B y J a n i c e J a r r e t t
THERE'S A LOT of intuition, a lot of real listening and just watching each other. It's exciting because then you're really playing with people. You're not playing music off of a chart or playing something that you've played a hundred times. We literally don't know exactly what we're going to do when we step on stage. That really puts you out there--on a limb. So you really do have to pay attention."
Describing the trio that recorded the recently-released CD Feather, Stone and Light (No. 24 on the Billboard New Age chart), percussionist Will Clipman seems to have found an ideal venue for where he is now.
"We didn't have a lot of rehearsed, arranged tunes" going into the studio, he says. But Clipman, Navajo flutist R. Carlos Nakai and guitarist William Eaton are not your average jam session players. Clipman knew of Nakai and Eaton for years before he played with either of them. All three worked in the same musical circles, overlapping long before they got together. Nakai and Clipman even worked for the same dance company, ORTS, separately however, until someone there suggested Clipman when Nakai was looking for a percussionist.
It's all in the timing--after they started playing together they "got a bunch of gigs and did some recordings right away." Nakai and Clipman were members of the respected quartet, Jackalope (Canyon records), whose unique musical synthesis was appropriately named "synthacousticpunkarachiNavijazz." This newer trio effort, adding Eaton, is based even less on detectable musical styles and highlights the uniqueness of these three experienced improvisers and accomplished virtuosi.
"A lot of times with Bill and R.C. I'll just listen to a song without playing at all, just listen to where the chords are going and what the dynamic is, where the melody is going," Clipman says. "That will suggest a pattern of accents, and if that's assigned to the correct instrument or instruments then you have the beginnings of a rhythmic structure for the song."
His arrival at this point as a master improviser/musical collaborator is based on a long and expansive musical journey: "My musical taste has gone through so many radical changes."
Maybe because his father had played semi-professional drums as a youth, Clipman got started playing drums early--age three. By the time he was 13, he had his first formal training with a top professional jazz drummer who emphasized technique, reading and rudiments.
A tender teenager, Clipman just wanted to play: "I wanted to join a rock and roll band and actually play music. But I stuck with it and acquired a certain amount of respect for the history and all."
Some of the technique must have stuck, too. Clipman did his first paying gig at fourteen playing both the popular and the avant garde of the time (Pink Floyd, Allman Brothers, T. Rex, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, White Trash). Because his underage band couldn't play clubs, they settled for rocking at school dances, private parties and battles of the bands.
The group had two drummers--Clipman was given the supportive role.
"The other guy was the drummer who could play lots of frills and stuff on top. I got an attitude toward drumming that the really important part of it was keeping good time and playing simply."
Even though he ended up getting degrees in creative writing and journalism, and has published a book of poetry, Dog Light, he's been mainlining music since the age of 14.
"(It's) very addicting. Getting a taste of that at that age really kind of hooked me."
An experience that helped enrich his improvisational palette and broaden his knowledge of percussive instruments was studying with Ghanian master drummer C. K. Ganyo.
"It taught me a lot about time and meter but also gave me the confidence that I had good time. When you're playing bell, each note is very definite. There's no mistaking whether it's off or not."
By the time he got to graduate school in Tucson, he'd gone through a few more "radical changes."
"I was so much in a chrysalis stage, I had no idea of what was waiting...I started listening to the Miles Davis fusion stuff like 'Bitches Brew' and 'Live Evil,' those germinal sessions with all those great fusion players that went on to stellar careers of their own. I listened to early Weather Report and Return to Forever. That's the stuff that really blew off the lid for me. It got me interested not only in jazz but also world music, because all those guys were drawing on global influences, other cultures."
He played and worked with Abdulai Aziz Ahmed's Nanfoule (music of the Malinke of Guinea), as well as with various bar bands and touring bands like Street Pajama. By the time he joined forces with his current ensembles, Joy Bones, Stefan George and Songtower, the William Eaton group and the Nakai, Clipman, Eaton trio, and developed his own solo performance venue, "Global Village Musical Story Theatre," the basic concepts underlying his musicianship had been forged.
"A drummer has a powerful position that carries a certain amount of responsibility. You can make an awful lot of racket on drums. You can be really horrible or you can be really beautiful."
Being more of a "groove-oriented player rather than someone who likes to play solos a lot" may have been forced on him at age 14, but it sustains his philosophy of supporting the other musicians to "feel comfortable to play their best."
In spite of his impressive talent, Clipman has retained the purity of purpose noticeable in all accomplished artists. He talks of feeling lucky to work with "a number of world class musicians," and has never forgotten what the role of student taught him.
"We have to stay humble and realize there's always somebody around the corner who's a little faster, a little louder, or a little fancier, and remember what it is you do well," he says. "Remember what it is that you enjoy about music and try to stay focused on that."
Clipman's future will, no doubt, be taken up with more recordings and tours ever farther away from his Tucson base. In on the resurgence of interest in improvisational and cross-cultural musics and their foundations of trust and musical generosity, Clipman is a valued player, securely basing his own contributions on good time.
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