Photos: Piper Hanson
Ted Poor has become skilled in balancing the many spinning plates that call for his unique blend of musical seasoning. Along with touring and recording with artists like Chris Thile and Andrew Bird, Ted works as an Assistant Professor at the University of Washington, where he’s on a ten-year track teaching primarily within the jazz department. He received an education himself at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, which is also where he grew up.
For a few days in mid-March, Ted was working with producer Blake Mills at Sound City in Los Angeles, putting the finishing touches on a new record. He recently signed with Mills’ New Deal Records and has been working on his own material–a collaboration with saxophonist Andrew D’Angelo that started as a collection of duets in New York.
“We’re building around those tracks,” said Ted. “The record is very much the duets, but we’ve added some strings to a couple pieces, piano and different odds and ends, providing some harmony, elevating moments within the duets. It’s been a really interesting process.”
That work is slated to be released later this fall or early in 2020. Ted’s drumming is also featured on Andrew Bird’s newly released record, My Finest Work Yet, which will have Ted on the road playing in Bird’s band.
Ted’s drumming is extremely thoughtful. He knows how to craft a part, and play for the song. Then there’s the side of Ted’s drumming that is more abstract–he plays a lot of free improvisational music. The way Ted flows in and out of cohesive ideas when he’s playing improv is a sight and sound to behold, if you’re not already familiar.
Drumhead was happy to get a chance to catch up with Ted at Sound City where we chatted about his teaching experience, the way he works with different artists and his outlook on what it means to play for the task at hand.
CW: How are you liking Seattle compared to New York?
TP: We love it. We have two kids, a kindergartener and a fourth grader, and we’re really enjoying the quality of life in Seattle. We’ve met a lot of wonderful people there. We miss what a really big city has to offer, and something about New York will always feel like home, I think. But we get back there pretty often, as a family we go a few times a year, and I’m back there much more frequently than that, so I feel like I’m getting my New York fix. But Seattle is a great place.
CW: Do you experience much of the scene in Seattle?
TP: Honestly not that much. Between traveling for the various bands that I play in and working on my own music…when I’m home I’m teaching at the University or I’m with my family. I guess I don’t like the idea of dabbling in the scene – if I’m going to participate I really want to participate. With my own music being released in the coming months I do look forward to digging in and participating more in the Seattle music community.
CW: What’s your favorite part about working with students?
TP: I think my favorite part is helping the students identify the music they love and the music they want to make, and then giving them the tools and tackling the challenges they face. Technically I teach in the jazz department, and I came up as a jazz musician and that is the language that I know most intimately for sure, but within jazz there are so many different veins of music. I don’t impose any sort of aesthetic or genre on the students when we’re trying to enable them to make music that is genuine and personal to them. In that process, we confront the fundamentals of music, and a deep study of jazz, and other stuff…so I like the challenge of helping them find out what the issue may be, and helping to tackle the problem…different ways of thinking, and listening, etc…
CW: What kinds of things are you working on with your students?
TP: I have about eight students that I see on a weekly basis, not just drummers, other instrumentalists, and I coach a small group jazz ensemble. And then I have a class called Jazz Lab, which is very open ended. We might focus on listening to a record or a community of records, study and analysis, listening and then emulation, and composing and improvising from what we’ve learned from. We’re currently dealing with some alternate ways to think about blues form, first going back to delta blues singers like Robert Johnson, Skip James and listening to BB King, and hearing Coltrane Plays the Blues, that record – there are some really beautiful forms that are composed using the elements of traditional blues form that I really love. The Duke Ellington record, Money Jungle, also, there are some wonderful progressions and forms that are basically blues forms, as an example. So, we’re digging into that, wrapping our ears around it, and trying to play using that as inspiration.
CW: I understand you played in a metal band back in Rochester? What’s your relationship with the genre, and do you still play it at all?
TP: You’re referring to Jersey Band, which are some really close friends of mine, going back to my college days at Eastman. I don’t really play in that genre [now], well actually, one track that was just released for an upcoming Ben Monder release called Day After Day, and we covered the James Bond song, “Gold Finger.” Rolling Stone just wrote about it and they described it as a “Doom metal version” of “Gold Finger” [laughs]. So maybe I am still playing metal. I was happy how that came out. The guys in Jersey Band, I was not the original drummer, but I was going to school with them all and they asked me to join the band, so I had to get up to speed on that language and that sound. There were a couple bands that were a big influence for us, there’s the Swedish band, Meshugga, and Mastodon was another one we were checking out a lot. As well as Led Zeppelin for the heaviness of the feel. That band, [Jersey Band] the front line is all horns, trumpet, two tenors, baritone, saxophone, plus guitar bass and drums. We wrote all of our own music for that and the horn section functioned as this massive “other guitar” in a way.
CW: You’ve been working and writing with [songwriter] Andrew Bird for a while now, and you’re on his newest album My Finest Work Yet. What have you enjoyed in continuing to work with him?
TP: He’s a genuine musician and an artist. He’s unapologetically in search of the sound and feel that he has in his ears. As a songwriter, as a lyricist, as a bandleader. That’s just exciting to be around, because every note counts. When we’re on tour, we’re playing the same songs every night; we’re not just providing a service. We don’t just deliver the song to the audience, and that’s that. I’m not saying we play the song radically different each night, but, what I’m trying to say is, the way Andrew sings, it’s very much in the moment. It’s informed by all of the nuance that’s happening onstage, it’s informed by what happened to us that day…it requires the highest level of focus and listening that you can bring, and I’m just addicted to that environment and that challenge. That’s why I play music.
CW: On Bird’s 2016 release, Are You Serious, the groove in the first track, “Capsized,” is gripping and pulls the listener right in. How did you go about choosing that groove for the tune?
TP: It came naturally. I can remember the moment when we sort of arrived at the groove for “Capsized,” because we had been playing it in a couple different formations, just trying to get the right feel. I was with Alan Hampton and Blake Mills, and we were all sitting in Andrew’s home studio just playing through it, and Tony Berg was producing, he was sitting in the middle of the small room and the four of us were playing the song around him. We were grappling, trying to find a feel…I think I had probably been resisting that beat because maybe I felt like it would have been too obvious or something and then it was like ‘aw screw it,’ and I just went there. Everyone got on the same page with that feel, and the room sort of lifted and Tony started grinning ear to ear and nodding his head. And that was that.
CW: What has changed over the years in terms of the way you’ve written and recorded the drums for Bird’s music?
TP: I don’t think anything has changed fundamentally. It was the same challenge of trying to find the right tone, and feel and part that’s right for the song. But I guess one big difference is we’re five years down the road from when we first started playing together. We’ve played a lot of shows and spent a lot of time together, me and Andrew and the rest of the band as well. So we know each other better, and there’s more trust, and I think we were able to maybe get to a band sound quicker, perhaps, and try things that maybe wouldn’t work out, but because we know that we’re going to get it, it’s liberating. Not that we try anything too crazy or experimental. Just going in with the confidence to just play and trust what you’re hearing. Even if it’s not going to be great, we’ll find it. One difference with recording the new record, My Finest Work Yet, is that we all played in the same room. The vocals are mostly live. Andrew is ten feet in front of me, I’m playing drums and he’s singing the take. And adding Tyler Chester to the band brought a wonderful element, he’s such a phenomenal musician. To have the percussive element of his piano playing for me was really great and helpful. I can play a simple beat, and he ends up being the rhythm that cuts against that, and pushes the music forward…his comping…he’s got such a good feel.
CW: I heard that you’re using pencils as sticks on one of the new Andrew Bird tracks. Why did pencils work for that tune, and do you frequently look to use alternative materials to achieve a specific sound?
TP: I do if the drumsticks aren’t cutting it. In the case of that Andrew Bird song, I think the song is “Manifest Destiny,” I was just enjoying the very percussive tone that the pencils provided, and to be specific I think they were the Black Wing Pelamino brand of pencil. They have this slightly beefier eraser apparatus. Like I mentioned before, we were all playing in the same room and there were all these really hot mics open in the room so I really didn’t need to play loud, at all, so it was so much fun to be able to convey a lot of energy and intensity without volume. And the pencils just sort of fit the character of the song. I guess there’s something nice about the pencils not having as much mass, so particularly on the snare drum or the hi hat as well, playing the groove, you get the attack but you don’t activate the tone of the drum the same way a drumstick would. It seemed to blend really well with the song.
CW: In working with songwriters and in working with jazz musicians, how would you describe the change that occurs in how you approach the drum part? Are there any similarities or rules of thumb that you employ?
TP: I think fundamentally it’s the same, in that I’m always trying to play by ear, and let my ears, my intuition, tell me what to play. I’m just trying to play what I want the drummer to play. So that fundamental experience, I strive for that to be the same. But I guess you could say it’s learning a different language, a different vocabulary.
I’ve really enjoyed working for great songwriters like Andrew [Bird], and Chris Thile, because there’s a simplicity to the drum job, which is just to help the vocalist deliver a great vocal – just set the framework to be so fertile. That means making sure the tempo and the feel is just right and connected to the moment so they can dig in to their vocal and push and pull however they want to…make the tone, the sound, the part, have open possibilities for them.
I think in jazz, and becoming involved in more modern, complex avant-garde jazz, sometimes that fundamental pursuit is maybe put aside a little bit, in a way that I realize in hindsight is wrong. It kind of needs to be there. And so it’s been fun to work in the songwriter world, and then go back and play jazz. To just take joy in playing a swing beat, which just feels amazing, and not feel like I need to do something. Finding the right feel and the right sound, the beat and the tone, finding that and just trusting that that is everything, that all the value you need exists in that. And then embellishing from that, but never letting go of that. As opposed to practicing a bunch of exercises and feeling that ‘in order to make great music I have to bring this idea from the top down; I’m going apply this idea to what we’re doing,’ rather than get inside as deeply as you can with those fundamental things, and lettings all of the music come out of that. It can get wild and complex, sure, but at its root it’s still that thing.
CW: You often play a style of drumming known as “free improv.” What does the term mean to you?
TP: Free improv music is often labeled as such, but it’s not actually free. And that’s okay, but sometimes it refers to a different vocabulary and a language and there are different histories and lineages in improvised settings.
It’s basically instant composition, is one way to think about it. And if it’s really free, it’s about bringing some frame of reference, some parameters, even if it’s just personal, you’re improvising, you’re looking for meaning in the sounds that are around you. That is personal. If you’re deriving meaning, you’re really listening and hearing what’s actually happening, that will make you feel a certain way, and you respond to that. It’s organizing sound.
In the improv world, there’s wonderful space to just explore different sounds, and you’re expanding what you know is possible with your instrument without using electronic effects or something…there are so many sounds to be extracted from a standard drum set, just with your hands and sticks. I love that parameter, ‘how can I get that tone?’ It’s really just messing around… ‘I wonder what happens if I do this.’ Then you learn it, and you learn to control it, and you get that sound in your ear and then you’re playing music.
CW: Do you have any favorite drummers who are known for their improv style?
TP: In New York I’d see Paul Motian play fairly often. He was a huge inspiration to me. You got the sense that he’s one of the deepest, most experienced, most brilliant musicians that we’ve had, and then he also played like he was a child – everything he was doing, he was discovering it for the first time. But simultaneously you felt the depth and weight of his intent. That made a huge impression on me. Andrew Cyrille, Jack Dejohnette and Billy Hart have all been hugely inspirational, particularly in open improvised settings.
CW: How do you limit yourself when it comes to working with so many different artists?
TP: I feel fortunate that I have the option to, at times, work with a number of different people. Especially now that I’m focusing more on my own music, I’m realizing that I need to carve out time in my schedule to just not work for anyone else for a little while, to get a deeper level of thought and listening happening on my own. I can’t just turn it on for two days in between a tour…Right now I want to make sure I do my absolute best with this record that I’m making with Andrew [D’Angelo]. This record at its core is a duet with Andrew, so doing everything I can to honor that collaboration and the music that we made.
With Blake [Mills] we’ve been working on overdubs and we’ve found things to add that are really pleasing to listen to, that feel great, but it’s not the right “great” for our record. It starts to become a different band, so we try to keep the duet at the forefront. The imagery that we’ve been using is that Andrew and I are playing onstage and there’s a whole slew of instrumentalists kind of waiting in the wings around the periphery of the stage, ready to step in and support the moment, and then recede, leaving the two of us again.
CW: Do you plan to perform this music you’re making with Andrew D’Angelo, putting that imagery to work?
TP: Yes, we definitely plan to perform it. It remains to be seen exactly what form that will take. I know that certainly we will work up a strict duo version of the music. It’s possible I might augment my drum set with some sort of pitched percussion, could be pitched gongs or vibraphone, it could be an upright piano to my right, I’m not sure yet. We’ll have to mess around with that.
One thing that I’m excited about in playing this music live is I think we’ll be able to welcome any number of characters into the fold to join us as guests throughout our set, whether they played on the record or not. I think the music is just malleable and welcoming in that sense. Andrew and I are going to know where the music is headed and we can just take some of the musicians along for the ride with us and let them contribute. I think it’ll be really fun.
Catch Ted on tour! >