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Northwest Arkansas Times - August 1, 2008

Grammy Award-winning Drummer Pounds His Way To National Prominence

By Kevin Kinder

At the Chicago College of Performing Arts, where he serves as head of Jazz Studies, Paul Wertico has a philosophy about his students: Just let them play.

He has a two-folded approach to that word: playing as in experimentation, and playing as in what a child might do on monkey bars.

In that context, he's reminded of Keith Moon, the legendary -- and, when considering playing technique, the legendarily unorthodox -- drummer of the rock band The Who. If someone is playing with passion, and can make a beautiful racket, why change that?

"I think that's beautiful," Wertico said by phone from his home in Chicago. "You don't try to make someone a jazz player, or a rock player."

It might not come as a surprise, then, that Wertico was largely self-taught as a drummer. His mother encouraged him to play an instrument, just not the drums. It wasn't until sixth grade band that he was able to bang on a drum kit.

"That's the only thing I wanted to play. It just came naturally," he said.

The 55 year old turned that instinct into a career. He started gigging when he was just 15 years old, and among other notable ensembles, Wertico was a member of the Pat Metheny Group, with whom the drummer earned seven Grammy Awards.

Wertico left the group in 2001 after nearly 20 years, devoting his time to other groups and to teaching. Before Wertico travels to Ireland for a series of drum clinics, the performer will appear in Fayetteville as part of the KUAF Summer Jazz Series. His concert, where he will be backed by local musicians Claudia Burson and James Greeson, is scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. today in the Stella Boyle Smith Concert Hall on the University of Arkansas campus.

In addition to the seven Grammys and many other nominations, Wertico has also been named as one of the Chicagoans of the Year by the Chicago Tribune and his solo recordings have earned loads of critical accolades.

He regularly performs both here and the United States and abroad, and his playing style, a technically sound but impassioned whipping of the kit, led one publication to call him "an inspired madman."

Reminded of this, Wertico can't help but chuckle, but understands why such a label might have stuck.

"I play the drums very physically," he said. "I've got a nice touch on the drums, but I might also attack them."

Those expecting a long, solo-heavy evening might be disappointed. Wertico said his goal during a concert is to provide an appealing atmosphere, something that would appeal to hard-core jazz fans and novices alike.

"It's not about showing how great a technician you are. That's boring," he said.

Instead, music should make people -- performers and audiences alike -- move.

"They just feel something," he said. "Music is supposed to be an emotional experience."

Which takes him back to the early days of his music habits, something that might well explain how the musician is just as comfortable in the world of jazz as he is in Irish music or rock 'n' roll. The first albums he ever purchased, in fact, often had nothing to do with the performer. They were names he was unfamiliar with, so he brought the recordings based on attractive album art or having cool phrases on the jacket.

"Rock, jazz, ethnic, I didn't differentiate. If it moved, I was in," he said.

Which, he hopes, will summarize his crowd tonight, too.

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