February 09, 2021
Paul Wells is a New York City based jazz drummer and educator. He tours internationally with Curtis Stigers and is a member of Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks. He has also performed and/or recorded with Deborah Harry, Joe Williams, The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, The Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra, and Kristin Chenoweth. You can hear him on the soundtracks of The Irishman, Joker, Boardwalk Empire, and you can see him on screen in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and The Wizard Of Lies. He is also a contributing writer for Modern Drummer magazine, and a Professor of Jazz Drums at The Juilliard School.
Here's our chat with Paul:
Can you pick out any favorites from your work that you're particularly proud of?
I recently recorded an album of music from Walt Disney films with saxophonist Adrian Cunningham called “Professor Cunningham and his Old School Swings the Songs of Disney.” Adrian wrote some fantastic arrangements of some classic and obscure Disney music, and I’m quite proud of how it came out.
Also, one of the final recordings that The Nighthawks made for Boardwalk Empire was a version of “I Surrender Dear” featuring Elvis Costello on vocals. Elvis insisted on tracking his vocal live with the band, and it was an incredible experience to hear his iconic voice and phrasing coming through my headphones while we played. You can hear that on the “Boardwalk Empire Volume 3” release.
Over the past few years, I’ve worked with a marvelous violinist and composer named Meg Okura, with her Pan-Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble. I absolutely love her writing, and it’s both challenging and fun music to play.
A few years ago, I recorded an album of big band music by a wonderful composer named Patrick Lui. That’s finally being released soon as an album called “Sonder” on Sony Records.
Back in my rock and roll days, I played in a band called Spiraling. I recently revisited those records, and they still sound pretty good to me.
In 2007, I toured with Debbie Harry - so far, my only foray into proper rock touring. That was incredibly fun, but sadly not well documented.
How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?
I am simply a drummer who likes to be as supportive and complementary as possible to whatever musical task I get asked to do. I’m not particularly interested in reinventing the wheel - I’ll leave that to the true innovators. I just like to provide solid support and inspiration to the other musicians I’m playing with. I also spend time trying to understand the history of the music I play, so that if I get called to recreate an older style, I can approach it as authentically as possible. Also, the more we understand a musician’s life and struggles, the more we can appreciate their music.
How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?
I stared studying drums when I was 10. My earliest influences were Buddy Rich and Peter Criss from KISS - a strange combination, for sure! Around the age of 12, as I started getting more serious about playing and studying, I began buying as many records as I could afford. Soon, the progressive rock of Rush, Yes, Genesis, and ELP set me on a more serious course of study. This led me to fusion drummers like Dave Weckl and Steve Gadd, and ultimately to straight ahead jazz music, where I found my career path.
Can you name any factors you feel majorly influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?
I’ve been extremely lucky to have fantastic teachers throughout my upbringing - Paul Martello, Jan Fung, Roger Humphries, John Riley, and Kenny Washington all influenced and mentored me in very profound ways. My other huge influences are Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Mel Lewis, Joe Chambers, Neil Peart, and Steve Gadd, to name just a few.
In college, I started to notice that I had “completist tendencies” - when I became interested in a particular drummer, I felt the need to seek out EVERY single recording I could find them on. This led me to a greater understanding of these particular drummers, but also a deeper appreciation of the music they were playing. It also set me on the course of serious record collecting, since a lot of these recordings were rare, obscure, or otherwise hard to find. And eventually, I starting learning about which specific versions of pressings of a particular recording sounded the best. All of this factors into my listening.
Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?
I remember making a record many years ago where I went with a balanced mix of the entire band in my headphones, but my ears couldn’t work out who I should be locking my time in with. There was so much time discrepancy between the various musicians, that the record ended up being a hot mess, groove-wise! I ended up making another record with the same band, but this time only put the strongest time players into my headphone mix. This gave the musicians with weaker time a much stronger foundation to play to, and that record sounds WAY better.
Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?
I love Gretsch drums, both vintage and modern. I’ve been using their 4160 chrome over brass snare for pretty much everything I’ve done for the past 3 or 4 years - it’s a unique and expressive drum.
I also love having a variety of vintage cymbals to use on various recording projects. But my primary cymbals are Istanbul Agop’s, which are handmade in Turkey in a very traditional way. They are warm and inspiring instruments to play.
Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?
As difficult and competitive as the New York jazz scene is, you can find a career path for yourself if you work very hard, and are prepared to be versatile. Also, it is essential to be professional, reliable, and very easy to work with at all times!
How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?
I first started with a walkman and cassette tapes when I was 12 or 13, taking various buses to school everyday. This is when I first discovered the fun, escape, and beauty of personal listening. Eventually, I moved up to a Discman and books of CDs, and then an iPod. To this day, whenever I’m commuting or traveling, I bring some sort of hi quality portable listening rig with me, often just lossless files on an iPhone with some IEMs.
Do you have any additional comments or stories you want to share?
As much as we can enjoy and learn from recordings, nothing beats hearing our favorite musicians live. I’m very lucky that I got to hear so many of my biggest influences in person. I learned SO much more about everyone from Elvin Jones to Neil Peart by sitting near them, watching how they hit the drums, and hearing their sounds, unamplified, with my own ears. Sadly, we have lost so many of the greatest practitioners of our art form. But I encourage everyone to get out (when it is safe to do so!) and hear your favorites live!
How have your Audeze headphones affected your work? Can you tell us what you've been working on with them so far?
Record/CD collecting has always been a huge part of my life, both for education and pleasure. I got deep into the audiophile world simply because I wanted to hear my music in the best possible quality. This is both for extracting as much detail and information as possible from every recording, and for the simple act of enjoying the beauty of the music I own.
As I developed my relatively simple and inexpensive (by audiophile standards!) hifi setup, I discovered through a lot of research and testing that Audeze makes headphones that reproduce music EXACTLY as I want to hear it. I settled on a pair of LCD2s through a Deckard amp. This is integrated into my main hifi rig, so that I can listen to LPs and digital without disturbing anyone. However, I often choose to use my Audeze setup even when volume is not a concern, because they simply sound SO good!
I later added a pair of iSine20s, so that I could take the Audeze sound with me wherever I traveled. These sound incredibly close to the immersive experience I get with my home rig, and I often use them at my desk at home with my iPhone or iPad, listening to lossless digital sources.
As good as my hifi speaker system is (KEF LS50s powered by a Rogue Sphinx V2), my Audeze headphone rig is arguably even better. I’m hearing all of the detail I need to learn what exactly is on the recordings, but also swimming in a gloriously hypnotizing and engrossing sound experience.