Oteil Burbridge: Making Peace

Phil DiPietro By

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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.
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