
there facets of his playing that he felt had never been exposed?
The album was more an opportunity for my writing than my
drumming, because nobody's heard my writing. The goal was not 'here's a lick
you never heard before,' but 'here's my drumming in the context of my own
music.' The album integrates my drumming into my whole musical persona. My
compositions reveal my drumming, which represents my musicality, which is
revealed through the compositions.
I'm not saying that my persona is not revealed through
my drumming on other people's records. It is, because I'm expressing myself
completely through my instrument at that moment. But I'm reacting to something
else, whereas on my album, I'm reacting to my own music. It's a subtle
difference, but it's a difference.
Colaiuta's drumming on the album ranges from simple
and grooving to schizo and intense-always fitting the context of the particular
Representing myself as a whole person, I think I
serviced the tunes quite well. Playing more stuff just because I wanted my
record to have the fastest single-stroke roll I ever played could have been the
stupidest, most self-defeating thing I had ever done. And I didn't force
anything to be perfectly quantized. Here's how I wrote it, here's how I played
it tonight. It happened; don't mess with it. That's where I was coming from.
In the album's liner notes, Colaiuta states, "I'm sure
that, upon listening, my influences will be blatantly obvious." In terms of the
tunes, some of them do have echoes of the early-'70s fusion that Colaiuta
expresses so much admiration for, and there are, predictably, hints of Zappa
here and there.
But in terms of his drumming, Colaiuta has never been
a clone of anyone. However innovative certain drummers have been, one can often
hear their roots, as in the way Tony Williams came out of Roy Haynes, or how
Dave Weckl evolved from Steve Gadd. But there are no clear precedents for
Colaiuta's style, so just what did he get from the drummers he considers his
influences and how did he apply it?
Tony Williams represented so many things to me.
Rebelliousness. A complete iconoclast. I thought it was absolutely brilliant
the way he would choose to describe musical events on the drumset as a result
of improvisational dialogue between himself and another player. That really had
a big impact on me.
With Billy Cobham, aside from the sheer physicality and
powerhouseness of it, it was hearing him avoiding downbeats and doing things
that were funky and syncopated but really clean and slick. He would use hand
techniques between the hi-hat and snare drum that sounded like they
incorporated rudimental training, and he would make that stuff sound funky on a
drumset while he was playing grooves. And then the speed he had and the
single-strokes around the tom-toms, and his approach to odd times, which was
really funky. I was listening to how he constructed his solos. Even if he was
trading back and forth-bebop guys would be trading fours but these guys were
trading God-knows-what, elevens or something-I'd listen to the statements he
would make and think about why he put this note here or that note there.
The biggest thing that got me about Elvin was his time
feel. He definitely latched on to some circularity that nobody else had. It
wasn't just that it was a triplet thing, but his whole time feel was so
unbelievably hip and very deceiving and full. Some of the things he did were
like sheets of sound that didn't belong to individual notes anymore; it sort of
transcended that kind of thing.
Roy Haynes had a whole different kind of sound too. He
danced on the drums, you know what I mean? I tried to assimilate that from his
ride cymbal thing, which had a whole different kind of effect on me.
Vinnie suddenly stops speaking. After a long pause he says:
This is kind of opening up a Pandora's box, because I
could get a lot deeper than that. I mean, I can't possibly encapsulate what I
got from all those guys in this amount of time. That took place over years and
years of my development, so it's really hard for me to sum it up into a few
His reluctance to reduce the drummers he admires to a
couple of signature characteristics speaks volumes about who Colaiuta is.
Perhaps the reason his own playing has such depth is because in terms of the
drummers who influenced him, he didn't just rip-off a few licks from each one.
He absorbed their entire approaches to drumming and applied their attitudes and
Maybe so. I don't know if I've lived enough of a life to
even begin to get every thing that a Roy Haynes alone has to offer to a
drummer, let alone Elvin or Jack [DeJohnette]. You can only look at them and go
'WOW' and try to groove on the totality of what they are. You can't just reduce
them to a couple of characteristics. Sure, the might have signature licks, but
do you think that's all they can play? They are not limited by any sense of the
People who think they can reduce these guys to a
few licks are almost piteously funny to me; they are so completely missing the
boat. Everybody has licks, whether they realize it or not, but it goes along
with an overall style. The great drummers are still responding to what is going
on around them.
NOVEMBER, 1989-The percussion industry has converged
on Nashville for PASIC '89, at which Vinnie Colaiuta is one of the featured
clinicians. The night before his clinic, Vinnie goes out to dinner with a group
of people that includes Louie Bellson and several employees of Zildjian and
Remo. When they arrive at the L&N Seafood Grill, they are told that it will
take a few minutes to prepare a table for the dozen or so people who make up
Everyone stands around exchanging small-talk while
waiting, but Colaiuta finds an empty chair near the entrance, sits down and
pulls a practice pad and pair of sticks from the bag he's carrying. A he starts
working out on the pad, Bellson watches. "He's so dedicated," Bellson says,
shaking his head in admiration. "He reminds me of Joe Morello - always
Indeed, Colaiuta is known as a famous "practicer" and
many of his friends and associates in L.A. tell stories about seeing Vinnie
going at it on a pad in the car while his wife, Darlene, is driving him to and
from sessions. His behavior is often cited as an example of the extreme
discipline one must have in order to achieve greatness.
But given Colaiuta's level of technical skill, is he
really that obsessed at this point with getting better, or is he simply so in
love with playing that he's happiest with a pair of sticks in his hand?
I just love the drums. But I don't practice obsessively
like I used to. I questioned that myself a couple of years ago and wondered if
it was a neurosis. If so, then maybe I should try to not be so neurotic and see
if I could just relax and tell my mind it was okay not to pick up the sticks
for a couple of days. You don't want to be going, "I've got to practice". Sure,
you need a certain amount of commitment and discipline, but don't let it be a
If you're not satisfied with your playing, it's good to
drive yourself. But do you really have something inside that's itching to get
out that you can't say? If that's the case, concentrate on what that is.
Technically, you've got to get your muscle memory together because the body
learns slower than the mind.
I see nothing wrong with people who want to play as much
as possible because they have a lot of stuff coming out. They get on a roll and
it goes on for hours. Great, man! That's the pure beauty of it. You get into
that space and you love it, and there ain't nothing wrong with that.
I'm not going to say that you don't need to practice. No
way. But sometimes people start thinking, 'Oh man, I HAVE to practice all the
time.' If you lose your attention span after a couple of hours and want to take
a break, take a break. If you suddenly want to go play again, go back and play.
You have to figure out your own objectives. If you want to do a certain thing,
that's the answer right there. But how much do you want to play?
Some people bitch because certain things aren't
happening, but they are just sitting there making the same mistakes over and
over again. Or they think somebody is going to wave a magic wand over their
head. How bad do you want it? If you want it, you'll get it.
But what do you really want? Do you just want to be like
someone else because you think this, that and the other thing about that
person? Or do you want it because you love the music and want to express
yourself through rhythm? If you want it because you love it, it will come
Rick Mattingly is
Senior Editor of Percussive Notes and serves on the PAS Board of Directors. His
articles have appeared in Modern Drummer, Musician, Down Beat and the New Grove
Dictionary of Jazz, he has edited instructional books by Peter Erskine, Joe
Morello, Gary Chester, Bill Bruford and Bob Moses, and he is the author of
Creative Timekeeping, published by Hal Leonard.
Thanks to Shane Gormly for sending in this interview!