Jiving Jazz with Jeff Hamilton
Tight fills, swinging jams and impeccable style—if you’re familiar with names like Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson or Monty Alexander, chances are that you’ve heard Jeff Hamilton’s playing. Professional musicianship is Hamilton’s style—his passion for the instrument has helped bring drumming to where it is today. From his clear, supportive mindset to his intricate knowledge about every part of the drum kit, Hamilton can teach us all how to jive a little more smoothly.
SLUG: In your practice, what’s the difference between a drummer and a percussionist?
Hamilton: To me, I was a percussionist while at Indiana University, studying timpani, marimba and various percussion instruments in orchestral settings. A percussion instrument can also be anything one strikes, shakes, kicks, etc. My instrument is a jazz drum set consisting of a basic set of four drums, three cymbals and hi-hats. I find that this is a lifetime challenge to try to master this “beast.” I never wanted to play any other instruments.
SLUG: After so many years behind the drum set, have you ever felt as though there’s nothing left to learn? Why?
Hamilton: The great drummer, Shelly Manne, once told me that when you stop asking questions, you might as well hang up the sticks and brushes. There is so much history to this instrument in this genre of jazz. It began in the early 1900s so now there are over 100 years of studying the masters to arrive at your own sound. If anyone feels like there is nothing left to learn, they shouldn’t have chosen this career. The journey is the best part.
SLUG: What do you try to communicate while you’re playing, or does music not need to “say” anything?
Hamilton: Playing music with others IS communicating. We are having a conversation and sharing it with the listener, should they choose to “come in.” Jazz players play their personalities, so we are giving of ourselves, revealing, as it may seem, onstage nightly. We have to reach our standard of satisfaction and joy in order to expect the audience to accept our “invitation.” They take time out of their day to listen to what kind of day we had.
SLUG: What can a drummer learn from playing with brushes that can’t be learned any other way?
Hamilton: I feel that brushes are a different instrument than playing with sticks. If enough time is spent on what those pesky little things can achieve, we can come up with a variety of sound that they provide. We first have to NOT use stick techniques to allow different sounds to happen. If volume is the issue, brushes can also keep your gig for you! The great Tony Williams once said that brushes were invented by club owners!
SLUG: Where have you been able to take the Jeff Hamilton Trio that you couldn’t go with other groups you’ve played in?
Hamilton: Drum-organized events through instrument companies and other percussion organizations.
SLUG: It has been quite a while since the Jeff Hamilton Trio has put out a live album—do you feel as though recording in a studio is better than recording live for the Trio?
Hamilton: I like recording in-studio. We hone our music to the point of wanting the listener to hear it as we hear it with the proper studio and engineer. Our in-studio recording setups are very similar to our live setup. So, it feels live to us. There just aren’t any other people in the room! Having said that, we are overdue for a live recording and have plans to have the next one live.
SLUG: Where is your mind when you’re playing in front of thousands of people like at Capitol Theatre versus playing in front of a much smaller crowd?
Hamilton: There is no difference. As I mentioned before, we have to meet our standard before we can share that with the audience. I WILL say that an enthusiastic audience DOES affect what we do. However, we never expect that and don’t rely on it to make our evening a success.
SLUG: Playing with so many different groups, how do you feel your style changes based on who you’re playing with?
Hamilton: I always play to serve the music. It is bigger and more important than anyone on the stage. I immediately focus on the personalities and musical preferences I’m playing with. That way, I can first serve the music and determine what I can do within my style to possibly help them sound even better than they think they might.
SLUG: What advice would you give to drummers who want to incorporate more melodic elements into their playing?
Hamilton: Sing what they want to play. Emulate high pitched and low pitches within their drum set. Phrasing is also important. I transcribed Charlie Parker phrases and applied them to the drums—but I didn’t just play the rhythm of the phrase. I followed the ascending and descending lines with “ghosting” of notes. In other words, it wasn’t monotone at one volume. There are ebb and flow within a phrase.
SLUG: What were drum cymbals lacking that brought Crescent Cymbals into existence?
Hamilton: Hand-hammered cymbals have always been my favorites. Machine-hammered cymbals don’t have the warm, soft, buttery feel and sound of the stick gently bouncing off it. Not all cymbal companies are being honest when they claim that their cymbals are hand-hammered. Many of them finish the cymbal with some hammering. I learned from Mel Lewis, Papa Jo Jones and other heroes how a cymbal should feel and sound. I learned the shape, size of bell, thickness and many other features that provided my favorite cymbals’ sounds. I was invited to Turkey to give my 2 cents’ worth to the cymbal makers. They liked my ideas and said that it was my cymbal because it was something they wouldn’t have thought of. That’s how I became involved. I could tell you more “secrets” of cymbal making, but I’d have to kill you! (grinning)
The Jeff Hamilton Trio will be laying it down Saturday, Dec. 5 at Capitol Theatre. Straight-up jazz with a fat pocket and a set of incredible musicians—if you’re new to jazz, or a jazz veteran alike, Hamilton and his trio have got something that will make you say, “Wow!”