A Conversation with Billy Currington
Mike Ragogna: Billy Currington, you just released a new single, "Let Me Down Easy." But first, how are you?
Billy Currington: I'm doing really good, man. How are you?
MR: Doing well, thanks. So, you've got a new music video attached to this song?
BC: Yeah, it just kind of came together at the last minute. We got a guy out here filming all kinds of things and taking pictures and what not. He put it all together and we put it out there this week on GAC (Great American Country).
MR: How's it doing?
BC: Well, it was only about one or two days ago that they first aired it. Plus, I don't really keep up with that kind of stuff. (laughs) Like, how the videos are doing and everything. I just hope people like it.
MR: Well, it comes from a very fun album, Enjoy Yourself, which is your fourth, right?
BC: Let's see...yes, this is my fourth. You're right.
MR: And speaking of videos, back in 2008, your "Must Be Doin' Somethin' Right" won CMT's Hottest Video of the Year. Throw in all your number one records and--sorry, Billy, here it comes--you're still doin' it right, right?
BC: It's a great life, man. We've been at it since 2001 out here on the road and growing every year and playing different venues. I've gotten a chance to see it all and I can't say anything bad about any of it. I've had the best time in this business.
MR: Now, before this latest hit, you had the single and video for "Pretty Good At Drinkin' Beer." I have to ask...are you?
BC: Am I pretty good at drinking beer? (laughs) I'll have a beer every once in a while, but I'm not really a heavy drinker. I like it but it's an every once in a while thing for me.
MR: My favorite song on your Enjoy Yourself is "Like My Dog." Love the line, " I want you to love me like my dog." I could go on, but... (laughs)
BC: (laughs) I feel like everyone feels that way. You know, when you come home and you see how happy your dog is to see you? You just wish everybody would love you that way. That's where that song came from. One day it'll be released as a single.
MR: Nice. Another one of my other favorites is "All Day Long."
BC: That was written by one of my best friends, Dallas Davidson. I gave him a call one day and asked him if he had any good songs and he said, " Yeah, man. I got one," and after he played that song, I just couldn't let go of the melody, man. And it's very simply written--the words ain't gonna change the world, but it lent itself to being really simple and soft. I knew that I wanted to put a song on the album like that.
MR: Also, from the way you approached "Let Me Down Easy," it seems to be a really special song to you.
BC: It is, it's really great. I like it so much because it came from a good friend of mine and the melody is so easy and fun to sing. And to have the crowd singing along every night on tour has been really special. It also reached number one on the charts--great things happen when you reach number one and we are so blessed and thankful.
MR: And you're currently on tour with Kenny Chesney, right?
BC: Yeah, we're out here with him through the end of the summer. It's been a great tour. We're just getting started, so there isn't much to tell about it. But I definitely have enjoyed the three gigs we've played together.
MR: You've had so much success with your first four albums that I have to ask what advice would you give to new artists?
BC: Well, for someone searching to be a country artist, I would say that it's not 100% necessary to live in Nashville, Tennessee, but you should consider moving there because that's where everything happens. All the songwriters and record labels for country music are there. So, my advice would definitely be to get yourself to a place where your particular music is and learn all you can learn and play all you can play. I could go on and on about practicing and such, but you just have to realize that you have to put in the time and work and the rest will come.
MR: Is that what you did?
BC: Well, man, I think you get what you give, and I've had a huge work ethic since I was a kid. I started roofing houses when I was 10 years old, so I always knew that you had to put in the work to get the good things out of what you're doing. That's what I did and continue to do. There's no right way into it or rhyme or reason because it can only happen to a certain amount of people anyway, you know? I always go by the saying, "There's never a crowd on the extra mile."
1. All Day Long
2. Love Done Gone
3. Pretty Good At Drinkin' Beer
4. Until You
5. Like My Dog
6. Perfect Day
7. Let Me Down Easy
8. Bad Day Of Fishin'
9. Enjoy Yourself
10. Lil' Ol' Lonesome Dixie Town
Transcribed by Evan Tyrone Martin
Mike Ragogna: What did you think of SXSW this year?
Brett Dennen: Oh, I have one of those complicated relationships with it. I love it and I get excited about it every single year, and then I get overwhelmed within the first few minutes of being there. That's why I was there for just a day and a half, so I could just go and be a part of it and before I got too burned out, we leave. I loved being there though, it was great.
MR: I was driving down from snow-ridden Iowa with a friend and it was such a relief when we started feeling the warm '70s.
BD: It's so beautiful there. It is such a great town to be in, and it's great to have all of our buddies in one place. It's like being at summer camp.
MR: It was great to watch you play on the roof of Whole Foods.
BD: Yeah, that was fun and nice to do something different for a change at SXSW, playing on top of grocery store.
MR: It's a huge grocery store the size of a city block.
BD: And I think it was the global headquarters of Whole Foods. It was like a plaza, a courtyard plaza on the roof.
MR: Also, getting to see you in the convention center was nice. Did you check out any bands yourself?
BD: Nope, I wish I could have but my schedule was too tight and I didn't really have time to do anything. The first moment I got a free time I went out to dinner and went to sleep.
MR: Okay, let's get to your new album, Loverboy. How did you approach this album differently from the other albums?
BD: It's a great question. The method in which I recorded...I did a lot of preproduction on this album. I actually recorded the whole album a year before we went into the studio. I did it in my house with an engineer, my friend Brad. He and I and a couple other musicians made the album in my living room and sort of comp-ed together all the song ideas and parts. We all lived with that album for a year. I gave it to the musicians that I wanted to play on it, my manager, the label, and everybody had the album. Then, when it came time to record it again in a professional studio, it was like we already knew what we needed to do. We just wanted to do it better and do it live with everybody in the room together. We wanted to keep it fresh, exciting and inspired, just make it sound like we were all having fun together in a room playing.
MR: Loverboy is the title. Where does that come from?
BD: I think the simplest way to explain it is that's how I feel right now. I think love is the greatest inspiration and the greatest feeling, and I wanted it to be an ode to love. All sorts of love--romantic love, devotional love, friendship love, and love for the world. I wanted to put out something happy and positive from the heart. That's why I call it Loverboy.
MR: So, you've got this song titled "Dancing At A Funeral"...
BD: Well, the idea for the song just came from a friend of mine who was on their way to a funeral. We had a conversation about how funerals should be a celebration of life instead of mourning a death. Funerals often bring up a lot of issues between families that come together and haven't seen each other for a while. You might have baggage or bad history between members, and it brings out a lot of pain and emotion. I just wanted to put it out there that it should be a celebration of life. It's a beautiful thing to get family and friends together to celebrate somebody that has meant a lot to you.
MR: When my mother passed, we had family and friends get together, it was really festive, and there was a tinge of "should we be feeling horrible or guilty?"
BD: Well, yeah, should you be conscious of your own funeral, if we pass through this dimension and we see people gathering around us for our funeral, I would want to see people having a good time. I don't want people to be sad and, not to quote the song, but sad and mournful. I want to leave a positive impact on this world, and I want people to rejoice. I don't want to see anybody feel bad.
MR: Right. So, "Sydney (I'll Come Running)" is such a sublime pop single to me. It's really cool to know that you have one of those handy pop radio records on your album.
BD: Well, you know, "pop radio" and "pop song" are ever-changing terms. There was a time when Crosby, Stills & Nash was considered pop music. It's a term for, I guess, "popular" or a radio track. For me, it's a feel good dance song. It's a song about friendship and sticking up for your friends and doing what's right. I think it deserves to have a relentless rhythm and a groove that never stops. I think it deserves to have a catchy hook to it. I think lyrically, it is such a sweet message about being there for your friends, I think it deserves that chance.
MR: Are there any songs on this record that are particularly special to you and have you any stories about them?
BD: Every song on the album is a true story. Some of them are more abstract than others. One song that is actually very literal is a song called "Must Be Losing My Mind." It's a song about being in Tucson, Arizona, the first line of the song is, "Burned out and alone in Tucson, Arizon". It's the absolute truth, it was when I was on tour for the last record and I came to Tucson, which is quite possibly one of my favorite cities in the world, and I'm always excited about being there. I was just in a real funky place in my life romantically, and I was exhausted and uninspired. I just had a whirlwind of romantic emotions, and I just found myself lost and almost as though I was in a foreign country. All kinds of things were happening. We play a theater in Tucson usually called The Rialto--it's this big beautiful old theatre and it's kind of spooky though. It's right across the street from a well-known old hotel called The Congress. It's actually haunted, and that's where the line, "There's ghosts in my hotel room" came from. If you go and stay there, you can definitely feel the spirit world bouncing about. I was bumming around on 4th Street--I call it 4th Avenue in the song because it rhymes better--and there was actually a shooting that happened right outside of the theater while we were soundchecking. There literally was a man shot in the street. It was all happening, and I found myself swept up in a romance at the same time. It all sort of happened at once and I thought, "This is out of control." So, that's where I came up with the lyric, "I must be loosing my mind," because I don't know what's happening but I'm going to go with it.
MR: What other stories have you got?
BD: Every song on the record has some sort of personal story behind it. There is the song called "Comeback Kid." The story behind that when I was writing and coming up with some of the ideas for the song, I got asked to have a song be put on a special for the Olympics. I was wracking my brain thinking, "I don't really have a song that carries any sort of sports message or a competitive message." I was thinking, "Well, I should write one," but there was no way I was going to be able to write a song and record it in time. All I wrote was a song about a comeback and a song about an underdog. I thought if I was an athlete I would want to be the underdog or maybe the one on the road to redemption. So, I had the chorus to that song and I had it for a year. I didn't know what to do with it and I didn't think I was going to start writing sports imagery. I didn't think I was going to get to into writing a Cinderella story or anything. So, then not knowing what was happening, how I was going to release the record, if I was going to sign to a label, how anybody was going to hear it when I put it out. I started just running through everything that was going on. There was loss of love in there, self-doubt, self-pity, and it really turned into a song about overcoming all of that. Overcoming all of the fear of not living up to what you've done in the past. Overcoming heartbreak and moving on, and it somehow all weaved its way into that song.
MR: What else you got? Keep going, Brett!
BD: I can maybe throw in a left field one. "Only Rain" is a good one. I was in the process of falling in love and finding myself getting attached to all of the negatives of being in a relationship and falling in love--not like it's a bad thing because it's the greatest feeling in the world. When you start getting attached to outcomes, I think you can cause yourself a lot of grief. It's very literally about traveling all around the world to follow your heart, really. When you get there, you find yourself at the airport in the rain with just a broken heart and being let down. Some of the lyrics in that song like, "Staying with a friend when things don't work out," or "So far from home that the only thing that can cheer you up is your local bottle of California wine." That's where the song "Only Rain" came from, the big let down. You learn the lesson that love is just something that you feel and you don't have to be attached to. So, when it rains, it's okay.
MR: I asked you last time we spoke, but again, what advice do you have for new artists?
BD: I would say never stop writing and never stop exploring who you are as a writer. I think it's easy to become a performer, but never stop writing. If you get inspired, try to stay in that place of inspiration as long as possible. Don't be too critical about what you write. You have plenty of time, you have the rest of your life to criticize. When you're inspired, stay inspired. Don't worry about if it's good or not, just keep it from the heart. Just keep writing even if you end up throwing it away. Just put yourself out there. Just go for it, play as many shows as you can. One show will always lead to another show, and don't be afraid to sing your heart out. Don't be afraid to be vulnerable in a song--that's what people are hungry for, that personalized story and that vulnerability. If you can put yourself out there and be on stage comfortable doing that, people are dying for that today. There is a lot of down stuff out there, if you can draw blood in a song, I think that is what the world is hungry for right now.
MR: Beautiful, Brett. Can you give us one last song story before we wrap it up?
BD: There is a song called "Queen Of The Westside." Nobody really plays it because I think it's longer. I live in Santa Monica, which is on the Westside of Los Angeles. I think in every town, there are mentalities of the Westside and the Eastside and who lives wherever. Where I live on the Westside, it's like families and rich people and quite a creepy side of town. All of the cool kids live on the east side out in Silver Lake. When I met my girlfriend, we met at a party in Hollywood, and the first thing we talked about was living on the Westside. As I was falling in love with her, I dubbed her The Queen of the Westside.
MR: And you can't beat the Westside for the weather.
BD: Yeah, and the clean air. And Silver Lake and Echo Park are where all the cool kids and musicians live.
MR: Yeah, because it used to be affordable.
BD: It still is.
MR: I'm actually going back to California, I miss it. I grew up in New York, but I lived in California for a long time, it's still home.
BD: I grew up in Northern California and I still live part of the time up in the mountains and it's so nice. There is green forest, plains, mountains, beaches, there are some beautiful cities here. It's really a fun place to live.
MR: Thank you so much for spending time with us.
BD: Take care.
1. Surprise, Surprise
2. Dancing At a Funeral
3. Comeback Kid (That's My Dog)
4. Frozen In Slow Motion
5. Sydney (I'll Come Running)
6. Make You Fall In Love With Me
7. Only Rain
8. Can't Stop Thinking
9. Must Be Losing My Mind
10. Song For Leaving
11. Queen of the Westside
12. Little Cosmic Girl
13. Walk Away, Watch Me Burn
Transcribed by Theo Shier
A Conversation with Al Di Meola
Mike Ragogna: Hello, Al.
Al Di Meola: How are you doing?
MR: I'm doing okay. You?
AD: I'm not bad. We just finished two nights in Boston, and we're on our way to Albany on a tour bus right now. Things are going great. We're playing the music from the new record that just got released, and we're getting a great response.
MR: You're, of course, talking about your new album, Pursuit Of Radical Rhapsody. What is the story behind that title?
AD: I just had to think of something original and different, and try to be a little cutting edge on it, but I think it's cool. At first, people thought it was way too difficult and that I should reduce it to Radical Rhapsody, but I just stuck with what I came up with.
MR: Great title. Now, you're on Concord records. Is this your first release for them?
AD: Well, Telarc is really the subsidiary of Concord, which is the parent company. I have a lot of records--I think this is like the sixth record now on Telarc--but since they were acquired by Concord, I guess this is the first one under that parent company, yes.
MR: You and Concord allowed me to debut "Strawberry Fields" here on The Huffington Post.
AD: Right, that was about a month or more prior to the actual release date.
MR: What was the thought behind some of the covers on this album, like "Strawberry Fields" and "Over The Rainbow"?
AD: Well, "Over The Rainbow" was really my tribute to Les Paul. I was really good friends with him, and so it was more a tribute to his life. It's a piece that he played a lot, so I really just wanted to honor my friend.
MR: Beautiful. Al, you went to Berklee, right?
AD: That's right. In fact, I went to the school while we were just in Boston--I had my daughter and my percussionist with me--and I was showing my daughter, for the first time, the places I studied, the buildings I went to, and the places I lived. It was really cool, and it's a great school, by the way.
MR: It seems that every third person that I've interviewed lately has some affiliation with Berklee. Jazz and rock.
AD: Most of the students you see with guitars are all disciples of a lot of those heavy metal guys.
MR: And John Mayer studied there too.
AD: Yeah, there have been a lot of people. It's far expanded since when I was there. When I was there, it was primarily jazz studies--people who were there wanted to be jazz players. But now, they have all kinds of expanded courses in studio engineering, vocals, and they even have dance now, which I just found out last night when I met some teachers that taught dance. I was shocked to hear that.
MR: You mean dance like club or electronica or actual dance classes?
AD: Dance like, artistic dancing. You know, all kinds of dance--jazz dance, tango, flamenco...
MR: ...that's wild. It's interesting that they've spread out into a format like that.
AD: Right. They also have movie scoring, that they actually had, I think, right after I left. Then, they went into studio engineering courses, and things like that. It's a smart thing to do. Other colleges have those courses, so why not them?
MR: Right. So, who is playing with you on Pursuit Of Radical Rhapsody?
AD: Well, I have Gumbi Ortiz on percussion, and he's been in a lot of my groups for twenty-two years now, so he's the oldest member of all the groups I play with, especially this one. Fausto Beccalossi is an instrumentalist from the North of Italy--I took on a lot of European musicians because we do most of our work over there--and he's one of the main soloists on the record. Peter Kaszas plays drums, and he's from Budapest, Hungary. I have a bass player from Havana, Cuba, Victor Miranda, and I have a second guitarist playing in the group, from Paris, France, Kevin Seddiki. Now, the special guests that I brought in on the record for selected tracks--and was really happy to get on the record--were Charlie Haden, the legendary Jazz bassist, who played on the two cover pieces, in particular, and then we have Gonzalo Rubalcaba, who, in my opinion, is one of the greatest pianists who has ever lived. Gonzalo is only thirty-nine years old, and he's just a super-genius pianist that originates from Havana, Cuba, as well.
MR: When you look at where you are now, and you look at where you were back in the days of Land Of The Midnight Sun and Elegant Gypsy, what is the main growth, do you think, that has happened for you as an artist?
AD: I think the composing has really matured a lot, and I think a lot of my playing has matured as well. My musical influences have been really keen and sharp. In the beginning, playing with Chick was really a great thing because his was a very compositional band. So, it wasn't just players blowing all the time and soloing, it was a band that was very influenced by parts of classical music and jazz, and then I added in my Latin influences that really shaped a lot of my early records. It was around '84 when I discovered Astor Piazzolla, who is like the father of classical modern tango music, that was the most profound change in my direction of composing and playing, and it really has shaped even this kind of World Sinfonia group. Even though this is the third installation of the group, this thing has gone over extremely big-time in Europe because they are very familiar with the aspects of tango music, especially from a master like Piazzolla. So, adding in the elements of that, and blending it together with all the jazz and improvisation elements, some rock influences, and a lot of different latin influences--it's kind of shaped a new sound.
MR: It seems like you, very obviously, had a love of that music already.
AD: Right. It was something that had started that far back, so, it's just a natural progression that has happened, and it's gotten to a better place now because the early fusion music was primarily electric. Early fusion was loud, fast, bombastic, and it was all the stuff that guys who are intelligent headbangers like.
MR: That's a good way to put it.
AD: Yeah, and there were no woman that liked it, hardly any. What we've done is developed a kind of music that is also heartfelt, and we have an equal amount of woman, now, that dig the music, as well as guys. It's evident in the lines that form to buy CDs at the end of the show. That's really what Piazzolla had done to me, when I discovered his music--it's the kind of music that actually moves you emotionally, not just technically. That, for me, spelled a new direction--I saw this as the future. Even going back to do the reunion with Return To Forever, it was not as fulfilling because it was really going back to something that I had passed.
MR: On the other hand, there was some foreshadowing way back when with Friday Night In San Francisco, your project with John Mclaughlin and Paco de Lucia. It seems like you really were heading in that direction.
AD: Sure, that was so pivotal--that opened up the door in Europe, in particular. I think that the guitar trio was really the pivotal moment. The success of that really opened a major door for acoustic music. I was primarily known as an electric player, prior to that, but the success of that was so huge--that thing sold like five-million records--and it's still a big success.
MR: And you've done reunions with those guys too, right?
AD: We did one reunion some years later, and it was really big. What was great about it was it really afforded me the ability to go back to those countries constantly, with different types of acoustic groups. Even though World Sinfonia is primarily acoustic, it's really due to the success of the guitar trio that we have been able to come back constantly and play in front of big audiences. So, we really started a kind of a movement with that record.
MR: Since we're going back, let's talk for just a bit about your Return To Forever days. How did that union happen initially with Chick Corea and the guys?
AD: Well, they were already together for a year and a half, back in '74. It was kind of like the beginning of a movement of music--fusion was like the pioneering days, and they were one of the three main groups, along with Mahavishnu (Orchestra), and Weather Report was another. It was a really excited time, where it was really the first time that rock had blended with jazz.
MR: Yeah, and Miles Davis tried to be in on that too, huh?
AD: Well, if you listen to Miles' records, they're just jam session, but Mahavishnu, Weather Report, and especially Return To Forever were compositional bands. So, it had taken the seeds of those jam sessions that Miles' had had and made into records, and, basically, took it to a way higher level. Yeah, Miles was into the rock thing, but he wasn't a composer.
MR: When you look back at the years you were with Return To Forever, they were highly inspirational for a lot of musicians that followed. How did you function within the group, like how did you contribute creatively?
AD: The electric guitar was at the forefront, and I had the best guitar chair in the world. That kind of music was really written for electric guitar, so to get that slot was like a dream come true. In fact, they were my favorite band in the world prior to me being in it. So, really, it was like hitting the lottery. At that time, it really was kind of challenging--doing the reunion wasn't challenging at all and even simple compared to what I'm doing with this group now. But it was really cool to have that because it really catapulted my popularity as a result of being in that group and being at the forefront of a musical movement like we were.
MR: If you look at Chick Corea and what he's been doing over the years, it's funny because he's so unpredictable, yet at the same time, very predictable. You'll know it's Chick Corea when you hear it, but he still just keeps coming up with these alien variations that keep you interested. He has what, sixty albums by now?
AD: Yeah, I don't know what it is that's keeping him going.
MR: When you're on tour, are you playing repertoire that is mainly from the current album or are you also going back and dabbling with your classics?
AD: This tour, we actually are doing music from all the different periods of my career. I'm going all the way back to Elegant Gypsy, which is something that people wanted to hear for a long time. We're doing music from my mid-period, we're of course doing music from the new record, and we're even doing something new, that hasn't been recorded.
MR: Were there things recorded for this album that didn't make the record?
AD: Absolutely, yes. I recorded a little more than we could fit on the record--we went to the max. This is almost a double record, so it's pretty long. I left off a couple of pieces, but we'll get to put them on the next one, I think.
MR: Why did you chose to record "Strawberry Fields."
AD: Without The Beatles existing, I don't think I would have ever picked up a guitar. When I was a kid, they were really the most inspirational group that could have prompted me to pick up an instrument. "Strawberry Fields" is just one of about one hundred that I love from that group. It was something that was in the back of my mind for a really long time, to do something as a tribute to The Beatles--in fact, I'd like to do a whole record.
MR: What other Beatles songs are your favorites?
AD: It just goes on and on and on. The music from Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour--both records were recorded around the same time--I think both of those records are absolute gems. Abbey Road has a couple on there that are really good, and White Album has more than a couple. Look at the development of their writing from the first records and how they got better and better and better. Still, to this day, I listen to Sgt. Pepper or Magical Mystery Tour and I'm amazed at how good the production is. If you listen to Pursuit Of Radical Rhapsody, I used some of their ideas, in terms of how to mix. For instance, I put the drums completely on one side, something engineers would never, ever do. I separate instruments, like they did, extremely. It's those kind of things that really blew my mind, and still does, about how they approached production.
MR: I did notice that there were different mixing approaches on this album. Obviously, that was intentional.
AD: Yeah, it's intentional because in the orchestration of the instruments, I need that separation of the instruments, where I have the percussion playing a completely separate part from the drums. If you mix it all together, it would be harder to discern who is playing what, but when you separate completely, you can really hear the individual parts because they're separate, they're different.
MR: That's funny because the paradigm of mixing over the last thirty years or so is that the bass and drums get centralized, and the percussion is mostly tucked in.
AD: And I don't like that, I like bass coming out of one side. I'll never forget John Lennon's voice coming out of the far right with the cellos on "A Day In The Life," and then, all of a sudden, trumpets will come in on the left. I just think that's so cool, I think it's something very interesting that bands have forgotten about, you know?
MR: Yeah, mixes are mostly polite and homogenized. So, what was it like meeting guys such as Chick Corea and John McLaughlin for the first time?
AD: It was really amazing. I was at Berklee when I got the call from Chick to join the band, and I thought it was a prank of some kind. Basically, a friend of mine who was an amateur recording engineer had a tape of me playing, and he turned Chick onto some live gig that I had done with The Barry Miles Quartet. So, when I got the call I said, "Come on, who is this really?" and he said, "No, this is Chick Corea. I heard a tape that your friend played for me, and I'd love for you to come to New York and play with us." I didn't know whether that meant an audition or joining the band, so I immediately packed and went down to New York. It was, I think, two or three days later that we played Carnegie Hall sold out. I took the place of another guitarist they had had and it was really being thrown into deep water.
MR: And how did you get hooked up with John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia as a trio?
AD: Paco had played on Elegant Gypsy, so a year or two prior to that, we had toured Spain, and Paco was the rage. He was this new, hot flamenco guy, who was just being talked about all over the place. We heard some music from him, when we were there--I think I was about nineteen or twenty years old at the time--and I was really amazed at his technique. I thought, "This guy is really stretching the limits of traditional flamenco," and I thought how cool it would be to do something together. So, when I signed on with Columbia Records, it wasn't until my second recording when I had CBS try to find him in Spain and bring him over to New York where I was recording at Electric Lady Studios in The Village. So, they made it happen, he came over and was very, very nervous. The first day, he was so nervous that we didn't really get anything, but the second day, he came in--somebody gave him some good weed that got him really relaxed--and one of the first takes was so good that you could hear everybody in the room just flipping out. You can hear Paco going, "Shhh," at the end of that recording. That song was released as a single in Spain and Germany, and it became a smash, selling millions of records. So, that was the beginning of when Paco and I thought, due to the success of this, we should someday tour together. It wasn't until about four years later that we were approached by an impresario promoter from London who had the idea of putting us together with John McLaughlin. My reaction was, "Well, if you can actually get us three together, it's going to be pretty amazing." We did a two month tour, and at the end of that tour, we recorded a show in San Francisco, and that became Friday Night In San Francisco.
MR: Al, you know, you're credited with being a pioneer of shredding.
AD: I guess that, now, that's a cool thing. Some years ago, I was not so happy about being associated with that, but I guess that's an okay thing to have. I view myself as far more than just a shredder, but if that's what some people want to think, what am I going to do?
MR: (laughs) Well, I think they would mean that's one of the weapons in your arsenal. I don't think anybody would presume to say that you are just a shredder.
MR: I just think it's kind of cool that you've been acknowledged as that. In fact, your new album is being acknowledged a lot lately, like in The New York Times, Guitar Player, Jazziz, All Music, and Pollstar among others. I don't think I've seen a bad review.
AD: Are you kidding me? This record has definitely got a major buzz going on it, and you can't say that for every record. This record has a special buzz that I haven't felt in a long time. I got mixed reviews on a lot of other records because U.S. critics are really brutal. In Europe, the critics really love me, but here--I feel like a foreigner in my own country, and that's one of the reasons that I do more in Europe, actually. With this album, it seems like I'm finally getting the praise from the U.S., but also, it just feels special. We all feel like there is a special buzz on this one that has not existed on prior ones.
MR: You played on an interesting track by Paul Simon--well, I guess it started as a Simon & Garfunkel song, "Allergies." When you were brought into that process, it was still a Simon & Garfunkel song, right?
AD: The whole record was supposed to be a comeback studio record with Simon & Garfunkel performing together on every track. In fact, when I was there recording with those guys, Art was there every day.
MR: Your guitar work was featured hugely on "Allergies." I think you were the star of that recording. What inspired that performance?
AD: What happened was, Michael Jackson had a big hit with "Beat It" earlier in the year. So, I think it was Eddie Van Halen's solo on "Beat It" that inspired Paul to want to have some kind of hot guitar part on one of his pieces.
MR: Awesome. Any inside stories on Simon & Garfunkel and Paul Simon recording sessions makes my month.
AD: Yeah, that record was supposed to be both Art and Paul, and Art was on the whole record, but he erased all of Art's vocal parts because they had a fight--they were never getting along.
MR: Even for the Central Park performance, weren't they getting along then?
AD: No, they just don't get along. It's legendarily known that they just can't be in the same room together too much. Art came up to me several times during the recording say things like, "Hey Al, could you ask Paul to lower the bass on my vocal part," or "Can he mix me to the left?" All I could say was, "What? You want me to ask him?"
MR: Amazing. I actually got to hear that version before it became Paul's Hearts And Bones. I think they called it Think Too Much. Anyway, because you've had such a successful and creative career, what is your advice for new artists?
AD: It's a difficult time right now because CD sales are not what they used to be, so you have to work the internet quite a lot, and there are some advantages there. I tell guitar players listen to your favorite players and try to copy what they do. In the course of trying to copy them, you'll eventually develop your own voice. You're never going to sound just like them, but you're going to learn as you try to imitate the licks they're doing and the style in which they play. Also, combine that with some formal education, some books, and go to a lot of shows. It's a combination of all these factors that are going to shape you, so don't ever feel weird about copying people because that's how you eventually learn stuff.
MR: Who did you try to copy? I know we talked about The Beatles, but what other influences did you have early on in your career?
AD: Well, I was very fortunate to have started with a guitar teacher who was really versed in jazz, which wasn't something I was looking for at all, I just wanted to learn how to play guitar. So, my training was a mixture of music that I wanted to learn, and also the fundamental aspects and theory of jazz. I had the best of both worlds, which obviously pointed me in the direction of playing with Return To Forever because it required the knowledge of both styles. I also learned how to read music very early on, which is another thing I would encourage music students to do, and stay away from tablature. It really depends on what you want to play though. If you want to stick to simple pop tunes--there have been plenty of successes in pop and country music, where there is no need to read music--but if you want to become a serious player in the music that we do, there is so much composition that you really need to know how to read music. So, I encourage reading music if you want to take your instrument further than those three to five chords.
MR: What does the future bring for Al Di Meola?
AD: Basically, my life is touring. There has been more touring than ever before, probably for a few different reasons, and I'm fortunate to be able to do that. It seems like what we're doing is really catching on in my world, and that's enabling us to get more and more gigs and stay on the road. These aren't the kinds of days, like back in the '70s and '80s, when the record market was phenomenal and you didn't really need to tour. The fact that I have so many records and people have known me for so long has afforded me the ability to play in all the countries of the world. There will be other projects down the road, but I hope to keep this as the nucleus group for some time because I think they have something special.
MR: And how do you stay humble after being dubbed "The Best Jazz Guitarist" by Guitar Player magazine so many times?
AD: There are plenty of great ones out there. I think it's the combination--it's my mix of not just being a guitar player, but also a composer, and I just have a certain voice and style. It's really just what appeals to the listener. Everybody has stuff that is special--I could name about ten other guys who can do stuff that I wish I could do. The quest to learn more and continue to become better is still in me. I don't sit back like some of the older jazz guys--and there are plenty of guys that do that, actually. I still want to push the envelope, get better, and do more interesting things, and I think that is evident on the new record. I think we've come up with something unique.
MR: I really wish you the best. You're a great guitarist and one of my heroes.
AD: Thank you very much, Mike. It was a pleasure talking to you.
2. Paramour's Lullaby
3. Mawazine Part 1
4. Michelangelo's 7th Child
6. Brave New World
7. Full Frontal Contrapuntal
8. That Way Before
10. Destination Gonzalo
12. Radical Rhapsody
13. Strawberry Fields 4:09$0.99
14. Mawazine Part 2 2:54$0.99
15. Over The Rainbow
Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney
A Conversation with Yellowjackets' Bob Mintzer
Mike Ragogna: Bob, is it "Yellowjackets" or "The Yellowjackets"?
Bob Mintzer: Oh, I don't know. (laughs) Somehow, we arrived at Yellowjackets-maybe just to conserve energy. Frequently people ask what the significance is in the name "Yellowjackets" and honestly, there isn't much. The band kind of morphed out of a Robben Ford band in the late '70s and needed a name, and the word "Yellowjackets" passed by. Our producer at the time. Tommy LiPuma, liked the sound of it and felt that it signified something with energy and forward motion. That's how Yellowjackets or The Yellowjackets came about. We don't really care too much about whether it's THE Yellowjackets or not. We're working on the music. We're less worried about what people call the band.
MR: Let's talk about your new album, Timeline. Do you know what number album this is for you guys?
BM: It's number 21.
MR: How do you feel that this album is different from the last few that you've made?
BM: Well, I feel like the number "21" is significant because it's like we are now of age. We've all been playing music for quite a while now--both individually and now collectively. I think the band is mature--we've come up with a sound that's recognizable. A lot of that is contingent on the way that the four of us react in the moment. The songs are evolved compositionally and creatively, they're pretty broad in scope and style. It's kind of hard to put the Yellowjackets into one genre because we've kind of created our own genre in a way, which is good and bad. We all come from different backgrounds. I've spent a good deal of time in the traditional Jazz vein and I've been a big band leader for decades. I've also played with Jaco Pastorius and people like that. The bassist, Jimmy Haslip, comes from more of a rock 'n' roll background, though he's a fantastic straight ahead jazz bassist as well. Everybody brings something different to the table, which makes the music eclectic and well thought out and well put together.
MR: It is a mix, but what do you think would be the proper word for the genre of music that the Yellowjackets fall into?
BM: I never know the right word. I don't even try for the right word anymore. (laughs) Somehow the word "fusion" keeps coming back around, but to me, that was something that is reminiscent of the '70s when jazz music moved up to a bigger venue and started using more electrical instruments, and rock 'n' roll devices. But we're just trying to play. As composers, we try to come up with music that serves us a comfortable and interesting vehicle for our playing.
MR: What's the creative process like?
BM: Well, first, we talk about the possible direction, focal point, or theme to what we're trying to write. Sometimes, there might even be some social action involved. We did an album in 1990 called Greenhouse where we were thinking about the environment. But once we've established a direction we go off and write individually and get together and read through some of the new compositions and narrow down the prospective compositions to about 12 songs. Sometimes, 2 or more of us will get together and have a recorded jam session to see if some germ or idea comes from that. Maybe then one person takes that and expands upon that and crafts that into a seasoned composition. But at the end of the day, after all the material has been written both individually and collectively we get together and play it. At that point, the music goes into the band mixing pot and you may have to forfeit your tune. You may have conceived a tune that goes a certain way with a certain beat and melody, but everybody then gives their input on the tune and it becomes Yellowjackets property, which is great, in a way, because you never quite know where one of your songs is going to wind up. Four heads are definitely better than one.
MR: What's the process like in the recording studio?
BM: Well, we try to determine pretty specifically how these songs go so that when we get into the recording studio, we know how everything goes, and it's just a question of laying down the track. We do the records pretty quick--usually only takes a couple of days to record. Maybe a day or two of tracking, then we might want to overdub little spices here or there of different instruments. But really, it's about 95% live on the recordings--it's mostly us playing in real time.
MR: You almost never hear that these days. It seems acts spend so much time overdubbing, chopping, cutting and pasting, removing any initial inspiration there might have been in the original group recording.
BM: Well, it's interesting to have the ability to do that, and if there's ever a need for us to go back and fix a stutter or stumble, we'll do that, but not a lot. I think there's a certain excitement and energy and spark in four people interacting in the moment, and we try to capture that as best we can.
MR: How often do you guys tour and what songs do you usually play? With as big a catalog as you've got,this must get tricky, right?
BM: Well, it's the 30 year anniversary for Yellowjackets and there's quite a lot of music as you can imagine having done 21 CDs. We try to play different songs all the time. We like to keep things interesting and challenging. One of us might even send out an email saying "How about revisiting these few tunes?" in which case, we all do our individual homework so that when we get to soundcheck, we can play through some of the things that we haven't played in a while. It's really interesting and fun being in this band because it's never the same--we're always playing different music. For that matter, if we play the same song every night during any given tour, the song is always very different. There's a lot of room for improvisation and playing differently each time.
MR: Of course, your being a jazz band, improvisation is mandatory.
BM: The joy of playing this kind of music is letting your mind get out of the way. And when you have a band of empathetic people who have played together a lot, it's easy to just get swept up in this thing where it doesn't really feel like you're playing--you're just a channel for the music. That's an amazing feeling.
MR: Though you have contemporaries, it seems that Yellowjackets have much more of a traditional jazz sound running through the recordings, whereas another terrific band like Incognito, to me at least, tends to lean more towards that "fusion" sound of the '70s we talked about.
BM: I actually have a funny story about Incognito and that subject. We once did a concert at the Warner Theater in Washington, D.C., and there were a bunch of bands there and Yellowjackets were slated to play after Incognito, which, as you know, is a HUGE band that makes a BIG sound. So, they went on before us and filled this stage and this large theater with sound, it was great. Then the four of us came out--a much smaller band huddled in the middle of a huge stage playing much softer music, comparatively speaking. It was such a different vibe from what the audience had just heard. Incognito was just thrashing and playing really loud and strong. We were much more subtle and delicate. I felt like a mosquito compared to them, it was the strangest thing.
MR: Speaking of live, are you guys going on tour to promote the album yet?
BM: We are, the touring is ongoing. We did a benefit in L.A. for Japanese Tsunami relief, we're playing in St. Louis at The Bistro, we're going to the Saint Lucia Jazz Festival, we're also playing a bunch of concerts with Bobby McFerrin. That'll be at The Hollywood Bowl in mid-July, then Europe.
MR: You guys are quite the international group.
BM: We are, we all play all over the world. It's a fantastic and interesting scenario getting to travel to different places and see what other people are doing. It's very enlightening and interesting.
MR: So, is it that time when we should talk about the Yellowjackets' history?
BM: Well, I'm actually not one of the original members. I joined the band in 1990 and I believe the first LP came out in 1981 called Yellowjackets. How it all happened was Robben Ford had a band which consisted of Russell Ferrante on piano, Jimmy Haslip on bass and Ricky Lawson on drums. It was a blues band and Robben played guitar and sang; he's a fantastic musician. Then they had an opportunity to do a demo to explore some sort of instrumental/jazz recording, and they were signed as a separate entity to Warner Brothers records. The band needed a name so Yellowjackets was born. The first album was just Robben with Russell, Jimmy, Ricky and maybe a couple of guests, then I think Robben kind of veered off and did his own thing and Yellowjackets continued on. The next addition, I believe, was Marc Russo on alto saxophone. Then Ricky Lawson left the band to play with Michael Jackson and Will Kennedy joined the band as the new drummer. In 1990, Mark Russo left the band and I joined and we all stayed together until 1999 at which point Will Kennedy left and Peter Erskine came and played for a year. Then he left and Marcus Baylor came and played with us for 10 years--from 2000 to 2010. Then in 2010. Will Kennedy rejoined the band. So, when you think about it, in 30 years, there have only been three big personnel changes. Well, four involving three people, which is pretty extraordinary.
MR: Being such an experienced performer and musician, what advice would you give to aspiring artists right now?
BM: Well, first and foremost, for any artist is to work on your art and make it strong and honest. Study whatever vocabulary you are using to the point where you really have the wherewithal to express yourself in a very broad and concise way--broad in terms of knowing a lot about what it is that you do, and concise in terms of being able to articulate what it is you want to express clearly. I have found that if what you have to say is strong, people will listen and notice you. The second piece of the puzzle is to know the business, know how' to get your music out there and what that entails. Somewhere in between those things is finding a group of people that you like to play with. That's important because the great bands in jazz history were really developed bands and had a great band sound. I think specifically of Thelonius Monk with Charlie Rouse and Ben Riley, John Coltrane with Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison. Miles Davis had several bands, but two of his luminary bands were the ones with Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams and Ron Carter and George Coleman, then later, with Wayne Shorter and Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland and Keith Jarrett. You know, learn your trade, find people to play with and see how it works in terms of getting your music out there. We've all been at this a long time, it doesn't happen overnight for most of us. But the joyous thing is it's something you do for your whole life. It's a wonderful thing to wake up to every day and it's a nice way to affect people and perhaps influence them in some thought provoking way. It's a pretty amazing thing. I'm grateful to be a part of it.
MR: Beautiful. Well, I really want to thank you for joining us today and a very Happy Anniversary 30th Anniversary to you and the band.
BM: Thank you.
1. Why Is It
6. A Single Step
8. Like Elvin
9. My Soliloquy
11. I Do
Transcribed by Evan Tyrone Martin