A Virtually Impossible Task
Playing drums is like making love. You never look down to see how the flow is going.
The phrase “a virtually impossible task” resonated in my mind as I hung up the phone (of course, I didn’t really hang up the phone. I just pushed that little red button at the bottom my phone. After all, this was January 2002). As I was preparing to make the dramatic move from California to Colorado, I got a call from Dateline. The ladies at Dateline are super sweet, and I recognized this particular voice as one of my favorites. “TV and film call, the movie Drumline.” was presented to me from the other end of the telephone. I was told that I would need to be available for a five-day stretch, without interruption. In other words, I could not book any other dates within that five-day period, as they had me on a retainer (short leash). The Dateline maven continued by saying, “The composer is presenting a virtually impossible task for you and the fellow percussionist on the date.” Although I had a lot going on at the time, what with my forthcoming move to Colorado, my interest was piqued at the phrase “a virtually impossible task.” I was also interested in who the “fellow percussionist” might to be, as I would be working and coexisting with this partner in crime for the next five days.
“Oh, we’re working on getting Vinnie Colaiuta as the second percussionist.” Okay. Vinnie is, without argument, one of the finest drummers to ever be housed in a human sheath. Ridiculous technique, unbelievable feel, and an approach that is beyond reproach. Vinnie is certainly “the man.” I must admit that, as I made my way to Paramount soundstage M on that crisp and cool January morning, I was a bit nervous at the prospect of spending five days in the studio with one Vinnie Colaiuta. I had met Vinnie a few times before, and we spoke in passing occasionally, but I had never had the opportunity to work with him in a recording environment. I made my way to the parking lot at Paramount and negotiated a circuitous path to Paramount Stage M. I walked into the cavernous studio that is M and was greeted by our composer, our engineer du jour, and Mr. Colaiuta. The four of us immediately held a powwow at which us drummers came to find out that there was nothing written for us because this particular piece of postproduction wasn’t part of the original plan.
For anyone that hasn’t seen the film, I’ll offer you a very brief synopsis: a Southern college with an awesome band and tremendous drumline battles it out with other college bands in the state and, subsequently, the nation. Nick Cannon plays one of the main characters in the film and is, at least for the film’s sake, a virtuoso snare drummer. Of course, Nick Cannon and the people whom he battles throughout this film are not necessarily virtuoso snare drummers in real life. Therefore (yes, you guessed it), Vinnie and I would be the virtuoso snare drummers and battle it out so that everything would sound good technically, in accordance with what was going on in the scene—whether it be in the practice room, on the field, in formation, whatever. Post production stuff.
So what, you may ask, is the “virtually impossible task”? The composer explained to us that there is only one catch: “So, unfortunately, there’s no written music. So you’re going to have to watch the film over and over again and transcribe all of the snare drum, Tri-Tom, bass drum, and Piatti cymbal parts first, and then do the recording.”
Vinnie and I looked at each other, looked at the composer, smiled and said, “Grab us some music paper, and we’ll get to it.”
I would like to say, right off the bat, that I am an excellent reader. I had to be an excellent reader to carve out a 40-plus-year career in the business of music. But I must say I have never come across a reader of drum music with the expertise of Mr. Colaiuta. Vinnie was enthusiastic about this task; he is the guy who loves to transcribe drum parts and simply pick the shit apart. We watched Nick and his nemeses rattling away at their respective snare drums and painstakingly, for two days, transcribed every single drum part.
In the evenings, I would come home to pack up my California house and cry late into the night, my mind spinning with this idea that I would be leaving the home of my birth, a city that I love very much, to make my way to the very unfamiliar state of Colorado. I was in the throes of my addiction to painkillers and various other pills and potions. Let’s just say, it was not a great time for me.
But music and everything that I love about it is a unifying force in this life. We had a terrific time working on these drum parts and, for the couple of days after the transcription, we had some very enjoyable, spirited drum battles back and forth. But that’s not all that needed to be done. Vinnie was not the kind of guy that could ever be put on any sort of “retainer” by the Dateline girls, and after day three, he got a better call and bailed on the session. Still to be recorded was all of the bass drum, tom-tom, and Piatti parts that are sprinkled through the marching bands in the film. My five-day call turned into a ten-day call. (No complaints here because the money was quite good, and it is the gift that keeps on giving through my film musicians’ secondary fund check every year.)
After my ten days of recording, I made my way to Arvada, Colorado, with a massive semi truck full of furniture, memorabilia, and essentially everything that I have ever owned in this life following. Until very recently, I had never fully understood why it was necessary to make this particular move. I understand now that, in this life, there are no bad or good moves. There is only the constant that is change.