Through music, Larnell Lewis is connecting to his ancestors

Grammy-winning musician Larnell Lewis is one of the most accomplished drummers in the world at the moment.

In addition to his Juno-nominated work as a bandleader, Lewis has already won two Grammy Awards for his explosive performances with the Brooklyn-based jazz-fusion band Snarky Puppy.

The drummer, composer and educator has recently released Relive the Momenta new recording in which he revisits six of the tunes from his debut solo album In the Moment and re-infuses them with freshly recorded drum takes. “I truly love telling stories through music, especially when it means that I get to relive my moments from a place of wisdom and celebration,” Lewis says.

Lewis told us more about the thought behind Relive the Moment, and how much he’s evolved and reflected in just a couple of years.

In the Moment was released in 2018 and nominated for a Juno Award in 2019. What made you go back and revisit that album to come up with this new one, Relive the Moment?

It was about getting some new video performances. I had not been able to record video during the process because of how everything was done; tracks were recorded over a couple of years in different locations, and video wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. I wanted an opportunity to be back in the studio, to get a new drum performance with the video, but also to have a chance to play the drums on these songs thinking like a drummer. When I did the album, I was self-producing but also co-produced by Eddie Bullen. You’ve got to think about being in the studio, you’ve got to make sure the catering is there, you’ve got to make sure everyone is feeling good, that you’ve got your hard drives and the charts are printed. You’re managing a lot of things, and so when you get behind your instrument … I had a lot on my mind just trying to get to the music. Some of it was in fact written [at the last minute] … I think I finished the chart for No Access? at 5 a.m. before the session. So, I wanted a chance just to play the drums and to think exclusively about being a drummer.

How different are the original drum tracks from the ones on Relive the Moment? Are they straight, or did you add different things to them?

I massaged them quite a bit. The core parts are there, but I’m taking a lot more liberties. The flow through the arrangements is a lot easier for me because I’ve played some of these at drum clinics and festivals. My band did a tour last year. So, being able to actually swing through these arrangements with a lot more clarity was also helpful, and I felt like it gave me a chance to really put myself out there.

Would you say you’re a somewhat different drummer now than you were when you did the record?

Absolutely. I mean, the life that I live now is not the life I lived then. The people I’ve come into contact with, the influences I have, the gratitude and experiences I’ve had in my life up until this point, they all feed into my drums. Listening back, I can feel a little bit of that spring-chicken vibe from my recording. Like man, I was pretty limber — I was moving! But I like where I am right now. I like it.

Do you think if you did this again in a year or so, that you’d be different again in your approach to the music?

Absolutely. When you’re in the studio, you’re capturing the best of that day. In fact, when I recorded this in June, it was the first time I had played acoustic drums since the lockdown. I have electronic drums at home, but I had to pack my instrument away. My last gig was with my duo with Rich Brown in March at Hugh’s Room Live. So, I wasn’t able to play acoustic drums, and then I finally got into the studio and felt that energy that you feel from hitting an instrument or even just hearing it in the room.

The sound of drums is shocking when they just come at you sometimes — when someone’s just sound checking.

Yeah, perspective for me. I understand now.

How much did you have to adjust your technique from playing electronic drums to being back on a real kit? Is it night and day, or is the approach the same?

I think as long as I’m playing acoustic drums while still practising on electronic drums, the back-and-forth is not that hard. If I’ve been playing exclusively on electronic drums, it gets a little challenging in terms of controlling the dynamics in the room, or what they call “shading” with the tip of your stick to get different tones out of the ride cymbal. You hit a pad with your hand and then you hit it with your stick, it’s going to sound the same. There are infinite possibilities on an acoustic drum kit, so that definitely took a lot of adjustment for me.

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The response you’ve gotten from some of these videos has been pretty overwhelming. Is that something you expected? How do you take it?

I’m just thankful, you know. I’m still in awe to be in a position where, first of all, I have the opportunity to make music and record it, with all the granting agencies and groups that have supported me for all these projects — to be able to do that is amazing — and then second of all, that people still want to watch this stuff and get into it. It’s pretty awesome for me. I’m really thankful.

There’s one tune on the album that wasn’t on In the Moment that shows up on Relive the Moment. Can you tell me about the importance of that tune, The Forgotten Ones?

I had this idea of presenting this drum solo — just me and the drums — where I am taking an opportunity to connect with my ancestors. I come from a long line of musicians. I think I know as far back as my great-grandfather, but all the musicians that I know of have passed on the music and the traditions of how to have a communal sound, how to express yourself. The West African tradition of telling stories through music is something that exists in the Caribbean and that made its way to my home. So, I’m using this as an opportunity to remind myself and anyone else that relates to those who are forgotten — the ancestors, the people whose shoulders we stand on. That goes for everybody, regardless of your culture. There are shoulders that you stand on. We must remember as often as we can. Even if you don’t remember who they are, be thankful for where you are, because if it wasn’t for them, who knows where you’d be?

Were you always that in tune with your ancestry, or is that something that’s come as you’ve grown and matured as a person?

That’s a good question. You think micro, you think macro. You zoom in, you zoom out. This year with COVID-19, it’s presented me and a lot of people I know with an opportunity to just reflect. In reflecting, this is something that I felt that I wanted to bring forward as the message. It is a moment that I usually have in my concerts, where I’m able to perform an open solo. People think of an open drum solo, smash it like Art Blakey and Elvin Jones. There’s a time for that, and that stuff is amazing and I love it, but there’s also a way of telling a story through the drums and through moments in music, and I think taking that time and redirecting the thought to those who have been forgotten is definitely a more recent exploration for me.

What are some other ways that you’ve been moving forward musically over these difficult last few months?

I’ve been writing all the time, constantly. Writing sessions with friends over Zoom, which is very interesting… [laughs]

When you laugh about that, what are you implying? What are those difficulties?

If anyone out there is listening and you have some handle on technology that allows musicians to play their instruments from the comfort of their own home and have everybody be in sync and on the same beat, call a brother, please. As a drummer, timing is very important. I’m struggling out here.

So if someone goes, “1-2-3-4,” you’re not all hitting that downbeat at the same time. Technology won’t allow it.

Imagine being at your favourite restaurant, and everybody starts singing Happy Birthday at different times. That’s what it’s like.

That would be terrible.

Yes! It is. If you’re in a Zoom meeting with three or four, or maybe 10 or more people, just count in and have everyone clap. You’ll know. You’ll know.

You’ve been doing some stuff with your friends and fellow drummers in Snarky Puppy. I bet you don’t get together very much. What’s that experience like when you get to interact with those gentlemen?

It is awesome. I love those guys. They’re amazing musicians, producers, songwriters. We have conversations about music and life in ways that people don’t often get the chance to have. And we have that middle ground of Snarky Puppy, where we can relate to the music. We’ve all been in the studio with each other, playing on all these songs. To hang with them is great.

Anything that’s Snarky Puppy-related is about positivity. It just seems like a big wave of positivity. It must be great to be in that environment.

It is. It’s like one large support group.

This interview has been edited and condensed.