Introducing Nick Costa, a slick, intuitive drummer who plays to the sound of music
Nick Costa is not the greatest drummer in the world. But, as Tenacious D would’ve put it, he’s a tribute to the greatest, most revered drumming traditions. You need but look and listen: follow my links to his playing. The D.C./Baltimore-area drummer plays with a snap that jolts listener and band forward in anticipation. That would also describe his touch. It’s magnetic, as if he’s summoning tones out of his drums and placing them up front where they’ll get things rolling.
If that seems a little perplexing, you’re onto what I’m hearing. It’s a rare juxtaposition of vibes, mixing the reds with the blues as they used to say, which adds a magical touch to a mundane track. What’s explainable is that Nick Costa has been at it for a long time: listening to lots of music, developing an understanding of how songs work in their respective genres, and constantly reviewing how a drummer might best complement any song anywhere.
The first thing you hear through the door of a club, I’m betting, is the drum sound. Unless it’s like the night I saw legendary guitarist John Martyn in a club the size of a board room; long phased tones seeped into every nook and cranny. That’s a sweet mystery, for sure. But otherwise, I tend to catch on to the drummer first. And I think you will, too, when you listen to Costa.
Aside from his rather in-your-face approach, you’ll notice that he’s meticulous in tuning his drums to sound full—could be bright, high-pitched and full, could be the converse. In any event, Nick Costa displays a keen awareness of how his sound travels across a crowded room. Handy with a drum key, he will tweak tension rods here and there, maybe just one of them, an 8th of a turn if the drum or the song needs it, this in an era when most drummers forget their bottom heads. Nick is quick and unobtrusive in his method, dead effective in achieving a variety of drum pitches, tones, and timbres from heritage to contemporary.
About that snap, which I borrow from the title of a Roy Haynes album, Costa’s touch and tone have a bite that places him somewhere between Roy and, say, Dennis Chambers. Bright, nimble, artsy, yet totally business. Sometimes Harvey Mason, while we’re at it, which is to say that Nick Costa is not likely to drop his sticks in some arbitrary manner—let go some sloppy, ill defined grace or ghost note (I nod to Tommy Igoe’s distinction). Everything’s in place, on the grid—not that it’s been locked down with Pro Tools. It gets loose but in a measured way. Everything’s got a point to it.
While I might be apt to depict Nick Costa’s time feel as milliseconds ahead of the click, it may just be his punchy bass drum—always active, always pressing on. And I guess I’d have to say, Nick places the snare backbeat where the song requires it. This is particularly evident in the way he handles his quasi-New Orleans groove, which I’ve witnessed a couple of times. It’s got that forward motion, marching thing happening but also that lazing lilt. This is getting difficult to put in words, although one aspect isn’t: Costa’s singles are singles, his doubles are incontrovertibly doubles, even at whisper volume. And his buzzes are clean and never tossed off—he’s got the note values, the sustain, well in hand.
Perhaps the only irony is in Nick’s assertion that he’d rather meld, slip into the mix, than stand out—you know, affect a nice kit balance wherein even though the snare sound might be killing it’s not coming at you like a bullet. Yet, this guy stands out in spite of it all. That’s as much a function of touch (watch the videos and you’ll see) and tuning (listen ~ and you’ll hear) as it is of a real love for music. He’s onto new stuff, listening like a hawk and reacting. If there’s something happening on those streets, I’ll hear it from Nick first.
I guess when you truly love to listen to music—you get the way a song works and how the sections interact, and how, say, a modulation can spike adrenaline—the rest comes pretty naturally. Listening also entails taking note of what the horn player’s blowing across the studio floor, witness his tracks up on youtube. He’s a hawk, attentive and ready to jump onto it, which is where the elements combine: clean, ample chops, tuning, placement, and a respect for what the others are doing. Ain’t no sense of solo drumming when Nick Costa plays…although, trust me, he can solo.
Nick Costa tells me that his relocation to the Baltimore area provided the push, the butt kicking, he needed. Curiously, like yours truly, he started playing music on another instrument: the harmonica. This was at age 7; by adolescence he defaulted to drums and took up a pair of 3S sticks at school band practice (he’d chosen clarinet, he tells me: what kind of talk is that?). Along the way it was the Haskell Harr and although Nick counts learning sessions with several of the greats, including Ralph Peterson and John Riley, he describes himself this way: “I didn’t have much formal education in music but I did, and still do, have ears.”
Nick Costa: Required Reading
You want to check out his playing, right? Fine, but I want to point to his bio. Nick’s got some interesting observations on the creative process, born of experiences with top-shelf players and lots of travel.
Nick Costa: Required Listening
And there are some great examples of Nick Costa playing here and there, as per:
Nick humbly adds, “if insomnia is an issue, you can also check this out…”
Nick Costa Reports from the Front Lines: Dana Hawkins
You know how I mentioned that Nick’s my go-to when I want to hear something new and fresh? Well, the other night, pursuant to following a link he’d sent me (really inspiring, exciting stuff), I asked Costa about this dude Dana Hawkins who I’d begun researching. Check out Dana in this informal, downtown club jam:
PS: I’m so happy that drummers of Nick’s ilk keep in touch. In that respect, Dana, contact me: TbruceWittet@gmail.com