Tag Archives: Tim Berne

For Bill Frisell’s 63rd Birthday, A DownBeat Article, An Uncut Blindfold Test, and A Few Other Pieces

Best of birthdays to guitarist Bill Frisell, who turns 63 today. Most people who would read this blog don’t need me to say much about him. But on the personal tip, I’ve admired Frisell’s unique sound and concept since the  early ’80s, when he first recorded with Joe Lovano in the Paul Motian Trio, and that decade with John Zorn’s Naked City. During my years at WKCR, I was fortunate  to have a number of opportunities to host him on-air, several times by himself, once in dialogue with Paul Motian, another time in dialogue with trumpeter Ron Miles, his old friend and fellow son of Denver.

I’ve posted below my “directors’ cut” (about 1500 words longer) of a DownBeat cover piece I wrote about Bill and his long-standing trio partners Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen, during a week in Perugia for the 2008 Umbria Summer Jazz Festival. I’ve also appended the uncut proceedings of  a Blindfold Test that he took with me around 2000 or 2001, in his extraordinarily cramped room at the former Earle Hotel on the corner of Waverly Place & MacDougal, on the northwest corner of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.

Bill Frisell Trio in Perugia, Downbeat, 2008:

At midnight on the first Sunday of the 2008 Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, an impromptu party was in full swing on the cobblestoned  streets outside Teatro Pavone, a horseshoe-shaped, five-tiered acoustic marvel with with a giant sunflower chandelier hanging from the ceiling.  It opened in 1740, when Perugia was still an independent city-state, as the gathering place for the local aristocracy. In response, forty years later, a consortium of Perugia’s merchants converted an abandoned nunnery perhaps a quarter mile down the hill into the grander, showier Teatro Morlacchi, a 785-seater with ceiling frescoes.

Inside, however, about 250 listeners paid close attention as the Bill Frisell Trio, with bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen, positioned themselves on stage to begin a six-night run.

Smiling, Frisell touched a pedal with his black-shoed foot. Nachtmusik birdsong plinks came forth, resonating against the old wood facades. For the next several minutes, Frisell followed the sounds, weaving an abstract web of tone color—whispery one moment, skronky the next. He inserted electronic sounds into the dialog with pedal taps and dial switches. Wollesen scraped his snare drum, hand-drummed on his hi-hat and stroked a gong on a tree of little instruments placed next to his kit. Gradually, a familiar melody emerged. Scherr inferred a walking bass line, and the tempo began to coalesce from rubato to meter. Then, on a dime, Frisell launched the melody of Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso.”

This launched a free-associative, genre-spanning suite of songs, each declarative melody transitioning into another—“Moon River,” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “You Are My Sunshine,” Monk’s “Jackie-ing,” Charlie Christian’s “Benny’s Bugle,” Boubacar Traoré’s “Baba Drame” and Lee Konitz’s “Subconscious-Lee.” Seemingly able to call up guitar dialects ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Mali to Charlie Christian at a moment’s notice, Frisell went for equilateral triangle dialog, simultaneously feeding information to and drawing it from Scherr and Wollesen. The band displayed implacable patience, grabbing sounds, constructing lines and creating musical flow from the environment. If you thought about it a certain way, you might reflect on how the architects and painters who created the look of Perugia between the 12th and 18th centuries responded to the particular light of the Perugian sky and the planes of its topography when they conjured their images and structures. You might also reflect on the ingenuity and learning that went into their designs, and the amount of labor that went into actualizing the final product.

Six hours earlier on the same stage, Pat Martino had played the third concert of a parallel 10-night engagement, leading his quartet through a sparkling seven-tune set. Dressed in a crisp white-on-white shirt, black vest and pressed black pants, barely moving a muscle, he spun out a series of high-degree-of-difficulty declamations, each a little sculpture of its own, marked by flawless articulation, an unfailingly plush tone, attention to melody and an enviable sense of form. Martino tore through the swingers and created high drama on the ballads; it was hard to determine whether the solos were set pieces or spontaneous inventions. Ascending the stairs after the concert, a guitarist from another band shook his head at the futility of it all and said, “I’m going to go back to the hotel and throw away my guitar.”
Throughout the week in July, the daily juxtaposition of these two—Frisell a master of space and implication, Martino determined on every tune to display his efflorescent gifts—was a fascinating programming subplot.
“You wouldn’t know it from listening to what I do now, but I’ve listened to Pat Martino a lot, and at one time I was maybe trying to do that,” Frisell said the following day. We sat in a walled-off space in the back of the dining area of the Rosetta Hotel, situated down the block from Teatro Pavone. Frisell wore a white t-shirt, paisley shorts, white Converse high-tops, and horizontally striped socks in bright colors. As we spoke, the kitchen staff prepared a luncheon buffet as diverse as the program he had presented the previous evening.
“I was checking Pat out yesterday, trying to unravel this mysterious stuff he’s doing, and it blows my mind,” he continued. “John McLaughlin was another hero. Day-in, day-out, I tried to play like him, and I couldn’t come anywhere close. I saw a concert with Shakti in the early ‘70s, heard this incredible stuff coming out, and  it was this moment of despair. I realized that I’d never, ever be able to do that. I wanted to quit. Then the next moment it was like, ‘Oh, thank God that’s over with; now I’ll deal with what I’ve got.’”Frisell noted the spontaneous quality of the previous evening’s concert. “It wasn’t planned,” he said. “My mom died a few weeks ago, and I had to miss a bunch of gigs, so I hadn’t been playing. I was feeling, ‘Wow, here I am—now I’m back with my buddies and I really want to play, but my hands are like…I haven’t been playing my guitar very much. So I thought, ‘Okay, I just want to make a sound and see what it sounds like.’”
Perhaps more in touch with formative memories than he might otherwise be because of his mother’s recent passing, Frisell mentioned reconnecting with painter Charles Cajori, now 87, an active member of New York’s art world since the early ‘40s, and a family friend. “His father worked with my father in Denver in medical school, and when he was in Denver he’d come over for dinner,” he recalled. “He’d tell me all this New York stuff: ‘I heard this incredible drummer—I went to the Village Vanguard and I was sitting right under his cymbal.’ That was Tony Williams when he first started playing with Miles. The first Monk record I ever saw was from this guy.“Forty years go by, I’m in New York, and I thought about him. I looked him up on the Internet, and he was teaching at the Studio School on 8th Street in Manhattan. I hadn’t talked to him since I was 14. I wrote a note, and brought it to the front desk at the school, which is around the corner from my hotel. A few weeks later, I got a letter from him. He’d seen me play at the Vanguard, and knew me through Paul Motian and so on, but didn’t connect that I was that kid from way back. Now we’re friends, and he comes when I play. There’s a picture of Monk playing at the Five Spot, and right behind him is a poster that says ‘Cajori’. He was friends with Morton Feldman. He’s in his late eighties, and he said this amazing thing: ‘One thing I’m certain of is that drawing is a worthy endeavor.’ He teaches, and he sees that some of these things are slipping. To be able to draw is important. To be able to play an instrument. The fact that your fingers have to move around. Just that one little thing he said—it’s a worthy endeavor.”
[BREAK]
The first half of Frisell’s 2008 release, History, Mystery [Nonesuch], consists primarily of music that he composed for three collaborative projects with Jim Woodring, a Seattle-based cartoonist who transforms biomorphic shapes into characters in phantasmagoric narratives. He arranged it for a Fall 2006 tour by an octet propelled by Scherr and Wollesen. It’s far from Frisell’s first sounds-meet-images project. The 1995 Nonesuch CDs Go West and The High Sign/One Week document his responses to a pair of silent films by Buster Keaton, and several years ago he scored Tales From The Far Side, an animated film by Seattle cartoonist Gary Larson, a close friend. Indeed, Frisell’s wife, Carole D’Inverno, is a painter whose canvases, both figurative and abstract, reveal an economical command of line and color.
“When the music is happening, it’s not visual,” Frisell said. “But I like to look at art. I can’t draw, but if I didn’t play music I’d probably do something like that. We probably have some instinct or motivation coming from the same place. I’ve said before that when I met Jim Woodring and saw his art, I felt his drawing was a lot closer to what I’m trying to do with the music than a lot of musicians I know. It’s the place you’re trying to get to—to bring something to the surface that’s not always visible or audible, something people feel in this reality that isn’t always there.”
In a drawing dated 1997, Larsen portrays a bespectacled Frisell playing guitar. He scalps him, revealing his brain as a laboratory in which a mad scientist sits in a sort of director’s chair atop a ladder, blowing notes into a large funnel, through which they pass into a complex, Rube Goldbergesque processor, which in turn feeds them into Frisell’s guitar, which is plugged into his left temple lobe.Frisell’s father was a biochemist, and I asked whether, in any way, he references that aspect of his background in his musical production. He demurred.
“I didn’t connect with that at all,” he said. “Chemistry classes and that stuff, I failed right out of all of it.”That being said, Frisell’s instantaneous use of electronics—he deploys a distortion pedal and a fuzztone device, two delays, a reverb, and several small music boxes that he attaches to his guitar pickups—within the flow to trigger random elements within a performance, and his ability to work those sounds seamlessly into the warp and woof of his improvisations is a quality that continually astounds the people who hear him most.
“Bill totally embraces all this technology,” said Claudia Engelhart, Frisell’s sound engineer and road manager. She met Frisell in 1989 while touring Brazil with John Zorn’s Naked City band, after spending her early twenties mixing for Willie Colon and Eddie Palmieri. “Sometimes he’s creating loops without us hearing them, and then he’ll turn them on and there they are at precisely the right moment. It’s like he’s composing, thinking ahead, when he’s playing other stuff. I don’t know how he does it. My job is to sit and listen, but I daydream a lot when while I’m mixing sound for him—he takes me on these trips.”
By his account, Frisell began using effects towards improvisational imperatives in 1975. “I heard Santana play this incredible sustain sound that sounded like a trumpet,” he said. “I was trying to play like a horn player; I wanted to sound like Miles Davis. So I got a distortion thing. Then I was listening to pianists and admired how they could hold notes down and let them ring. Back then, there was a little cheap delay that had a cassette tape in it which sort of did what my little digital delay does for me now—that piano-y sustained thing.”
He remarked that he practices neither the sonic combinations that he conjures up nor the gestures by which he puts them forth. “It doesn’t make sense to do it by myself,” he said. “It developed from playing live with other people. I like the element that I’m not sure what’s going to happen with the machines. I trigger a loop, and it goes haywire. It’s not like I have something pre-programmed on a push-up button, and, ‘okay, now I’m going to get that sound.’ Sometimes, though, I feel like I get into certain patterns—I can build things up in ways that become predictable to me, and probably eventually to the audience, too. I try to keep it so that it’s not.”
To avoid the predictability pitfall, and break things open, Frisell frames himself with numerous configurations drawn from what is now a repertory company of musicians familiar with his language. Since 1996, when his long-time trio with bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Joey Baron dissolved, he’s triangulated Scherr and Viktor Krauss with drummers Wollesen, Jim Keltner, Rudy Royston, and Matt Chamberlin; used several rhythm sections to propel ensembles of varying size with violinists Jenny Scheinman and Eyvind Kang, lap steel guitarist and banjoist Greg Leisz, trumpeter Ron Miles, and reedmen-woodwindists Billy Drewes and Greg Tardy. He’s developed a corpus of string quartet music and formed a quasi-world music ensemble (the Intercontinentals). Then there are the one-off projects—a trio CD with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones, a standards duo with Fred Hersch, a more recent trio date with Ron Carter and Paul Motian, the latter his employer since 1981 with the Paul Motian Trio, with which he continues to perform annually around Labor Day at the Village Vanguard. Still, as he puts it, the trio with Scherr and Wollesen—which first convened for a 1999 week at the Village Vanguard, and performs on Unspeakable, East, West, and History, Mystery—feels like “home base.”
“I’ve listened to thousands of records with Ron Carter, but when I stand there and play a chord, and he plays some note I’m not expecting, and your mind has been obliterated…,” he said animatedly, before breaking off the sentence with a laugh. “You want to stay up in that thing. I want my mind to be blown. Then along come Tony and Kenny. By this time I’d been looking at a lot of other music, songs with words, listening to Hank Williams songs, Roscoe Holcomb and Doc Boggs—things I hadn’t listened to much before. It wasn’t just about I want to play a Monk tune or a Lee Konitz tune, or I want to write my own tunes. I was also trying to remember where I come from—when thinking about a Bob Dylan song when I was a kid, playing this Lovin’ Spoonful song when I was 16. Being honest about what got me playing. I did a record in Nashville, played with a banjo player for the first time. Some people said, ‘Wow, he went to Nashville, and he’s selling out,’ and so on, but for me, it was like, ‘Whoa, this is really weird.’ I was stretching myself, playing with people I’d never met before, people who come from different places, people who didn’t think about music or learn music the same way I did. I couldn’t write out charts for them, the way I used to. It was a whole different way of playing, and I learned so much. Still am.
“Both Kenny and Tony are like my teachers. In so many areas I want to go into, it’s like they know 20,000 times more than I do. Last night, as an encore, we played this Ron Carter song, ‘Mood.’ Tony’s heard that, and he knows 20 different versions of it, and any other song I’d ask him to play. He’s an awesome guitar player and also a singer—he knows the words, too. When I discovered Roscoe Holcomb, who came out of nowhere for me. Kenny went, ‘I got that record when I was 12.’ I’ve put myself in this amazing situation where they can challenge me. But then at the same time they respect me! They just play, and they’re not intimidating. Like I said, they blow my mind.”
[BREAK]
“Bill accepts the way people play, and plays with who they are, rather than with who they’re supposed to be,” said Scherr the following morning. “He’s constantly open to anything he hears. It’s sincere. If somebody is playing an instrument, that’s music—if it’s musical. There’s no preconception of what somebody is supposed to know or not.”
The sky was clear, facilitating a spectacular view of the Tiber River Valley from the terrace outside the Hotel Brufani, the festival’s nerve center. It stands atop the remnants of Rocca Paulina, a massive fortress constructed in 1543 on the order of Pope Paul III to show the town’s staunchly anti-clerical citizens—who had battled for autonomy against Papal authority since the 11th century—who was boss. To emphasize the point, Farnese, then 75, commanded that 138 buildings belonging to the Baglione family, Perugia’s most powerful clan, be razed to the ground.
“I didn’t grow up hearing jazz,” said Scherr. Early in his teens, he played guitar in a rock band in which his older brother, Peter—now a Hong Kong-based classical contrabassist—played bass. “I heard rock-and-roll and soul and all kinds of other music. That’s when I got bitten by the bug of playing with other people—that feeling of discovery and learning how to play together. When I was 14, my brother brought home Miles Davis’ Jack Johnson, and we went backwards from there. Around then I met a guy who would take me to his house, and we’d play guitar. He showed me who Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters were. We would play vamps, what people think of as a standard, a song by the Animals, then we’d turn off the lights and play free. In my mind, it all lived in the same room, because that’s the guy I was in contact with. I suppose it took me a while to recognize that ultimately I was looking for that kind of guy. I never really thought about the difference between the genres. I recognize that in common with Bill, because Bill seems to just hear a song—it doesn’t matter if George Jones or Billie Holiday sang it. He writes beautiful, classic songs, too, with melodies that go around in my head. When it comes down to it, there’s just great songs, great melodies, and people hear them, and want to interpret them and be themselves and have a language with the people they play with.”
Scherr wore a retroish short-sleeved shirt over black jeans, the way young Manhattan hipsters dressed in the ‘80s, when Scherr, now 43, went on the road with Woody Herman. In the ‘90s, he played numerous jazz gigs on bass, joined the last edition of the Lounge Lizards, played with Maria Schneider, and joined Wollesen in Stephen Bernstein’s Sex Mob Quartet.`
“Maria Schneider started asking me, ‘Have you played a lot of rock music or something?’” he related with a laugh. He spoke in a deliberate baritone perhaps an octave lower than the gravelly tenor he displays on his new release, Twist in the Wind, on which he sings 13 songs, including 10 with his own lyrics. “In Sex Mob, which is a kind of a combination of Louis Armstrong and Led Zeppelin, I realized how I actually hear the bass. We went through Seattle, and Bill came to the gig, and called me up soon after, and we started playing. I’m glad that it didn’t happen until I had some idea of what I sound like. At that point, I had been a fan of Bill’s music for quite a long time, and would check out every album, so I had some idea of who he was and what his language is about. It was very comfortable to hear this guy who had his own voice on guitar. An enormous part of what he does is very sophisticated, much more complex than I would understand—though I’ve heard him do it for years, so I might be able to hear something that goes with it. The simpler part that I do understand comes from the guitar language that I know. Bill reminds me to be more open, to wait and surrender to what actually happens, rather than thinking I know already. I used to think I knew. Now I’m sure that I don’t.”
As if on cue, a slender, elderly man in gray shorts, a sleeveless sweater and walking boots appeared before us, took a breath, and began to sing a tarentella of indistinct origin in a clear tenor. He finished, began another, halted, said, “Gusto. Musica.” Then he walked off. Scherr laughed and applauded. “I couldn’t have said better than that,” he said. “Music. Love music.”
About half-an-hour later, Wollesen and I were strolling through the narrow streets, past pasticcerias, pizzerias, gelato shops, and taverns setting up for lunch. We settled on a café not far from a wall built by Perugia’s original Etruscan settlers as a fortification against invaders. It was a touristy place, and his red wine was served cold. In the background, you could hear the Coolbone Brass Band, out of New Orleans, warming up for their daily noontime ballyhoo.
“Bill’s rhythm is killing, and he hears everything,” Wollesen said. “I think his ears are supernatural. Right now, we’re talking at this table, and I hear what you’re saying, but there’s all kinds of sound happening around us. People would think of it as background noise. I think Bill somehow hears all of it. It’s kind of uncanny.“I’ve never really talked with Bill about music. I don’t think he’s ever said one thing to me about what to play. I have to figure it out on my own. It seems strange to me, because almost all the bands I play in, somebody says something about that.”
Perhaps Wollesen  was referring to John Zorn, with whom, several weeks before, he’d played two concerts in Paris, one placing him alongside Joey Baron; or to Butch Morris, whose conduction projects he frequently participates in; or to Stephen Bernstein in Sex Mob; or to Norah Jones and Sean Lennon. “Stephen often tells me exactly what beat to play, and he conducts the band on the bandstand,” he said. “It’s a totally different aesthetic somehow. It’s also a lot louder.”Because of these associations, listeners tend to peg Wollesen as a deep groover and texture-maker rather than a swinger. But as a teenager in Santa Cruz, California, he played in a popular local hardcore jazz unit with saxophonist Donny McCaslin, a peer, and, at the Kuumba Jazz Workshop, where he worked as a janitor in order to gain free admission, observed such drum icons as Elvin Jones, Ed Blackwell, Tony Williams, Billy Higgins, and Paul Motian on weekly Monday night concerts.
“I wasn’t into pop music as a kid,” he said. “It was just stuff that was on the radio. I was into Elvin Jones. All my friends were into that, and so was I. But I listened to a lot of different music—I played in klezmer bands, and I was really into Cecil Taylor and a lot of the really out stuff.”
Towards the end of the ‘80s, not long after he turned 20, Wollesen relocated to New York, moving into a funky apartment once occupied by Deborah Harry. “Purely for economic reasons, I made a conscious decision to take whatever work I could get,” he said. “Playing in so many different bands, different worlds—a rock band, a bebop band, Zorn or Butch—you realize that the fundamentals remain the same. You still have to take care of business, make the shit happen somehow. That means ultimately being in the moment when the music is happening, not projecting something that you learned or something that you already knew, or what somebody told you to play. If you’re still hooked into some other stuff, then you lost it. You’re not there.“I think about painters. They’ll spend hours and hours by themselves, but when it comes down to it, there’s the moment where they put the paint on the canvas. But they spend years getting to that place. It’s like that with music.”
[BREAK]

In November, the Bill Frisell Trio will tour Europe playing to movies—music from Frisell’s Buster Keaton and Jim Woodring projects, and also to a new film by Bill Morrison, who on a previous work used Frisell’s eponymously entitled 2001 encounter with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones as soundtrack music. “It will completely take us out of a lot of the things we’re playing now, force us to deal with a different batch of music, and push us into another zone,” Frisell said. “In some ways, it’s more restrictive, but I’ll have to figure out a way to keep it from being a show, where we do the same thing every night.”

Frisell, Scherr, and Wolleson sat around the same table in the same wood-paneled adjunct of the Rosetta Hotel dining room. That night, they would play their fifth concert of the week.

“I’m writing music with no parameters, which I love,” Frisell continued. “Having the film there boxes you in, in a certain way, but those limitations sometimes will push you out into someplace you’ve never been. It’s another way to get pushed into moving ahead.”They quickly turned the subject matter to qualities described in our one-on-one conversations—mutual intuition, shared language, trust.”

“The time between our gigs always seems too long, but when we get back together we start almost beyond where we left off,” Scherr said. “The conversation just keeps going. I’ve always liked being in bands that really develop something together, like when my brother and I would put together a rock band. and we’d find a drummer, and play, and it would really click, and we’d learn a lot all of a sudden and be real excited about it, and you just couldn’t wait til the next time you played. When people play music together and travel, you get in close quarters, and people’s personalities come out. A thematic language—literal language—goes around the band, a couple of terms that get used for the entire trip or something, a running joke or a running topic. Then the next trip you find new ones. Sometimes it gets totally ridiculous, like that day in Peekskill when we started playing all the major tunes minor and all the minor tunes major. It was so silly, and it had everything to do with who we are. Those kinds of things emerge when you’re not worried about making mistakes, and you’re coming up with ridiculous things because it’s fun. The music becomes less precious and opens up— you feel free to demolish stuff together, and it’s totally okay.”

Scherr gave an example.

“On a lot of tunes we’ll go through the form, and although I’m not thinking about it this way while we’re doing it, it’s like playing a game,” he continued. “For instance, at a certain point on ‘Keep Your Eyes Open’ there’s a little melody, a chord, another little melody, and a downbeat. We’ve played that tune for years, and it’s almost unbelievable how many different ways we can play that chord—a snotty little swipe at it, or a broad, beautiful way of hitting it. Often it’s being open enough to just SEE how we’re going to do it, and toss it back and forth. Sometimes it’s as simple as hitting one note or one chord together on the first beat of the measure. When I first played with Bill, I paid a lot of attention to that. Now that notion has expanded to trying not to think, just to support the new thing I hear, whatever it is, and not answer the question before it needs to be answered.”

“What you play can be determined by the way things bounce around in the room,” Frisell said. “Every day is different, even in the same room—the number of people, the air, the humidity.”

“Bill will start playing a song because something is going on in life, and usually the lyric is totally relevant,” Scherr added. “To me, listening to him is the same as listening to a person I know talk, or hearing a singer.”

“In this group, I’m trying to sing the song on the guitar,” Frisell agreed. He referenced a 2003-2005 engagement as musical director of the Germany concert series, Century of Song, in which the trio joined various singers—among them Rickie Lee Jones, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, Vic Chestnutt, Loudon Wainwright, and Chip Taylor—in creating new arrangements of iconic repertoire.

“I talked about trying to copy Pat Martino or John McLaughlin years ago,” he continued. “Now it’s more about I’m trying to copy Aretha Franklin or Sam Cooke or Hank Williams. We’ve played “Lovesick Blues” a couple of times  and I’m playing what I got from trying to get even these little nodal things he does with his voice, which is sort of impossible.”

“Bill’s got the meaning of the tune, too,” Scherr said. “Well, there is no one meaning for any tune. We played ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ a bunch of different ways, a bunch of times. But I always feel that tune means whatever it means that day, and that’s where it’s living. It’s got a lot of room to be played.”

Lunch was ready, so it was time to clear out, get on with the day, prepare for the evening’s concert. “None of this is secret,” Frisell said. “But it’s this weird, super-intimate thing that we don’t talk about. For me, playing is as close as you can get to another human being. I don’t think whatever we’ve tried to say will break anything, but it’s not remotely close to what’s happening as we’re doing it.”

* * * *

Bill Frisell Blindfold Test:

1.    Richard Leo Johnson, “Sweet Jane Thyme,” LANGUAGE (Blue Note, 2000) (Johnson, 12-string and pedal steel guitar) – (4 stars)

Holy moly!  Oh my God.  I have no idea who that is.  [How did it sound to you?] It was…nice.  I’m trying to…I’m baffled by… It reminded me of some things that I’ve heard, like, Leo Kottke do, and there was a tiny bit of some of the things that Daniel Lanois did with Brian Eno back a ways, like the sort of secondary…whether it was a steel guitar or the kind of echoey, shadowy guitar behind the acoustic guitar.  But I have no idea who that is. [Was it one or two players?  How many guitarists?] I don’t know if it was overdubbed.  But there were at least two, I think. [LAUGHS] There was…was it a 12-string? [There was one guy on a 12-string in real time.] It sounded like there was a 12-string and then some kind of more atmospheric electric guitar as a background, the sort of cloudy sound… [He was playing a pedal steel and a 12-string, so there were two guitars overdubbed.] But there was one person. [One person.  He has a technique to create several voices.  Did you like the song?] Yeah, it was nice.  It didn’t like knock me out.  It was really cool and pleasant to listen to.

I have to think about how I’m going to do the stars.  Because to me, anybody who has decided to play music should get five stars, I think. [That said, there are gradations and…] [LOUD LAUGH] You’re trying to get me to… [I’m not trying to get you to slam anybody.  But the Blindfold Test is what it is.  If you want to give everyone a blanket five stars…] I really don’t like… Well, there’s things I like and things I don’t like, and I think certain things suck, just like everybody else.  But I still…somehow… I don’t like the idea of competition in music.  Also, with what I just heard, it kind of…I couldn’t place what… I don’t know where it’s coming from or what it is.  I don’t know if I would think it was better or worse depending on where it was coming from.  I could almost hear in a film. [He laid down guitar tracks, then he sent the guitar tracks to various improvisers, and they each laid down their tracks on top of his guitar track.  (ETC.) His name is Richard Leo Johnson.] I’ve never heard of him. [This is his second record.  He plays different guitars, and he’s a virtuoso, but he only started playing full-time four years ago.  He’s 45.  And he’s from Arkansas, the north Delta.  He’s self-taught.]

It made me be curious to hear how that is juxtaposed to other things on the record.  That’s something I would go do on my own now.  I guess I’m going to have to give it five stars… [If you give 4 stars to something that doesn’t knock you out, but you like and respect it, you’re really not insulting the musician.] Okay, I’ll give it four stars. [I think if you’re going to agree to do the Blindfold Test…] I did it once before, and I gave everybody 5 stars.  But also, everything was Jim Hall and Jimi Hendrix and Wes Montgomery.  Maybe I’ll give it 4.  Maybe that rating system will assert itself as we go along.

But a lot of it is context.  I could see this being in a film or something, or seeing it up against something else where it might be very powerful…

2.    Jim Hall-Pat Metheny, “Django,” BY ARRANGEMENT (Telarc, 1995) (Hall-Metheny, acoustic guitars) (5 stars)

That’s “Django,” I can tell you that. [at 3:35] Oh, I think I finally got who this is.  [at 5 minutes] I guess I’m ready to talk.  Is there a string quartet?  From the first moments of these strings, I thought…Jim Hall was what came into my mind, something in the sound of the writing.  Then I started listening, and I hear one guitar and another guitar, and I didn’t recognize the sound.  But when the first guitarist started playing nylon string guitar, it took me longer than what I thought it should too… I heard a bit of Pat Metheny stuff going on in there, and then I figured that’s got to be Pat playing nylon string guitar.  Then I figured… They did a duet record, but this isn’t that, so this must be Jim’s record where he did these arrangements, and the song, “Django”… [Absolutely.] Thank God I got that right.  But it was kind of confusing, because sonically it was so strange.  First I thought it was an old recording… I thought Jim Hall, and I heard the strings and I thought maybe this was going to be one of those things Jim did with Gunther Schuller years ago or something like that.  But it’s interesting how, without him playing, it fired some kind of response in my brain that me think Jim Hall right away.  I don’t know if it’s because I’m expecting at some point I’m going to hear Jim Hall in a blindfold test.  So I figured out it was Pat playing nylon string, and then Jim later playing acoustic guitar, which you don’t hear that often.  Also, I’ve never heard him make that much racket, singing along, groaning… Sonically they both sounded quite a bit different than you’re used to hearing.  But that was cool.  So now I have to give it stars.  That I’ve got to give 5.  The tune and that he could figure out something else to do with that tune, and those guys… That was great.  And it was cool to be that confused by… Those guys I’d figure I could recognize in two notes anywhere.  Is that on the record “By Arrangement”?  I should have known it right away.

3.    John McLaughlin, “Only Child,” TIME REMEMBERED (Verve, 1993). (McLaughlin, acoustic guitar, The Aighetta Quartet, acoustic guitars, Yan Maresz, acoustic bass guitar) – (5 stars)

The first thing that came into my mind was I couldn’t tell how many guitars were playing, and there’s a very low-tuned guitar, and I didn’t recognize the tune.  But then as soon as the soloist started… I was thinking, “What is this?”  Does someone have a 7-string?  It almost sounded like it could have been Johnny Smith or George Van Epps, that beautiful, just lush… I couldn’t tell how many guitars were in there.  Then as soon as my man started playing, I knew it was John McLaughlin playing Bill Evans songs with a guitar quartet.  I might even have this record. [You played some of these songs with Paul Motian.] Well, I’m not sure if I played this tune.  But I thought it sounded just exquisitely beautiful.  He keeps on being one of my heroes.  He keeps holding up.  Every time I hear him…sometimes I think he gets taken for granted a little bit.  He’s just a monster.  I remember going to hear him in Seattle a couple of years ago, and it kind of hit me in the face how heavy he is!  I don’t know what to say.  It was so beautiful to hear that orchestration, lush, thick… Whoever arranged that, it was really beautiful, just listening to the kind of written part and then real kind of moving, and when he started playing it was… He always blows my brains out.  There was one moment when I went to a Shakti concert, and I almost quit playing the guitar.  I just thought, “Man, this is hopeless.”  But it was a good moment because it made me figure out that I had to figure out something else to do other than that.  I’ll never be able to… But he’s so much more… He’s known for being, you know, fast, but he’s a soulful… And rhythmically and harmonically, so…it’s some far-out stuff he’s doing.  I can’t figure out why people don’t… He’s right in there in that line of… There’s Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery and Jim and whoever all other guys, and he’s one of those main guys for me.  Five stars.

4.    Derek Bailey, “Tears of Astral Rain,” ARCANA: THE LAST WAVE (DIW, 1995) (Bill Laswell, electric bass; Tony Williams, drums) – (5 stars)

It’s hard to talk and listen.  I think it’s Derek.  The thing that’s confusing me is… I’m going to just guess.  There’s Derek who I sort of got right away.  The other is maybe a guitar, but sounds… Is it Bill Laswell?  Because it sounds like a 6-string… It’s higher than a bass.  The distorted one is sort of… And I know Bill Laswell does that 6-string bass thing, so it must be that.  Then I know that they did a thing with Tony Williams.  I kept thinking that sounds like Tony Williams’ tom-tom or something.  It sounds like Tony Williams.  But I didn’t hear him do his Tony Williams yet!  I kept listening to be sure is that Tony.  The sound of the drums, it sounds like Tony Williams, but he was playing so
minimally.  This was also really cool, the way the thing moved forward.  There was this feel, this forward rhythmic motion.  You can’t say 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.  It’s interesting how just with the sound, they have that…a person’s sound… I heard a tom-tom, and it sounded like Tony Williams.  Is there more than one… I heard some of this, and it was really edited, and it sounded like they didn’t really put… The other thing about what I just heard is it really sounded like they were playing together in the same room.  The thing that I heard sounded much more pieced-together, like Derek overdubbed or they used a Tony drum track.  Maybe this was done that way, too.  I’m not sure.  But as I was listening, I at least felt like I was in the world of being in the same room with these guys playing.  Either it was pieced together really great or they were actually playing together.  But I think I heard that they weren’t all playing together when they did this.  That’s got to be 5 stars.

5.    Jimmy Bruno-Joe Beck, “Lazy Afternoon,” POLARITY (Concord, 2000) – (Bruno, acoustic 6-string; Beck, alto guitar) – (4 stars)

I don’t know what the tune is, but I know I’ve heard it somewhere.  I’m going to make a wild guess.  I don’t really know these people.  One of the guitars has to be a 7-string or something; it sounds really low.  I heard something on the radio, and this sort of reminds me of it.  It’s not Joe Beck and Jimmy Bruno?  I might even have heard this song on the radio.  I don’t know Joe Beck’s playing… He’s one of those guys who’s been around forever, and he’s been on a lot of records in real supportive ways, since the ’60s.  His name is always around, but it’s not like I hear a sound. Recently I’ve been hearing about Jimmy Bruno.  Talk about technique, he’s probably the most monstrous… But then I had heard a little bit of Jimmy Bruno, and I was surprised that he seemed more restrained… See, I don’t know him well enough even to know… I’m sort of assuming that on this tune Joe Beck was probably playing the melodic part and Jimmy Bruno was doing a lot of quite involved bassline and… [Oh, Joe Beck was playing that on the alto guitar.] Oh, he was.  I was thinking that if Jimmy Bruno had been playing the melodic part, it would have been twice as fast.  I heard some live thing with a bass-drum trio that was just off the scale of super fast tempo which was like how could you possibly do that… So I figured out what it was.  But that’s one of those guesses, thinking I’d heard this on the radio and I’d kind of heard about this guy.  It wasn’t based on knowing their sound; it was more an intellectual piecing-together.  It was pleasant.  It didn’t kill me or anything.  It was kind of easy… It didn’t wrench my guts out, so I’ll have to go 4.  But they definitely certainly play their instruments.  I guess there’s a thing with the guitar.  I mean, who am I to say… They can play circles around me as a guitarist.  I mean, they really play their instruments.  But I would maybe have liked to hear… The tune didn’t kill me or something.  Maybe if I’d heard them playing a tune that was richer, it would have been…

6.    A.D.D. Trio, “Three Characters, A.D.D. TRIO: SIC BISQUITIS DISINTEGRAT (Enja, 2000) (Christy Doran, guitar; Robert Dick, flutes; Steve Arguelles, drums) – (5 stars)

This is a guess again.  Is it Sonny Sharrock?  Then I’m lost.  I don’t know.  I really like the feel of the drummer, but I’m pretty well lost on this.  I might be getting in trouble here?  Is it possible that that’s Kenny playing drums?  I like this piece a lot.  But I have no idea who it is. [AFTER] Oh, Steve Arguelles!  I know him and I like him.  There was one moment I thought Robert Dick, but most of what I’ve heard of him is solo things or concert recitals, not in this… I like the feel.  Was the guitar generating some kind of loop?  I like the way the drums were interacting with that…the bass drum.  There was a moment where I thought about Joey Baron.  He had this super-low-tuned bass drum that’s really cool.  I like the feel of the drums.  That confused me, though Robert Dick flashed through my mind.  Then when he did these sort of slide things, something about the tone made me think about Sonny Sharrock.  But it was maybe a bit more reined-in than Sonny Sharrock.  I hate to give it less than 5 stars… I really liked that.  I’ll give it 5.

7.    Bar Kokhba, “Hazor,” ZEVULUN (DIW, 1997) (Marc Ribot, guitar; Eric Friedlander, cello; Mark Feldman, violin; Greg Cohen, bass; Joey Baron, drums; Cyro Batista, percussion, John Zorn, composer) – (5 stars)

Again, this is an intellectual piecing-together.  Is it Ribot?  So it’s the Prosthetic Cubans.  Then what is it?  The cello player… [Who do you think wrote the music?] I don’t really recognize it. [AFTER] Oh, okay!  Wow, now it all comes in there!  I haven’t listened to this stuff.  Now that you say it, I recognize the melodic…the thing with all the sort of Latin stuff, I’m thinking, “What…”  I recognize Ribot.  So that’s that!  That’s Cyro, and Eric Friedlander on cello.  I’ve heard so much about that band, and I think I have the CD at home in my pile of… I liked it a lot.  And Ribot sounded really cool.  He really got the killer tone on there.  I can hear that melody being played by the other Masada.  Aren’t some of these reorchestrations of that material? [He pools the book.] Right, but orchestrates it differently.  I should have known the melody.  But with that kind of Latiny stuff going on, I got sidetracked.  5 stars.  The guitar seemed sort of dominant, so I thought it was the guitar player’s thing.  He got a great tone on that.  There’s a couple of times I’ve heard him… He said he was going to give it to me.  I think he made a solo record of standard songs.  We were in the middle of the night driving somewhere, like to the airport somewhere, and Kenny Wolleson had this tape, and this thing came on, and it was “Body and Soul,” and I thought, “Who is this guy?”  It sounded like an old guy.  I mean, in a good way.  It sounded like some kind of old real guy that I’d never heard of before, and I couldn’t figure out who it was, and he was playing “Body and Soul.”  It turned out to be Ribot.  This had some of that real clean-enough but fat and kind of dirty, real good sound he got on there.  I really liked that. Oh my God. [Think older.] Well, the reason I thought Mark… I’m really going to stick my wiener out!  I heard bit of George Benson in there… [LAUGHS] I thought he’s had some impact on Mark.  Okay.  Wow!

8.    George Benson, “Hipping The Hop” (#6), ABSOLUTE BENSON (Verve, 2000) (Benson, guitar Joe Sample, piano, composer; Chris McBride, bass; Cindy Blackman, drums) (5/4 stars)

[GRIMACES] Man!  This is kind of a strange juxtaposition of things.  When it first came on, I thought it was going to be some smooth jazz thing, then it goes into… It’s an odd convergence of styles.  I’m going to guess Mark Whitfield.  The reason I say that is I heard maybe some of… Most of what I’ve heard of Mark has been more straight-ahead, and I knew he recently did something that I hadn’t heard, and I wondered if that could be it.  Wow!  Is this from George Benson’s new one?  Because I heard another thing on the radio, one song, I don’t know what it was, from George Benson’s new record.  Man, what a monster player!  The other thing I heard was a little more straight-ahead, and it reminded me of what a giant great player he is.  Christian can go from this funk thing to the straight-ahead thing, but it didn’t… It seemed a little on the light side.  The funk thing… It didn’t totally go to the straight-ahead thing and it didn’t go to the funk thing either.  The two things that were going on, going back and forth, sort of caused some restraint on either end.  It was really interesting, though.  Oh, boy, I can’t… So it was George Benson.  How is it that I get in a position that I’m sitting here talking about George Benson like I’m some kind of big-shot?  He’s a giant.  I guess it’s one of those things…the context is… He always sounds good.  It would be great to hear him play with Ron Carter and whomever and just play some tunes.  But who am I to say that?  5 stars for him and 4 stars for the arrangement.  Those guys are great.  Cindy plays great and Christian plays great.  Who knows what was going on in the…

9.    Duduka DaFonseca, “Por Flavio,” THE ART OF SAMBA JAZZ (self-produced ,2000) (Romero Lubambo & John Scofield, guitars; Nilson Matta, bass; Duduku Dafonseca, drums & percussion; Valtinho, percussion) – (

I’m getting confused.  I have to start guessing… I guess I’m obsessing over who… The guitars are very separated.  I really thought the one on the left was John Scofield.  It is John Scofield?  But I couldn’t quite get… Then I started thinking who is this other guy?  He’s playing a nylon string guitar.  I was kind of going off on who’s the drummer.  Then it sounded like there was  a percussionist.  I was thinking about Jack De Johnette for a second, but that didn’t seem right.  It’s getting more confusing.  Then I thought maybe it’s not Scofield.  There’s a lot of guys out there who picked up on some of his stuff.  It doesn’t seem quite like a Scofield record.  [It’s not.] The kind of dialogue between the two guitarists was cool.  I like that. [AFTER] I don’t know Romero Lubambo or Nilson Matta.  I knew it was Scofield, but the context seemed so… The piece was great.  I liked the two guitars going off of each other.  5 stars.  It felt great.  Oh, that’s bad.  Did I say Jack de Johnette?  I guess I was thinking too much, “if that’s him, then this must be that.”

10.    Liberty Ellman, “Blood Count,” ORTHODOXY (Red Giant, 1997) (Vijay Ayer, piano) – (5 stars)

I’m pretty sure it’s Steve Swallow.  It’s not?  Oh, my God.  That was a guitar?  It was an awful low-pitched guitar.  But it sounded like a 6-string bass to me.  Now you’ve got me really screwed up!  I just got it fixed in my brain that it was… [So it didn’t sound like any guitarist you could pinpoint.] No.  Also because it went much lower than a guitar.  I didn’t know the tune. [AFTER] I should know that tune.  I was thinking this was Steve Swallow playing his 6-string bass, just the sort of pure tone where Swallow gets this sound in between a guitar and a bass.  Now I’m really confused, because it didn’t sound like a guitar to me. [AFTER] I’ve never heard of him.  I really liked it.  I had it totally planted in my brain… I thought it was Swallow playing with Carla Bley or something.  Who was the piano player? [LAUGHS] I don’t know him either!  I heard this chord on the piano and I thought Paul Bley.  I thought Paul Bley and Steve Swallow.  Then I thought, no, that’s not Paul Bley, it’s Carla Bley.  Then I just settled into thinking that’s what it was.  I’d like to check out these guys some more.  5 stars.  Definitely his guitar was tuned…there was some super-low stuff going on there.  I’ve got to check him out.  Moments like that I really notice maybe I’ve been away from New York too much or something.  I don’t even know who any of these people are.  Not one person on this record I’ve ever heard of.  I’m old.  I’m a has-been.

11.    Kevin Breit-Cyro Baptista, “Sao Paulo Slim,” SUPERGENEROUS (Blue Note, 2000) – (4 stars)

I like it.  It’s another one of those weird juxtapositions of things.  It sounds like two kind of slide guitar guys.  Oh, it’s only one?  There’s a statement of the melody and then it sounded like another guy.  It sounded almost like another personality.  But maybe not.  Maybe it’s just the sound.  But he had sort of a… I didn’t sense it right away, but then when he played the solo I got a bit more of that country thing in there.  But then with the…I don’t know what this was.  He sounded, I thought, like somebody from down South, but then the rhythm section I couldn’t… The bass player playing all this little chordal stuff.  I think it was a bass player.  An electric bass player.  Maybe it was a rhythm guitar part that was hidden away in there.  So a kind of active… I’m just lost.  I don’t know this.  I guess I have to… Everybody sounded really great.  The tune didn’t kill me.  So I guess I’ll have to say 4.  But everybody played cool. [AFTER] Oh, shit! Oh, fuck!  Oh, no!  Oh, no!!  I asked him to send me this record.  Oh, shit!  Oh, fuck!  I love him!  I did a gig with him…we did a gig in Seattle where I had Greg Liesz… It was a thing where I had four guitarists.  I had Greg Lies, and Kevin, who has played a lot with Greg, like with k.d. Lang and… Man, I can’t believe it.  And Brandon Ross.  We sort of did a lot of my music that I had already arranged like for horns and stuff, but I had these four guitars.  And Kevin played sort of everything that anyone else wouldn’t play. Like, he had a low-tuned guitar.  So there’s a lot of overdubs on here.  Because it sounded like a band actually playing.  And he’s like a killer… Oh, he plays everything — mandolin, banjo.  I just love him, and I had such a good time playing with him.  I felt a real strong hookup playing with him.  But I never heard him play slide guitar at all, I don’t think.  It was like lap steel or whatever it was.  I don’t know how he can play all these instruments.  I’ve heard him play regular guitar, I’ve heard him play mandolin, I’ve heard him play this kind of 6-string bass guitar, and he KILLS on banjo — he really plays great banjo.  But I’ve never heard him play that slide stuff.  Wow.  Anyway, I really like him.

12.    Tim Berne-Marc Ducret-Tom Rainey, “Scrap Metal,” BIG SATAN (Winter & Winter, 1996) – (5 stars)

Well, it first came on and I thought it was Tim.  Then the guitar player started playing.  It’s interesting.  The writing is very cool, the first statement.  Is it Tim?  Thank God.  It’s weird how things… It’s cool to hear somebody after… I played with him a lot, and we’ve sort of gone on our separate ways, and I haven’t kept track of a lot of what he’s done.  This was really strong.  The writing and how the group was… This is stuff that had always been there in his music.  It’s real distinctive… It’s weird, these little electronic or whatever impulses that shoot through your brain.  Like, the first instant the thing came on, Julius went through my mind.  But then almost immediately, then, I thought, “Oh, that’s got to be Tim.”  Then I started thinking it’s really inspiring the way he… He’s stayed on his writing and…he’s stayed on this path all this time.  I felt really strong that compositionally, whatever was going… I don’t know what that was.  It’s stuff that was going on a long time ago, but you can hear how it’s…it’s just clear and it’s strange and it doesn’t sound like anything else.

There’s a lot of guitar players I’m not quite sure…I haven’t heard enough to know for sure.  Brad Schoeppach passed through my mind at one point, and then I thought Marc Ducret.  It must be Jim Black.  No?  Is it Previte?  Then I don’t know who the drummer is. [AFTER] Oh, shit!  Somehow I was thinking about Jim Black.  That’s embarrassing, because that’s another person I played with… We played a lot, like REALLY a lot, not so much gigs, but we’d get together and play for hours and hours, and I should know him.  But it’s strange, what goes on in my mind, because a lot of time has gone by, and we’re sort of off on these different… I’m over, wherever I’m playing, doing some hillbilly song, and he’s doing this.  It’s kind of…it’s weird.   5 stars.  It sounded great.  I haven’t heard Marc enough to always instantly know that’s him, but every time I’ve heard him, he’s kind of flipped me out. . I heard one time I think in Italy with this group where he just played acoustic guitar with no pickup or anything.  I’ve heard him in a lot of different contexts, and he’s just an off-the-scale great guitar player.  In this context, I thought he really sounded… There’s a kind of soulfulness in there that’s… Different people set people off in different ways.  There’s a feel Tom has that maybe makes Mark play in a certain way.  Anyway, I thought he sounded really great on that.

13.    Attila Zoller-Jimmy Raney, “Scherz 1,” JIM AND I  (Bellaphon, 1980/1995) – (4 stars)

What in the world… You’ve got me there.  I’m lost.  The recording was a little distracting to me.  The guitar in the left ear in the headphones was louder.  I mean, I’m not one to…I use a lot of reverb.  But it sounded like the reverb was kind of hitting on some stuff that was in the headphones.  Sometimes the headphones kind of amplify that stuff.  The one on the left was a lot louder.  And I kept thinking, is this overdubbed with the same guy?  Then right at the very end, the guy on the right, who was softer, came out for a moment by himself.  And I couldn’t recognize the tune.  I just felt lost, kind of.  I kept hearing little bits of something; I thought of a tune, then it sort of went off and I couldn’t follow it.  I liked the idea that there was all this dialogue going on.  It was never clear who was… I almost thought it was the same person.  Sometimes they were so on top of each other that then… Okay, tell me who it is. [AFTER] Attila crossed my mind.  Jimmy Raney was the one on the right.  I know that.  Because right at the very end he played this little phrase by himself, and it had the feel, the eighth note thing.  But the guitar player on the left, which was Attila, I don’t know his stuff that well, but… I guess it was the recording.  It was louder, and it kept sort of dominating the… I wish I could have heard it with Jimmy Raney being louder, because for me the actual rhythmic… Okay, I’ll be critical.  It was just that moment where Jimmy Raney played alone that the feel was killing.  For me, on this particular thing… Maybe it was the recording or the sound…he had also a brighter sound.  Attila seemed to dominate the whole thing.  Maybe Jimmy Raney was sort of following him.  That’s how I would critique it.  I love Jimmy Raney.  But that’s why it made sense when you said that.  4 stars.  Those guys were great, though.

14.    Brad Shepik, “Zdravo,” THE LOAN (Songlines, 1997) (Peter Epstein, alto sax; Tony Scherr, bass; Kenny Wolleson, drums; Seido Salifoski, percussion).

Got me again.  When it first came on… For a moment I… I’m guessing.  It doesn’t sound old guys to me.  It sounds like young guys.  Maybe it’s because I’m getting old; it seemed kind of hyper, like “let’s play this thing in 7.”  But they play great.  It just had this kind of real energetic thing that… I guess maybe it’s this being the last thing, we’ve listened to all this music, and I’m ready to cool out and relax.  And there’s people… See, there’s all these guys who I should… There’s people who went through my mind.  I mean, there’s people I still haven’t heard enough to know for sure.  There was a moment I thought of Briggan Krauss when they were playing the melody, but then when he started soloing I didn’t think it was Briggan.  For a moment I thought Briggan, then again I thought Brad Schoeppach.  It was Brad?  But I don’t really know his… It’s more like an intellectual thing.  Then I thought about this group of guys who haven’t fully formed in my brain when I hear them, like Jim Black… [It was your rhythm section.] It was MY rhythm section.  Oh my God!  Now I’m really… If I say Jim Black… I didn’t recognize who it was, and so let’s think who would be playing with who.  But I also have to say that for a moment Kurt Rosenwinkel went through my mind.  So I hope these guys don’t get pissed at me for this.  I guess so much of the music that I play with Kenny and Tony is so different than that.  But I thought I would know those guys, because I’ve listened to other things they do.  When I say energetic, they’ve got a lot of energy, but a lot of stuff they play is slowpoke, right, or Sex Mob.  A lot of stuff is about these kind of slower feels.  Was this Brad’s stuff?  It sounded live.
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There were guitar players in everything, and a lot of the music I listen to is not guitar-based.  On the last blindfold test I did, there was something, and I said, “Well, that was Paul Chambers on bass and that was Philly Joe Jones… But I screwed that up bad on this one, too; saying that was Jack de Johnette.  I guess it’s weird to zero in just on guitars.  I guess there’s so many different ways.  No one has ever done a Blindfold Test with me and played Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis.  Those are the things that have affected me.  But this is good.  I hope I didn’t say anything bad about anybody.  As I get older, it’s frightening how much… There’s more and more music accumulating, and less and less I feel like I can hear it.  It seemed like 20 years ago I would spend thousands of hours with one album, listening to it over and over again, and now it’s like you’re sort of flitting from one thing to another fairly quickly. [The music is sort of like that, too.  A lot of people don’t go into one sound so much as they delve into a lot of different ways…] But it seems like a lot of people are able to actually absorb and retain a lot of stuff.  I’m less and less able to do that, and there’s more and more stuff piling up.  I have piles of stuff at home that I think “I’ve got to listen to this or that.”

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Filed under Bill Frisell, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, guitar, WKCR

It’s Joey Baron’s Birthday — A Jazziz Feature Profile and a 1996 WKCR Interview

On July 10, 1996, two weeks after his fortieth birthday, drummer Joey Baron joined me on WKCR for a Musician’s Show, presenting tracks by drummers who, in the totality of their sounds, comprised his personal influence tree.  They included Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, Grady Tate and Ed Thigpen, Max Roach and Paul Motian, Donald Bailey and Roy Haynes. A bit past the midway p0int, Baron—though he’d played consequentially with Carmen McRae, Stan Getz, and Jim Hall, and had subbed for Mel Lewis with the Monday night Village Vanguard Orchestra, he was by then best known for propelling the non-traditional units of Bill Frisell, Tim Berne, and John Zorn—started speaking about Billy Higgins (1936-2001), a universally beloved figure, and perhaps the hardest-swinging drummer who ever lived.

“He a supreme master of time,” Baron said. “He can make time live and breathe.   He’s got a real patience in his playing. He’s got a very unique, identifiable sound and style. One main characteristic is that you’ll never hear Billy bash.  That’s part of his sound.  I’m sure he’s listened to people who crash and bash and all that stuff, but in his own playing he can extract what he likes about that stuff and channel it through his own style.  Beautiful touch.  It took me a while to appreciate what he did.  When you come from being first wowed by somebody like Buddy Rich, all you focus on is what they’re playing in their solo, and you don’t think too much about the subtler things.  But the longer I spent playing and listening to more music I was exposed to, I really got to appreciate just what it is that Billy  does.”

Although Baron might object to my so characterizing him, I took this as self-description. Like Higgins, who swung with equal panache navigating the open spaces with Ornette Coleman and Charles Lloyd or a bebop date with Cedar Walton and Barry Harris, Baron is beyond category, a shamanistic musician who retains his sound in any context. He turns 56 today (1955 is a good jazz vintage, including Mulgrew Miller, David Murray, Gerry Hemingway, Santi Debriano, and, dare I say, this writer). To observe the occasion, I’ll share a feature piece that I wrote about him in 2001 for Jazziz.

* * * *

Sipping a blueberry yogurt shake, Joey Baron stands in the hallway of his West Side highrise taking in a Manhattan cityscape of diorama-like clarity. To his left, toy-sized ferries dart towards the dock at Weehawken through north-south Hudson River traffic. Northbound jets whiz toward LaGuardia Airport up above, while on the ground cars clog the immediately surrounding streets, which overhang the deserted Eleventh Avenue railroad tracks that a century ago were New York’s lifeblood.

The image is peculiarly apropos; Baron understands how the various epochs of jazz music dealt with motion and velocity, and navigates them along personal pathways that are idiomatic, functional and fresh.  Over the past decade resolute futurists like John Zorn, Bill Frisell, Tim Berne and Dave Douglas have marched to his animating pulse. Brian Eno called him for guest appearances on mid-‘90s sessions by David Bowie and Laurie Anderson.  In 1991, Baron organized the starkly-configured trio Baron Down (trombone-tenor sax-drums), a Punk-to-R&B unit which worked steadily for most of the decade.  Hardcore jazz was the passion of Baron’s earlier career, and several recent projects — to wit, “Soul On Soul,” Douglas’ far-flung homage to Mary Lou Williams, and “Chasin’ The Gypsy,” James Carter’s idiomatic paean to Django Reinhardt — showcase his penchant for sustaining an ebullient, dancing beat while detailing ensemble flow with exquisitely calibrated trapset timbre.

We’ll Soon Find Out, the recent recording by Down Home, a Baron-led all-star quartet comprising Frisell, bass icon Ron Carter and big-sound alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, who in the normal course of events would not be sharing a stage, denotes the respect Baron commands throughout the jazz community.  It follows an eponymous 1997 Rhythm-and-Blues-inflected session marked by clever melodies and propulsive, off-kilter beats performed with a by-the-numbers quality denoting first-time-out studio stiffness.  Round two is another story altogether.  Under Baron’s gentle conjuration, Down Home finds its pocket, coalescing as a fluid unit, playing Baron’s subtle originals with finesse and funk, oozing vernacular grit but never dumbing down.

“Joey had a very clear conception,” Frisell remarks.  “He wanted to focus on aspects in each of our playing.  He’s listened closely to Ron Carter all these years, and he centered a lot of the music around the feel of the grooves of Ron Carter’s basslines.  He wanted to bring out a rhythmic quality in my playing. That’s cool, because people usually think of me as playing noise or atmospheric, floaty stuff.”

Transitioning to the small bedroom in Baron’s apartment that serves as his office-studio, the jockey-framed drummer sits legs akimbo in a chair placed between a barebones drumkit and an upright Yamaha piano.  To his left, tacked to the wall, is a weathered sheet of paper with a list of drummers “to pay attention to,” among them Donald Bailey (“he really knows about being creative”), Han Bennink (“absolutely fearless, bordering on the absurd”), Billy Hart (“his expression and touch; he’s able to take everything he has and make music with it”), Ricky Wellman (“his groove is very profound”), Milford Graves (“just earth — the energy, the commitment”), Ikue Mori (“when I get down on myself for everything that I can’t do and don’t know, I think about what she does with what she does know; she brings me out of any tendency to not listen to different kinds of music”) and David Garibaldi and Ed Blackwell (“the conversation between the limbs”).  Towards the door are two bookcases chock-a-block with tapes and LPs; two shelves contain books on magic, with an emphasis on coin and card tricks.

As I peruse the book spines, Baron mentions that as a kid in Richmond, Virginia, before he took up drumming, he aspired to be a magician, and retains an informed interest.  I pounce, asking whether he connects the aesthetic of magic and music-making.  “Only in the sense that you shouldn’t make your audience feel like idiots, which is very easy to do in magic,” he responds.  “A great magician will make someone feel welcome and included.  They know when to reveal the card that’s been selected or when to end the solo.  They know how much is enough.”

Which describes the effect of his music for Down Home.  “I wanted to contradict the misconception that I play out, and can’t establish a feeling from a groove,” Baron states.  “I’m drawing on all kinds of music, including James Brown and even Messaien, the way his melodies can dart off and take a left turn.  Some tunes might have one chord change, but I’ve worked out the rhythmic phrasing of the melody, and how the guitar and bass should comp to get the essence of this feel.  I thought about this music, I heard it, I wrote it, then we all played it.  It was not an accident.”

Baron’s connoisseurship of the nuances of groove stems from deep roots in the musical culture of the South.  Born to a working-class Orthodox Jewish family, the teenage Buddy Rich devotee learned how to make rhythm speak on an array of artisanal gigs with older musicians in Richmond, soaking up information wherever he could find it, from the “Ed Sullivan Show” to unformatted late ‘60s radio — “you might hear Ray Charles, then Charlie Pride, then Buddy Rich, then Miles Davis with the Classic ‘50s Quintet, then a cut from Miles At the Fillmore and Tony Williams’ Emergency.”

“When you’re working class, you’re not analyzing anything from an art standpoint,” Baron states.  “Any chance or reason I had to play, I took.  I played at a country club that didn’t allow Blacks or Jews  with Joe Kennedy [a black, Pittsburgh-born violinist who had recorded with Ahmad Jamal in the ‘50s] and a great guitarist.  It was work; we were there to do a gig and play tunes.  These guys were very supportive.  They wouldn’t give me private lessons or tell me to listen to anyone in particular; all they’d say was, ‘Man, just give me that Eddy Arnold backbeat’ or ‘Just lay in the time,’ stuff like that, common things drummers need to hear so they know what their job is.  I got my experience doing the work before me.”

Baron steps to the bookshelf to extract an LP.  On the cover is a long shot photograph of some 60 teenage musicians assembled on an auditorium stage.  Three black faces are visible, including Baron’s band director, Tuscan Jasper.  “I was fortunate to be welcomed into the black community in Richmond,” the drummer continues.  “Mr. Jasper took me under his wing, and was wonderful to me; he never put down anything I was excited about.  This was the first year of bussing, and I was bussed to Maggie Walker High School, which had been all-black.  I spent every day I could in that band room, and Mr. Jasper, who had been in the Army with Wynton Kelly, would play Clifford Brown records for me and say, ‘Did you like that drummer?’ ‘Yeah.’  ‘Do you know who that is?’  ‘No.’  ‘That’s a guy named Philly Joe Jones.’”

While earning a GED, Baron skipped senior year to earn a year’s tuition for Berklee, often working with a slightly older pianist named Bill Lohr, who helped further the young aspirant’s aesthetic education.  “Bill had 33 Oscar Peterson Trio records; he was not impressed by drum solos and the Buddy Rich school of playing!”  Baron jokes.  “He pulled my head out of the drum and got me listening to music; he exposed me to people like Baby Dodds, Jo Jones, Max Roach, Ed Thigpen and Grady Tate, who could play with more finesse in intimate groups.  I became aware that you don’t necessarily need to do a blindingly fast single stroke roll to make music with another musician.  I began to use the time I’d normally spent practicing technique to sit and listen, without playing, and was able to get more balance between my creative ideas and the chops I’d need to execute them.”

Strapped for cash after 15 months at Berklee, Baron went on the road with Lohr in a lounge group; towards the end of 1975 he received a telegram that Carmen McRae was looking for a drummer and made a beeline for Los Angeles.  His first L.A. gig was with Helen Merrill (“Leonard Feather wrote me up as ‘Young, spirited, 19-year-old Joey Baron’ — he was nice”); he joined McRae a few months later.  “Not a lot of drummers can accompany a singer,” he stresses.  “You have to be sensitive to the lyric and not resort to licks; you have to get intensity at a low volume.  One reason I went after playing with Carmen is that it was a context where I could play with that kind of discipline.  Carmen always kept things in balance.  Her songs were concise, and she didn’t waste a lot of time or notes.”

L.A.’s superb swing-to-bop oriented talent pool welcomed the newcomer with open arms.  Cosigned by first-call drummers Frank Severino and Donald Bailey, Baron landed frequent work with the likes of Teddy Edwards, Blue Mitchell, Harold Land, Plas Johnson, Hampton Hawes, Victor Feldman and Chet Baker.  He went through the union book, “calling people I’d heard about, telling them I’d just moved to town, and if they ever needed a drummer to rehearse anything, I’d be willing to come and do it.  Los Angeles was a looser, more laid-back social scene than New York.  There’s something about being able to call Harold Land and say, ‘Hey, Harold, I got your number,’ and he’d say, ‘Yeah, come on over today; we’re going to look at a few tunes.’  I called Hampton Hawes, and he called me back.  I left my beans which I was cooking on my hot plate, put my drums in the car, drove to his house, and played until 6 in the morning.  We worked a few gigs at Donte’s.”

Baron describes his ‘70s stance as “total jazz snob.”  He studied voraciously.  “I put myself on a regimen where for a month I would listen just to Wes Montgomery with Jimmy Cobb, or Philly Joe Jones or Art Blakey, not so much to copy the style, but to get it in my head and apply it directly — in some situations with people who were on the records.  I went through my stages — and still do — of imitating drummers I love — like Buddy Rich or Tony Williams or Jack de Johnette — and memorizing what they played.  But I kept listening until I understood WHY they did a particular thing.  Why did Art Blakey hit that cymbal?  It was the beginning of the chorus.  He played his figure three times because he was signalling to bring the band in from a free-form solo.  Once I understood that, I could make it my own.”

One day in Chicago, Carmen McRae presented her young drummer a small jewelry box containing a Star of David.  “That fucked me up so bad,” Baron says urgently.  “Carmen was so confident, commanded so much respect, was so proud of her culture, she had the total balance of elegance, soul and class, and she stepped forward and across a lot of shit to do that for me.  When I was a kid, it was not cool to say you were Jewish.  You’d get the living shit kicked out of you.  I went to Hebrew School and hated it.  I believed every bit of hate mail that the KKK shoved under our door.  There would be something about Communists, and then ‘look at these people,’ and they’d have this picture of people with huge noses and ‘they could be in your neighborhood.’”

As long-buried aspects of Jewish identity stirred up Baron’s consciousness, he began to think about music in terms of personal identity.  He was familiar with the Art Ensemble of Chicago and an Andrew Cyrille solo drum record, knew of Tony Oxley through his work with Stan Getz and John McLaughlin, and was particularly taken with Han Bennink’s solo recital Balls [FMP] “because it was so unafraid and un-timid; to this day, when I get lost for inspiration, or scared, I’ll put that on.”  In time, he began participating in a workshop trio project with Carl Schroeder, Sarah Vaughan’s pianist of the ‘70s — Baron’s tapes of the band sound like a cross between Herbie Hancock’s Inventions and Dimensions and Chick Corea at his most abstract.  “Carl is responsible for my thinking of myself as an artist,” Baron affirms.  “I needed to be in a community where people were doing something, and I did not want to be in Los Angeles.  My wife was a painter; she was excited about the idea of going to New York.  We packed up like the Beverly Hillbillies, put all of our shit in the van, all her paintings, all my drums, and came here in October 1983.”

After lean times, Baron began to establish himself in the New York sharkpit; by the mid-‘80s master improvisers like Red Rodney-Ira Sullivan, Jim Hall, Tom Harrell, Pat Martino and Toots Thielemans were hiring him regularly.  During this time drummer Mel Lewis, facing hand surgery, asked his thirtyish colleague to be his sub in the Monday Night Orchestra at the Village Vanguard.  “It was the most incredible drum lesson I’ve ever had in my life,” Baron affirms.  “It gave me a lot of strength.  It taught me to take charge when dealing with a large group, to be committed and confident, to set things up, to make a move even if it’s wrong.  I loved the way Mel got inside of the band from the center, how he lifted the whole band from underneath.”

Baron became increasingly frustrated with the creative roadblocks he encountered in New York’s cliquish, balkanized ‘80s jazz culture.  “I was shocked at how staid some of the situations were,” he remarks.  “I wanted to be playing with Kenny Kirkland, that kind of post-Miles thing; it started to dawn on me that I wasn’t going to be able to do it.  I was seeing myself as a victim.  I lost confidence on how to fit in here, where everything is so fast and hard.  I was trying to shed this image of a nice sideperson.  I wanted to play where you could emotionally express yourself rather than accompany all the time; I decided to try things I wouldn’t normally do.”

Baron shaved his head, and began to shed the skin of a freelance musician, shifting to situations that involved long-term aesthetic commitments.  He said no to singer gigs, played once a week with Mike Stern’s workshop big band, and joined Bill Frisell’s ensemble.  “I first met Joey not long after we came to New York at a large session where there was a lot of confusion,” Frisell recalls.  “There was this little space, and Joey played a backbeat, just one note that was the baddest note.  Right at that moment I turned to him.  We smiled at each other like we KNEW.  There was this weird connection.  I started going over to his apartment, and we would improvise for hours — just play.  I set up sessions where we played with Arto Lindsay, who was unlike anyone Joey had played with.  I remember the first time he came to Roulette and heard me with Ikue Mori, and it was like, ‘What are you trying to…’  But then he started to kind of get it.”

Baron began to make feelers to “a whole crowd of people who at that time I didn’t even think could play.”  One was the alto saxophonist-composer Tim Berne, who came to Baron’s loft with cellist Hank Roberts for a session.  “It was very strange for me,” Baron laughs.  “Not unfriendly.  But musically, I just went, ‘Man, what is this?   Doesn’t he play any tunes?’  It was hard music, but communicative and conversational, and I liked doing it.  Everybody was scuffling at that point, but they wanted to do their music; I’d rehearse with Tim’s band, or with Hank, or with Herb Robertson.  All of a sudden, they got record deals with JMT, and I was the guy who knew the music, which was complicated, not music that you could call someone in to sight-read.”

Baron met John Zorn in 1987 when both were playing in Lindsay’s Ambitious Lovers; he joined Zorn’s surf-to-thrash all-star group Naked City a year later, beginning an intense, symbiotic relationship that remains close through Baron’s participation in Zorn’s popular Masada and Bar Kokhba ensembles.  “I have one indelible image in my head,” Zorn relates.  “I had just finished a set with my News For Lulu project at one of the European festivals, and Tim Berne and Mark Dresser happened to be around.  The promoter cajoled us into getting on stage and doing a few pieces, and Joey played with us.  We did a couple of Ornette pieces in a pretty out-of-control way.  Though Joey had never seen the music, he had an incredible ability to follow wherever I went musically, even the most intense shit.  All of a sudden, it was a full four-way conversation.  It was an unbelievable rush, an incredible inspiration.”

As Baron recalls it, Zorn heard Frisell’s band play in Bremen.  “He was fascinated about how we went so many different places in one song, how we were free to shape the tune, but it still remained a tune — it wasn’t just free improv.  He arrived at that same place by composing, having things written out and pre-planned.  He was thinking of it presentationally.  He asked me and Bill and Wayne Horwitz and Fred Frith to be in this band with him, and that was how Naked City started — along with other projects, like different East Asian Bar Band pieces or pieces with spoken word.”

Baron recalls urging Zorn to acknowledge Jewish roots.  “On my first gig with John we were sidemen for Arto Lindsay.  We were in Italy, he didn’t know me and I didn’t know him, and we were talking in his room.  I mentioned being from Richmond, and that I’d had to go in the back door at gigs because I was Jewish.  John said, ‘What?’  I said, ‘Well, you’re Jewish, aren’t you?’  He said, ‘No.’  At that time he did not identify at all with Judaism.  I would talk to him and say, ‘Whether or not you identify, you are Jewish.’  I think I lit the fire for him to look at this culture and embrace it.”

If Baron pushed Zorn to consider his Jewishness, Zorn prodded Baron to expand his aesthetic scope.  Baron evolved and personalized his approach, attacking the drumset like a contraption, individualizing each component, learning to shape rhythm-timbre with the elastic precision of a sculptor, finding startling, humorous figures to prod improvisers from complacency.

“In our early years working together,” Zorn says, “I was presenting so many different styles of music, including some that had never existed before, and it was sometimes difficult trying to get Joey there.  He’d never played Hardcore before; he’d never thought about that music seriously before.  I can be very specific about what I’m looking for; I know what I need and I go out to get it.  I gave Joey tapes, we talked about technique, whether to use a match-grip or the grip he’d been using, whether he’d use a double-pedal, to use mallets on one tune or play with his hands on another.  Eventually it became part of his style; he uses it now in his solo stuff, in his own bands.

“I can’t imagine doing a project without Joey.  I’ve been spoiled.  I’ve never met a drummer who does so much and works so hard.  As a matter of pride, he wants to be able to do absolutely everything on the drums, and he mixes it all up in an organic way that I’ve never heard anybody do.  I feel he intuitively knows what I’m looking for.  If he is confronted with something that he doesn’t think he can do, he will go home and WORK on it.  What he did was a matter of will!  It didn’t just happen.  He made a conscious decision to put tape on his cymbals.  He decided to cut down his set.  I really respect that.  It’s easy to fly around like a dry leaf in the wind going wherever it blows.  It’s difficult in this world to make a stand and say, ‘THIS is what I’m going to do.  This has not happened before.  I am going to take a chance.’”

Baron made his stand in 1991, after three years of hearing his compositions played by Miniature, a collective trio with Berne and Roberts that recorded twice for JMT.  “It was the first time I brought in tunes, had them played and wasn’t ridiculed about them,” Baron says.  “These guys kicked my ass and supported me, I started writing more, and realized that I had to start my own band.  I wrote a whole book for Baron Down.  I had the harmony in my head, but didn’t have the technique or terminology to name the chord changes, so I’d only pick the two notes of the chord that depicted what I was hearing — the instrumentation of trombone and tenor sax gave them a sound of their own.  I figured it out slowly, and through four or five tours and three records developed the confidence to flesh out the harmony to create the lush sounds I originally heard.  The Down Home band is an extension of Baron Down.  It’s still funky and swinging, but deals with textures more richly.  Now I can’t wait to have a block of time to sit and write some more.

“The rhythms and shapes that musicians like Carmen McRae, Ray Charles, Aretha, Willie Nelson, Miles Davis, Red Garland, and Erroll Garner put on record are so untapped by drummers as a basis for ideas.  Drummers mostly stick to things that fall easily on the instrument, and they rarely deal with, for instance, phrasing eighth notes the way a great saxophone player can phrase them.  I relate to the power of the drums and maintaining the rhythm as well.  But I draw inspiration from the vocal aspect, the lyricism of the great musicians.  I’ll go into my studio, think of a tune and a feeling, and play tempo for a half-hour, trying to keep the time going with a light touch.  That’s an endless study.”

As we reprise the view while waiting for the downstairs elevator, Baron murmurs, “Believe me, I never take this for granted.”   Outside, as we prepare to go our separate ways, the drummer gives me a taste of that light touch and flycatcher-quick sleight-of-hand.  He displays two fuzzy, light-as-a-feather red balls, has me authenticate their feel.  “Close your hands.”  Dutifully, I make two fists.  Baron presents the balls like a sommelier, then envelops them, executes a few criss-crosses and swirls, and unveils his empty palms.  A few more moves culminate in a feathery touch.  “Open your hands.”  Inevitably, the balls are nestled in my closed left fist.  “You did that very well, Joey.”  “That’s what I say when people ask me how I did that trick,” Baron chortles.  “‘Very well!’”

***********

Joey Baron Musician Show (July 10, 1996):

[MUSIC: Baron Down, “Punt”]

TP: We’ll start off with something by Buddy Rich, who’s someone you were listening to very early. Where were you in your musical development at the time you heard the next track we’ll hear.

BARON: At the time when I started playing, which was around 1964, the big drummers of the day… Actually, Gene Krupa was still very visible. And for a young person in Richmond, Virginia, from a family that didn’t really have too much information about music, Jazz, improvised music, whatever you want to call it, if you turned on the television you were likely to see on a variety show tonight, Gene Krupa with his Band, or the drum battle, Gene Krupa with Buddy Rich. They were very visible to the mass audience. So those two people were kind of my introduction to part of what it was possible to do with the instrument. I started looking at television, and each time either of those two guys would be on television or on the radio, I would be there taping it and borrowing people’s records…

TP: This implies that you were already involved in the process of making rhythm, or playing drums in one way or the other.

BARON: I was starting…

TP: How did it begin for you?

BARON: Well, I was 9 years old. I’m from Richmond, Virginia, and there was a neighbor who was in the school band, and he was going off into the next school year, and he didn’t want to play his drum any more. He used to play it on the back of his porch, and I don’t know why, but I just loved the sound of it. He said he’d sell it to me for 20 bucks. So I cut grass all summer and saved money, and bought the drum at the end of the summer. I believe it was an old wooden Ledee(?) snare drum with an old box case, and it had a real flimsy stand to it, and came with a pair of brushes, and one pair of sticks, with calfskin heads too. That was my tool for a long time, just that.

TP: This must have thrilled your parents no end.

BARON: Well, it saved me… When I used to empty the trash, I’d say, “Okay, I’ll be back,” and then I’d put the trash in the cans in the alley and I’d start beating on the trash cans. I’d be there for an hour-and-a-half. This way it kept me out of…

TP: You were the joy of the neighborhood.

BARON: Yes. [LAUGHS]

TP: When did you begin to perform on drums? When did combos and such become part of your experience?

BARON: Still when I was 9 I got involved in it. I was in the school band. Almost when I was 10 there was a neighborhood Rock-and-Roll band that I was invited to be in, that I heard was forming. My mother worked (she was a secretary all of her life), and one of her co-workers had a son who was starting a band, and she said, “Hey, my son has a drum-set” — or a drum; it wasn’t a drum-set at the time. So that’s how that started. Also before that I would play with piano players at pizza parlors, like Shakey’s Pizza. There was a woman that played ragtime piano at my synagogue, and she knew that I could play a little bit, so she asked me if I wanted to come with her to one job — so I did. I started doing anything I could. It was just like an adventure, really fun.

TP: When did you get to the point of trying to emulate some of the jazz drummers or stylists that you heard? Was that part of your process?

BARON: Actually, the very first record, which I don’t have here, was called Big Swing-Face. I would listen to that, and I’d play along and try to copy his solos. I’d learn just by ear. I wouldn’t notate them. I would just play them over and memorize them. I’d slow the record down so I could hear exactly how many beats he was doing. It just fascinated me how… It’s very impressive what he specializes in. It’s not subtle at all. It’s very impressive, his precision and the speed at which he performs. I was very taken with that.

I tried for a long time to play along, and eventually I got the hang of it, but it was a really watered down version, particularly in the left hand! [LAUGHS] Somewhere in the process I realized there’s only one Buddy Rich and there’s only one whoever I was listening to. But I used to really work my butt off to try and…

TP: I guess trying to emulate Buddy Rich’s style is a great way to develop your technique one way or the other.

BARON: It’s kind of powerful. He doesn’t make any bones about it. He’s very committed to what he does. That attracts me. He’s very clear with what he does, and it’s easy to listen to. Again, my first introduction was through Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. I found out about the more subtle approaches of Jo Jones and Max Roach and Baby Dodds. But honestly, my first introduction was through the Rock-and-Roll of the day, which was the Beatles, so that was the contemporary side, and then the music that happened before my time, Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa were the star drummers that were in front…

TP: They had that visibility which would make them accessible to you.

BARON: Yes. And in Richmond, Virginia, at that time, there were not a lot of outlets to hear music, especially for a young person to go to clubs… You weren’t even allowed at clubs without a chaperone.

[MUSIC: B. Rich w/Rolf Ericsson, S. Most, M. Mainieri, “Blowing The Blues Away” (1961); Krupa-Rich, “King Porter Stomp”; Mongo, “Streak o’ Lean”; Cal Tjader, “Soul Burst” (1966); In Cold Blood “Your Good Thing” (1971)]

TP: The diversity contained in that set kind of marks the diversity of Joey’s listening experiences, and indeed, the different situations in which he still plays. You mentioned you stole a bunch of licks from the drummer in the Cold Blood band which you still play.

BARON: That drummer was one of the first I ever heard choke the cymbal in a Pop context. He’d do it very quickly, and I thought maybe something was wrong with the record, then I realized, oh, he’s choking the cymbal really quickly and not losing the beat at all. You can’t tell unless you listen very hard, but I always liked the sound, and I do it to this day.

TP: There were a lot of horn bands 25 years that mixed genres and crossed lines. Were you involved in bands like that?

BARON: I mean, the neighborhood bands I was in were never this good. But we tried to play things like that. Rock bands that had horn sections so you could play all kinds of music, like Rolling Stones or Otis Redding or the music that was coming out from Stax-Volt.

TP: Were you trying to idiomatically emulate the drummers?

BARON: Of course! Not copy note-for-note, but I would listen to these… Like, every piece we just heard, I would listen to them over and over and over. That’s probably why they’re in such crackly condition now. I’d listen to it not only to figure out what the drummer was doing, but to just internalize what the feeling was of the whole band and the whole vibe of what the ensemble was doing. That’s where the magic was for me. Once I had that in my head, in my gut, in my heart, whatever, when I would play with a local band that’s what I would think about. I wouldn’t think about, “Okay, now I’ve played four beats; now it’s time for me to hit the snare drum this way because that’s what he did on the record.” I never thought at that level. That was homework for me. I would do that when I was off by myself first learning how to play a song. I’d learn it, and then it’s kind of like what the older musicians would say, “You learn the rules, and then you throw away the rulebooks and start to think for yourself and play.” So I kind of, on a small level, started doing that with all the records you just heard. Like the Cal Tjader piece called “Soul Burst.” There’s not a drum set per se on that record, but I used to love to play along with it. I loved the feeling. I love that piece. I love the whole record. It’s on Verve, called Soul Burst.

TP: It’s from 1966, and it features Grady Tate on trap drums, with Victor Pantoya, Jose Mangual, Carlos Patato Valdes on hand drums, and Chick Corea playing piano.

BARON: Grady Tate was a major influence, just because he could do so many things. Listening to this, I wasn’t aware of a drum-set, but he was playing, and it was so light… It was a big influence. So for that, rather than just the individual licks, just sticking to learning the licks, I would try to internalize the feel of what was going on from the whole band.

TP: You said you used to be able to get gigs just because of your sense of the Latin feel. It seems as a teenager you had some command of all the different moods a drummer has to generate to be a working drummer.

BARON: Yeah. If you’d get called to play a job, and the leader was fairly older and used to playing what they called two-beat standards for people to dance to, they weren’t used to playing anything that was in a Rock-and-Roll or straight eighth note type vein, like the Beatles or stuff that had a groove like that. A lot of times, I got calls because I could kind of fake my way through the 4/4 things, the feeling of it. I was very inexperienced and still trying to learn it, but I could do a good enough job to fake through it. And I also had an ear so that if somebody called a Bossa-Nova or a Latin type of feeling they wanted on a song, I knew what they meant, even though I’m not an authentic… But I never tried to be. I just wanted to evoke the feeling that made me so happy when I listened to it.

TP: Before the Mongo piece, we heard a track featuring your two early inspirations, Rich and Krupa, from the early ’60s on “King Porter Stomp.” Joe Wilder took a solo, George Barnes on guitar, trombones by Frank Rehak and Jimmy Cleveland, arranger George Williams. You had a lot to say about him during that and the prior track, which was Horace Silver’s “Blowing the Blues Away.”

BARON: There was a long drum solo while the bass player was walking. That’s one of the hardest things to do. On that track I just think what Buddy played is brilliant. There was a lot of space, a lot of subtle things going on, like turning the beat around on purpose, and phrasing things back off a quarter-note or an eighth-note, taking a phrase and playing it in an odd part of the measure. He did that all throughout that solo, and he did it with such force. He doesn’t have, particularly on that solo, a light touch. So most people wouldn’t really know that was going on. I’ve listened to that thousands of times. It’s really difficult to play with another time player and you let them be the boss of the Time. For a drummer to give it up and then become the soloist within the time, it’s very difficult. That’s what he was doing all throughout that track. He was within the time. He wasn’t just blowing over it. He was in it, over it, around it, and right in there with the bass player. His precision is really… I hear very few people who are able to do that. Roy Haynes is one who comes to mind who is amazing at doing that stuff. Not many.

TP: Joey mentioned that after hearing Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa early on, you began going back and hearing the more nuanced and somewhat flexible styles of Papa Jo Jones and Max Roach. The drummer Ed Thigpen was a protege of Papa Jo Jones in many ways, through Jo Jones’ relationship with Ed Thigpen’s father, Ben Thigpen, one of the great Kansas City drummers, and you mentioned listening to him a great deal with the Oscar Peterson trio. Let’s take you out of Richmond, to the beginnings of your identity as a professional jazz drummer. Did it become apparent to you as a teenager that you’d become a professional musician, that it would be your life.

BARON: I knew the minute I started that that’s what I was going to do. I don’t know how, but I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. That was in Richmond, and I just lived and breathed, dreaming about the kinds of drum-sets there were. I memorized all the catalogues of drum-sets, all this nerdy stuff that people do when you’re really excited. I had a friend Bill Lohr was a few years older than me, and he had 33 Oscar Peterson records. He was really into music. He was not impressed by drum solos and the Buddy Rich school of playing. He actually saved me from becoming [LAUGHS] like the stereotypical drummer who just plays a solo and doesn’t know how to make music or accompany, fulfill the function of what’s become the tradition of being a drummer. So he kind of exposed me to the more finesse styles of people who could play with smaller, more intimate groups. Maybe they didn’t have the impact or the power of, say, a Buddy Rich or the visibility of a Gene Krupa, but nonetheless, they made music happen in the same way that many people who, if you look at them from a certain angle… Most people think Ringo Starr can’t play, but I would argue that he was the only one who could make the Beatles sound the way they sounded — which was great!

Ed Thigpen in his context, with the Oscar Peterson Trio, it was incredible! There was one record in particular called We Get Requests, which I don’t have here, that really influenced me. But anything that trio played… It was a working band, and it was before the production style of recording took place. Those guys actually played dynamically with each other. When you hear most of their records, Ed Thigpen was playing at a dynamic the same as you would hear him play in a club. Sometimes you hear a record, and you hear the drummer bashing along with the walking bass and a flute solo. There’s no way on earth that could actually take place without the assistance of microphones and stuff like that. These guys knew how to get a sound out of their instruments and blend. That’s an incredible lost art.

TP: Here we’re also talking about the principle of the drums engaging in a dialogue with the soloist and with the arrangement as well, and putting your own interpretation on material. When did you start playing with experienced improvisers or sophisticated musicians. Let’s discuss the process that led to you being a professional Jazz musician.

BARON: Well, I’d have to say that this piano player, Bill Lohr, was one of the first. Through him I played with a bass player in Richmond whose name is Mike Ross. For a kid who was starting to play, those guys knew the ropes, and for home-town that was great.

From Richmond I went to Boston for a summer course at Berklee, mainly to meet other kids who were interested in playing music. Because all of my connections were with people three times older than me.

As far as working with professional players, it’s just a long process. In Boston I met this guy named John Scofield. I met this guy named Joe Lovano, and another guy named James Williams. It’s a long process. We were all learning how to play. Now look at us. We’re still learning how to play! But we’ve covered some ground, but you still keep learning.

But I’d have to say around 1972, Boston was a big exposure for me, playing with other musicians who were really serious, and loved to play music. That was the first kind of big exposure I had. I did some gigs with Tony Bennett as part of the Berklee Recording Band, they called it. He did a few gigs using the Berklee band. Tony brought his rhythm section with Kenny Clare, but he would do a few tunes with the Berklee rhythm section, then we’d let them take over. That was quite a thrill.

TP: You subsequently played with many singers, which we can talk about later.

BARON: Yes, thousands. Thousands upon thousands! [LAUGHS] Millions!

[MUSIC: OP w/ C. Terry-Thigpen, “Jim” (1963); Bird-Max, “White Christmas” (1948); Wes-Cannonball-L. Hayes-R. Brown, “Au Privave” (1960); S. Clark-Duvivier-Roach, “Blues Mambo” (1960); Wes-Herbie-G. Tate, “Sun Down” (1966)]

TP: You talked about Herbie Hancock on “Sun Down” utilizing space playing off the drummer and the rhythm section in an exceptional way.

BARON: I don’t know what it was, maybe the time, the late ’60s, whether things were much more relaxed or something… I’m not sure. But there’s so much space. Nobody is in a rush to fill everything up. I used to listen to that track and learn so much from what people wouldn’t play. When Herbie would play a phrase and let two bars go by without anything happening but just the groove of the rhythm section. That was a profound influence on me, that kind of way of letting things gel and allowing the group to come together, rather than always soloing on top of someone. I don’t know, it just seemed more human. Just like you say a sentence and you pause! It seemed so verbal, the way he played. And Wes Montgomery, too. It was a real relaxed track. I just love the feel.

TP: Hearing Max Roach in a piano trio playing as relaxed as he did during that session is uncommon in his discocraphy. He’s often on top of the music and doing his own virtuosic thing within it.

BARON: To me this is some of Max’s best group and solo playing. It’s a really well-integrated group. On that track George Duvivier was just killing! It wasn’t a very popular album, I don’t think. I think I found it in the bargain cutouts when I was a kid. I said, “I know who Max Roach is, but I’ve never heard of these other people.” It’s just a well-integrated group in terms of not being… Like, the Oscar Peterson trios were more of the big band setup, like Oscar was the hero, and Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen supported him. The roles are a little more defined. Like, everybody really had their solo space in that group. But this was a different kind of conception, more intimate, more interplay. It had a big influence which led me to investigate groups which did that even further.

TP: Which piano trios interested you particularly for the dynamism of the drummer within it?

BARON: Well, there was the kind of trio like Wynton Kelly or Red Garland…

TP: So Jimmy Cobb we’re talking about in the former case.

BARON: Yeah, Jimmy Cobb or Philly Joe Jones or Art Taylor in the former case. I’d listen to Red more than the drummer, just his rhythm. If he was playing a drum-set, everybody would be slobbering just to be able to play like that. He was an amazing time player in the way rhythms just flew out of him, and needless to say, the music and melodies that he made with those rhythms. That was one thing that really impressed me. Then also, around a certain point, I started hearing another kind of groove that was going on, and that’s the kind of interplay that wasn’t necessarily about stating 4/4 all the time. It was more like a floating kind of time, more like a circle than a straight up-and-down hard groove…

TP: Like Tony Williams or Jack de Johnette with Miles Davis in the ’60s?

BARON: Or maybe slightly before, like Paul Bley and Bill Evans, that kind of school, the way Paul Motian would approach playing a ballad. To hear him play a ballad was really incredible, because he made it interesting rather than just a straight boom-chick, which a lot of drummers did. He really played a ballad. That was also a really big influence, because ballads are great to play. There’s lots of time to listen to what’s going on, to think about and comment on it. That was a whole different approach that I started listening to parallel to Oscar Peterson, Red Garland and Wynton Kelly. I was kind of interested in being able to do both, because I liked them both. I didn’t bring with me this record called Ramblin’ by Paul Bley with Barry Altschul and Marc Levinson, who now makes high-end sound equipment. Hearing the way they played on that record, sometimes you couldn’t tell where the time was. Was it that important that you couldn’t tell where it was? The feeling was just incredible. It was a very forward-moving feeling. That intrigued me as well as the straight up-and-down kind of grooves that were coming from people like Oscar Peterson, Wynton Kelly and Red Garland.

[MUSIC: Baron Down, “Dog”; Toots Thielemans, “Autumn Leaves”; Joey (solo), “Over The Rainbow”]

TP: I’d like to ask you about your composition. Is it off the drums, from patterns, or less reductive than that?

BARON: It’s both. The drums are my main instrument, my only instrument, so that’s where I’ll start. I’ll play, and a lot of times sometthing will come to mind from something I’ve played. So the trick is to remember that, write it down and develop it, and set it up to be a composition. Other times I’ll have a melody floating around in my head, or a shape I’m thinking about, and I’ll just go straight to paper with that. Or I’ll hear a certain melody and write that down, then I’ll go to the piano and check it to make sure that’s what I was hearing.

TP: Do you use conventional notation, or do you have your own sort of self-developed notation? I’d also like you talk about “formal education” on the drums.

BARON: My notations for the band… On some things, everything is written out — the melody, the rhythm, the form. Other compositions aren’t really notated that way. It might be similar to a Zorn game piece. I have one piece called “Third Base” which is a way to set up a revolving series of duets, and there are rules about that. It’s very simple, but having three people, there’s a lot you can do setting up rules to keep things moving so that it doesn’t become static. The chart for that will just be written-out instructions as to what the rules are, and that determines the form of the piece.

Basically I use regular notation and just written-out instructions, like “Play loud,” [LAUGHS] “Play pretty,” “Play ugly,” “Play soft.” But a lot of the things, there are definite parts. A lot of the things we do in the band, I do have a specific thing that needs to be communicated, so I write that, whether it’s through normal notation or instructions.

TP: Are you an incessant practicer or is a lot of your practicing at this point on the gig?

BARON: I like to play a lot, and I go keep loose all the time. I try to play a few times a week, just go in a room someplace and play time for an hour, or work on just keeping in shape.

This next track, Junior Walker and the All-Stars was also a big influence. At the same time as all the more improvisation-based music, the piano trios and big bands and stuff, I was hearing this stuff on the radio, and it had a very powerful impact. Still does. Anything this band did really had a big impact on me, and it’s very powerful. I hope you’ll like it. This track is called “Cleo’s Back.”

[MUSIC: Junior Walker, “Cleo’s Back”; Keith Jarrett, “Dedicated To You” (1966); Patsy Cline, “After Midnight”; Horowitz plays Scriabin’s Feuillet D’Album; Carmen McRae, “Our Love Is Here To Stay”; Astrud Gilberto, “Undiu”; Lee Dorsey w/ Zigaboo Modaliste, “Yes, We Can”]

TP: Before the next set, focusing on some of the great contemporary Jazz drummers, any things that came to mind?

BARON: Just in the ballad selection by Keith Jarrett, the way that ballad was played was quite different than the regimented style in which people had played in eras previous to the ’60s. That was a big influence. There was so much interplay between Charlie and Paul. That still sends shivers down my back when I listen to it; it’s really great. That was a classic group, and I love that period.

TP: That floating quality exists in a certain sense in the Gilberto pieces and a lot of the Brazilian music of the time.

BARON: I guess. It’s a different thing. In this situation nobody was really stating any rhythm per se, but you could just feel it moving. It was okay that it wasn’t stated, and it was okay if it wasn’t regimented, like if one wasn’t always where one should technically be. I just hear a lot of trust coming through when I hear that group play, particularly when they play standard material — or anything that group played. I’d just hear a lot of trust. That really inspired me eventually to seek out musicians who would trust me and who I could trust musically. That’s one of the greatest positions you can be in as a player.

TP: Having worked with Carmen McRae for three years, you’re well-positioned to talk about how she would deal with the musical aspects of leading a band. How specifically would she instruct you on what she wanted behind her? Perhaps stretch that more generally to include the dynamics of drummers playing with singers.

BARON: She just wanted it to swing, and she wanted the drummer to blend with the piano player and the bass player and her. She did not like a lot of wasted motion or unnaturalness in the playing. She liked very spare… You know, the way she sang, that’s how she liked her accompaniment. She never really said much to me in terms of she wanted this or that. By the time I was working with her, I had been listening to her since I was like 11 years old or something, so I pretty much knew what she liked, what she wanted and what she needed. I do remember, though, she was really on the pianist’s case about comping for her when she would do a ballad and she’d sing the verse of the song. She had a real particular thing she wanted from the piano player. Outside of that, the bass player was in the hot-seat. If the bass player was not a strong walker and couldn’t give her a real bottom that she could stretch out and rely on, it was trouble. [LAUGHS] The great thing about her was she’d let you know. There was never any question about what she wanted and what she needed. And she’d let you know in a very clear-cut way.

TP: Blunt.

BARON: [LAUGHS] Yeah. I had a great experience with her. I know there’s a lot of terrible stories, people who had horrible experiences, and I’ve seen some of that go down. But just for myself, I had an incredible learning experience. She commanded such respect, and she really respected what she did. She treated it as if it was something great that she was doing, and it just made such a difference to see her walk on a stage and then command respect from the audience, just by her presence.

TP: The next set will focus on some of the great contemporary jazz drummers, beginning with Billy Higgins. I guess we lead in indirectly through Ziggy Modaliste’s work on the Lee Dorsey piece and the New Orleans frame of rhythm, Billy Higgins having been very much influenced by his encounter in Los Angeles with Ed Blackwell, who perhaps took the New Orleans rhythm to its most abstract and highest point in a certain way. I don’t know if I’ll ask you make that connection, but put on the professor’s hat and say a few words analyzing the sound and style and wonderfulness of Billy Higgins.

BARON: He is simply one of the greatest drummers to have ever sat behind the drum-set. I mean, that’s evident by just the large number of incredible recording dates that he’s been a part of. That whole ’60s boogaloo thing, “The Sidewinder,” that’s Billy Higgins, the trio stuff with Cedar Walton, the stuff with Ornette. He’s a master time player. He is like a master of time. He can make time live and breathe. There are people that are masters, and he is one of them. I have not one negative thing to say about Billy Higgins. He’s got a real patience in his playing. I think one of the main characteristics is that you’ll never hear Billy bash. That’s part of his sound. I’m sure he’s listened to people who crash and bash and all that stuff, but in his own playing he can extract what he likes about that stuff and channel it through his own style. He’s got a very unique, identifiable sound and style.

TP: His sound is loose, but there’s incredible control over the timbre of the sound even at the hottest tempo.

BARON: Yeah. Beautiful touch. I mean, he is really a supreme master. It took me a while to appreciate what he did. Because when you come from being first wowed by somebody like Buddy Rich, all you focus on is what they’re playing in their solo, and you don’t think too much about the subtler things. But the longer I spent playing and listening to more music I was exposed to, I really got to appreciate just what it is that he does. On this next track, there are no drum solos, but it’s one of my favorite tracks in the world, with a wonderful melody. The sound of the bass on this, and Billy is swinging… It’s just the greatest!

[MUSIC: Eddie Harris-Walton-Carter-Higgins, “The Shadow of Your Smile” (1965); McCoy-Haynes, “Reaching Fourth” (1962); Albert King, “Personal Manager”; H. Hawes-D. Bailey, “Easy Streak”]

TP: Even though there’s only two minutes to go, I’ll have Joey put on the professor’s hat to discuss Donald Bailey and Roy Haynes.

BARON: Donald Bailey was a major, big-time influence musical and non-musical. He’s one of the biggest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing, and one of the most original thinkers and players to ever sit behind a set of drums. His approach is just incredible. He did things that I’ve never heard anyone else do. And he can burn at the lowest volume I’ve ever heard a drummer burn. He’s still around and still playing his butt off in San Francisco.

I just met Roy Haynes a few days. Reaching Fourth has some of the best Roy Haynes I’ve ever heard. I mean, anything he plays on is some of the best Roy Haynes! He’s really heavy, and I think he’s overlooked. Considering how heavy he is and how innovative he is, I think he’s really special, and I love that album.

[Baron Down, “Sitting On A Cornflake”]

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