Apr. 17 2006
Rayford Griffin

Rayford Griffin


TAMA :You come from a musical family. Can you elaborate on that, and describe the role that background played in your development as a drummer and overall musician?

Rayford : My mother was a music major at Howard University. She studied voice, more operatic than anything else. She's been in a few operas over the years. Her brother was a jazz trumpeter by the name of Clifford Brown. He passed away in 1956, but you can still find his music in record stores today. On the recordings that I heard when I was younger, he had two bands... one with Max Roach, and another with Art Blakey. Those were some of the first records I ever heard, when I was 2 or 3 years old. So I was influenced by both of those guys, Max and Art, at a very early age. I realized as I got older, actually maybe 5 or 6 years ago (laughs), just how much influence the two of them had on me... mainly from a soloing style standpoint.

TAMA : Was there a lot of other music being played in your home as well?

Rayford : Yeah, we used to listen to classical music, partially from my mother's background. My father was a minister... I can't say there was a lot of gospel, but he did sing as well. And my oldest brother is 10 years older than I am, so when I was a little kid, he would bring home James Brown and Wes Montgomery records. So, there was a lot of different kinds of music, from classical and R&B to jazz.

TAMA : Did you undergo any lessons or formal training on the drums?

Rayford : Yeah, I studied with a guy in Indianapolis, Indiana, a gentleman named Tom Akins. At the time, he was the principal timpanist with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. So with him I studied timpani as well as drum set and snare drum.

TAMA : How long did you study with him?

Rayford : I think I started when I was in maybe 8th grade, and continued through high school.

TAMA : You also studied at the university level for awhile, right?

Rayford : Yes, I went to Indiana State University... I only went for one year. The summer after my first year, my parents moved to California from Indiana. I stayed in Indianapolis, and I was working with a band called Merging Traffic. Our first gig was opening up for Jean-Luc Ponty, I think that was in 1977. The rest of that summer we opened up for a bunch of different groups.

TAMA : You have toured and recorded with a long list of legendary musicians, including Jean-Luc Ponty, Stanley Clarke, George Duke, Branford Marsalis, Michael Jackson, Bette Midler, and on and on. What was your first professional playing situation?

Rayford : Well, I think I played my first gig when I was 7 (laughs). It was my brother Reggie on alto saxophone, and another kid that lived next door, named Junior, who played tenor sax. So the group was tenor sax, alto sax, and drums...just snare drum, actually (more laughs). And we played at a flower show for my mother. But the first real group I was in was at age 13, and that was another trio... organ, drums, and bass. So those were the early bands, and I played in different groups through high school and all that. But Merging Traffic was probably the stepping stone... it was professional level, but still not working with any major recording artists. Like I said, we opened up for Jean-Luc and stuff like that, so we were playing concert halls and theaters.

TAMA : Given your impressive resume, you obviously have a knack for providing artists with just what they're looking for in terms of accompaniment. What is your approach to composing drum parts?

Rayford : For me, composing drum parts is about what the song really needs, and what the music needs. I try to put the music first, before any "razzle-dazzle" or anything that I might wanna do. The music comes first... if it lends itself to that, fine... but, if not, then you have to basically just provide the essentials of what the music needs.

TAMA : You've worked with artists in a wide variety of music styles. What kind of music do you enjoy playing the most, and what would you consider an ideal gig or playing situation?

Rayford : Well, I'd probably lean more towards something jazz-oriented as my favorite, mainly because it affords you the freedom to express yourself a little more widely than some pop situations might. In pop situations, you always have to play the music and play what the music requires, but in jazz, you're able to put a little more of yourself into it. As for the ideal gig, well there are a couple of artists that I would have loved a chance to play with. I wish I had a chance to play with Miles. I really like Sting's music, it's just so musical, and it seems like there's a lot of freedom in that as well. But right now, my ideal gig is (pauses and laughs)... is my gig, because obviously in that situation, I can do pretty much whatever I want to do.

TAMA : Let's talk about your recent solo record, Rebirth of the Cool. You've stated that this is a project you've wanted to do for years. What was the writing and recording process like for this album?

Rayford : Well, it's funny because I didn't so much sit down and say, okay I'm gonna put together X number of songs for this particular album. It was sort of a long process, because some of the music that's on there was actually written over 10 years ago. I would start a song - I usually write from piano or keyboards - and slowly build it, put bass parts down, figure what I'm gonna do, and then I'd call musicians to come in and record it. But, as I said, a lot of that stuff was done over 10 years ago... so I was in the process of putting some music together, and I just went back and grabbed some of the older things I had, and they still stood up to the new music that I'd written. They weren't dated by drum machine sounds or particular keyboard sounds, so they still had a fresh sound to them. So when I put them together with the new music I wrote, it all sort of fit... and that's what ended up becoming the Rebirth of the Cool album.

TAMA : There's quite a range of material on this record, from the slow, funky groove of the title track, to the fusion chops-heavy drum assault on "Coffee." Was there a conscious effort on your part to showcase all sides of your musicianship on the album?

Rayford : Ummm... I think there was... well, I don't know if there was a conscious effort, I think it was more subconscious (laughs). In essence, when I looked at everything I had, stood back and just kinda checked it out, I realized it was sort of a representation of all the sides of me, like you said. Because I started off playing with Jean-Luc, that was my first big gig, but then I played with Cameo for awhile, I worked with Anita Baker, and some more pop-oriented acts... and when I listened to all the tracks in succession, it was sort of a representation of all the different kinds of music that I play, and all the different kinds of music that I enjoy. Because I don't necessarily enjoy one thing all the time. You know, like I said, jazz is probably my favorite, but there have been times when I've been on a pop gig, and if I'm doing that for a couple of years, it's like, man I would love to play some jazz right now. And if I'm doing a jazz gig for a real long time, sometimes it's like, man I'd love to just groove and play some 2 & 4. So, having been afforded the luxury of being able to play a lot of different kinds of music, you always want to satisfy your appetite for all the different kinds of music you're able to play.

TAMA : As we've mentioned, you have played on countless other albums throughout your career. Which recordings in particular do you feel best represent your drumming, or are you particularly proud of?

Rayford : Well, I think a lot of the Jean-Luc records are indicative of who I really am, if you will. That, and obviously my CD as well, because that's truly me... I could have done whatever I wanted to do. I didn't want to make a "drummer" record, because I think the music is more important than just blowing chops over some things that aren't necessarily musical. So, I'd have to say, my record and the Jean-Luc music. I wish that there had been some recordings of some of the live performances, because the records are one thing, but live can be a lot different... particularly with Jean-Luc, there were some live shows that were truly a representation of who I am and what I do musically, but a lot of those aren't documented.

TAMA : What is your typical drum setup?

Rayford : I play Starclassic Maples. Generally, it's 3 racks (8", 10", and 12"), two floors (14" and 16"), and 5 or 6 cymbals, depending upon what I'm doing.

TAMA : Have you always led with your left hand?

Rayford : Yes. Years ago, when I first sat down on a drumset, most people back then were playing little 4-piece kits, with 1 rack tom and 1 floor tom, and a ride cymbal to the right of the rack tom. And the first time I sat down on a drum kit of one of the guys that played with my brother, I put my left hand on the hi-hat because that seemed like the thing to do, and my right hand on the snare, just because it seemed natural for me to play that way. And I crossed my hands to play the ride cymbal, which was on the other side. But even when I played snare drum, I used to turn it the other way. Most guys would have it tilted down to the right, so they could play traditional grip, and I actually had mine tilted the other way, and played traditional grip left-handed. But then when I started playing drumset, I went to an all matched grip, and eventually moved my ride cymbal over to the left side.

TAMA : You seem to prefer deeper, square dimensions on your toms, such 8x8, 10x10, 12x12, 14x14, and 16x16. Why is that?

Rayford : Well, the deeper ones sound a little fatter, and have a little more tone... which I love. I love for a drum to sound like a drum. It's always interesting to me, because I'll be on the road tuning up a backline drum kit, and I hear, "oh, this one's ringing too much." And I'm like, "it sounds like a drum to me" (laughs).

TAMA : You get some fantastic tones out of your drums. How do you tune your kit?

Rayford : You know, it's funny, I should pay more attention to that. I don't tune to any particular pitches, but I do tune to particular intervals between the drums. So I don't think I have perfect pitch, but a lot of times when I'm traveling, it's a backline drumset, and I always tune them, and it always the same intervals, but not necessarily the same pitch that I start with.

TAMA : How tight do you like the tension on the heads to be?

Rayford : Well, obviously the lower toms are a little looser... bottom head a little tighter than the top, to get the kind of resonance that I like to hear. Unless I'm playing straight-ahead, then I usually crank everything up pretty high, just to get the right kind of nuance for that kind of music.

TAMA : So you do tailor your setup and tuning according to each musical environment?

Rayford : Yes... depending on the music, even to the point of tuning the drums so they're in tune with the track. Sometimes you can have drums tuned in a way where they just don't sound right with the track, and when you figure out what's going on, it's really that they're out of tune with it. Drums are relative tones, so it's hard to get an actual true pitch out of them, but they can be relative to the point where they don't complement what's going on. But while I may change my setup or tuning, I'm able to use the same Tama drums for a variety of musical situations. I can definitely find all the sounds I'm looking for from my Starclassics.

TAMA : What projects are you currently involved with, and what's next for you?

Rayford : Right now, I'm in the process of making another record... actually, another two records. As I mentioned earlier, Clifford Brown was my uncle, and I'm doing sort of a tribute record to him, which will be called Clifford Brown: Reflections. That will be a straight-ahead, quintet-oriented bebop record... or, as they used to called it back in his day, hard bop. So, that's in the works, as well as another Rayford Griffin record... more contemporary, similar but obviously different than Rebirth of the Cool.