The last several years have seen an uptick in awareness of the session musicians who may not be household names but had a meaningful impact on 20th-century music and culture. When considering the most indispensable backup musicians behind so many iconic albums and shows, Steve Gadd stands out as one of the most versatile and influential drummers in the world. At the age of 71, Gadd is still furthering his reputation by constantly touring and recording with a list of Grammy winners that includes his stalwart cohorts Eric Clapton, James Taylor and Chick Corea.
The unstoppable musician also leads the Steve Gadd Band, a combo that recently received a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album for their latest release, Way Back Home: Live From Rochester, N.Y. In celebration, the Steve Gadd Band is playing four consecutive nights at the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood, Jan. 19-22.
Among rock fans, Gadd probably is best known for his work on two tracks, Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and Steely Dan’s “Aja.” In the case of “50 Ways,” Gadd was hired to work on Simon's album Still Crazy After All These Years in 1975 by producer Phil Ramone, who knew of Gadd's work from his jazz connections. That began three decades of Gadd recording with Simon and led to his later work with Steely Dan, Clapton, Taylor, Paul McCartney and countless others.
Gadd’s inherent sense of rhythm was nurtured from birth by his parents as well as his Uncle Eddie, a former Army drummer. Growing up outside of Rochester, New York, Gadd was something of a percussion prodigy, appearing on The Mickey Mouse Club when he was 9 and sitting in with Dizzy Gillespie the following year. After graduating from the Eastman School of Music, he played regularly with Chuck and Gap Mangione. He then spent three years in the U.S. Army, playing with the field and stage bands, which provided him with the personal and musical skill set he would draw upon throughout his career.
“It was like a big band,” Gadd says of his Army days, speaking by phone from his home in Arizona. “We rehearsed every day. They had arrangers that were writing new arrangements. We were playing every day and sight-reading. So it definitely helped my reading ability.” Gadd also says his Army years were invaluable in teaching him to be adaptable with playing, traveling and living in a way that served him on extensive tours.
One of Gadd’s career highlights has been working with Clapton since they began playing together in the mid-’90s. This was a commercial and artistic renaissance of sorts in Clapton’s career, as he was beginning a chapter of trying to further blend various strands of blues, rock and adult-contemporary influences. Gadd was the sole credited drummer on Pilgrim, Clapton’s underrated 1998 studio album. Despite mixed reviews, Pilgrim went platinum, becoming one of Clapton’s best-selling and highest-charting solo albums in the United States. Gadd joined Clapton for another four solo studio albums, high-profile studio and live collaborations, benefit shows and sold-out tours.
Whether influenced by his drummer or not, Clapton featured more jazz influences on his next album, Reptile. Gadd played melodic jazz, hard rock and heavy blues grooves in equal measure on the phenomenal 2001 Reptile World Tour, documented on the One More Car, One More Rider double album and DVD. That album might still be the greatest testament to Gadd’s ability to take sticks and skins and make multidimensional, resonant music.
Clapton recently shocked fans when he announced he would be coming out of retirement to play seven shows this spring — he has sworn they are his last. Gadd says rehearsal schedules are still being finalized, so he doesn’t know what the set list or feel of the shows might be. He adds that while he and Clapton don’t see each other much outside of touring, they have fun together on the road, having bonded over being family men and both being in recovery.
Before bringing the Steve Gadd Band back to the Catalina Jazz Club for the third time, Gadd and company played shows in December in Mexico, Japan, Taiwan and Australia. The outfit began in 2013, after a conversation between Gadd’s wife and the wife of trumpeter Walt Fowler, who thought the musicians would enjoy having an outlet for their original jazz compositions and the room to flex musical muscles they might not get to in other contexts. Fans can expect to hear a mix of mostly original highlights from the band’s two studio albums and recent live release.
Although Gadd will be turning 72 in between Clapton dates, his year is already booked up playing with Clapton, Taylor and Corea. “They’re important jobs to me,” he says when asked why he still tours so frequently. “I’m a freelance musician. You’re not in control of when the phones are going to ring or who’s calling. When that happens, you have to try and put the pieces together.”
The Steve Gadd Band plays Catalina Jazz Club Thursday through Sunday, Jan. 19-22. More info at catalinajazzclub.com.