On the Cover

Adam Bowman’s drum­ming style has him in de­mand from dance classes to Eu­ro­pean tours – not to men­tion the Juno nom­i­na­tions


Drum­mer Adam Bowman was pho­tographed by Alisha Townsend in Guelph, in the Que­bec Street dance stu­dio where he can of­ten be found.

As a ses­sional mu­si­cian for some two decades, Adam Bowman says he’s never had trou­ble fill­ing his days. Early last year, Kitch­ener singer-song­writer Alysha Brilla re­ceived a Juno nom­i­na­tion for her adult-con­tem­po­rary al­bum “Rooted” that fea­tured Bowman on per­cus­sion. That was their se­cond Juno nom­i­na­tion: Brilla was nom­i­nated in 2015 for “Womyn” – the same year that Guelph’s Ec­codek, also in­clud­ing Bowman, re­ceived a nom­i­na­tion in the world mu­sic cat­e­gory.

Part­way through 2018 came a call from Toronto singer-song­writer Elise LeGrow, who wanted the Guelph-based per­cus­sion­ist for her trio headed to Europe in Septem­ber for a two-week tour open­ing for British singer-song­writer Rick Ast­ley.

That op­por­tu­nity led to the trio open­ing later last

fall for eight On­tario dates on a tour by Toronto mu­si­cian Royal Wood.

In be­tween, Bowman played reg­u­lar gigs rang­ing from an­chor­ing Satur­day night dance con­certs with the Hot Fiyah funk band at Toronto’s Or­bit Room, to ac­com­pa­ny­ing weekly mod­ern dance classes and run­ning bucket-drum­ming ses­sions in Guelph. Some days, he fig­ures, he might spend 12 or more hours be­hind the drums.

But last May brought a change of pace for Bowman and Ge­or­gia Simms, his wife and artis­tic part­ner – the ar­rival of their daugh­ter, Frankie – short for Francesca. As Bowman says, “It makes you con­sider how you spend your time.”

He de­lib­er­ately scaled back his com­mit­ments last sum­mer, say­ing no to a few tour­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties and gigs. The Eu­ro­pean tour in late Septem­ber was his first ma­jor out­ing in a while – and one that brought un­ex­pected val­i­da­tion from Ast­ley him­self.

Bowman was still a pre­teen in Elmira when the British pop rocker first hit the charts. Bowman re­calls a road trip when he and his cousins tor­tured his un­cle with in­ces­sant re­play­ing of Ast­ley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Decades later, there he was in Europe, watch­ing Ast­ley, who had re­tired for nearly a decade to fo­cus on his fam­ily, draw­ing on his soul roots in front of sold-out crowds: “He’s writ­ing mu­sic as a fa­ther and a hus­band.”

Call it a turn­ing point for an in-de­mand ses­sional drum­mer de­scribed as a lis­tener, thinker, job­ber, per­pet­ual stu­dent of mu­sic and a go-to per­cus­sion­ist for artists rang­ing from mod­ern dancers to var­ied funk, jazz and R&B mu­si­cians.

“They al­ways por­tray drum­mers as Ne­an­derthal, knuckle-drag­ging meat­heads. . . . I blame An­i­mal from The Mup­pet Show and Bam-Bam from The Flint­stones.”

It’s a few days be­fore Thanks­giv­ing, al­most a week af­ter that Eu­ro­pean tour dur­ing which Bowman cel­e­brated his 40th birth­day. In the liv­ing room of their town­house near down­town Guelph, there’s not a drum in sight. Al­most as an af­ter­thought at the end of the even­ing, Bowman of­fers to show off his prac­tice kit, tucked at the foot of the base­ment stairs near the laun­dry room.

From the turntable be­hind Bowman, a sax­o­phone hums “Where or When” from an al­bum called “Elling­ton In­di­gos,” a 1958 col­lec­tion of jazz stan­dards by Duke Elling­ton. “In­ter­view mu­sic,” Bowman quips. “I don’t play a lot of this mu­sic. It’s just beau­ti­ful. The feel­ings are so clear. It’s a time pe­riod that I ro­man­ti­cize a lot. The emo­tions are so clear. It’s re­moved from the cur­rent time.”

Re­mov­ing him­self from the cur­rent time is al­most an oc­cu­pa­tional ne­ces­sity. He says it’s a chal­lenge for him to lis­ten to am­bi­ent mu­sic with­out an­a­lyz­ing what he’s hear­ing. At times, he de­lib­er­ately chooses some­thing more ob­scure – say, Chi­nese folk mu­sic whose ar­rhyth­mic com­po­si­tions are played with tra­di­tional in­stru­ments. “It takes me out of hav­ing to be a pro­fes­sional mu­si­cian and gets me back to the rea­son I chose the mu­sic pro­fes­sion. I love mu­sic. I get back to that clear con­nec­tion of ‘This is beau­ti­ful.’ ”

Mu­sic is more lan­guage than skill, says Bowman. “Drums can be bom­bas­tic and loud; you can drive the point home. They al­ways por­tray drum­mers as Ne­an­derthal, knuckle-drag­ging meat­heads. Drum­mers are seen as not in­tro­spec­tive. I blame An­i­mal from ‘The Mup­pet Show’ and Bam-Bam from ‘The Flint­stones.’ ”

A re­luc­tant soloist, he adds, “I don’t play drums, I play the song. I hope when I play with peo­ple, that’s what they want: some­one who is go­ing to play their mu­sic, not the drums.”

To see what he means, you need go no fur­ther than the third-floor dance stu­dio on Que­bec Street in Guelph used by a va­ri­ety of groups. His dance class gig came soon af­ter he ar­rived in the city a decade ago and con­nected with Guelph Dance co-founder Janet John­son about her youth classes.

To­day he ac­com­pa­nies Ima­geo Art­works classes run on Thurs­day nights by Simms; Wed­nes­day morn­ings, he re­turns for a sim­i­lar re­hearsal with Dancethe­atre David Earle.

As Simms, 37, leads adult dancers through their ex­er­cises one even­ing, Bowman sits alert but re­laxed, wait­ing for her glance and mur­mured count to be­gin pulling im­pro­vised rhythms and sounds from a set of con­gas, a West African djembe and a dig­i­tal hand-per­cus­sion pad. Bowman likes one of Earle’s sig­na­ture lines: “Dance is an emo­tional re­sponse to rhythm ex­pressed phys­i­cally.”

That emo­tional re­sponse runs in both di­rec­tions, says the drum­mer: “As mu­si­cians, what we do is in­vis­i­ble. It’s in­tan­gi­ble: you hear it but that’s all. As soon as you put it to dance, you get a visual rep­re­sen­ta­tion of what you play. It’s like when wind pushes up dust. The wind was in­vis­i­ble, but you can see how it be­haves and re­acts.”

What of­ten mat­ters most is what he doesn’t play. “It’s about leav­ing space for the dancers to move in, so they can dance in the mu­sic as op­posed to on the mu­sic,” says Bowman. “Space is every­thing. That’s where the mu­sic is, not in the notes: It’s the space be­tween the notes.”

Un­der­state­ment and econ­omy of move­ment de­fine Bowman’s pres­ence be­hind a drum kit. Clearly, he’s aware of his self and his space – an aware­ness that

has likely been honed through his weekly prac­tice of kung fu, led by Guelph sifu Robin Young up­stairs in the same Que­bec Street stu­dio.

Bowman says mar­tial arts and per­cus­sion both fo­cus on ef­fi­ciency of ac­tion – and not just in the body but also in the mind. To si­lence the “nat­ter­ing voices” that can be­gin to chat­ter in his head be­fore a gig, he re­lies on a three-step mantra from Bruce Lee’s book called “Tao of Jeet Kune Do.”

The late movie ac­tor and mar­tial artist was writ­ing about his own field, but his ideas for mas­ter­ing tech­nique ap­ply al­most any­where, says Bowman. Stripped to its es­sen­tials, the process cen­tres around de­lib­er­ate re­lax­ation, in­clud­ing the crit­i­cal Step Three: treat­ing a per­for­mance not as a po­ten­tially stress-in­duc­ing end­point but as just an­other chance to prac­tise.

For Bowman, that came in es­pe­cially handy dur­ing an in­ter­na­tional TED 2018 event held last April in Van­cou­ver, where LeGrow had been in­vited onto the pro­gram. LeGrow asked Bowman and Burling­ton gui­tarist Jeff Ea­ger to per­form a short set from her 2018 de­but al­bum, “Play­ing Chess.” Cus­tom-built for an au­di­ence of 2,000-plus, the event theatre went on for­ever. “What a place. You’re sur­rounded by peo­ple at the top of their game. You sit around and watch peo­ple do well. The bar is set very high.”

It seems in­se­cu­rity is an oc­cu­pa­tional haz­ard for many artists – not that you’d know it from ob­serv­ing Bowman at work. Still, he knows about the “nat­ter­ing voices,” a topic that sur­faced this past fall dur­ing a book launch at Si­lence in down­town Guelph for “Bass Line Con­tin­uum.” It’s self­pub­lished by Ja­son Raso, Guelph bas­sist and front­man of an epony­mous “funk­tet” whose mem­bers in­clude Bowman.

For the launch, Raso asked Bowman to play moder­a­tor, a nat­u­ral role for the per­cus­sion­ist who of­fers in­sights and tidbits from a seem­ingly en­cy­clo­pe­dic store of mu­si­cal ar­cana, all with­out talk­ing down to his au­di­ence. Be­fore dis­cussing the book, the duo played a cou­ple of tunes – Raso on bass, Bowman slap­ping out the rhythm with his hands on a ca­jon, or wooden box drum.

Raso’s book is mostly about bassists, but it con­tains a short univer­sal chap­ter about stay­ing pos­i­tive and get­ting past self-doubt. Mu­si­cians and artists of­ten put up a front to mask in­se­cu­ri­ties – a huge para­dox bor­der­ing on hypocrisy, says Bowman.

“All mu­si­cians talk about sen­si­tiv­ity and vul­ner­a­bil­ity. You need to make mu­sic with feel­ing, but don’t talk about your feel­ings.” Deny­ing those sides of your­self is like deny­ing some­thing of your hu­man­ity, he says.

Bowman has taught drum­ming classes in area schools, in­clud­ing teach­ing at-risk kids. He be­gan with tra­di­tional in­stru­ments, but the thought bub­ble he could see above some of those young heads – “Here we go, an­other thing I’m not go­ing to be good at” – made him shift tac­tics.

He be­gan bucket drum­ming, us­ing sticks and plas­tic pails to layer up rhyth­mic sound­scapes. He now leads high school bucket drum­ming an­nu­ally through a com­mu­nity arts pro­gram in Guelph. A year ago, fig­ur­ing that what worked for kids might also ap­peal to grown-ups, he founded FunkBucket, an adult drum­ming pro­gram us­ing found per­cus­sion.

Re­fer­ring to those at-risk young­sters, Bowman says, “They lack an iden­tity. I would have been that kid with­out mu­sic, es­pe­cially with cuts to arts pro­grams. I was not a straight-A stu­dent.”

Grow­ing up in Elmira, he says, “I didn’t feel like I fit. I was a mu­si­cian grow­ing up in a hockey town.”

It didn’t help that his dad had been a track star at Elmira Dis­trict Se­condary School, and that his dad’s coach was still there when Adam reached Grade 9. “They were very ex­cited when this other Bowman was com­ing to EDSS. They were very dis­ap­pointed when they found out I was look­ing for the mu­sic room.”

In a way, he’d been look­ing for the mu­sic room since kinder­garten, and even be­fore. Bowman likes to say he didn’t so much choose the drums as they chose him. He grew up tap­ping along with his mom’s record col­lec­tion – Michael Jack­son, Prince, lots of clas­sic soul and R&B heavy on bass and drums. In high school, he played in var­i­ous en­sem­bles from con­cert band to mu­si­cals. “I found my iden­tity,” he says.

Af­ter study­ing mu­sic at Hum­ber Col­lege, Bowman found his way back to Guelph, a pro­gres­sive town where he could con­nect with artists both at home and in Toronto. An early con­nec­tion was Guelph sax­o­phon­ist Brent Rowan, a for­mer Hum­ber class­mate. They’ve since played to­gether with var­i­ous en­sem­bles; Bowman now helps men­tor mu­si­cians in the New Hori­zons pro­gram for se­niors run by Rowan.

Be­sides bring­ing pa­tience and com­mit­ment to the pro­gram, says Rowan, “he thrives on show­ing peo­ple how to bet­ter them­selves mu­si­cally.” On stage, he adds, “Adam is rock solid, he fills the role of the drum­mer solidly. A while back, we talked about be­ing busy with lots of pro­jects and con­flicts be­tween gigs. I said: ‘Adam, this is your prob­lem for work­ing so hard, be­ing so con­sci­en­tious and do­ing a good job. If you were a crappy drum­mer, you wouldn’t have this prob­lem.’ ”

Dur­ing the past decade, Bowman has played with nu­mer­ous artists, rang­ing from jazz en­sem­bles at Man­hat­tans in Guelph to funk dance nights at the Or­bit Room in Toronto. He hooked up with the Ja­son Raso Funk­tet in Guelph in 2012. A con­cert by the sex­tet at the River Run Cen­tre’s Co-op­er­a­tors Hall last fall was an­chored by a Raso-Bowman rhythm tan­dem.

“I think of Adam as re­mark­ably con­sis­tent,” Raso says. “I can ven­ture off and know he’ll be there. He’s a re­ally strong

lis­tener as a per­son and a player. He’s lis­ten­ing to ev­ery­body. You would think that’s a qual­ity ev­ery mu­si­cian has, but it’s not.”

Raso also cred­its the per­cus­sion­ist as a deft ar­ranger, point­ing to syn­co­pated rhythms in “Stone Cold Lib­er­a­tion,” a tune on the group’s 2017 CD recorded live at Water­loo’s Jazz Room. “He’s good at find­ing spots to let the tune breathe a bit.”

Bowman played on Ec­codek’s “Singing in Tongues,” nom­i­nated in 2015 for a Juno for world mu­sic al­bum. Rowan had rec­om­mended Bowman to An­drew McPher­son, Guelph-based leader of the world-elec­tronic fu­sion group.

“His sense of groove was so ob­vi­ous, and I like his pro­fes­sional ap­proach, his open­ness to creativ­ity and col­lab­o­ra­tion,” says McPher­son, who says Bowman’s per­for­mance dy­nam­ics on stage make him a great wing­man. “He’s a great per­former. He looks great on stage and re­ally plays to a room.”

Brilla says Bowman was an ob­vi­ous choice for her re­cent al­bums. “He’s such a tight drum­mer, es­pe­cially for my mu­sic which is very rhyth­mic. I’m very in­vested in beat and rhythm,” says Brilla. She says his dis­tinc­tive beat cre­ates a “pocket” for her to per­form, as in her Bob Mar­ley-in­flected song “Res­cue.”

“He’s al­ways re­ally present, he’s aware he’s on stage. Not only is the band mu­si­cally tal­ented, but they’re also good show peo­ple.” Not to men­tion an­other qual­ity: “It’s al­ways im­por­tant that they have no prob­lem tak­ing in­struc­tion from a fe­male leader.”

An or­ches­tra­tor, Brilla writes all the band parts, in­clud­ing the per­cus­sion, but she ap­pre­ci­ates Bowman’s in­ter­pre­ta­tions. “Adam changes some­thing up. He finds ways to bring his creativ­ity.”

LeGrow calls Bowman a “ground­ing pres­ence” who’s able to lead or fol­low in­tu­itively. “He has a lot of swag­ger in his play­ing. If you have swag­ger, you don’t need to play a lot of notes. A lot of peo­ple play too many notes to demon­strate their prow­ess. You need space to cre­ate move­ment,” says LeGrow.

The Ast­ley tour dates last fall in Ger­many, Bel­gium, the Nether­lands and Den­mark drew ca­pac­ity au­di­ences of 1,000 to 2,000 peo­ple. One of Bowman’s favourite venues was the Ad­mi­ral’s Palace in Berlin, a re­stored 1920s theatre. Dur­ing one con­cert, gui­tarist Ea­ger saw the drum­mer pause to pan around the room with his phone cam­era, clearly tak­ing in the mo­ment.

“You’re look­ing at 2,000 peo­ple look­ing back at you, which can be in­tim­i­dat­ing on stage,” says Ea­ger. “He tries to see who’s en­gaged and watch­ing. It’s not about ego but about con­nec­tion. We might as well be play­ing a cof­fee shop with 25 peo­ple.”

From funk en­sem­bles to mod­ern dance class: How does Bowman adapt to so many var­ied styles and sounds? “Those are prob­a­bly the two most var­ied things

I do – a packed, late-night, crazy club on Col­lege Street in Toronto to this beau­ti­ful, med­i­ta­tive and ul­tra-artis­tic, rit­u­al­ist ex­pe­ri­ence up in the stu­dio,” he says. “The point for both of those things is to make peo­ple dance, play some­thing that moves peo­ple phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally.”

He doesn’t think about com­part­men­tal­iz­ing him­self or his art in the vein of “this is how I play when I play with dance class, or this is how I play when I play with Ja­son Raso or Alysha Brilla. I try not to put things in lit­tle boxes, it’s more con­fus­ing. I try to think: ‘What can I say on any given day that feels ap­pro­pri­ate?’ It’s more authen­tic to play one way, to play like me.”

Look­ing into 2019, he has prospects for record­ing and per­form­ing with var­i­ous artists, although he doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily know what’s com­ing next. But that’s OK, says Bowman. That was an­other af­fir­ma­tion from ob­serv­ing a re­ju­ve­nated Rick Ast­ley in the fall. “There’s a great amount of trust re­quired to nav­i­gate this life­style,” says Bowman. Quot­ing an old line, he adds, “When the stu­dent is ready, the teacher will ap­pear. I re­ally be­lieve in that.”

Fea­tured last year on an hour-long Amer­i­can pod­cast called “Work­ing Drum­mer,” Bowman said, “Like any­thing in this jour­ney through a life in mu­sic, things seem­ingly fall out of the sky and are al­most seen as in­con­se­quen­tial in the mo­ment, and they evolve into some­thing that is so much greater than what it seems at first glance.”

Take those dance classes: A decade af­ter he ar­rived in Guelph, he mar­ried the dance in­struc­tor. “We got mar­ried at the univer­sity ar­bore­tum un­der an oak tree,” he says. The cou­ple wrote their own vows. He wears his pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther’s wed­ding ring, and Simms wears Bowman’s mom’s orig­i­nal wed­ding ring, given af­ter his par­ents had new rings made for them­selves.

Ea­ger, who was best man at the cou­ple’s wed­ding, says, “We’re not just per­form­ers. How does mu­sic fit into our lives? What’s so at­trac­tive about him is his se­cu­rity in his life and his art. Hav­ing a fam­ily didn’t change that. He’s found a good bal­ance in life.”

Bowman al­ways fig­ured he’d be happy if he could make a liv­ing from play­ing mu­sic ev­ery day. That dream came true – but it’s not as if he wants to spend ev­ery minute of ev­ery day be­hind the drum kit.

“I’ve taken a page out of Rick Ast­ley’s book,” he says. “That’s my mea­sure of suc­cess: to pay the bills and play mu­sic I be­lieve in, with peo­ple I ad­mire and re­spect as hu­man be­ings and artists. That feels like suc­cess. That’s the barom­e­ter. I al­ways feel full when I fin­ish a pro­ject and lay down at night.”


Adam Bowman with his wife, Ge­or­gia Simms, and daugh­ter, Frankie.

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