Today on the show we have the honour and the pleasure of sitting down with Paul Wertico. If you’re at all familiar with the all-time great drummers of the world or you’re a jazz fan then you’ll know his name and his work.

Paul is a 7-time Grammy Award winner, perhaps best known for his almost 20 years playing with jazz guitarist Pat Metheny where his distinctive “flat ride” cymbal style became a defining part of some of the group’s best known recordings.

Paul is an innovative musician and a devoted educator, including his role as Associate Professor of Jazz Studies at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts, and as author of a new book entitled “Turn the Beat Around”.

As you’ll hear us say in this interview, Paul is a man frequently associated with the very word “musicality” and so it was such a delight to get to speak with him and unpack what exactly it means for a drummer to be “musical” and exhibit “musicality”.

We talk about:

  • How Paul learned the drums and the influential music educator who helped encourage him in developing his own unique identity as a musician.
  • What it means to “turn the beat around” and how playing what he calls “front beats” can bring a unique flair to a piece of music.
  • And how it’s possible for his group Wertico Cain and Gray to perform 100% improvised compositions together with no prior discussion, ranging from 30 seconds to several minutes long which have a coherence and structure that mean the listener would never guess they were improvised.

We also talk about practicing with a metronome versus a backing track, what role the drummer plays in different genres and situations, and how he ended up ditching the drums to just play cymbals on a tango record in Italy.

This was a blast and there’s a ton of insights and wisdom here for drummers and musicians of all stripes.

This is Musicality Now, from Musical U.

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Paul Wertico, renowned as the "musical" drummer, discusses what musicality means. Learn how understanding the role of the drummer can help you improve.



So I’ve felt guilty for a while that we haven’t had more percussion players on the show – I hope you agree this interview went a long way to making up for that! What amazing experience and perspective Paul has.

Let’s recap some of the stand-out learning points from that conversation.

I asked Paul what “musicality” means to him, and what he thinks it is that specifically gets him called “musical” as a drummer. His answer was that he is always thinking about serving the music. Doing what is required of him to make the musicians he’s playing with sound better and even play better. Filling whatever type of drummer role will serve the music best and as he puts it “let the music play him”.

Those ideas came out through the rest of our conversation and I think we really got a good picture of how Paul thinks about music and being a musician which clearly goes way beyond the stereotypical expectations of what part a drummer plays.

I thought it was fascinating that although through one lens you can see Paul’s childhood as that of a “gifted” musician and it’s clear the drums did come naturally to him in a way that learning an instrument doesn’t to most of us, at the same time the way he describes his journey reveals there was a ton of practice and hard work and learning that transformed him into the world-leading musician he’d go on to become. One saying that sprang to mind as I listened to him was that “if you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life”. And it comes back too to our recent episode with Scott Devine where he noted that childlike enthusiasm and curiosity to learn is generally the one trait that all the great players have in common, whatever level of natural “talent” they did or didn’t have to begin with.

I asked Paul later in the conversation how he thinks about talent and hard work and his answer I think boiled down to saying that each of us has our own “talent” of some kind or another, and if a musician seems to lack talent it’s probably that they’re trying to fit a mold that’s not aligned with who they are best positioned to become. And that the hard work and practice should be about discovering who you are as a musician and leaning into that.

Paul’s style as a musician was to figure things out himself, to play things his way. And he said it was really important that he found himself studying under a band director who respected that and found ways to help support that learning and playing style rather than trying to force Paul into the default by-the-book approach.

We talked about how that may be a particularly good fit for drums as an instrument since there are always endless ways to arrange a particular beat and endless ways to interpret a particular set of exercises for different learning goals. Paul shared how the course at the Chicago College of Performing Arts on understanding drum and bass is often an eye-opening one for musicians who play other instruments, to really wrap their mind around the coordination and independence required of a drummer and the sheer range of options available to them to adapt their playing to suit the situation.

Of course it’s up to the drummer whether they really take advantage of that in a creative way, as Paul noted when explaining what makes a drummer “musical”, and it also touches on what makes a drummer a good collaborator, being able to adapt their playing on-the-fly in-the-moment to respond well to the other players and where the music’s going, a skill that’s seen in its highest form in Paul’s playing with the fully-improvised ensemble Wertico, Cain and Gray. More on that in a minute.

When Paul talked about the different choices a drummer can make about how they play ahead of or behind the beat, how they create a groove, how they need to be tuned into what the other players are doing including thinking about the lyrics being sung – it added a whole layer to how I think a lot of us think of the drummer as providing a foundation with the beat of a track. There’s so much rich subtlety to it and I loved how Paul talked through the possibilities.

One recommendation he has is to practice with backing tracks as well as a metronome. Now this is perhaps not so unusual a tip in the modern music world where so many aspiring musicians are eager to play the pop and rock hits they love and so will instinctively start playing along with the recordings or special “minus one” versions that lets them fill in their own part. But I wanted to dissect it a little with Paul because I know that in the classical world and with orchestral instruments this idea is not nearly as widely practiced.

As well as that, I think “playing along with the track” is often pigeonholed into being the “reward” for all the hard work you’ve done with a metronome. As Paul explained, there’s a bit more to it than that: practicing with the real music lets you develop a musicality to your playing that the metronome alone can never deliver. It’s not quite playing live with other musicians but it’s a step in that direction, in terms of “serving the music” as Paul describes.

This isn’t an advanced technique or something to save for later. For him it was the primary approach and he said it’s good to experiment and explore a lot as early as possible to discover what practice approaches work well for you.

One specific direction Paul has explored in his own playing and with students is to “turn the beat around” as the title of his book puts it. Now I knew I had to be careful how I approached this one because while to a drummer this book is a clear-cut game changer, I know that our audience here on the show, you guys are from all possible musical backgrounds. And to say to a classical player “this is about emphasising one and three instead of two and four”, the reaction might be “Uh, yeah. So?”!

So I’ll admit I felt a bit silly asking a world-class drummer like Paul to explain a simple drum beat and how this applies – but I think it was important to pick it apart a bit and I hope that helped you tune in to the drummer’s perspective, where the “backbeat”, meaning the big audible emphasis being on beats two and four, is almost completely dominant throughout modern genres of music. We even have an article on Musical U talking about how clapping in time can be trickier than you might think, and one pitfall there is to not realise that typically we clap on two and four when clapping along with the music of today. Why? Because the music has a backbeat.

Paul’s book really goes deep on this idea, with tons of exercises and examples of common drum beats “turned around”, and it really does create a notably different feel. That’s something that can become a valuable tool in a drummer’s toolkit for serving the music or indeed to any composer or songwriter working in modern genres where a backbeat is the norm. It’s also interesting to learn that this is an example of something that comes up a lot in musicality training, that often working on one thing has a valuable and unexpected knock-on benefit elsewhere – in this case Paul said it tightens up his students sense of the “one and three” so that when they return to playing backbeats their playing is much more accurate.

The other huge thing I wanted to ask Paul about was his work with Wertico, Cain and Gray, a jazz trio notable for being completely improvised. If you listen you’d swear it would take a lot of discussion and coordination in advance to be able to pull off such polished and tightly-integrated performances – but no, this is something they’re able to create entirely on-the-fly.

To put it in context, most improvisation tends to happen within particular boundaries, like trading 8-bar solos in the middle of a jazz standard or the guitarist playing a solo in a rock song. Or it’s the kind of endless freeform wandering that “jam bands” like Phish or the live Grateful Dead are known for. What Wertico, Cain and Gray do goes from the first note to the last and shows the kind of internal structure and form we normally only expect from pre-composed music. To hear this in a really powerful way I recommend checking out their album “Short Cuts” which has 40 tracks ranging from 30 seconds to a couple of minutes long.

Paul described it in terms of conversation, that they all have years of having improvised “conversations” with other players in different genres, so they kind of know how to “talk to each other”. It’s essential that they’re all 100% open to what each other is playing rather than sticking to any preconceived ideas or preferences of their own. And they all understand form and the narrative arc you’re trying to bring the listener through, and so they’re able to create genuinely innovative music at the cutting edge and do so in a beautifully organic way.

That kind of improvised collaboration may or may not be something you aspire to in your own musical life but I think it’s incredibly inspiring for all of us as an example of what’s possible when you pursue your own distinctive kind of musicality and seek to serve the music above all else.

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