Anyone in the close-knit San Diego jazz community is surely aware of the award-winning Danny Green Trio. For almost a decade multi-instrumentalist Julien Cantelm has driven that group with a precise and infectious groove that defies easy categorization. Cantelm seems to employ Brazilian rhythms and even Indian talas as often as you will hear him play an obvious jazz cliché. Watching him play is instructive: no matter what kind of explosions he might be igniting—he remains the picture of relaxation—he’s usually gazing downwards, as if he was reading an invisible sports page on the snare drum. The visuals might seem languid, but there is almost always a flurry of subtle activity happening—ensuring that no one paying attention comes away unrewarded.
The first time I played with Julien I noticed a drumming quality that was new to me. His sound was softer and more contained, and he was so focused on being precise. It’s a joy to play with him.
—Saxophonist Tripp Sprague
I’ve always been fascinated by this approach, and I was kind of blown away to discover that Julien is also a masterful guitarist. That’s an instrument I have a high bar for in terms of expectations, and he can play things that would give a lesser musician fits. When the opportunity to interview Julien came up, I jumped at the chance to find out more about how he came to be the player he is.
Cantelm grew up all over, splitting time between Miami/Ft. Lauderdale, Florida; Pennsylvania; the Bay Area; and back to Florida before arriving in San Diego in 2004. His uncle played the upright bass in the Pittsburgh symphony and he started Julien on the violin as a youth. “I was three or four years old,” says Cantelm. “I didn’t practice too diligently, but I picked up the guitar when I was like 11 or 12 and then started playing drums shortly after that. It was kind of back and forth between the guitar and drums for a while. There was more demand for drummers as well as a kinship I felt to the instrument and I started gravitating toward that, but the guitar was always in the background as a compositional tool.”
Upon arriving in San Diego, Cantelm met fellow drummer Jesse Charnow, who was playing with Anoushka Shankar at the time. He was able to study some Indian classical music (applying those lessons to the drum kit). Through Charnow he met drummer Tim Shea. Shea’s teacher, Richard Wilson, also mentored the world-famous Vinnie Colaiuta. “They gave me a great launching pad with technique and introduced higher learning. I studied briefly with Marcio Bahia, Hermeto Pascoal’s and Hamilton De Holanda’s long standing drummer, who taught me a lot of the Brazilian drum set approaches. As well as Mauricio Zottarelli—he’s kind of a progressive-rock guy but he’s really hip on contemporary jazz and Brazilian jazz stuff as well. Ultimately, I studied Brasilian music at the California Brazil Jazz Camp and with peers into that musical language.”
Cantelm was working with flutist Rebecca Kleinman and guitarist Dusty Brough playing various Eastern European folk musics and a ton of Brazilian rhythms when he met Danny Green. “We just instantly hit it off,” Cantelm recalls.
“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Julien form more than 11 years,” says Green. “And there are so many things I love about his drumming. He brings so much knowledge of musical styles to the table, so no matter what style of music we’re playing, his grooves always sound phenomenal and feel great. He’s an incredibly interactive drummer and he’s able to focus on what everyone in the band is doing. On a more personal level, Julien is an all-around awesome, extremely intelligent, down-to-earth guy and a great friend.”
I’ve always marveled at how equally balanced the Danny Green Trio comes off. They truly work as a cooperative unit, and the relationship between Cantelm and bassist Justin Grinnell is often sublime. “I think Julien and I connect musically because we’ve shared a penchant for improvised musics employing unusual meters,” said Grinnell. “I’ve always felt privileged to play with Julien, because not only is he a master musician, he is also always intently listening and interacting with the musical contributions of his bandmates.”
I was wondering what kind of drum role models contributed to the Cantelm we hear today. “Sometimes it isn’t even drummers,” he said. “It could be guitarists, pianists, classical music, or nature. There are so many places to pull from. But I love a lot of contemporary jazz drummers, like Marcus Gilmore or Vinnie Colaiuta, Jeff Ballard and Eric Harland and Ari Hoenig and Dave King. And, of course, I honor and love the greats such as Philly Joe Jones and Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, too.”
At this point, I interjected my idea about the really great drummers exhibiting an almost superhuman ability to relax, something I observe in Cantelm’s playing. Is it conscious? “Absolutely. For me, one of the biggest steps to achieving that was figuring out how much mileage you can get out of the drumstick and gravity itself, using rebound control to let the stick do the work. I’ve also done a lot of yoga and martial arts and surfing and I treat it all like a meditative state, all of that helps me relax.”
The pandemic has altered everyone’s reality in terms of steady gigs. Before COVID-19 hit, Cantelm was busy with a guitar trio called Jux with Grant Fisher and Harley Magsino, another guitar trio led by Victor Baker with bassist Rob Thorsen, and a project called KilliKilli with vocalist Lexi Pulido, Grant Fisher, and Harley Magsino
“Julien Cantelm is one of my absolute favorite drummers,” says Thorsen. “He has a completely unique style and a free approach to the music. Combined with his knowledge of odd meter rhythms and musical styles, he brings a fresh approach to every song.”
Cantelm also leads a band with Louie Valenzuela and Kevin Higuchi under the moniker Abnormal Mammal, which he describes as “totally alternative indie math folk. I’m playing the guitar and singing, so it’s not really jazz at all. It’s an alter ego project slowly coming to fruition.”
Julien Cantelm teaches at the Kalabash School of the Arts in La Jolla. “It’s mostly for kids, but we have some group classes. Because of the pandemic, I mostly teach one-on-one remotely from my home.”