Getting schooled by Chris Dave – the ‘most dangerous drummer alive’

Chris Dave has a client list that includes Beyoncé, Adele and D’Angelo – and now he’s bringing his Drumhedz outfit to Dublin

Tue, May 7, 2013, 07:00

When a top jazz drummer rolls into town, usually what happens is that a small group of fans gets very excited, and the rest of the music world goes about its business undisturbed. When it comes to Chris “Daddy” Dave, though, things are a little different.

Dave has managed to cross genres, from hip hop to jazz to pop and back again, and in the process, he’s carved out one of the most enviable CVs in music. On the unforgiving jazz front, he’s held it down behind the kit with the likes of Kenny Garrett, Wynton Marsalis, Pat Metheny, and Jill Scott, and last year he played on former housemate Robert Glasper’s crossover album Black Radio , which won a Grammy for best R&B record. He’s equally in demand on the rollercoaster circuit of pop and hip hop: among the artists he’s called boss are Adele, Beyoncé, Toni Braxton, Erykah Badu, Lupe Fiasco and A Tribe Called Quest. It’s little wonder then that Questlove, drummer with The Roots, calls Dave “the most dangerous drummer alive. He is totally reinventing just what you can do with drums.”

On Thursday, he’ll be taking his Drumhedz to Dublin, a Harlem Globetrotters-style outfit with a rotating roster of astonishing players (the starting line-up features sax player Kebbi Williams, Pino Palladino on bass, and Isaiah Sharkey on guitar). The band’s website features a stylish, sprawling mixtape that’s intended as a primer for their imminent album. “There’s a combination of styles and sounds just to get you familiar with where we’re coming from,” says Dave. “[It’s mostly] interpretations of other songs, like Fly Girl , which is really a Stevie Wonder song from The Secret Life of Planets that we put a little beat to. So I’m playing the beat, and the guys are playing Stevie Wonder. It’s kind of intellectual for people who like to search through it.”

This idea of musicians and DJs sifting through songs, looking for samples and hooks that they can latch on to, and knowing references to music that has gone before, appeals to Dave. When he started out he was “from the hip hop side; a lot of our friends weren’t musicians per se but they loved music. So playing samples back – that’s a task and an art as well. It’s like transcribing a beat. But the samples first came from live musicians. So we’re thinking, we don’t have anything going from live music that you might want to sample 10 years from now – that aggressive feel-good music. The craft of it is in sharing on both sides.”

He warms to the theme of developing music across genres. Typically, elite musicians communicate freely with each other within their chosen niche, be it blues, jazz, rock or hip hop. Now, though, he reckons music as a whole is opening up. “To play the jazz is a whole lifestyle in itself: transcribing, learning the the art of your instrument. Then you have your hip hop culture, your pop culture, your country, your rock, and it’s all influencing each other. Ten years ago people couldn’t perceive that one record might do that. You couldn’t go from [John Coltrane’s] A Love Supreme all the way to some Jimi Hendrix to Björk to Fela Kuti. Now I think people are understanding that all of that interaction, it’s just music. That’s where we try to get to when we play live.”

Dave’s own journey has taken him around the world in the company of the hottest acts in music. But like most musicians, the first step was one of the hardest – because he had to convince his family it was worth taking.

“I was in college at Howard [in 1994] and then I started playing for Mint Condition, and a month later they were like ‘You can either stay in college and finish school or you can leave with us and go on tour with Janet Jackson’. I had to go through the whole parent thing, of course. They didn’t know who Mint Condition was, they knew who Janet was, they knew who Michael was, and then they were like: ‘What tour? Where you gonna stay? Who’s going to take care of you? When you going back to school?’ After that it kind of spun out and it never really stopped from there.”

Exposure and influences
Dave makes no bones about how much work is involved in what he does. “It’s really how deep you want to be in that craft, that determines how good you are,” he says. “Everybody I know still practises, it’s a never-ending journey, if that’s what you want to feel.” So what does he say to young players who come to him for advice? “Make sure your influences are vast and not limited, so you have everything at your exposure. Everything that influences you becomes a part of your voice.”

There’s an old jazz saw that you should only play with musicians who are better than you, so you’re always learning – so who’s better than Chris Dave these days? “That be the Drumhedz when we come to Dublin,” he laughs. “These cats are crazy – we think alike, we know the structure and the form, but then it’s where you going to take it?”

Once that show is done and dusted, Dave has another mountain of work lined up. “I’m coming back to do a small D’Angelo tour and hopefully his album will be finished by then. Then we have some European dates. I’m going to try to take a month or two off around August to get my own album done, which is coming out on Universal. Between that, there’s a lot of session work, playing with Jill Scott on her album.”

He’s also got work lined up with producer Rick Rubin, who he previously worked with on Adele’s last record, although he says this isn’t for her. There’s plenty of rumours and no hard facts about her third album, so draw your own conclusions.

It’s an unforgiving schedule Dave cuts himself. “I’m like a lab rat. I don’t really like to leave the studio so it’s hard to walk out the door unless I’m getting on a plane to play.”

And every time he gets off that plane, he still gets the same question from his parents. “After every tour they’re like ‘you going back to school this semester?’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m doing this thing thing with Kenny Garrett. ‘Who?’ Never mind, it’s crazy. It’s jazz, it’s gonna be like my hardest gig ever. ‘I never heard of Kenny Garrett, you should go back to school.’”

Chris Dave and the Drumhedz play Dublin’s Sugar Club on Thursday