The first thing that strikes you about pianist Dave Drake is his sheer enthusiasm, and not just for music, but for life. This optimism shines through when he discusses his biggest passion.
“Jazz is such an expression of hope. It’s an expression of triumph over suffering. When I hear Louis Armstrong I hear triumph over suffering.”
As a child, Dave grew up listening to the greats, “Louis Jordan, Meade Lux Lewis, Professor Longhair, a lot of New Orleans blues musicians, a lot of African American blues piano playing. So that was really how I got into it to begin with”. He began piano lessons from a young age and soon developed a love of the blues.
“I always liked all the blues stuff. That was what most appealed to me and I just got into performing music and I really liked playing music and making expressive sounds. I always used to like writing music, ever since I was little. I saw a concert of Wayne Shorter when I was six as well and it was just outstanding. I remember seeing that and I was like, ‘wow!’. Seeing Danilo Perez down at the piano with Brian Blade and John Patitucci. It was just this amazing energy, even when I was little, there was like a presence to that band, a bit of an aura about it. Not even on a conceptual level, I just liked what they were doing.”
His biggest breakthrough came when he joined the National Youth Jazz Orchestra.
“One of my big, big growing points was when I joined the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, when I was eleven or twelve. That was when everything that I was doing just went exponentially faster. I was surrounded by a lot of incredible musicians. I mean, Bill Ashton, he just banged it as a man. For everything he’s doing I’m forever indebted and grateful for that community that I met there. Ultimately they’re all guys who are out there and performing on the scene and putting out music. In terms of my own musical development, I met some amazing musicians as well. I met Rob Luft when I was twelve or thirteen. We played a lot together doing duo stuff. I met Riley Stone-Lonergan, a tremendous tenor saxophone player, and countless others as well. So I would say, in terms of how I developed musically, that was really it, that sense of being in a very, very strong community that motivates me to get better and better and better.”
“I encourage any young people to go visit the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. Check it out, see what they do and see if they want to be a part of it. Because I think the point is that the community is so valuable. With you asking me how did I grow musically, I can undoubtedly tell you that it was from community.”
With such a great sense of jazz community, I asked him why he felt he needed to go to New York.
“There’s the aspect of it being the source of jazz, which means that on an historical level that continuation still lives on today, even through all of the different musicians that there are now. But there’s that sense of it being part of the culture which is different to the UK. I think the UK is more adopted (which doesn’t mean it’s any better or worse) but I think there’s something very pure about what you can find out there. And they’re just thoroughly amazing musicians. There’s just dozens and dozens of just everyone. And a tremendous, tremendous hunger for jazz and people who are just like ‘let’s go out there and make some music’, and not just jazz. All kinds of the arts, be it more mainstream music or art or theatre or film. It’s just a real melting pot for all the different kinds of expression. It’s a gift to be over there, it really is.”
With such a great learning opportunity, studying in the jazz capital of the world, I asked what sorts of things was he working on to improve his playing?
“My left hand. Definitely my left hand. The thing is I just notice how strong the beat is for piano players, the really great piano players. I’m talking about the James P. Johnsons of the world or the guys who could really slam out some tunes. Earl Hines! Woof! Close the book after that, mate! Earl Hines. That guy can just groove. There’s this solo version that he does of Rosetta. It’s just unbelievable, the beat that he’s playing. He plays this amazing music and Teddy Wilson, he slams out absolute burners with his left hand. So really in terms of what I’ve been studying the most has been Scott Joplin’s music because he just writes such amazing pieces. I’ve been playing Maple Leaf Rag in all 12 keys. Elite Syncopations is a fantastic piece as well, and a lot of the other rags that I’ve been listening to. It’s just amazing all the stuff that he’s written. So I’m really digging into Scott Joplin’s music and also hearing how people interpret it. Sydney Bechet played this amazing, stonking version of Maple Leaf Rag and Cake Walking Babies (From Home), I’ve been repeating that. That’s a steamer as well, with him and Satchmo. Unbelievable.”
“And also hearing harmony and playing chords and hearing notes from them. Playing a lot of rhythms, clapping a lot of rhythms, dancing a lot. I’d really encourage a lot of people to dance. I’ve been dancing along with a lot of the West African stuff that I was telling you about. There’s also some great recordings that I’ve found that are field recordings that were done by ethnomusicologists. My dad just got me a nice box set for Christmas of Morrocan music. There’s this Gnawa music which is just amazing as well. I was really fortunate as well – in New York I was at the New School and I was selected to perform with Randy Weston and we got to speak together about this because he spent a lot of time travelling around Africa and learning about music from Africa. And he even did a whole workshop at the New School, bringing over a few musicians over from Morocco. It’s just incredible rhythm. I think rhythm is THE most important thing in music. Definitely. Rhythm came before notes, know what I mean? Rhythm came before harmony. Rhythm for me, that’s what I work on and that’s why I like Scott Joplin so much. That’s why I really enjoy everything that he’s done, everything that he wrote, even though he was writing it in the late 19th century. For a black man to be doing that at that time, it must have been really, really outstanding, given the circumstances for African Americans in the United States. Even on that level, it’s such a statement of triumph, to be able to create so much. Like John Philip Sousa, his marches. Or James Reese Europe. I listen to that and I’m always like trying to get deeper, deeper into the rhythms. And the best way to do that, for me, is dancing. I love dancing. I dance a lot at home or out with friends.”
During his winter break from the New School, Dave is keen to do as much performing as possible, including a solo piano concert on 14th January and a piano trio gig as part of the South Coast Jazz Festival.
“The big one is January 14th. I’m going to be recording a live album. And it’s going to be live at Sussex University in a part of the campus called The Meeting House. It’s an amazing room, it’s like a big circle and it’s got all these stained glass windows and a beautiful Steinway grand piano. So when I first heard about it I was like ‘oh, mate, this is the spot’ because I’ve been really waiting to make my debut with all my own work and release it as an album as well. For me to make a statement, as an artist, for my first imprint on the scene, I wanted to release something that’s me – solo piano, me playing all my own music and put it out there for the people. And not just a jazz audience, to put it out there for all kinds of people. I’m really just making an album that I hope people will get to hear. That’s the biggest thing that I’m doing.”
“I’ll be playing The Verdict on 16th January for the start of the South Coast Jazz Festival. I’m promoting both of them. The 14th is my debut album so it’s not a conflict of interest because I want both of them to do really, really well. I really want to support the South Coast Jazz Festival, get lots of tickets sold and have an amazing festival. Because Julian Nicholas and Claire Martin have been working really, really well to promote jazz so I’m fully behind that and I’m also fully behind that album.”
2017 is set to be an important year for Dave Drake, who is confident about where he wants to go in the future.
“I’ve got this aspiration to win a Grammy by 2019. So in terms of what I’ll be doing to do that: first I’ll be releasing this album, then performing a lot around New York, continuing to grow and work with different musicians. I play a weekly thing with a friend of mine, JC Myska, who is a great drummer, at Rue B which is a club in the East Village.”
“Other than that, working on my own music with my band out there, doing some different dates, hopefully working on some new things with Matt Brewer and Justin Faulkner who are two fantastic jazz guys out in New York. And I’ll just keep forging ahead. The real aim for me is: keep working a lot. I really love working, I’ll take as much work as I can. Then, through continuing to work, continue to create opportunities. So creating opportunities to perform at bigger venues. Create opportunities to perform with this person, record this or do that. I want to be making more and more moves in myself in playing at bigger jazz clubs and playing at bigger venues. I would love to do something at Webster Hall in New York. Carnegie Hall, I would love to do that as well. It’s going to be steps at a time. I’m gonna keep, each and every day, making steps towards getting a bigger scope for what I do.”
In terms of achieving things outside of music, he is similarly assured of the direction that he wants to go in.
“One of the things that’s a big part of my life is that I work really hard with a peace organisation called Soka Gakkai. It’s a peace movement started in Japan really based on helping people be happy. It’s a peace movement really working for people to empower themselves so that they can be absolutely happy. It’s based on chanting ‘Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō’ which is actually something that I first heard from Wayne Shorter. Soka Gakkai is ultimately based on Buddhist philosophy but it’s a non-religious organisation and it’s not about that. The thing I like about it is that it’s about working with people’s happiness and that means creating value. Soka Gakkai in Japanese literally means ‘the value creation society’. It’s a big part of my life now and I love it so in 2017 I’ll be working a lot with that.”
One also gets the clear sense that this pianist, wise beyond his years, has an approach to music that also aligns with his overall philosophy.
“I really want to lift people around me. That’s really my mission in life, to lift people around me, to help them be absolutely happy in themselves.”
Dave Drake performs a solo piano concert on Saturday 14th January at The Meeting House, University of Sussex.
He will also be performing at The Verdict, Brighton on Monday 16th January as part of the South Coast Jazz Festival.
You can read a full transcript of this interview on the SJM website here.