Swinging Into the New Year: Pete Siers and the King of Swing


Pete Siers

Pete Siers is a good man on the drums.

“It's a sense of melody, harmony, rhythm, and simplicity that is of interest to all of us,” said drummer Pete Siers about what Benny Goodman's music means to him.

In fact, Siers is so in love with the King of Swing's sound, his band recorded a second CD dedicated to the great clarinetist: Goodman and Beyond Vol.II. The band will celebrate the release by swinging into the new year at the sold out Kerrytown Concert House on Saturday, December 31. Siers will be accompanied by the virtuosic pianist Tad Weed and clarinetist Dave Bennett, a Goodman devotee.

The Ann Arbor-based Siers is focused on the core elements of jazz -- swing, improvisation, etc. -- but he’s not bound by tradition. Instead, his concept is to expand on those vital elements and take jazz into a personal realm, which has always been the objective of any skilled musician not dictated to by commercial constraints. Siers also considers Goodman’s music to be modern as opposed to vintage because, given the entire history of music, jazz is chronologically modern.

And it’s not just Goodman-era jams that Siers explores. From big bands, working with boogie-woogie pianist Mr. B, organ combos, and the progressive Freedom Ensemble with Weed, Siers has covered the jazz universe.

Siers came to Ann Arbor from Western Michigan alongside longtime rhythm mate bassist Paul Keller in the 1980s and has been here ever since. He’s the No. 1 on-call drummer in the area, combining immaculate taste, exciting power, and melodic content. He's also played Carnegie Hall with this band, worked with the Ron Brooks Trio, and came back recently from a major recording project in Toronto.

Still, Siers emphasizes the basics in his music with jazz being the common thread no matter the era, style, musicians with whom he’s playing. With his current drums-piano-clarinet trio, the group keeps finding new ways to explore swing-era jazz.

“Our collaborations keep crossing this path over and over. We have all smitten and fallen in love with it,” Siers said. “The unique part is that it is raw and there's no base. The roles change between us and there's more room. For instance, I use a bigger bass drum so I can allow it to speak and not intrude to get a more muddy existence. That is refreshing and since we started dabbling in it, it has grown for us.”

The trio’s Goodman and Beyond Vol. II CD also pays tribute to longtime Goodman collaborator and drummer Gene Krupa, who had arranged some Japanese folk songs for jazz while touring the post-war country.

“Searching out what the Krupa trio did in in the late 1940s and early 1950s, I exhausted what I could find until my friend Terry Kimora asked if I had been aware of their sides cut in Japan,” Siers said. “He said Gene was the first to play for the Japanese public after the war and was a huge star. Norman Granz found out about these tunes and banned them from the U.S. The public never got to hear them, but Terry found them on YouTube, and we recorded two of them for the new CD: ‘Bridge Over Ruined Castle’ and ‘Badger's Party.’”

The trio came together because Siers, Weed, and Bennett have worked together on many other projects, but Goodman isn’t the only composer the drummer would like to explore with this lineup: “I want to explore the music of Raymond Scott approach with a novelty side,” he said.

In fact, it sounds like Siers feels like he could play anything with this group, heaping praise on Weed and Bennett.

“It's like a pitcher of water,” Siers says of pianist Weed: “When he opens that channel he can emote from a deep spot and the ideas pour out. It can be dense, abstract, beautiful, sparse, the whole gamut of colors and so much experience behind it. At times we can push each other into places we would not normally go.”

Bennett is the upfront focal point of this trio, but his musical skills go beyond playing swing clarinet. “He has a sweet teasing sound on clarinet, a virtuoso for sure,” Siers said. “He has a huge base of interests. He's self-taught. He loves early roots rock, blues, and boogie woogie piano, [he’s] a competent rockabilly-style guitarist, and quite a good singer. These things in his arsenal will keep him out there and his longevity is just starting to blossom -- he's a quadruple threat.”

But all those diverse talents have to coalesce in a very specific way for this trio: “In order to play jazz you have to know how to swing,” Siers reiterated. “You can be modern, but I do what the music calls for. My mantra has been since my experience playing and recording with [guitarist] Russell Malone is to swing as hard as I can. Aside from technical jargon, it's about being able to manifest the music and allow it to pass through you and then you add something to it.

“With this combination, we can't help but put our own stamp on it, and we understand how high the bar is,” Siers continued. “It might not sound just like Benny, but we will toy with the elements constantly. We get along like brothers and my direction to give has been pretty spare on my part because I know what they're capable of and don't want to put a gate on it.”

Michael G. Nastos is known as a veteran radio broadcaster, local music journalist, and event promoter/producer. He is a former music director and current super sub on 88.3 WCBN-FM Ann Arbor, founding member, Lifetime Achievement award winner and founding member of SEMJA, the Southeastern Michigan Jazz Association, Board of Directors member of the Michigan Jazz Festival, votes in the annual Detroit Music Awards and Down Beat Magazine, NPR Music and El Intruso Critics Polls, and writes monthly for Hot House Magazine in New York City.

The Pete Siers Trio perform Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Kerrytown Concert House, 415 N. Fourth Ave. in Ann Arbor. It’s sold out, but you can get on the waiting list by calling 734-769-2999.