Combining technical acuity with a deep sense of groove, Joey Baron drums with playful exuberance. Throughout his more than 35-year career, he's propelled experimentalists like guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist John Zorn, as well as mainstreamers like vocalist Carmen McRae and saxophonist David Sanborn. He's even played with pop stars David Bowie and Marianne Faithfull. But Baron makes no distinctions between gigs, keeping an expansive, welcoming view of music. After leading the groups Barondown, Down Home, and Killer Joey, he's recently focused on percussion work in solo, duo, and trio settings. A rare December, 2009 solo concert at Roulette offers the chance to experience Baron's artistry at its most distilled.
All About Jazz: Let's start with the easy one: you said you were in "extreme travel mode" the last couple of weeks; where have you been and what have you been doing?
Joey Baron: I just finished a tour of my band [Killer Joey] that includes [guitarist] Steve Cardenas, Brad Shepik on guitars, and Tony Scherr playing the bass. We were in Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Croatia, and...oh, and Poland.
AAJ: And that was over how much time?
JB: One day each. There were a few other placesthere were seven countries we went to. And then I flew here [NYC] and I'm just here for this week and then I go to Milan on Monday for a concert with a Masada project. It was supposed to be [saxophonist] Joe Lovano, but...I'm not sure what happened, and Chris Potter is filling in for him.
I go to Milan; and [then] actually for one concert with a wonderful saxophonist, Julian Siegel. We have a trio with [bassist] Greg Cohen and we're playing at the London Jazz Festival. And a couple of days later I'll be performing with Bill Frisell and the BBC Orchestra conducted by Michael Gibbs. And right after that I join [guitarist] John Abercrombie and we do a tour of Europe with his quartet: on this episode, it is Drew Gress playing the bass, and [violinist] Mark Feldman, and myself.
AAJ: You're keeping busy then?
JB: Yeah, it's pretty active, a lot of travel. I mean, I say "extreme travel mode..." For me, these days it's normal, but for most people it's rather extreme.
AAJ: Has it been going like this for a while now?
JB: It's on and off, you know. It's kind of like there will be periods of not much going on, then all of the sudden everything. It's like you've got blocks of time when you're wishing people would call, then all of the sudden there's one week and everyone calls for that week. I don't know why, it just seems to be the way it is, sometimes.
I keep pretty active and with a lot of different types of things. Over the spring and summer, I was involved with some workshop situations. One of them in particular was probably one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. It was in Ingolstadt, Germany, working for Robyn Schulkowsky, she's a percussionist. She had organized a music thing for the story of "Antigone," working with kids who had no experience with music or performing or anything. And the whole story was told with percussion and movement. It was a theatre presentation with about 60 kids, and she basically taught them these rhythms and stuff to play on various found objectsbarrels, oil cans, stuff like that. And Kenny Wollesen and I were brought in to help support that. It was just an amazing experience to see these kids rise to the occasion.
AAJ: Well, you guys would be naturals for that, I would think. Kenny plays anything, right?
JB: Well, he's really special.
AAJ: Actually, I once saw you play a chair at one of those Tonic workshops about 10 years ago.
JB: Oh yeah, wow.
AAJ: Do you find it difficult trying to juggle all this stuff, or is it just second nature at this point?
JB: Well, it's what I do. Sometimes it's tiring to juggle, to keep it organized, and sometimes it falls into place, it's never any one particular set thing. Some days things cancel or things happen that throw a wrench in the works.
AAJ: Do you find it difficult going from some of the extremes in the projects you work in: say, the really out Zorn Moonchild stuff and then turning around and playing with [guitarist] Jim Hall a day later or something?
JB: Actually not. That's always what I wanted to do. One of my many heroes was [drummer] Grady Tate and I was always really inspired by the way he could play so many different situations. I never set out to do that; I just thought, well, that's what you do. At the time, that is what you did. If you learned to play an instrument and somebody asked you to play, the answer was yes. It didn't matter what it was for; you learned on the job. That was the atmosphere when I came along. I didn't have an attitude: "Well, I'll only play if it's a jazz gig," or something. I had not that attitude. That was my background, so to do these things, to me it's not really that special. I think, well, isn't it supposed to be that way? And basically, the job is really the same whether it's for John Zorn or whether it's for Jim Hall: the job is to try and help each person you're working for realize what they want to hear, that's the task. And it's the same, only they use different tools and different language, but that's not such a big deal.