“It’s OK not to like everything you hear” - Rafal Sarnecki talks with a New York drummer Colin Stranahan
You were born in Denver, Colorado and actively working on the local jazz scene while still a teenager. Do you miss the scene in Denver? What are the main differences between the jazz scenes in Denver and New York?
Do I miss it? Yes and no… I’m happy I’m in New York obviously because there are so many people to play with and to learn from but there are many great musicians that came from Denver like Bill Frisell, Ron Miles, Art Lande, Paul Romaine, Joe Andries, my father Jim Stranahan. At the time when I was growing up I didn't realize that some of these musicians are well known in New York, Europe and everywhere else: Ron Miles is releasing a CD on ECM this year. I was very lucky to play, study with them and also just be around them. I watched them perform and I was really fascinated by how they communicated with each other. I wanted to be just like them! I knew I wanted to be a musician and travel the world and perform for people.
The Denver scene has changed since I was a kid. There are a lot more opportunities to play, a lot more clubs, a lot more avant-grade free playing. There are also a lot of singer songwriter and indie rock influences in jazz. When I was a kid it used to be just straight ahead.
I would like to ask you about your early musical inspirations and the music environment which you grew up surrounded by. Many people posit that American musicians, especially drummers, sound different to their European counterparts because they grow up surrounded by different music. Who did you listen to as a child or early teenager?
It started with the rock - the Beatles. I was obsessed with Ringo Starr. I used to hang out with Ginger Baker - the drummer of Cream who lived in my neighborhood. On the other side of the coin I was listening to Jimmy Cobb play with Miles Davis, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, a lot of Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band. I was immediately hooked to bebop. All of those swing and rock influences morphed into one and helped me understand at an early age what was the important part of jazz, the groove. I really focused on that.
The list of prestigious jazz programs which you attended is impressive: the Brubeck Institute, Thelonious Monk Institute, the Jazz and Contemporary Music Program at the New School in New York where we've met… What was the most precious thing that you got out of these schools? Was it mostly connections - meeting amazing musicians from around the world? Was it private lessons or ensemble classes with great jazz masters? Or maybe some specific classes dedicated to other topics?
In Brubeck Institute it was about the people that I met there. Those are some of my best friends today and some of your best friends: Glenn Zaleski, Lucas Pino, Brian Chahley, Peter Spear, Chris Smith. What was very special about that program is that it was very small - it was just us. I learned the importance of being in a band and what that really means when you grow up with someone and play with them. When you have a band like the Beatles it’s such a specific sound. I still think about that a lot when I perform with the bands that I play in. I look for that also when I listen to music. Does it sound like a band, or not?
New School was more of a humbling experience. As opposed to the Brubeck Institute, where I was the only drummer, New School was like ‘Oh wow, that drummer is really great! And that drummer is really great!’. Just like the reality of New York, so many great musicians. I had to struggle through that, find my own voice and still find a band sound. I realized how humbling it is to become a part of the New York scene.
At the Monk Institute I got to hang out with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter and study with them. I was practicing everyday all day. That’s all I did, I didn’t hang out with many people. By that time I realized that it’s OK not to like everything you hear. I realized what I wanted to be doing and who I wanted to play with. It was important to me to create groups that were real bands. There are a few bands that I play in now that are like that: Jonathan Kreisberg’s group, the trio with Glenn Zaleski and Rick Rosato, your group.
I also realized that if there is someone that you really want to play with you can work towards that and make that happen: at some point they asked us who we wanted to come and teach us. I said Kurt Rosenwinkel and they agreed to bring him. Since I was 10 I wanted to play with Kurt and I really prepared for that opportunity. We started playing his songs and he noticed that I wasn’t reading any music. I explained that I knew all of his music and I was his big fan. He asked me for my phone number and then he called me. I started touring with him.
If you really wanna play with someone you just seek it out. If I sit back and think about it, most of the people I grew up listening to in the jazz scene I’ve played gigs with now and that’s pretty cool. Whether it was a little gig at the Bar Next Door, Smalls, the Vanguard it’s pretty cool to say ‘Man, I used to listen to that guy in high school and I’m playing a gig with him now.’ There are other people that I want to play with like Brad Mehldau and I hope that happens.
In one of your interviews you said ‘I'm always thinking about melody and rhythm at the same time. I practice both equally.’ How do you practice melody as a drummer?
By singing everything that I play - whether it’s a groove or if I’m taking a solo over a vamp. It’s not specific notes, I’m just singing something close to what I’m playing. There are so many different pitches on a drum set, highs and lows. Not just on the drums and the cymbals, there are other areas to create sound as well. I think I hear the instrument very melodically. I grew up studying with musicians that taught how to play a melody on the drum set (not necessarily as accurately as Ari Hoenig) and I definitely learned a lot of melodies on my instrument. That’s why I pay so much attention to the melody.
I've always thought that there is something very special in the way drummers compose and arrange music. First few names that come to my mind are John Hollenback, Brian Blade, Paul Motian. How do you compose? Do you ever start a composition with a specific drum part?
Recently I’ve been experimenting with starting a composition from the drums and then working my way back to the harmonic and melodic instruments. First I come up with a form - a rhythmic cycle or a particular drum part that I’m working on- and from there I’m working backwards. It’s really challenging. John Hollenback does that a lot. Paul Motian, when he composed, it was all just about the melody, he worried about the harmony later. And Brian Blade, he’s just always playing the guitar and that’s how he writes.
Who are your favorite drummers composers?
It's really funny, the 3 people that I would say are the 3 people that you said: John Hollenback, Brian Blade, Paul Motian. 3 years ago I got the best Christmas present I’ve ever received in my life: Ben Monder printed out a whole book of Paul Motian’s compositions and he gave it to me saying ‘Merry Christmas’. Exploring that stuff and playing it on the piano has been really amazing. Tyshawn Sorey I think is amazing. Man, he is a genius! Or Jim Black.
I heard that in high school at some point you had to decide whether you should pursue an American football career or music. You made the decision to become musician after an accident on the field involving you when another player broke his arm. I actually have some other friends musicians who decided to do music instead of team sports as music seemed less aggressive and competitive to them. Do you believe that music shouldn't be competitive at all? Or is a little bit of competition beneficial for this art form.
It’s true! I had to decide if I’m going to do sports or music. I broke that guy’s arm and I said ‘forget it, I’m not doing it anymore!’ I think that there is healthy competition and unhealthy competition. Healthy competition is when you’re aware of the people who are doing the same thing that you do but at the same time you realize that you’re all different and try to find inspiration in what other people do, go to hear their performances. That inspires you to work on things for yourself and helps you become a better musician. Competition is very important! When you get to smaller cities or places with less musicians like my home town Denver, people get more comfortable. They don’t get pushed all the time. There is a lot of love and compassion in this industry, especially in our scene. We are all supporting each other. I think it’s important to be aware of your peers and try not to be jealous when someone is doing a gig and you’re not. Really try to take something positive from that.
I am a big fan of the Stranahan/Zaleski/Rosato trio and I believe that this group has developed a very unique language. It is also pretty unusual to have a group which functions in a collective - democratic way. Most groups these days have a very clear leader. What are the advantages and disadvantages of having a collective group such as the Stranahan/Zaleski/Rosato trio?
The advantage is that we are working on everything together: booking gigs, writing music or putting together a setlist. The disadvantage is that we all have sideman work, we get really busy and sometimes end up not playing for a whole year. We really have to make a collective effort to find time and play. I think we sound the way we do because we are all leading together. There are also financial advantages. We all know that we are trying to build something collectively. It’s not about making money, we’re just trying to get the band out there and play more and more. What’s fun about this group is that we can also invite other musicians to play with us like you or Gilad Hekselman.
Who are your favorite European jazz artists?
I really like Jacob Bro. Very minimalist guitarist from Copenhagen. There is something really cool about what he does. It’s very open in a way just like Paul Motian’s music, so simple, lyrical..
You already played in Poland multiple times: with the Dan Tepfer trio, Stranahan/Zaleski/Rosato trio, we did 3 tours together and most recently with the Piotr Lemanczyk's group. You performed in many different cities and saw many jazz clubs. Do you feel like the atmosphere in the Polish venues is different in some way than American clubs? Do people react differently to your playing?
I feel like there is a really positive reaction to the music. Every time I go there I meet someone new who is familiar with my music and seems really interested in what I’m doing. There is a lot of support. When I played in Blue Note Poznań last year with Piotr people remembered me from the concert that I did with you in 2014. It’s nice to go to places where people recognize you and come to see you play again. I also met a lot of people through Izumi Uchida who used to live in Warsaw.
I also feel like Poland is very diverse. When you go to Warsaw, Cracow, Sopot or Poznań it almost feels like it’s different cultures within the same country. I’ve definitely gone to Poland enough to notice that. I feel a very special connection with Poland…
How would you describe the music on the new album which you recorded with Piotr?
The music is challenging with a very specific identity. It’s written in a way that I haven’t experienced very much before, especially the phrasing and the time signatures. A lot of tunes were written in a way that didn’t feel linear or add up mathematically like natural grooves so I had to spend some time with the music and find a way to create within that. It was a very fast process. By the last concert it definitely felt like the music had that band sound. We really took off and were playing off the page, not just what was written. Walter Smith, Dave Kikoski and Piotr really elevated the music and we went to a different place with the pieces.
What are your strongest memories from the Polish tour which you did with the musicians mentioned above in 2016?
I have really great memories of our gigs from Poznań and the Sopot Jazz Festival. I wish the tour lasted longer and I look forward to playing with this group more!