Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

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EJ Strickland:
Dedication, Determination

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I’m a fan of the drums and the people who play them. When I hear a song, the first thing I listen to is the drum part. I’ll watch the drummer more than anyone else in the band. Drums have the power in modern-day music, whether hard rock or country ballads, to drive and give structure to the music.

I’ve been fortunate to play with many great drummers on the jazz scene, players like Billy Hart, Bill Stewart, Lenny White, Cindy Blackman, Ralph Peterson, and Jeff “Tain” Watts. However, when I have my own gigs, my top call is Enoch Jamal Strickland. EJ has been touring with me for the past 3 years, and he’s on two of my CDs. I’m lucky to have him at all since he is kept very busy by Ravi Coltrane—he is in high demand from many other players, including his twin brother Marcus and Cassandra Wilson. EJ Strickland impresses me because he is so consistent as a time-keeper, but also such an expressive interpreter. Jazz drumming is so much about interpretation, and EJ has excellent instincts as well as a musical maturity that is surprising for a musician who is just 30 years old.

EJ is also becoming a great composer and bandleader—his debut, In This Day, was released in 2009, and has been getting great reviews. He’s also a sensitive teacher. His two-week residency at the University of Manitoba this past fall gave local students an opportunity to be inspired by EJ’s dedication to the craft of jazz drumming. He returns for a couple of weeks this January to continue that work.

During our European tour in November, I sat down with EJ to talk about his musical life.

Who are your earliest musical influences?

My first influence is my father. He’s the one who introduced me to jazz—and music in general. John Coltrane’s quartet with Elvin Jones is the first jazz I ever heard and is probably my strongest influence. Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Charlie Parker, The Jazz Crusaders, and Led Zeppelin are some others that I heard early on.

What do you think about when playing with other musicians?

I always think about how I can support the sound of the band. I want to do my best to orchestrate the mood, the feel, and the transitions, based on the music I hear back from my fellow musicians. I feel that ideas don’t need to be searched for—they’re already there on the bandstand. You can draw from a melody, a form, a solo, the piano accompaniment, bass lines, everybody’s dynamic levels, everybody’s feel. I guess what I listen for the most is what my role is in the music.

Can you describe your approach to composition?

I try my best to find a different means of inspiration every time I write a new composition. I have written tunes based on drum grooves, poems, melody, chord progressions, or musical feels like bossa, swing, fusion, etc. Every piece has its own path.

How did you develop your practice ethics? Are you able to maintain your daily practice routine even as a touring artist?

I developed my practice ethics from being overwhelmed with information. There are seven days in a week, so I work on seven different things every week. Practicing everything in one day has proven unsuccessful for me, but I find a day’s worth of concentration in one specific area goes a long way. 

Being on tour is the perfect opportunity to concentrate on technique. Most of the time I don’t have access to a drum set, so I bring a lightweight snare-drum stand and a practice pad. A pillow is a great way to develop speed and is also silent. Being a drummer, there is no excuse for not practicing because you can practice any time of the day.

What advice would you give to a serious young musician?

Practice, practice, practice! Study, study, study! This also means listening to a lot of music! I truly believe this statement: “Take care of the music, and the music will take care of you.”

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