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Dave Robbins
interviewed by Karin Plato
photos by Brian Nation

Since returning to his native BC after living and studying in eastern Canada for twelve years, Dave Robbins has become one of the most in-demand drummers in Western Canada. Kept busy playing in the bands of Mike Allen, Miles Black, Bill Coon, Hugh Fraser, Junction, John Korsrud, Mike Rud, Denzal Sinclaire, and Jill Townsend, Dave has also performed with Gary Bartz, Dee Daniels, Slide Hampton, Buddy Montgomery, Bob Minzer, Kenny Werner, and Dave Young among others. He appears on numerous albums, has toured many times across Canada, South America, and Europe; and is currently on the music faculty of Capilano College.

Karin Plato is a Vancouver-based jazz vocalist with four wonderful CD's to her credit, including 1999's Juno-nominated There's Beauty in the Rain. Her latest recording, Blue Again, features Karin in duos with bass and duos with guitar, including several with the great Bill Coon, with whom she recently completed her first national tour.

The following interview appears on Karin's web site at karinplato.com


Dave, where did you grow up?

BC. Victoria, between the ages of 7 and 19; Montreal, 22-32. I've got some early PG and Rupert as well. I hope I'm not finished growing yet.

Were the drums the first instrument that you learned to play?

I started on piano at 5. My two older brothers and sister were all taking piano lessons and I felt like I was missing out on something.

When did you start to play the drums?

My oldest brother played drums in school band so my parents bought 'all of us' a kit for Christmas when I was around 10. We got up at around 6:00 on Christmas morning and there I was. "But I'm playing softly!" My poor parents...

Who were some of your first teachers?

My oldest brother would play ELP tunes on piano and he showed me what to play on drums. Later, my brother's friend Stan Taylor (now playing in Vancouver) taught me how to play some rudiments and nice ways to use them around the toms.

Do you play any other instruments?

Piano. I tried to play guitar like Jimmy Page but I couldn't figure it out. Strumming and singing wasn't doin' it. Mike Allen gave me a sax lesson once but oohhhh did I suck. And they said getting a sound on tenor would be easy! Oyoyoyoyoyoyoy... I almost rented a harp once. I'm glad that one didn't pan out!

What is it about playing the drums that you enjoy in particular?

When I started I liked it because it was loud and exciting. In University I found the piano frustrating because I couldn't play it as ferociously as I needed to (lighting the piano on fire and beating on it with a sledge hammer occured to me). The drums were perfect. I still had my moments of introspection that frustrated me on drums though, so I kept playing the piano in private. I still don't want to play piano in public. Now that I can play the drums really softly and gently, when I play with other musicians that can play that way also, it's very fulfilling. The kickass stuff isn't fun ALL the time anymore, but it's still great some of the time.

I think of you as being a jazz musician first and foremost. Is there another type of music that you like playing and listening to?

I tried being a classical percussionist for a while and didn't enjoy it. Every style of music that uses a drum set that I have tried, I enjoyed. As far as listening is concerned, I try to be as wide as I can. A student of mine who wants to find a fusion of jazz and traditional Korean music lent me some and it was tough at first but I started to get an inkling of what was going on . . . I think.

What is it about being a professional musician that you enjoy?

Getting to play music a lot. It doesn't work if I don't play A LOT.

Is there something that you dislike about being a professional musician?

The pay, sometimes. I think the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Musicians of the generation before me talk about living next door to doctors. I don't think I deserve to make what a doctor makes because of the level of responsibility but I think we deserve more than were making now.

You are a composer as well as being a player. What inspires you to write your own music?

I can't finish a tune without a deadline.

Who are some of your favorite drummers and what is it about each of them that make them your choice?

When I was young it was Buddy Rich because all I heard and saw was excitement. When I heard the records of Paul Motian with Bill Evans I realized that other end of possibilities on drumset and playing music in general. In University, a guy named Andre White played sort of like Elvin but, this is hard to explain, not as rhythmically open. I heard and understood how underlying rhythms fit in with the normal pulse. That might not make sense but, oh well. It was big for me. There's a lot of stuff I hear that I really love and would love to be able to do (like Bill Stewart) but I think Jack DeJohnette has reinvented the wheel.

Do you practice regularly and do you have a routine that you follow on a daily basis?

Right now I'm trying to learn the stuff that all my students play for their juries. Man, is it tough! My routine is loosely based on warming up, playing time, technique, then soloing. I try to divide up whatever time I have into those categories whether it's 10 mins or 3 hours. I transcribe little snippets here and there as well. But that makes it look like I practice a lot which I don't. If I get 3 hours a week in I feel OK although that's not enough.

Do you enjoy your role as a music educator?

Yes, I definitely do. Teaching private lessons is hard, and sometimes, rewarding work. As far as fun is concerned, leading a big band is a blast. In my limited experience, clinics are fun, too.

Is there a teacher from your past that you would say influenced you and helped you become the musician you are today?

I remember really liking my piano teacher, Mrs. Layfield, when I was in high school. She wasn't a taskmaster. It was fun and I learned a lot. I was influenced much more by records, concerts, and playing with other people.

Is there any advice that you would give to a person, who believes he/she would like to become a jazz musician, based on your own experiences so far?

In one sentence: If you can live without it, do. (If you can't, try to be good...)

Could you name a memorable concert or concerts that you attended that deeply impacted you and inspired you?

I saw Buddy Rich three times when I was in my teens. Those were huge. Van Halen, too.

When I first moved to Montreal, the Jazz Festival indoor concerts were affordable so we would go to three or four per day for two weeks. I remember noticing some important things. One possibly insignificant but entertaining example was Ed Blackwell putting his crash cymbal on his floor tom and playing a solo on it. It sounded great.

Another was Herbie, Branford, Ron Carter, and Al Foster Quartet sucking- I couldn't believe it. It's also very possible that I completely misunderstood what they were doing...

When I saw Elvin at the Vanguard in the early 90's he was just entertaining the crowd. There were a few vintage Elvin fills but overall it was disappointing. Then when I saw him here at the Culch in '99 or so the first set was also weak, he played sloppy and uninspired and I thought all the new Elvin hype was just hype and I was sad. But in the second set it was completely different. He had obviously not been in playing shape at the start and now he was warmed up. What a set! Everything was firing. Totally inspiring!

Hugh Fraser has been getting some South America tours lately and to hear Brazilian and Cuban music live in it's home was very inspiring. The depth of their awareness and control over rhythm was something I hadn't noticed on records.

Would there be a performance that you participated in that you could say was a highlight for you and remain dear to you in memory?

Playing with the Mike Allen Trio every Tuesday last year, on a few of those nights I felt I was reaching new levels of expression as a drummer and we were as a band, as well.

Another one would be playing with Pete Cristlieb. His sound and the music he played had a depth to it that I'd never felt before. I now feel like I can continue to improve as I get further away from 25 years old, which is where I thought a musicians peak was before.

Do you have a favorite composer?

Johannes Brahms. The way he makes something sound great the very first time I listen to it, and then after fifty times it's great in another way. I hate how some compositions need to be learned before they can be appreciated. Or they sound good the first time and after five times it's boring. If that balance were easy, everybody'd have it.

Some musicians enjoy playing music in a live situation but dislike being in a recording studio when there is a certain kind of pressure to be creative. What are you thoughts on playing live versus playing in the recording studio?

I think it's VERY high praise for a musician to get asked to play on somebody's project. I am still honored when I'm asked. It's one thing to tell somebody they sounded good. It's another thing to ask somebody to do a gig, and it's something else again to ask somebody to record.

As far as my mindset is concerned, it's completely different. I'm more focused because I want to say what I have to in a more compact way. The first take is almost always the best one. Apparently Michael Brecker says," If I don't play what they want on the third try, they've got the wrong guy". I don't understand how those 50's and 60's Bluenotes were 10 to 15 take ordeals. I just don't get it...

If, for some reason, you were not able to be a musician, is there another profession that you could see yourself being interested in?

There are other things I'm interested in but, no, I cannot imagine not being a musician. I like being outside. Working with wood is fun...eatin' burgers...When I was in grade 10 my soccer coach told me I had to decide between soccer and music. That was it for soccer...

Is Vancouver a good place to live to be a jazz musician in your opinion? Have you lived in any other cities?

I have lived in Ottawa, Montreal, and Victoria, and almost/ sort of in Halifax, Toronto, and Amsterdam. If I wasn't from BC I don't think I'd had given Vancouver a chance and would live in Toronto. I love BC and I have always wanted to live in Vancouver. I'm very happy here. I think this jazz community truly likes each other more than most jazz communities. There are a lot of great things about being far away from the 'centre of jazz'. There is no New York worshipping here and that's a great thing. The problem, though, is that were off the path of the mainstream jazz tours. It's up to us to kick our own butts, we don't see enough of what else is going on. Every city is expensive and none have 'enough' jazz clubs.

If you were able to put together a "dream group" of musicians, who would you include in that group?

If I had to play with just one band I wouldn't enjoy playing as much or be as good.

My Sextet in Montreal did more gigs together than my Vancouver one so the former was more comfortable; Bill Maher trpt, Dave Grott bone, Kelly Jefferson tenor, Andre White or Tilden Webb piano, George Mitchell bass. But I love the latter, too; Brad, Dennis, Mikey, MilesB, and Chancey. And Junction with Daryl Jahnke, Chris Gestrin, and Chris Tarry. And Mike Allen's trio with Durwood. Bill Coon's Trio and Quartet with Roe. Miles Black's Trio with Miles Hill. Denzal's trio with Russ Botten and Denz's five piece, too. Hugh Fraser quintet with Cam and Kenny, Cam's group with Jodi Proznick and Bob Murphy. Mike Rud's quartet with Tilden Webb. Jill Townsend's Big Band with everybody, John Korsrud's Hard Rubber Orch. with Jack Duncan and everybody. Pat Caird's band with Ed and Bill Runge. To cut out one of these would suck. I guess my dream group is the Vancouver Jazz scene.

You play in a variety of different jazz oriented groups. Do you approach each group in a similar fashion or does each group truly require you to think in a different manner? More specifically, could you articulate a difference if any to playing with vocalist Denzal Sinclaire's group to playing with Junction?

As a sideman the first rule is fitting in. I feel very lucky because I think I get hired to play how I play, not to play like somebody else wants me to play. That makes my job much easier and more enjoyable because I don't have to second guess myself. (for Junction, that's not an issue because there is no single leader)

I do, though, approach every group differently. The bass player has as big if not bigger impact than the leader on how I will approach the group. If the bassist is a swinger or a groover, then I'm goin' in lookin' to swing or groove as hard as I can. If they're more interplay oriented, I won't be looking for that cookin thing, but a more conversational relationship. That same process happens for the whole rhythm section later. With soloists, they are either lookin to float over top of the rhythm section (while it grooves and swings along underneath) or get into interplay with someone. Some soloists only interact with drums and others will look for anyone at anytime. That takes a long time to figure out in a band. In my experience it doesn't happen with pickup bands.

Do you have any current projects that you are involved in that you are particularly excited about?

I'm gettin married in the fall, does that count? I hope to have my first record out by then, too.

What are some albums that you own that you listen to time and again?

Frank-Live at the Sands. Leila Pinhiero-Isso e bossa nova. Keith Jarrett Standards. Van Halen-2. Mozart. Debussy-preludes. Miles-58 sessions, Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess. Joe Henderson-Straight no Chaser. Ella/ Joe- Take Love Easy. Night Train. You Must Believe in Spring. Joao Gilberto- Ambrosia/ Brasil. Mambo en la Habana.