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February 17, 2014IM -
Peter Erskine of Local 47 (Los Angeles) is one of the most skilled and sensitive drummers you are likely to hear in any genre. His style pays strict attention to the fundamentals—safeguarding the core of the music, the heartbeat, while acknowledging and affirming the subtle expressions of his bandmates’ improvisations and leaving a space on the bandstand for fleeting sparks of inspiration.
The early days with Weather Report are a testament to his chops and endurance; he flawlessly maintained incredibly deep grooves for what felt like hours, teaming up with Jaco Pastorius to create one of the most definitive rhythm sections in jazz and rock history. If you listen to the live video footage, you can see this duo propelling and provoking soloists Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, always underneath and in full support.
When Erskine left Weather Report to develop his own music, he was already on a short list of excellent fusion drummers. He has since gone on to record on more than 500 sessions, and has performed with some of the most sensitive jazz and pop musicians in the business. Interestingly, the more his career expands, the less noise he makes behind the kit.
“I can actually tell the story and create excitement without resorting to some of the things I used to do,” Erskine explains. “In a lot of music making, you have competing thrills: one of the thrills competing for your attention might be getting an excited audience response. Another competing thrill might be just finding the finest way to play a tune, and asking, ‘What can I strip away to get to the essence of the song?’ It’s real time architecture.”
This is one of the main messages that Erskine hopes to give his students at the University of Southern California (USC). While full-time employment at a university is a relatively new and welcomed career turn for this seasoned road rat, teaching itself is an old hat.
“I’ve been teaching ever since I started touring as a professional, which was back in 1972 when I joined the Stan Kenton orchestra,” Erskine explains. “Stan’s band spent a lot of time playing and teaching in schools and running summer jazz camps, so while I was getting my education playing on the road, I was turning around and teaching young drummers.”
As an educator at USC, he spreads the gospel of reductive drumming to his students. While not crushing their technical brilliance and creativity, Erskine firmly believes in being in control of the music—not falling into stock knee-jerk responses to musical events, but rather honing your skills and your mind to be as open and reactive to the music and fellow music makers as possible.
“We spend thousands of hours learning to play our instrument and trying to get some level of mastery, then after a while, you realize it’s not quite the physical sporting event it was when you first started out, and you learn to stop wrestling and fighting your instrument,” he says. “I tell my students that the whole thing is a lot simpler than you may be prepared to believe. Just play what you’d like to hear next. I think when you put it in that context, it demystifies the whole thing.”
Playing in the Stan Kenton Orchestra illuminated Erskine to the possibility (and necessity) of being a player and a teacher, but it also introduced him to a framework by which to gain artistic freedom. In the early ’70s, Capitol was losing interest in Kenton’s work, so rather than change his music, he changed record companies—he started his own label, Creative World Records, which served as a vehicle for Kenton to continue distributing his works. Fifteen years ago, Erskine followed suit.
“Whether the record executive or owner was someone with a suit and tie or wearing a black turtleneck sweater, you’re still convincing and pleading and begging, and saying, ‘Here’s something I want to do now,’” Erskine says. “But of course, they know more about running a company than I do, and I would be only one of a couple hundred musicians clamoring for some artistic attention. So we decided to just do it ourselves.”
And with that realization, Fuzzy Music was born. A joint venture between Erskine and his wife, Mutsy, the name Fuzzy Music is a clever adaption of fuzzy logic, a contemporary mathematical system that mimics the complex logic of the human mind. Following fuzzy logic, Fuzzy Music has no sharp edges or absolutes dividing the genres of the 20 titles in the catalog. And best of all, Erskine has free reign to do whatever project he dreams up, and with any musicians he wants to work with.
“Admittedly, it’s a vanity label, and a kitchen tabletop operation to boot,” says Erskine. “We get an order, my wife and I get excited, we package it up on the kitchen table and take it to the post office. But there’s a steady stream of interested listeners.” Though he may not be going Platinum any time soon, Erskine enjoys the freedom that comes with running his own label.
Among Fuzzy Music’s most recent releases is a Grammy nominated record, The Avatar Sessions, featuring the compositions of trumpeter and Local 802 (New York City) member Tim Hagans as interpreted by an all-star cast of musicians—including Erskine, Local 802 members Rufus Reid and Randy Brecker, and the Norbotten Big Band.
Also at the top of the catalog is Standards 2, Movie Music. The personnel on this record, all teachers at USC, go way back. “Bob Mintzer [of Local 802] moved out here from New York a couple of years ago to teach at USC. I played with Bob’s big band back in New York, and in fact, I’ve known him since 1969—we went to Interlochen Arts Academy together,” says Erskine. “I’ve known Alan Pasqua [of Local 47] since 1971; we were roommates at Indiana University. The album really celebrates Hollywood, and also all of us being here.”
Keep a lookout for an ever-growing discography—Erskine has some exciting new projects coming down the pipe, including a big band record with Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the hit series Family Guy. “He’s a great singer, it turns out,” says Erskine. “We did a gig recently, and I was just knocked out, not only with how in-tune he can sing, but how much he swings. His phrasing is really terrific.” MacFarlane set up the challenging session to be performed with the entire big band and orchestra in one room of legendary Capitol Studio A and B, just like on the LP cover of Sinatra Swings.
“Without the union, it would be impossible to gather so many great players and to maintain the discipline necessary to record so much music in such a short time, while respecting everyone’s schedules,” says Erskine. “This is not the kind of record that can be made in a home studio or overseas. This is Los Angeles, and it’s what we do best. I’m proud of the project, and proud to be a union member.”
In addition to Erskine’s 500 album recordings, he has also performed on 100 film scores. “It’s still a thrill for me to walk onto a sound stage,” says Erskine. “You walk onto the stage at Warner Brothers and you take a second and breathe it all in, just thinking of all the music that’s been made there. That’s still the way I feel when I get to do these things, and it never gets old. I’m grateful for every one of these opportunities.”
Erskine is one of the busiest musicians in Los Angeles. At the time of the IM interview, he had an incredibly dense schedule: end of semester exams and juries for USC, The New Trio (featuring his nephew, Damian Erskine of Local 661-708 [Atlantic City, NJ] on bass) nearing completion, the Seth MacFarlane session, a flight to Maine to meet with Vic Firth about a new line of drum sticks, and the final production of a DVD compilation of Internet drum lessons from DrumChannel.com. How does he do it?
“My computer,” he jokes. “But really, my wife is the other essential half of all this, I couldn’t do it without her. We just keep humming and bopping along and try to stay healthy.
“I love doing it, it’s just like any musician that I know, we love doing this. We’re incredibly lucky to be able to do what we love, every day and every night,” he says. “There aren’t too many professions where you call what you do play, are there?”