eulogised by peers and pupils alike, has a talent so big it casts a shadow. Yet
he resolutely refuses to cash in. No videos, no ego massage: he's a man, he
says, with much still to accomplish. Ronan Macdonald pins down his philosophy,
and finds a Sting in the tale...
"The parameters of drumming are being constantly pushed
and to my mind, the healthiest way of looking at the situation is that they are
being pushed for the overall benefit of music and drumming itself, and not so
much for those who did it. As Papa Jo Jones said, "There ain't nothing new
under the sun". He was right. There isn't. There really isn't. It's just a huge
pool of existence, and some people tap into it and other, they do or they don't
or they do it later, and the important thing is that it gets done for the
benefit of musical growth overall."
From a man like Vinnie Colaiuta, such words come as a great
comfort. Being widely considered the "greatest drummer in the world", it would
be all too easy for him to become smug and simply slip into an attitude of,
"Yup, I'm the best." But then I suppose it could work the other way; at such
extreme heights of notoriety and technical proficiency, perhaps it's easier to
be philosophical. Either way, it is obvious that Vinnie has spent a lot of time
thinking very hard about this situation, evolving a mellow ideology that is
perhaps more worthy or reverence than even his tastiest chops. But enough of
this, let's get factual...
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Vinnie attended Berklee at
the age of seventeen for one year. No, he wasn't kicked out, he was told by
Gary Chaffee to go and start work in New York. He didn't. He stayed in Boston
and picked up whatever gigs he could there for a couple of years. Then, in '78,
came the big move to LA, and a few months after that the gig with Frank Zappa.
This was Vinnie's big break, a three year gig giving him the chance to
virtually rewrite the book in terms of technique, polyrhythmic application and
just about everything else. After leaving Zappa in '81, he went through a brief
lull in the action, but pushed by the likes of Jeff Porcaro and Neil
Stubenhaus, it didn't take long for the name Colaiuta to spread like very wild
Since then Vinnie has played on countless records, jingles and
soundtracks, but up until this year it seemed that he had given up the joys of
the touring life; his last major outing was with Joni Mitchell in '83. However,
when Sting comes knocking on your door what can you do? No, even Vinnie
couldn't turn that one down.
"Just from experience I think that some people have born
leadership qualities – you have certain types of people some of whom are more
easy going, while others are more abrasive. I think that whatever kind of
assertiveness Sting has as a person he seems to channel in a real positive way.
As a band leader he's great because he gives you free rein to play whatever you
want, knowing that you're a good enough musician to interpret the music closely
to how he thinks it should be. He knows that if you're going to hire sidemen,
they're going to be mature enough to play the music for the sake of the music
and not just for themselves. If you do that, ultimately you're going to help
yourself as a player as opposed to making yourself look good and not knowing
why you're doing it, you know? He trusts the instincts of each and every one of
us to play whatever we want, and if he doesn't like something, he'll tell us.
That's his prerogative, and there's no reason for us to get upset about it
because there are right and wrong things to do within certain parameters.
Basically, we have a set of parameters and we work within them. He's real good
that way, and he also has definite ideas about what he wants in specific
segments of certain things, and he's just been really fair that way, real
It seemed to me, having seen the gig, that in the
sections where things took a turn for the jazzy, the vibe between Vinnie,
Branford and David (Sancious – keys) became noticeabley more... well, vibrant I
suppose. Did these moments perhaps make the three jazzers feel more in their
"When you say vibrant I assume that what you mean is
that the energy level sort of expanded in different directions."
Well, er... of course I did.
"Basically, all that is to me is a chance to improvise
more. It's a chance for me to improvise because first of all, obviously, the
compositions are a good vehicle for that and, secondly, when you have those
kinds of musicians, that's what can happen. Branford definitely creates a lift,
and his reply is that he gets it from us, but it's really reciprocal, it works
in a circle. It does have a lot to do with our backgrounds. I tell you, Sting
himself, make no mistake about it, he's definitely got more than a fair amount
of jazz blood in him. He's a very knowledgeable musician and he recognizes the
qualities in players in letting them perform, so he allows those performance
characteristics to come through. That's really great because if you've got that
kind of talent you might as well use it. That's part of why it's so great for
me being in that situation: you can just open up. It's the kind of setting
which most people would look at as a 'pop' situation because of his image, but
if you call that pop, that's pushing the envelope of pop about as far as you
And what of the rest of the set? How did Vinnie
approach playing the Police songs and, perhaps more importantly Purple Haze
(yes, they played Purple Haze).
way that I approach playing something like Purple Haze is... Well, to me that
song, the way Hendrix played and the whole band played, captured the essence of
what Hendrix was about and it captured the essence of that era. It's like a
shap-shot of then and that time, and what they were saying then was very
important, it was crucial to the song and the way it should sound. What I don't
do is to try and consciously 'nineties' upgrade it because I don't feel that it
needs an upgrade. I play the way that I play. I'm not
Mitch Mitchell and I can
only simulate how he played. I'm not going to sit there and try to play like
Mitch Mitchell. I'll honour it, but it's not a full-blown imitation."
Respect where respect's due I suppose. How about
the Police tracks? Surely that's a different situation given they are
actually Sting's own songs rather than covers.
"As far as the Police tracks go, it's the same kind of thing."
So it's not really a different situation at all, then?
"I mean, I wouldn't call it the same kind of situation,
but it's like, they all had strong identities so I'm not going to sit there and
imitate Stewart Copeland - that's the last thing Sting would want me to do
anyway. At the same time there's a specific identity that those songs have
which is greater than the sum of their parts. So if I approach it with that
attitude instead of just homing in on the way Stewart played it, then I can pay
homage to that. But at the same time those songs are an open book, as are all
of Sting's songs. He did a remake of 'Don't Stand So Close To Me' that was a
lot different to the way The Police did it. Sting's concept is that when you do
an album it's a point of departure, and for me, I kind of look at a record as
two things. One of the things it is, is a documentation that has to hold up
because you're documenting a song, though some songs can be interpreted in many
different ways and if a song is a good song it can hold up regardless of
instrumentation. Like Zappa used to say, you wouldn't try to assimilate
'Purple Haze' right off the top of your head with a bassoon playing the melody
and an accordian playing the changes; It might be funny for a minute, but no.
We just adhere to certain parameters."
The thing that seems to separate Vinnie from other
drummers of his genre is his temperament. I mean sure, players like Steve Smith
and Dave Weckl have it down where chops, time keeping and all the rest of it
are concerned, but none of them have the fire that accompanies Vinnie's
technical brilliance. I know, you've heard it all before, how he's constantly
'taking his music to the edge' or 'walking the thin line between perfection and
whatever is beyond'. Yes, is all sounds like editorial bullshit, but watching
him play for the photo-session I can confirm that, in this case, the editorial
bullshit really is true. I'm not going to get bogged down with dubious
superlatives here, but suffice to say Vinnie is quite simply the most
breathtaking drummer in the world.
"The reason why I play the way I do is that at one point
for a specific length of time I pushed myself, and also that's just part of my
identity. I think that what happens is that after you go through a learning
process, so to speak, you realise that it's natural to play one way and it's
maybe not natural to play another way. Somebody may do something that
everyboddy thinks is new and they catch on to this person but meanwhile there's
a lot of unsung heroes. Just because a guy has some fast chops and he knows
some hot licks, that doesn't mean that he would be able to move me in the way
that somebody else would. That's kind of how I look at it now; it's like, how
much does all that shit matter? How much does it matter?"
"That's why I think competition is good if it's healthy,
but unfortunately the kind of competition that gets propagated is not healthy
because it's all for the sake of... I don't know... For example: you stage
these drumming contests and somebody sponsors them to make the sponsors look
good, and they say, 'Well, we're going to have a big battle.' It's like a
cock-fight, it's always attracted people. The problem is that music doesn't
exist in that world. It doesn't exist in that realm. You could have a certain
level of technique and concentration and just be having a shitty day, so what
does that mean?"
You may suddenly wake up one day and find yourself
playing things that you never played before, so are you going to say, 'Well, I
should have entered that contest today'? Or, 'I should have been there today
because I ate onions'? That's another reason questions like: 'What is the
best?' and 'Who's better than who?' are pointless."
Everybody take note.
"You go into a studio, and if you are a sensitive player
you will react to your environment. What happens if you play in a similar
environment with people you've never worked for and everybody has a different
concept about what music should be? Are you going to sit there and say, 'Well,
no, I'm so good, this is how it should be'? It's going to
affect your performance. It's going to affect how you interpret things. You
can't fight an uphill battle."
"Have you seen classic cases of all-star bands where
everybody's out there for themselves? I mean, come on! You've got so much
firepower that there's no cohesiveness, there could never be any synergy."
So what makes a great drummer? Obviously Vinnie is the man to ask.
think great drummers are drummers who command enough of the instrument so that
their musical sensibilities and developed intuitions can just exist for the
music. They just play without any kind of preconceived limitiations that maybe
they've imposed on themselves."
"It also depends on the criteria; I mean, Art Blakey was
a great drummer. Elvin Jones is a great drummer. Buddy Rich was a great
drummer. Pete Erskine's a great drummer. I mean, all the guys: Smith, Dave...
They're all great. It's like..."
Vinnie's eyes take on an almost worrying intensity as he grapples for something concrete.
"A great drummer is someone for whom the basic precepts
are almost granted: like, your time is very developed; your instincts are
developed; your interpretations; your intuitions; your ability to read other
people; your basic skills, like reading... Things that are all in place so that
your identity can surface. That to me is great. You should make a statement
that is there because it's supposed to be there rather than because it's hot.
It's kind of hard to put my finger on that. There are times when I sit and
think about it much more than at other times. I'm not really at an evaluative
But surely there must have been a stage where you had
a favourite drummer - someone who you wanted to be. In fact, aren't I right in
saying it was Tony Williams?
"Yeah, he still is my hero. There are several drummers
who move me, and I think that if you're moved emotionally then that's something
that really counts. That's the ultimate thing that can happen that way. Tony
Williams is my favourite drummer."
"Just the way he plays, there's not one
thing. His persona really comes across as a drummer. I've had discussions where
I've pondered whether you can actually separate what you are as a person from
the drums. I think a big part of Tony's persona translates into him as a
player. I've seen him in situations where he was hot and cold. I love the fact
that he just exists for the moment on the drums and however he feels he just
plays that way, but you can never say that it's great or it's shitty, it's
always him, it's always Tony. He just is who he is and I love his approach to
the instrument. To me he was always a creative genius of the drums."
As you've probably guessed, I caught up with Vinnie
during his time over here on the Sting tour. In fact, when I finally tracked
him down (and it wasn't easy) he was at Livingston Studios in Wood Green doing
a session for Everything But The Girl. I suppose the question that has to be
asked of such a consummate artist as Vinnie is whether he ever finds the rigid
parameters of session drumming at all constricting.
"Sometimes. The only time is if I know the producer is
blatantly wrong and going against my grain musically. Session players tend to
pull things out of their bag of tricks, and I like to have an open mind and not
necessarily do that. So if a guy asks me to play something that I wouldn't
have thought of, I'll always try to assimilate it as best I can. Other times
I'll think to myself, 'Why does he want me to play this?' But I may have to
cringe and go through with it anyway. But mostly it doesn't happen and I don't
The variety of sessions Vinnie plays is, to say the
least, diverse. One day he may be playing for a cigarette ad and the next he'll
be sweating it with John Patitucci. What does he like doing best?
"To me there's only two kinds of music: good and bad.
That's because there's heartfelt music and there's music that's not heartfelt,
or just badly composed. So it doesn't really matter what genre it is, but at
the same time, yeah, I like to play. That's why being involved with Sting right
now is so great, because the music is so good, and he's such a great singer and
player. So it's a great situation. But you know, playing with John is terrific
and I love doing that. I love music that allows me to be creative and
spontaneous, but not where it's complicated. I really like touching, beautiful
harmony and rhythms that just make my whole body and soul vibrate. So,
harmonically I want to be moved emotionally and rhythmically, I want it to set
my spirit in motion, and there's a lot of ways that that can manifest itself.
If those conditions exist in music, that's what I like to be involved in.
That's kind of an overview, but it's not difficult to imagine what that kind of
music is - it could be vocal or it could be instrumental."
So you're a bit of a jazzer really aren't you Vinnie?
"Yeah, I admit it man, I'm a jazzer, I really am. It's
not something I want to hide. But I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin too.
The thing that surprises me most about Vinnie's
attitude is the way in which he seems to refuse to fall into the commercial
groove and make a small fortune cashing in on his reputation. What with all the
money-making opportunities open to musicians today, Vinnie's cashflow could
probably be increased quite seriously by the odd video or solo album. But no, a
man of solid principles, he has made no such ventures as of yet...
"There's been a lot of things that I've consciously
baulked at, like why don't I have a video out yet? Why don't I have my own
drumsticks? Why don't I have a record out yet? The answer to the first question
is because I've consciously made a decision not to do a video. Why don't I have
my own sticks out yet? Because we have not arrived at a model that I like
better than a 5B. Simple. And I'm not going to try and be some big man and go,
'Hey, look at me, I'm important!' That's just not in my make-up. Market it and
people will think I'm some big shot. I'm already kind of there in a way. I'm
not saying that I'm a big shot but I already have a certain kind of stature and
to me that just means that I'm appreciated."
"As far as a record goes: firstly, I don't have a
manager; secondly, my music is pretty eclectic; and thirdly, I haven't pushed
it probably as hard as I could have. The most important thing is that I don't
know if there's a company out there that would be willing to risk promoting
something that eclectic, because it's not slick funk/fusion type A. It's not
that, it's out, man. I'm not saying it's the Art Ensemble of
Chicago, but I like a lot of different directions. I'm not expecting them to
beat my doors down either, but I want to have the right situation. In a way,
it's been good, because over a certain period of time I've grown as a player
and a writer, and I don't want to wait too long, but I want to make a statement
that I'm comfortable with, and I realise that it's not going to make me a
"The great thing about being a sideman, so to speak, is
that there are a lot of responsiblities that may not be a lot of fun that you
have to deal with."
Can you expand a little on why you haven't done a
video? Surely that actually has a purpose unlike the stick thing, which is
obviously fairly pointless.
"I felt that there were too many videos out. I felt that
there were too many on the market and I didn't want to just become a can of
Campbell's soup, you know what I mean? I just have certain concepts about it
that I adhere to, but at the same time one never knows how long one's going to
live and I may be a better player next year than I am now or who knows if I'll
even be playing... I hope that I'll be playing! That's started to creep into my
head a little bit lately, so I'm starting to turn a little bit the other way.
But that's why I haven't done one in the past."
Personally, I'm very sceptical about the whole video
thing. I think it gets students into bad habits and essentially gives players
an excuse to show-off on screen at an extortionate cost to the punter.
Obviously, the view of the populace doesn't reflect that since videos sell, but
calling them tutor videos strikes me as a bit of a joke. Vinnie begs
"No, I think it's great! It's just that kids that are
impressionable have to understand that they're likely to take just about
everything they hear as the gospel, as opposed to saying, 'Well, this guy's
different; he has a different physical make-up and he's come from a different
background.' They tend to confuse different people's... belief systems as the
gospel. It just doesn't work that way, and sometimes the issue can get confused
and you have to see through that. So a guys puts out a video and thinks it's
going to be good for him, just like a guy who gets a drum endorsement says, 'Oh
yeah, I got an endorsement, I got free drums!' In a lot of ways, if you want to
do it just to get the free equipment, then you're going to be sorry about what
you're doing. It doesn't benefit you. I know a lot of guys who play what they
want to play, and they just create their own thing."
I have to admit to a little apprehension at the
prospect of interviewing Vinnie. Having to meet a man frequently cited as the
world's finest drummer and somehow talk to him, without being sycophantic or
offhand, could have been decidedly tricky. But no, the fact is that Vinnie is
not your average interview. His converstaional idiom verges on the
eccentrically inspired and at times you really are pushed to follow his thread.
That's not to say that some of the things he says don't make sense, rather that
the way his thoughts seem to progress is by no means linear.
His views on the state of the music scene at the
moment are at times amusing at times depressing, but always salient. And as for
his playing... Oh Lordy. In fact, before Vinnie closes this piece with some
advice for the aspiring (perspiring?) sessioneer, I'd just like to point out
that the tape transcription of this interview was easily the hardest i've ever
had to edit. I just wish there had been room for it all...
"First of all, you have to be steeped in reality and the
reality is the fact that, you know, we've all been really young at one point
and had our parents say, 'Be realistic, there's a lot of competition.'
That used to always make me livid, because I would always say, 'I don't care
how much competition there is, I want to do this!' If you're going to
let that deter you... well, you can't, there's so many factors involved. The
most important thing is to not give up because you could be really close to it,
but on the other hand you could get to a certain age where you've been maybe
struggling for fifteen, twenty years and not got to another echelon, in which
case you have to stop and reassess why it didn't happen. You have to tell
yourself, 'Well, look, I'm not a failure because it didn't happen the way I
wanted it to, but I'm a success because I'm still doing what I want to do,'
and you have to mould it to whatever your life is at that time. There's a lot
of truth and a lot of hope and inspiration in the phrase, 'Don't give up.'"
The Other Side Of The Kit
I do enjoy watching photo sessions, but since watching
Vinnie play is rather deflating at the best of times, after a while I just
couldn't take any more. As I wandered aimlessly around the studio, who should I
bump into hiding behind a glowing MIDI rack but Ben Watt of Everything But The
Girl fame. Makes sense really, considering that's who Vinnie was supposed to be
working with at the time. With swift resolve I pounced upon him and asked what
it's like to work with the great man.
He's really relaxed about it all. He's really confident about
his playing, he wants it to be really good and he won't go until it is. But,
because he's great anyway, it's not really a problem. He's got big ears for his
own work. He's really keen for it to be right. He'll play what you want him to
play if you ask him, but he'll be inventive if you're running out of ideas. If
you play him something that someone else has played, he doesn't mind copying
that as a starting point and then developing it into something new again.
That's reall good; you sometimes imagine that players will come in and just
give you their sound and that's it. He's pretty casual about it all. Everything
is like, 'What's happenin' dude?' It's just a really cool atmosphere.
Does he stick rigidly to what's asked of him?
"Well, we only know him from records that we all like, like
Joni Mitchell, but he knows the ropes. He's done terrible sessions down the
years where he's had to play to clicks and repeat parts that other people have
played, etc. He was telling me about a track that he had to do, a jingle where
he had to play the funky drummer loop beat for beat and note for note. He was
just booked to do it and he did it. Like with most musicians he's open to try
Are you actually aware of his reputation among other drummers?
"When we were working with him in LA, I'd heard all about him,
but people had said, 'Oh no, he can play anything, but he's happy to just sit
on a groove if you want him to.' It's true. I mean, if you want him to show off
all his chops, of course he will, but he knows what's required of certain
tracks like any good drummer. He's not just flash for the sake of being flash."
But presumably he has ideas of his own.
"Sure, he's a drummer and it would be stupid of me not to
listen to him. In the end, when you're approaching a groove - that final
firming process where you decide where the bass drums are going to fall and so
on - he's great at making those sort of final, concrete decisions. it's a bit
like moulding a sculpture, it gradually hardens and comes together."
And if you had to sum Vinnie up in as few words as possible?
"He's just a dude, that's all there is to it. There are guys
like that, and there aren't guys like that. He's just one of them,
everything's just a gas. He's a breeze to work with.
Thanks to John Harrison for sending in this interview!