‘Authentic, experiential, soulful’ | Interview with David Whitman

David Whitman’s music is a beautiful contrast between skill and emotion. Read our interview with the versatile artist below.

Describe your sound in 3 words

Both as a percussionist who performs in symphonic settings and as a drum set player backing up other artists of various styles, playing jazz, playing touring Broadway shows, playing with big bands, doing movie music, etc., I have, both necessarily and as a result of a dulling of the ego in pursuit of the most artistic and beautiful sounds, found myself developing a high level of control and refinement, such that I am able to be a chameleon and make that choice—how I sound—each time I play. Able to be a lightning-rod, conduit, or vessel for the music and pay attention to what the music is asking of my sound at each moment, for that song, for those instruments, for that style, for this venue, etc. With each stroke I make decisions about stroke velocity, height, the mass of the implement, the material of the implement, the instrument I choose, the touch or technique I use, the location I strike the instrument, etc—all of those variables impact my sound. This might be in contrast to a perhaps common scenario wherein the drum set artist plays in one or few bands, or just “plays the way they play.” That being said, all of that, combined with my influences, tastes and proclivities, and whatever experiences I’ve had, certainly have shaped me. In light of all of that, to describe my sound A)as a player perhaps 1)refined, 2)expressive, 3)controlled. To describe my sound specifically as a B)recording artist, producer, and band leader (so, my albums) perhaps authentic, experiential, and soulful.

You have released two full albums. How has your sound evolved over the years? And what should we expect next?

I have a real change-and-grow mindset toward myself as a player, in general, and as a recording artist. Sometimes that leads to “do it better” and sometimes that involves “do it different.” Also, as you might imagine, performing for so many decades across so many musical environs, I have an appreciation for and find deep meaning in many musical styles. Looking at my work now in retrospect, I see, even in my jazz which is deeply rooted in the jazz tradition, the influences of folk and folk rock, psychedelic rock, and the British invasion from my youth and family home. I’m shaped by the hip hop, pop, rock, hard rock, southern rock, and funk I listened to growing up, as well as the lifetime of classical training and study, and the appreciation for the many genres in that world of music and where each live both in relation to one another now and in relation to one another over time. In fact, the literal reading of your question of “how has your sound evolved over the years” is answered with a long timeline of musical evolution that spans thousands of years and includes multiple branches, all of which I have spent a great deal of time considering and studying. The evolution of Western music ——Greece, the Church, chant and plainsong, medieval popular and folkloric musics, the renaissance, the development of musical notation and ars nova, the baroque and development of tonality and functional harmony and opera, leitmotifs, storytelling/movie music etc., the classical era, the luscious music of the romantics that drips and oozes passion, innovation, and the angst of hard-core punk, the impressionists and their atmos, and the expressionists with their rage against tonality and the wide net cast by music today. And the evolution of music from Africa—the way it intertwines with the daily life, the way it is for everyone, the oral tradition, the emphasis on rhythm, the deep historical timeline, the powerful rhythms and songs of the Yoruba and Mandingo, and the way those rhythms were adapted, changed, and evolved over centuries in North and South America into the bouquet of styles and rhythms we listen to and continue to develop today across various popular music throughout the world. You especially see the music of today—all genres—taking shape in the Americas when the two cultural streams combine. So when you ask me that question, “How has your sound evolved over the years, I see my current sound, albums, playing, music, etc. in relationship to the vastness of all that. I have always been seeking to hone my skill as a jazz musician, which does involve looking back as well as looking forward. I’ve never played jazz only one way—modern straight ahead, avant garde, big band, salsa, fusion, etc.—so you might be able to expect that I will continue to showcase the diversity of my influences in my recordings. That being said, I have two albums that are finished already. One is due out on Ropeadope Records this spring! Stay tuned for the date, which I will be announcing very soon. It is a follow-up to my first album, “Oh, Clara!” inasmuch as it returns to the septet format of that record—Drums, Bass, Piano, Guitar, Trumpet, Tenor Sax, Trombone. Except this one eas mastered at The Bakery at Sony Pictures by Eric Boulanger and Jett Galindo etc. rather than by Bernie Grundman. Follow on Spotify and Bandcamp, and purchase the album and any of my back catalog on Bandcamp at davidwhitman.bandcamp.com!

Which track of these 2 albums represents you the most and why?

All of the tracks from both “Oh, Hugo!” and “Soul Flow” capture my playing in an incredibly authentic way by intent. Steve Genewick, a fantastic engineer and long-time house engineer at Capitol, uses a flat EQ, the albums are not edited, and most songs are just one take. In that sense, each track really truly captures my playing—my self-expression on the instrument just as it happened in the moment. However, on the recording of “With Love” I notice that I slip into a very personal style that resulted from years of transcribing the drummers from and listening to great piano trio music—Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, Red Garland (w/ Philly Joe and Paul Chambers), Phineas Newborn, Ray Brown, and on and on, combined with my own aesthetic, which seeks to grab listeners who are not familiar with jazz by, at times, incorporating elements from psychedelic rock, avant-garde and free jazz, and quite a bit of hip hop actually. A few young musicians here in SoCal have told me that they are obsessed with that song, and I think that might be part of the reason why—they really hear are remarkably “Whitman” concept, perhaps. That song harmonically and my playing on it also draws upon the classical tradition (Max Roach, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Tony Williams—so many jazz drummers drew upon orchestral studies and approaches). But then again, most of my life’s pursuit on the drum set has been chasing after a certain kind of swing, and I think that shows in “Come What May” played by John Raymond on flugal on Soul Flow, or “I Had a Fried” played by Francisco Torres on trombone.

Favorite album of the past year?

Well, it technically was released in 2020, but I just discovered and wore it out in 2021. For Jimmy, Wes, and Oliver from Christian McBride. Such a phenomenal recording.

What moment in your career are you proudest of?

You know, I feel like I’m just beginning my career, even though I’ve already been playing for decades. I have also come to learn that I am often wrong, and just as often it would seem that I am wrong about things of which I “feel certain.” As this realization grows in time, I find myself less and less “proud” in general and am more frequently reminded that what goes up must come down. I also really try to avoid thinking about my so-called “successes” because as I often say, I don’t want that to slow down my momentum or lead to laziness or complacence. That being said, accepting the President’s Award from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire joined by family and community of friends and mentors was deeply moving and remains deeply meaningful to me. I am perhaps more proud, however, when a percussion student of mine goes on to achieve great things in percussion or music or even surpass me in some way. That brings me the greatest sense of “success,” at least.

Jazz music as a genre has been accused as music for snobs. Is jazz music elitist?

This question is such a great one, and it also lives at the confluence of many ideas, phenomenon, and characteristics of music and, indeed, art, knowledge, culture, and even humanity broadly. As a result, the very understanding of the question itself, and even its component or building block concepts are understood differently from one person to another depending on their schema, or their overall past experiences and understandings. Consequently, I will make no so-called “hard and fast” statements about the truth of such accusations but will instead answer with a garden of “food for thought.” As an adjective, as in this context, elitist means “relating to or supporting the view that a society or system should be led by an elite.” Here, then, we could discourse on 1)whether or not the best direction for and judgement of quality of jazz music should be determined by “elites” — in essence, should “elites” lead, or be leaders of and for, jazz music, determining what is and isn’t jazz, or what is and isn’t good jazz, etc. Alternatively, since your question follows your “music for snobs” statement, we might discourse on 2)whether or not jazz music is music that is only intended for and/or accessible by “elites.” Both are important questions, and both can be extracted from your original. More food for thought, is that perhaps to effectively discourse further on either of these pathways, there must be a consensus as to the meaning of the word, “elite.” In this context, I perceive value in discoursing on both pathways with “elite” referring to both A)those skilled and knowledgeable in the musical artform known as “jazz,” and B)some perceived upper class based on some combination of economic or educational class structures. With these basic understandings now in place, I personally do not make jazz music only intended for the elites of the “B” cohort. I really aim to make it “accessible,” meaning that I want listeners who have never listened to jazz before to enjoy it on its face, so to speak, right of the bat, the first time. However, the art form of jazz entails powerful conventions, traditions, and understandings that come from the past, and since these are musical understandings, the learning involves the ears and the sounds. In other words, if someone has never heard jazz before they will not understand the conventions of harmony, melody, performance practice, structure, form/growth/development, sound and timbre, rhythm, etc. that they are experiencing in the art. This, however, is true for popular music as well as jazz. If one has not listened to a wide array of dub and, more broadly, electronic music, and is not aware of the conventions of harmony, melody, performance practice, structure, form/growth/development, sound and timbre, rhythm., etc, that make dub dub and how those have developed over time—how they “came to be”—then when they hear their first dub song every they will not understand how the triple rhythm and half-time feel of the chorus and its alternation with the duple feel of the traditional verse section of the song and yadayadayada, but they still might be able to nod their head along and “dig it.” I can make a similar analogy for all genres, including straight-ahead 1-4-5-1 1950s rock n roll or whatever. With greater understanding, then, comes greater appreciation and enjoyment from and for all genres and styles of music equally, not just jazz. This is applicable to all art broadly. Simply put, the more you are exposed to jazz and its conventions and understandings, the more you will take from it artistically, just like every other kind of music out there broadly speaking. In my jazz, I incorporate elements of popular styles that, I hope, make my music a bit more accessible to the ear of the less experienced jazz listener than many other jazz artists. Some jazz musicians, for example, do, in fact, consider the jazz to be more interesting when there is a higher level of complexity in the music. One example specifically is that, for better or worse, I have encountered great jazz musicians who consider the music to be “better jazz” if there are “no downbeats ever,” and everything is phrased off the beat—so you’re always hittin’ the ‘an’ of four, say, instead of ‘1’. I, however, feel that to have been the case at one point in time in the development of jazz, but for me and my music today, I sometimes have chosen to play a few more downbeats here and there in an effort to bring what I hope to still be authentic historically rooted jazz back into the playlists, headphones, and earbuds of younger and less jazz-experienced audiences. Why must jazz become more complex as it develops? Must a decrease in a complexity represent either an older style or a less valid one in jazz? Some food for thought is that in both cases, perhaps not. These are just a few complex issues surrounding your question. Is jazz music for snobs? There may be no short answer, but the bottom line is that the more experience the listener has with the music and the more they understand about the music’s conventions in the realm of sound, harmony, melody, rhythm, from/structure, etc., the more they will enjoy listening and take from the experience.

Would you like to share a nice moment or story from your touring days?

For touring I always work hard to avoid big eventful mishaps and things. I do remember one time I missed a band bus to Milwaukee (which was four hours away). Of course, lots of fun nights meeting new people and great times. But then again, it is also often not glamorous and can be extremely tiring. I still travel and play, although with two children at home I tend to work in San Diego mostly.

Whiplash, Sound of Metal or.. Could you suggest to us the best music related?

Haha! Sure. I’m more of a “Touch the Sound” with Evelyn Glennie kind of guy for that type of movie. She is such an inspiration to me and so many others. You know she is profoundly deaf and became the world’s first multi-percussion soloist. I feel truly blessed to be living during her lifetime. She humbles me as much as anyone has ever been humbled before.

Thank you!

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