Steve Fidyk is one of those rare Jazz musicians who are as articulate about describing Jazz as they are about playing it.
Given his ability to be so descriptive about the process of making Jazz, I thought it would be a shame to pass up an opportunity to have him do so concerning the background for this new big band recording.
So, I put together a series of interview questions and his responses make up the body of these insert notes. After you’ve read them, you’ll know so much more about the music on Red Beats which, of course, was the point of the whole thing.
Tell us a bit about you, your development as a drummer and the highlights of your career in music to date.
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 raised four children and 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.
After playing with local groups throughout high school and being a contributing member of my music program in public school, I pursued music education at the collegiate level at Wilkes University in my hometown of Wilkes-Barre. I played drums in the university big band under the direction of Bob Wilbur and eventually Tom Heinze. It was at this time that I began to immerse myself in jazz, listening to the great big bands of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, and Buddy Rich. Rich was the first jazz drummer my parents took me to see perform live when I was eight years old. Buddy performed at the Highlight Lounge in Wilkes-Barre, which was a small club that held maybe 100 people. This experience was very impactful musically as you could imagine. My first drum set teacher, Angelo Stella knew Buddy and encouraged everyone in his drum studio to go hear that great band. Angelo was a great big band drummer who taught technique, rudiments, jobbing beats and reading notation. He was a great teacher and a very patient man. Wilkes University had a small, but strong musical program set within a liberal arts education. In addition to jazz, I also studied classical percussion and played in the university wind ensemble, percussion ensemble and gave solo percussion recitals during my sophomore, junior and senior year. Bob Nowak taught total percussion at Wilkes. He was a great teacher, and stressed musicality, teamwork, listening and ensemble skills in his studio.
My freshman year of college, the percussion studio at Wilkes went to the Percussive Arts Society Convention in Washington D.C. to take in masterclasses and concerts per Bob Nowak’s recommendation. It was incredible! We saw and met Steve Gadd, Jack DeJohnette, Nexus, The Santa Clara Vanguard Drum Corps.. The list goes on and on! 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 6 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 can respond in the moment to what I was hearing, and comment in a musically appropriate manner. All of these experiences and training over time led to my work with the Army Blues Big Band, a 17-piece jazz ensemble in Washington DC. During my years with the band, I performed for seven US Presidents, numerous dignitaries, dozens of guest artists, and in 2008, traveled throughout the Middle East supporting the troops during a USO Holiday Tour. Since leaving active duty, I maintain a busy performing schedule, playing throughout the US with small groups led by tenor saxophonist Walt Weiskopf and guitarist Jack Wilkins. I’m also a member of the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia, a big band led by trumpeter Terell Stafford.
Your previous recordings were in a small group setting. What brought about this big band recording?
I’m always searching for new ideas and projects to present in a creative way. Listening to and performing in big bands were some of my very first experiences in jazz as a young musician. Buddy Rich was the first jazz drummer that I saw perform live when I was very young, plus my many years performing with the Army Blues Big Band helped me to understand and appreciate the role of the big band drummer. It’s all about time and how the drums positively influence the dynamic shape and articulation of an arrangement. As mentioned, my first three solo recordings featured my original music for small group configurations. 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, and they turned out great. They are also featured on Red Beats (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 the two arrangements that Joseph Henson wrote and began assembling the pieces to put together a varied project of original music set within a big band construct.
Where did the title RED BEATS come from? Does it have a special meaning?
The record title has a double meaning. Musically, it features a variety of musical styles, grooves, or “beats” to include straight-ahead swing, funk, up-tempo swing, and Afro Cuban rhythms. The compositions, arrangements and featured soloists are all “red” hot.
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 a little 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.
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. For Red Beats, I’m currently dedicating efforts to our greatest resource- our children.
All of the compositions on RED BEATS are your originals. How did you select the arrangers for each tune and why did you go with a different orchestrator for each track? Did you have any input into these arrangements?
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 affinity 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.
What is the basic instrumentation for the big band and how did you decide on the personnel?
The instrumentation is fairly standard – five saxophones, four trombones, four trumpets and four rhythm (with guitar and organ).
The musicians are all friends of mine that I perform with in DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. We essentially have two bands of musicians performing on this recording. So many players wanted to be a part of this project, for which I’m grateful, because they have such a deep appreciation and respect for the music.
Who are the greatest influencers on your big band drumming?
Buddy Rich, Mel Lewis, Sonny Payne, Louie Bellson, Jake Hanna, Joe Morello, Ed Soph, John Riley, Jeff Hamilton, and Peter Erskine. Each of these drummers have their own sound, style, touch, and approach. They are all drumming heroes of mine, and I’m forever grateful for their support throughout my musical journey.
What is your conception of the functions of a drummer in a big band setting?
When playing in a large ensemble, I try to make all the parts of the arrangement fit together comfortably, keeping each rhythmically consistent and dynamically relevant. It all comes down to the strength of your 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 like playing with 16 metronomes simultaneously, set at slightly different tempos!
I listened to a lot of big band music from the time I was young. 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 big bands whenever possible and listening to recordings for concepts. The concept of holding a big band together 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 interpretation. The way Buddy and Sonny Payne interpreted band figures was more in line with the band figure 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.
Can you talk a bit or describe each of the nine big band arrangements? Are any of them contrafacts or based on rhythm changes? Did you employ unusual time changes or use electronic instruments?
Bebop Operations – is based on a 32-measure (A-A-B-A) song form that was originally featured on my third solo release, Battle Lines. This bebop melody has a playful-like bridge, with the (A) sections featuring some tricky syncopations.
Bebop Operations was arranged by the current bassist for the Army Blues Big Band, Regan Brough. He set the melody statement in a “super sax” soli-style
format and devised clever ensemble phrases throughout the introduction, shout chorus and coda sections that were both challenging to perform and very swinging.
The solo section follows the same form and showcases the former leader and trumpet soloist for the Airmen of Note, Tim Leahey and tenor saxophone titan (and Buddy Rich Big Band alumni) Walt Weiskopf.
The Flip Flopper – is based on a 12-measure blues form and was originally featured on my first solo release, Heads Up! The original groove (from the drummers’ perspective) was inspired by Billy Higgins from tunes like Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder, and Eddie Harris’s Freedom Jazz Dance. The Flip Flopper was composed in that same vein and was the first tune I wrote for my small group. For the Red Beats project, Joseph Henson, who was a colleague of mine in the Army Blues Big Band serving as musical director and tenor saxophone soloist, reimagines the Flip Flopper in a more progressive manner.
The soloists featured on this arrangement include trombonist Kevin Cerovich of the Airmen of Note and NYC organist Brian Charette, who helps set the funky tone throughout, with creative ideas and sounds that help permeate the composition.
Untimely – The factor of “time” in jazz is essential, and in need of continuous exploration and development. As a jazz drummer, I’m always searching for new rhythmic combinations that I can integrate into my playing style (as well as my writing). The opening phrases of Untimely are constructed with segments of 5/8 and 7/8-time signatures. Each phrase is then coupled with a two-measure drum solo break that acts as a conduit for the next section of the form. Untimely is a contrafact based on the chord progression from the tune Just in Time, and was featured on my first solo recording, Heads Up!. The original inspiration for Untimely came from the Sonny Rollins recording, The Sound of Sonny where he performs Just in Time with stop-time sections sprinkled throughout the melody. For the big band project, Red Beats, Philadelphia based trumpeter, composer, and arranger Andrew Carson, (who is also featured on this arrangement), reworks Untimely by incorporating the original trumpet solo from Heads Up! (played by Terell Stafford) and tenor solo (played by Tim Warfield), transcribing both and orchestrating each into featured “solis” for the trumpet and saxophones sections respectively. In addition to Carson on trumpet, soloists on this big band arrangement include tenor saxophonist Xavier Perez, a Maynard Ferguson Big Band alumni and the current musical director for the Army Blues Big Band along with NYC guitar legend and Buddy Rich alumni, Jack Wilkins.
Churn – is a contemporary composition in 6/8 that was originally recorded on my third solo release, Battle Lines. It features an (A-B-A) song form with solos by pianist (and current Airmen of Note band member) Christopher Ziemba and NYC tenor saxophonist and Buddy Rich Big Band alumni Walt Weiskopf. The arrangement featured on Red Beats was reimagined by Washington D.C. guitarist and current member of the Army Blues Big Band, Michael Kramer.
Following the tenor solo is an exciting “whisper” chorus section that leads to the shout chorus. Michael did an incredible job capturing the spirit of this piece
through his unique and creative lens as a composer and arranger. Before the restatement of the final melody, the guitar and drums are featured in an accompanied duet/vamp, exploring cross-rhythms and polyrhythms during their musical conversation.
Food Court Drifter – was originally featured on my second release, Allied Forces. I set out to write a Blues in a 1960’s “boogaloo style” and came up with a groove and bass line in 7/4 time that I liked, and then added a short conduit type bridge in 4/4 for good measure. The name came after an afternoon at the local shopping mall near my home. Like most shopping malls, it has a food court located just outside the movie theater entrance. At this particular mall, there is usually one person who consistently walks the perimeter of the food court “sampling” all the free food that is presented on every tiny tray by each food vendor. It’s kind of weird and quirky and I think this tune captures that feeling. For the Red Beats project, Philadelphia based trumpeter, composer and arranger Andrew Carson reimagines the piece, featuring the trombone section in the opening moments with solos by tenor saxophonist Xavier Perez, NYC organist Brian Charette and alto soloist Joseph Henson.
Gaffe – is a song that was originally recorded on my second solo release, Allied Forces. It is a contrafact based on the 32-measure (A-A-B-A) tune What is This Thing Called Love. For the big band project Red Beats, the piece takes on a new and progressive shape as envisioned by alto soloist, composer, and arranger Joseph Henson. Also featured on trumpet is former leader and soloist for the Airmen of Note, Tim Leahey.
One for T.J. –was written for my two sons- Tony and Joey and featured on my second solo release, Allied Forces. The tune is a simple 32-measure (A-A-B-A) song based on (2) themes- one for T and one for J. For the big band project Red Beats, the tune was reimagined by Philadelphia based tenor saxophonist, composer, and arranger Jack Saint Clair. One of Jack’s major influences is tenor saxophonist and Philadelphia legend Larry McKenna who performed with the great Woody Herman Big Band of the early 1960’s. Jack Saint Clair takes the melody of One for T.J. and incorporates the sound of the soprano saxophone (played by Maynard Ferguson alumni and professor of jazz studies at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Chris Farr) and the sound of the flugelhorn (played by the current director and trumpet soloist of the Army Blues Big Band, Graham Breedlove). Both soloists capture the spirit of the piece beautifully, playing lines that are lyrical and relate back to the composition itself.
Loopholes – was originally featured on my third solo release, Battle Lines. I set out to write a “groove tune” for that project – something that felt good and had a dance sensibility to it. I came up with the title idea as an extension from previous compositions from other solo recordings: The Flip Flopper (from Heads Up!) and Gaffe (from Allied Forces). Loopholes followed suit and was conceived with a similar approach.
This simple tune features a funky swing feel with a 16-bar (A) and (B) section
with solos by NYC organist Brian Charette, Philadelphia based tenor saxophonist Chris Farr and Washington D.C. guitarist Michael Kramer who also reworked the original, setting it for big band for Red Beats. Michael is an incredible guitarist and did an amazing job capturing the spirit of the original while placing his own imprint and style on the arrangement.
Good Turns– is a burning up-tempo riff-style blues with two different solo
sections that was originally featured on my second solo release, Allied Forces. The melody (and first solo section) is both in 4/4 time with two different key centers, and features Mark Allen on baritone saxophone, Harry Watters on trombone and Joseph Henson on alto saxophone. The second solo section transitions to 3⁄4 time (featuring NYC guitarists Jack Wilkins and his former student Jeff Barone) and is followed by a drum solo that begins in 3/4 and transitions to 4/4 to help set up the recapitulation of the final melody statement. I thought the title was appropriate because of the many twists and turns that occur within the tune. For the big band project Red Beats, baritone saxophonist, composer, arranger, and member of the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia Mark Allen, reworks the original by adding very creative contrapuntal lines throughout the brass and reed sections to help “frame” each solo statement and time/key transition.
In closing, for those drummers who may be interested, can you describe your gear?
The drums are the Mapex Saturn series: 16 x 20 bass drum, 9 x 12 and 16 x 16 toms with a variety of maple and brass Black Panther snare drums.
The cymbals are Zildjian: 20-inch medium ride, 22-inch K Renaissance ride, 18- inch Medium and Medium Thin Crashes, 22- inch swish knocker and 14- inch New Beats hi-hats.
Can we expect more future recordings from Steve Fidyk’s Red Beats Big Band?
I hope so. It all depends on how this recording is received. I would like to perform live with this band and continue to develop projects with this larger configuration. It was fun and creative work and a labor of love for sure.
From any perspective, the compositions, the arrangements, and the solo work, Steve Fidyk’s Red Beats is a welcome addition to the big band Jazz discography by a drummer who maintains the music’s traditions while moving them into new dimensions.
Let’s all join Steve in hoping that there’s more to come. Steve Cerra