The Bill Bruford Simmons Kit Project

My 10 piece, Simmons SDS 9 electronic drum kit was actually inspired by drummer Bill Bruford's Simmons SDS 7 kit, and the music of his 1987 groups; Earthworks, David Torn's Cloud About Mercury and Kazumi Watanabe. Following his forward thinking and Rototom driven solo group, Bruford burst back onto the scene with the Simmons electronic drums in 1981 with the reincarnated King Crimson, using the brand new Simmons SDS 5 kit and pads. After the success of that tour, Bruford would receive the new SDS 7 kit, and put them to good use during subsequent tours with King Crimson and others, before moving on to the ill-fated Simmons SDX.

I was fortunate to see Bruford's original Earthworks group, featuring Iain Ballamy, Django Bates and Mick Hutton at least 4 times; in Boston, two shows in NYC and in Washington DC. Seeing me outside of D.C.'s Bayou nightclub, and wearing a new Earthworks t-shirt; (I got it from one of Robert Fripp's guitar students-turned drum tech), Bruford asked me how I got that shirt. I told him I'd seen him at all of the aforementioned shows; he laughed and told me I deserved the "Bruford medal of valour". I thanked him and said "This is how I spend my summer vacation. It was then that he said m to me, "You look remarkably like Billy Cobham..." After the show, I was allowed onto the stage an watch the disassembly of the kit Bruford dubbed, "The Beast"...

Bruford would tour again with David Torn's "Cloud About Mercury" group, featuring the late Mick Karn and Michael White; I was lucky to catch them right after moving to L.A... His shows with Kazumi Watanabe were seen only in Japan. These were the last performances using that particular drum set-up before Bruford would move back into the world of King Crimson again and duo performances with Patrick Moraz using the Simmons SDS 9.

Needless to say they all blew my mind, and Bruford's use of those all-black Simmons drums were nothing short of amazing. Back in those days, I was also working quite a bit with my friend Stephen Bray and Madonna. Bray had several electronic kits lying around; Yamaha, Roland, Simmons, and Madonna's keyboard player/producer Patrick Leonard even had a Dynacord Rhythm Stick I could play around with. The fast moving world of electronic percussion eventually saw Bray moving away from the Simmons and into the world of the Linn Drum and programming, so the "old" SDS 9 kit gathering dust in the studio ultimately became mine.

Bruford came to NAMM that year, demonstrating the new Simmons SDX with drummer Chester Thompson, and made a few in store appearances at Guitar Center in L.A... As fate would have it; I did some side work for Guitar Center, and got my hands on 5 of those "in store" Simmons SDS 9 pads; bought some extra Ultimate Support Drum Rack extensions and my 1988 "Bruford" kit was nearly complete.

I couldn't afford the outrageously over priced SDS 7 brain, or the DX 21 Bruford used, however Roland was already well on the way to putting Simmons out of business with their user friendly and quite affordable brain: The Roland PM-16 MIDI interface! 16 inputs, layering, multiple MIDI channels per pad, and I was good to go. I added an assortment Alesis D4 and DMPro drum modules, an Akai S9000 sampler, and with some great programming by my chum Seth Elgart, a Yamaha TX-7 module I got from Bray to duplicate Bruford's Yamaha DX-21 sounds. After seeing Bruford and the videos of his performances, I taught my self how to play many of his tunes using that kit; patterns rhythmic figures and the like.

That came in handy and for the next few years, I put the kit to good use in a variety of settings, recordings and performances; in Boston with my group "Feat of Clay" (which covered some of the music of Cloud About Mercury), in Dallas and NY with Steve Ellison's "Bangtime"; my duo "K2" with Seth Elgart; in DC with the Zappa tribute band "The Other People", my first incarnation of the "Unidentified Flying Quartet", and later "The Madmen", with Drummstick bandmates Jack Wright and Neil Mezebish.

By 1995, I'd begun to build what would become my original, digital MIDI drum controller, "The Drummstick". That took a life of it's own and set me on the path I still tread today. As time wore on, I loved not having to cart the "Beast" or any other  kit around! In 2007, bought my first Zendrum, and in 2013, bought the very first "Zendrum EXP", made to be played more vertically, (just like the Drummstick) and was honored to be featured with it in digitalDrummer magazine.

Still seems like yesterday, but 20 years have passed since those halcyon days. Technology in the world of digital percussion has far surpassed the 1980s, even so, after Bruford's infamous SDX equipment meltdown during the Yes re-Union tour, he refused to use the Simmons or any other electronic drum equipment, heralding the era of the all-acoustic Earthworks and his subsequent retirement from public performance in 2008. Bruford told me that "Everything is designed to go bad..."

Nevertheless, the electronic drum world continues to grow; Yamaha and Roland still dominate the market; Ddrum, Alesis and even Simmons has made something of a comeback. That being said, I never cared for the look of the modern electronic drum pads. Call it nostalgia, but nothing compared to the iconic hexagonal look of the Simmons; even they have abandoned their iconic hexagonal look in favor of the circular style.

Recently, I've been working on a variety of projects that re-visit the classic, fusion music of the 1970s, like pieces by the Mahavishnu Orchestra with composer Steve McQuarry, using my Billy Cobham inspired kit. Then the thought occurred to me;  "Why not revisit some of the music of Bruford with the Simmons kit?"

A quick visit to the Simmons online museum, gave me all the info I needed for refurbishing my old pads (with Kiwi Express shoe polish!), and links to ebay to replace a few of the pads and tom holders that were on their last legs. I'd taken very good care storing the kit over the years, which saved my bacon, and my friend Jim Lang gave me a bunch of old, black, Ultimate Support tubes to update my drum rack. Since I've been using the Zendrums, I've gotten a variety of MacBooks and software over the years; BFD2, GarageBand, iDrum, Logic Pro, etc. I've still got a bunch of Roland PM-16s lying around, but I couldn't bring my self to use it's 1986 technology anymore, so I've updated it with an Alesis DM10 and a MacBook Air for all of his sounds and samples. The latency issues with the PM-16 were gone, and before I knew it, the Bruford Simmons kit was reborn!


I've also outfitted it with an old Viking 14" x 6.5" snare, with a Pintech trigger mounted inside and a Hart Dynamic Magnum mesh head. I've got my pair of Mackie SRM 450 watt monitors, or my 500 watt Barbetta SE 41 for live performances and my Raxxess rack with a Mackie 1602 Mixer, Alesis NanoVerb, PreSonus AudioBox and the old Alesis D4 for those classic '80s sounds if I need them. Don't get me wrong, these pads aren't anywhere near as responsive as mesh heads or the newer technology, but I use the ProMark "HotRods", another thing I learned from Bruford playing on the often unforgiving surfaces.

It is interesting to note that like Bruford, I also use an acoustic snare and cymbals, (mine however are all Zildjians, not Paiste), and the percussion stand that duplicated the one Bruford used in his Earthworks/David Torn kit, (he used a remote hi-hat with Kazumi Watanabe), with cowbells and wood blocks. I'll be recording and performing with this kit in 2016, alongside fellow Feat of Clay bandmate, trumpeter Eric Dahlman, and with FutureJazz founder, guitarist Peter McKibben, (McKibben's group ironically featured one of the newer Simmons kits!).

Bruford would return with the aforementioned SDX kit with his second Earthworks line-up for the "Dig?" tour, ("Every time I'd get used to playing and learning on one kit, Simmons would take it away and give me the new one..."), however by the time he returned with the 1990s "All Heaven Broke Loose" Earthworks tour, the kit more resembled his hybrid acoustic/electric kit with Patrick Moraz. The days of the all-Simmons kits were gone; the "wall of pads" he used with King Crimson and Yes were no more, and when the $10,000.00 SDX and it's back up died during a solo with Alan White at Madison Square Garden, his relationship with Simmons had finally come to an end.  For those of us that were lucky enough to have caught Bruford in that brief window in time, witnessed the birth of electronic drumming that had never been seen before; "chordal drumming", melodies, tuned sounds and samples that gave rise to the world of electronic percussion we live in now. I'll be forever grateful.

The Bill Bruford Rototom Kit Project

One of my biggest musical influences was drummer Bill Bruford and the late '70s and early 1980 albums, "Feels Good To Me", "One of A Kind" and "Gradually Going Tornado", featuring his amazing-sounding Remo Rototom kit. Originally developed by Al Payson and Michael Colgrass, it was Bruford who really put them on the map when he first started using the rototoms during his stint with the prog-rock super-group, U.K. I was fortunate to see that band, featuring bassist John Wetton, keyboards/violinist Eddie Jobson and guitarist Allan Holdsworth in 1978, at the old Painter's Mill in Maryland when they opened for guitarist Al DiMeola. Bruford only used a 14" and an 18" rototom with that group, however their power and ability to cut through guitars and synthesizers were quite evident. They were amazing, however the band was short-lived, with Bruford and Holdsworth leaving after only one album.

After Bruford left U.K. he began his own group, featuring Holdsworth, bassist Jeff Berlin and keyboardist Dave Stewart, and added yet another 14" rototom at a higher pitch. I would see the new Bruford group twice more, in 1979 and 1980, however Holdsworth left before the U.S. tours and was replaced by his protege, the "unknown" John Clark. even without Holdsworth, the Bruford groups were still amazing. The sound of the rototoms had a huge effect on me, so much so that I bought 3 rototoms, (two 14" and one 16" rototoms), before moving to NYC in 1980. I was fortunate to hook up with my long-time musical partner, keyboardist Seth Elgart; we rented a space from Saturday Night drummer Buddy Williams and the use of his Ludwig kit at NYC's fabled Music Building on 8th Avenue. They didn't go un-noticed and I soon found myself playing them with the likes of Brian Eno, the group The Same (featuring keyboardist Carter Burwell, bassist Stanley Adler, Stephen Bray), Madonna and the Breakfast Club! 

Bruford's group came to an end in 1980; a live album "The Bruford Tapes" and a DVD called "Rock Goes to College" are all that remain of that band and that kit. Bruford would pair down to a single 14" rototom when King Crimson reconvened in 1981, but his rototom kit would be gone forever. Drummer Terry Bozzio would play his version of the rototom kit; a double bass, five rototom affair in the post-Bruford U.K., but the days of the rototom kits had come to an end. Before moving to LA, I sold my rototoms and like Bruford and many others during the '80s, delved into the new world of electronics; Simmons, Dynacord, Roland and Yamaha drums.

While in Boston 1990, I purchased the three new rototoms I have to this day. During my more recent quest to build a hybrid acoustic, electronic kit, I thought I'd try my hand at converting old rototoms ala Bruford. My first replicated version is a Ddrum kit that features the same sized Rototoms as Bruford (two 14" and one 18"), plus Ddrum RedShot triggers on every drum. 

I researched a variety of mesh heads; Hart Dynamic Magnums and Maxxums were being used on my Ddrum kit already, but I decided to try out the Remo Silent Stroke heads. They were extremely quiet, and responsive. Using the Alesis Trigger I/O and a MacBook Pro, I was able to trigger not only every sampled sound in my library, but actual rototom samples. It was kind of strange, but a nice surprise. I actually ended up mounting a Pintech trigger inside the bass drum; (the Ddrum bass trigger never seemed to behave properly), and used an old Viking 6.5" x 14" snare with yet another Pintech inside.

The Ddrum/Rototom kit worked great, but nothing sounds like an acoustic rototom. With that in mind, it was time to strip off the mesh heads and add some Evans clear hydraulic heads. For an upcoming recording project, I decided to use parts of my Gretsch kit, my 22" x 16" bass drum, 16" x 16" floor tom, and my 6.5" x 14" Tama Snare. The one thing about the acoustic rototoms is that they are extremely loud, with tons of attack and a bit of ring when using rim shots. The "clanging and all-mighty clattering sound" that Bruford raved about all those years ago, is what made the rototoms famous. Even back in the '80s, (often without the benefit of great EQ), I usually had to muffle the rototoms with a little padding, to take out a bit of the ring and the overtones.

After listening to those Bruford albums again, and watching the video of his 1979 group, I was able to tune the kit accordingly and lo and behold, that classic sound was back. Clearly the rototom kit can't be used for all situations, and as I found out back in 1980, they seem to sound and work best in an electrically charged, environment with electric piano, organ, synths, electric guitar and bass. The textures generated by organ and synth chords seem to be perfect for the those cascading rototom fills, flams and paradiddles, just as they did with Bruford. Fortunately for me, I'm involved in a few projects right now, where playing them in that unique, prog-rock style works wonderfully.


With my rekindled love affair with the rototoms, I have to give kudos to my man John Kelman of All About Jazz for his insightful reviews of the 1978-'80 Bill Bruford remasters and bonus tracks, (especially the live, previously unreleased "Manacles"; perhaps a pre-cursor to Bruford's drum solo on King Crimson's "Discipline"!)... It's been fun revisiting these albums and DVD alongside his well researched and informative writing... You can read his articles and more here: and and

Bruford's music continues to inspire me, some 35 years later; My favorite examples of him and his rototoms can be heard on tunes from his debut album "Feels Good To Me" like "Beelzebub" and "Sample and Hold"; His next album, "One Of A Kind" album with "Hells Bells", "Fainting in Coils", "Forever Until Sunday", "The Abingdon Chasp", "Travels With Myself and Someone Else"; "Land's End" and "Q.E.D.", on "Gradually Going Tornado"; and the 1979 live album "The Bruford Tapes". His live DVD from Oxford Polytechnic captures them wonderfully and his book, "When In Doubt, Roll" breaks down many of those tunes for study, notation and insight. I'll try to do the master justice when I record  my next album this summer in San Francisco with keyboardist Seth Elgart and a few nifty combinations of guitarists and bassists! Stay tuned...

Resonance Jazz Comes to the SF Jazz Center

Resonance Jazz Ensemble, the Bay Area’s one-of-a-kind jazz octet premieres new works pushing the jazz envelope in their “Fearless Force” concert at the SF Jazz Center’s Robert A. Miner Auditorium this Saturday night at 8:00 pm. The band will introduce new compositions by band members with arrangements of jazz and rock standards by Pianist and Bandleader, Steve McQuarry. Acknowledged by jazz reviewers for “offering a rich fusion of orchestral and big band sounds, with emotional character blending textures and colors of jazz that creates a harmonic canvas of pure delight,” Resonance Jazz Ensemble breaks ground adding strings to the traditional jazz sound.

Unusual Instrumentation

With an unusual blend of instrumentation that includes violin, viola, cello, sax, flute, piano, bass and drums, the band melds classical with jazz artists and styles into new compositions as well as works from their CD “Introductions”. Reviewers describe this unusual texture of sound explaining: “RESONANCE collectively pushes the jazz envelope with a fearlessness that forces uncharted space for exhilarating musical exploration. . . offering an enlightened landscape of musical shades.” Audiences will experience the force and breadth of McQuarry’s arrangements weaving textured layers into compositions by familiar jazz greats including Dave Brubeck, Chick Correa, Billie Holliday, Fats Waller, Carole King, Fleetwood Mac, and Sting.

Impressive Musical Pedigree with Women up Front

This Bay Area group hails members with a collectively mature history of performing with legendary artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Jethro Tull, Joe Lovano, Clare Fischer, Dave Anderson Quartet, Mingus Amungus, Gloria Estefan, as well as symphonies and the California Pops Orchestra. Five of the musicians are women playing up front – unusual for jazz where primarily singers, rather than instrumentalists, perform on the front line. This is also the first performance by a local jazz group at the SF Jazz Center, the largest facility dedicated to jazz in the US. In addition to Resonance’s debut, McQuarry is slated to bring several more projects to SF Jazz, including a concert featuring the works of pianist Carla Bley.

Resonance Jazz Ensemble
SF Jazz Center
201 Franklin Street, San Francisco, CA
Saturday, October 18th at 8 pm. Tickets are $25.

McQuarry, Kleinman & Smith Trio at the Cadillac Hotel

MKS Live3
Keyboardist Steve McQuarry, bassist Craig Kleinman and drummer E. “Doc” Smith will be bringing their brand of electric jazz and fusion to the Cadillac Hotel on Friday, September 19th @ 12:30 pm. The MKS Trio will be performing the music of Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, Catalyst, Jaco Pastorius and Billy Cobham. Concerts at the Cadillac is a free concert series open to the public. The purpose is to provide high-quality music for the residents of the Cadillac Hotel and San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. Everyone is welcome. Dedicated to the power of music to uplift and inspire.

The Cadillac Hotel is also home to the Patricia Walkup Memorial Piano, a meticulously restored 1884 Steinway Model D concert grand piano. The case is of Indian Rosewood and the old growth spruce soundboard is the piano’s original. The piano spent its first 70 years or so in a castle in Holyoke, Massachusetts. It was shipped from New Haven, Connecticut, to the Cadillac Hotel in June, 2007. This beautiful instrument is maintained on a regular basis by Shawn Skylark (Registered Piano Technician, Piano Technicians Guild).

McQuarry grew up in a home filled with his Mom’s piano playing, in Denver Colorado.  He studied at the Eastman School of Music, University of Colorado at Denver, Berklee School Of Music, University Of California San Diego and Alexander University. He is an active member of the Audio Engineering Society (AES), the performance rights organization, Broadcast Musicians, Inc. (BMI), the Electronic Music Foundation (EMF), the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers (ASMAC), the Society For Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS) and Chamber Music America (CMA).

McQuarry has performed with distinguished artists such as the late Dizzy Gillespie, Clare Fischer, Louie Bellson, Red Rodney (Charlie Parker), Tom Scott, the late John Cage, Laurie Anderson, Vinnie Colaiuta (Sting, Herbie Hancock, Frank Zappa), Nathan East (Eric Clapton, Herbie Hancock, Bob James), Bill Rich (Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Miles, Taj Mahal), the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and Billy Cobham.

McQuarry and Kleinman met a dozen years ago, during their days of playing clubs in and around San Diego. After both relocated to the Bay Area, they reunited and sought out a project that would allow each to explore McQuarry’s electric jazz keyboard wizardry, as well as the fusion music of Miles Davis, Jan Hammer, Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul and Jaco Pastorius and Billy Cobham. McQuarry recommended Smith, a like-minded soul from his work with bassist Edo Castro, and after a few sessions, the McQuarry, Kleinman & Smith trio was born.

In addition to this recent project, McQuarry leads several ensembles, including his critically acclaimed Resonance Jazz Octet, (which will make it SF Jazz Center debut on October 18th); the Stephen McQuarry Trio with Resonance alum Ted Burik and Greg German; an all-horn and woodwind ensemble; an electric quartet with Resonance’s Michele Walther on electric violin, Burik and Smith; and is composing and recording on his indie label, Mandala Records as well as working on orchestration projects in the film community. McQuarry explained that someday you might even find him “on a pink sand beach with Sherre eating a conch salad…”

McQuarry, Kleinman & Smith Trio
Cadillac Hotel, 380 Eddy Street, SF @ 12:30 pm
Admission: Free

Here's a video from the performance...

Jeff Coffin and the Mu'tet's "Side Up"

Saxophonist Jeff Coffin and his “Mu’tet”, truly defy musical categories, and obliterate musical boundaries with their take-home-with-you compositions, their mind-bending solos and their swirling, danceable odd rhythms and exotic world music influences. Their previous effort, 2012’s “Into the Air” and 2011’s “Jeff Coffin & the Mu’tet Live!”; (a double CD described as “over the top funky and burning with energy and killer tunes). Coffin & the Mu’tet throw down and bring out the music lover in everyone. The album was released on the Ear Up Records label, and recorded live at SPACE (Chicago/Evanston, IL) and at MOMO’S (Austin, TX) in 2010/2011. Coffin and the Mu’tet, (last seen at Yoshi’s on Fillmore a few months ago with special guests George Brooks on saxophone and bassist Kai Eckhardt joining for the encore), returns with a new album, “Side Up”, featuring his fellow Flecktone bandmate Roy “Futureman” Wooten, (replacing drummer Jeff Sipe from the previous album), Felix Pastorius(bassist with the Yellowjackets & son of Jaco Pastorius) on electric bass, Bill Fanning on trumpet/space trumpet and Chris Walters on acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Hammond B-3 organ & melodica.

As was the case with the previous Mu’tet CDs, Coffin collaborated with various members of the band during the writing of the music.“I came up with a basic working model for the tunes and then we fleshed it out from there”, say Coffin. “These guys are all composers and their ideas really spark some beautiful creative, compositional moments. We’re all open to the variety of possibilities that exist and I’m grateful for their input and creativity.”

Also joining the Mu’tet on Side Up are a number of equally world class, top call, guest musicians, including the Bay Area’s Zakir Hussein. From tabla to tambourine, harp to harmonium, horns to harmonica, this recording embodies Coffin’s musical vision as a bandleader, composer and instrumentalist. Coffin again reaches into a deep musical well with this astonishing new studio recording – and his always accessible, memorable, sometimes haunting, original compositions continue to be influenced by diverse cultures of music from around the globe.

For his review of Side Up, Brent Black of Critical Jazz aptly summed up some of the best tunes on the new album; “Scratch That Itch” is a funk laden jazz nasty that showcases the horn effects and may well be the signature tune for the release. The groove you can use might well be the Coffin tune “Steppin’ Up” which takes the changes from Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and sets them to a new melody while dropping in a NOLA nasty second line back beat just to keep it interesting. Done everyday right? The deceptively subtle odd metered Low Hanging Groove has a smoldering blues like underbelly while the Caribbean type swing has a percussive pop and a true collective sound not JC and four after thoughts. Another true gem would be the closer “Albert’s Blue Sky” an exquisite open ended gospel influenced tune that touches the heart.

A virtually flawless release from one of the most in demand saxophonists and educators in the country. While the jazz genre may be in trouble, Jeff Coffin and artists like him will never let jazz die. You take what you know and what you like and you move past that, my theory as a writer and I think Jeff might agree not bad advice for a musician…” I couldn’t agree more. That being said, I really enjoyed the Mu’tet’s previous albums, 2008’s “Mutopia”, 2011’s “Live” and 2012’s “Into the Air”. Truly, there is not another band quite like Jeff Coffin & the Mu’tet.