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DVD Review – John Blackwell: Technique, Grooving, and Showmanship

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John Blackwell Jr’s DVD was one of Hudson Music’s first “High End” DVDs. Double disk, tons of special features, great camera work, shot at Bear Tracks studios in upstate New York. You know, the high end ones. It was the first Hudson Music DVD I ever owned (I have since given it to goodwill) and it was also one of the worst drum instructional I’ve ever owned. Now before you start throwing things at your computer screen, just hear me out. This isn’t a knock on John Blackwell as a drummer or as a musician. He is awesome as both… but he just wasn’t good at teaching in this DVD. He might be a lot better now or better in different settings but he just wasn’t good at communicating or teaching in this DVD.

It’s a crying shame because he’s definitely got a lot of things that I would love to learn from him. For example his Bass Drum technique is awesome. We’re talking Jojo Mayer and above level of playing with his right foot. But he basically says “I’m rocking the foot but not sliding it, now watch.” He then proceeds to blow your mind with the awesomeness of his right foot. He then plays a couple of grooves that show you that this stuff can be used in a musical context… then he moves on. AAARHHHGGGHHH!!! It’s like watching a magic trick. You see him do it but you don’t know how! Anyways, seeing as I went into the technique section I might as well cover all of them right quick… and “right quick” is really all I need.

The technique section of the video is… really bad. Sorry John. It’s all like the single foot explanation. He just doesn’t communicate what he is doing very well. The other thing is that every thing he does with his hands is explained (better) in Jojo Mayer’s DVD. So all is not lost.

The grooving section is actually pretty cool. All it is is John Playing a bunch of different stuff. It’s not so much grooving because John is very liberal with the fills and feeling. A more appropriate title for this section would be, “John being John in different scenarios.”

The showmanship section is more a history of John’s relationship with stick twirling then actual teaching you how to spin sticks. Luckily he only really uses one spin and it’s easy to learn. Once you grasp the spin figuring out the rest of what he’s doing is easy.

Just about all the learning you will get from this DVD will be from watching John play. He is quite an interesting player, somewhere in between pocket player and gospel chops. Imagine the (very hypothetical) child of Bernard Purdie and Ronald Bruner Jr. That’s John.

John is a big history guy and it’s very obvious in the DVD. Every time he explains something he talks about how he learned it, when he learned it, who he learned it from, and gives any backstory there may be to whatever he’s talking about. The problem is, he’s not a very good speaker (at least not when talking to a camera.) His speech is low, mumbled, and plagued by “uhm’s” and pauses. When he plays however he speaks rather eloquently. This is best demonstrated in the Heros & Influences section of the video.

He talks about an influence (badly) and then plays a short little piece based on what he learned from said influence (and plays it well.) Some of his influences include; John Blackwell Sr, Billy Cobham, Tony Williams, Art Blakey, & Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett. He doesn’t make an attempt to impersonate them but he does show how each play a role in shaping his style. This is probably my favorite section. Not just because the playing is great and because I’m getting to know John better, but also because he says that it’s important to know about your musical ancestors. I totally agree. The more you learn about those who influenced you and who influenced your influences, the more you know about yourself.

The second DVD in the set is all special features. Mostly bonus footage but there is a photo gallery and both disks have (horribly done) audio commentary for selected scenes. Once again, John isn’t a very articulate guy… so choosing to have him do an audio commentary was just a really dumb idea.

Here’s the break down.

For content I’m going to give it one mic. John just didn’t do a very good job teaching and this is an instructional video.

For presentation I’m giving it half a mic. The presentation is awesome when he’s playing but horrible when he’s talking. It did get better during the section that they had a interviewer guiding John. Talking to a human, John’s communication got better but the interviewer was only in the video in a couple of segments. Shame.

For extras I’m giving it one mic. Even with the horrible audio commentary there is still enough of quality bonus footage to earn the whole mic.

So in total thats 2.5 mics.

If you have netflix I’d rent it and watch it once, maybe twice, but I wouldn’t buy it.

Hudson is coming out with a master series DVD with John Blackwell, so there’s still hope for John to star in a great instructional DVD. If nothing else it’ll be interesting to see how John does in a master class setting. Hopefully better then when he’s talking to a camera.

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