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Do musicians care about sound quality?

Do audiophiles care more about sound quality than your average musician? Jazz drummer and audiophile Billy Drummond helps unravel the stereotype.

Maybe it's just me, but it seems like most musicians I meet are more into making music than listening to it. They don't care about how music sounds at home; many are satisfied with the sound they get from boom boxes or chintzy computer speakers. Some tell me they're more focused on the way the players play than the sound.

Sure, I've met a few musicians with ears for sound. That happened just recently when I struck up a conversation with jazz drummer and audiophile Billy Drummond.

He readily conceded my point: "Getting a good hi-fi isn't high on their list of priorities. Like everybody else, musicians listen to music while they're on the computer or sending e-mails. That's what music is now, a backdrop, so fidelity isn't important anymore."

Sad, but true, so what is music for? Drummond had a ready answer. "It's for people to enjoy," he said. "It can take you somewhere, you can dance to it, music conjures emotions. For musicians it's an expression, a way to challenge ourselves, and it can be inspiring. If you're a saxophone player and you're listening to Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane, music can motivate you. It lets you see what's possible.

"I really enjoy playing (live) for myself and for an audience, I want people to feel something when I play. When I listen to Tony Williams or Elvin Jones (two great jazz drummers) and what they've accomplished it's mind boggling, that's what music means to me."

That's all great, but how did he become an audiophile? Drummond explained that he was always an avid music collector, and when he first heard his favorite music played on a really great system he was blown away: "Wow, I never heard my music sound so real, so vibrant, so great."

It turned you on, I asked. "Right, I was even more motivated because I could hear the nuances of Max Roach's drum set or Tony Williams ride cymbal. It helped me become a better player because I can get in touch with the thing I'm chasing after. Which is, how can I sound as good as these guys."

So a great hi-fi can be a learning tool, but it's mostly about enjoying music? "Right, I can put on Miles Davis at the Plugged Nickel and just take it in, my brain can shut off the student and I can just be a listener. I can put on music that doesn't have anything to do with what I do, like Ravel's 'Mother Goose Suite,' it doesn't have any drums or jazz, and be moved by the music. Not as a performer or musician, it's just really beautiful music. I'm really gassed by listening to it."

Drummond's saying all the right things, so I was a little embarrassed to ask about sound quality, does that matter? Drummond was getting excited. "Absolutely," he said, "especially when I'm listening to music in all its splendor over my system, it's second only to being in the concert hall. I'd rather do that than watch a movie."

There's sound quality, but what makes great musicians great is their "sound"? Drummond jumped in. "Right, what Miles (Davis) plays is important, but his sound is just as important." I get it, with Miles' unique trumpet sound anybody can instantly pick out his horn from a million other players. You can hear "the sound" on a car radio or a cheap boom box, so what does an expensive hi-fi bring to the party?

Drummond doesn't miss a beat, "OK, if you bring a musician to your house and sit him down in front of your high-end system and play Miles, he will acknowledge the difference. Now, they can really hear his sound. That's what happens when I bring musicians over and let them hear that kind of thing. They get it, and say something like, 'Man, I need to get new speakers.'"

Has he had any converts? "Yeah sure, a couple of great bass players, Steve Swallow and Peter Washington, and now when he's in Japan he's buying Blue Note pressings. Peter was always a record collector, even before he got into high-end audio, just as I was. A better audio system just enhanced his enjoyment of his collection." Jazz icon bassist Ron Carter is another hard-core audiophile. Drummond says they all agree that once you hear a great system there's a big difference.

Drummond can be heard on more than 200 CDs. He's played with Carla Bley, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, J.J. Johnson, Nat Adderley, Bobby Hutcherson, Buster Williams, Lee Konitz, James Moody, Andrew Hill, Freddie Hubbard, Charles Tolliver, Sheila Jordan, and Toots Thielmanns. Drummond is an adjunct professor of jazz drums at the Juilliard School of music and teaches at New York University.

These are some of Billy's favorite recordings he plays on:

Steve Kuhn: "Pavanne For A Dead Princess" Venus Records (Japan)

Steve Kuhn: "Baubles Bangles and Beads" "Venus Records (Japan)

David Hazletine: "Alice In Wonderland" Venus Records (Japan)

Gary Smulyan: "Hidden Treasures" Reservoir Records

Tommy Smith: "The Sound Of Love" Linn Records

Javon Jackson: "Once Upon A Melody" Palmetto Records

Tessa Souter: "Night Of Key Largo" Venus Records (Japan)

Billy Drummond: "Dubai" Criss Cross Records

Drummond has a few hi-fis at home. He has Magnepan 1.6/R and Vandersteen Model 3A Signature speakers, used with McIntosh, Quicksilver, Audio Research, and Audible Illusions electronics, along with a Sony SACD player and a Basis 1400 turntable.