The coordination required of playing the drums is not ingrained in many of us, but Tommy Igoe’s father, legendary drummer Sonny Igoe, claimed his child was born with the beat.
“He always said I came out playing the drums. I was always drum crazy. I used to follow the drummers in the parades and learn their cadences. You couldn’t tear me away from the drums. And believe me, my father did try,” said Igoe, who has led the Birdland Big Band in New York City over the last several years and is responsible for the drum lines that give Broadway’s musical hit “The Lion King,” its thunder. He has also toured the world with the likes of Art Garfunkel, Stanley Jordan and Blood Sweat and Tears.
NOT MISSING A BEAT
Rather than being a typical kid who liked to beat on things, or even a kid that beat on things with an uncanny sense of rhythm, Igoe has always had an expert musical ear. He nurtured it not only by learning the drums since age 2 but by playing several other instruments, including classical piano, which he studied for 20 years. This well-rounded understanding refined Igoe’s sense of rhythm to a precision that few musicians, drummers especially, possess.
“In my experience, the best musicians and leaders understand the role, vocabulary and challenges of instruments beyond their own,” he said. “My training on piano and by extension harmony, theory, ear training etc., allow me to speak to all the other musicians in my bands in their own language which allows me to be a more knowledgeable and compassionate leader. And, it goes both ways. I encourage all other instrumentalists to take some drum lessons. It would help their musical expression greatly.”
As one might expect, leading a band from behind a drum set is no easy task. The first challenge that comes to mind is the fact that unlike any other instrument on stage, the drums are, as Igoe puts it, “anchored to the ground.” But this, he says, “is not a big deal.” Of everyone on stage, the drummer is the one who cannot ever miss a beat. While Igoe admits that this is indeed a challenge, he views it as an advantage as well.
“As a drummer, you never stop,” he said. “Most people don’t realize that many of the other instruments in a band stop, start and rest, but not the drums in modern settings … and rhythm sections as a whole. We are always playing and that allows me a greater connection to every bar than if I was stopping and starting all the time.”
Igoe leads bands of all sizes, from the sextet he heads up on Thursday comprised of Marc Russo and Tom Politzer on saxophone, James Genus on bass, Allen Farnham on piano and Rolando Morales Matos on percussion to his 14-piece, San Francisco-based supergroup, Tommy Igoe Groove Conspiracy, featuring members of Santana, Tower of Power, The Doobie Brothers, Boz Scaggs and Steely Dan. The best part of wearing so many hats is that the world is Igoe’s oyster. His range of genres and sounds is boundless.
“All my bands operate under the same foundational vision of being ‘music events.’ I have no allegiance to any genre or style. We’ll play anything from any source – jazz, Latin, funk, reggae … there are no limits. The only requirement is exceptional quality,” he said.
In addition to conducting and performing in various-sized bands, Igoe spends the other half of his life educating young up-and-coming drummers. Even as his sticks become a blur as he hits dozens of strikes per minute and magically incorporates additional beats as if he has 20 limbs rather than four, there is one simple piece of advice Igoe offers to all of his students.
“I’ve found a way to put it in one word: relax. If you relax, you can do anything. Really … ANYTHING,” Igoe said. “You’ll never hear any music teacher say ‘OK students, get ready … get as tense as you can be.’ In any activity – especially anything physical – the secret is relaxing.”
Experience the power of the Tommy Igoe Sextet from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday for Vail Jazz @ Vail Square in Lionshead. Jazz Tent tickets are $15 or $30 for VIP seats (including front of the tent seating and a drink ticket). Ticket prices go up an hour before showtime. For tickets or more information, visit www.vailjazz.org or call 888-VAIL-JAM.