Monday’s Person I Want To Be

27 Apr
Russ Kleiner


I’ve spent the last few weeks doing a few things to the exclusion of almost all others – playing music, practicing drums, and listening to music with friends.  This Monday, as I think about people I’d like to emulate, it occurs to me that there is really no single person I know who is better at each of those things than the one, the only, drummer Russ Kleiner.

Russ and I went to school together at the University of Miami, and during our time there we were classmates, roommates, bandmates, coverband mates, and, thanks to our incredibly shady slum-master landlord, almost cellmates.  I played with Russ a ton, and we listened and talked about music even more.  We were opposites in so many ways – here I was, this mellow midwestern kid from Indiana, and here was Russ, a brash, semi-crazy, multiply-pierced Jew from Long Island; it didn’t seem like we had much in common at all.  However, we both listened to music in very much the same way, and that common ground eclipsed our yin/yang dispositions and was a huge part of the reason that we became such good friends.

Cliched though it may be, I can honestly say that I learned more from my amazing classmates at UM than I did from my professors, which, given the incredible amount of stuff I learned from my professors, is really saying something.  And of all of the things that I learned from Russ, the one that sticks with me more than anything is his generous, non-judgmental, utterly inspiring love of music.  Any music, all music – good music.

When I arrived on campus, I was kind of a jazz snob – I’d never gotten into rock or grunge (I couldn’t get around the nightmare-inducing Soundgarden videos enough to realize how much the band ruled), Hip-Hop (unless you count memorizing Stone Cold Rhymin’ in the seventh grade), or really much outside of Bird, Miles, Trane, and, like, The Flecktones. When I first looked through Russ’s CD collection freshman year, my mind was blown.  This guy had CDs from every single genre of music, absolutely everything, the coolest, most burning, and hippest NY jazz groups, underground hip-hop, mainstream pop, showtunes… it was incredible.  And he knew ALL of it absolutely cold.  “Oh, yeah, that CD!” then he’d sing, like, the entire record, and go on at length about what he liked so much about it… he was so non-judgmental, so open in how he listened to music, it made any sort of jazz-snob “I don’t listen to that crap” statements sound exactly as narrow as they usually are.


Serious about his drums, to the point of spending quality time with them.

I may have initially had my reservations about this sort of “Listening to everything but the kitchen sink (and occasionally also the sink)” mentality, but it all went out the window when I just sat down and experienced what he was showing me.  Since letting down that wall, I have been hipped to a huge percentage of the musicians I love today thanks to Russ – Michel Camilo, Jeff Buckly, Jason Lidner, Avishai Cohen, Me’shell N’Degeocello, The Mars Volta, Jellyfish, Andrew Bird… the list goes on, and on… and on.

Honestly, Russ makes music appreciation an art form – if, God forbid, he ever needs to take a break from the drums, he would make an absolutely fantastic DJ. He’s just so present in the music, bringing a kinesthetic energy to the experience, making it more real, and helping you to hear it through his ears, which makes for a really enjoyable listening experience.  Some of my fondest memories of college are sitting in our smelly senior year swamp-house, listening to Origin of Symmetry or Passage of Time with Russ and just freaking out about how sick these musicians are.

Which brings us to his drumming. That same generosity, that infectious joie de vivre that Russ has in his day-to-day comes through in his drumming amplified tenfold.  He’s the kind of drummer who can absolutely kill on anything from funk to burning fusion, to straight-ahead modern piano-trio to heavy metal.  There is great joy in seeing something fulfill it’s natural function, and there is no question in my mind that playing drums was what Russ was made to do.

And I’m not kidding about his versatility, either – a lot of good drummers can play any style, but Russ truly excels at every style he plays.  I still remember his senior recital – after starting with the theme from Late Night with Conan O’Brian, he tore through a set that included a crazy Chris Potter tune off of Traveling Mercies, a slamming piano trio performance of a Monk tune done  with Joe Davidian, and, as I recall, the finale tune was a prog-punk freakout performance of a song from At The Drive-In’s Relationship of Command.

For several years out of college, Russ lived in NY, playing and recording with my fellow classmates and friends Sam Howard, Tommy Harron, Kenji Shinagawa, Jess Fine, and Woody Quinn, in addition to several of his old buddies from home.  He toured for a while in the band ULU (another drum-alum of which is the incredible Josh Dion), The Square Egg, and a crazy-cool experimental studio project with Kenji, Tommy Harron, and UM friend Brian Robertson (now of Awesome New Republic) on keyboard called “Saddam Hussien Mixtape.”  All of it was amazing, and all of it made me wish that I lived in New York.

Nowadays, Russ lives in Portland, and is doing a pretty good job of selling me on that city, too.  He’s currently on tour with blues singer/harp man Curtis Salgado; I caught them at Biscuits and Blues last month, and they pretty much burned the place down!  They’ll be back in July, and I really hope to sit in on sax – getting to play with Russ again would be cool enough, but Curtis’s whole band (in addition to the man himself) is loaded with great players, so it should be a really fun night.

Pretty clearly, objectivity is out the window here, but listen: if you live in the Portland area and ever need a drummer, hire the man.  And if you like to see music, go see one of his bands play. I can’t think of another musician whose love of music translates so directly into his performances, and who is as much pure fun to play with.

But you don’t have to take it from me!  I found this video of him going off with the burning Portland fusion band Commotion – check him out yourself, and you’ll see what I’m talking about:


One Response to “Monday’s Person I Want To Be”

  1. Tiffany April 27, 2009 at 8:57 am #

    …and let’s not forget was an amazingly NICE guy he is too!

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