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Duncan Moore: A Different Drummer

"First-call" should be Moore's middle name.

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    Duncan Moore
    Duncan Moore behind the kit.

    By the time San Diego super-drummer Duncan Moore arrived here from Iowa in 1977, he'd been studying the instrument for a long time. Moore began playing in fourth grade and got his first drum set in the seventh grade. By his junior year in high school, he knew that a career in percussion was his ultimate goal.

    "I started studying mallets to prepare for a music major in college, went to the University of Iowa, and got very involved in the classical percussion world, studying timpani, getting my reading together," Moore said. "My love for jazz started in my second year of college, when I took lessons from a great drummer, Tim Pleasant, who turned me on to Tony Williams and Elvin Jones. Hearing Tony on the Four n' More album blew my mind, and that's when I really got focused on the drum set again.

    "Shortly after arriving here in '77, I went to a jam session that Joe Marillo was having at Jose Murphy's in PB. I met Tripp Sprague, who recommended me to his brother Peter, who was looking for a new drummer for Dance of the Universe. I started playing a lot with Peter and Ella Ruth Piggee (who I had worked with a lot back in Iowa), we both ended up playing steady with Butch Lacy and Hollis Gentry at Chuck's Steak House. I started getting calls to sub for Jim Plank at gigs and recording sessions. One thing led to another, and I've managed to stay busy all these years!"

    Staying busy is an understatement -- Moore is the most in-demand drummer in San Diego. When international traveling jazz stars visit the area, he gets the first call. Since he came to town, Moore has performed thousands of gigs and appeared on hundreds of recordings.

    Does he have any standout memories?

    "Wow, that's a tough one...I got to work a few times with Joe Farrell. He's still one of my favorites. I played once with Ray Brown -- probably the deepest groove I've ever experienced! Playing drums for Joe Chambers was surreal...what a legend. He jumped on the drums for the second set. I got a great drum lesson! But some of my biggest influences were local celebs Bob Magnusson and Mike Wofford. Bob taught me so much about time playing."

    I asked local guitarist Peter Sprague what makes Moore such a special drummer.

    "Duncan is the ideal drummer for my group," Sprague said. "I'm drawn toward Brazilian music, folk music, jazz of course, and funk too. I find it's rare to have a drummer be full on with these different styles, but Duncan is. He's got chops but more importantly, he's got a ton of real-world music-based decisions running through his circuitry. This cat is as bad as they come!"

    Bassist Rob Thorsen works a lot with Moore, and had this to say.

    "He is really adaptable to different musical situations and styles. Jazz music encompasses music of the world and seems Duncan has studied it all and makes music from whatever you throw his way. His time is super accurate -- that's what gives the music its pulse and groove. Duncan nails it."

    Bass legend Mark Dresser recruited Moore for his critically acclaimed quintet--not just for the obvious reasons.

    "I chose him, not only because he's a first-call jazz drummer of impeccable skills," Dresser said. "What sold me on him was this guy has a big heart. I worked with him on this benefit for our mutual friend Diane Moser who was quite ill. I was so impressed by his character and selfless M.O. that I wanted to see how it would work musically. He brought something special to the music that I've not heard before."

    Today, Moore splits his time between freelance gigs and teaching the drumset at Mira Costa College, right down the street from his home in Oceanside.

    I asked him if one of his prime attributes, swing, can be taught.

    "I don't think it can be taught in an academic environment," said Moore. "You can teach the techniques required, but getting the feel of swing comes from listening to the music and hearing all the great players through the entire history of jazz. And just playing! It never ends. I'm still constantly refining my ride cymbal playing."

    Moore is also active in the SoCal Drum Society and organizes a "drum summit" each year.

    "I can't remember if the idea for the drum summit came from me or Chuck Perrin, but I remember us discussing it a number of times before it actually happened," Moore said. "There is a drum community here, and for the most part, I don't think drummers in the area let competition get in the way of that. That's why the summit is always so successful. I still love getting together with other drummers here to share ideas."

    Duncan Moore plays with guitarists Peter Sprague and Mundell Lowe on Sunday, May 6 at the First Christian Church of Oceanside at 3 p.m. and on May 19 with guitarist Jaime Valle at Harry's Bar in La Jolla at 6 p.m.

     Robert Bush Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.