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Stick It! Magazine, February 1998

The Power Chops Sensation From Down Under
By Mackenzie Kerr

Many drummers come to mind who’ve had a hand in raising the bar – leading by example with faster chops, innovative use of the instrument, more complex rhythms, more creative phrasing, and in general, better musicianship. A quick servey would yield such names as Buddy Rich, Steve Gadd, Dave Weckl, Dennis Chambers. The list goes on. But not since Buddy has one turned so many heads as Aussie native Virgil Donati. If that name doesn’t immediately ring with familiarity, rest assured, the professional drumming community has certainly taken notice. Capturing and mastering all of the elements of drumming-control, accuracy, style, feel, speed – Donati has left more than his share of colleagues slack-jawed at his facility with the sticks. “This is what I am able to do” says Virgil. “I just present it as the best possible offering I can”.

The sensation from “down under” had the advantage of starting at a very young age. Through practice and sheer determination, he learned to tame his chosen instrument, to coax his sound from it, and to fully express without impediment his musical personality.

“It’s the one thing that feeds you, tests you, disciplines you, and teaches you about yourself”, he says. “And the drums are the tools I use for my espressive purpose”.

Since securing his first drum set just one month before his third birthday, he has devoted his life and his soul to this art. The catalyst has been his endless and restless pursuit to express himself through his playing. “ I often wonder why the creative pulse is never satisfied”, he ponders. “I think it’s about self discovery. The act of creating allows me to know myself, and this search never ends. Each creative act only gives you part of the answer. Therefore, you need to renew your contact with you instrument on a regular basis”.

Upon hearing him play, one quickly surmises that behind his creativity and expression lies countless hours of woodshedding and practice. This was not something that came naturally to the youn Donati. “Practice is an interesting thing”, he says. Some believe in it, some don’t. I like to think of it as the time we take to try to understand what is possible, to sharpen our abilities, to deal with the physical and mechanical difficulties, as well as our creative limitations. In essence, to imprive our overall skills.”
Neither did Donati’s outstanding chops and fluid style come easily. It’s a challenge, which can be a source of pleasure and achievement, and at the same time it can be frustrating and mysterious. I like to use my time efficiently, with some sort of organized system and objective in mind. I try to identify and strengthen my weaknesses. The time I take to practice varies according to my schedule, but anything from two to five hours is possible.”

Living in Australia was another obstacle for Donati to overcome. Although he recently moved to the US, he still managed to get work with the likes of Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, George Cables, Melissa Etheridge, and most recently, Tribal Tech. He also made a name for himself with artists including Tina Arena, Scott Henderson, and Garsed and Helmerich.

“Moving to the US was quite a challenge for me,” he says. “It was quite a change from my life in Australia. Now I just want to immerse myself in the music scene here. I’m enjoying my involvement with various projects, and looking forward to the possibilty of doing more touring in a band situation.”
Donati currently finds himself in high demand as a session drummer, with some of his most recent work being recorded with Garsed and Helmerich. Also under his belt are several instruction videos and CDs that are distributed in various degrees. Among them is a recording with Scott Henderson on guitar and Ricc Fierabracci on bass, called Just Add Water, and should be availabe soon. “It’s a totally spontaneous recording. We set up in the studio and just jammed for a couple of hours - and this is the result, warts and all!” Donati often enjoy the freedom granted him to create his own parts in the sudio. But his work is always disciplined and subordinated to the needs of the music. “As you learn more about your craft, you develop an instinctive sense as to what is appropriate for any given song. As for the process, I generally like to jam with the other players, and develop a part through familiarizing myself with the intended feel of the song – which is sometimes dictated by the songwriter and let it develop from that point of departure. “It seems to me that we are constantly being lectured about the virtues of the drummer as an accompanist; the importance of laying down a groove; the difficulties of locking in with a click track in the studio – in essence, our function and role as the basic timekeeper in the band. Songwriting can be a nightmare for some drummers, but the important part is the pocket. It is deceptively difficult to master the art of playing in the pocket with a great feel within the wide-open spaces created by a simple approach. There is nothing that requires more precicion and purity ogf expression than that.”

With regard to finding one’s place in the music, maturity and discipline once again are the guideposts. “It’s not about throwing phrases together in any combination we want,” he says, “but about following and availing ourselves of the true idiom of the music we play. That is what I believe. but here is the paradox: We hear this almost to the point where we are led to believe anything interesting and colored with technical skill takes from the dignity of our profession. We’re at a point where it is almost wrongdoing to have chops! And perhaps, it even earns you a lack of credibility. Look out for the Groove Police – they take no prisoners!”

Donati notes that there must be more to the integrity of of the instrument than this essential but standard function. “Let’s not limit the potential of the artfrom”, he asserts. “If you place limitations on the need for learning, then you are limiting the your freedom of expression. You’ve defined the limits, so why keep going? To push our threshold, and that of the instrument, we must step into the unknown. But let’s do it for the right intentions – not for the sake of being impressive, but for the sake of being expressive...”

A key element in this reasoning, of course, is knowing when enough is enough. In the context of rhythm, silence, and sonority, what one doesn’t play is as important as what one does play.
Overplaying the part can easily lead to distraction, and ultimately, the failure of the music. To this end, Donati seems to have stricken the perfect balance: His playing is very full and tasteful, yet it does not owerpower the idea of the music.

“As you gain maturity and experience as a musician, hopefully you learn to control the well meaning, but often overly aggressive ego within. From there, make decisions that benefit the music instead. Technique is innocent; it’s the user that is responsible for the effect.”

Notwithstanding, Donati does have his spotlight moments. And at no time are they more apparent than when he takes a solo flight. On constructing such a display, Donati notes, “They’re totally improvised. it’s like approcahing a blank canvas, with all the tools of your art, the means, the rudiments, paints, oils, and brushes, and then proceeding to reveal your thoughts and feelings in an unrehearsed manner.

“Our spntaneous adtion is always the best. When you improvise, it is evident that you take risks and you can’t always predict the results. I think an audience is excited by the player who gives the impression that chances are being taken, that there’s an element of danger. It’s great to sense the emotion of an audience when sometimes the performance gets out of hand. For instance when you are in full flight and are interrupted by the occasional dropping of a stick, not for the want of being careless, but these things sometimes happen”.

As a soloist, it is often a challenge to decide what to play next, even with spontaneity. Virgil Seems to have found the method: “I think in art, and also in life, you decide from feeling and not from reason. That is how we develop a personality as a player. When I’m soloing, I feel I am in the act of expressing what I understand and love best. I am in full and perfect possession of what, to me, is a higher source of enjoyment and excitement.”

Looking deeper into Donati’s sources of inspiration, he says, “I guess my main influences in the early years – the people who really shaped the clay of my personality -  would have been Buddy Rich, Ian Paice, John Bonham, Jeff Porcaro, Steve Gadd, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Narada Michael Walden, Bill Bruford, Phil Collins, and Tony Williams. Currently, there are so many great players taking the threshold of what’s possible to the next level. There are so many I’d love to mention: The power, the drive and charisma of Denni Chambers, the innovative capacity and total insanity of Vinnie Colaiuta, the control and independence of Dennard, Weckl and Bozzio. There’s the interdependence of the Smiths (Steve and Smitty), Erskine and Tain, the directness of J.R., and Lawson, the commitment and attitude of people like Kinney, Cameron, Keetz, Van Halen, Paul, Abbruzzese, Hogan, on and on...”
As Virgil has expressed, the state of drumming today has risen to a new level. “I think we went through an era of reflection, when we observed, took what came before, and made more of it. Things are becoming more abstract now. It seems that each mind has its own method. Everyone playing seems to express their individual anecdotes, experiences, and wonders for theirs spellbound audiences. I don’t think the state of drumming has ever been better.”

With that in mind, one begins to wonder how it is possible to make a new and original voice be heard. Says Donati: “ I don’t think the arts are about to competing in a race. it’s about making a contribution and putting something out there in the hope that it will make a difference. The whole quest of humanity, the whole quest of civilization, is to know, to discover. It annoys me that so many people can be crul in their judgement of others. It’s not that people are lazy, but it’s the way they go about justifying who they are and where they are. We’re all making the best contribution we can, and hopefully out of it, something will come. Something that will help our culture, help our humanity, help us all become better people. That’s what you hope for. You’ve got no control over it. You’ve got to leave that to destiny, to history itself. We do what we can do. There are so many ways of being talented, and there are so many ways to actually make a mark.”

Having said that, though, Donati tempers his words with the sobriety of his own challenges. “It’s a challenge simply to progress and keep a fresh perspective on the music. I think innovation and originality are the secrets of progress, and the challenge doesn’t get any greater than that.”

Donsti’s acute self awareness of the struggle, the discipline, the frustrations and anxieties are eclipsed by the sheer pleasure of playing. “It is possible these things can interfere with and destroy the pleasure of performing, but I keep the Norton Anti-Virus alias on the desktop pf my mind to quickly flush it out!

I try not to think in those terms. I’m absorbed in the pursuit of a higher object. I’m intent not on the means, but on the end. I’m taken up, not with the difficulties, but with the triumph over them. I am what I am because of music - not what I’ve done with music, but what it’s given back to me.”