Alyn Cosker - Traps the Drum Wonder's successor
Actors dream of playing King Lear and Hamlet. A great soprano will likely have had Verdi and Puccini’s heroines in her sights from an early age and a jazz drummer, well, jazz musicians generally want to find their own voices but for a drummer one of the ultimate challenges has to be filling Buddy Rich’s shoes.
The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s resident drum stool occupant, Alyn Cosker certainly thinks so. Cosker, who will be the main focus of attention in the orchestra’s Buddy Rich tribute, Traps, the Drum Wonder, this weekend has been in awe of Rich since his father showed him a video of Rich guesting with Frank Sinatra, just after Cosker took up the drums at the age of thirteen.
He has listened to Rich’s recordings avidly, studied videos and DVDs of him in action and found both solace and healthy doses of reality in going back to his favourites. So when the SNJO’s director, Tommy Smith, brought up the idea of a Rich tribute, Cosker was over the moon. Then he remembered those listening sessions when he’d thought he was making good progress, only to be brought back down to earth with a bump, and almost had a panic attack.
“I can remember my dad putting on that Sinatra video for the first time and just not being able to believe what I was seeing and hearing,” says Cosker of Rich whose career began at the tender age of eighteen months as Traps, the Drum Wonder and included spells with Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey in the big band era as well as gigs and recordings with fellow jazz icons Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Art Tatum.
“I’d been listening to a lot of Mitch Mitchell, Roger Taylor from Queen and things like Rush, which were all quite dynamic from the drumming point of view. But here was Buddy, playing West Side Story, which we’ll be playing on the tribute concerts, and he just had such style and gracefulness. He had incredible technique and he was a real showman, of course, but what knocked me out immediately were his breadth of dynamics – he could play with the subtlest of touches as well as making all these bombastic explosions – and his immense musicality. When he played a solo, sure, there was lots going on but through it all you could hear the melody and the form of the tune he was soloing on. It just seemed to flow out of him.”
The drums weren’t Cosker’s first instrument. His dad, Jim, played piano and encouraged Alyn to follow suit, but after beginning piano lessons at the age of six, he found too many extra-musical attractions until his older brother, also Jim, took up the drums. At school in Ayrshire there was a band called the Dream Teddies, whose drummer, Ross Cooney, Cosker remembers as “the coolest guy on the planet.” Here was a role model and as soon as Jim senior realised that Alyn was serious about emulating his local hero, drum lessons were arranged.
Just how seriously Alyn applied himself can be judged by the offer of a scholarship from Berklee College of Music he received following auditions in Glasgow when he’d been playing drums for just three years. He didn’t actually take up the chance to go to America’s most prestigious music performance school – he felt he was too young at the time - and even after re-auditioning later, he decided that he would do just as well on Strathclyde University’s applied music course.
“By that time I’d had a lot of good advice from people like my original drum tutor, Chris Killen, who was a professional player, and I was already getting good experience with different bands,” he says. “So I never really felt that I missed out by not going to Berklee, although a lot of people from Scotland have obviously now benefited from going there.”
Cosker’s passage from Strathclyde student to full-time professional was almost seamless. A player who adds as much to a band by listening to his colleagues as he does through his alert and finely tuned playing, he quickly became established on the Scottish jazz scene and his versatility found him work as a session musician and as the regular drummer with popular folk-rock band Wolfstone. Hue & Cry, Isobel Campbell, of Belle & Sebastian, Martin Pellow, of Wet Wet Wet, singer-songwriter Amy McDonald and former Young Scottish Traditional Musician of the Year Emily Smith are just some of Cosker’s other clients from the rock, pop and folk worlds.
It’s the range of his work with SNJO since joining in 2004, and memorable gigs playing the ultra-demanding rhythm patterns of Venezuelan pianist Leo Blanco at Aberdeen Jazz Festival in 2007 and inspiring Norwegian master double bassist Arild Andersen at Edinburgh Jazz Festival last August, however, that make Cosker a natural for the Buddy Rich role. Already having a reputation for solid preparation – his command of his parts for SNJO’s Stan Kenton tribute has been remarked upon often – he has been boning up on Rich at every opportunity since Tommy Smith told him to put the gigs in his diary.
“Tommy and I discussed the programme early on, so I’ve had quite a long time to go back and listen to all the CDs involved and think about how to approach it,” he says. “But you learn so much from watching someone like Buddy and there are things he does, little things like the way he holds his sticks differently on certain passages, things that I might not normally do but I’m going to bring them in. The idea is to give a good snapshot of the period, so I’ll change the way I set up my kit and incorporate cymbal patterns that were popular at the time but are maybe not used so much now. I’m never going to be Buddy Rich but it’s fascinating trying to get into his character.”
So does stopping short at becoming Buddy Rich mean that he doesn’t get to harangue the band on the bus after the gigs, as numerous tapes and YouTube clips will attest was Rich’s wont?
“I think they’d just laugh at me if I tried that,” says Cosker, who follows up the Rich tribute with an album and tour in May by his own trio. “Buddy was pretty fierce, although he could also be a charmer and he had a great sense of humour – you can hear that in his playing – and he could laugh at himself. There’s a great clip of him being interviewed by Michael Parkinson and being shown a picture of himself as Traps, the Drum Wonder and he says that it was so long ago that it could have been a different person but at least he was holding his sticks right.”
From The Herald, March