Peter Erskine has always marched to the beat of his own drum.
Erskine, the director of drumset studies and professor practice at the Thornton School of Music, has over two dozen albums to his name and has also appeared in over 600 albums and film scores, including the Oscar-nominated musical La La Land. In December, Erskine’s illustrious career as a composer, performer and author was supplemented with a ninth Grammy nomination.
After two past Grammy wins, Erskine’s independently produced album, Dr. Um, was selected as one of five nominations out of nearly 800 submissions under the category of Best Jazz Instrumental Album. The title, a pun for drum, was conceptualized by Erskine’s friend, director Jack Fletcher, who encouraged Erskine to assume the alter ego name Dr. Um and create the record.
In his youth, Erskine was branded as a hard-hitting player, but the making of Dr. Um evidenced a unique break from his former musical style.
“I was best known for being a muscular, [loud] player, but then I went in a totally opposite direction for a few years,”Erskine said. “[I] dedicated myself to trying to learn how to play not only softly but to create the same kinds of musical peaks and valleys in a soft, disciplined realm,.
Erskine described his penchant for music, and in particular, the drums.
“[Playing softly] requires a singularly dedicated approach, a specific approach that I wanted to make because I was fascinated by ways of creating different kinds of surface tension within the music. People began to think of me as a sensitive player.”
The tender tone of the album reflects a harking back to past styles, techniques or chapters of Erskine’s musical life.
“The theme became ‘The Lost Pages’ — music that deserved another chance, music that hadn’t been heard or noticed the first time around,” Erskine said. “This album was a chance for me to revisit some music and musical styles that I’d left behind. [It’s music I would’ve played] if I’d known then what I know now.”
Dr. Um features tracks of Erskine’s own composition, collaborations with John Beasley, Bob Sheppard and Janek Gwizdala, songs from his old band Weather Report and even pieces by Gustav Mahler. In essence, Dr. Um became a highly personalized collection of music Erskine was passionate about making his own and immortalizing.
Rather than acquiesce to corporate hurdles, Erskine launched his own record label based in Santa Monica — Fuzzy Music, inspired by a book about fuzzy logic — with his wife, over 20 years ago. He referred to the production of Dr. Um as a “kitchen tabletop operation,” as he and his wife manually packaged and distributed albums for sale from their home.
“I think my nomination signals that the age of artist-owned label has arrived. [Fuzzy Music] represented a means by which I could get music recorded that I wanted recorded,” Erskine said. “It’s still important to make music in the studio — it’s different from playing your own music or playing in a club because it’s there for all time.”
On all past nominations, Erskine collaborated with groups of other jazz musicians, including fellow Thornton faculty members pianist Alan Pasqua and Jazz Department Chair Bob Mintzer, who was also nominated for a Grammy in the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album category for his album All L.A. Band, which was also produced by Erskine’s Fuzzy Music label.
“This [nomination] is the most exciting. It’s the first time I’ve been nominated purely as a solo artist; everything before has been a collaborative effort,” Erskine said. “For that reason, and also for the label having two albums nominated, [this year’s Grammys] is great fun.”
When it comes to his influence at Thornton, Erskine regards teaching music, especially in the realm of jazz, as the natural next step for his professional pursuits.
“I think most teachers would recognize the simple truth that part of the reason we like to teach is we end up learning more than the students. USC is a tremendous magnet for great, young, talented musicians,” Erskine said. “There’s something about the sense of community here, the ecosystem, that’s special. I love being inspired by the challenge the students present.”