It’s no surprise that Steve Gadd is often regarded as the drummer’s drummer. A prolific session player who rose to fame in the 1970s, his myriad credits (ranging from Steely Dan, Paul Simon and Charles Mingus to Frank Sinatra, George Benson, and Kate Bush) read like a Who’s Who of the biggest names in rock, jazz and pop. Though renowned for his flawless technique and impeccable playing, Gadd’s sensitivity as a musician is often overlooked – indeed, he’s not the flamboyant, egotistical Buddy Rich-type of drummer soloing in a pyrotechnical manner through every track but instead he always remains faithful to the song he is playing, providing often subtle and understated – but always perfect – accompaniment. This was in evidence at this Cheltenham festival gig, where he only allowed himself one brief solo towards the end of the opening number and the rest of the time stayed out of the spotlight, thereby allowing his band to shine.
And what a band. Gadd’s guitarist was noted session luminary, Michael Landau (who’s played with everyone from Stevie Nicks and Rod Stewart to Joni Mitchell and Donna Summer); on bass was another session veteran, Jimmy Johnson (who played in a band with the late Allan Holdsworth); ex-Frank Zappa trumpeter/flugelhorn player, Walt Fowler; and keyboardist, Kevin Hayes. As you’d expect from musicians of this caliber and experience, everything seemed effortless. They began with a cover of Keith Jarrett’s jaunty ‘The Wind Up,’ followed by a meditative mood piece, the Michael Landau-penned number, The Long Way Home,’ which highlighted his eloquent, blues-tinged guitar playing and some lyrical flugelhorn from Fowler. Both tracks came from the Gadd band’s latest long player, the excellent ‘Way Back Home – Live From Rochester NY,’ which provided the source material for much of the drummer’s absorbing hour-long set. Other highlights of the afternoon included a version of Wilton Felder’s quietly chugging ‘Way Back Home’ and a heartfelt tribute to the late George Duke, called ‘Duke’s Anthem,’ a waltz-time ballad written and led by Walt Fowler’s elegant flugelhorn lines.
Though 72-year-old Steve Gadd was undoubtedly the star attraction here, his band’s set was really an exercise in perfect ensemble playing; of musicians listening to each other and responding in a way that made their interactions seem almost on a telepathic of communication. They made it look easy but, in truth, to achieve that degree of skill and musical empathy was the result of years of hard work and experience. This, then, was a master class that both musicians and non-musicians could learn and gain insight from. It was a privilege to be there.