Arts & Culture

“The Philosophy Of Keeping Things Simple” A Sunset Park Jazz Drummer Hits In Gowanus

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Voglino and North Forty (Photo by Joe Goldman)

Diego Voglino is a jazz drummer with more than 30 recording credits as a composer, performer, and producer. But as he prepares for his next gig — at Skinny Dennis in Williamsburg with Hope DeBates and North Forty on Sunday — he’s rehearsing classic country and 70s pop songs.

That kind of genre-hopping isn’t an anomaly, Voglino says, but just the facts of life for Brooklyn musicians if they hope to make a living playing music. “Musicians can be very creative and smart,” Voglino said. “When pushed to try to monetize their skills, there is no limit to what people will come up with.”

Part of the solution is remaining open to playing all kinds of music, and Voglino said jazz performers often have an edge in that situation. “Jazz musicians tend to have a very high degree of music knowledge. They know what it’s like to practice long and very hard. That discipline can really help when you decide you want to study another style of music,” he said.

Paying the rent and putting food on the table can also mean finding another way in to the music scene without actually playing. “A friend who plays saxophone professionally studied saxophone mouthpiece building. He is now quite successful at it,” Voglino said.

Finally, the Sunset Park drummer observed, “the philosophy of keeping things simple” is crucial. “Low overhead! No major car, house, or luxury goods monthly payments. It has served me well.”

Voglino’s been putting the pieces together since he moved to Brooklyn in 1999 and logged one of his earliest recording credits, Kiss My Acid Jazz by the instrumental quartet Junk. He’s seen a steady influx of jazz musicians to the borough over the past few years. “I think the reasons were originally economic,” he noted, “but needless to say, that is rapidly changing.”

As gentrification and rising rents make the borough less attractive for artists looking to live on the cheap, Voglino explained, Brooklyn has developed other attractions for jazz musicians.

“There definitely is a Brooklyn aesthetic. Not sure how to describe it or what exactly it is, but suffice to say there seems to be a greater sense of openness and creativity,” he said. “Close proximity to other musicians helps to cultivate a sense of community which often times leads to collaboration.”

Diego at the drums. (Photo via Jim Rice)

Voglino has turned the neighborhood collaboration into a regular gig. He hosts a Tuesday night jazz set and jam session at Halyards. The drummer put together a house band, which plays an opening set at 10pm, and invites a changing cast of musicians, many of them locals, to join in as the evening progresses.

He takes the collaboration outside the jazz scene as well, but he’s wary of what can happen when highly trained musicians work in other genres. “Unfortunately they sometimes tend to think that other styles of music are easier, hence less effort is needed,” Voglino said. “They often miss the subtlety and nuance that are just as complex and elusive as anything. You have to live it, or you’ll never really know it.”

Voglino takes his own advice when he sits down with Hope Debates and North Forty, a popular local band fronted by a North Dakota farm girl who moved to New York to pursue her own career in music. The group’s repertoire is diverse, rooted in classic country but comprising 70s and 80s pop covers and modern alt-country as well.

North Forty has a dynamic line-up, with DeBates recruiting different players for different shows, but Voglino’s has been a mainstay, working with the singer even before she launched the band. “He played a gig with me back in 2004 with The Jack Mackerel Show, a comedy/ variety show I did with Adam Klipple. The North Forty started in 2008, when he produced and played, and sang backup vocals on our record, Moody County.”

Voglino’s drumming is both propulsive and supple; he’s clearly comfortable with the different styles the band pursues and provides an unshakeable foundation for the ensemble. He’s mastered the art of being always present without playing too much.

“He is a rare combination of a solid groove drummer with the finesse of a jazz drummer,” DeBates said. “He has a wide variety of styles with a great feel, and a deep pocket.”

Like Voglino, she points to his roots as a jazz player as central to his success playing pop, rock, and country. “I believe every musician should listen to a wide variety of styles,” she said. “Each style has something special to offer. Combining those elements is what separates you from the others. Diego does that.”

The drummer kicks off a track like “Misery and Cigarettes” with a quick roll and then settles into a rollicking shuffle that winds around Debates’ world-weary vocal. “So Far” has a jauntier pace, and Voglino ably shifts gears to support the guitar picking and saxophone wail that mark the tune. And when the band turns Blondie’s “Dreaming” into a country ballad, he’s right there with them.

Diego Voglino plays with Hope DeBates and North Forty on Sunday, March 19, from 4pm to 7pm, and Wednesday nights (April 5 and April 26, 9pm to midnight) at Skinny Dennis (162 Metropolitan Avenue).

On Tuesday (March 21 and every Tuesday), he leads the house band at Halyards in Gowanus (406 3rd Avenue) featuring Voglino, Chet Doxas, Tom Beckham, Gary Wang and specially invited guests at each show.

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  1. Great article! Thank you for showing the struggles that a working musician faces living in NYC!
    One minor correction, I am from South Dakota, not North Dakota.
    Hope

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