Most drummers would acknowledge that Steve Gadd is among the most dynamic percussionists in the world. The rest just call him Steve God.
But when he talks, Gadd is no cymbal crasher; he's disarmingly soft-spoken. The man whose brilliant solo adds the exclamation point to Steely Dan's "Aja," whose fife-and-drum-corps lines on Paul Simon's "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover" are more familiar than the song's melody, the man who is drummer of choice for the world's top pop musicians, is as modest as can be.
"I consider myself very lucky to play with the people I have played with," says Gadd, whose career is marked by starling versatility.
From Quincy Jones' "Stuff Like That," to Rickie Lee Jones' "Chuck E's In Love"; from Chick Corea's "Nite Sprite" to Van McCoy's "The Hustle," Gadd has done it all.
"I just try to find something to play that's going to make the music feel really comfortable and understandable," says Gadd. "If you can create a good foundation people can build high buildings on top of it. I try and make it groove. I like all different kinds of music so there are lots of different pockets to go for. I let the music dictate which one."
Gadd spends a lot of time on the road touring with Clapton, Simon, James Taylor, and others. At the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival he will be featured with pianist Bob James and saxophonist David Sanborn. The two artists are known for their work on the smoother side of jazz, but "Quartette Humaine," their latest album, featuring Gadd, is a straight-ahead affair. The group will be touring through October.
"I love those guys, not only as musicians but as my friends, people that I've worked with on and off for many years" says Gadd. "I respect them musically so I'm 100 percent on board."
America's most in-demand drummer was nurtured by the Rochester music scene of the 1950's and 1960's. "I had a great time growing up in Rochester," says Gadd. "There was a lot of different kinds of music happening. There were great teachers at the Eastman School, I was in drum corps, and there were a whole bunch of jazz clubs that brought in out-of-town bands. My grandparents, my uncle, and my parents took me to hear different bands."
During his formative years, Gadd sat in with local jazz legends Joe Romano, Larry Covelli, and Sal Nistico. He remembers playing with Warren Greenlea, "a great alto saxophonist who used to play at the Pythodd all the time."
He met multi-reed player Gerry Niewood and started playing gigs with him when they were in high school. Later, they both took part in Chuck Mangione's "Friends & Love" concert with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in 1970.
Gadd remained in the area until a few years ago when he moved to Paradise Valley, Arizona. But even living in paradise he misses Rochester. "I miss all my friends," says Gadd. "Rochester will always have a special place in my heart. Family and a lot of great memories — I couldn't have grown up in a better place."
You might think a drummer with Gadd's reputation would call his own shots, but that's not the case when he's in the studio. "I definitely listen to what they want," says Gadd. "I go in and first of all listen to the music, and then try to come up with something that I feel works for it. Good artists and producers give you a certain amount of time to sort of see where you want to go with it. Then it's a group process, making decisions about what works and what doesn't work. It's different in every session; there is no set way."
Though he is best known for enhancing the work of others, over the years Gadd has released albums as a leader under names like Steve Gadd Band and The Gadd Gang. The most recent is a collaboration with Edie Brickell. Even though Brickell writes all of the songs, she pays respect to him in the band's name, The Gaddabouts. "That was her decision," says Gadd. "I produced it, but it's a definite band. There's a lot of joy, a lot of mutual admiration and respect."
With thousands of recordings and concerts under his belt, Gadd refuses to pick favorites. "I try to make my favorite whatever I'm working on at the time," he says. But he does admit to some euphoric moments playing live with the 1970's fusion band Stuff, and on other occasions.
"There were a lot of great moments between Stuff and the audience sharing the groove," says Gadd. "Paul Simon's put some great shows together that were unbelievably enjoyable to be a part of. The energy between the audience and what's happening on stage is incredible."
"And James Taylor and Eric Clapton — just to be involved with audiences that big with that much energy is pretty spectacular. The recordings with Chick [Corea], with his writing and playing, were really special," Gadd says.
Given his long career, I wondered if Gadd had ever thought about what it might mean, philosophically, to have been a part of so much great music.
"When you can make something feel good and share it with people, and you're feeling really good yourself, and the audience seems to be feeling the same kind of intensity and same kind of joy, that's like sharing something positive, something joyous and something loving," he says.
"If these kinds of words can be applied to just how you live your life, not playing music, then it becomes philosophical. I'm not thinking philosophically, but that's what I go for."