Larry Aberman ‘86E is a Grammy Award-winning drummer who has played every kind of a gig a drummer can play. He’s played with the New York Philharmonic, the classic rock band Foreigner, recorded film scores of Jeff Beal, and even was the company drummer for the Cirque du Soleil production Zumanity. Following 16 years in Las Vegas with Cirque du Soleil, Aberman recently moved to Nashville to join its vibrant recording and performance community.
But this week, he has a gig that takes him back to his alma mater: the Eastman School of Music. Aberman performs with the Eastman Jazz Lab Band and Eastman Jazz Workshop Ensemble on Wednesday, March 1 at 7:30 p.m. in Kilbourn Hall. Among other works on the program is one by Las Vegas composer Nate Kimball, Gaea, a contemporary and almost orchestral jazz work that Aberman is excited to share with the students. And since Aberman literally does it all, he’ll also work with percussion students across concentrations the rest of the week.
Senior Writer and Editorial Manager Anna Reguero had a chance to speak with Aberman about his multifaceted career and former studies at Eastman.
AR: You’ve had an incredibly versatile career, playing everything from jazz, blues, rock, classical, Broadway, and more. What are the challenges of working across such different kinds of music, types of performances, and range of collaborators?
LA: The biggest challenge is maintaining the integrity of each genre. Each one has a very distinct skill set. To play with any artists, especially at the highest level, you have to play the music as it’s intended or supposed to be played. And the biggest challenge is, because of my career being varied, I have found myself in situations where I might be playing like real hard rock and then the next morning playing snare drum with a symphony in a concert hall. Playing something like Scheherazade on snare drum, it has to be right. It can’t have the touch or attitude of “Highway to Hell.” And I have found myself in that situation. I have to change headspace really quickly.
The same time, I still have to be me in every situation so I’m not just the chameleon completely changing. That’s what I pride myself in. The Larry that shows up wherever I am is Larry. There’s a style that you know when you hire me. You’re getting a personality, not just the cookie cutter.
AR: Many great performers find success once they graduate Eastman, but your successes started while you were a student: winning a Downbeat best soloist award and performing on a Grammy-nominated CD with Wynton Marsalis and the EWE, Carnival (1987). Do you think Eastman prepared you for the success you’ve had? What is it like to come back to Eastman as a guest to perform with student ensembles?
LA: Being at Eastman was the reason why I was able to be part of those situations. The Eastman Jazz Ensemble was the top ensemble in the country. I got a chance to shine as a soloist because of that. And obviously playing on that Wynton record, that would only happen if I was in the Eastman Wind Ensemble. And that was always my dream. Eastman was always the cut above. My teacher when I was in high school, Justin DiCioccio, went to Eastman and whenever I played a piece in school he used to say, “oh, yeah, I premiered that at Eastman with Frederick Fennell.” So it became this mythological place. I’m so grateful I got to go there. And it did prepare me for a professional life because those were pro gigs. The wind record was a union paid recording. Anything I did after Eastman, I had already been on recordings where I got paid as a professional.
Rich Thompson was the drummer in the Jazz Ensemble, he and I were classmates, and Michael Burritt, who’s head of the percussion department, was my orientation Big Brother. We were classmates and I get to go back and talk to Mike’s students and perform and work with Rich’s students. It’s an incredible thrill for me. I’ve been back to Eastman but not at this capacity. I’m really honored and grateful.
AR: One of the most unique gigs you’ve had is with Cirque du Soleil. Tell us about the music, the atmosphere, the challenges, the fun of it.
LA: It ended up being a 16-year run. It’s the best job in the world to build a family because I didn’t have to travel. It was a very cushy corporate gig—we even had health insurance. I did 16 years but everything in the Cirque world moves so fast. You think it’d be the same music, like a Broadway show. But that was far from the truth because it was act driven. And it’s a circus, so we had a lot of injuries or people were out. There were a lot of backup acts and changing acts. Also, the show was constantly in redevelopment and never stayed the same. And it wasn’t just one genre of music. The only thing that stayed the same was where my drum set was. My varied background, I got to use a lot of that. I learned a lot of life stuff, too, such as how to stay on a long-term gig like that. That takes some skill too. I never got bored, which was pretty amazing.
Watch a preview of Larry Aberman rehearsing with the Eastman Jazz Lab Band: