Lenny White: Jazz/Rock Collides Again
All About Jazz: Tell me about your new CD.
Lenny White: It's interesting, because I went back to what we were doing back in the '70s. I'm just trying to capture what made me feel good back thenhow radio used to sound to me. I'd turn on the radio and I'd hear a James Brown track, and then they'd play Led Zeppelin, and then they'd play Miles. Then they'd play a lot of different kinds of things.
AAJ: When you did this album, you did representative tracks because you've done a lot of different things. I mean, it's not just jazz-rock. You're one of the premier funk guys of all time.
LW: I got some of that! Mike Clark and I did a track. We just went in and improvised, and we had everybody play around with what we improvised. What's deep is that it's based on an old Big Sid Catlett drum lick, but it's funky. It's called "Catlett Out of the Bag." Mike Clark put the name on it. It's pretty slick. And I didn't go back in and correct it; it's raw, and man, we had a ball. It was really fun doing it.
AAJ: I'd rather hear a live recording than anything.
LW: Yeah, well, this was straight up. And I haven't put out a personal musical statement in ten years. I've produced records, played on other people's records...and the other thing is that I've been making a lot of "jazz" records lately. So I wanted to not do that. I wanted to do something that was just making some music. And it was fun.
AAJ: What else is on the record?
LW: I'll put it to you this way: the name of the album is Anomaly. It's my musical statement right now, and I hope people like it. If they don't, I understand. But I just wanted to make my musical statement right now.
AAJ: Your music tends to be pretty personal, anyway.
LW: Well, any artist's music is personal. It's a collection of their life experiences. So I went back and got some old compositions that I had done with my Astral Pirates band. And there's a composition from the guitarist that plays in my band, Tom Guarna. And George Colligan, who played in the band and has a couple of compositions, and I have a composition by a great guitarist, David Gilmore...not Pink Floyd's David Gilmour. I wrote all the other tunes.
Actually, there's one piece that is an adaptation from my opera. It's a spiritual called "The Wait Has Lifted the Weight." See, when Obama was elected, it caused a big paradigm shift. But for black people in America who have been waiting for something to happen, or waiting for some credibility, it's not the end-all, but now they have to be held accountable. Because things have started to change. Martin Luther King's dream has started to become a reality. It's not [finished] yet. But at least there's a shift. So we've been waiting, as black people, we've been waiting, and there's this weight that's been holding us down. So now that this has happened, it's a beginning. It's like, you're peeling it off, and so this wait has lifted the weight.
That [brings up] the other thing. The record label. Now, I'm doing my own, I'm doing it myself. It'll be distributed by a label [Abstract Logix], but this is mineI paid for it. So I'm doing what I want to do. We listened to all kinds of music. And I thought that it was about time for mewell, I think I do that all the time, but I haven't made a record in ten years. But I thought that in my project I would show all of my influences, where all of my influences come from, rather than being musically myopic. I know people could listen to it and say, "Oh, what? This is all just rock and roll!" But there are things in there that, from a stylistic standpoint, are like Philly Joe Jones and Art Blakey playing a rock beat.
But what I don't want to have happen is for people to be misled. Being a jazz musician and having a particular work ethic and commitment about representing that music, and that music being, to me, the highest language spoken on the planet, you'd have to have an affinity for just more than that music. You'd have to have an affinity for all kinds of music. And if you get to a level where you can create like the great masters of jazz created, you could play any kind of music, because that discipline and that perspective on music in general would help you play any kind of music. So, for me, when you hear this music and you say it's rock... yeah, it is, but it's made by a jazz musician.
And so, however you want to call it, it's not fusion, I'll tell you that. That ain't what it is, man, because I'm not playing licks. Fusion, to me, has become this thing that's really cute. They have these little 10" splash cymbals, phsssw. This [Anomaly] is balls-to-the wall, a knock-you-down band. This is what it is. You like it? Cool. If you don't, yeah, okay.
AAJ: I never thought that I'd pick "Water Changes Everything" as my favorite track, but it's a strong contender, just because you did something unusual with it. Politics and political discussion can be so divisive that people just avoid it, because it makes enemies out of friends and turns things sour. But "Water Changes Everything" is interesting because it de-politicizes a very political thing, and just says something like, "You're part of the human race."
LW: Well, it's not political. What we're talking about in "Water Changes Everything" isn't political at all. I was in Europe and I was watching CNN, and in actuality, the program was about getting clean water, clean drinking water to everybody on earth. And the discussion came down to the point where the commentator asked the principal in the interview, he said, "Well, what do you think it would cost for us to be able to get clean drinking water to everybody on earth?" And ironically, at the same timeI'm watching this, and at the same time he's about to give the answer, that crawl that runs on the bottom of CNN's screenall news broadcasts have the crawlit says that one major car company was buying another major car company for ten billion dollars. And [in the same moment] the answer out of the principal interviewee's mouth was: "ten billion dollars." I thought that that was so profound.
This is a right, to be able to have clean drinking water. I mean it's a human condition. Everybody should be able to have clean drinking water. And that's not the case. There's a charity that builds wells in Africafor people that don't have clean drinking water to actually have clean drinking water. And a friend of mine, one of the co-writers, came to me and said, "You know, there's this charity. We should do something for them," so I had a piece of music, and I went to their site and got some information, and along with another friend of mine, we wrote some lyrics about it.
AAJ: That's Sammie Williams?
LW: Mm-hmm. And Chris Williams and Rennie Hurstthe other guysand basically what we were saying is that this simple thing, which is clean, running water is pretty much taken for granted in industrialized nations, and we live on a planet that's two-thirds water. And there are people that don't have drinking water. That doesn't make any sense.
And so, it wasn't political, what we were saying. We were just saying a really simple thing. Water changes everything. I mean, our bodies are filled with water. And all these industrialized nations, and all the money and wealth that's in the world, as a global community... I mean, for the survival of the species, that should be a simple thingto have everybody have clean drinking water. Simple.
AAJ: Well, I just dug it a lot because it's political in the sense if you look at the word politics, and it's the relationship of human beings with other human beings...
LW: Well, that's not my relationship, that's not my definition of politics. My definition of politics is the manipulation of people.
AAJ: Right. So it's definitely not an attempt to do that. But I thought it was kind of elevating to just consider, for a minute, what it takes to actually make sure everybody has clean drinking water on the planet. It can't be that it's such a monumental task. If you can buy a car company for ten billion dollars, it can't be that hard.
LW: You know, cruise ships have the mechanismsthey're floating on sea, which is salt water they have the mechanisms on each one of these cruise ships to distill at least a million gallons of water a day and make it into drinking water. A cruise ship has three thousand people on it. But that ability to do that, that technology [exists] to do that, and then you have a billion people without clean drinking water. I just asked some questions; that's all I'm doing.
Freddie Hubbard (left) and Lenny White (right), 2006
AAJ: I was just envisioning coastlines where you wouldn't need to worry about pumping oil because you've got these water treatment things set up. And everybody gets clean drinking water.
LW: Yeah. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that this is the 21st Century, because when you look outside, you don't know that.
AAJ: Back to the disc, Anomaly is pleasant, it's satisfying and it works on all kinds of different levels. You've taken all that sophisticated musicianshipI mean, you've assembled a band that has got so much talent it's hard to document it all, this is a group of very, very good players, spirited playersand taken an art form, which is relatively simple and turned it into a new thing, a new variation.
LW: Well, I'm actually glad that you got that. But, again, my intention was to make some musicsee, nothing is done to the max without a purpose. And my purpose was to get some hard-hitting music out, and I wasn't intent on playing a whole bunch of drum solos. That's boring to me. I was intent on getting some good music out. And to have it sound good. And for it to be an honest and clean intention. Simple. That's what my intention was.
Now let's see if we can get about 50,000 more people [to listen to it]. You put a project out and you want it to be successful. Success has a lot of levels of meaning. It's successful because I did it and put it out, and people are going to hear it. That's a successful level. But I'd like for it to be successful on another level, that it could be a positive median line, where people say, "Wow, the bar's been raised and we need to hear more music like this. And if the number of people that feel that way is amplified to be a pretty big number, that's another degree of success. So, it's multi-tiered.
I would like for it to be a benchmark where people say, "Aw, man, I haven't heard a record like that in awhile." Let's be positive about what it is that we do, and not have to worry, because getting played on the radio? Well, what's the radio? This is about music.