Five on the Floor: Simplicity, Drums & Whiplash

It's that time of year when we scramble, post-holidaze, to catch up on all the Oscar-nominated films we haven't seen yet. It's inevitably a lot of screen time, some of which I recently packed into a classic NYC snowmagedocalypse (please stop coining these terms, humans). My double feature was this year's best example of clichéd, yawn-inducing tedium, The Imitation Game; and Whiplash, a brutal love story of art, education, passion and terror. I have no idea how the former amassed so many nominations, but since I've already made my stance on award season pomp known, let's get straight to the drumming.

Whiplash is about drums, an instrument that I am not even close to proficient on. My father did a stint in a weekly Latin jazz jam session before "retiring" in favor of pottery, which in its tactility and fluidity resembles the rhythm of the kit, but my ancestral connection to the skins ends there. I love playing drums, though, and not having a space to thrash, ping, thwap, crash, et cetera away the day's problems and joys is a bummer. The feeling of hitting things; making beats out of the spaces between silence, the conversation amongst the timbres, the sheer full body immersion in creation -- there are things both primal and unknown about the drum set.

Drummers are known, no thanks to Animal (and Buddy Rich), for tapping into that basic mortality in a very visceral way, but they can also be guilty of playing too many notes, getting noodly and favoring finesse over substance. Neil Peart, who's had every musical superlative lobbed his way is more of the latter, while John Bonham's vodka-soaked career favored something more thunderous. These two represent an all too simple drumming Venn diagram, but the debate will rage on in YouTube comments and magazine polls long after Peart has made the 70th Rush album.

When I first heard A Tribe Call Quest, it felt like I was hearing Bonham's "Heartbreaker" beat -- there's that feel, a groove that sways between the quarter note as much as it emphasizes it. Groove cannot be taught. It can be illustrated, dissected and analyzed, but it relies inherently on the soul of the player. Groove says something about simplicity, a quality that runs quite the gamut of definition: on one hand we have foolishness and lack of intelligence; on the other, directness and lack of pretension, both of which point to innocence and comprehension. No wonder Q-Tip sounded like Bonzo -- a playful spirit and a deadly seriousness in craft are the fusion in any great artist.

So there's groove, and drums that range from Bozzio big to DeJohnette diminutive, but let's check out some simple playing. Here are five of my favorite drum fills, elements which fit outside of the song's beat and are not orchestrated with other instruments:

1) Elvin Jones -- "Witch Hunt," from Wayne Shorter's Speak No Evil, 1965

The Jones family is one of the greatest in modern music, but while brothers Hank and Thad moved piano and trumpet along, Elvin evolved the drums in a way that resonated (sorry) with Ginger Baker, who went on to essentially invent rock drumming. The fill at 1:42 is perfect. Held back in just the right way, it provides Shorter a springboard for his solo and sets the pace for an outstanding record. Jones had spent the five years prior honing his skills with John Coltrane, so it's little wonder he became a truly listening musician, influencing jazz drummers to come with power, grace and space.

2) Abe Cunningham -- "You've Seen the Butcher," from Deftones' Diamond Eyes, 2010

It's tough to pick a favorite Deftones moment, especially on drums, since Cunningham represents the best in crushing restraint, but this album made me want to cry, run, make things, punch things, travel. Sure, he had his glorious intro to "My Own Summer," but by 2010 the band had elevated to a truly artful synthesis and this song is one of the reasons. I get chills at 2:35, that gut-punch tom figure we've heard before now flexing alone.

3) Brad Wilk -- "Testify," from Rage Against the Machine's The Battle of Los Angeles, 1999

Although it was Rage's riffage that changed me from blues-guitar-liking teen to hey-I-want-to-do-that... teen, I didn't sweat the details until their last original album. Buried beneath all the political anger and construction site guitar work is a solid rhythm section, anchored steadily on record (though somewhat inconsistently live) by Wilk, whose most recent gig was with a little band called Black Sabbath. Around 3:15 he throws in a couple extra kick drums that are so nuanced that they took me years to appreciate.

4) Chris Hughes -- "Sowing the Seeds of Love," from Tears For Fears' The Seeds of Love, 1989

While the album owes countless great moments to Manu Katché, it's this intro that really sticks (again, sorry). Massive production and songwriting that pushed the Lennon/McCartney sound into new territory didn't hurt, either.

5) Nate Wood -- "Lowell," from Kneebody's The Line, 2013

I want to be Nate Wood when I grow up, so I'm breaking my own "not orchestrated with other instruments" rule on this one. The fill at 2:56 is doubled by Adam Benjamin's Rhodes, but those may be the best flams I've ever heard.

There are other fills; even classics that have been left off this totally subjective list, like Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" intro, which is less flashy than the equally magnetic JR Robinson intro to Michael Jackson's "Rock With You." Or Ringo's snare and floor tom combo into the chorus of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." An honorable mention has to go to John Stanier, whose performances on both Helmet's "I Know" and Battles' "Tonto" blur the line between beat and fill in a way that only he can do (good luck playing 2:16 in the former, though).

There's also this:

Simplicity does not equal easy replication. In fact, the facilities required to play concisely are the same needed to speak as such - a firm grasp of fundamentals and the ability to exist in the moment. As drum guru Dave King notes in his brilliant web series, music and drumming are about conversation, which is about listening. See Whiplash for its listening and lack thereof, its economical filmmaking and wonderful performances, but if doubletime-swing-induced lacerations get you down, go simple.