The warm, sensitive, accommodating jazz mainstay offers a sincere glimpse into his world and his music.
Adam Nussbaum’s credits abound. The seasoned jazz stickman’s output includes records with the late jazz-fusion guitar master John Abercrombie, the late saxophonist and composer Michael Brecker, jazz-rock guitar monster John Scofield, and the late jazz piano legend and composer Gil Evans, among many other swinging heavyweights.
Diving deep into Nussbaum’s playing, it’s easy to see why he’s been so in demand. His sensitive yet fiery touch simmers throughout Abercrombie’s While We’re Young. Dig his gorgeous currents on Scofield’s live album, Out Like a Light. And you’d be remiss to skip out on the drummer’s brilliant brush and cymbal work on Brecker’s Don’t Try This at Home.
Currently, Nussbaum says that he considers himself lucky to have his own group, The Lead Belly Project, which interprets the music of Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, an American folk and blues singer active during the early to mid-1900s. “He was one of the very first musicians I was enamored with as a four or five-year-old,” he says. “My parents had some of his records. It’s based off folk, blues, country, hillbilly—you name it. And I enjoy that simple music. When you have great musicians, you don’t have to give them anything complicated. You give them something simple, and then they can use that as a point of departure to create something where we can all work together.”
Nussbaum also tours the world with bands such as New Light, which is a group that explores output from Elvin Jones’ quartet of the early ‘70s and which includes two original members from the band—Gene Perla and Dave Liebman—along with Adam Niewood. And as we caught up with the drummer, he was getting ready for a trip to Europe with the ZZ Quartet. “That group involves a phenomenal accordionist named Simone Zanchini, a guitarist named Ratko Zjaca, along with a very fun bass player from Macedonia, Martin Gjakonovski,” Nussbaum says. “So that’s been a great pleasure for me.”
We spoke with Nussbaum as he drove north from his home for a gig in Connecticut.
You seem to have such a nice flow in your feel and what you do. How would you define the concept of “flow?”
Adam: I try to have the time flow in a nice, smooth manner. No herky-jerky. Make the time feel good. And this is one of the things people like when they hear musicians play. At the end of the day they say, “Yeah, he’s got a great feel.” If you sacrifice your feel for ideas, you’re missing the point.
Would you favor creating a great feel over your own personal ideas?
Adam: Well, the initial thing is, my personal ideas are going to be incorporated within the feel that I’m trying to create. To me, it’s all one thing. I don’t like to break it up. I don’t want to sacrifice my feel and my flow to play something. There has to be a reason why I play something. And I try to have it all go in the current and the flow of what’s happening.
I try to think of time almost as if you’re looking at a wave in the ocean. There’s no stopping, there’s no starting. It’s an infinite motion.
When I move, I try to get a good feel and play the cymbal. I don’t stop the motion of the stick ever.
It’s like if you’re watching somebody who’s walking. One step flows into the next. We don’t have individual steps. Well, they are individual, but they’re all connected. And that’s what I’m trying to achieve. Even when I’m playing the cymbal. And that’s another reason why I like to have the rivets in the cymbal. It helps with the continuity of one beat flowing into the next.
Who are your influences?
Adam: Oh man, I have so many. People always say, “You’ve got a lot of Elvin in a lot of what you do.” And I say I probably do. But as a youngster, I heard Mitch Mitchell before I heard Elvin Jones. And Mitch Mitchell was surely affected by Elvin. I love the way that Mitch didn’t just lay down a groove. His playing was also a little bit more of an integral part of the music in a more conversational way. And that affected me.
And I’m influenced by all the great masters—Jo Jones, Buddy Rich, Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Shadow Wilson, Baby Dodds, Mel Lewis…. Clyde Stubblefield, Zigaboo…. I could go on and on. And these are all people who affected me. As a youngster, hearing James Brown, Hal Blaine…. I mean hearing Hal Blaine—he was on 90 percent of the hit records I heard as a kid.
I was also affected by people who weren’t drummers at all and were great musicians—people who had a point of view and an aesthetic that I admired. And I have to say that as I get older, my primary influence was my father, who was a visual artist. Growing up in an environment that was artistically aware, I was also exposed to things on a visual level. I was then trying to translate that to sound, because a great painting has balance. Great music has balance—light and dark, dense yet sparse, busy but spare, big motions with little motions. These things can all directly translate to a musical result.
That’s fascinating—being able to apply a visual art form to music.
Adam: Why not? We’re the product of our entire life. Nature and nurture have an incredible effect on how we’re imprinted and influenced. Watching waves in the ocean, watching how they have that power—and at the same time, have that grace. Watching a great dancer, somebody like a Fred Astaire, or somebody who can really glide or move. Watching a cheetah running. Watching the wind blowing through the clouds. There are so many things in nature that affect us.
Do you think about these images when you’re behind the kit?
Adam: Ideally when I’m playing music, I don’t want to be thinking about anything. I’m trying to get out of my way and react and respond to what’s going on in the moment. And at this point, there’s really nothing that I’m trying to prove. I’m just trying to make good music.
Hopefully, over time as an individual matures and lives life, they get more to draw upon to bring to the table. And there’s a great line I heard:
“You can’t learn experience. Experience has to come through it occurring.”
Wisdom comes from life—the good, bad, ugly, the ups and downs, and everything that affects us as a human being. The happiness, tragedies, sorrow, and smiles. All these things give you something to bring to the table. Then you also develop a degree of sensitivity, where you know how to play a drum, not just hit it.
What do you mean by being able to “play” a drum?
Adam: Getting a good tone from the drum. Not just banging, hitting, or slapping it. The first thing people hear when they hear anybody play the instrument is sound. You have to achieve the ability to get a pleasant sound, whether it’s loud or soft—having the ability to maintain the intensity when it’s soft as well as when it gets loud. Knowing how to keep yourself in check and knowing how to have a balance in your approach. These are all very important things that have to happen. The first thing people will hear when they listen to you is the sound. So if you’re playing some really slick ideas and you have a brittle, brash sound, it’s not going to be as pleasant to listen to as someone who has a warm sound but maybe isn’t playing something as slick or busy.
You seem to have such a warm, sensitive aesthetic.
Adam: Again, I’ve always just tried to make the other people I play with sound good.
It’s not about me, it’s about we.
I’m part of a team. Here’s a great acronym for the word “team:” Together Everyone Achieves More. I have to get inside what the music tells me to do. If all you’ve been doing is practicing along with Megadeth or Iron Maiden, and if by chance you get called up and have to play in a band where the chart says “Basie-ish” and you don’t know who Count Basie is, you’re in trouble. [laughs]
And the opposite can hold true as well. If all you’ve been doing is playing very straight-ahead traditional jazz, and you get in a situation where the chart says “Chick-ish,” well we know what that means. You have to get in there like Chick Corea. You have to have an understanding.
I think what you need to do is have open ears. And the thing that I try to let people understand is that this music we’re playing—the rhythmic-oriented music of our time—has been documented for about one-hundred years.
Now, if you’re a classical musician, your history doesn’t start one-hundred years ago; it’s more like four or five-hundred years ago. Classical music doesn’t start with Takemitsu, Berg, Webern, or Shostakovich. It doesn’t even start with Mozart or Beethoven. We’re talking about Bach or Haydn to even begin to have an understanding. And I think it’s necessary for people to understand that if you’re playing this music, you have to know where it’s coming from.
Anybody who’s your favorite drummer—whoever you like—they’re standing on the shoulders of somebody who built a previous foundation. It’s in the same sense that we all have mothers and fathers, and those influences are all very important. And good sound is good sound, good time is good time, and musical ideas are musical ideas, regardless of era or style.
So I have a lot of gratitude for the people that came before me and set a standard. I’m just trying to do my best to pass on some of the truth that I’ve felt so grateful to have experienced. Growing up near New York City, so many of my heroes were accessible to me. And it was actual. Going to the Village Vanguard, being able to sit next to most of my heroes if they were living…. I’d literally be a few feet from them and feel their energy, commitment, attention, focus, and passion—along with their brilliance as drummers. That’s something that imprints deeply on your DNA. It didn’t come from YouTube.
And YouTube is a great tool because it gives us all options to see things that we might normally not have been able to see or have an opportunity to experience. There are so many great musicians I didn’t have a chance to see and hear. But then again, I’m so grateful to be able to have seen and heard the ones that I did.
Adam Nussbaum’s gear:
Alternative Sonic implements
Zoom recording products