Daniel Freedman: Percussionist, Composer & World Traveler

Percussionist, drummer and composer Daniel Freedman’s latest album, Bamako by Bus, on Anzik Records, was recently mastered at Masterdisk. I wanted to find out Daniel’s tricks of the trade, but it turns out there are no tricks. Hard work plus talent got him where he is today. We chatted on the phone the other day, here’s what he had to say about making music, New York, and travel.

Q:What’s it like to be a working musician?

A:It’s a challenge of course! I have always done a variety of things to get by, but as long as I am doing music….  I used to play for afro cuban dance classes, modern dance sometimes Alvin Ailey or Martha Graham as well as playing a lot of gigs.  At the time I wanted to learn more percussion, so dance classes were perfect.  Things come organically… in 2000 I got in to the home studio thing and I started recording more and more things, and some people asked me to write for picture and produce tracks for them.  The past several years I’ve been on the road a lot and I try to balance playing and producing. My advice is to stay open, because you may have to do many different things.  Very few musicians only play the music that they want to play in order to make a living. That said, I still try to put my head in the sand and do music that I want to do.  

Q:Easier said than done.

A:Setting up the environment so that you can stick your head in the sand and work is so helpful.  Same goes for practicing. Time is so limited I have to get right to it. Also I guess I rely less and less on inspiration these days and just get to work until something sticks.

Deep Brooklyn by Daniel Freedman

Q:How did Bamako by Bus evolve as a project?

A:The song “Darfur” was created years before and then we finished it live. I thought about which musicians I really loved and I wrote with their voices in mind.  It’s different from other records I have done, it started off as a project with Avishai Cohen: I would create bass lines and grooves and then he would improvise over them and we would edit the pieces into songs.  I could never seem to finish, and I asked Meshell Ndegeocello if she would be into playing on some of our sketches and she was enthusiastic about it.  So two tracks were done at my house, and then we finished the rest in the studio. Jason Lindner helped a great deal, he’s a master of harmony and form, but everyone was really helpful. There was direction, but with that level of musicians it’s great to leave things open.

Q:And production-wise, how did that go?

A:Jean-Luc Sinclair mixed the record at my house.  We then took it to Michael Perez Cisneros‘ studio and he helped give it a more analogue feeling. Matt Agoglia mastered it and is a real pro; he had a musical quality to his approach and was generous with his time.

Q:Do you think growing up in NYC gave you good opportunities as a musician?

A:Growing up in New York seems to have chosen my musical direction for me in a way.   My father Joel played on a bunch of free jazz records in the ’60s and my uncle Alan is a great guitar player. He’s on a ton of records. My uncle is the rocker so he got me Marley and Prince records. Also hiphop and breakdancing was such a huge thing in New York and I was into that. I discovered my father’s record collection when I was about 12 and fell in love with Art Blakey and Coltrane records. Going to Laguardia High School was a really pivotal time for me. Many of the students there were already working musicians around town and I knew that’s what I wanted to do as well.

Q:How do you like writing music for pictures?

A:Its almost always fun for me and certainly takes a different sensibility.  My mother is a painter and my grandparents were as well.  I wanted to be a painter myself before I found the drums. Writing for pictures requires that the music serve the picture first of all; that brings the emotion of what you’re viewing to life.  But you’re limited, especially with commercial work, you have a very short turn around time and it has to sound great right away.   

Q:Listening to this album it’s clear you’ve done some traveling; where have you been so far?

A:I always felt a connection to all different music from around the world, and New York is such a great place to be if you are into hearing and experiencing so many different cultures. I also felt that hearing/experiencing music at its source would be incredibly helpful. I had maybe a dozen “study” trips: Mali, Egypt, Cuba, Brazil, Morocco, and Senegal come to mind. Jazz of course lends itself to using almost anything that you can find and with groups like Third World Love, we have been doing this for a while, bringing these influences into jazz or whatever you want to call it.  This isn’t new. Duke Ellington was doing that kind of thing way before I was born! But all those sounds and experiences influence my writing and playing. I try not to make it too deliberate but have it inform my general language and vocabulary.

Q:Did you pick up any traditional forms in your travels?

A:There are so many sounds that I heard around the world and loved. Sabar is one, senegalese percussion…mostly really fierce stick and hand.  Jeff Ballard showed me some of that way back.  Recently, I’ve been playing with Angelique Kidjio’s band and the percussionist is Senegalese, so it’s been great to hear that sound consistently on the road and learn more about it.  I always was moved by music when it was in front of me and loud! And I always wanted to experience music by being next to it and feeling it. You know, to play jazz you eventually have to come to New York, so I felt that it would help me in a similar way to go to Africa, Cuba etc…To sit next to the real thing and hear how loud and powerful it really is. In New York I used to hear Elvin Jones, Art Taylor and Billy Higgins all the time and there is nothing that can replace sitting next to the person making the music and soaking it in. Those trips charge my battery and I need to recharge every so often. I’m looking forward to going to West Africa again this winter.