Steve Gadd played Fenway Park last month as James Taylor’s drummer and now he’s on the phone from New York, where he’s between nights at Madison Square Garden, anchoring the kit for Eric Clapton’s only North American dates. A week later, he’s co-leading a band with Chick Corea for 10 nights at the Blue Note before they head to the Berklee Performance Center on Oct. 1.
“It’s always trying to put the puzzle together with the schedule—and some years are busier than others,” says Gadd, 72. “It’s not every year I have an opportunity to work with all three of those people. When it happens, I definitely do whatever I can to do those gigs because I love those guys.”
He particularly enjoys a lengthy relationship with keyboardist Corea, 76. They met in the ’60s, playing six nights a week in Gadd’s hometown of Rochester, New York, in a jazz group that included flugelhornist Chuck Mangione. When Corea launched his seminal fusion outfit Return to Forever in the early ’70s, Gadd was also initially onboard, but dropped out.
“It wasn’t the right time for me to be able to commit to a band and be on the road,” the drummer says. “I’d just moved to New York and had babies.”
But he birthed an alternate legacy. “I was getting called for a lot of recording work, which meant that I did not have to be on the road and I could get home,” Gadd says. “When I came to New York, I took whatever came in. I liked a lot of different music and luckily I didn’t get categorized.”
He went on to play on more than 500 records, with artists from Mangione to Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler, Bonnie Raitt, George Benson, Carly Simon and Weather Report in the ’70s alone. While he passed on Return to Forever, Gadd also played on several of Corea’s ’70s albums, including The Leprechaun and My Spanish Heart, as well as 1981’s great Three Quartets with Michael Brecker.
But two of his ’70s performances became immortal. One was his climactic fills on the title track of Steely Dan’s Aja. “When you were recording for pop music, the idea was probably not to be real busy,” he says. “They sort of wanted it crazy.” The other: his offbeat shuffle on Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.”
“Sessions are sort of give and take,” Gadd says. “Certain things come together right away and other parts, you have to work a little harder.” In the case of “50 Ways,” the choruses went relatively easy but the verses weren’t clicking. While Simon and producer Phil Ramone were listening to playbacks, the drummer was practicing in a booth when Ramone heard a pattern he embraced for the verses. “Sometimes you get lucky,” Gadd says. “In that situation, we got lucky.”
It’s not like he’s hired for one signature sound, says Gadd, who later recorded with artists as diverse as Paul McCartney, Al DiMeola, the Bee Gees, Diana Ross, Frank Sinatra and Kate Bush in addition to Clapton and Taylor.
“I just sort of let the music dictate where it should go, and the people that you’re playing with, they bring different things out of you,” Gadd says. “You’re trying to apply things that you know and understand new things that people want you to try.”
He was initially drawn to jazz through his family, notably when an uncle noticed his nephew was “banging on everything when I was around 3 years old and channeled it.” Gadd cites such drummers as Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams among his influences.
Corea has lauded Gadd’s orchestral and compositional approach. The drummer studied at the Eastman School of Music, playing in wind ensemble and orchestra settings, which Gadd says he applied to Corea’s 1976 outing The Leprechaun.
Now the pair plans an early 2018 release of their new studio album, Chinese Butterfly, in addition to shows with their co-led band, featuring guitarist Lionel Loueke and saxophonist Steve Wilson. But it began with just Corea and Gadd in the studio. “We had so much fun,” Gadd says. “It seemed to make sense to try and take it further.” ◆
The Correa/Gadd Band plays the Berklee Performance Center on Oct. 1.
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