HIS 35-YEAR CAREER, YAMAHA DRUMS AND PAISTE CYMBALS
FEW MUSICIANS CAN CLAIM A CAREER SPANNING MORE THAN THREE DECADES. FEWER HAVE WORKED WITH SUCH ARTISTS AS ERIC CLAPTON, BOB DYLAN, B.B. KING, JOHN MAYER, KEITH RICHARDS AND NEIL YOUNG. AND EVEN FEWER STILL HAVE GONE ON TO WIN A GRAMMY AWARD, PRODUCE PLATINUM-SELLING RECORDS, AND SERVE AS MUSICAL DIRECTOR FOR THE EMMY AWARDS. STEVE JORDAN HAS ACHIEVED ALL OF THIS, AND MORE.
“I don’t really have a choice. [Playing music is] something that I love to do—it’s part of my DNA … I breathe, eat and sleep and drink music,” says Jordan, spending the evening at Guitar Center Manhattan. “So, I don’t over-obsess about it, because I love it so much. It’s a real blessing that I’m able to do this all the time, and I can have a livelihood in music—I don’t know, even if I weren’t making a living at music, I would still be making music. So, I’m very fortunate.”
Jordan asserts that the feeling and experience of the art of creating music—regardless of the paycheck—is a transformative one. “Absolutely. [Playing music is] a transformative experience, and not only that, it’s … well … it does so much, you know? It’s so therapeutic. And also, music is really the fabric of everything that we do. You remember the first time you heard a certain song, what it means to you and your life. Music is like the soundtrack of your life, really. There’s always a song that reminds you of something or a feeling that you had, the first time you did this, that song was on … of course, we can go down the road of ‘And that’s why it’s really amazing that we can allow musicians—and writers in particular—to be ripped of by Spotify and all that kind of stuff,’ but I’m not gonna go there,” he smiles.
“[Music is] in our culture. And it’s one of our greatest exports—the music that comes out of America. America, even though it’s a very young country, it has really changed the landscape of music, through jazz and blues and gospel, turning into rock and roll, and all the things that come out of the blues and gospel, like rhythm and blues, and soul music, and funk music, and of course, the link between what you’d call country music … you have this mixture of cultures, and that’s why you have things like country swing, and all that, because everybody was listening to one another. The thing about music, it’s a universal language … I can go anywhere in the world, and not speak that language, and sit down and play, and start a conversation with a person … because the only thing that matters is us making music, and listening to one another play, and communicating that way … and as a musician, you have an obligation to be an ambassador, in my opinion. We’re ambassadors for goodwill and peace around the globe. And that’s one of the greatest attributes of being a musician … to be able to carry that out.”
Having been inspired by countless artists, a gallery that, according to Jordan, would be a “five-hour conversation,” it was Jordan’s parents who helped shape his relentless pursuit of the art of songwriting, in a rather unique way. “They encouraged me, even if I wasn’t behaving correctly … I’d get grounded, [and] they would never take the music away. My mother had a very close friend … [who] said, ‘Well, no matter what you do, don’t take the music away from him.’ So when I got grounded, they let me practice. So, I couldn’t go out, but they let me stay in my room and listen to music and practice. And I thought, ‘Well, this is amazing, this is cool, this is not like being punished at all, this is fantastic!’ So, what it did was, while the guys were out playing ball and everything—which I loved to do, I love all sports—but what it did was, it forced me to focus … so I became a better musician, because I wasn’t very focused … I listened to all my favorite music, and I got into how it was made, and became, like, a music rat, kind of like how people are gym rats, you know? Like that.”
Perhaps best known for his work as a drummer, with a deep passion for the art of percussion, Jordan is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and producer. “My favorite instrument is still the drums,” he says. “I love the guitar, and I do the majority of my writing on the guitar. But I do love the drums. I stopped playing drums for a minute, when I really got into songwriting, and I really missed it. I came back.” Jordan goes on to say, “The role of any musician is to play the song. So, if you’re coming just from one angle at it, you’re bound to have a misstep, because you’re not looking at it holistically. When I play the drums, I’m not looking at it as a drummer; I’m looking at it as a musician, a total musician, and what’s best for the song.”
For decades, Jordan has relied on Yamaha drums as his weapons of choice, a company with which his relationship started almost by accident. “I play whatever I feel I need to play for the music. I never play one particular kit for the sake of playing it, I only play what I want to play to execute the sound that I’m trying to get,” says Jordan. “When I first started playing Yamaha drums, I felt they had the sensitivity, or the sensibility, of the great American drum makers of the ’50s and ’60s. I started playing Yamaha in the late ’70s … I was actually a Gretsch endorsee, and I had a little gig called The Blues Brothers. It was our first appearance playing live outside of a television show, and Gretsch was supposed to supply me a kit … they supplied all the wrong dimensions, and the drums were broken, and no hardware—basically I had no drums … Willie Hall was gracious enough to let me use his [Yamaha] drums that hadn’t even been unpacked … the dimensions I wanted were there … I wanted a 20-inch bass drum, 14×14 floor, 8×12 tom, a 7-deep snare, and the kit was beautiful—and that’s the kit I played on Briefcase Full of Blues. [It was] a a Yamaha Recording Custom kit, and I signed with them right after that … I was about 19.”
When it comes to his cymbal selection—including his famous 17-inch hi-hats—Jordan again prefers a vintage-inspired sound. “I was a big fan, always been, and always will be a big fan of great Turkish cymbals, and K Zildjian cymbals in particular. They’re my favorite cymbals. So, when I started playing Paiste cymbals … I was, yet again, still in my teens, and at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Paiste supplied the cymbals … and there were some very unusual cymbals that they supplied … definitely different, and, so I started to mess around with Paiste cymbals back then—not realizing the history of Paiste cymbals prior to that, which [is] fabulous … I thought Ringo had been playing some A Zildjian cymbals, they were actually all Paiste cymbals.” Jordan adds, “When Paiste developed the Traditional line, it was basically a few of us, like Grady Tate and some other people, we got together [with] Paiste, and we were looking for a combination—they said, ‘Bring your favorite cymbal,’ so Grady Tate brought his very famous mini cup Zildjian cymbal that he played [on] all those great Quincy Jones records, and all those great Verve albums that he played on, and I brought my K, and some other people brought their favorite cymbal, and that’s how the Traditional line was actually kind of born … it’s such a unique line … when I play the Paiste Traditional cymbal—[in] particular, the 22 with rivets—it’s a real special sound, and it’s the most versatile cymbal that there is, in my opinion … and I can play with Sonny Rollins, and then turn around and play with Keith Richards using the same cymbals, and it’s just amazing—and in fact, I do do that. Sonny Rollins loves this Paiste Traditional 22 that I use … they’re just amazingly musical. Incredibly musical cymbals.”
Like so many other musicians, Jordan loves the pursuit of bringing life to the sounds and songs that materialize in his mind. “That’s one of the greatest things about making music—and recording, in particular—is starting with nothing and coming out with something … it’s art. So you have a blank canvas, and you start painting, and then by the end of it, you have this work of art—and hopefully, it’s good,” he says. And though his extensive career is the stuff of dreams for most, for Jordan, it’s just the beginning. “Oh, I have a lot more to do—I have so much to do—I’m freakin’, I’m just getting going. I feel like I’m getting better every day at what I’m trying to do. Every job as a musical director, I’m trying to get better, every job as a producer, a songwriter, a player, there’s so much to work on that I got a long way to,” he laughs. “Oy vey, don’t remind me.”