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David Witham: A Sideman Steps Out

By Published: April 14, 2008
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Individual Players: Old Friends That Happen to Be Great Musicians

AAJ: Let's talk some more about the musicians on this record. Jay Anderson and Jon Crosse have played with you before, and you have an especially long history with Jay—who has a really deep and audible rapport with you musically on this record. What do these two add to the overall whole?

DW: I'll start with Jon. He's somebody I haven't gotten to see a lot in the last years. I met him in 1982 or 1983; we were both working for Paul Anka, of all people. At that point Paul had a band that was headed up by Michel Colombier, the great arranger. And I have to say, for a Vegas group, this band sounded like Weather Report. He had this trio of brothers from Mexico City, the Toussaint brothers—[keyboardist] Eugenio Toussaint. They had a band at that time with Jon Crosse called SacbÈ—¯Ãƒ'—¿Ãƒ'—½. Anyway, it was very attractive, and I was getting called to play third keyboard for this band—which, as Luis Conte said, was like playing one maraca all night [laughing] in terms of a musical challenge. Luis was in the band too, as a matter of fact.

Anyway, that's where I met Crosse. He played so great, so melodically and beautifully, and he's just a totally open-minded person. He doesn't want to put anything in a bag; he's all about the music. He's a wonderful teacher, and he plays every instrument known to man—all the woodwinds, and he used to play a lot of brass, too. He was Toni Tennille's musical director, and he would play trombone as well as all those woodwinds and trumpet. I was just blown away by this guy. He was doing creative stuff—he made a beautiful record of lullabies for children [Lullabies Go Jazz (Jazz Cat Records, 1985)] with [pianist] Clare Fischer and Luis. I just heard what he did with these lullabies, these great arrangements, and I thought, "This is a guy I've just got to keep playing with."

So he'd put these groups together and we did get to play a little bit. We didn't do a lot of gigs, but we were involved with Paul Anka there for a couple years, and that's how our relationship grew. So he played on my record On Line and did a great job on that, of course. Time went by, and we would see each other sometimes, but not a lot. But I always knew that if I made another record, I would want Jon to play on it. And he's always ready for anything; he shows up with a big smile on his face and when he's confronted with musical challenges, he just embraces them. You can hear the results, too; he's just an amazing musician.

David Witham / Jeff Gauthier Goatette

And Jay Anderson—what can I say? He was there from the very, very beginning of my interest in jazz music and improvisation going all the way back to when I was a teenager. He's a year older than I am, and in high school I would cut class—I had an instruments class, and I was supposed to have been learning the trumpet—and go over to Long Beach State and check out the big-band rehearsals. Jay was the bassist in that big band, and we just struck it up and started playing. I had my first trio gig with him and [drummer] Paul Kreibich down in a place in Newport Beach. We played every Tuesday night for a couple of years, and that was a big deal—the point of departure for me, really.

And Jay and I became fast friends. I really watched his career explode after he got out of college. I played on his senior recital and shortly after that, he got called by Woody Herman and started his whole adventure. We've stayed really close; I'd say we're best friends. I was best man at his wedding. I can't think of enough great things to say about this guy. He's not only a great musician—he's a great human being, and I've always been tickled pink to see all his successes. I was really sad when he moved to New York, because I knew I wouldn't be doing that at that point, and I knew he'd find success there, and stay—which he has.

So any time I'm doing something musically, I want to find a way to get Jay in on it. He plays bass, he's got great sense as a producer, and now as an engineer—he's starting to record some really good records up at his studio up in New Paltz. I love his compositions, too; I think he's a great composer. A composer in the true sense. Jazz guys write tunes sometimes that are, you know, melodies with some chord changes.

AAJ: Right, a quarter of a page.

DW: Yeah. And Jay's music might take up a quarter of a page, too, but he really knows as a composer how to work a motif—he can take a kernel of information and end up with a beautiful piece of music in the end. So I knew I wanted him to contribute to the thing, and I think his song "Momentum" is a really great piece. A great free, open thing.

And again, it's a very simple device—it's a tone row and by the end of the piece you've heard ever iteration of those twelve notes. It's like [singing the phrase] the first note, then the first and second notes, then the first, second and third notes—a very simple device. But it works wonderfully if you keep it in a rubato context.

AAJ: That song really needs to be in there at that point on the record, too. It's a nice little detour into something just a little odder.

David Witham / Jeff Gauthier GoatetteDW: Well, I'm a little schiz-ey that way. I like a lot of different kinds of music and a lot of different kinds of things. I want those things to be represented, too. I think if I did a whole record of songs like that—I don't know if it would work so well.

And, you know, the nature of the—well, I almost don't want to say "the music business," because this is [laughing] such a periphery of the music business, but I think the niche-ification of everything, and the assumption that people only listen to one kind of thing, is really detrimental to society. And conversely, you've got this information age and everything is out there—it's just got its own channel. You can't listen to that one deejay who will take you on that journey; you've got to be your own deejay and be a little more intrepid in finding all these other kinds of things. I do think they're all out there, so the new challenge is how to find them.

So, anyway, I just wanted to have a lot of different moods on this record. And you were saying that was a good spot for that song, and it was Jeff [Gauthier] who sequenced this record. And I'm really glad he did, because I liked the sequence I had done when he came back with the sequence that is on the record. And I pretty much railed against his sequence until I put it on, and then I knew, "Oh yeah, this is how it has to happen." It has a nice arc, and it's totally thanks to Jeff.

AAJ: Tell me more about Scott Amendola and Luis Conte. Scott drums on every tune and Luis plays percussion on most of them. You must have wanted some depth of percussive sound for these sessions.

DW: Oh, yeah. Scott's a new friend; I met him through Nels, from Nels' trio, the Nels Cline Singers. I heard him and I thought, "Yeah, this guy plays really good—he's very open-minded." Then it turned out that we already had a connection, because he grew up with George Benson's son Marcus in Englewood, New Jersey. He asked me if I knew Marcus, who was George's personal assistant on the road, and of course I saw him every day when we were out working. So that was a wonderful six-degrees-of-separation deal, and I actually got to hook the two of them back up in Perugia at the [Umbria Jazz] Festival.

So, yeah, Scott plays great, he's very open-minded, and he's done a lot of different kinds of music. When we got to play, we did the Jeff Gauthier fiftieth birthday celebration and we recreated some of the [Herbie Hancock] Mwandishi music and Scott played on that, and I thought, "Oh yeah—this is the guy I'm going to be using when I make this record."

Of course [laughing], that was 2003 or something like that. So we played a couple of times after that.

Again, Luis is a longtime friend and we have a lot of musical associations. I met him back in the early 1980s, in the Paul Anka days. We'd always be sitting around bemoaning working with Paul Anka for whatever reason [laughing], saying, "We've got to get off the road—we're going to start a band!" And we did! Luis got off the gig and started working with Madonna and doing all this stuff, and he was staying home. So we started a group and played at the Baked Potato every Monday night for a while, and did a record for Denon, La Cocina Caliente (1987), kind of a live-to-two-track thing. We had three records with that band; it was a great kind of Latin-jazz thing, and it had some of my nut influences in there that he really liked. It was such a great education—I learned so much about Afro-Cuban music at that point. He really set me on the right path about the good guys to listen to, and he always had the cool bootlegs and all that stuff.

I mean we were born on the same day, November 16th. We're both left-handed. There's this bond, and we became friends from the minute we met. I love him and his family dearly.

Actually, I didn't know that I was going to use percussion on the record. But once I knew I was going to put "The Circle" on there—I mean, I wrote that song for Luis, for a project that never happened. Once I decided to put the song on the record, I knew he had to play on it, and he lives really close to the studio as well.

And when I knew I was going to do an Afrobeat tune [the aptly titled "Afrobeat"], I knew that we had to have another pair of hands in the studio just to get those rhythms going. So of course it had to be Luis; unless he's completely unavailable, he's my go-to guy for anything like that.

So he played on "Afrobeat," "The Circle," and the New Orleans one ["N.O. Rising"] as well—he just put a little tambourine on that one to just glue it all together.

David WithamAAJ: I am partial to a little tambourine.

DW: Better than a little cowbell.

AAJ: Then there are Greg and Nels sort of guesting—Greg on three tunes, Nels on two. Obviously you wanted to add some more voices in there.

DW: Yes. Greg is, again, a guy I've known since the early eighties. We used to play with a great songwriter who lives down in southern Orange County named Richard Stekol and his band the Seclusions.

I just knew this guy was going somewhere. We'd play other gigs down there—we played in this weird pseudo-soul band called the Breeze Brothers. Somebody said that band played everybody from Hank Williams to Ornette Coleman [laughing]. Then all of a sudden, k.d. [lang] called him, and he was off and runnin.' He's a guy with a unique voice, and we always stay in touch.

And I love his sound—he's a sound guy. So I thought, "How am I going to use this on a jazz record?" Then he started playing with Bill [Frisell], and it was like he was off in another direction. But he's really just being Greg. Bill heard him and just wanted to add him to that—I don't know if I'd call it deliberate Americana—sound.

AAJ: Right, that Frisell thing.

DW: Yeah. It really tickled me when he played with Greg, because I love Bill Frisell. I know him just a little bit through Mike Miller. So anyway, here's Greg, the famous guy, and he's carving out a little time for his pal Dave [laughing].

So Jay wanted him to play on "Momentum." And he heard it and didn't really know what Jay wanted him to play—he thought it just wouldn't work on the steel. But Jay said, "No, no, just play some textures. Just do your thing." And that worked out just great. You know, I don't have to tell Greg much [laughing]. I just let him do his thing.

AAJ: That must be a nice feeling when the tape starts rolling, digital or otherwise.

DW: Yeah, when the disc starts spinning. He's just got a wonderful, warm sound. I knew I wanted him on "Con Quien," the last song on the disc. I'd originally played that song with a kind of steel-guitarish synthesizer part—I called it my "Frisell sound" at the time. But that synth wasn't what I wanted; I had to have the real deal.

And what are you going to say about Nels? He's the man of the moment. Again, I played with him back in the early eighties. Charlie Haden called me to play with his Liberation Music Orchestra; we played the rededication of MacArthur Park in L.A. Boy, that was a frightening gig for me—here I was playing with Charlie for the first time. And Nels was there. It was the Ballad of the Fallen material, and Nels was playing acoustic guitar. The pickups back then weren't that happening, and you could barely hear him. I remember we played "We Shall Overcome" as a blues, and I thought that was really cool.

So I met Nels and played with him then, but didn't see him much after that until I met Jeff Gauthier and [Nels Cline twin brother and drummer] Alex Cline and [bassist] Eric Von Essen. Actually, I knew Eric, but he introduced me to Jeff and Alex, and subsequently Nels. I started playing with him in Jeff's group and started hearing him doing all those myriads of other things. Again, I knew I had to have this guy play on this record somehow. It just seemed like a logical thing.

We both play with a certain number of effects and do sonic, texturey kind of stuff. I found that we could coexist in a sonic space very easily. That can get very cloudy, depending on who's doing it at any given moment. I knew I wanted him to bring that sonic platter to a few of the songs—to "The Neon" in particular. Sort of like a guy actually remixing something on the fly.

"Afrobeat" was a tune we cut without Nels in the studio; Nels overdubbed on it a week or two later. That's a dangerous thing in a jazz situation; you want it to all happen naturally. But I told him before we spun the disc, so to say, "Here are the tonal centers. Just stay out of the way when it goes rubato and just do something—play a single-note pattern, fill it up with textures." And what you hear is his first take. And it was as close to live as it would make happen. Nels had been out of town, so couldn't make that date originally.

So it was really cool. It was exciting to hear. What he played was perfect. He has great musical sensibilities. He loves so many different kinds of music and he has a very, very good sense of space and timing. It's tasty! What can you say—he's got good taste.

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