This past week Prince’s long-time rhythm ace John Blackwell died of brain cancer at age 43. For fifteen years Blackwell provided a groove so thick and impactful he was seen as the second coming of James Brown’s steady beats master Clyde Stubblefield. Every major act fights over a short list of certified stars and promising newcomers. Some get big face time and become front men from behind the kit like Questlove of The Roots.
Throughout the 70’s, 80's and 90's, it was all about Steve Gadd, Bernard Purdie and Tower of Power’s David Garibaldi. These days the most in demand have a solid connection with church - driving the big gospel choir – the Fred Boswells and Toronto’s own, Larnell Lewis, whose instructional gospel drumming video is nearing 1,000,000 views.
When you think of role models one need go no further than the Lewis brothers. One plays with Snarky Puppy, the other with The Weeknd (Ricky Lewis). I caught up with brother Larnell recently preparing his own group for the TD Jazz Festival and an upcoming Beaches International Jazz Festival debut. Here’s a portion of that conversation.
You have a schedule that’s off the wall and a new band. Who’s in it?
William Sperandei on trumpet, a seasoned veteran. We have Rob Christian – a young buck; Michael Shand keyboards, Elmer Ferrer guitar and Andrew Stewart bass.
When you have a William Sperandei you have that connection with New Orleans and a player who studied with the Marsalises. There’s something about his solos that are unforgettable. Choosing the right players is key.
I’ve played with them in all situations. The main thing for me building this band was finding those people who had that spark. Who would give me that energy outside the compositions, and we could just have fun.
It’s wonderful, both you and Rob played many times the street scene of the Beaches International Jazz Festival in your teens. I used to walk the mile-long stretch and catch you playing in a funk band…
I’d stop and marvel at your playing; the big pocket, the crack of the snare, then I learned of your extensive background in gospel music – the foundation of your playing.
Absolutely! It informs my approach to a lot of styles of music, whether big band, or playing in an Afro/Caribbean ensemble. The main thing is, when you are playing in church you are part of the service where you are trying to elevate the environment and atmosphere with the music you are playing. You are really in an attitude of serving the situation. You survey and watch what’s going on and have to be very respectful to what’s happening and play appropriately. You find little devices and ways to push and elevate the music, maybe get a little thing in there like a hi-hat thing or a snare thing. How it informs my big band playing is actually playing with a choir and understanding how to support a choir and make those bigger beats – more obvious in some situations. It’s about guiding a large ensemble through a big arrangement of music.
When I think of big bands I think of Buddy Rich. There would be something astounding he would do to raise the temperature of an arrangement. Gospel has that same dynamic. You came past the Andrae Crouch “jump & shout” era into the Kirk Franklin/Yolanda Adams times – lots of funk/hip hop beats.
I grew up in a church where my dad was the musical director and being in Toronto and our denomination is Church of God – we’re Pentecostal; we’re coming from a Caribbean background. Getting into Andrae Crouch, Mighty Clouds of Joy, and a lot of artists of Caribbean descent when we were growing up, we would get into a lot of reggae, a lot of calypso, a lot of zouk and different styles. My dad would sit me down in church and we’d work though these rhythms. It was really cool when those styles became popular in our area with Kirk Franklin, James Hall, Fred Hammond – listening to musicians taking things to the next level. What it really did for us, especially the choir, it encouraged us to sit down with these CDs, these albums – dig deep and see if we could actually do this thing.
There was a time when I’d hear choir after choir playing something familiar then it dawned on me it was another Kirk Franklin song. I remember seeing a special with two dozen or so of gospel’s greats Franklin was overseeing. He doesn’t sing, but recites the lyrics first and then everyone responds.
It was like a service, he was bringing that type of atmosphere and type of approach in leading a praise and worship session to the stage, a concert. The audience may not know the song but he walks you through.
Where are your ancestors from?
How does the religious upbringing keep you grounded since you have become recognized as a brilliant new face behind the drum kit in the modern era and a celebrity?
The faith really comes through my parents first. The lessons they had brought with them was basically stay humble, be appreciative of what you have, work hard and do positive things for people. To be as selfless as you can. If there is any focus on you, you should build yourself up in a positive way.
Is this comforting to you?
Yes, it is. Growing up in a christian home with Caribbean parents – they are very strict. I was able to interact nearly every day with people – these choirs, the rehearsals, always involved with the church. From school, dad would pick me up and we’d head right to the church. We’d be there to four or five o’clock running through these drum patterns then rehearsal starting at seven until late night.
You played with Michael Brecker, Steve Gadd, Dave Holland, Tim Ries – early on Salome Bey, Phil Dwyer, Sharon Riley, Jully Black – Matt Dusk. It was both Black and Dusk that first brought you on tour, right?
At the same time. I was in my second year of college.
Lalah Hathaway, Lisa Fischer, Kellylee Evans, Molly Johnson and of course, Snarky Puppy. Two Grammy’s?
For the band, it’s three.
How did you connect with the band?
How I heard about them was from teaching at Humber College and a student of mine came in and said, “hey, you’ve got to check out this band, Snarky Puppy. “I clicked on YouTube and heard they were to be in town soon and found out that Rinse the Algorithm – bassist Rich Brown’s band - and I were doing every last Saturday of the month at the Rex. Snarky had the nine-thirty set and we had our usual 11:30 set.
Talk about Kirk Franklin, I finally got to meet drummer Robert Searight. I first heard about him on Kirk Franklin’s God’s Property album; one of the drummers on that record. I went up to him and told him I was so happy to meet him and that I knew his drumming since the mid-nineties. He always tells the story that I physically told him his resume on the spot – totally a fan boy.
That night both bands got together and played Weather Report’s “Teen Town” on stage once the concert was done. The next day I went in and they taught me a song on a break and invited me on stage. And I played it and the rest is still playing out.
Snarky Puppy has my favourite keyboard player – Cory Henry. He’s scary good. There’s this in church clip of him playing a memorial service to one of the greatest gospel organists, Melvin Crispell, that is breathtaking. He does about 1,500 movements on the organ.
I used to go mornings, at least a couple hours before service and sit at the organ and have my time with it. You’ve got guys like Bobby Sparks in Snarky Puppy, again a major force on many of Kirk Franklin’s records, as well as Sean Martin, who is currently musical director for Franklin.
Watching these guys play, Sparks, Cory, etc.- that style of organ playing is so intriguing.
You also play bass.
And your brother too. What’s he doing now?
He has, since the beginning, been the drummer for The Weeknd.
What’s cool with Snarky Puppy, it’s the second Grammy and we go down to Los Angeles to see everything and meet all of these people and I’m there and actually get a chance to see my brother perform at the Grammys. It was unbelievable.
Damn, and I’m thinking back a decade and you and your brother picking me up in a van and we’re heading to Niagara Falls for a gig with the Saturday Nite Fish Fry. Life is amazing! You have a pile of endorsements.
I’ve been with Yamaha drums now, for twelve years. I joined the family while I was in college. I’m also with the Zildjian family – Promark sticks and Evans drum heads, both park of D’Adarrio. Those families have been great with me. The main thing with the support is that make sure I feel comfortable when I’m on the road or at home.
When I travel I play the Yamaha hybrid-maple. They’ve modified their line of drums. They have the oak drum. They have these new maple drums, a different take on the custom maples from before. They’ve corrected past issues with tuning. They are now very easy to tune. The hardware is actually made in their motorcycle factory.
The one I love to use when I can and I rarely take out of the house is called, the Phoenix. It’s so beautiful. It’s my recording kit.
My main snare is a 14.5 inch steel drum designed with the help of Steve Gadd. I use it on almost everything.