Chester Thompson - From the Zappa to Genesis

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Submitted by Bill King

I had the privilege of working and getting to know Chester when we were the jazz trio behind the touring Pointer Sisters on 1976. We talked and talked jazz with Chester mostly focused on getting his own group off the ground. At the time he was the hottest property in Hollywood. Offers came day after day.

Chester and I auditioned in front of famed producer David Rubinson, who was unmerciful in his handling of drummers. He’d count in ‘Salt Peanuts’ at a brisk tempo and we’d witness ever auditioning drummers fade within ten bars. That’s when Rubinson went off. Then Thompson sits behind the kit and sight reads the entire book – in fact, makes changes to the drum chart - ‘Steam Heat,’ pencil in hand. That’s all it took and he got the gig.

Twelve years later and Thompson’s on a spectacular roll – I catch him on the fly and snag this nifty interview.

B.K.: Did you grow up around Los Angeles?

C.T.: No, I grew up in Baltimore, and began playing gigs around the age of 13. I played in local bars and clubs. It was a healthy playing environment with at least three jam sessions a week. I was able to learn all the standards and play a lot of bebop while I was growing up. I guess I played my first jazz gig when l was about 14.

B.K.: Was your family involved in music?

C.T.: Not really, my oldest brother enjoyed playing but he never pursued it past the drum corps stage. There was a real close family friend who was a jazz drummer; he made the mistake of telling me I could come over to his house whenever I wanted and that turned out to be almost every morning. We'd sit down with a bunch of albums and he'd teach me how to play along with Miles and Cannonball. Then, I discovered my biggest influence — Elvin Jones.

B.K.: Was this your introduction to music?

C.T.: In elementary school we had these little plastic flutes which had a number system for playing instead of notes. This really bothered me. I asked my sixth grade teacher if she could teach me to read music because I didn't want to do this number business and she conceded to teach me the basics.

By the time I got to junior high, where I had my first drum lessons I could already read basic patterns. While there, I did a lot of really extensive rudimental drumming. There was actually an organization of rudimental drummers at that time called NARD. They had a book of solos, so I proceeded to learn as much of that material as I could. As I got older, I tried to seek out more unusual situations to play in. I'm always looking for something new to play. I'm not a purist in the sense of playing just one style of music.

B.K.: You've worked with both Weather Report and Frank Zappa where there was extensive reading and memorizing involved. Did this training enhance your development?

C.T.: The Zappa band was like going to graduate school. I was in the 1973 -75 band. It was with George Duke on keyboards, Ruth Underwood on synthesizers, Tom Fowler on bass and Bruce Fowler on trombone. That was the core of the band. Napoleon Brock was singing. A few people changed around that nucleus.

B.K.: Were there recordings?

C.T.: The first one I did was Roxy, with Ralph Humphries and myself on drums.

Another was One Size Fits All, and I did most of the one called Studio Tan. I didn't really get credit on that because part of it was me and the rest was Terry Bozzio. Those were the main recordings I did with Zappa. I stayed with him for two years and then I went straight into Weather Report and did the album Black Market.

B.K.: How did Zawinul and Zappa contrast as leaders?

C.T.: They're both pretty intense; maybe it has something to do with both last names beginning with Z.

B.K.: Were they demanding?

C.T.: Yes, but not unreasonably so. They were both very clear on what they wanted. When I look back on it, playing in Zappa's band taught me how to play all kinds of notes. Then, in Weather Report, I learned what to leave out.

B.K.: Who were some of the earlier artists you backed up?

C.T.: The first "name" gig I had was with Ben E. King, but my first steady band engagement was with organist Jack McDuff. That was around 1970, and that was a real education too. I had to learn how to swing and really push a band with basically a ride cymbal and a high-hat.

B.K.: What was the lineup?

C.T.: He always had at least two horns, a guitar and then he'd go all day on the organ.

B.K.: Were you comfortable working with organ bass?

C.T.: Man, growing up in Baltimore it was a real rarity to play with a bass player. Most of my early gigs, especially the jazz stuff were with organ bass. There were a lot of excellent organists in town. They'd play good changes and knew plenty of standards; I played my share of Cherokee. That was blown at every jam session; there were always about four horn players, each wanting to play about 20 choruses, so my endurance developed quickly.

B.K.: Organ duos and trios were a hot commodity during the '60s and '70s...

C.T.: In Baltimore it was more common to hear an organ trio. For some reason the organ trio became the standard instrumentation.

B.K.: Do you think Jimmy Smith had much to do with that?

C.T.: Oh, yeah! You know the early Wes Montgomery recordings with Mel Ryne on organ? Well, we did a lot of those arrangements.

B.K.: Mel's innovative playing was captured on those Riverside recordings. He was one of the most influential players of that time, yet, he is rarely mentioned.

C.T.: I never did get to see him live.

B.K.: Are you playing much jazz these days?

C.T.: I find myself doing different rehearsal big bands and various bebop gigs on the west coast. Obviously, in L.A., it's not an ongoing thing; you've got to seek it out. Fortunately, something always comes along before things go too nuts and I get to flush the old ears out with some bebop. That kind of puts it in perspective for me.

B.K.: Was The Wiz the first big production show you were involved in?

C.T.: I'd never really done a serious show like that before. I had done some small theatre projects in Baltimore but this was the first time I had to play the book of a serious musical where the charts had been written and arranged at that level. Harold Wheeler did them. He does a lot of New York musicals. He arranged some of Grady Tate's solo albums, and is a very tasty jazz arranger. He wrote the book for The Wiz and man, that was a drummer's dream. You could really get your teeth into it. A friend of mine, Roy McCurdy recommended me for it. The conductor knew Roy from New York and tried to get him to do it while he was out there but Roy was already busy on the road. He passed it on to me. I ended up having to wait a while before doing it because I was still a member of the musician's union in Baltimore. It was one of those weird situations where someone thought they had secured the gig because they were doing rehearsals and believe it or not, they actually called the union complaining that I was being offered a job and didn't think I was a member of the local. The union had to follow this up. Regardless, I decided that New York was definitely going to be home so I went ahead and transferred unions. As it turned out, the chance of doing the show came around again and it worked out very well. Not only was the show great, but this was where I met my wife. She was playing couple of parts in the play.

B.K.: Didn't you almost join Santana during this period?

C.T.: That didn't materialize until 1984, but in '76 I did some rehearsing with him and he wanted me to join the band. It didn’t work out. There were some business things that didn't make sense to me. Fortunately, they didn't, because two weeks after I ended up getting the Genesis gig.

B.K.: How did this come about?

C.T.: Basically, Phil was particularly interested in a two-drummer combination so he could sing out front. He had seen the last Weather Report concert I did, along with hearing some of my work with Zappa.

I was in San Francisco doing The Wiz, staying at Bill Allen's house — he's a mutual friend. Phil called and said, "I know who you are, and I've heard you play. Would you be interested in a gig?"

My thing has always been, the more variety something has, the more I've got to check it out. I really liked what they were doing composition-wise. A lot of the songs were in movements; really sensitive tempo changes a very interesting situation. I thought I’d give it a try. Little did I know I'd still be with them 11 years later? It's worked out beautifully.

Right now, we're not on tour, so I'm finally able to sit down and try to complete some of my own projects. I usually end up making some headway, just in time to look up and go out again. When I come back, it's like starting over again because everybody else has had to find other things to do while I was away.

B.K.: Did you work out the material with Phil Collins, separately?

C.T.: No, we just jumped right into rehearsals. In those days it was a two and a half hour show, and having not done that before they scheduled 10 days of rehearsals. Halfway through they decided to take a day off because they thought it was going well. They didn't realize I was staying up to four and five o'clock in the morning writing out charts because they didn't have any. I'd sit and listen to their records and make my own charts. It was a nightmare trying to learn all that stuff in such a short time.

Now, we rehearse for a month before every tour. The first two weeks are spent learning the music and the next two are spent in the production areas, lights and sound. We do an extensive production. On the last tour we took six 48-footers full of gear. They give it their best shot every time out — which is really nice.

B.K.: What does your set-up consist of these days?

C.T.: These days I'm kind of partial to the double bass drums, plus I'm using a lot of electronics as well. Usually, I trigger it from the drum kit to avoid using pads when I can. This year I've changed an awful lot of equipment. I've been playing the same drums for over 10 years and just switched from Pearl to Sonar. By the time this gets printed, I will have changed cymbals as well.

B.K.: You used to promote Paiste?

C.T.: I think I'm going to go with Sabian. I've also gone from Simmons to Dynachord.

B.K.: What's Dynachord got that would bring about this change?

C.T.: They have a thing called the Addone, which is a realty sophisticated drumbrain with a separate disc drive unit sampler. They're incorporating both of them into one unit called the Add Two, which is going to be 16 bits sampling at 44.1 sampling rate, with a total of 90 seconds sampling time. I'm really into composing my own samples.

B.K.: How does it compare to the unit Bill Bruford's using now?

G.T.: Bill's using a Simmons FDX, and it's quite amazing. The specs are very similar in that it has a 44.1 sampling rate. I've actually done a few clinics for Simmons on that. Simmons has done a thing with the pads where they have different zones. You can adjust where they happen physically and dynamically.

It used to be that nine samples made up one drum, because you would sample the sound near the edge of a drum which is a little higher in pitch. You could also have a percussion instrument show up at a certain dynamic level.

B.K: Are there any books, instructional or otherwise you would recommend for aspiring young drummers?

C.T: The rudiments you can’t get around, it’s like learning scales. There is a book called Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer, by Jim Chapin. That’s your introduction to bebop.

B.K: Who are the current drummers that you listen too?

C.T: I still listen to the same guys I’ve always listened to like Elvin Jones and the older guys but with regard to the new players, I really enjoy Dave Weckl and the stuff he’s doing.

Chester Thompson is Adjunct Instructor at Belmont University's School of Music in Nashville.He is currently a member of the Chester Thompson Trio. The group released a CD in 2013 entitled "Approved". The other members of the group are Joe Davidian, piano/keyboards and Michael Rinne, Acoustic/Electric Bass.