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Interviews

Mike DiRubbo: The First Priority? Recording This Band

By Published: June 21, 2007

You want to use the best musicians you can and be with people you enjoy off the bandstand as well as on

For New York Accent: Live at the Kitano (Cellar Live, 2007), his fourth record as leader, alto saxophonist DiRubbo chose to forego the studio for the room at Manhattan's Kitano Hotel. DiRubbo picked the setting in part because, with paid studio dates becoming increasingly rare for independent jazz musicians, he realized he needed to take the reins of getting his next record out.

So he assembled a killer band—piano legend Harold Mabern, long-time bassist-of-choice Dwayne Burno and drummer Tony Reedus—and captured their symbiotic spontaneity during two nights in February, 2006. Once he had the dates recorded, DiRubbo enticed Cory Weeds, fellow alto player and owner of the Cellar Live label and its namesake club in Vancouver, Canada, to put the record out on Weeds' live-only label. I recently spoke with DiRubbo about his new record and the challenges of being a young jazz musician in the digital age.

All About Jazz: Why did you choose to do a live rather than studio recording?

Mike DiRubbo: I always wanted to record a live thing. That group had worked at the Kitano a bunch of times, and I wanted to capture them. I also thought the room there at the Kitano would be good to record in—at the time, it hadn't been done before.

I'd played with that particular group off and on for a couple of years. I've known Mabes for ten years or so. The first priority was recording this band, and then working out what dates would work for everybody. The dates we were there were a Wednesday and Thursday, because it's less likely that people will have obligations on those nights.

AAJ: How big a space is the Kitano?

MD: It probably holds about 75 people, max. It's almost like playing in someone's living room—it's intimate, with a real nice vibe.

AAJ: You played there those two nights, but the disc says everything was recorded on February second.

MD: Yeah, all the tracks on the CD are from the second night. Those seemed to be the better takes. We played the same compositions both nights, which isn't unusual even if you're not recording. Like if Cedar Walton is at the Village Vanguard all week and you go see him on different nights, you'll hear a lot of the same tunes. That gives you more opportunities to really get inside the tunes.

AAJ: Did you guys rehearse before the shows, like you would before a studio date?

MD: Yeah. At the time I was living in Brooklyn, Dwayne was living in Brooklyn and Harold lives in Brooklyn, so we rehearsed there. Tony would come in from New Jersey. I wanted mostly for us to go over my music—four of the seven tracks on the CD are my compositions.

AAJ: What can you tell me about the titles of your compositions on the disc?

MD: "Clarity refers to the state of mind I need to be in to navigate myself through the chord changes on this composition. Major chords to me have a clarifying, bright quality. "The Sage is pretty self-explanatory. Certain musicians have a mystical quality to their playing. I had some of them in mind when I composed this. "New Year's Dream is kind of an experiment; there are no deep connections associated with the title. "Better Days was named to provide hope. In particular, the war in Iraq, the tsunami in the Pacific and the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. I feel that music can have an uplifting effect on listeners. I hope "Better Days can provide that to those who need help.

AAJ: One of the ones that isn't yours is Billy Joel's "She's Always a Woman. Out of all the songs in the world, how did you pick that one?

MD: At the time I had a publicity administrator, who has since passed away. She was always pushing me to find new tunes to put in a jazz setting. I always liked the lyrics to that Billy Joel tune. One day I was sitting at the piano and it just popped into my head. I have the record it's on—I stole the record from my sister when I was a kid—but I didn't want to listen to it right then. Sometimes when you listen to "The Tune, you tend to stick too closely to it. So I worked the tune out, and later went back to see if I had it right, and I did, the right key and everything, E flat.

When I'm coming up with music, I have specific musicians in mind. With that tune, I was definitely hearing Harold play—his style of comping and how he plays.

AAJ: How did the date differ from how it would have been if you hadn't been recording it?

MD: The only difference might be that on a couple sets, we redid tunes because I wanted another take. Like with "New Year's Dream, I thought, "Let's do this again. The band feels a little looser. I feel a little looser. The people in the audience didn't seem to mind. I warned them before the sets that because we were recording, there might be stops and restarts. I think that happened only once.

AAJ: What about song length? Were you conscious of not playing too long, more so than you might be if you hadn't been recording?

MD: The takes on the disc are pretty long, with the exception of "New Year's Dream. I did think about things like that a little bit, but I didn't hold back because we were recording. Maybe I should have after listening to how many choruses I took on "Clarity ! The main thing isn't length, but keeping the intensity level up.

AAJ: In addition to jazz, I listen mostly to indie rock. It seems like indie rock bands are way ahead of jazz musicians in adapting to the age of digital music. Most of the bands I listen to offer free songs to download on their websites. Why don't guys like you do that?

MD: Technically, of course, there's no reason not to. But you have to consider that the musicians need to be paid. It's hard to get a bunch of good musicians together and say, "Hey, I want to have these free tracks on my website. An indie rock band, I don't know, it might be a bunch of guys in Seattle or wherever, and maybe they don't do this full-time, and they get together at someone's house on the weekend and put down some songs on a 4-track recorder. If I get a band I want to play with, I need money to pay for the musicians and the studio.

AAJ: What about the idea of giving away a little to entice people to buy the whole thing?

MD: Because jazz is such small percentage of the market, I don't know that that would ever amount to anything. But who knows, once the CD is out there, it probably gets pirated anyway for free.

AAJ: In your situation, is it more important to keep doing gigs so that you can record, or to record so that you can keep getting gigs?

MD: You have to have one to have the other. I've been lucky enough to be on a few CDs and to have a few in my own name. But the last one as a leader came out in 2003. That's a long time in the music industry. I finally decided, "I need to do this myself. You have to stay on people's minds, or they just assume you don't play anymore. Even if you don't just hang out in New York once in a while, people assume you've disappeared. You can't have put something out a while ago and say, "Here it is, my record from 2003. It's definitely a case of, "What have you done for me lately?

I would love to have put out ten CDs in the last three years. It's a frustrating catch-22—people don't want to back you to put out a record until you're already blown up to a certain point, but how do you get to that point without the records? We do what we can. That's why we do things like give up the publishing rights, or taking less than we would want to. That's why a lot of more-established guys have their own labels.

You don't have to be a millionaire to put out records. Technically, it's not that expensive, but to pay the musicians correctly and to pay for marketing, that starts to get expensive. I'm not comfortable getting musicians together and asking them to work for free. How many lawyers do you see who just give away their work? When was the last time you got a free cleaning from a dentist? For some of us, music is what we do to make money.

AAJ: So do you hope this CD, which you brought to life on your own, will lead to a studio date on someone else's label?

MD: That would be great, but I don't know how much that sort of thing exists anymore. It was more a way of having a way to reach people who aren't going to see me play, to say, "Here, this is what I've been working on the last few years. And that band, I really wanted to record that band. The whole band had a nice vibe. We're all friends and respect each other. That's the main thing—you want to use the best musicians you can and be with people you enjoy off the bandstand as well as on.

AAJ: So why not band together with some like-minded musicians and start your own label?

MD: It's hard enough to get guys together to have a rehearsal! Seriously, there are some people doing that—drummer Willie Jones III has had his own label for awhile. But again, it's hard to get like-minded individuals together. And guys are at different points in their careers. Someone like Dwayne Burno has different needs than me. Everybody needs a bassist, a drummer, a pianist. So someone like Mabes, what would be the point of bothering with starting a label?

With your own label, the biggest thing is distribution. Certain small labels are distributed by larger labels. But everything seems to be changing with the digital thing. Who knows what will happen? Me, I like to have the CD, to hold it in my hands and read the liner notes. I'd rather have a painting on my wall than to look at a picture on the computer. You know how it is—if someone gave you a CD-R and wrote "Joe Schmo Quartet on it, versus if you get a real CD, and it has artwork and has some weight, which are you going to think has more value? You can't just skip making records. Recording on a regular basis lets you analyze yourself. When you don't get to for awhile, you're just pushing that process back.

AAJ: When you listen to your older records, do you like them?

MD: There are certain parts I can live with. My first CD is a little tough for me to listen to, because I was 24 when it was recorded, but it came out five years later. The thing is, usually by the time you put something out, you're completely sick of it, because you've heard it so many times to pick the tracks, the song order, that whole thing. Even this new record, that was more than a year ago. I've moved on to different ideas and different projects. I've been playing with [trombonist] Steve Davis a lot more lately, and pianist David Bryant. I've been hearing music in terms of what will work well with how they play.

AAJ: Getting back to the new CD, in the liner notes you have quotes from Bruce Lee and Krishnamurti. What's their significance to you?

MD: Growing up, I was really into the martial arts, and Bruce Lee was my John Coltrane. It was through Bruce Lee that I got into J. Krishnamurti, and upon reading Krishnamurti I found many similarities in their concepts. I hope the philosophies manifest themselves in my music. These philosophies are how I try to live my life, and I would think they would then manifest themselves in my music. I'm not saying that this has been achieved, but I realize it more now than when I was 25 or even 30 years old. That's the beauty of art. More and more becomes revealed to you the longer you work at it and devote yourself to it.


Selected Discography

Mike DiRubbo, New York Accent: Live at the Kitano (Cellar Live, 2007)
Mike DiRubbo, Human Spirit (Criss Cross, 2003)
Steve Davis, Systems Blue (Criss Cross, 2002)
Mike DiRubbo, Keep Steppin' (Criss Cross, 2001)
Jim Rotondi, Reverence (Criss Cross, 2001)
Steve Davis, Vibe Up! (Criss Cross, 2000)
Mike DiRubbo, From the Inside Out (Sharp Nine, 1999)
Steve Davis, Crossfire (Criss Cross, 1998)

Photo Credit
Mark Kaufmann, courtesy of Mike DiRubbo



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