Guitar Center's Drum-Off 2012 Grand Finals had some of the greatest drummers of all time in attendance. The kind of guys youâ€”and your favorite drummerâ€”admire. And if you ask this all-star list who they look up to in music, you'll hear one man's name repeated throughoutâ€”that's Steve Gadd. At the 2012 Grand Finals, the "best of the best" were treated to a very special performance by the master himself.
While Gadd has recorded and performed with many of music's all-time greats, including Chick Corea, Eric Clapton, Al Di Meola, Paul Simon, Steely Dan, and dozens of others, what really sets him apart is his desire to keep growing, to seek out the unfamiliar, and to embrace it.
"I hear drummers do things that I haven't done and that inspires me," Gadd says. "It's nice to hear different approaches to the instrument, because after a while you get tired of hearing yourself. It's nice to get that kick in the butt to recharge the batteries."
In celebration of the art of drumming, Drum-Off Grand Finals performances often take a unique approach. The finale paired Gadd, seated behind his Yamaha Recording Custom series kit, with world-renowned Afro-Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martinez, who immigrated to Canada from Cuba in 1998.
Quickly following a move to New York just two years later, Martinez won the Thelonious Monk Institute Competition showcase of Afro-Latin Hand Drumming. He's played with Sting, Elton John, Wynton Marsalis, Paul Simon, and highly sought-after Latin beat band Yerba Buena, which has toured with the Dave Matthews Band, Willie Nelson and Ray Charles.
Martinez' current band, The Pedrito Martinez Group, is working on a new album, produced by none other than Gadd himself.
"I remember when I was leaving Cuba everybody used to talk about Steve Gadd," Martinez says. "Working with Steve is like a dream come true. Now he's producing my record. We're meeting more, and getting involved in more projects together."
Gadd says part of the experience of playing with Martinez was learning about another culture, and that gave him the opportunity to expand his knowledge of the music itself.
"I love those rhythms," says Gadd. "I love what Latin percussionists do and I want to understand more about it and let that become a new part of my repertoire. I feel like the more I understand about it, the more fun we can have musically. I think it's a growing situation for all of us."
For Martinez, it's about the feeling of the music, and sharing in others' passion for finding new and interesting ways of expressing themselves through the music, and paying his respect to the great Cuban percussionists that came before him.
"It's very easy to work with anybody who has passion for music and love for music and the instrument they play. I really connect with those people very quickly," Martinez says. "Making the album has been a great experience and I've learned a lot. Steve's been telling me, 'You should put this in here. You should mute this part. You should let it breathe in here.' It's a trip, man.
"I'm just trying to keep the legacy of people like Mongo Santamaria, Pada Valdez, Candido Camero, Eni Chanopolâ€”all those cats came here a long time ago from Cuba and they did what they had to do. I want to keep the roots of Afro-Cuban music alive and show it to the whole entire world," Martinez says.
For Gadd, The Pedrito Martinez Group's project is his latest effort to explore Latin percussion and its many forms.
"I played with Chick Corea in the '70s with Stanley Clarke, Bill Connors and Mingo Lewis, who is a great percussionist. Though some I've worked with in the studio weren't necessarily Afro-Cuban guys, rhythm is rhythm. That's what inspires meâ€”grooves and rhythms. Another guy that I've worked with a lot, who is from Cuba, is Luis Conte. Whenever I'm with those guys, I just sort of try to open my ears to hear what's going on, and try to remember as much as I can and try to incorporate what I can into my own playing."
As producer, Gadd says he loves the way the band listens to one another, the effort that they put into whatever they do, and that it's his job to retain the magic from the basic tracks.
"It's not like I want to put my personal stamp on anything and make it sound like it's me producing," says Gadd. "I just want to allow the music to be the best that it can be and that's how I approach it. Pedrito's band is incredible and those guys are incredible musicians. It's a learning thing for me and it's also an opportunity to help the music feel the best that it can."
While both Gadd and Martinez share a passion for Afro-Cuban music and Latin Percussion instruments, each came to endorse LP through a very different path. Gadd's experience playing with New York-based percussionists in the '70s led to him meeting LP's founder when the company was still finding its way.
"I met (LP founder) Martin Cohen when LP was young. I used to do a lot of work with Ralph MacDonald. Ralph had a studio in New York and Martin would come and hang. We became friends and I loved his products. I used his stuff on recordings way before I started endorsing them. I'm not a real Latin player, but I just love the music, and the sound of the instruments is great for things that I do," Gadd says.
Coming from Cuba, Martinez has first-hand exposure to the feel and sound of authentic Afro-Cuban instruments, and loves the way LP stays true to the tradition of those instruments, while also developing new and exciting sounds.
"When I won the Thelonious Monk (Award), back in 2002, as the best percussion player, it opened many doors for me. I signed right away with Latin Percussion. It was crazy for me, coming from a very ghetto neighborhood in Havana, coming to this town and finding Afro-Cuban music so alive.
"When I lived in Cuba, we used to talk about LP instruments, but I never had the opportunity to play one until I got here. I tried different brands before I signed with LP, and the main difference is in the sound. LP's sound is just warmer, deeper and richer," Martinez says. "I usually use two congas and one tumba. I use a cajon. And most of the time I use a foot pedal with a bongo bell on a Gajate bracket. With The Pedrito Martinez quartet, I just use three congas, a batÃ¡ and a cajon."
Since the 1970s, Gadd's drum setup has been anchored by a custom Yamaha kit. He says the relationship began while playing overseas, and has grown stronger over time.
"Yamaha provided the drums for the work I was doing in Japan, and they offered me an endorsement," says Gadd. "I had certain ideas about the sizes of the drums and other things that I would change. They were very open to the suggestions, and we created the Recording Custom series. It was based on the sizes of a kit that I had put together myself when I was in New York. Yamaha has been very faithful to me and they've taken good care of me. The equipment is good and I've got a good relationship with them. For me, that's what's important."
In addition to The Pedrito Martinez Group's album, Gadd says he's excited about completing a third Gaddabouts album, as well as a project with his new group, The Steve Gadd Band.
"The new Gaddabouts album features Edie Brickell, with Pino Palladino and Andy Fairweather Low in the rhythm section. It's music that Edie writes and then we get together in the studio and rearrange it here and there. Edie's a great writer and great singer," Gadd says.
"For the Steve Gadd Band project, we just did some recording out in L.A. with Jimmy Johnson, Mike Landau, Larry Goldings and Walt Fowler," says Gadd. "All these projects, for me, aren't only with excellent players, but these people are really great people. I feel very fortunate. It's a good home, it's good music and there's a lot of love and laughter. It's very joyful for me. I hope it translates in the music."