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Drummer Discovers Small Is Beautiful

April 25, 1993|ZAN STEWART | Zan Stewart writes regularly about music for The Times

Peter Erskine earned his considerable reputation playing in large, loud ensembles: the big bands of Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson, the seminal jazz/fusion group Weather Report and later, Steps Ahead. And if he played in a trio, the group rarely, if ever, sported a piano.

Today, about all the acclaimed drummer does is play in piano-bass-drum trios. He just returned to Southern California after a European tour with pianist John Taylor and bassist Palle Danielsson, who are the performers on Erskine's recent ECM Records album, "You Never Know."

Last year, Erskine, along with bassist John Patitucci, traveled through the United States for a month with a threesome led by pianist Chick Corea. The Somers Point, N. J., native also worked in Italy and Spain as part of pianist Joey Calderazzo's trio, then recorded on the latter's upcoming Blue Note release. Tuesday through Sunday, Erskine joins Patitucci in performing with pianist Alan Pasqua at Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood.

"As you can hear from the man speaking behind me, it's a noisy world we live in," says Erskine, 38, talking earlier this month from a pay phone in the train station in Milan, Italy, where a voice over the public address system is, indeed, loudly announcing arrivals and departures.

"A lot of music just fits in with the noise we endure over the course of a day. Stuff is constantly barked at us and that becomes the norm with music. It's like you go into a venue and they want to keep the P. A. system loud, and we have to keep motioning with our hands to turn it down," he says.

Erskine is adamant that trio music need not overwhelm sonically. "It doesn't make sense to make a trio sound like more people," he says. "It's an opportunity for openness, clarity and spaciousness, a chance to play lightly. That's really the way I prefer to play music."

And just because a pianist, bassist and drummer play without excessive volume doesn't imply that the music will lack drive, says Erskine, who lives in Santa Monica with his wife and two children.

"I don't dampen or mute the message," he says. "I like to give the drums as good a thump as anybody, but you can execute ideas better, and hear each other better" at a lower volume.

Erskine says he sees a broad role for the drums in a trio. "I definitely like to interact with the others, not only be supportive but take part in the melodic and harmonic conversation," he says. "When the music is open, the drums can play melodic phrases, if the texture is right I can add something on the tom-toms or cymbals that might suggest harmony. It depends on the willingness of the players. It's a fragile balance."

The drummer joined the trio with Pasqua and Patitucci last summer when the group's original drummer, Vinnie Colaiuta, went on the road with pop star Sting. Performing with Pasqua, noted for his mid-'80s tenure with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, reunited the drummer with an old friend.

"Alan and I were roommates at the University of Indiana in Bloomington in 1971, so we share a long common and uncommon history," Erskine says. "Our paths have gone different directions over the years. Alan has a wonderful touch, just like John Taylor. And in his playing there's a sense of Americana in the way he uses space and evokes a sense of grandeur or a pastoral feeling. That's a rare gift, I think."

Erskine, who has been playing internationally since his days with Ferguson in the mid-'70s, has fans everywhere. One is his employer next week, Catalina Popescu. "Peter cares about the people who listen," says the owner of Catalina Bar & Grill. "He's a great drummer who plays very delicately. I'm always pleased to have him working here."

Erskine established himself as a recording artist in 1988. He has another recent album out, "Sweet Soul" (RCA/Novus), which features saxophonist Joe Lovano, guitarist John Scofield (both at Catalina's tonight) and pianist Kenny Werner.

The collection includes two of his own compositions. "I try to write melodies first," he says. "I like music that has comforting moments."

When he's the leader, Erskine says, he likes his music to have a European flavor, which means it has much of the same openness and clarity that he likes to see in the ideal trio situation.

He also says that "European" might mean not so be-bop oriented, "not as much the way people play in New York," he says, referring to the fiery, hard-driving jazz that one might hear from, say, drummer Elvin Jones, or in the past, Art Blakey.

Why this stance? "It's more interesting for me," he says. "It's like architecture. I'm building something right there. To put it in Southern California terms, playing a tune is like building a sandcastle. By the end of it, the waves come in and wash it away. It has that kind of quality."

Erskine thinks the week at Catalina's will have a similar feeling. "I think we'll get into a lot of that," he says, "making music that breathes."

Peter Erskine plays with Alan Pasqua and John Patitucci at 9 and 11 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday at Catalina Bar & Grill, 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. $12-15 cover, two-drink minimum. Call (213) 466-2210.

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