Audeze speaks with drummer, educator and producer Carl Allen

August 12, 2023

Carl Allen is a drummer, educator and producer. Currently he is playing with Christian McBride’s Inside Straight, his own groups and with a select group of other musicians like Renee Rosnes, Bill Charlap, Vincent Herring. This is his 2nd year as the Endowed Chair and Director of Jazz Studies at UMKC in Kansas City. He loves the process of helping young people get better and find their passion in music.

 Carl Allen in the studio with his Audeze LCD-X headphones

 "Using Audeze headphones has made listening to music more personal for me."  - Carl Allen
Here's our chat with Carl:
Can you pick out any highlights from your work that you're particularly proud of?

I usually have a hard time with this question because of the 250 plus records that I have done, I rarely listen to any of them after I have recorded them. However there are a few that I particularly like and mostly for the writing. Here’s a few of them:

Terence Blanchard’s Jazz in Film

Renee Rosnes’ Kinds of Love

Christian McBride’s Live at The Village Vanguard

Carl Allen & Rodney Whitaker’s Work To Do

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?

I take a lot of pride in trying to make the leader comfortable while trying to play the music better than they even imagined it. When that happens magic comes with it. I want the musicians to feel like they can trust my judgement and the choices that I make when I play. Trust is very important. I often say that when I play with someone for the first time I want to gain their trust to make them comfortable, then I want to make them uncomfortable so that they don’t become complacent during the process. Some of my mentors like Art Blakey, Billy Higgins and Tony Williams used to talk to me about always being in the moment when playing 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 am the youngest of 5 kids and we were raised just by our mother and we HAD to go to church and I loved it. That said, Gospel music has always been close to my heart, however as a kid l mostly listened to a lot of Soul, Funk and R&B. For awhile we were not allowed to listen to anything but Gospel music in the house. My mother eased up on that as we got older. My oldest brother and I were 10 years and 2 days apart in age and not having a father in the house he was like the father figure. At one point he started taking drum lessons so the sticks were laying around, as I wanted to be like him I would just start to “beat on things.” He gave it up pretty quickly but I loved it immediately.

I have another brother that played in funk bands so I would listen to them rehearse. In junior high school I started checking out jazz and by high school I was totally hooked. I was a classical percussion major for my first 2 years of college. Then I transferred to a school where I could be a jazz major. As time has progressed I have really gotten into almost anything that just feels good.

Can you name any factors that influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

Oh man there are so many but I would say that when I was 18 years old growing up in Milwaukee I got a chance to see Art Blakey live for the first time. My heart was beating like crazy watching him play. I knew then that I had to do this. I am still friends with some of the guys who were in the band at that time. Art later became one of my mentors and someone that I looked up to and who gave me advice on many occasions. In fact it was Art that recommended me to a record label in Japan that gave me my first record deal.

I have been blessed to have had many mentors who helped guide me over the years. It was Mel Lewis who encouraged me to leave Green Bay, Wisconsin where I met him during my freshman year of college to transfer to William Paterson College in Wayne, NJ.

Again, I have been blessed to have met and become friends with many drummers that I used to listen to as a kid (and still do) from Blakey, Mel, Tony, Elvin Jones, Higgins, Roy Haynes, Roy McCurdy, Tootie Heath, Billy Hart, Freddie Waits, Louie Bellson, Peter Erskine, Ndugu Chancler, Billy Cobham (my first drum idol), Jimmy Cobb, Al Foster, Philly Joe Jones, Vernel Fornier, Ed Blackwell and so many others. These are just the drummers but there are others like Benny Golson, Jackie McLean, Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Dizzy Gillespie and more.

One night while playing The Blue Note in NYC with Freddie Hubbard, Art Blakey had to curse me out in the dressing for not paying attention to Freddie on the bandstand. That changed my life forever as he explained to me that every time that you are blessed to play music that it is the most important time of your life at that time. Again, being in the moment.

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?

As a drummer I have to be comfortable with my snare drum and cymbals so whenever possible I try to have those with me when recording. I always have my cymbals with me no matter what. I have also found it strange that most musicians don’t take their own headphones to the studio when recording. For me this is a must. I have to be comfortable and it’s also sanitary. I have been in too many studios and have seen too much to not have my own with me. Also I just started taking some photos and videos during sessions and I wish that I had started doing this many years ago when I recorded with people like Ms. Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr., Freddie Hubbard, Donald Byrd, Joe Henderson and others who are no longer with us.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

Yes, be a serious student of music and the business and never stop learning. Know when to “stay in your lane” and read the room. Too often I see musicians who are still relatively new on the scene get too comfortable and familiar with the legends. Sometimes you have to know your place. I have heard it said that “it’s not enough to be invited to the dance. You want to be invited on the dance floor.” Of course this is a metaphor but it just speaks to building relationships and taking cues from those who know more than you do.

Also, I take a lot of pride in learning a lot of music. I often find myself in situations where you don’t have a lot of time to “learn the music.” You have to make the music feel like music immediately as opposed to “trying to figure it out.” Some of my heroes like Blakey and Higgins had a way of playing with people or tunes for the first time and making it sound like they have been playing it (or with them) for years. We’re at a time now where we have to “get to it quicker.”

Music is a people business. Being nice and getting along with people will make it such that people will want to work with you and give you what it is that you need. This is very different from you having to demand what you’re asking for. There is a way to get what you need and have people want to give you what you need. As one of my mentors says, “relationships and resources are cyclical.”

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

I have been working with headphones for over 40 years and I would consider myself somewhat of a headphone junkie because I use different ones for different situations. I love the sound and feel of open back headphones but of course this is hard to use in the studio or when you’re on a plane. For years I never liked to use headphones while I am in my hotel room as I would rather use speakers but now with the way things are with traveling and trying to pack lighter I find myself listening through headphones. It’s a different experience all together, especially when you have a great pair of headphones like Audeze.

Do you have any additional comments or stories you want to share?

As I get older I have been wanting things to be simpler. That said I just ask that we all push the pause button a bit and show more love and compassion. This is something that really resonated with me during COVID.

How have your Audeze headphones affected your work? 

Using Audeze headphones has made listening to music more personal for me. As a professional musician I am listening to music all the time. As an educator I am teaching about this great music every day. I am hearing things in the music that I have not heard before. For many years I have mostly listened to music through headphones when I am just enjoying some downtime, as I normally listen through speakers but now having used my Audeze this has all changed. This has been a transformative experience for me.

Can you tell us what you've been working on with them recently? 

Over the past several months I have been recording a lot of sessions by other musicians. I am often asked to help choose the final takes for the recording and listening through the Audeze headphones I am loving the experience so much more. For many years I have rarely listened to recordings after I have done them but this makes the experience so much more enjoyable. Not that enjoying listening to myself more is that much more enjoyable, but the overall recording. LOL

I travel a lot and whenever possible I love my downtime in the hotel room as opposed to hanging out. During my time I love watching movies and more recently I have gotten more into mobile recording. So I am listening to and editing music on my computer so I am using the headphones as a reference guide and loving every second of it. I sometimes forget why I am listening and just get lost in the experience...