While electronic instruments are unmatched for versatility and variability, they must often take second place to traditional acoustic instruments for sheer tonal quality and expression. Without sophisticated digital sampling techniques the electro-musician would have to expend a great deal of effort to better the sound of an acoustic guitar, of a gong, a bell or a cymbal, and so these instruments still have a part to play in modern music although displaying a pedigree going back hundreds or even thousands of years.
Zildjian cymbals date from 1623, when a Turkish metallurgist, Avedis Zildjian, discovered almost by accident the correct combination of copper, tin, silver and trace impurities to produce a deeply resonant alloy ideal for cymbal-making. Manufacture was entirely by hand, and the tonal quality of the instrument was so high that cymbals ceased to be an exotic novelty and came into use in military bands and classical music all over the world.
The manufacturing process was handed down from generation to generation, and the 1940's saw the American branch of the family dominating the world of jazz and big band swing music with cymbals which were still of outstanding quality, although often now machine-stamped. In 1979, when the last Avedis Zildjian died, it was decided to reintroduce a range of hand-made Zildjians in the old traditional style, and to name them K. Zildjian cymbals after another member of the family.
On October 13th London's Venue played host to a Zildjian clinic witnessed by hundreds of drummers and other musicians and given by some of the world's top session musicians. Simon Phillips, late of the Jeff Beck group, Stanley Clarke and Friends and the Jack Bruce Band, and a sessioneer with Judas Priest, Greenslade and David Coverdale, demonstrated Avedis Zildjian cymbals as part of a Tama kit. Pete York, insisting that he was now a restaurant owner, had little chance of concealing his background as drummer with the Spencer Davis group and the Chris Barber Jazz Band as he flew around a K. Zildjian/Premier kit. A surprise bonus for heavy rock fans appeared in the form of Jon Lord on Korg keyboards, while Rick Saunders played a hollow-bodied electric violin and Steve Richardson appeared on bass.
A short introduction by Pete York filled in a little of the background and history of the cymbals. Although the K. Zildjian in its original form had a deep mellow sound ideally suited for be-bop and other forms of jazz or swing music, it was capable of a wide range of 'voices' depending on the playing technique used. A short swing solo demonstrated how cup size determines the amount of ring and tuning on a cymbal, and how a cymbal with a flatter cup and fewer overtones can fit in with any piece of music as it approaches polytonality — that is, having no particular pitch.
The K. Zildjian Crash/Ride cymbals, then, are designed for a dry, dark sound with a reasonable amount of sustain, and are available in 18, 20 and 22 inch sizes. The Ride cymbals are a little heavier, intended to give better stick definition to hold a rhythm, and come in the same sizes. Again the dominant sound is low and dark, and this can be emphasised on the 16, 18 or 20 inch Dark Crash which gives shorter sustain as it is a little thinner.
K. Zildjian hi hats, in a range of sizes and matched or unmatched pairs, give what is described as a 'deep solid chip sound' and as the main rhythm-bearing cymbal have to produce great definition and precision.
The manufacturing process helps to produce this high degree of precision and uniformity. The metal alloy is heated at several stages and rolled in different directions to produce a pronounced cross-grain for strength and durability. After these stages the K. Zildjians are hand-hammered into shape, while the Avedis Zildjians are machine-hammered. In either case the meticulous care taken results in a very expressive cymbal, compared to even to top flight machine stamped cymbals such as Paiste or Premier, but generations of drummers have decided that the extra expense is justified.
Steve Richardson's 'Shtick' and Pete York's 'Chicken Chasin' Charlie' then gave the whole band the opportunity to demonstrate how top musicians with high quality instruments and a minimum amount of rehearsal time can turn out music which is exciting, powerful and expressive. Jon Lord's Korg organ ebbed and flowed in his usual inimitable style, the electric violin and bass alternated between swirling, screaming solos and delicate ornamentation, and Pete York's kit held everything together and reinforced the overall jazz/rock feel.
The drum solos displayed a fine degree of precision and an ability to switch from delicate ornamentation to the heaviest dual tom-tom rhythm in an instant. Apart from running through the different 'voices' of the K. Zildjians he showed how tuned and detuned tom-toms could give different effects during rapid fills, and demonstrated his mastery of the whole jazz/rock/swing idiom.
Certainly his modesty in introducing Simon Phillips was largely unnecessary, despite the latter's very high reputation. Simon Phillips was demonstrating the Avedis Zildjian cymbals, and treated the audience to a fifteen-minute solo of unprecedented force and precision.
Phillips plays a dual bass drum Tama kit with a large number of toms and cymbals and an unusual layout which, he says, is necessary for a small person playing a very large kit. His high-hat has become lower over the years until it is almost level with the snare, and the four rack toms are closely spaced low along the front of the kit. There are three floor toms and a wide range of cymbals including the cup less Flat Top Ride mounted almost vertically. Despite this layout Phillips has still had to develop a 'both-handed' style to be able to play everything with sufficient power; the amount of freedom produced by his set-up and style was evident from the very versatile solo which, to his credit, showed how the cymbals fit in as part of a drum kit rather than over-emphasizing the cymbals alone.
A session of questions from the audience revealed some of Phillips' thoughts on practice ("no time any more"), on monitoring ("drums sound better on a PA than they can ever do direct"), on damping ("a Hilton Hotels towel gaffa taped to stop back head ring") and on a host of other subjects. His hints on timing, which enable him to cope with a very active bass drum style, were given a practical demonstration during the final numbers played with the whole band.
The laudable aspect of the whole clinic was that it was practical and illustrative rather than dry and theoretical. Drums and cymbals can be used as rhythmic backing, percussive ornamentation for other musicians' solos, or as solo instruments in their own right. The closing numbers demonstrated all these functions, with the deep and expressive cymbals providing a constant ornamentation and rhythmic pattern. A very successful introduction for a range of professional instruments which are inevitably going to be much sought after for years to come.