A Conversation with Robert Trujillo
Mike Ragogna: Robert, was your first big musical inspiration Jaco Pastorius?
Robert Trujillo: Yeah. I'm always pulling and really feeding off of my inspirations, I think most musicians do. But I try to incorporate a lot of that influence in what I do. So Jaco was definitely a huge inspiration back in 1979 when I saw him for the first time. It really did change my life and set me on an interesting creative path. Definitely.
MR: When did you first see him perform live?
RT: I saw him with Weather Report. I had started hearing about him in the late seventies and then in 1979 they came through town. They were playing at the Santa Monica civic auditorium, that was our local concert venue at the time. The great thing about Santa Monica civic auditorium was it was a place you could ride your bike to. In this case my dad dropped me and my friends off and we'd go see Ronnie James Dio or Jean-Luc Ponty or Weather Report or the Pretenders. There was quite a variety of music coming through that venue and it was pretty close to where we grew up so it was easy access. It was just a part of our lives.
Jaco was always a mystery to me, we didn't have the internet the way we do now so you can just go on the internet and find out about a band or a musician. You had to actually go see them. You had to first get the vinyl and experience the vinyl, and then you'd hopefully be able to go see them in person. It was a good time, it was a fun time. That style of music was very popular. I remember trying to see Stanley Clarke around the same time and I couldn't get in, the tickets were sold out. It was sold out for like four nights at the Greek Theatre, I remember being in the parking lot trying to listen. Everything was very physical at that time. But Jaco really caught my attention because he really took command of the audience, it really became almost like his show. No disrespect to the other musicians, but he was very captivating and cool. It was like, "Oh, this guy's one of us, long hair, no shirt on."
The energy that he presented reminded me of my older friends and the guys that we looked up to who were part of the Venice Beach tribe. A lot of the skaters and the surfers and the musicians had a similar vibe but he was the original to us. "That guy's cool!" There were so many different types of people there. You had older people, conservative people, punk rockers, heavy metal-ers, and obviously a strong jazz contingent and rock contingent were on hand. It was very cool, it was a celebration.
MR: It seems that he and Pat Metheny both explored music in such novel ways at the time. I think these guys mesmerized audiences because people didn't really know what they were listening to.
RT: I agree. Pat definitely did that on the Offramp album, he explored the guitar/synthesizer realm, which hadn't really been explored much at that time and it threw everybody for a loop. It didn't throw me for a loop, I loved it. We used to go to Palm Springs, ditch school when I was in eleventh grade, and go hang out poolside with our ghetto blaster and listen to Pat Metheny Offramp and kind of trip out on a lot of his music. But Jaco definitely reminded me of the innovators, similar to Eddie Van Halen. When I first heard the song "Eruption," which is Eddie Van Halen's most famous solo composition, I was confused because it sounded incredible but I didn't know what it was. I didn't know if it was a guitar. I didn't know if it was a synthesizer or a keyboard. I couldn't figure it out. He was doing this hammer-on technique and it just sounded very different, still heavy, still metal, but "What the heck instrument is that?"
Jaco had the same effect on me because he had a really unique growl to his fretless bass. There was a song called "Teen Town," and that was basically a kick drum, some high hat, obviously you had some embellishments on the keys and the sax, but the bulk of this composition was bass, and it was a statement because it was melodic but it was also a solo, combined and it had a lot of power and intensity. That was a really strong moment for me, and then after that it got even more crazy because I heard "Portrait Of Tracy." That's a solo composition--bass solo--and it's all created around harmonics and melody and composition, but harmonics, which were used primarily to tune an instrument back then. You'd tune your bass to the harmonics, and he created a song out of it. He had the same effect on me personally that Eddie Van Halen did at the time on electric guitar where you're scratching your head going, "What is he doing?" and the beauty of that is you don't know what he's doing and then it gets really special because when you actually see it for the first time live it's like an alien or something, like, "What is this? Where's this guy coming from?"
MR: Jaco recorded "Liberty City" with Herbie Hancock. He had the gift of being able to create arrangements that locked tightly with and complimented whoever he played alongside.
RT: He was a great collaborator. He could finesse his playing in a way to where you still knew it was him and he could still cater to the other individual.
MR: But with his collaborators, I bet it was like being led by the pied piper. Some of the parts he created set the tone for the other musicians to interpret and follow, and then he would insert those unexpected sonics and notes that completed another artist's vision.
RT: I guess in a way you could say it was a call-and-response sort of approach, where it's communication, it's a conversation that musicians have, especially in jazz, especially back at that time. Herbie would make a statement and then Jaco would come right in, or Joe Zawinul, he did that all the time. Sometimes it almost became like a little bit of a flexing contest, a bit of one-upping each other. Jaco had a competitive spirit. But you're right, there was definitely these amazing conversations he would have as a bass player, he wasn't afraid to do that. His confidence was through the roof because he was somebody who really prided himself on sharing his influences through his instrument. You would hear a Hendrix quote in there, or you would hear a Charlie Parker quote. Or you would hear some really classic, funky bass line that he would pull from his heroes, someone like a Jerry Jemmott who was at the time one of the top session bass players. There was a lot of Aretha Franklin in there and B.B. King and a lot of different things going on with Jerry, so he would pull from him too. That's an amazing feat. His brother said that when he watched TV he'd have his bass in his hands and he'd be pulling quotes off of the television, from different TV commercials, and he'd throw that in his bass solo called "Slang." It was always a little bit different. But he was sharing all of that that was inside of him with the people he played with and also with the audience.
MR: How did the movie begin and evolve? You worked with Jaco's son John, right?
RT: Right. It's a little bit of a long story but I'll give you the short version. In 1996, I met Johnny Pastorius, Jaco's eldest son, for the first time. We had communicated a little bit through a mutual friend in Florida, at the time I was touring with Suicidal Tendencies and my other band, Infectious Grooves. Infectious Grooves was completely inspired by Jaco, it was really an alternative funk band. We did three albums on Epic Records, it was really fueled by the influence of Jaco, but then we'd have some Sex Pistols in there or Metallica or Slayer, it was really a mixture of styles, but it was a lot of fun. But primarily, the bass was the main creative source to the music of the Infectious Grooves. Johnny knew that. When this mutual friend of ours brought us together we really hit it off in 1996 and one of the first things I told him was that someday he needed to make a film about his father, because I knew that the relevance of his dad was very vast and wide, meaning that there were gospel bass players who were into him. And there were heavy metal guys that thought Jaco was the coolest bass player on the planet. Rock guys...there were just so many different types of musicians in general that really looked up to his father. I said, "The story needs to be told, too," because the story's really amazing and special, and he was like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna do it."
Over time, I know that he started interviewing people, but in my eyes, it was a very slow process. To me, it was like it wasn't going to happen. That's just a matter of opinion, but I know how it goes, whether it's music and you've got a friend that's got a band and they're going to make a record, or another friend who's a film maker and he's going to make a film, nine times out of ten it doesn't happen and there's a lot of reasons for that. It's very, very complicated and there are people who do that for their life. I was fortunate at a certain point to realize that in order for this film to become a reality someone needed to really, really take control of it, at least in terms of the financing and all that, so I committed to financing the project and overseeing it as the producer. Then it all kicked into gear. This would've been six years ago pretty much. Then from that moment on, I pretty much adopted the project.
I was fortunate to have had an amazing film team. We had three directors on this project, the first one only lasted a month, and then Stephen Kijak was there for a year and then for the last four years it's been Paul Marchand. Paul Marchand was our editor, but Paul Marchand was always creating these incredible segments and he was the one who was like the mad scientist, the creative mad scientist bringing the magic to the screen. There have been times where it was just Johnny, Paul and myself standing on an island; there have been times where it's been just me. Paul left to work with Martin Scorsese for six months about a year and a half ago and I went back and reviewed all of the previous cuts we had done and took notes and really dove into some of the interviews--going over Bootsy's interview again top to bottom and finding the gems.
It's a long process, a film like this. It couldn't have been made in a year, or even two years. There are just so many treasures, each year you think you're done but then we get another treasure. Two years ago, Joni Mitchell came on board. She wasn't there for four years. Three years ago Jerry Jemmott came on board, he wasn't there for the first half of the film making. Jerry Jemmott and Joni really changed a lot of that through line of the film and made it a lot better, it had a huge impact. You live and you learn, it's a process.
MR: What did you discover about Jaco from making this film?
RT: Well, the thing is, everybody has a story. What I learned early on is that you can't share every story. That's a whole other nine-hour film in itself. I've had so many people, people I didn't even know, come up and tell me a story. Sometimes they were sad stories, sometimes they were really funny because Jaco had a great sense of humor. I always knew about his sense of humor. He used to pull wipes on people--a wipe is like a practical joke--he was the king of that. Even in the most crucial times where it was just not good he was always trying to put a smile on people's faces. I learned that he had an incredible sense of humor and that he wanted people to be happy.
Early on especially, he was really a family man. Everything was for the kids. He would bring John and Mary with him, the eldest of the siblings, on tour. He was also a daredevil on all levels, whether it was standing on the roof of a tour bus surfing or out body surfing, he was really a great swimmer and an amazing athlete, you see a little bit of that in the film. You can tell at a young age he had a lot of talent. But I also learned about his mental condition a bit more. I'm less likely to judge a homeless person now as I was before the project because I realize now there are a lot of reasons why people become homeless. It's not all centered around drug abuse or anything like that, you have to understand that there are other things going on sometimes. Jaco was bipolar, so he was also ill, and I've come to learn more about that as well.
So for me, it's been an interesting journey because I learned about this very important individual who influenced me, but I also learned about some of the problems and issues that he had in his life. It's different times now, we're not talking about the seventies when not a lot of people knew about bipolar disorder, now there's medications, you get the right amount of this and that and you can exist, a lot of people have that. Ito's just been a journey. There's not been a minute that I don't think about him. I wake up in the middle of the night and something comes, like he's there telling me something or sharing something with me along this journey. I know it's been the same for Paul, my director, too. Things happen for a reason, there have been moments when we thought we were finished, but we actually weren't. Here we are six years later and we have a very special film and I'm very proud.
MR: What do you think Jaco has added to the history of bass playing?
RT: I think if you ask just about any bass player in any style, their top five bass players, Jaco's always going to be right in there. If not one or two, he's definitely going to be a top five cat. Even with the players that we respect and appreciate and love like Geddy Lee or Sting or Victor Wooten, Jaco's always right up there, and that's a beautiful thing. To me, it's right up there with Jimmy Hendrix. Most people compare Jaco and Jimi Hendrix together. I've heard them called the Twin Towers, you know what I mean? His legacy is going to really revolve around composition. Jaco was a great composer, even regardless of the bass as an instrument--a lot of people try to say, "He was a fretless guy." But Jaco wasn't just a fretless bass player. The song "Birdland" was played on a fretted bass. He played fretted as much as he played fretless, and he could've played with anybody.
David Bowie wanted to work with Jaco. It didn't work out, and a lot of that was probably fueled by the album that he did with Ian Hunter, All American Alien Boy is a really great record. On the track "All American Alien Boy" Jaco played guitar and he also played probably one of the greatest unknown bass solos in rock history on that song. I don't know how many people at Metallica's studio--I would tell them I was going to see Ian Hunter, back when we interviewed him five years ago, and they'd go, "Oh, I love Ian Hunter, oh my god, I love All American Alien Boy!" and then I'd have to educate them and say, "You know Jaco Pastorius played on that album," "Really? Oh, I didn't know that." There were people that didn't know that Jaco was a part of that album, and that album had Freddie Mercury on it, and Brian May. It had a star-studded cast of rock 'n' roll icons on it. His legacy could've extended way beyond what it was, but he made an impact in the short amount of time that he was here. With Joni Mitchell, I'd say a chunk of that legacy has to sit with her because Hejira is a very, very beautiful record. He didn't know much about her music, he really didn't; he just loved to collaborate. He was like, "Okay, let's make music!" I'm sure it extended beyond that, it was the seventies. [laughs]
MR: Do see Jaco's influence in modern music?
RT: I'll tell you something very interesting. Back in the eighties, there were these huge, successful pop songs. I'm talking about a band like Kajagoogoo who had a song called "Too Shy," and its intro is a direct influence of Jaco Pastorius. I tell you because we interviewed Nick Beggs, who was the bass player of that band. He told me absolutely one hundred percent that is a Jaco-influenced moment for him, as well as a lot of the songs that he did. That was a number one hit back then. There was that song by Paul Young, "Everytime You Go Away," that was another huge hit with Jaco written all over it. Me, personally, I think that "Rio" by Duran Duran is also a Jaco-influenced moment.
MR: I think the whole Duran Duran experience owes a lot to Jaco.
RT: Yeah! If you listen to the sound, whoever was producing that album, I believe there was a huge influence with Sheik and Bernard Edwards who was the bass player who was produced by Jaco. There's a lot of little strange moments in the eighties and the nineties where it is all there, I'm telling you, and that is when Jaco was really not in a good way. He was having a lot of complicated moments in his life and obviously the tragedy, but you can definitely hear it there, and now today, to bring back the celebration, to bring awareness, for me that's what it's all about. To make the ultimate Jaco Pastorius film, you would need a series of nine two-hour episodes. He has a lot of roots attached to his seed.
So that was the challenge, finding the balance of what we could do with this film, but for me it's taking that step forward, bringing the awareness, letting people know. The other thing I've got to say is, International Record Store Day, which is the celebration of vinyl around the world has been hugely supportive of this film. I've had people in their young twenties come up to me and say, "Hey, I just want to let you know I'm now a huge fan of Weather Report and Jaco," or Joni Mitchell. Part of this film, for me, was bringing awareness and celebrating that time in music and with these young people who are now buying vinyl, getting into it, experiencing it, taking that journey with music and embracing that music from the past. That was important to me, too.
MR: Robert, what advice do you have for new artists?
RT: For me, the most important thing that I tell young people is to have fun. Back in the day in the music business bands would get these multi-million dollar record deals and that was the big thing, "We got a record deal! We got a record deal!" That's not the way it is anymore, it's about making music and having fun. My son is eleven years old, he's an amazing bass player and a really great writer. The bass lines that he's writing and the riffs, I'm like, "Man, I wish I had written that." He's coming up with stuff on his own, but he's also been influenced by players like Jaco Pastorius, but also Miles Davis or Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin. We even listen to bands like Queens Of The Stone Age and Tool. He's like a sponge. He loves funk. He loves James Brown, he's this little eleven year old who's soaking up and embracing all this different music and I can tell that it's helping him creatively in what he's writing with his band and stuff.
I would start from there, have fun, soak it all in and take a journey with this music in the past because a lot of that stuff doesn't exist anymore. People aren't writing stuff like that anymore. Same thing with jazz. We're losing a lot of our iconic legends now, they're all at an age where we're going to be losing a lot of these people, God forbid, but with time and age we're losing a whole generation of incredibly important, creative individuals, like Lou Reed. We lost Lou Reed, we lost BB King, it's starting to happen now. Health is becoming an issue with a lot of these creative powerhouses, so I always make sure that my kids are embracing music, and then bringing it to what they do and celebrating it creatively.
So again, having fun is the most important thing. Don't make music to make money, because that's not why you should be doing it. Have fun, be creative, and embrace the past. That's a good one, because I see it a lot, and I don't want to mention any specific names in the world of music, but I see a lot of bands take this turn where it becomes almost like a spectacle on a different level. It's like, "What happened to rocking out?" That's why I love people like Lemmy from Motörhead. I think he's such an original in the same way that Joni was an original. The music they make is still very pure and very honest. I respect that. In a day and age when you can be influenced in so many different directions which can pull you away from your instrument, actually pull you away from physically playing, getting your fingers on strings, in these days you press a button and you can get a groove, you can get a drum beat, people don't have to play as much, and that scares me. I think that young people should embrace artists like Lemmy from Motörhead but also be open to different styles. [Note: Lemmy passed recently due to cancer.] Jaco says that in the film, he says he loves it all. He played in a country band, he loved funk, R&B, rock 'n' roll. That says it all to me, because that's exactly the way I think now.
I play in Metallica and I have fun in Metallica. I tell you, I am the luckiest man on the planet because we have a good time and we're happy. When we put on our guitars we're teenagers again, and that's where the fun comes in. We really, really enjoy what we do, so that's number one, but at the same time, when I'm not necessarily doing something with Metallica, I might go jam some funk bass with my other friends. I just love playing music, real music. It's not machines. I recently jammed with Brooks Wackerman and Armand Sabal-Lecco. We were throwing down some grooves, it was great. So celebrate the experience of playing together and enjoy riding that wave of creativity together because there's nothing like it.
MR: You're also an actor. Beyond your film work, I can remember you appearing in Nickel Creek's video for "Smoothie Song."
RT: Yeah, I wanted to play on the original recording but the timing didn't work out. They approached me because we had the same management, Q Prime, who managed Suicidal Tendencies and the Infectious Grooves also manage Metallica, so I obviously have had a connection with the Metallica management team for a while, but they also manage Nickel Creek. Though I didn't get to play on that album, I was invited to be a part of the video, which was kind of cool. Videos take time, so it's a slow day generally. I flew to New York for the day and hung out with these guys, and we jammed, it was cool. I'm not the best upright player, at the time I was getting into it a little bit. I don't play upright at all anymore, but back then I was taking lessons, I was studying. I was also playing a lot of flamenco guitar back then, so for me to be around these brilliant acoustic players was a really amazing day. I just felt like I was part of a very special team, a faction of acoustic players that were brilliant. In a perfect world, I wish I could've played on that album. But we did jam. In fact, at the end of the video, they kept the mics rolling and we actually were jamming, so there's a little bit of a live feed at the end where the song ends but we kept playing. It was pretty cool!
MR: Thile and the Watkins kids are pretty amazing.
RT: They really are.
MR: This may be an odd way to ask this but what do you think Jaco brought to Suicidal Tendencies and Metallica and all your other groups through your performances?
RT: That's not a difficult question. With the Infectious Grooves like I said earlier, every song, utilizing harmonics, playing the real staccato attack that Jaco used on a song like "Therapy," which featured Ozzy Osbourne, oddly enough, that was a song on our first album that was completely influenced by Jaco. A song like "Violent & Funky" off the Groove Family Cyco record, that was a hundred percent Jaco, and there are other ones in there, too. Then with Suicidal Tendencies, the intro to "You Can't Bring Me Down," on Lights... Camera... Revolution, I'm playing fretless bass, I'm thinking Jaco a hundred percent, I'm channeling him. On a song like "Asleep At The Wheel" off The Art Of Rebellion, I'm playing fretless, I even do a bass solo in there, it's like I'm channeling him. Now, no one can be Jaco, trust me, but at least you can take the inspiration and the influence.
With Metallica, a lot of it is attitude and conviction. When I'm on stage, I wouldn't be the same performer that I am if it wasn't for Jaco, that's for sure. He's inspired me as a performer as well, but there's songs like "The Day That Never Comes," okay, I'm not playing a fretless bass, but there's aggressive moments where you're just pumping, and Jaco would do that. In a song like "Teen Town" he was so fast live, there was this incredible energy and pulse that he was delivering that was very, very punchy and staccato but at the same time it was present. "Day That Never Comes" I think is a masterpiece of a Metallica song, it's a classic, people love this song. I know for that song, specifically I was definitely channeling Jaco there. It has its moments here and there and it's always sort of present in the attitude and the edge and with some of the songs I mentioned with the other bands it's there in the playing sense. I wasn't learning Jaco Pastorius compositions note for note when I was younger, I was trying to learn the technique. I think that was Jaco's thing. He didn't necessarily want everybody out there trying to copy his songs, he wanted people to take the tools he was offering and create your own stuff.
MR: With Suicidal Tendencies, Metallica, Infectious Grooves and your other musical projects, what are you personally trying to add to the culture of music? What do you want your own legacy to be?
RT: That's a good question. It's a hard one to answer when you ask an individual that question. Someone like myself, I'm always trying to give a hundred percent to the stage or to whatever I do. I feel it, it comes very physical. When I track my bass I stand up. Ninety percent of the time I'm on my feet like I'm performing, in the studio. I really try to channel the body of music and embrace it and let it take me on a journey. Music is very spiritual. It's very therapeutic too. In a way, it's kind of like surfing. Surfing is physical. You're riding a wave, it's rhythmic, it can be very powerful, and it can also be beautiful and gentle. To me, that's what music is. It's really a journey that one takes and that's why I feel lucky to be a part of that and embrace that energy. It's hard, because we all have our own styles.
I love playing with bass players. I jam sometimes with bass players. I was telling you about Armand Sabal-Lecco. He's from Cameroon, Africa, and I love playing with players like that because they're bringing you something new and fresh, something from that country, from that culture, the pygmies and their rhythms and their melodies. It's beautiful. I would like to think that when people hear a song that I'm a part of or a composition that I'm in that they're taking a wild ride with me and Jaco. "Come on board, join me on this wild ride that my crazy self is taking." I become very passionate and it almost controls me. Hopefully, that's a positive thing. Financially, sometimes it isn't a positive thing, but that's okay! You jump in the water and swim and you get beat up a little, and that's kind of what's happened to me through my career.
This film is the ultimate beat down, I think, at least in some ways. But it's a beautiful beat down. I'm not going to complain because at the same time I couldn't be happier with the results and it makes me happy that people are embracing this film and Jaco, even if it's for the first time, that's what's important to me. It's the same thing with an album, you make an album you would hope that people will enjoy when they're listening to it and it becomes a part of their life.
MR: So else what are you working on now? What's the future bring?
RT: Obviously, right now, my main focus is the new Metallica record. We've been working very hard and that's been the focus of what we've been doing as a band. I'm very excited about it, I'm loving the tones, I'm loving the grooves, I'm loving the riffs, so at the moment aside from promoting Jaco that's priority number one. I don't know if you know this, but I also did an animated short called "'Tallica Parking Lot" which last year was nominated for Best Animated Short at the Annecy Animation Film Festival in France. It was also screened at a Comic-Con. It's a three-minute animated short and it's really cool, it features Lemmy and Bootsy Collins and a lot of other cameo appearances that I think everyone will enjoy. You can see that online, now.
MR: I did hear about that!
RT: It's very cool, I have that making the rounds right now and then there's another animation project that I'm involved in called "Pear Cider & Cigarettes" and that's with one of my animator friends Robert Valley who has worked with Gorillaz. He did The Beatles' Rock Band animated short a few years back; he's an award-winning animator. It's like Pink Floyd on steroids. I'm working on that project, a thirty two-minute animated film called "Pear Cider & Cigarettes." I've been helping with the score and everything for years, this isn't something I've been doing for a month or so, I've been involved in this project for a couple years now. The music and the compositions we're making for that is through a collective called Mass Mental. I'm still creative. My main focus is the new Metallica record and getting ready for that next wave, but between family--my two kids and my wife--and in a way having Jaco is like having another family member, so to speak, and I love being creative so when I can and I have time I try to stay in tune with music and film and animation and stuff like that.
MR: What about in front of the camera?
RT: Oh, no. I've been asked. Last year was really weird because I was asked quite a bit to act in a couple of films but to be honest the timing was not good, there was so much going on and there wasn't anything that really interested me to take it on but there were two things that came across my radar. I don't fancy myself a great actor at all. I enjoy writing and being a part of a writing team when it comes to film making, I loved being a part of this journey with Jaco, because Paul Marchand and I pretty much wrote it. He directed it and I produced it with Johnny Pastorius. It's a lot of fun, but at the same time, it's a lot of work, so you have to pace yourself through all this and embrace the journey as it comes. I don't know what the future holds on the acting front, but we'll see. I'm not discounting it but it's not on my radar right now.
MR: With all of the focus you've had on the Jaco project, do you think there might be a touch of Jaco Pastorius on the new Metallica album?
RT: I don't know. I've got to say, I've been very careful but at the same time very open to the spirit of that, so it's very possible. But I let things come to me. If there's a way and it works for the song, always. I'm always channeling that energy, so it's possible. I've also got to cater to my band. We work as a team, I'm not force feeding anybody anything. What works, works and what doesn't, doesn't, but it's possible. Like I said, with Lars and James we really try to do things collectively as a team and embrace the song as the song. If it works for the song, that's great. If it doesn't, then that's great, too, it's not a problem.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
NOLATET'S "DOGS" EXCLUSIVE
According to Nolatet's label, Royal Potato Family...
"As like vibration always attracts like vibration, it's no surprise that after years of collaboration with each other that vibraphonist Mike Dillon, pianist Brian Haas, bassist James Singleton and drummer Johnny Vidacovich should finally become one with the formation of their new band, the Nolatet. These four men have been in each other's lives, either in close proximity or as distant heroes for as long as they can remember. Johnny Vidacovich and James Singleton have been New Orleans' best rhythm section since 1977. Mike Dillon and Brian Haas have been sharing bills and sitting in with each other's bands on the same touring circuit since the late ‘90s. All four musicians are fiercely independent iconoclasts and bandleaders who compose, play and navigate their musical lives in their own unique way. For their debut album, Dogs, they recorded at New Orleans' famed Esplanade Studios. They’d focus on all original material influenced by the diverse lives and perceptions. While traditional jazz is the backbone and starting point for the Nolatet's language, each member's piercing individuality allows innovation to be a constant throughout the recording.
“'The Nolatet is fierce and fearless, musically speaking. The music ebbs and flows effortlessly, like rebirthing an amoeba,' explains Mike Dillon. 'We have one of the all time great New Orleans rhythm sections in Johnny Vidacovich and James Singleton. They have played with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Professor Longhair to James Booker. Like any great rhythm section, they make you find parts of yourself that you never knew existed. With that as our foundation, there’s no telling how far the music can with each performance.'"
A Conversation with Denise Donatelli
Mike Ragogna: Denise, your latest release, Find A Heart, was released this past September and it has been nominated for a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal album. How was finding the heart of this project different than how you approached your last Grammy-nominated album, Soul Shadows?
Denise Donatelli: Soul Shadows just fell into place. Geoffrey Keezer, my pianist/arranger on both projects called me to tell me that he had a dream about doing that song as a Bossa. That song was written by Joe Sample with lyrics by Will Jennings. It was originally recorded by Bill Withers done with a bluesy, funky feel. The rest of the music just fell into place. With Find a Heart, I was on a mission. I wanted to pay homage to two of my friends who had passed away within months of each other in 2013. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Dick LaPalm — but he was a record promoter, he promoted Nat King Cole and I think Tony Bennett back in the fifties. He became a really dear friend of mine. Every time I was getting ready to release an album, he would help me sequence the tracks. He would always tell me, "Denise, you really need to record a Steely Dan song.” The reason he wanted me to do that was because he ended up managing the Village Recorder in Santa Monica, where Steely Dan recorded many of their albums and Dick became good friends with the band. Another dear friend of mine, Don Gordon was a radio programmer in Hawaii. Don was very close to Brenda Russell. He introduced us through email and hoped that I would record one of Brenda’s songs. So I started looking through Brenda’s and Steely Dan’s music first. I found Donald Fagan’s “Big Noise, New York” and Brenda’s ”Love and Paris Rain" written by Russell Ferrante of the Yellowjackets with Brenda’s lyrics. And that's how the project began.
MR: You start the album with Donald Fagen’s rarity, "Big Noise, New York,” that sets the mood for the rest of the project. How did you discover that pretty obscure song? And what made you decide to cover Journey’s “Troubled Child”? And…and…
DD: [laughs] Dick was after me to record a Fagen tune, and I explored and explored and I said, "Dick, some of these lyrics are a little out there and I just wouldn't feel comfortable singing them.” When I was searching for a Steely Dan song for this album, I found a compilation disc which Fagen put together with all of his b-side recordings, I found "Big Noise..." and fell in love with it. I also found Jennifer Warnes YouTube video of "Big Noise...," New York and her version is great … very much like Fagen’s. So I sent it to Geoffrey Keezer and he said, "Yeah, let’s do it … I can hear a really loud kind of McCoy Tyner vibe that I want to put to this.” Those were the first two songs that were selected, and then I picked up a David Crosby album, which was his first recording in something like 20 years and it’s killer! It’s called Croz, and the entire album has a jazz-esque feel. In fact, Wynton Marsalis plays on a track. “Find A Heart" is the last song on the album and when I heard it I was knocked out. We didn’t change up the arrangement much. The entire album is great!
MR: You also covered Beck. Wait, what?
DD: [laughs] I started thinking about all of the writers and artists who are still alive. I love The Great American Songbook, don't get me wrong, I cut my teeth on that music, I grew up listening to it and singing it in the privacy of my bedroom. But once Nancy Wilson or Sarah Vaughan or Carmen McRae or Betty Carter sing their versions, I don't know, how do you make those songs any better? I just thought I'd pay my respects to the artists who are out there currently putting out music, performing it, bearing their souls and nobody really covers their music. Well I shouldn't say that, I'm sure others do, but I’m not aware that there are many covers of these songs. The Beck song for example, “Eyes That Say I Love You” is from his Song Reader project. Song Reader is a collection of sheet music written by Beck. I don’t think he has recorded any of the music himself however in 2013, he played several concerts with a variety of guests who performed some of the songs. Geoffrey and I went through every sheet of music and decided upon “Eyes That Say I Love You.” It was fun doing that since we hadn’t been influenced by other recordings.
MR: The Great American Songbook has been stagnant for so many years, stopping at Tin Pan Alley. My feeling is if you're going to call anything a “Great American Songbook,” it has to be updated to include material by great writers such as Paul Simon, Smokey Robinson, Allen Toussaint, Bono & The Edge, Lennon & McCartney, Bob Dylan, etc.. It was nice that you expanded the concept.
DD: I agree. There is a plethora of great music by contemporary artists that is sadly overlooked. In fact, the list of music that I’d like to record is endless. To put a jazz spin on these songs is the fun part and the challenge .. i.e. the whole McCoy Tyner vibe on "Big Noise…” is a classic example of that. Geoffrey Keezer is a master at arranging … he’ll take music from the seventies and eighties and you’d think you were listening to a jazz standard. And the band also participated. Everybody brought their ideas to the table. It was really a collaborative effort.
MR: Speaking of collaborations you have Chris Botti on your cover of Sting’s "Practical Arrangement." You mentioned before how Donald Fagen has masculine lyrics. Sting tends to write heavily from that perspective as well, though you took on the first person persona of the song. How did that song and approach come to you?
DD: I'll give the credit to a girlfriend of mine. We were having dinner at her house and she was playing Sting’s latest album, The Last Ship. It’s all about Sting’s childhood experiences growing up in an English seafaring town. The story line and the music eventually ended up on Broadway. As soon as I heard "Practical Arrangement,” I knew I wanted to record it. The lyric is so poignant … about an older man and a younger woman with a child. I had to change the lyric around so it came across from the point of view of an older woman with a younger man, which I don't have, by the way. [laughs]
MR: [laughs] I imagine you and Chris recorded your parts separately, but when you listen back to the recording now, how does that musical conversation hit you?
DD: Chris recorded his part after I recorded my vocals. He played beautiful, soulful fills that complemented and answered my vocals. Chris was so gracious and I’m thrilled that he agreed to be a part of our project.
MR: What was your musical education in jazz? Who influenced you and was there any Manhattan Transfer in the mix? Do I hear a little Janis Siegel?
DD: Oh, my goodness. First, let me tell you I grew up in the country on the outskirts of Allentown, Pennsylvania. I took a bus into town to go to Catholic school and then back home to do homework and practice the piano. I started taking piano lessons at the age of three after my mother heard me plunking out melodies. I have two older sisters and my oldest sister who also played the piano was a huge influence on my musical taste. She loved jazz and subscribed to the Columbia and Capital Record Clubs so we received all of this great jazz music in the mail and in my spare time, I listened to all of it. I listened to Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley, Carmen McRae; Ella Fitzgerald, I listened to big bands; I listened to Ahmad Jamal; Oscar Peterson, you name it. But mostly, I would say Frank Sinatra influenced me primarily since my mother had all of his albums and played them over and over. He was the master at phrasing and story telling and I would sing the songs along with him. Very seldom did we watch TV—maybe a variety show here and there. But other than that, it was always music. I did listen to the Manhattan Transfer and I enjoy their music a lot, but I don't know if they influenced me as much as Lambert Hendricks and Ross. I actually memorized “Cloud Burst” and “Gimme That Wine” when I was eight years old. [laughs]
MR: The fun with jazz with all its signature and key changes and improvisation is that a vocalist or musician learns how to approach music from unusual angles, mostly the roads not taken. From that perspective, through yours and your band’s musical explorations, you can see why your albums keep getting nominated for Grammys. Plus you have some really great musicians accompanying you beyond Chris Botti. To you, which other musicians added particularly special parts?
DD: I would say all of them. I can’t say enough about the musicians on this album. They were amazing in the studio. They played their hearts out and had so much fun doing it from producer/arranger, pianist Geoffrey Keezer to Brazilian guitarist, Leonardo Amuedo, to bassist, Carlitos del Puerto to drummer, “Smitty” [Marvin "Smitty" Smith]. He just tore it up on "Big Noise…” and “Find A Heart.” He was all over it and having fun. When he plays, there is so much joy on his face. He’s always smiling.
MR: You were in the studio when the rhythm section was putting the tracks down. What were the vibe and the experience like? How involved with the arrangements were you and did you give direction?
DD: Geoffrey was pretty much in control since he knew the feel and the sound he was after but he was also open to suggestions and we all contributed. They had so much fun playing this music and I think it shows. We ended up having to cut out some great solos for the sake of time.
MR: Ah, the jam. That's what you get with jazz!
DD: Oh my gosh, yes.
MR: Actually you get big jams with other music as well, but jazz tends to really dig in. Was it tempting to let them just go and then pick and choose sections from the full work?
DD: Well, a perfect example of that is "Practical Arrangement." Leo [Leonardo Amuedo] played a beautiful solo, but during the editing process we were thinking that the song would lend itself to contemporary radio play, so we did edit it quite a bit. In fact, the way it was recorded originally, I had two choruses up front and Leo played a full chorus then I sang another full chorus to take it out, so it was a lot longer.
MR: So now it’s that time in the interview when we do a recap of your catalog and all those Grammy nominations.
DD: [laughs] Well, let's see. I've done four albums with Geoffrey Keezer. The first one, What Lies Within, didn't get a nomination although it’s one of my favorites. That was my first Savant Records release. When Lights Are Low garnered my first Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album. That album actually got two nominations … one went to Geoffrey Keezer for his arrangement of Don’t Explain. Then I received a second nomination for Soul Shadows and now my latest recording, Find a Heart just received a nomination. The first album I recorded In the Company of Friends was released in 2005 on the Jazzed Media label and it consists of jazz standards.
MR: Lately, it’s like every time you release an album, you get a Grammy nomination. What do you think it is about Denise Donatelli that the Academy—and fans, of course—admire most?
DD: That’s hard to say. I’m still scratching my head over the nominations. Maybe it’s that my records sound different than anything out there currently. I'm not talking sonically, it could be Geoffrey’s arrangements and the choice of songs. Find a Heart truly was a labor of love. I selected songs that meant something to me from the melodies to the lyrics. The lyrics tell grown up stories. Geoffrey brought "Troubled Child" to me. I hadn’t heard that song before and I wasn't sure that I wanted to do that one. I had been thinking about recording “Send Her My Love” but Geoffrey had something else in mind for “Troubled Child.”
MR: Ah, yes, the aforementioned somewhat obscure Journey song from Frontiers.
DD: That’s it! Geoffrey’s arrangement is incredible. In fact, Journey drummer, Steve Smith has been tweeting about it.
MR: And your vocal arrangement … you at the end was pretty inventive. In fact, the whole album weaves these nicely complicated parts throughout. Maybe it’s going those few steps further with arrangements that is making people take notice.
DD: That could be, but today we have the luxury to live with the recordings before they’re released. We have the time to get creative and add vocal parts, string parts, horn parts, etc. The creative process is so much fun. Yet it still amazes me that people are noticing. I feel as though I’ve been under the radar.
MR: I don’t know about that. You may feel like you are, yet you have three consecutive, Grammy-nominated albums and a level of quality that is beyond the norm. Oh, and how could you be so under the radar after you sing on The Simpsons, a little something else you’ve done!
DD: [laughs] Oh, yeah. Alf Clausen, the musical director of The Simpsons sent me an email out of the blue in 2006 after I released my first album, In The Company Of Friends and we became email buddies. A few months after my younger son passed away in ’08, Alf called and said, “I know The Simpsons is one of your son’s favorite shows. I have a part for you to sing if you want to do it. I hope it will help you feel a little bit better.” It was a four part choral arrangement of "O Tannenbaum" for their Christmas episode. After that, it opened the door for more sessions. The best call I got was from Alf asking me "Do you think you could sound like Nancy Sinatra?" I said, “Absolutely! even though I wasn’t sure I could.” He said, "Okay, are you familiar with 'You Only Live Twice’ from the James Bond movie?" I got the track ahead of time and memorized the lyrics, practiced her sound, her pronunciation, her phrasing. I was ready. I get to the studio and I'm handed a sheet of music and the lyrics are totally changed and Simpsonized to YOLO, "You Only Live Once. [laughs] " I should’ve known, after all it was The Simpsons!! Alf and I remain great friends and it’s a pleasure to be able to associate with such a legendary composer and musician.
It’s taken me seven years to be able to talk publicly about my son’s death. He was very private and I thought if I spoke out about him, he wouldn’t be pleased. The fact is my son’s health was compromised in so many ways. He had an enlarged heart that was never diagnosed. That’s the reason I’ve aligned with the American Heart Association. With my new album Find a Heart the timing was right. In sharing my story I hope I can bring attention to heart disease and help others through the American Heart Association.
MR: I’m sorry for your loss, Denise. You know, what? You need to dedicate a year or two to being on the road. That's my prescription.
DD: Thanks, Mike. Performing does help and it’s so great to make the connection with the audience.
MR: When you look at jazz these days, what do you think is going on? And do you think it’s future depends on the kids?
DD: It absolutely depends on the kids. We’re all getting older and our jazz audiences are getting smaller. I’ve performed with many university bands and there are some great players in the schools. It’s really encouraging to hear them play.
MR: It seems like the musics of elegance—which would be classical and jazz in our culture—take a backseat to pop music because that’s the financial engine for the remaining record companies. And, quite frankly, its sing-song-y approach is easy to learn and regurgitate unlike jazz or much of classical.
DD: You nailed it. There are proven studies that the IQ’s of jazz and classical audiences are higher than average. I’m very much concerned about the dumbing down of musical tastes.
MR: Imagine that! [laughs] Realistically, no matter what happens to jazz, it really doesn’t matter to singers like yourself. It’s what you do and it's really not your job to save jazz music. But it would be nice! What do you say?
DD: [laughs] Yes it would be nice but you’re right, as a vocalist I’m not limited to just singing in the jazz genre. Here in L.A. there are very few jazz venues where you can hear live music but we’re ever hopeful and new venues keep popping up. The clubs are closing because of financial reasons. They make their money on alcohol sales and no one wants to drink and drive. It’s different in New York. It’s much easier to get around. You can go to several clubs a night, have a couple of drinks and take a cab home and I believe the audiences are younger as well.
MR: I think they are. With traditional venues such as The Blue Note and Rainbow Room, you have generations of parents who brought their kids to see jazz firsthand, so in New York—and I know elsewhere—kids have been indoctrinated over the years. And, of course, the younger jazz musicians in Brooklyn are crazy talented. So I think it has a shot of hanging around a while, maybe it being the basis of music we can’t even think of yet. Still partial to The Blue Note…
DD: Exactly. The tourists will go whether they're really into jazz or not. For those who aren’t, it’s the experience of being in a landmark jazz club but they are being exposed to the music and that’s always a good thing.
MR: Okay then. Time for the traditional question and timed perfectly since we were just talking about the kids. What advice do you have for new artists?
DD: When I perform at universities, I’ll be asked to give a workshop. I typically work with vocalists but on one occasion I was asked to speak to musicians. I spoke about what I look for when I’m hiring a musician. It’s all common sense but being a mother, I know that kids tend to lack in certain sensibilities. I tell students to listen to and learn all genres of music. As for jazz, first start with the standards and memorize the tunes and the changes, then learn to play them in every key. Learn the lyrics. It will help with phrasing. Jam with your friends as much as possible. When called for a gig, show up early, be respectful, ask the leader what to wear and show up showered and presentable, learn the music the leader sends ahead of time. Have a great attitude. There are lots of good players that aren’t called upon because of their attitude. Again, all of this is just common sense.
MR: It is! And you pointed to something earlier, about listening to music beyond pop.
DD: Exactly. I tell them to listen to and learn from the great players. The same for vocalists. If they’re aspiring to be a vocalist, I suggest learning to play an instrument, learn to read music, but also listen to the great jazz vocalists that came before us. After awhile they will find their own voices. It’s really interesting, in a review of my latest album, the writer said, “I can’t think of anyone she sounds like” but YOU compared me to the Manhattan Transfer! [laughs]
MR: Eh, tomato, tomahtoe. To me, a comparison only means “kinship” not “rip-off.”
DD: I get it and I'm thrilled and extremely honored for that comparison. It’s all great!
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
SVETLANA & THE DELANCEY FIVE'S "ALL I WANT" EXCLUSIVE
According to Svetlana Shmulyian...
'All I Want' is an original song that I wrote for my debut album Night At The Speakeasy out on Origin Records January 15. This is a song about confusion of modern romance and the tension between now and forever. It is also my serenade to New York City, which just like a romantic partner, can bring you down and also raise you up. But to me, it is still the city of my dreams just as it was when I first came here from Russia. I particularly love New York City during this time of the year, with its juxtaposition of urban landscapes and a pretty blanket of snow and holiday lights. The 'All I Want' video was shot by the talented Shane Mahon at Bunker Studio in Brooklyn, where the album was recorded, as well as on the winter streets of New York City. The song was arranged by the incredible trombonist and arranger Wycliffe Gordon, who gave it a classic swing era sound and makes it feel like a jazz standard. It's great for both listening and dancing to and it’s meant to make you smile—just like a girl in the song would smile, whether she gets her 'forever' or just a 'tender kiss.'
ROLLA OLAK'S "2 AM" EXCLUSIVE
According to Rolla Olak...
'2AM' is about wanting the company of someone you love in the face of hard times. We all need to give ourselves a break now and again, and there's something about the night, that allows us escape from our daily routine. It's late, it's been a tough day, can you come over?
It was the first song we recorded and I remember it being the easiest since I'd been playing it live for a while. We got into the studio and I sang and played guitar live while Aaron [Older] dialed in an old drum machine- a vintage Korg from the 70's. We did a few takes and thought it sounded pretty cool. It set the tone for the rest of the album.
Rolla Olak will be releasing his new album, Heavy Feather, on January 19, 2016.