If you love big band and want to keep that amazing, engaging and evocative classic feeling but you’re writing brand new music, how do you infuse extra flavor and dimension? Ask Steve Fidyk. His upcoming CD, Red Beats, features nine newborn songs that he turned over to some of the most exciting dyed-in-the-wool big band personalities and invited them to do the arranging. Presto chango: pure magic to the ears.
Red Beats’ first track, “Bebop Operations,” starts with a brilliant crashing cymbal and a bounce that brings you right to the dance floor of your mind. Exquisite pacing and a drum-tight (pun intended) togetherness set the stage for incendiary solos (yes, each one is) by trumpet, sax, piano and drums. “Churn” takes a slightly less breathless pace but is richer and darker with nice fat bass leads, a piano off in an exploratory LaLa Land (in a good way) and a sultry statement from the sax. The band almost goes sotto voce midway, distancing from Fidyk’s percussion that’s keeping the complex rhythms coming, and then the entire band joins in to the final summit of an all-hands-on-deck release. Coming in on the funky side, the song “Loopholes” has the organ sidestepping with trombone and lots of creative, harmonic forays. And though it starts with a lighter touch, “One for T.J.” invokes the noir while chords and harmonies stack up and come back down, only to inject some sexy falls and a warmed-up trumpet that introduces a flawlessly hot solo from soprano sax. These tracks will fill you up.
Do you remember the moment you decided to play drums? And what did your parents think?
I grew up in a blue-collar family environment in Northeastern Pennsylvania. My father worked as a machinist at Topps Chewing Gum, and my mom kept the household running smoothly. My parents both encouraged music, and all my siblings played a musical instrument in elementary school. My father played semi-professionally with groups throughout Wilkes-Barre and Scranton on tenor saxophone, guitar, and violin on weekends. He and his band would rehearse at our house in the basement each week, and they had a great time getting together and learning new songs (this was old school for sure). What I mean by that is the musicians listened to records and tried picking out their part and how it related to the rest of the band parts.
No one read music or played music professionally. Each band member had a “day job,” but loved playing music and being a part of the band. That experience for me at a young age left a real impression. If you’re not having fun playing with the musicians you’re with, it’s time to move on to another project.
My father began taking me on gigs as a sub drummer when his regular drummer couldn’t make it when I was about eight years old. I knew all the tunes the band played because I would sit next to the drummer at rehearsal each week and listen to what he was doing. This wasn’t a jazz band. It was a small group that played ’50’s,’60’s and ’70’s pop music for dancing. It was fun and these experiences set a fire within me that I knew that being a musician with a band was what I wanted to do.
What was the most important lesson you learned throughout your career?
Fundamentals and musicality will sustain you over a particular “style” of playing. Style is not music. Music is made by people for people to listen to and enjoy. That level of understanding and communication is something else altogether. It’s a whole other world.
What have you learned in your career that a classroom can’t teach?
Be patient with yourself and try to appreciate all the “up and down moments” throughout your journey. It’s all about perspective. Gratitude is always the right attitude as a working musician. Success is not always serendipity. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you do.
Why does the big band sound and experience capture you?
There is something very special and exciting about the acoustic power and groove- weight that is unique and singular to this genre. I have loved the big band sound since I was very young when my parents took me to see Buddy Rich LIVE when I was 8 years old. Buddy performed at the Highlight Lounge, which was a small club that held maybe 100 people in my hometown of Wilkes-Barre, PA. Hearing Buddy “kick” the band in such a small club made a significant impact. That show inspired me to practice more seriously, and eventually pursue music professionally.
Being a member of a big band is like being a part of a large family. Traveling, working together, resolving differences, and encouraging one another as a contributing member on the bandstand is all part of the fun, and a wonderful learning experience. It’s like having a very large extended family that you can go to when you need someone to talk to.
How does a drummer not overwhelm the band?
It really all comes down to listening and relating to the musicians you’re working with and the music you’re performing. For big band specifically, I try to make all the parts of the arrangement fit together comfortably, keeping each rhythmically consistent and dynamically relevant. It’s a balance of strength of pulse and sound. In a big band, it’s all about time keeping. As the great Woody Herman drummer Jake Hanna once told me in conversation, when playing in a big band you have to “lift the anchor” when all the horns are trying to drag you down. It’s akin to playing with 16 metronomes simultaneously set at slightly different tempos!
As a kid, I listened to a lot of big band music which helped me to understand the drummer’s role in this musical environment. My father loved the big bands, and my first drum teacher was a great big band drummer. I can’t underestimate the importance of hearing live bands whenever possible and listening to recordings for concepts. The concept of holding a big band together musically came from practicing with records. I listened to Buddy Rich (Swingin’ New Big Band) and Louie Bellson (Thunderbird). Sonny Payne with Count Basie—The Atomic Mr. Basie, Breakfast Dance and Barbeque, Live at the Sands…those classic recordings from the late ’50s and ’60s. Mel Lewis’s playing with Thad Jones and the Terry Gibbs Dream Band was also very influential in terms of developing a concept for interpreting what is written on the drum part. The way Buddy and Sonny Payne interpreted ensemble figures or rhythms was more in line with the band itself. They often played in unison with the band, which provided a certain impact.
But drummers like Mel Lewis and Nick Ceroli with The Bob Florence Big Band often played counterpoint against the figures, which provided a reference point for the band. A band needs a reference at all times in order to feel comfortable.
Why the title Red Beats?
The record title has a double meaning. Musically, it features a variety of grooves (or what drummers refer to as “beats”) to include straight-ahead swing, funk, up-tempo swing, and Afro Cuban rhythms. The compositions, arrangements and featured soloists are all “red” hot, so I thought it would be a fun idea to combine both meanings, and so that’s how the title of Red Beats came about. The second (and more serious meaning) refers to the importance of working together in our communities to help sustain our food supply, helping to shed light on the issue of childhood hunger. A portion of the proceeds of each Red Beats CD sold will go to help the nonprofit organization No Kid Hungry. Kids in the US today face real challenges, as families and communities work to recover from effects of the pandemic. Many people aren’t fully aware of the severity of childhood hunger in the United States. Many parents are searching to find resources available in their communities to help feed their children. I feel it’s important to try and use my music as a platform to help raise awareness and do my part to give back to organizations that are doing great work to help the less fortunate. For Red Beats, I’m currently dedicating efforts to our greatest resource- our children.
On my last recording Battle Lines, that organization was Warrior Beat. A nonprofit that uses professionally facilitated drum therapy to help US Military Veterans who suffer from PTSD, anxiety, depression, thoughts of self-harm and suicide, substance abuse, and other mental and physical challenges.
Is there a standout track here?
I honestly don’t have one! The level of musicianship and degree of improvisation that is featured throughout Red Beats is a testament to the care and love each member has for the music. The rhythm section and soloists had such great rapport and musical dialogue throughout each arrangement. Everyone played with such spirit, soul, and fire! It’s very exciting to hear this collection of music interpreted by the finest musicians in D.C., Philadelphia, and NYC. Sonically speaking, there’s something for everyone here. It’s a fun record to listen to and it has a dance sensibility to it, which I feel will appeal to many.
All of the compositions here are your originals. How did you select the arrangers? Did you have any input into each arrangement?
I chose the arrangers based on the experiences I’ve had performing their music in big bands like the Army Blues and the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia. Some of the arrangers featured on Red Beats have even played in my small group and recorded on the original records, so they have intimate insights and knowledge on the development of each composition. They all have an infinity and respect for rhythm, which is one thread of consistency with each arranger’s approach.
As far as input, I tried staying out of the way of each arranger’s creative process. I wanted to hear how they would go about reimagining my original music. It’s interesting for me to go back and listen to the original small group recordings and compare approaches in regard to structure, melodic counterpoint, and style. In most big bands, the leader arranges standards and their original music for a project like this. For Red Beats, the compositions are written by one person, but the arrangements are reconstructed by a sextet of very talented composers in their own right.
Was there a trajectory-changing experience during your musical journey?
My freshman year of college, the percussion studio at Wilkes College went to the Percussive Arts Society Convention in Washington D.C. to take in masterclasses and concerts. It was incredible! We saw and met Steve Gadd, Jack DeJohnette, Nexus, The Santa Clara Vanguard Drum Corps. What an experience that was. I met Ed Soph at the convention. He was presenting a clinic that year and performing in concert with the Army Blues Big Band. After his class, we met up at the Yamaha exhibit booth and he gave me his business card and recommended that I give him a call to schedule a lesson. Later that month, Ed graciously carved out some time to meet with me and I began taking lessons at his home in New Haven, CT.
Ed is a drumming intellect. He didn’t just assign material. In lessons, he challenged you to think for yourself, asking questions that made you reflect on your approach to the material and the instrument. He is such an amazing player and teacher that has influenced countless musicians. The following year, Ed accepted a position at North Texas and suggested that I continue my studies and positive development with Joe Morello. I met Joe once, the year prior, at the Mansfield State College Jazz Festival. Joe gave a clinic at the festival and was extremely personable and informative.
It took me about six months to muster up the courage to call Joe to book my first lesson. He was larger than life to me and had such incredible command of his instrument. It was a bit intimidating, to say the least, but I finally called, and his wife Jean worked out all the details for my first lesson. Joe was instrumental in helping me with my technique, endurance, and sound. Like many teachers of his generation, he didn’t delve into teaching a specific “style” of playing per se. He worked with me on specific stick control studies and coordination-type exercises for control of sound and time so that I could respond in the moment to what I was hearing and comment in a musically appropriate manner. My performance and teaching skills are directly related to what both Ed and Joe shared each week with me in lessons. Both are great men that had a penchant for communicating effectively and motivating appropriately.
Do you have a favorite technique in percussion?
That would have to be my ride cymbal technique when swinging a jazz band. I believe it was Shelly Manne, who once said that playing the six-note ride cymbal pattern is the easiest rhythm you will ever play and the most difficult one… The way a drummer plays their ride cymbal is an extension of their personality. As a jazz drummer, I’m always searching for the perfect balance of stick articulation and sustain while phrasing with the melody and counterparts. Playing the ride cymbal is a lifelong study.
Favorite other percussion instruments and why?
I love the sound of timpani! A timpanist in an orchestra serves in a similar role as a drummer in a band, locking up subdivisions with the bass and brass sections and rhythmically driving the orchestra from the back of the ensemble. In addition to jazz, I studied classical percussion in college and played in the university wind ensemble, percussion ensemble and gave solo percussion recitals during my sophomore, junior and senior years. My percussion teacher at Wilkes University was Bob Nowak, who taught total percussion. He is a great teacher, and always stressed musicality, teamwork, listening and ensemble skills in his studio.
Gathering alumni from the heavy hitters of big band: how lucky are you to be able to do that? What do they bring to the table and how does one honor that swath of talent?
I’m extremely fortunate to have so many friends with varied professional experiences who wanted to contribute to this creative project. As musicians, they all have extremely high standards, work ethics and musical talent. Working with each member selfishly makes me a better human being and musician. It is a very humbling experience.
The Red Beats project features original music from my first three solo recordings- Heads Up!, Allied Forces and Battle Lines. The former musical director of the Army Blues, Joseph Henson, arranged two of my originals from the recordings Heads Up! and Allied Forces for the Army Blues to perform in concert (Gaffe and The Flip Flopper). When the pandemic struck, like most creatives, I missed collaborating with my musician friends. In December 2020, I had the idea of expanding on these two arrangements and began assembling the pieces for this varied project of original music set within a big band construct.
What is the jazz scene like where you live?
I live in the Mid-Atlantic, equidistant from Washington D.C. and Baltimore. The jazz scene, like in most towns and cities, has really taken a hit due to the pandemic.
Thankfully, performing opportunities are starting to slowly come back, and musicians are working again on a steadier basis. Because of the number of outstanding military musicians who live in this region, the musicianship bar is set quite high in regard to musical performance.
Talk about some of your other roles as educator and artistic director, and how this provides balance in between gigs?
I love helping young musicians through my experience. Teaching informs both the student and educator alike, and the process of discovery continues to inspire me as a creative person. Each student has their own intrinsic set of materials that they are working on to develop, and one “blanket” curriculum or set of exercises/etudes isn’t always the best course of study for all. It’s a challenge to get to the root of what can really help a student thrive as they continue on their journey of becoming a more confident and expressive person.
I currently serve as a member of the jazz studies faculty at Temple University, The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, The University of Maryland, and as an educational consultant for Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington Program. It is an honor to be associated with these institutions and the incredibly creative faculty members that give so much of their talent and time to help students attain their goals. It is a creative situation and environment that motivates both student and faculty alike.
In 2019, I formed Naptown Jazz Kids, an arts non-profit in the community that I reside in to help enhance and expand jazz performance and education opportunities. Our mission at Naptown Jazz Kids is to entertain, enhance and expand jazz to the greater Annapolis area through education, performance and community service opportunities for students and educators alike. The program is growing steadily. We began with a summer camp and have now expanded to a yearlong program that features classes, instrument workshops and ensembles that perform in concert and throughout the community. It’s a great experience that truly helps build confidence through the lens of improvisational music.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
© 2023 Debbie Burke