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Oteil Burbridge: Making Peace


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Oteil Burbridge is most famous in the world of rock'n'roll, as the southern rock-bassist's bassist, locking down the groove with a pick and a P-Bass like the Allman's founding master of that groove, Berry Oakley.

Oteil is most renowned for his role as a core member and virtuoso bassist on the jamband scene, and specifically for his role in the Aquarium Rescue Unit (ARU), whose extended jazzy jams had more in common with the southern-tinged fusion of the Dixie Dregs or the old school chitlin-circuit George Benson (with Oteil's bass taking George's 64 bar solos) than the exploratory noodlings of the Grateful Dead and Phish. He is also a member of Frogwings, sometimes referred to by jamband cognoscenti as the Allman Rescue Unit, whose Y2K release is the rare live debut, as was the ARU's, and is generally regarded as the year's top release in the genre (see review link). With these units, he has virtually pioneered laying in plenty of chords on the bass within the context of a rock vocal tune. No other player drops these sweet voicings in as tastefully, at a whim, changing it up every night, like Oteil does./>

Burning equally brightly inside of Mr. Burbridge is a more deeply "jazz" persona, manifesting itself in many of his projects. With his own band, The Peacemakers, he is the principal songwriter and leader of a band steeped in a southern-feel, gospel-inflected, organic jazz, while his guest appearances with Soulive place him in the primary role of co-soloist, playing Pat Martino and Wes Montgomery to organist Neal Evans' Trudy Pitts and Jimmy Smith. Remarkably, his tone with this outfit cuts through the mix equally, if not better, than the guitarist's in the band, Erik Krasno. With The Funkin' Truth, he provides the cushion for myth/mystical Meters' guitarist Leo Neocentelli to float on, also soloing at length on every tune. On "The Stranger's Hand," Oteil kicks it hard with drummer Steve Smith, ex-Flecktone Howard Levy and Mahavishnite Jerry Goodman on grooves that recall and synthesize their various experiences. Add to all this that he can play in any style, with a phraseology so musical it is at once hummable and unfathomable, and is one of the few jazz soloists that scats in unison with his instrument, in a voice capable of extreme power over a sweeping range. Remember that if any element of his style is his signature, it is his seemingly self-devised system of resoundingly rich and never muddy sounding, sometimes heavily altered chords, voiced on the bass guitar. Finally, like Benson, another Burbridge trademark is taking the yeoman jazz vamp into absolutely uncharted harmonic and chops-laden territory. Certainly, I don't have to continue to make the case to anyone who has seen or heard him, that he is one of the most exciting jazz players and jazz soloists working today.

Therein lies the rub, and the impetus for this All About Jazz interview with this gracious (and candid) monster player.

All About Jazz: In terms of the numbers, you're best known, as a rock player with the Allmans, and right behind that, as a jamband star. It seems that in terms of your prodigious talents and skills as a player, you get a disproportionate amount of attention in jazz circles. Do you find this frustrating, and do you have any plans to change people's outlooks or your own focus in that regard?

Oteil Burbridge: No, it doesn't bug me because I'm not really a jazz musician. I haven't really practiced soloing through jazz standards in depth. I can't go to one of those jazz jam sessions and play "Giant Steps." I consider myself a funk player with strong jazz and Latin influences. I actually would disagree with you though, regarding the amount of attention I'm getting. I think the jazz community is much more aware of what I'm really capable of, but I just get more press in the rock world.

AAJ: I don't know the exact timeframe, but I know your move to New York in 1999-2000 seemed to bring a flurry of jazz related activity with it, including the Soulive collaboration, spinoff units with Eric Krasno, and the Funkin' Truth tour with Leo Neocentelli? Care to elaborate on how all this gigging and collaboration came about?

OB: It really came about because I was at the low point in my life. I had lost the battle with drug, alcohol and sex addiction. I left my wife because I was unable to be a good husband and I was miserable, so I moved to New York. I figured that I'd at least try to play with some good people so my life would be worth something. About nine months later I had an extremely powerful experience which eventually led to me becoming a Christian (a major miracle in itself!) and since then , with God's help, I have successfully abstained from drugs, put my marriage back together, and been a faithful husband. I also don't live in New York anymore but I still love to play with those same people. In fact, you will probably be seeing them on my next album!

AAJ: During this time in New York, or even before, did you jam with any well-known jazz heavyweights?

OB: I've been very lucky to play with some of my heroes, like Jerry Goodman, Dennis Chambers, Steve Smith, John Pattitucci, Tony Levin, and Roger Hawkins.

AAJ: All these projects, as well as the Peacemakers tour in 2000, show that you're committed to the "jazz" side.

OB: Well, I would say that I'm committed to a "jazzier" style. Rock and Roll pays for my retirement and the Peacemakers feeds my soul.

AAJ: I was fortunate to see you at a gig that was very sparsely attended (which was unfortunate, for you) due to its lack of advertising and some misinformation on Pollstar. You guys played for about two and a half hours. During the gig, a window was broken and you guys kept on keepin' on -just a performance that speaks volumes about your work ethic and your touring ethic. Can you tell us where this comes from?

OB: I don't care if I don't have 20,000 people at my shows. This music is for God and for me. Anyone else who wants to come along for the ride, great! I guess that it comes from my experience with the Aquarium Rescue Unit. We never cared about all of that. If you put that stuff first, you would never do anything artistic at all, you would just go play with the Backstreet Boys! You start small though and it eventually builds up.

AAJ: When you couple the this with your consistency as a performer it's staggering. How many gigs in how many nights did you do on that Peacemakers tour? How do you keep your voice in shape for all that powerful scatting?

OB: Well, I try to take a minimum of two days a week off. We did 22 cities in 27 nights on that tour, though.. Doing it every night is what strengthens the voice and the playing chops too. When we used to do 200 gigs a year with the ARU, I never had to practice and my chops were the best they've ever been.

AAJ: Tell us about the Peacemakers How did you pick the different lineups you've used?

OB: The grace of God is how I find my band members. I've never been able to have the same lineup twice. Sometimes I think, "Oh shit, I'm not going to be able to get everybody that I need!" But then it all works out somehow.

AAJ: What about how you'd classify the music? I think there is a powerful southern-ness that runs through the compositions.

OB: I HOPE that there is a southern quality to it. I'm not from the south but most of my favorite music is. Southern music, (at least the older stuff) has a humble, earthy vibe that is unique. I hope that even a little of that comes out in my music. I don't know how to classify it though.

AAJ: The live sets are such a great, organic expansion of the tunes on the cd. I don't know if its just the way you play together or it comes out of the jamband ethos, but the way the improvisations evolve for all the bandmembers-you know, that kind of relaxed, "take your time, have another chorus"-really makes the live experience. It never devolves into , for lack of a better term, some of the jamband noodling that characterizes some of these other bands. It just gets more burning as it gets handed around to Mark, Kebbi, Jason or Kofi, and yourself.

OB: First off, I think that it's a mistake to attribute the origin of the "jam" to rock and roll. The ORIGINAL "jambands," The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers Band were influenced by JAZZ to start doing long jams. I think that the more background that you have in Jazz, the less likely your jams will devolve into boring noodling. It's called IMPROVISATION !

AAJ: Point most duly noted, and most heartily agreed ! Have you thought about just releasing a live one with the Peacemakers?

OB: No not yet, but eventually yes. I need to have the same lineup for an extended period of time to do that.

AAJ: Would you rather be doing the Peacemakers with Kofi, or do you even think in those terms?

OB: I'd always rather play with Kofi than without, but I've been really blessed to find Jason Crosby who plays keys and violin. He's got a great album that I played on called" Out Of The Box."

OB: The Allmans only work six months a year so I still have half of the year to do what I want.

AAJ: Give us a look at your composing process. Do the tunes come to you off the page, out of your head, or evolve from jams?

OB: They usually start with the drums. I'm originally a drummer. I've got a drum set, a keyboard and a couple of guitars so I'll start on any one of those depending on the mood I'm in.

AAJ: Why does the Soulive style speak to you so powerfully? For people that haven't seen your gigs with them, you're more of a co-soloist, playing some basslines.

OB: CAUSE THEY'RE SO DAMN FUNKY!!!! I love them like I love cornbread man! The MOST IMPORTANT thing with any band is CHEMISTRY. AND LORD HAVE THEY GOT IT!!!!!

AAJ: You're a bassist that solos on the same level as the best hard-bop guitarists, ever. Plus you scat at will, like very few players ever have. Benson is the only one that comes to mind. I notice cats like Rosenwinkel and Charlie Hunter are scatting a bit lately, but they have nowhere near the powerful richness of your voice. Even when you go high, you could bowl someone over in the front row!

OB: Well I appreciate that, but I don't think that I'm anywhere near as good as Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Grant Green, Kenny Burrell, Pat Martino, Joe Pass, Herb Ellis, Tal Farlow etc.

AAJ: How did you develop your jazz guitar type chops?

OB: I got what I have from hearing the players I mentioned growing up in my house. My dad is a jazz fanatic. I never got as heavy into the standards, like those guys did, though. I was into funk, and fusion and then later on blues and bluegrass. But I had that background in jazz and Latin music.

AAJ: Who influences or informs your playing as a soloist? As a bassist?

OB: Most of all Kofi, but then I would say Elvin Jones, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Allan Holdsworth, Jaco Pastorious and ten thousand others.

AAJ: How do you achieve that sound on bass, that ability to cut through even in jazz guitar trio sort of, second guitarist?

OB: That is because of the engineering genius of Modulus Guitars!

AAJ: Ever thought about doing duets with yourself on a disc? I think you could do a one man Herb Ellis and Joe Pass kind of thing. Plus, you can play very percussively.

OB: I'm actually planning on playing everything on one or two cuts on my next album-bass, drums, guitar, and keyboards.

AAJ: Tell us about some of the extended percussion things you do with the KYDD bass. I mean, you were even "playing" the stand it rests on! That was a great element of last year's Peacemakers gigs.

OB: That's another one of those things that I'm able to do because of the wonderful design of that instrument. Bruce Kaminsky is simply a genius.

AAJ: You've done a few collaborative things with Victor Wooten. Are there any other low-enders you'd like to record with?

OB: Victor is the most revolutionary bassist to come down the pike in 30 years man! I'd also love to do something with Gary Willis and Mike Pope. I think that those are the two best cats out there right now. Talk about having your jazz standards down! whew!!!

AAJ: Speaking of Victah..your stars seem somewhat attached to one another's, which is fitting . Tell our readers about your special connection with Vic and his savant-like brother, Regi.

OB: Well, Victor and I met through a phenomenal jazz drummer named Billy Drummond. We were both about 19. All the Wooten brothers thoroughly blew my mind, as they still do. Victor has created a totally new technique. Even Jaco played using a totally conventional technique. It was his style that was so different. With Victor, it's his style AND his technique. He is one of the modern wonders of the world. He's like the pyramids!

AAJ: One more Victor question. He's said on more than one occasion that YOU are the greatest bassist on the planet. When asked why he says that " I would like to be able to HEAR music like Oteil does." I'd like to ask HIM to expand on that, but since I've got YOU here, I'll ask you to. Can you venture or specify as to exactly what he means? Because if you think about it while listening to your playing, answers reveal themselves. The stuff you do with pentatonics, the incredibly rich and kind of HUGE sound you get with the chords , the single note stuff sort of getting outer and outer over the vamps, only to come back to the consonant sounds again...?

OB: I don't have the most chops and I certainly am not the most well-versed in jazz standards, which I do feel is the highest peak to reach for. I respect jazz players the most as far as the amount of discipline that's required to play that music. However, I think that God put us all here to do different things. If I was really supposed to be the best jazz player I would have no choice but to go that route. I am lazy but not when it comes to something that I have a burning desire to do. I'm jealous of guys like Jaco, Gary Willis and Mike Pope but not enough to pursue that direction, so I had to check out my motivation. What I've found is that there is a sound in my head that requires a knowledge of playing changes but in a more funk type of setting. Or any groove for that matter. I love odd-time stuff and Latin grooves too. So, I chase that sound that I hear in my head. That's where my strength is. It's more about that sound than it is about the bass.

AAJ: Any unsung up-and -comers on the bass, or any other instrument, you'd like to tell us about?

OB: I'm still trying to find out about those guys myself. The ones that I know are pretty "sung"-like Matt Garrison. I don't know how many people know about Mike Pope -BUT THEY WILL !

AAJ: Tell us about the making of the Steve Smith cd, "The Stranger's Hand."

OB: Well, that was such a gas because Steve and Jerry (Goodman) were two of my heroes from my teenage years. I heard that album recently after not hearing it for a long time and it floored me. I have to get away from stuff for a while to tell if I really like it or not. I still haven't even listened to the (Allman's)"Peakin' At The Beacon" record!

AAJ: Tell us about your recent reunion with the Colonel, Sipe and Jimmy at the Warren Haynes Xmas jam. How's it feel?

OB: Just like a favorite pair of jeans. it was so much fun to do that again. We're talking about doing some more dates with that lineup. It seems we're more popular now than when we were together!

AAJ: Being as proficient is as you are in so many styles, it must be very difficult to figure out what's next. Does it become hard to figure out what the next direction? Or is there no question in your own mind about what takes priority?

OB: Honestly, I just don't bother to think about it!

AAJ: To narrow down these types of issues a bit, let's just take your jazzier Peacemakery side, for example, and look at the venues you play. I mean, in New York, you play rooms like the Wetlands and the Lion's Den instead of ,say, the Blue Note. Or to take it to another level, you're playing all summer it huge venues with the Brothers. If, for some reason, the Allman's took a summer off, I would think the Peacemakers could play the European summer jazz festival tour and be received amazingly well.

OB: I would love to do the jazz festivals but the rock scene is where we're at right now. One of these days God will deliver me into those festivals. I'm happy right now where I'm at though.

AAJ: I heard you jammed with the P-Funk crew this year. Anything coming of that?

OB: Actually, that ALMOST happened but it didn't.

AAJ: Any other interesting projects you've got going under the radar screen?

Not at the moment. Just the next Peacemakers with some special guests.

AAJ: With all you've got going on, is there a fantasy jazz call or two that would make you reprioritize everything?

OB: Half of me would say "no..." but let's face it, if Wayne Shorter called and said that him and Joe wanted to put Weather Report back together with me and Erskine, I'm pretty sure I'd quit every band I was in and make a childhood dream come true. Hey, you only live once!

AAJ: I have seen you take so much time with your fans at Peacemakers gigs...answering questions for what must be the umpteenth time ..sharing road stories..showing bass players chords..letting the fans record the sounds and video the proceedings. In fact, the only musician I know that's nicer to the fans than you is Jimmy (Herring)...What makes you such a generous sprit in that regard?

OB: Well a couple of things. I didn't used to be that way. Seeing how Bela Fleck was with his fans really blew me away. People don't forget that kind of stuff for the rest of their lives. And also some bad experiences that I've had with my heroes. That being said though, I can't always be available to people because I am human and sometimes I just want to run, but I think there's a nice way to do that and a shitty way. I apologize to all those who I treated in the latter fashion.

AAJ: Ok... So tell the fans of your jazzier side of the spectrum what to expect.

OB: The Peacemakers will be on the road again in April 2001. And watch out y'all, the Peacemakers may be in the stores soon!! Updates will be at my website. We start working on the next Peacemakers record in March while I'm in N.Y.C. with the Allman Brothers Band. Hopefully it will be a record that's even more jazzy, funky, humble, southern, and spiritual than the last one. This next one will be dedicated to Joshua, the son of a carpenter otherwise known as Jesus Christ. I guess it will be the first jazz, funk, southern fried, fusion, gospel album!!!

AAJ: Sounds amazing...Anything else you'd like to add?

OB: Just that I'm so grateful to be able to share my thoughts life and music with everyone. And God Bless.

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