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Grammy winner Lewis talks passion for percussion

Brandon Choghri
Arts and Entertainment Reporter

Larnell Lewis is a big man – his large frame might look a little out of place behind a drum kit at first, but the only thing surprising when he gets rolling is his breakneck speed and ridiculous accuracy.

There’s a reason the Humber alum is widely regarded as one of the best drummers in the world. ­

Some people say it’s not what the best musicians play that makes them so impressive, but often what they don’t play – Lewis is no exception to that. He controls his dynamics with incredible precision, and knows exactly when to leave room for his bandmates in the Mike Downes Quartet to solo. But what he does play is usually enough to make head spin and leave your jaw on the floor.

Those skills were on full display when he played an intimate show with the band at Gallery 345 earlier this month. Fresh off winning his third Grammy with American jazz jammers Snarky Puppy, Lewis went straight back into the studio – working on sessions, and playing with bassist Downes’ ensemble.

Lewis says music has been in his family for four generations, and that had quite an influence on him and his brother as they were growing up. His brother currently drums for Toronto pop-crooner The Weeknd, currently one of the top-selling music artists in the world. Lewis has been drumming since he was two years old, and says the early start really affected his approach to music.

“When you start young you become accustomed to making music,” he says. “You understand the effects of it, you understand how to manipulate it in certain ways and it becomes second nature.”

Music has certainly become a second nature to Lewis; his kit almost seems like an extension of him when he plays, but he also took over bass duties from Mike Downes for a tune during the quartet’s set.

He says the knowledge of theory he refined during his time as a student at Humber College has not only helped him as a multi-instrumentalist and composer, but as a drummer, too.

“To understand theory is to know chord movements – not only by ear but by reading a chart,” Lewis says. “You can understand what the composer was going for colour-wise so you can decide based on dynamic contour and the chord progression how to shape things.”

His ability to compose and interpret music also allows him to maximize his contributions in Snarky Puppy. With 20 members in the ensemble, it can be tough to carve out a sonic territory in the seemingly endless array of tones and frequencies, but Lewis says his experience allows him to find his own space, and even offer input melodically.

“When you have three drummers and three percussionists playing on an album, you want to use everyone’s brain power to make the most of the music,” he says.

Lewis admits that there’s a big difference between playing in Snarky Puppy and groups like the Mike Downes Quartet, saying that there’s certainly more space to play in the smaller bands, but you have to be able to hold your own lane musically in either situation.

He’s been playing with Mike Downes since he was a student at Humber, and says he has really enjoyed coming full circle to play with the quartet after joining the faculty as a part time professor.

On top of his teaching duties at Humber, Lewis plays in several bands, teaches at clinics, and spends hours in the studio recording sessions for other artists. He calls himself a “weekend warrior” – teaching during the week before leaving town, or the country, for a couple days at a time to drum in his various projects.

The associate dean of the department, Dr. Andrew Scott, acknowledges Lewis’ hectic schedule, and how difficult it can be to maintain it.

“Humber is extremely fortunate to have such talented faculty like Larnell, who reliably balances being a great educator with world class musicianship,” says Scott.

Lewis is enjoying the new role as an educator, and says that his young students inspire him to continue to innovate and experiment.

“There’s something about interacting with students and younger people that keeps your mind open and fresh and aware of what’s happening,” he says. “You don’t get stuck in an era or a particular mindset.”

As both a department head at Humber College and now a bandmate in several ensembles, Mike Downes has watched Lewis develop from a student into a world-renowned musician. He doesn’t just praise Lewis’ musical prowess, but his personality as well.

“Larnell is not only one of the greatest drummers in the world, but he’s a super great guy. It’s incredibly easy to play with him,” Downes says. “He’s super musical, his dynamics are fantastic, and he’s a great guy – what else could you want?”

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