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Enesto Cervini
Ernesto Cevini.

How Many Drummers Does it Take...? The Ernesto Cervini Interview

Leading from the back. Drummer Ernesto Cervini comes out from behind the kit... a lot.

By Jim Dupuis

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The drummer in popular music has often been the subject of ridicule, but a Toronto drummer, Ernesto Cervini, is doing a good job of putting those notions to rest.  A multi-instrumentalist, Cervini has chosen the drums over piano and clarinet as his main instrument in jazz.  He is an intelligent and knowledgeable band leader.  He plays his kit with fiery passion and composes with equal intensity.  Many of his compositions are titled to show a strong devotion to family.  Cervini received his Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto and his Masters from the Manhattan School of Music and still spends a fair amount of time in New York.  The youthful looking Cervini has played with Joe Lovano, Clark Terry, Benny Golson, Phil Nimmons and Ranee Lee, to name but a few.  He brought fellow Torontonian pianist Adrean Farrughia and two New York musicians, bassist Dan Loomis and sax player Joel Frahm on a recent appearance in Kamloops, BC and they blew the room away.  No, it was not a drumming pyrotechnics session, but a wonderful performance that included thoughtfully composed and arranged tunes with plenty of solos for all.  Although, Cervini did get to show his talents in his solos, as did all the other band members.  The old joke goes, “What do you call a guy who hangs out with the band?”  After speaking with and hearing Ernesto Cervini, the answer will no longer be: “The drummer.”  I had a chance to speak with Ernesto Cervini just before his trip to British Columbia.

JD: When you were a child was there lots of music in your home?

EC: There was.  There was a ton of music.  Both of my older sisters are musicians, but neither of my parents were musicians.  My mom was an administrator at a music school so we grew up spending a lot of time at that music school.  My older sister, her name is Amy, and she is a vocalist in New York.  Growing up she played classical piano and saxophone.  She was quite a good jazz saxophonist as well and that is where I first heard jazz with her playing it.  My other sister Lisa is now a music teacher for the public school board in Toronto.  So we all did music all through our childhood in Toronto and we all went to university as well. 

JD: So keeping with that theme.  What is your first musical memory?

EC: I was talking about it before and the first thing I remember is hearing my sisters play and I really wanted to do it as well.  I was just aching to take piano lessons and also growing up I remember going to Sonny Rollins. I also remember seeing Joshua Redman.  I was really young.  As well, he was probably really young.  So being able to see all these amazing musicians—I’m sure I didn’t get it -- I guarantee you I didn’t really understand what was going on.  Just being around all this and classical concerts and musicals, it was 100 % a part of everything I did; everyday life.  But I think the first thing I heard was probably my sisters.

JD: You were pretty lucky to see those musicians as a child.  I didn’t see them until later in life and I’m still not sure if I get it.  But as you, I did enjoy them and that’s all that counts.

EC: (Laughs) Ya, it was pretty amazing and we’d go to a great jazz club in Toronto called the Montreal Bistro and the Top of the Senator.  I remember going to see Ray Brown and Kenny Wheeler, Clark Terry.  You were so close up and again I really didn’t understand what I was seeing but I knew that I liked it.  So, that’s all that matters really.

JD: From what I read you are a multi-instrumentalist.  You play piano, clarinet and drums.  You’ve played drums on your two CDs.  Are you going to stick with drums or use them all still?

EC: I still play clarinet and piano and do a lot of teaching on all three, you know.  Actually I still perform on clarinet doing some old Benny Goodman stuff and Artie Shaw stuff.  I work with a band in Toronto called the Toronto All Star Big Band.  I use my piano skills all the time just for composing.  I haven’t actually worked on my classical piano for a while.  It’s all still there and I still love all three.  But, from an early age I knew that drums were my passion.  I still love the other two but drums are the passion.

JD: There are some notable jazz drummers such as Art Blakey, Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa that lead bands, but generally that’s not the case.  Why do you think that is?

EC: I think that there are probably two sides.  The first side is that most bands need a drummer and if you are too busy playing in a lot of other people’s bands you many not have time to lead your own band.  It’s a lot more work when you are the band leader and maybe if you are super busy performing in a lot of other projects maybe you wouldn’t need to lead your own project.  Oh, the other thing is that as a band leader you also have to be a composer.  In general, usually when you lead your own band you are playing a whole bunch of your own music.  So, if you are not necessarily competent in your own composing then that might be another reason why drummers don’t lead their own bands.  Drums is an interesting instrument because you don’t need to have as much formal musical training to be a good drummer.  Of course, it all helps.  But it’s different.  If you are not really strong reading treble and bass clefs you can still be a great drummer, so maybe that’s another reason why drummers aren’t always band leaders. 

JD: That makes sense to me.  Now I’m going to go for the gender question.  In my experience I can’t remember many women drummers other than Shiela E and the drummer for a rock/alternative band called Grady; any reason for this?

EC: I don’t think so.  I think there are more women musicians now than there was even twenty years ago.  I think it was a bit of an old boys club for a while.  I know a ton of great female musicians now around Canada and the United States who are doing it now including some really fantastic drummers.  I don’t think there’s any reason that men or women can’t play any of the instruments.  I don’t know.  Like there’s a lot more female flutists than there are male flutists.  That doesn’t mean that guys can’t play the flute.  They just don’t seem to as often. 

JD: Ya, that does make sense.  I friend of mine interviewed Sir James Galway (!earshot, November 2008) and he was a little miffed (laughs), as in “we are not amused.”   But I think he took the spirit of question incorrectly.  Oh well it makes for good radio once in a while (laughs).

EC: (Laughs) Yes it does.

JD: Who would you say are your drumming influences?

EC: I really got into Tony Williams when I was a teenager. I was playing in the big band for a long time so I was also listening to Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa and they were two huge influences on me when I was at a really young age because I was playing all that music.  Nowadays I listen to whomever I can.  There’s a great drummer in New York named Matt Wilson, who I really, really love and admire.  There’s another guy named Ari Hoenig, who’s great.  You know (laughs) there’s so many musicians around that you can get inspired by any of these guys.  I listen to as many of them as possible and soak it all up.

JD: That definitely would work.  Are you spending a lot of time in New York, lately?

EC: I’m back and forth.  I was actually there for five weeks this summer.  I was taking some lessons there from a great drummer named Clarence Penn.  I had a great time drumming with my sister (Amy Cervini) and my own quartet, the other group I’m in when I’m in New York.  I try to get back there at least every couple of months and also because my older sister had a baby, so my nephew’s in New York, so I try to get there to see him as well.

JD: That’s always nice.  You obviously have a good sense of family.  You catch that from your song titles on your last CD Little Black Bird.  One of the titles is “Nonna Rosa.”  I don’t speak Italian, but I’m guessing that’s for Grandma Rose?

EC: Ya, that’s for my nonna—my grandmother.

JD: So what is the other title “Mia Figlia” (badly mispronounces it)?

EC: Mia figilia means my daughter.

JD: Ok. Sorry about the pronunciation.  I had a feeling it was a family member, but I wasn’t sure which one.

EC: I don’t have a daughter. I have a cat name Mia and right now she’s the closest I have to a daughter. I wrote that for her (laughs).

JD: Thanks for speaking with me.  I do enjoy the Ernesto Cervini Quartet featuring Joel Frahm CD Little Black Bird.  How can we get a copy.

EC: It is available through my website: and follow the links or simply go to the Anzic Records link

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