Damion Reid, the drummer with the soul of a leader

Damion Reid playing at Mezzrow jazz club, February 2020

He plays the way he eats when we meet after a concert to talk at dinner: passionately, with sophistication. As a drummer on stage, he absolutely gives you the feeling he is the front power of an entire band. He is involving to the listeners, authentic and extremely aware of his beats’ impact on an audience. Meet Damion Reid, one of the most talented and versatile drummers of his generation.

You just left the stage playing with Mark Shim and Matt Brewer at Mezzrow club in New York, how are you?

I really enjoyed playing with them tonight, those are my two favorite people to play with and also long-time friends. It is a music departure from what you know of me with Robert (author’s note: Robert Glasper – contemporary composer and pianist). With him, there are a lot of tastefully played beats and grooves that come out of improvisation and composition. Whereas, with these two guys there is more freedom for personal expression. We don’t play much enough with each other and each one of us has different schools. It is great that we have similar concepts as to how things could work together musically and we all have equal responsibility in the creative process. I am glad you came to see me in another context after seeing me with Robert at the Blue Note because now you have witnessed me playing in different styles.

Watching you tonight again, I have been wondering how do you sound like a soloist as a drummer, who is normally a support within an ensemble? A lot of people perceive drummers as ‘a background’. Under your videos on YouTube, there are comments like: ‘He is ahead of time’, ‘Unique’, ‘I’m not sure if I am on weed or not but that was amazing!’

It is funny you say that – I think I am interested a lot with phrasing. I had a conversation with the musicians I played with tonight for instance. Playing with such good instrumentalists – each one of us can play what we really want and the result comes out great. It is a freedom of expression and they have the ability to express what they want. With me – I feel it is my duty to accompany, give them the best support and interaction. And that’s where the phrasing comes in. Where I am interjecting rhythmic ideas or even melodic rhythmic ideas. It is my job to propel and help the music. When it is time for me to be in the background – I can do it but I still like to have a conversation with the soloists within the band. So it is very common that I don’t play with people for months and we just sit down and improvise without any rehearsal. There is a relationship, there is synergy and a mutual trust. When you say ‘a soloist’ other artists may feel like: ‘I can play this tune and Damion will fill this up’. When you read me these comments It is so funny to hear especially the last quotation (laughter). 

Let me quote the critics: he plays with a ‘controlled fury’ and has ‘microscopic complex beats’. I would add to it: when Damion plays there are ‘consciously composed harmonic electrical discharges’, you do a sort of an amazing cardio drumming. How would you introduce your music to someone who doesn’t know you yet?

Wow, your version sounds very scientific. I would like to be introduced as a musician that plays all the genres of music. I don’t want to be boxed in as an artist playing only jazz and so on. I don’t really feel that’s who I am. If you need me to play certain stuff – I will show up and do it. As an African – American I am often perceived as someone who can only play R’n’B, gospel, hip-hop, jazz. Even though rock’n’roll is created by African – Americans – people don’t seem to see this currently. And I would love to be in a heavy metal band! A lot of people, including you, have stated they would like to see me playing such a repertoire. I feel that it would work. If someone likes how I play and hear the music – I will show them what I can do. I feel like the music industry – they want you to tell them who you are.

From left: Matt Brewer (double bass), Damion Reid

Do you think it is essential to learn how to listen to jazz because it has a more complex composition structure than pop music while teaching you how to be more sensitive in life? 

If some people claim they don’t like jazz – they have not found the jazz for them. You have to explore different things and find it. If you continue to search – everyone will find something for themselves. Because this music is so diverse I agree with you on this being essential.

I am Polish and I would like to find out more about your impressions from Poland. How were you treated by music fans there? Did you find our musicians or places you have been to inspiring to you?

I really liked my trips to Poland. I like Warsaw, and I really loved Kraków. The audiences love music. I have been to different cities with various artists. Throughout Poland there are a lot of beautiful ladies (laughter). I also have been to the jazz festival in Bielsko – Biała. There was a city where I felt less comfortable because of an unpleasant incident in the street, but people who were in the audience wherever I went – were  highly receptive! And it is the same in the States – there’s people with bad intentions and the chosen group that really wants to listen to music. For me it is not about where, it is always about the people. I have friends all over the world. The most important thing is who you are with, only then  you will have a good time. If you ask me about Polish food – it is amazing! Poland always seems to have an initiative, everything seems to be organic. If you have breakfast in Poland – it is great not to have another eggs and bacon dish but a green smoothie, alongside fresh produce, I guess some of the best produce in the world. And this ritual with drinking alcohol where you take shots in Poland and you take two – one for each leg (laughter). One of my favorite vodkas is Żubrówka but you just told me a new way that it can be drunk with apple juice.

Drummers tend to be a special kind of people with an amazing neuronal system – you need to coordinate different works of hands versus 2 legs where each one of them can work in the rhythm in a different way… It’s really not easy!

(Here Damion asks me a question: ‘What did you think of today’s performance?’ My answer: ‘Watched how your feet work’) Then he continues: It usually goes unnoticed. Drummers are born – you either have it or not, no matter how much you exercise. You must be a good timekeeper. I love my parents every day for allowing me to be myself. My drum set was by the fireplace and the TV. When I started playing – no one told me to stop. I grew up in an independent house so that was helpful regarding neighbors (laughter).

Do you have favorite playing techniques? 

Not really, there are just two different match grip techniques you can use: French and German – the last one allows you to have more control, dynamics and clarity. A lot of people like French because you can play faster and master dexterity. With German – you can still be fast and do exactly the same thing but you can get the fulness out of the note. It doesn’t matter to me which technique I use. All the techniques are necessary for different applications. (Here Damion demonstrates to me playing techniques over the dining table). 

You just have given me a mini-lesson. Do you teach others how to play drums?

Right now it is time for me to focus on creating my own compositions and also I feel like teaching should be reserved for the true master drummers that have already made their name. I wanna learn from someone who has been doing it way longer than me, has respect and resume. I am still learning, I am busy, I am doing creative stuff and I would not be ready to teach others yet in my opinion. Throughout the years I have been mentored by Billy Hart, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Lewis Nash, and many others. If we go back to Art Blakey who you told me you like – he could mentor me as well as Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. But I was actually fortunate enough to have Billy Higgins as my mentor while being raised in Los Angeles County. 

Who gets you these awesome t-shirts I see in some YouTube videos? While testing Meinl equipment you have Grace Jones on it. Do you ever think of your image as something you create with awareness for the audience?

The artist that does such t-shirts is Hebru Brantley, a graffiti artist from Chicago who does paintings, fine art, sculptures and also has a clothing company. I also like Tatsuyoshi Nakano as he does iconic stuff as well. When I think about my stage image I am from an old school training where my dad told me that you are supposed to always present yourself in a good manner. I feel that you should always do your best because you represent yourself, that’s important. It’s something that you show pride in art that you are representing. I have one mentor that told me: “You should always look better than people that came to see you”.

You have played with a lot of musicians – Steve Lehman, Matt Brewer, Robert Hurst and Robert Glasper to name a few. Do you remember any special moments of performances?

There was a recent moment where I played at the Blue Note one night last October with Robert Glasper and Mos Def (Yassin Bey) came as a special guest. – when I played this specific beat, Yassin hushed everyone but me to stop playing. Then he walked to the front of the stage and he rapped for a minute and it was just me and him – that was one of the best moments for me. In my mind ‘This beat is for an MC’. He heard it and noticed my musical choice. Musically we met on stage. When you meet in the act of creation it’s different. He seemed happy that I was in the moment.

If I asked your friends what you are like off the limelight – what do you think they would tell me about yourself?

They would say that I am a private person, with a unique sense of humor, which is a little twisted sometimes. I am not into jokes about the drummers because they are very inappropriate as many people think the drummer is just the support of the whole band. I think the truth is that the drummer changes the sound of the entire band. My friends would also tell you stories about my nicknames (laughter) (Gourmet-mion, Boutique). You would hear from them that I always find good places with good food, good wine, that are conducive to hanging out, this is all-important. I like such places, like where we are at right now – they always have good music, good food, wine and enjoying good company. That is what New York is about in my opinion. They would say that I have a unique, refined sense of taste: my drums, clothes and other accessories are meticulous. When I am at home I cook a lot of vegetables, plant-based stuff and various proteins. It is very important to me to pay attention to what I eat. I also need to have fresh fruit and vegetables on hand.

What is your favorite playlist?

I don’t have a playlist, I have moods for certain genres. But I don’t listen to a lot of music everyday. I study to it sometime but I prefer silence. In addition to it I read a lot and I am an avid gamer. I like a blank, clean slate. I don’t want to show up on an event too influenced by others when I am creating. I like to look at “blank canvas” and say: ‘This is what I wanna do!’. However, this is important to our mental balance.

You are in a constant search for finding new beats and we can see you in a lot of drum tests for sponsors – can you tell me more about these cooperations? The videos of testing TAMA or Meinl are amazing!

I love such trips. I don’t try to force those things and I do it when a brand proposes it to me. I like my endorsement companies and have a lot of respect for their technology. I love Tama drums, plus they proposed me the collaboration and it is natural to be with people who appreciate my work. This way, I am grateful to them and they allow me to have a unique sound. Meinl has a very special sound. So these projects with them are really symbiotic which I genuinely like.

What are you working on right now?

I am playing the drums on a new Liberty Ellman album coming out in March on Pi Recordings. I am going to be working with Steve Lehman as we have another project coming up soon. It is the same project you like in the Meinl videos (authors footnote: Meinl drum test videos with Damion / YouTube). For sure a new project with the Robert Glasper Trio will come soon. I love to stay busy with new projects!

Interview conducted on February 27, 2020, New York.

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