Critical Jazz: You switched from guitar to drums, a somewhat unusual switch for someone at such a high level of proficiency. You studied with one of my personal favorites in Eric Harland. How easy was the transition and what was the most important thing you learned that you were able to apply to the new record.
Alex Snydman: I started playing the drums about ten years ago and while the switch from guitar was sudden, I immediately felt a sense of joy in learning and playing drum set that I never really felt with guitar. I was a pretty frustrated guitarist actually! I remember sitting in the front row at the Jazz Standard in NYC watching Bill Stewart with my guitar hero Peter Bernstein (a former teacher of mine as a guitarist), and I was just fixated on Bill the whole night…not too hard to imagine because the man is one of the greatest drummers who’s ever lived! I remember watching his High-Hat foot all night and just being blown away by his independence with it. This was probably when the seed was planted to switch instruments. Transitionally speaking, I think friends of mine were shocked that I was “starting over” and poked fun at me at first, but slowly they started to see how dedicated I was, and how quickly I was growing. Soon, I had their support and was gigging. I think the hardest thing I come up against as a drummer (and I think a lot of musicians might relate to this) is the sense of not being good enough…this feeling can become overwhelming, especially when you compare yourself to cats like Eric Harland or any of the masters. I mention Harland because he is probably the single greatest contributor to my essence as a drummer. I’ve probably sat next to him sixty times at his performances, and through that as well as studying with him and becoming close friends, I feel must deeply have affected this album…I know it has. I must also say that my studies with John Riley and Gregory Hutchinson contributed immensely to my growth, both being two of my favorite drummers. When I think about my time with Harland, I think that the greatest lesson he has instilled in me is the importance of being yourself. I think that was probably the most important thing I learned that I was able to apply to the album. When you’re focusing on that (rather than the feeling of not being good enough), “your spirit soars”, as he would say.
Critical Jazz: One of the key measures of success for this record is the celebration of the group dynamic. There is an old school meets new cool vibe that is traditional but with a slightly modern twist. Did switching to drums change the way you write and approach a tune purely from a compositional standpoint?
Alex Snydman: I think the switch to drums really allowed me to focus on writing music with rhythmic interest, but with a focus on simple melody. Sometimes I find modern jazz to not have enough focus on melody. The music has developed so fiercely in a rhythmically advanced way that a lot of records focus on that aspect without leaving you able to sing the melody the way the old records do. I love both the new school as well as the old school jazz recordings, and while I wasn’t thinking about consciously “combining” both these elements while the album was being conceived, I think my writing, as well as the other repertoire I selected, reflects this appreciation. The real truth of the matter is that I have been VERY slowly learning piano in the past few years, and Eternal Recurrence was actually the first thing I ever wrote at the piano, and Fortunate Action was the second! I found that while the guitar is obviously so much more familiar to me, I love the sense of magic and challenge that I feel while sitting at the piano…because I literally just go for the sound…I figure out what I’m doing later in the process. This way, however, it takes me an embarrassingly long time to compose because I have next to no coordination or facility at the instrument!