Steve Hass: A World of Rhythms
“ I enjoy going into a situation and making someone else ”
Thirty-two-year-old Steve Hass has been a professional drummer for about a dozen years, adding touches of style and class to music by the likes of The Manhattan Transfer, Art Garfunkel, Billy Joel, Christian McBride, John Benitez, Ravi Coltrane and many others, from pop to hard core jazz and from hip-hop to Latin beats. He’s a percussionist with a smooth style and his pulsating conversations with fellow musicians are interesting and seamless. But it didn’t come just from just formal lessons as a youngster, nor his tenure at the renowned Berklee College of Music. Hass is a natural, and sits among the group of outstanding drummers to come on the scene in recent years.
As a child, Hass played the rhythms in his head on pots and pans, digging music, digging drummers, digging the pulse. The pull was already strong for this son of Greek immigrants. “They have photos of me as a baby, sitting by the stereo, spending all day listening to the stuff. Then my parents would go out to Astoria [Queens, NYC] and go to the Greek nightclubs. Sometimes they would take me. I would take a seat by the drummer.”
To this day, the NYC-based Hass absorbs every kind of music and rhythm he can, part of the journey this artist has been on for many years. His thirst for knowledge and his open mind are serving him well, having created a style that can handle any musical situation. If evidence is needed, there’s his debut CD, released in June. Traveler is a blend of different songs and styles, chosen by Hass, driven by his percussion and arranged by his vision.
Evidence of this fine talent can also be seen on Ravi Coltrane’s newest CD, Mad 6 , which is propelled by Hass, who gets a chance to display his strong jazz chops and the influences of folks like Elvin Jones. The backbone of Coltrane’s strong musical statement comes from Hass and his beats.
“For me, it’s all under the American music umbrella, except for the Latin stuff, which is now also becoming pretty much a standard style in jazz for the past 10 years or more,” said Hass.
The concept for the debut CD started out as a jazz trio, but Hass decided he didn’t want to get stuck by listeners and critics into one bag – at least not on this first outing. The result is a stimulating album that takes the listener to different places, and covers tunes by people as diverse as Curtis Mayfield and Tom Waits. It has the standards “Skylark” (sung by Manhattan Transfer’s Janis Siegel) and “The Song Is You,” each with fresh and innovative arrangements. Sarah McLachlan’s “Do What You Have to Do” is a sultry ballad and Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” is at once rocky, folky, funky and fun. Interestingly, Hass, wearing the multiple hats of producer, arranger, executive producer, and musician, feels he didn’t get the best of himself on the disc. Whatever the case, it’s plenty good, and the versatility of the drummer comes shining through. Whether it’s jazzy (“Seventh Heaven,” “718”) or world music (“Groove Me,” “African Desert”).
“I was actually pretty nervous about it being too eclectic and sounding like a compilation. But when I put the tunes back to back, it had a really nice feel to it. You can listen to the record front to back and it kind of tells a story and you don’t really get bored. It just came out like that,” he said. “I wasn’t sure having Janice Siegel on “People Get Ready,” if it would come out jazzy or funky. The Hammond B3 came in little later and a lot of the slide guitar stuff came in later, so I wasn’t sure what it would sound like. It was kind of fun like that. We didn’t know what to expect.”
“And I’m glad it doesn’t come off like a drummer’s album. Regular people can just pick it up and listen to it and dig it without getting too involved in having to think about who’s playing what and how hard it is.”
The CD is a strong debut. It invites the listener in subtly, not with drum pyrotechnics, and the production values are first-rate.
Speak with the drummer and one finds he is generous of spirit and gentle of soul. In his easy way, he describes his musical expedition, which includes performing with singer/songwriter Joe Brack, more of The Manhattan Transfer, pianist Yaron Gershovsky, Manhattan Vibes, Janis Siegel, Meg Flather, and Neshama Carlebach.
Highlights of his conversation with All About Jazz follows:
All About Jazz: The new CD has a broad spectrum of styles. Were you trying to present your varied influences?
Steve Hass: Not consciously. I didn’t do it with that as the goal. My initial goal was to do a trio recording. It was going to just be a piano trio, basically inspired by a Jeff Watts record that I have – I’m not even sure it was released in the States – with Kenny Kirkland and Charles Famborough. Just standards and some drum solos and some nice blowing, live in the studio. One day, in and out. But then I thought about all the rest of the work that I’m doing, drum-wise, in my career as a session player and I thought it wouldn’t be fair to have this album under my name – the debut – and have people assume that I’m a jazz drummer, when meanwhile I play all these other things.
Plus I wanted to involved more of my friends, like Ben Butler, for example, who co-produced with me. He’s done some jazz stuff, like Special EFX, fusiony kind of bands like that, but more of the singer/songwriter stuff, and I love that as well. So I wanted to include some of that. We just started recording tunes. I didn’t really know where it was going to go until it was finished., and I was like – wow.
AAJ: So you didn’t really have any concept in mind.
SH: No. Just being me, really. And producing it, ideas would come to mind and we would put them down and see what it sounded like. It was fun like that and I was really fortunately to have my friends there with me, great musicians and Ken Wallace the engineer. Otherwise it would have cost me a lot of money. I had the ability to throw around ideas and stuff for a couple days without worrying too much about spending too much time. It was cool.
AAJ: Was it harder producing as well as performing. Some people find it’s a different kind of stress. Sometimes they like it and sometimes they don’t.
SH: I think I liked it, but at the same time I thought I could have played better on my own CD. From the executive producer point of view, I was trying to treat the musicians well. I didn’t have a lot of help in the studio. I do a lot of sessions and I have a certain way that I like to be treated. I wanted to treat them that was as well. So the performances on the drum end were almost the last thing on my mind. I didn’t feel like I got the best performances for myself, but I feel like collectively, it sounds really good.
They aren’t bad performances, but I’ve played better on other people’s albums. Listening to it now, people didn’t really know what I was going through and it sounds good.
AAJ: You pulled off what you needed to.
SH: Exactly. And I’m glad it doesn’t come off like a drummer’s album. Regular people can just pick it up and listen to it and dig it without getting too involved in having to think about who’s playing what and how hard it is.
AAJ: You had a hand in other aspects, like arranging and artwork and things like that.
SH: Yeah. I figured if I’m going to do some of my favorite cover tunes, I may as well arrange them in a way that comes from my head. So we did “The Song is You” in 5 clave, which basically comes from me playing with John Benitez a lot. I did a little bit of playing with Danilo Perez when I was in Boston as a Berklee student. The Latin jazz thing is a bit of my background. And the drum loops and such on tunes like “Skylark” are just another part of me that I wanted to throw in there. That tune I’ve been hearing like that, that way for quite a long time and never actually recorded it, so that was nice.
AAJ: It seems like you had all kinds of different challenges that you had to take on in this whole package. When the sweat dries, do you feel confident you got what you needed?
SH: Yeah, surprisingly enough. Because I wasn’t sure, but when I got the master tape back I just sat down and listened to and was pretty happy with it. You’re always really critical about your own stuff. While it was getting mastered, I didn’t listen to any of it, because while it was happening I was listening to it constantly and it was driving me nuts. I wasn’t even sure if it was good.
AAJ: Yeah. You’re so far into it.
SH: Right. So I gave myself a two-week break. When I got the master back I just put it on while I was running errands around Astoria, and it was like, ‘I dig this. I would probably buy it,’ you know? So that was a good feeling.
AAJ: You toured with Ravi Coltrane prior his new CD.
SH: Yeah. I’ve done a lot of stuff with him. That was another interesting session, one of those completely live things. It’s a different part of my playing, for sure, and I love it. We’re actually talking about doing some more stuff.
AAJ: I thought you sounded great on that, and obviously a different bag than many of these songs on Traveler, but they’re both done well and show your broad background and tastes. Where does this diversity come from?
SH: For me, it’s all under the American music umbrella, except for the Latin stuff, which is now also becoming pretty much a standard style in jazz for the past 10 years or more. The funk stuff, and the singer/songwriter country vibe, and the swing and New Orleans stuff rhythmically, for me, is all related. The groove that I played on the Tom Waits tune, “The Heart of Saturday Night,” to me can swing like a ride cymbal. You’re playing it on different voices of the kit. Instead of the ride cymbal, it’s on another voice – the tom-tom or high hat with the tambourine on top of the snare. Which is kind of the way they used to do it in New Orleans in the marches. For me, rhythmically, American music is all related.
It’s under the American music umbrella. Then I got into the Latin stuff when I was a student at Berklee. Even more so when I came to New York and got into a band called Manhattan Vibes with John Benitez. So I just combined everything, you know? It’s funny, you have the American music stuff, but then, if you check out some Brazilian or Afro-Cuban music, the way beat lies and the way it swings is also very similar to a lot of jazz stuff.
The world is getting really small like that. You can check out a Calypso groove and technically it’s the same beat as the Middle Eastern Arabic groove, it’s just played with a little different feel. It’s all relative, in my head.
AAJ: Coming up in the era you came up in, jazz wasn’t the thing. The radio is filled with the same stuff, yet you were able to pick this up. Were you into rhythms as a child?
SH: I’ve always been into music. The first stuff I was exposed to was Greek music, because my parents are Greek immigrants. That combined with my brothers, who are 12 and 13 years older than me, listening to Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. That was my musical upbringing. I was listening to stuff in 11/8 and listening to John Bonham. I didn’t quite get it at the time. It didn’t really all come out until I was about 15 or 16, when I actually started taking lessons and taking the instrument seriously, [laughs] which really scared my parents.
AAJ: Did you play prior to formal lessons?
SH: I was setting up pots and pans and borrowing drums sets from people, but around that age is when I finally got a kit. Once they saw I was serious about it, through the college years, then they got a little piece of mind. But earlier on, I constantly got the ‘Yes, it’s a nice hobby’ thing.
AAJ: Did you take training in high school?
SH: Yeah, I was in school band and marching band. I did all that stuff.
AAJ: And you ended up at Berklee.
SH: I took a year at a community college to see if there was anything else I was interested in – my parents’ influence there. I didn’t really do very well. I ended up hanging out in the music department. This whole time in I was playing weddings in order to make money. I ended up moving to LA to check out the studio scene. I spent a year out there.
I went out there to get my chops together, like drummers like Carlos Vega or Jeff Porcaro, session guys. I ended up meeting Jeff Watts, because he was with the “Tonight Show.” I would go to see him and Kenny Kirkland play every Wednesday night [at an LA club] and it completely inspired me to come back to New York and play jazz. But what ended up happening is I got a scholarship to Berklee, so I went to Boston right after that.
AAJ: Do you consider yourself a jazz drummer, a jazz musician?
SH: It’s hard to say. Wouldn’t say I’m strictly a jazz drummer, but I’ve spent a lot of my life learning that music and listening to it and loving it. It’s one of my favorite American musics. I can still put on Kind of Blue and get deep into that ride cymbal. Jazz today has got that copycat thing going on a lot, and I can’t get with that so much. Even though I’m probably guilty of it myself. I’d rather put on the records that the younger people are copying. Listen to the source. So I’m always impressed when I hear something that’s a little fresh.
SH: I remember the first time I heard Tony Williams. That may have been my very first jazz experience, putting on [Miles Davis’] Four and More a friend of mine made a copy on tape for me. It was like, ‘What’s going on here?’ It’s beautiful. But I had to go back and check out the simpler, cool jazz stuff. Birth of the Cool stuff. That hipped me to simpler stuff. Because when you’re listening to the other stuff and you’re inexperienced as a listener and a musician, you don’t even realize there is form, because they’re screwing it up so much, you know? They’re just going for it, constantly. I had to go back into the simpler stuff.
Even the stuff on Kind of Blue, where you hear the form of the song and it’s about the melody and all that, it was like, ‘Oh. That’s what they’re playing over.’ It can be mistaken as being free.
AAJ: Who were some of your drum influences?
SH: Max Roach for his phrasing. He just blows me away. I hear in Max’s drum solos that hip-hop swing that guys like Amir Thompson play today. Definitely Tony Williams. And Philly Joe for all that snare stuff. He was swinging so hard and playing the rudiments, kind of the same way that Buddy Rich was doing it. Roy Haynes. Art Blakey. Elvin Jones is a big one for me. I spent a long time on Elvin. He just drove me crazy, the liquid in his playing. Oh my lord.
Then the natural progression from Elvin into DeJohnette. It took me a long time to get to Jack, because my first couple years at Berklee I was a total traditionalist. I had my little bebop kit with the snare tilted and I was transcribing Philly Joe and Max constantly. But it’s a natural progression when you get into all the guys that break all the rules.
For the backbeat guys, Jeff Porcaro. Levon Helm from The Band. His groove is unbelievable. Jim Keltner. Vinnie Colaiuta, Mr. All around rhythmic genius. Not necessarily a swinger, but he’s a huge influence. Especially the stuff he did with Sting and Zappa. More recently, Abe Laboriel Jr. sounds great. I’ve been checking a lot of pop records he’s on. He’s got a nice fat sound.
John Bonham, is a huge influence on me. On “Skylark” the drum sound to me is a Bonham kind of sound. I was kind of going for that, but I played it with hotrods, in between brushes and sticks, and I told Janice (Siegel) and Ron (Affif, guitarist) and (bassist) James Genus to play as if they were playing a little cocktail gig. And underneath all that there was a drum loop. And Ben Butler was playing volume swells on the electric guitar. So it was a marriage of all these different styles. I’m glad that actually came together the way it did.
AAJ: Other musical influences?
SH: The obvious ones are Trane and Miles. Herbie Hancock. Oscar Peterson, I went through a thing with the trio drumming, brushes and all that. I learned from everybody, to tell you the truth. I go through these phases of listening to people. Lately, I’ve been picking up various CDs at stores and popping them in.
Definitely, Prince. P-Funk guys are huge influences. Keith Jarrett. I try to stay open to everything. I went through a little Ornette thing. A Stan Getz thing. Some of it comes from the Berklee student in me still, because the first thing you there is check out tons of music. Depending on which faculty member you’re hanging out with, you’re going to be checking out a lot of different stuff, because they all have their favorites and they put you through their routine.
AAJ: From Berklee, you were probably playing with a lot of bands.
SH: Yeah. I lucked out because I went there as a somewhat technically developed player. So when I got there, didn’t really have to work on my playing as much as I had to work on my music, my approach musically. I didn’t sit there doing hand exercises. I was doing a lot of listening and working on my ride cymbal feel and my approach to playing big bands. For me it was more like a late night session and ensemble sort of school I got the most out of the ensembles and hanging with the students in the practice room and playing tunes out of the book, the real book. Just rapping with cats about what they’re listening to and learning from the student – that was just great.
AAJ: Other people have said that the atmosphere there is maybe the best part, and the interaction with others.
SH: Yeah. It’s like a micro music industry. That’s how they have it set up. That was fun.
AAJ: Was there any particular big break; people that you started playing with that got your name out there?
SH: Definitely Ravi. I actually started playing in Ravi’s band when I was still at Berklee. I me him on a gig in Athens, Greece, which was probably my second touring experience ever. We played this club called the Half Note with two French musicians, both Berklee alum. I didn’t know Ravi at that point and I was a little nervous about playing with him, because I had a video of him playing with Elvin and Sonny Fortune and Chip Jackson. I was checking out the video before hand. And he’d actually grown a ton since that video, so we played together and we had a good vibe. And we also got along. He’s a sweetheart of a person. A few months after that gig, he called me to start playing at the weekly thing. Either Al Foster or Cindy Blackman couldn’t do it any more. They were the regulars. He had me come down and we got along, musically and personally. It was great.
Then he put out his first record with Tain [Jeff Watts] and I did all the touring with that. He did a second one after that. He wasn’t really using the live band yet, I guess the labels were pushing him to use certain guys. But they sounded great. The records were great. Then the third one I got on, but by that time I got so busy doing other projects I couldn’t go out with the touring band.
Ravi’s the one who made it OK for me to move to New York. I didn’t want to come here and struggle. I knew great players that were really right above the poverty level. I didn’t want to live like that, because in Boston I was playing all the time. So I was really comfortable. And there were great musicians there, like George Garzone and Danilo (Perez) was there and Billy Pierce. I got to play with guys like that, so I was kind of content. I really wanted to be in New York. Any night in the Village you just go and check out a million different bands. It’s that energy. So I wanted to come here, but I also didn’t want to starve. So I got the gig with Ravi and finally moved down to New York from Boston.
AAJ: You’ve played with a million people since then in all kinds of styles.
SH: I’m trying to.
AAJ: A lot of the jazz guys aren’t doing that.
SH: Which is fine for them, as well. There are some that are doing it. Some that are doing it are not even known as jazz guys because they haven’t really had a big jazz gig. But if you’ve seen them play little gigs around town you know they can swing and they’ve checked out a lot of stuff. And then there are the guys who just want to play jazz, which is great. Whatever makes you happy.
AAJ: You’ve played Art Garfunkel and Billy Joel and George Benson.
SH: Yeah. George just pops in places and we end up playing all night. One time, he sat in with Manhattan Transfer, which was really great, at the Blue Note, and played a few tunes with us.
AAJ: You play with Manhattan Transfer quite a bit?
SH: I’ve been with them for about a year and a half, maybe a little more. That’s a really fun gig. It’s a show, but at the same time we play some backbeat stuff. There’s a lot of big band and small group swing. They’re really into grooves. Singers can feel stuff right away if it’s not right and it’s really demanding on the drummer. The dynamic thing, especially. Because they want that intensity; they want that kick behind them. But when you hit the cymbals too hard or something that’s at ear level to them, they don’t appreciate that. They’re still traditionalists in the sense that they don’t use ear monitors, they have the regular monitors on stage. So they’re not cut off at all. They hear the band, they can feel us right there. So far, so good. I really dig that gig. It’s fun, playing tunes like “Four Brothers” and stuff like that.
AAJ: It must be a challenge to jell with those different types of musicians and different recordings that you’re on.
SH: I had some long talks with Vinnie Colaiuta about that. At one point in his career, he would go from playing with Chick [Corea] to playing with Sting, all in the same week. He would have breaks with Sting in the Far East and go play the Blue Note with Chick. How do you switch gears like that? At that time I was having a problem switching gears. I would change my grips of the sticks to play certain styles. I couldn’t stop doing that. But he told me he doesn’t really think about it at all, he just plays music.
At the time, I thought, ‘That’s easy for you to say.’ But eventually, you see [music] is all linked. The more you play them consistently, the more you realize how related to each other they are. You might have to change a couple things. You have to hit the snare drum a certain way to get that backbeat on rock stuff, but where the group comes from, the feel, all comes from really early black America. I love listening to the old early rock drummers who were still playing on bebop kits and had that twitchy swing in their groove.
AAJ: You use of drums and percussion together, rather than overdubbing. Address that a little bit.
SH: Basically, it comes from the Jim Keltner influence. I saw him on a Stevie Nix video and he was holding a shaker while he was holding his drum stick, playing a groove. So taped a bunch of shakers and different tambourines to drum sticks. What I also do is strap a shaker or some goat nails, stuff like that, to my high at. So when it’s pumping eighth notes on the high hat, you’re also hearing another sound. I like putting tambourines on the high hat, stuff like that, just to fatten it up a little bit. For live sometimes, with singer/songwriters, when they have sixteenth note loops in their music, and we can’t actually have a sampler with us, I’ll just use the shaker stick and it covers the ground, brings in that extra sound to fatten up the groove.
AAJ: That’s something you toyed with, experimented with?
SH: Yeah. I did see Jim playing around with it. Kenny Wallison, does the maraca in the boot. He wears these boots that go up to his ankle and I saw him put a maraca in there once, when he was with Bill Frisell. So there are other guys that do similar things, but I’ve kind of adapted it and I use it all the time now. Singers, especially, love it.
AAJ: It sounds like you have the attention of a lot of people and have a lot of work.
SH: I’m still trying to keep it rolling, always pushing forward.
AAJ: The music scene today is kind of tough. Do you see it that way, and how do you manage?
SH: Yeah. I’m making a living and having a good time so I don’t want to complain about the scene, but at the same time I have a lot of friends who are from a different generation, who were around when there were sessions constantly and gigs constantly. As a kid in the 80s I feel a little gypped, because the industry at that time was so great. By the time I became a musician, the industry was going downhill. But I have yet to experience what the older folks are talking about. This is all I know, the way it is now, and I’m managing to do OK.
From what I’ve heard from more experienced players on the New York and LA scene is that back in the day you’d be doing this and that, working constantly and making a certain amount of money every year and now it’s not like that.
AAJ: Do you want to eventually lead a band?
SH: That, I don’t know. That’s starting to happen right now and it’s only because certain people who have the CD have asked me about maybe coming to a club. It’s got me thinking maybe I can get this project together and do some live gigs. But I’m definitely more of a sideman. I enjoy going into a situation and making someone else’s music come alive, creating drum parts or interpreting their songs, regardless of style. I definitely like doing that. It’s a little less stress. Being a bandleader is heavy. I dig it, but then again I haven’t really dealt with so much so I shouldn’t say that yet.
Visit Steve Hass on the web at www.stevehass.net .