Drummer Paul Sarni has been playing professionally for over 40 years – with his singular blend of skill, precision, poise and passion – and he’s worked with a dizzying roster of artists from Boston to Los Angeles and in between.
From the gospel icon Andrae Crouch and the legend of Vegas wayne newtonto distinguished singer and dancer Ben Vereen, country giant Lee Greenwood and pop megastar Tony Orlando, Sarni, over the years the Dover-Sherborn High graduate has worked with a slew of studio musicians, leading composers, arrangers and producers.
Born in Boston, Sarni spent his early years in the North End and his teenage years in Sherborn. He cites an eclectic range of influences – including fellow top players with Massachusetts roots Terri Lyne Carrington, a Medford native who played with Dizzy Gillespie; Kenny Aronoff of Stockbridge, who was John Mellencamp’s drummer; and Aerosmith’s Joey Kramer – but the drummer who inspired him the most was his father, Tony Sarni, who played with the famous standards/pop band Paul Broadnax and the Paul-Champ Threeformed in Cambridge in 1950.
By the age of 6, Paul Sarni regularly sat with the Paul-Champ Three at venues such as The Jazz Workshop, Paul’s Mall in Boston, Mosely’s on the Charles in Dedham, the Chateau de Ville in Framingham and Cottage Crest in Waltham. At the age of 8, after getting his own kit, he quickly became as comfortable with brushes as he was with sticks.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, while a student at Dover-Sherborn, Sarni won the National Association for Jazz Education’s Best Music award four years in a row and the Louis Armstrong Jazz Award after graduation. He took private drum lessons with Alan Dawson, a Roxbury native and Berklee faculty member; Walter Tokarczyk, a Boston Pops and Boston Symphony Orchestra percussionist who lived in Natick; and Gary Chaffee, who chaired the Berklee Percussion Department and taught at the New England Conservatory of Music.
Throughout the 1980s, Sarni played non-stop, performing everywhere from local weddings and seedy hotel lounges to Cambridge’s prestigious Ryles Jazz Club. He joined two very popular Christian rock bands, the Living Stones, formed in the mid-1970s in Framingham, and the David Coate Group, which the press dubbed “the Christian Toto”. In the late 1980s, he teamed up with famed keyboardist and Berklee graduate Mark Adamy, and he played on a soundtrack written by Berklee-educated Milford native Shawn Clement. The project was produced, recorded and engineered in Rockland by Grammy Award winner Bob St. John.
In the late 1980s, during visits to Los Angeles, Sarni formed a close relationship with the legendary jazz-fusion pioneer (and Chelsea native) Korea chick and jammed frequently with members of the Chick Corea Elektric Band. He had met Corea many times before at venues like the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, but he says spending time with Corea in his own studio was a formative experience like no other.
In 1990, Sarni moved to Los Angeles and soon after was performing with seven-time Grammy Award winner Andraé Crouch. He worked with Crouch until the early 2000s and performed on his mid-1990s release, “A Gospel Family Christmas”. That same year, Sarni joined the CA Worship Band, which featured an all-star lineup that included Latin jazz frontman Justo Almario, bassists Jerry Watts and John Peña, keyboardist Bill Cantos, and percussionist Alex Acuña. Thirty years later, Sarni continues to play with the group.
Still close to its New England roots, Sarni has maintained an active music program on the east and west coasts for the past three decades. He toured the country with wayne newton, did shows with Ben Vereen, Lee Greenwood and Tony Orlando, and supported Las Vegas luminaries Bob Anderson and Vince Falcone. In the late 1990s, he teamed up with longtime Michael Jackson bassist/keyboardist Alex Al and keyboardist/accordionist Steve Bach, now Cirque de Soleil band manager, and the power trio recorded a demo titled “3-One”.
In 2021, Sarni was part of a very entertaining band, The Italian Duo Featuring Sarni/Pesaturo, alongside Corey Pesaturo, a native of Rhode Island and a graduate of the New England Conservatory, winner of the World Championship of accordion who also plays saxophone, clarinet and piano. They played catchy renditions of songs by an assortment of artists, from Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock to Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan.
In February, he joined a global talent pool based in Boston to play a unique Chinese New Year concert sponsored by the American Academy of World Music. Held at history Henderson House in Weston, the group featured Grammy-nominated singer Debo Ray (née Deborah Pierre), an assistant professor at Berklee; bassist and composer Wesley Wirth, a native of Sherborn and a graduate of the New England Conservatory; guitarist David Fiuczynski, professor at Berklee; djembe player Sidi Mohamed Joh Camara, associate professor of dance at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee; and suona, flute and woodwind sensation Yazhi Gou, a Berklee graduate whose traditional instrumentation was key to the project given its Chinese New Year theme. The show was recorded and mixed by Brockton native David Karahalis, and the resulting CD will be distributed in cities across China.
Sarni is an officially sponsored artist for Yamaha drums, Vic Firth drumsticks, Remo heads and Zildjian Cymbalswith global headquarters in Norwell.
DS Monahan is a writer and editor who has explored a wide variety of topics and contributes to the virtual network New England Music Museum. He spent his teenage years in Medway and now lives in Japan.