Lush horn work and harmonies make the Michael Lauren All Stars’ “Once Upon a Time in Portugal” swing and sway. The vibes provide smooth, round stones of notes followed by a light, joyous beat from Michael on percussion, making this travelogue-like tribute to his adopted country an inviting musical endorsement.
“Minor Strain” is stunningly melodic with the glee and energy so characteristic of hard bop, and the lyrical “Nearness of You” does not disappoint, with the sax caressing the theme when it’s time to do so, and the piano adding soft, raindrop notes that scatter like sparkled confetti. Michael’s wild abandon on drums sharpens the tension in the noir throwback “Smoking Gun” – which is quite humorous as a video, with pulp fiction crime headlines and a quick shot of the IRS building. In fact, the semi-political, tongue-in-cheek imagery is a common thread, present also in the video for “Who Said Monopoly Was Fun,” another song that brings to mind the sheer pleasures of being an adult in those sadly extinct, smoky all-night jazz clubs.
When did you decide the drums was it?
The first time I picked up my older brother’s drumsticks and played on his drum pad. I was eight years old.
Highlights of your music education and most important takeaway?
My music education started and continued with my participation in my elementary, junior high and high school bands, marching band, orchestra and dance (stage) band. It was in those ensembles that my musical foundation was established.
I learned how to follow a conductor, gained experience reading/interpreting drum set and percussion parts, and how to play with other musicians. I was also very fortunate to have as my first private teacher Broadway’s most respected drummer, Nat Foodman (Leonard Bernstein’s hand-picked drummer/percussionist in the original production of West Side Story). Nat encouraged and motivated me to listen to all types of jazz. He taught me to swing and read music.
It was later, studying at Peabody Conservatory and Berklee College of Music, that the need to keep my ears wide open, the importance of listening to and playing as many different styles of music as possible, and the necessity to develop a deeper understanding of music, were reinforced.
But it was during my private instruction with Alan Dawson that I understood clearly why the concepts of time, feel, structure, dynamics, harmony, melody and resolution must be in balance in order to be a musical drummer. Alan also taught me how to practice more effectively, get better control over my instrument and to develop a more personal sound. “What do you want to sound like?” was one of Alan’s favorite things to ask me.
What are the characteristics of hard bop that you enjoy?
It is the hard swing, joyous attitude, forward propulsion of the music, the funky memorable melodies and the to-the-point soloing that I really enjoy. For me, hard bop is an inspired style played by incredible musicians.
How did you find out about the career opportunity that caused you to move to Portugal?
It was about a month after giving my second master class at Escola Superior de Música e Artes do Espectáculo (ESMAE) that I was invited to teach there.
The invitation gave me the chance to do something special in a country I really enjoyed being part of. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the level and to influence the musical direction of the instrument that I love to play and teach. As an educator, how could I turn that invitation down?
What was the transition like from NYC to Portugal in terms of the music scene?
Because I moved to Portugal primarily to teach, and New York is New York, I knew I would never play as much or have the same type of career opportunities as I had had in the States. But I also knew that there were many wonderful musicians in Portugal I would make music with. Fortunately, it has all worked out for me.
What were your favorite collaborations so far?
Not counting my band The Michael Lauren All Stars, it has been The Postcard Brass Band, Hugo Alves Quartet and 2 Tubas and Friends.
As a sideman, what was your most memorable experience?
Playing a drum solo on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
The musicians in your All Star Band seem very respectful in providing one another the creative space to solo. How did that come about?
I love the way the guys in my band play. When I thought about putting this band together I knew I wanted musicians who were capable and enjoyed playing in a contemporary hard bop style.
I was also looking for excellent composers who wanted to contribute music to this project. They knew the type of tunes I was looking for.
These guys really fit the bill. On this recording I wanted everyone to keep his solo short. The basic principle was to make every chorus count. I was looking for an emotionally melodic solo that would fit the mood of the tune.
My idea for the solo separators between songs was to feature each musician in an unaccompanied moment. I asked them to take a different approach than the one they were using when they played a solo during the tune. I was looking for shapes and sounds. I didn’t want to hear a song-like introduction.
Having three harmonic instruments is a challenge. I wanted space and contrast behind each soloist. I therefore arranged each solo to have a specific comping instrument. Accordingly, when the soloist changed, so did the harmonic instrument supporting him.
Explain what is meant by “no chordal support” and lack of harmonic instrumentation with the tuba.
In The Postcard Brass Band there are no chordal instruments – guitar, banjo, vibraphone or piano etc. – to lay out the harmony (chordal progressions) that provides the structure or form of the tune and the changes for soloing. The harmonic movement is provided by the tuba’s bass line. The sound is a very open one.
What were the highlights of your first album with Postcard Brass Band?
The first Postcard album was recorded in a small puppet theater. We played really close to each other and it was a very dynamic experience. Because the repertoire was famous Dixieland tunes or swing tunes that we played in a Dixie style, we would first run down the tune and then make whatever changes we thought were needed (introductions, solo order, backgrounds, endings).
We basically came up with an arrangement on the spot. It was only when all was agreed upon, that we would do a take. We recorded in two days. Saxophonist Mario Marques did a terrific job recording and mixing the album. Although we did get excellent reviews and good press in Portugal, marketing was more problematic for all the usual reasons. We also did a number of well-received concerts promoting the album.
When did you launch IDA and what has been the response?
The International Drum Academy opened its doors in April of 2012. For me it is a complete success and has met the goals I set out for it. The IDA is a no-nonsense school for drummers of all levels. Questions concerning technique depend not only on the level of the drummer who is asking the question but what type of technique we are talking about. Is it snare drum technique, bass drum technique, hand/foot technique, brush technique?
Concerning snare drum technique, beginners ask how do you get the controlled bounce in a double stroke roll, intermediate players ask questions about the multiple bounce (buzz) roll and finger technique, and advanced players ask about the Moeller technique.
What are your books about?
“Welcome To Odd Times – An Approach to Mental and Manual Dexterity In Odd Meters for the Drum Set” (Why Not Music © 1981) is a comprehensive method book designed to enable set drummers to develop their playing in time signatures other than 4/4 in the Funk/Rock idiom. I believe it is the first drum book to take an integrated approach to learning to play in a specific style. This book was first published in 1981 because at the time there were not very many books helping drummers learn to play in odd meters in an even eight-note feel.
“Understanding Rhythm – A Guide to Reading Music” (Alfred Music © 1991) was written to acquaint non-readers with the fundamentals of reading rhythmic notation. Drummers Collective asked me to write this in order to be part of the Drummers Collective Series of drum instruction books.
“Rudiments and Variations For Drummers” (Why Not Music © 1995) is a compilation of the 26 Standard American Drum Rudiments, a number of Swiss Army Rudiments, and Hybrid or Compound rudiments. These rudiments and their variations are the tools by which drummers develop their technique and rudimentary language. The book was written as a primer so drummers had a reference of rudiments to work on before, during or after their study of rudimentary drum solos.
“The Encyclopedia of Double Bass Drumming” (Modern Drummer Publications © 2000) co-authored with Bobby Rondinelli is a progressive approach for developing a comprehensive double bass drum or double pedal drumming style. It was the most complete method book written on the subject at the time it was first published and was named as one of the 25 Timeless Drum Books by Modern Drummer Magazine.
“Compreender Ritmo” (Why Not Music © 2010) is another beginner’s method book to help develop reading skills. This book is more comprehensive with a detailed set of practice routines, new rhythms and chapters in odd time signatures.
“Rhythmic Fundamentals” (Why Not Music © 2011) developed out of the necessity to prepare a one-semester class on rhythm that I was asked to teach at ESMAE.
“The Book of Silence” (Advance Music/Schott Music © 2012) was written to help in the development of rhythmic skills through the book’s unique and effective method of utilizing silence (rests) as the musical device to ensure consistent, subdivided counting and therefore a stronger internalization of pulse and rhythmic precision.
Current works in progress?
I have no concrete plans to write another book at this time, but I have a number of ideas about possible books.
Favorite track on “Once Upon a Time in Portugal”?
That’s a difficult question. I am happy with all of them. However, if I have to choose a favorite, it is the track I wrote, “Bonfim Blues.”
What does the name refer to?
Bonfim is the neighborhood where I live when I am in Porto. And of course, the tune is blues.
Inventive name: “Who Said Monopoly was Fun”- what inspired that?
When I asked Jeffery Davis, the composer of the tune, he said it had something to do with Donald Trump during the Republican primaries.
What are the qualities of life in Portugal that you wanted to capture?
Portugal is a wonderful country to live in. When you combine the sunny, relaxed and peaceful atmosphere with the warm friendly open-heartedness of its people and the beauty of its land, you have a special place on the planet.
What do you like most when you’re playing a solo?
It’s the applause of course! Seriously, it’s the opportunity to make a non-supportive musical statement, be it a form solo, free solo or vamp solo. And each solo type brings out different musical choices.
The fun is starting an idea and seeing where it will lead me and take my audience. A solo is a story. It should have a beginning, middle and the perfect ending.
What unusual accessories do you have on the drum kit?
I don’t use any unusual accessories on my kit. I take a very traditional approach to the drum set. I do include woodblocks and cowbells when playing Dixieland and Afro-Cuban music.
Are there new techniques you’d like to experiment with- or new time signatures- or adding new instrumentation?
I believe that the music I am playing at the moment will always tell me what choices to make, if I just listen.
How does a drummer keep it fresh and inventive?
I can’t speak for other drummers but for me what keeps it fresh and inventive is playing every time like it will be the last time I’ll ever play drums.
Favorite venue in Portugal?
The Hot Club.
Favorite venue in NYC?
The Village Vanguard.
Where would you most like to play that you have not yet?
I would love to play in Japan.
The biggest challenges in marketing yourself as a musician today?
Making time to stay on top of the need for constant promotion. Looking for and booking gigs gets tiring. Self-promotion also takes time away from doing other things both musical and non-musical. Honestly, the biggest challenge is not getting discouraged and wondering if having your own band is really worth all the effort. Being a sideman has its benefits.
Plans for 2018?
In the spring I will record a new Michael Lauren All Stars album and the members of The Postcard Brass Band have been discussing a new album in late 2018. Of course, the usual combinations of master classes, concerts with big bands and smaller ensembles, and my teaching obligations will continue throughout the year.
Thanks for including me and promoting the music I love.
For more information, visit www.michael-lauren.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Michael Lauren.
© Debbie Burke 2018