Boston's Randy Roos-A Local Legend Sustains Infinitely
At one of those gigs, I purchased his 1978 masterpiece, Mistral, released on white vinyl by the Boston-based Spoonfed Records, featuring the first even-close-to-major-label recorded performances of guitarist Mike Stern and bassist Neil Stubenhaus, along with drummer Luis DeAndrade and Weather Report percussionist Alyrio Lima. Upon giving this record its first spin, I was convinced it was the greatest single recording I had ever heard up until that moment. Today, it certainly remains a personal favorite, but unfortunately, an unheralded gem for such a watershed achievement in the fusion genre. It featured Randy on his double-neck guitar, one of which was a fretless, with a stainless steel neck, on a body equipped with an infinitely sustaining pickup device. The other was a conventional fretted six, on which Randy comped absolutely miraculous chord voicings, unfathomable to the average guitar hobbyist-unrecognizable even from the telephone-book-width guitar chord "bibles" of the day. I remember a friend who studied with Randy, who is now a successful producer in Nashville, fittingly dubbing them "Roosian" chords. Suffice to say Randy was every bit the chordal master then (and now) as guys like Frisell and Goodrick, who, as it turns out, are friends and former co-duettists.
Not only is Randy under-recognized nationally, he's also a rarely acclaimed local hero, an unacknowledged touchstone on the local scene. Prior to his "jazz" career, he enjoyed great notoriety as a member of Orchestra Luna, an eclectic pop/performance art band with a rabid local following. After Luna, he became easily guilty of jazzer greatness by association, with many, now more recognized, players either playing with him or becoming members of his band at some point. I've personally seen his duet dates with Goodrick and Frisell. Stern and Frisell were co-guitarists in his band. Stubenhaus, Jeff Berlin, Victor Bailey, Kai Eckhardt, Jimmy Earle and Baron Browne filled the bass chair. Tommy Campbell and Jun Saito played drums, and future Allan Holdsworth band member Steve Hunt held down the keyboard chair for many years in Randy's band. Speaking of Mr. Holdsworth, when Bill Bruford decided, after finishing up his Feels Good to Me and One of a Kind records with Berlin, Holdsworth, and Dave Stewart, that he wanted to come to the states to pursue a bit more of a jazz direction, guess who filled the guitar chair for an incredible series of 1980 Boston dates?
A well-respected teacher, Randy's been doing it since he was a teen. A number of world-class players have benefited from his mentoring, both privately and formally, during a teaching stint at the New England Conservatory, including Frisell, Stern, Dave Fiuczynski, David Gilmore and Brian Ales.
Randy is probably most well-known to the music consumer as George Jinda's partner in the early 90's outfit, World News, and as a recording artist for Narada records. His Liquid Smoke and Primalvision received superb reviews and sold respectable, yet ultimately, not business-plan proof numbers. Primalvision, in particular, skillfully melded world beat elements with guitar mastery while avoiding "smooth-age" rhetoric, and remains an exemplary genre-specific recording, in large part, because it avoids so many genre-specific drawbacks.
You can find Randy most often now at his home studio, recording the soundtracks to the PBS show, Scientific American -that's every sound folks. A gig working for a former student, Sheldon Mirowitz, on the PBS special, Columbus & the Age of Discovery, led to both the Narada contract and the Scientific gig.
I forgot to mention a key facet of Randy's musical persona that makes him such a good fit for writing to picture; he bought into synthesis early, and if anything, should be rightfully acknowledged as one of the great pioneers and most proficient connoisseurs of guitar-synth. As you might imagine, he's quite capable of fashioning a one man recording project, but seems to prefer collaboration with others, evidenced by a newly issued EP of 'electro word-rock' called 'Media Today,' by the intriguingly monikered VanGogh Shadowtree . Also in the can is another band collaboration, the yet-to'be-released jazz-jungle-electronica crossover project Vertigo Z .
But Randy regularly strips his rig down to a Red SG and Fender Twin for engagements with a new Boston Institution, bassist Mike Rivard's Club D'Elf , usually found bi-weekly at Cambridge's Lizard Lounge. This unit features a revolving cast of Boston's best, jamming on free, funk, ethnic, trance and jungle forms. I'll assume there's no need for me to finger the one guy in the lineup that makes a certain iteration of this band my favorite.
Randy also happens to be one of the best photographers (notice the absence of the word 'amateur' here) of the great outdoors that I've ever seen. The distinguishing feature of his photographic skills comes in direct contrast to his ardor for musical techiness; that is, he captures otherworldly imagery while utilizing absolutely zero photographic effects.
There's a lot of other stuff missing from the intro, so read along, in installments if you'd prefer, for a good long look into a multifaceted intellect and like, totally great guy.
AAJ: Let's start with Orchestra Luna .
Randy Roos:I'll go before that, with Softwood, a really neat band. That's when I was in college, from '70-'73. I was at Tufts University as an electrical engineer, and then switched to music quickly. It worked out because they knew their music department was a bit weak and they let me do outside things. They paid for two years of outside music lessons with Mick Goodrick that I got full college course credit for-so you know, that was cool. They paid for the lessons because some sort of private study was required, and they acknowledged that what I wanted to do was worthwhile. The head of the music department liked my playing and he was formerly a jazzer. He was the only one- all the other guys were straight classical guys and they had no interest in anything about what I did, but this guy was a former jazzer and he knew I had some capability and said, 'Sure, get what you need and we'll do it.' So I had four semesters of private study from Mick, who would always give me an A, so I got four semesters of A's which was cool, too. This was right after he started Berklee. Do you know Thom Rhotella- the smooth jazz guitarist? He was a teacher at Berklee then too. When I first got to Berklee, I was assigned to Rhotella and right away, he recommended I study with Mick. He said, 'I am not the guy for you.' And I had met Mick when I was in high school in '68, and took a summer course at Berklee. He was my assigned teacher. I was a little blues guitar kid, but he liked me, and we had a great time together, so when Rhotella recommended Mick I was enthusiastic. At Tufts, I hooked up with a guy who's still a great friend of mine, Phil Owens, a vocalist, and he had a bassist. They added me and we added a drummer.
It started out as a nice folk 'rock kind of a group, but we all got more and more' we were always looking for music, and playing stuff with each other, and getting stoned, so we went through this whole evolution that ended up as a blend of Zappa and Weather Report at the end. Phil started writing these tunes that had rather bizarre lyrics and a lot of sections, and sometimes really comical little things happening, with outrageous soloing and a lot of different eclectic stuff'really cool. We started playing at Club Zircon in Cambridge. We had a deal playing there every Tuesday. It became kinda like what 'Club D'Elf' does now. The club would be packed with people who'd just come to see what we did next. It was pretty open and loose and we suffered from a similar problem that D'Elf has. That is, if we played in any other place in Boston, no one would come! They would get used to us being a fixture at this place. We all lived together for a summer. We rented a house together, set up a basement as a recording studio and together, we wrote an entire repertoire of material the first half of the summer. The second half we recorded it. We were really diligent. We would be on each other to practice. We would practice individually all day and then all night work as a band for a whole summer. We did two gigs that summer. I had a job with my early guitar teacher who owned a music store in Wellesley and he hired me to teach as a senior in high school. He bent policy for me, which was very nice of him. He gave our band equipment to use when we needed it, etc., and was one of the biggest supports you could ever hope for. I told him I needed to support myself for the summer. I had stopped teaching there by that time, which was going into my third year of college. He designed a program where I would teach groups of kids three half-days a week. It was torture- it wasn't for me at all- but I did it and it got me through the summer-so obviously I wasn't practicing all day on those three days.
Other people did other things. A couple of the other kids had their parents supporting them. Matt Gordy was the drummer and was studying percussion, including vibes, at the Conservatory and was quite good. He and I would practice for hours together playing tunes. Ron Mooradian , who is known for making gig bags now, was the saxophonist We were a bunch of hard working serious guys. We used two stereo tape-recorders and did overdubbing by doing sound on sound between them.
AAJ: Did you release anything?
RR: Oh no- there was nothing to release then. What would you sell? A reel-to-reel tape? Cassettes didn't even exist then! I guess they did, but very few people had a good quality cassette recorder at that time. We just didn't think about it. The way that you got your music out then was you got a record deal and someone spent 20 grand on you to go into a cheap studio in those days and you know-in those days it was a big deal to get a record contract of any sort. There weren't many records being released as a result. Now everyone who as a cd burner puts out a cd.
Another story from that time is that for one of our two gigs that summer, we went out for the night and played, and when we got back, all of our recording equipment had been stolen from the basement. It was mostly my stuff too. They took the tapes off the machines and left them, which I think it was considerate. I know who they were and they lived two doors down from us.
Anyway, one of the waitresses at the club was Lisa Kinscherf who was Richard Kinscherf 's sister. Richard later changed his name to Rick Berlin . That was one of my initial connections to Orchestra Luna . There was another bassist, Scott Chambers, who went to Tufts, a good friend of mine, who had answered a newspaper ad to play with Rick Kinscherf from this band they were going to start. He kept telling about this band with this crazy pianist/singer guy with this whacked out music and he was trying to get me interested in it and succeeded. Lisa had heard me play with Softwood, and they kept on trying to get me into the band, which they did. I was 20 at the time, the summer before my senior year at Tufts. They had management and the whole idea was to do a record. In those days, I thought I was charmed, and that, 'Ok, let's see'Softwood was good, creatively it was good and we got a thing happening' and now I think it's time for me to make a record! It's time for me to get a major recording deal!'
We worked our tails off with that band. We auditioned 30, 40 drummers. We found plenty of players we liked, none of which wanted to do the gig! (Laughs) Finally we found someone we really liked who said he couldn't do the gig and we talked him into it. He was the perfect guy- Don Mulvaney. The other guys thought the music was completely out there, plus we wanted them to commit to rehearsing 4 or 5 times a week. We're going to go for it. Management's goal is to get a major contract. We needed a drummer to commit his entire life to us for a couple of years so we could make it. How many people can do that?
AAJ: Can you describe the music?
RR: The music was the precursor to Queen really. In fact, I think they were somewhat influenced by us. We'd heard they were very interested in the record that we did. I don't know if that's true or not. Rupert Holmes , the 'Pina Colada Song' guy-he was the producer. That summer we rehearsed a whole lot and started playing in this restaurant in Allston on Harvard Avenue. The people who owned the place loved us. We did an audition gig there and they flipped out. That was our first real gig. They asked, 'Would you guys play here four days a week for the whole summer?' We said, 'Sure, This is perfect'.
By the end of the summer there were lines to get in to hear us play. It was instant. My thought was, 'Let's win over the city. That will be a good start.' And by the fall, we had major label people coming up from New York to see the band, one of whom was Tom Worman who worked for Epic Records, who said, 'Hey this is great! Let's sign ya to a big deal'. They signed us fairly quickly to a 90 grand deal! Which in '73 was a lot of money, like six months after starting the band! (Laughs). I mean, multiply that by at least 4 to get today's dollars. Easily more than a quarter million dollar deal now, dontcha think?
Up until the week of our record release, nothing could have gone better for us. The gigs we had were sometimes great and sometimes, the band just was flat. Everything was arranged, and there was a lot of guitar playing for me. I just made sure I had space. I had too much space really. It was almost inappropriate. You would think that things that were highly arranged would always be good, but they're not. It requires a certain kind of energy and 'oneness' for the band to be on, right? We were just so lucky! Every time that it was important, we would have the best night you could imagine. We used to play at 'Jack's' in Cambridge a lot. When we played there, the place would be full two hours before we started, and there was just a mania. You couldn't get in. It would take a half hour for me to get from the front door to the back of the club. After we had recorded the record, but before the record release, the whole executive branch of Epic records flew up. A critical time in a band's career. We had one of the best nights we ever had - we blew the roof off the place! We did three or four encores. People were screaming, but when the music got quiet, you could hear a pin drop. There was a lot of dynamics and we got to those quiet minutes- by the way I'm sure fire laws were being violated - and there was cacophony at the ends of the tunes. The execs went back to New York and decided we were going to be their major push. It was unbelievable.
The record just did not do justice to the band. It was not produced right. There are some good moments on the record, though, but the drum sound is much too wimpy. The engineering wasn't done right-not meticulous enough. Rupert Holmes is a great orchestrator- he really knows his music and did some very nice arrangements. This was before synths. Basically, the sweetening that was one was with a 40-piece orchestra. There are also horns on the record, but those are arrangements. There were seven pieces in the band - and one was a poet. The band was just keyboards-an RMI electric piano only, guitar, bass and drums. There were two girls singing- Lisa and Liz Gallagher and that was the core of the band. Then we had Peter Barrett, who initially started as an 'artistic consultant,' and then we added him doing these recitation things in there..then he would actually start doing some singing, and he was really good. Then we started doing some things that involved play acting and props and stuff like that, which I would never take part in. One of my whole things was, 'I am only here to do the music'. That was perfect, because I was the perfect foil for everything else happening. I said, 'No. I am just going to stand here and play my ass off. That's what I do! OK?' Then everybody said, 'Oh, this is really good-having this guy who is out in left field.' And I had an Afro like, out to here (laughs). I would just stand there and play and all this other stuff was going on. Anyway, Peter eventually became a main part of the band.
AAJ: There were no equivalents around. What was a point of comparison? Zappa, maybe?
RR: Not really at all no. I think we could have taken it further musically in certain ways. I probably say that because I was so close to it I could imagine it going in other ways-but it was pretty cool. We did so many gigs and it got that we were so on top of that music and we could shape it.
AAJ: It's a legendary outfit.
RR: We had some gigs- the band at its best 'we had half a dozen gigs I know were life-changing experiences for a lot of the audience. There were times that the band would hit so hard and there was so much happening that you'd get this connection that was scary at times.
AAJ: It was like the Blue Man Group or performance art mixed with great music
RR: But it was a band -it wasn't ever like a theatrical presentation. It had theater in it but it felt so much like a band. It was like, people were there to hear a band, yet it had all this other stuff to it. If you go see Blue Man Group, at times it's a theater thing that's almost like a band, but it's not. A theatre experience is quite a bit different from a band/musical experience, you know. This was a band/musical experience that completely went nuts. At the end, when I left, and the drummer and Lisa all left at the same time, it was'I basically decided I needed to do something that was pure music. This was in '75-6.
The record came out in '75. It was supposed to come out fall of '74, but the guy before Steve Popovich, the actual head of Epic Records, came up to hear us and decided two tunes into the show that we hadn't recorded two tunes that needed to be on the record! It was a totally good call. So it ended up coming out March or April.
AAJ: What a level of involvement from a label.
RR: They would roll out the red carpet for us when we went into New York too. They'd take us to places in a limo and we'd come into the big CBS building there and the receptionist would usher us up. They had a dozen people on the label. There was Patti Labelle- they loved her-and we hung out with her a whole bunch. It was a whole different time. Then the record got released, and I'll explain where it started to fall apart. What they should have done was put us into CBGB's. They didn't. Their point was, "You've won the hearts of Boston. You've got to get New York." They put us into a fancy club on the Upper East Side, called the "Little Hippodrome," four nights a week for a month. They put us up in a beautiful residence hotel within walking distance of the club. It was great fun but it wasn't right for the band. It was the kind of place that would have nightclubby acts, and then bands sometimes. It was glitzy, playing more toward the cabaretness of what we did than the "bandness" of what we did. We should have done CBGBs, and in fact, we played there later. I'm sure Epic could have massaged that. I mean, we played there afterwards without a record deal. When we played at the Hippodrome we got a lot of good reviews, some bad reviews, but we never packed the place. It just did not really happen. The real killer is that everyone at Epic records that was into our band, the whole upper echelon, all left the company in one group. It was Popovich who replaced whoever it was that had us add the tunes. He was the new guy. A bunch of them came to hear us at the Little Hippodrome and they basically decided they weren't really into it; a week after the record was released! First of all I thought, 'Wow! They spent 90 grand on us. How are they not going to want to recoup that? No matter what, they're going to promote us enough so that they get their money back and then we've got a good start.' They didn't care about losing the 90 grand! They were like, 'We're not into this. See you later.'
AAJ: So you lost the core group of backers and that was it?
RR: In one month we had everything and at the end of it we didn't have anything. It was like the whole thing. I think we sold, like 10,000 records. That's probably before returns. We probably sold 7,000. So we hung on. We actually played at Frank Zappa's anniversary party for something. Someone decided we'd be perfect, along with Patti Smith. I remember he really liked it. He was going to help us with another record deal. We started playing CBGBs that summer. We started playing with other bands, and after four gigs, it started getting packed with fans. I mean if Popovich had seen us at CBGBs with lines coming in, instead of a half-full room at the other club, who knows what would have happened? We started blowing the roof off of that place. Trying to do that without label support was difficult. So between that and seeing the other kinds of bands that were playing CBGBs, the whole new wave thing, I decided it wasn't for me by the end of that summer-like '76-'77. So I quit that and started trying to do my own band. I had some management.
AAJ: Is this Mistral ?
RR: Well, I think you're familiar with the record and the band post the record, but the band prior to that point, with Ron Mooradian on sax, was the real next part. I had the drummer from Luna and Ron playing tenor and soprano and a few different bassists, one of whom was Kermit Driscoll. Then toward the end of that period, Bill Frisell joined the band. So for about four months we had Frisell and Driscoll. That was really, really tough.
AAJ: With Frisell and Kermit?
RR: It's like I thought I had this whole charmed existence for Luna and when that fell apart, I still thought I did. I had a guy immediately approach me to manage me, because 'I was the guitarist from Orchestra Luna and everybody loved you and so all we gotta do is continue that momentum into this music and it will be a piece of cake.' He'd successfully been managing the John Payne Group and they had a deal with Arista and did OK for a while. He was hooked up with the right system for a jazz project - he thought he could really make it happen. I had written some tunes, and what happened was, I had written a tune a year, and they were all great! (Laughs) So my batting average was 1,000 and suddenly, I've got a band and I have to write the whole repertoire for that band'like fast! I didn't have it together as a writer. I didn't have an idea what I wanted for direction. I didn't think in terms of what would connect with an audience at all. I was just thinking in terms of what I loved. And the two things I loved at that time were Coltrane and Bartok.
What I learned from that experience was it's great to combine aspects of different musical languages as long as they don't fight each other. It's easy to look at musical languages and see elements where they potentially fight. Suppose you look at Coltrane's music and compare it to Beethoven's music. If you were to consider Coltrane's music from the standpoint of Beethoven's, Coltrane's would be bad. Because Beethoven's music was built on highly organized structure that were adhered to in a magnificent way; tremendous use of orchestral colors, development of themes (which is also a big element of Coltrane's music), development through different uses of color and orchestration. If you look at Coltrane's music, there's no orchestration, there's no sonata form happening-all these things aren't happening, so it's bad music. Similarly, if you analyze Beethoven's by Coltrane's structure-there's no improvisation, no soloing, no drummer, the rhythms are stiff, the rhythm section isn't happening, western classical music is all inside-actually it's not, but' I was trying to combine aspects Coltrane, Bartok and Weather Report, which was the third thing I loved, in ways, that just did not work at times. Sometimes they did. Like I'd say, 'Marcel Marceau' worked. I had elements of Bartok in there- I even used the Fibonnacci series that Bartok was into in some of the compositional elements . That was one where some of these language elements, by chance, worked together. But a lot of the stuff we were doing just didn't happen like that, and it was very challenging for us to play, and we were not at the level where we could play the stuff consistently, and even if we did, it was at a point where audiences just couldn't understand it. We were getting gigs in listening bars where yeah, they could handle jazz, if it had a beat, a melody and hot soloing ' we did a lot of hot soloing - but we didn't have the kind of consistent groove thing and consistent structure thing that people could just understand immediately. That group did very badly. We played a lot of rooms that called our manager back the same day and said, 'Don't ever send that band to us again!'
This was the precursor to stuff that ended up on the Mistral recording, before we weeded it out. I was really struggling with learning how to compose. I'd say I was doing student works and presenting them in public as supposedly professional compositions. Some nights were very good, but we had a lot of bad gigs with that band. I remember meeting Bret Willmott years after that. He said, 'I used to go hear your band. That was a good band on a good night.' I said, 'I know what you mean.' He said, 'I know you know what I mean.'(Laughs)
AAJ: Can you shed a little light on the Fibonacci thing?
RR: Some of Bartok's stuff was based on the series to every bar of music. Not only did it adhere to that mathematical formula, but also it sounded great and was emotionally happening- totally. To be able to put that together, to decide, well, here's a mathematical law of nature I want to incorporate into my music, and to make it beautiful the way he did- unbelievable. The Fibonacci is an additive number series. If you take one and add it to itself it's 2. 2 added to 1 is 3. 3 added to 2 is 5. It goes on 8, 13, 21, and off you go. If you then take all the ratios of pairs of numbers, like out to infinity and average those ratios you come up with the 'golden section,' which is phi, the basic ratio all the Greek architecture is built on. This is part of why his music exudes nature. It makes you feel like you're outside and there are beautiful things happening around, with creatures around, maybe at night. He wanted to get a law of nature to be consistently part of his music and thought that it might work. And it did! It's one thing just to write a good tune. Then to be able to write good music, but constrain yourself to a very tight mathematical schedule throughout every aspect of the music is just way beyond genius. The first movement of 'Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste'- even the bar numbers- it's 89 bars long and the climax happens at bar 55 -both Fibonacci numbers. After 55 the whole thing mirrors down and goes quicker because it happens two thirds of the way between the piece. In those days I was fascinated by that and it was deadly, because I was trying to get those kinds of things happening in groove oriented jazz. I should have been learning how to play more rhythm guitar at that point, y'know! (Laughs)
AAJ: How'd you hook up with Bill Frisell?
RR: I met Frisell through Kermit. They were roommates from the Midwest going to Berklee. We were playing at Michael's Pub in Boston every week and we were looking for a new bassist, so I invited Kermit down. We had a good night. He brought Bill and they both completely loved the band. Frisell called me up to do some lessons. I gave Bill Frisell lessons for about half a year.
I couldn't-I mean we'd play some tunes and it would just be so great-so I was like, 'Well' what?' It was like he was hiring me and paying me to teach him stuff, so I would assume the role of the teacher and say, 'Here's some stuff to work on that maybe you don't know.' And he didn't know some of the things I knew so I'd give him those things.
AAJ: Maybe it was like Mick, because you wound up playing with him too.
RR: Oh, no. I knew nothing when I started with Mick. We had the student- teacher roles very much intact when I studied with Mick (laughs). But Mick became a great Orchestra Luna fan. He was doing these group lessons and a few times he'd bring his entire group down to like, Paul's Mall to hear us. Every time Mick came to hear us we had a great night. And I had no idea he as there 'til the end or near the end. I'd probably have played like crap if I knew he was there. I was glad he heard good gigs when he brought his group. He was into the whole Gurdjieff thing then. I was in one of the first group-student things he did. We'd meet like 4 hours, one night a week. He had projects for us to do and we'd work on stuff together and present stuff to each other. He's totally one of the great music teachers- ever.
AAJ: So back to your band
RR: When Frisell joined the band it was right at the end of that band's time. That's when it started to hit a stride, which was unfortunate because we'd burned all our working bridges. We did college gigs and some other stuff, but we broke up. I worked on Nantucket at a restaurant for a summer, with a pianist. It was fortunate because there was one jazz club there also. The restaurant I played at had just a single seating, a set menu. We only played from 8 to 10. At 10 I'd go to the jazz club and sit in with people.like I sat in with Webster Lewis for a week'that was great. That's because Alyrio Lima , who played percussion on the Mistral record, lived in Nantucket at the time and played in that band. That night there was a lot of jamming and a lot of it was rearranging tunes, like a funk arrangement of 'I Remember April'. I remember me and another guitarist, a more rock guy, got into this 15 minute, wailing-at-each-other kind of thing that was actually completely appropriate. The band had worked itself into this zone..these wailing, sweeping, interweaving lines together- and then it just stopped. The crowd just screamed for ten minutes. In a musical life, maybe you've done thousands of gigs and you think back to your dozen most memorable musical moments..that's one of them. One of the reasons is that I distinctly remember thinking, 'This stuff is really weird. We are really doing weird stuff here and I am afraid to stop because I am afraid the club owner is going tell us to leave or that the audience is going to start throwing things at us.' The jam ended right at that point. After a pregnant pause and the audience screaming, the band kind of looked around at each other and said, 'Oh, I guess that was okay.'(Laughs) That's my 1977 Nantucket highlight!
Then- I went to Berklee! For one year. I wanted to just do Berklee and try to make some contacts. My band had folded. I thought, 'I have to learn some more stuff 'it's clear to me there is a lot of stuff I don't have together.' I thought, 'What you should do is try to land an established sideman position.'
To do that I need some more skills I could get at Berklee- some ensemble work and really work on my reading. That whole summer I was in Nantucket, I worked on my reading three to four hours a day. I'll never be a good reader. I put a lot of time into it and got so I was an ok, functional reader. It's something I have a negative talent for.
I auditioned for placement with a teacher who had heard me in clubs. He said, 'What are you doing here?' I said, 'I'm going to Berklee.' He asked me if I could read and put something simple in front of me and I read it. Now, if most guys go in and can read, they give a score of three. He gave me sevens and eights. Within five minutes of entering the school, I was in the absolute upper echelon of students. I didn't have that kind of reading skills. His point was, 'I don't know if you can cut this or not..I am just going to give this to you.' He gave me that look of, 'I don't know if I'm doing the right thing or not, but here it is.' It was great! I hooked up with Phil Wilson and I did a lot with Mike Gibbs- recording'wise and stuff. When I did the advanced placement for ear training, I placed immediately out of the entire program, so they were really sensitive to that. So I did four years of stuff in a year! After having done literally thousands of gigs, etc., I found I had acquired some very useful skills.
AAJ: So had you developed all those wonderful chords, all that advanced chordal stuff that you do and have done for years, by then? Before you went to Berklee?
RR: Yeah. I learned all that from Mick.
AAJ: Can you tell me what some of that is?
RR: It's very simple. It has nothing to do with chords and everything to do with lines and scales. If you take a scale and you harmonize the scale-just like going up diatonically with some kind of structure-you can decide on those structures any number of ways. If you harmonize a scale that way, you therefore have harmony that applies to that scale and what's really important, any mode from that scale. So if you harmonize a melodic minor scale for instance-the seventh mode will be altered dominant- so by harmonizing some chord structure and moving it through a melodic minor scale, not only do you get interesting ways of dealing with melodic minor harmony, you get interesting ways of working with dominant seventh chords-provided that chord is functioning as a V chord and can handle all those tensions on it.
AAJ: That's like the 'trick' of playing melodic minor up a half step from the root of the fifth chord right?
RR: Yes. Now if you take harmony that way, and stop thinking of chords and just think of using the harmonic zone of say, an altered dominant scale, and you work on interesting combinations of intervals applied to each other from that scale- all aspects of that scale- and all harmonic aspects of all the modes of that scale 'you end up with a ton of possibilities. First, you go through and generate possibilities, and then you use your aesthetic to decide which stuff you like and which you don't. As soon as you mathematically permute something-well, you might like a sound somebody else doesn't. You end up with a bunch of possibilities that intrigue you and sound good to you. You work on them and start applying them. Eventually you start to get so that you can mix and match with these things and start to see the fingerboard, not so much in terms of chord forms, but more in terms of say, parallelisms happening on individual strings relating to combinations of notes coming from these scales. It's a different mindset. It's not like I'm playing a chord, now a different one, like out of a chord book- you remove that kind of thinking from the way you deal with the instrument. You deal with it the way a keyboard player does-it's linear. Guitar is very linear-it just happens to be six parallel lines. But if you can see the scales on those six parallel lines simultaneously, you can play whatever voicings you want to play. If you tie these into things you've worked with, that you know you like, being generated by these various ways of permutating harmony- basically, just by taking structured notes and running up and down a scale diatonically and then trying all that against all the modes- you end up with a much more open view of harmony than if you are playing out of a chord book. It's really simple, but it's not easy.
AAJ: Holdsworth has explained it ultra-simply in interviews before..something like, 'Just take all the notes of any scale, and play them as the chords.'
RR: That's it, but there are lots of ways of finding ways of doing that. You can take a fourth structure, a triad over a bass note, or just a triad. That's what I always start students with-triads up and down the scales. Get so that you can see that. Learning to do that against all the scales and especially all the modal implications of those scales. So a major scale is not used for a major tonality, but a Dorian tonality, a Mixolydian tonality, a Lydian tonality, a minor 7th flat 5, which is a Locrian tonality. If you get so that you're equally comfortable with all those different viewpoints...
AAJ: That's easy enough on a major scale, but carrying that to melodic minor, harmonic minor and'
RR: You don't need that many and the thing is, if you really explore a lot of cool possibilities from really important simple elements -major scales, melodic minor scales, to some degree harmonic minor scales, to some degree George Russell's Lydian minor - he calls it Lydian diminished but it's a Lydian with a minor third. With diminished scales you get some really neat stuff. You get some really neat triads over bass notes. There are a lot of major and minor triads in the diminished scales. It's just like math-it generates a whole ton of possibilities-then, you use your tastes and your particular genius to figure out which of those really rock your world, and you learn to make really good use of those. Of course, sometimes it's good to go back-sometimes the one that didn't rock your world suddenly do. But Mick-very early on I got into his way of looking at it. It made total sense to me right away. It was like, 'OH! Why didn't I think of that?!' A piece of cake in terms of understanding it and where it could go. Then you spend the years and try to get enough stuff together so that it's useful to you.
AAJ: The average cat can barely get past the first cut of that stuff.
RR: Well, it takes time. For a number of years I was blessed with a real nice cheap living situation. I had a cool little apartment in an old farmhouse. I could have a few students over, and work on my music. I even won a grant - a friend convinced me to enter a grant competition. The only requirement was sending in two finished pieces of music. One of the two pieces was an early version of 'Marcel Marceau.' 3000 bucks was a lot of money then! It's a lot easier if you don't have to work eight hours a day.
AAJ: So after Berklee'
RR: My original plan was to do a year or two, but then to nail a sideman gig. But the original manager of Orchestra Luna called and asked me if I wanted to do a record. This was in the spring. I said, 'Sure'. While I was at Berklee, I started to play with Louis DeAndrade, a drummer who was great and a lot more open. I had a gig every Tuesday with my band, which now included Mike Stern. I thought I wanted a percussionist and I wanted someone with a name. I got Alyrio Lima that way. For bass, Stern said, 'We gotta get Neil Stubenhaus !' He was just out of Berklee and ready to go to LA. and make it, which he obviously did. He was great, although he wasn't during rehearsals-he couldn't read at all then. Mike had done a lot of gigs with him. We were driving home after a rehearsal and I'd dropped Neil off and I asked Mike, 'Is this going to work?' He said, 'It's going to be really cool . As soon as the record button is hit he's going to be smokin'.' That's exactly what happened. He had the music totally down. He'd obviously worked on it and he just nailed it. Most of the stuff was one or two takes. DeAndrade also smokes on that record. Last I heard, he moved to Japan and is teaching English there.
AAJ: How'd you meet Stern?
RR: Well, I had gotten to know Bill Frisell quite well, and he was a friend of Mike's. Plus Stern had approached me for lessons also, when I was with Orchestra Luna, and I didn't have time. I had heard about Mike and Bill said, 'You guys should get together.' So we did. We practiced a lot, sometimes 'til dawn together. Turn a metronome on and play 'Giant Steps' with each other for, like four hours (Laughs). He was at Berklee and stayed awhile after. For a while, Bill would do that standing Tuesday gig when Mike couldn't make it. One time we did a gig with me, Mike and Bill only, a guitar trio.
AAJ: Oh my, really?