Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Cocktail Hour

I suspect that many, if not all, musicians have an “ur-instrument” in their minds no matter what instrument they may be playing at a given time. It’s a sort of Platonic thing—the instrument behind all instruments. Now of course for musicians who aren’t “jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none” like yours truly, that’s the one instrument they play & play well. But if you’re the sort who goes from one instrument to the next, there’s still probably one particular instrument that informs your understanding of how all others “work.”

For my better half, musical & otherwise, this ur-instrument is without question the drum. For Eberle, all instruments are drums—a piano is a drum, a marimba is a drum, a flute is a drum (you need to either really think about this or just listen to Rahsaan Roland Kirk), a guitar is a drum, etc. Being a guitar player, I actually get this last concept—it reminds me of the great Freddie Green’s statement:

“You shouldn’t hear the guitar by itself. It should be part of the drums so it sounds like the drummer is playing chords—like the snare is in A or the hi-hat in D minor. You only notice the guitar when it’s not there.”
(quoted in The Guitar Handbook by Ralph Denyer © 1982)

For those of you who don’t know, Green was the rhythm guitar player in Count Basie’s orchestra for many years, & is considered one of the great big band guitarists.

Anyhoo, for Eberle, everything goes back to the drum, & while she plays a lot of instruments with skill & sensitivity, I think she’s always somehow thinking, “drum.” Also, it’s been my experience that she’s as happy or happier playing the drum than any other instrument. When we were first together, she had an all-girl, all-drum group called Tender Buttons; later she’d occasionally join in on the big drum numbers with The Alice in Wonder Band; when we played in a sort of “lounge jazz” trio called the Blue Notes, she also played drum.

But in those days, drum for her meant hand drum, usually the djembe or conga. She dreamed sometimes of a drum kit, but drum kits are of course very large & expensive & a hassle to transport.

So—& this isn’t a non-sequitur—one fine September day a few years back we were sitting around our kitchen tables with some good pals & Eberle was talking about her dilemma. & one good pal (& formidable musician & songwriter) Carrie Bradley asked Eberle if she’d ever thought about getting a cocktail kit. For those who don’t know, Ms. Bradley has a heckuva music resume, including Ed’s Redeeming Qualities, The Buckets, 100-Watt Smile, the Breeders, the Great Auk, & as session musician on lots of Bay Area bands’ recordings when they needed a great violinist. Carrie told Eberle about how a friend of hers had one & used it in a band (I forget which).

Well, Eberle hadn’t thought about this before, because she’d never heard of such a contraption—nor had I—but she immediately began to research cocktail drum kits. We learned that they were developed in the late 40’s & early 50’s; they were very much related to “lounge music,” because (at least in one rendition of the story) they were ideal for cocktail lounges where bands didn’t have a lot of room to set up. The typical cocktail kit is built around a floor tom that also can serve as a bass drum by means of a pedal. The tom then has various attachments out to the sides—Eberle’s kit has two snares, a splash & a crash cymbal, a wooden plate attachment that can serve as a “woodblock,” & a cowbell. The whole affair is usually played standing up, which requires some excellent balance & an unflappable sense of rhythm, both of which Eberle has in spades. The unit (a Yamaha Club Jordan) is relatively easy to disassemble & reassemble, & pretty easy to transport (everything has to go in a Subaru wagon, no matter what). She’s had the chance to play the cocktail drum with The Blue Notes (which has since gone the way of all bands), the Spurs of the Moment (the pic above was taken a couple of years back at a Spurs show at the Sagebrush BBQ in New Meadows, ID), & also on our recording for the Alpine Playhouse (McCall, Idaho) 08 production of “Moominpappa at Sea.” If you want to hear Eberle in action on the cocktail kit, click on this link to our “Moominpappa at Sea” page & then click on the link for the sound file called “The Groke’s First Dance” (last one in the “Sound Samples” list).

You can find out a bit more about the history of the cocktail drum kit here.
Pic is by Diane Vecchi

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