Q&A with jazz drummer and faculty member Marko Marcinko

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Marko Marcinko is so busy, he can’t miss a beat lest he lose the rhythm. The Penn State School of Music’s director of jazz studies and accomplished drummer crisscrosses the Keystone State to fulfill his duties as full-time faculty member, professional musician, band leader, jazz festival organizer and nonprofit founder.

He has performed with a musician’s who’s who, including Paquito D’Rivera, Joe Henderson, Bucky Pizzarelli, Michael Brecker, John Legend, Joe Lovano, Kurt Elling, Clay Aiken and Connie Francis. He even landed a multiyear touring and recording engagement with jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson and his Big Bop Nouveau band.

He now performs weekly in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area with The Marko Marcinko Jazz Quartet and the Ruth’s Chris Jazz Trio, as well as numerous gigs with Music for Models and The Organik Vibe Trio.

Marcinko took time to share some insight on how to theoretically approach a drum kit. And, for the record, there’s no such thing as a right- or left-handed drummer.

Question: I’ve read on more than one instance a jazz drummer generally decrying rock drumming techniques and ability and, therefore, talent. What are the major differences between playing jazz drums vs. rock drums?

Answer: The major differences are “the touch,” or how hard you strike the drums; “the feel,” which is a more complicated use of four-limb independence; and the creative liberties you have with jazz vs. rock.

Q: Where does a quality strike come from — the fingers, wrist, elbow, shoulder?

A: The stick needs to rebound off the drum head. The fingers and wrist contribute first, and the elbow is used in a different style of stroke.

Q: What happens to a rock song (or song of another genre) that’s being played in the jazz tradition?

A: We refer to this as a fusion. It’s most likely changing the groove or feel and advancing the harmonic structure of the rock song to fit the jazz language.

Q: So when jazz sensibilities “touch” another genre, does that make the resultant work “jazz”?

A: More or less, yes.

Q: There are a number of drummers who also play other instruments or who started on a different instrument (including one of your own instructors, Joe Morello, who started on violin, and Birdland All-Stars bandleader Tommy Igoe, who started on piano). You also play various other instruments. How does playing another instrument help with mastering the drums, or is it an extension of a well-rounded musical vocabulary?

A: It is truly an extension of one’s musicianship and a well-rounded vocabulary. The drums will deliver a wide percentage of music, but having the ability to play other instruments can make your creativity and musical knowledge extremely vast. You can then communicate at a higher level with other musicians.

Q: As a professional musician and educator, what is one of your biggest challenges in relating your expertise to music students or to the casual listener?

A: To be a performing and educating professional musician is hard work and has many challenges to mastering the craft. You cannot just talk about it. You must work the craft in practice and in performance. Only then can you achieve expertise. Most that hear and witness musicians perform think, “Wow! What you do is fun.” They are correct in their statement but usually never think of the painstaking hours, days, weeks, months and years that go into creating that “fun.”

Q: You divide your time between performing live in northeastern Pennsylvania and fulfilling your duties as the School of Music’s director of jazz studies. How does live performance enhance your role as an educator?

A: Live performing keeps your “chops” up. This word refers to technique, listening, interacting and musical sensibility. All of these things are needed in the classroom and all must be explained and demonstrated to the student.

Q: According to Vice in 2012, “(Rush musician) Neil Peart’s drum set goes all the way around him, like a small grocery store. There are sixty-five cymbals.” In 2014, Frank Zappa/Missing Persons drummer Terry Bozzio toured the United States playing “the world’s largest tuned drum and percussion set.” And I won’t even mention Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee’s roller coaster and cage drum kits. Oops.) Drum kits: Is bigger better?

A: No.

Q: Drum solos: How long is too long?

A: When people start looking at their watch or smartphone, it’s too long!

Q: What might some methods to the drum solo madness be, and what’s your method?

A: There are so many ways that a solo can be approached. It depends on the kind of drummer you may be; the influences one may have listened to; technique, emotional content, style of drumming and musical context. It is a complicated answer because great soloing comes from hard work.

Q: Rock Band (the video game): a waste of time or entryway into real musicianship?

A: It’s a game, and it’s fun to play. There’s no need to look at it as an entryway. But, if that may occur? Then great!

Heather Longley is a communications specialist at the Center for the Performing Arts. Learn more about Marko Marcinko online.

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Last Updated December 15, 2017