Let the music do the talking

Jazz drummer Dan Pugach just wants us all to have a good time

Bitten by the jazz bug: Dan Pugach (photo credit: LAUREN DESBERG)
Bitten by the jazz bug: Dan Pugach
(photo credit: LAUREN DESBERG)
Dan Pugach loves music. That seems more than a little facile considering Pugach is a professional jazz drummer, but that is the pervading sense you get from his recently released debut album, Plus One.
The New York-based Pugach is currently over here and will perform at the HaEzor venue in Tel Aviv on Saturday (9 p.m.), to showcase his release to local jazz lovers.
If the concert is anything like the studio nonet project, the HaEzor audience is in for a treat. Pugach will be joined by a full nine-piece complement, although the only members of the original lineup who will be on duty for the Saturday gig are vocalist Nicole Zuraitis – Pugach’s better half – and reedman Andrew Gould.
Plus One dips into all kinds of musical climes. There is, naturally, plenty of big band sonic sentiment, and there is blues seasoning in there, with a nod or two to the world of pop. Chief among the latter is “Jolene,” better known as the 1974 hit single by Dolly Parton, who normally sticks to the country side of the musical tracks.
Zuraitis is responsible for a deft arrangement of the number, which meanders its way comfortably between variegated textural and stylistic strands.
There is the odd classical tint in there, but the predominant feel is of the voluminous riches of large ensemble output.
“I love big bands,” Pugach declares. “You know, Count Basie, Gil Evans, Buddy Rich,” he says, noting three of the giants of the jazz fraternity who are all long gone. Fortythree- year-old trombonist Alan Ferber and 57-year-old composer and big band leader Maria Schneider also get honorable mentions on the Pugach musical inspiration roster.
But if you’re looking to pigeonhole Plus One and Pugach, give up now. His all-encompassing love of music was first fired by his parents’ classical music and French chanson records.
“I heard a lot of Mozart at home when I was a kid, and people like [iconic Belgian chansonnier] Jacques Brel,” recalls the 34-year-old Ra’anana-born-and-bred drummer.
Even so, when he began to get down and dirty with a drum set it was rock that first grabbed his youthful attention. But not for too long.
“I learned to play the drums from all sorts of Israeli rock drummers. I really enjoyed playing in rock bands as a teenager. But after a while, I felt I’d exhausted all the possibilities rock had to offer me. I felt, it is what it is.”
Jazz was his next musical port of call, and he went for the best teacher he could find.
“I took lessons with Areleh Kaminsky,” he says, referencing the now 76-year-old jazz drummer and one of the founding fathers of the local jazz scene. Nonetheless, it was more a matter of casting his musical net into other stylistic waters than a desire to learn the ins and outs of improvisational sounds.
“I didn’t really intend to become a jazz musician, but I was introduced to the music,” Pugach observes. Kaminsky quickly referred his new student to the pioneers of modern jazz.
“He told me to get hold of records by Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. I had no idea who they were.”
But the youngster had been well and truly bitten by the jazz bug. He made such good progress that by the time he got his IDF call-up papers, he qualified for Outstanding Musician status and duly accrued valuable professional experience over the next three years, albeit outside the jazz domain.
He managed to combine his military musical duties with furthering his education at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in Ramat Hasharon.
Rimon has a joint study program with the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, and, after a couple years in Ramat Hasharon, Pugach completed the last two years of his BA studies Stateside.
There he benefited from the professional wisdom and experience of such teachers as veteran saxophonist Joe Lovano and drummer Terri Lynne Carrington, although his main source of hands-on inspiration was drummer Roy Haynes, who is still pounding the skins at the age of 93.
“Lovano wanted me to stop sounding like Roy Haynes,” says Pugach. But it was more than just Haynes’s peerless percussion skills that drew the Israeli to a musician who was there when it started, when modern jazz was born.
“It’s not about him. His playing is so amazing, but it’s not about him. He just serves the music. That’s what I like. I don’t try to be too sophisticated. I just don’t want to get in the way of the music.”
That seems like a difficult skill to develop.
You study day and night, lug your drum kit to all sorts of godforsaken flea-pit venues, just to make a few bucks which hardly cover your gas outlay, and to hone your craft.
Then, after traversing that steep and challenging learning curve, you have to learn the art of letting go, and doing your best not “to get in the way of the music.”
That sounds like anathema to the creative process, but Plus One is proof that the bystander ethos does the trick. You get the fun factor that runs through the nine tracks, all of them written, arranged or orchestrated by Pugach, and the tracks draw you in.
Pugach is an amiable character, but his sunny exterior belies a steely substratum.
He has been through the learning-curve mill several times, and has come through smiling and infused with joie de vivre, and determined to just do his thing, and get us smiling too.
“I came out of Berklee a mess,” he says.
“I met 4,000 people there, and was told so many things. I didn’t know where I was coming from or going to. I didn’t know when Dan was.”
He relocated to New York, and set about rediscovering his musical feet at a master’s degree program at City College.
“At Berklee I was told I was overplaying and I was getting in the way [of the music]. I was told I had to stop playing like Roy Haynes and I had to open up – more this, more that. There was all this pressure.”
But if he was hoping for a pat on the back in Manhattan, he was initially disappointed.
There, too, he came in for some less than encouraging criticism.
“[Stellar bassist] John Patitucci was the ensemble director there and he didn’t like my playing at all. Instead of telling me ‘try this or try that,’ he kept telling me how bad I was.”
Eventually a light appeared at the end of the educational tunnel, in the form of pianist, composer and arranger Mike Holober, who teaches at City College.
“I started thinking that maybe I wasn’t good, and all this idea of being a jazz drummer was an illusion.”
Thankfully Holober dove into view with a more positive take on Pugach’s efforts.
“I met Mike and he suggested I write for a five-horn ensemble.”
Holober also helped to point the way to Pugach’s current instrumental lineup.
“He played me records of the Joe Lovano nonet, and the classic Miles Davis nonet from [1957 record] Birth of the Cool, and the music of Alan Ferber – all sorts of instruments that are not standard. So I started writing for five horns.”
It was a challenging but ultimately rewarding exercise.
“It’s tough. There’s no set way of going about it, like you do with big bands with its clear-cut sections.” Pugach got to grips with the project and was on to a winner.
“Mike Holober told me I should pursue that approach [of an ensemble with five horns].
So I have them in my nonet today.”
At the end of the day, Pugach just wants to have a good time, let the music do the talking and make us feel good too.
“I play with a Hassidic band from New York,” he says. “It’s not jazz but it’s so professional and so much fun. For me, it’s about entertaining and communicating with the audience. If the music doesn’t communicate it’s not worth anything. I want to tell my audience that I appreciate the fact that they have made the effort to come to my show.That’s very important for me.”
For tickets and more information: haezor.com and (054) 446-7240.