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Don Alias: A Tribute

Mike Brannon By

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World-class conguero, salsero, drummer and percussionist extraordinaire, Charles Donald Alias was born on Christmas Day, 1939—though obviously the music world had yet to know the gift it had received.

With a half century and most of his life spent in music, Alias not only performed across a profound cross-section of modern music but was a catalyst in its forging. It's a deep honor that's tempered with great sadness to share this loss and to be responsible for Alias' last interview.

There are few things anyone could say that could match or mirror what only those who knew him best could express. So here then are the words of his peers to tell the story of this great talent who touched so many of us more profoundly than we know.

Index

Gil Goldstein
John Scofield
Steve Swallow
Randy Brecker
Gene Perla
Chick Corea
Marc Copland
Jack DeJohnette
Dave Liebman
Peter Erskine
Mike Stern
Chuck Mangione
Corey Allen and Family
John Abercrombie
Steve Khan
Melanie Futorian


Gil Goldstein

"Don Alias set the standard for sensitivity in a percussionist. He was a rare sound innovator, who changed the sound and scope of the congas and every instrument that he touched. He was a consummate accompanist.

"I remember Jaco marveling at how Don and Herbie [Hancock] complemented one another on his first record. I met Don when I started playing with Carles Benavente and Jorge Pardo, two great flamenco musicians who had worked previously with Don together with Chick Corea. Both Carles and Jorge are 20-year veterans of Paco de Lucia and they felt that Don and Alex Acuna were the only ones outside of Spain that could play the flamenco rhythms, particularly the bulerias and solea. Don's rhythm came from another place, not bounded by country or style.

"Karlheinz Stockhausen wrote a piece in which the instructions to the player were 'Play the rhythm of the universe. Play the rhythm of your smallest particles. Play all the rhythms in between.' Don did that every time he played. class="f-right"> Return to Index...


John Scofield

"I'm very sad about Don. Before I met Don I remember hearing him live with Miles and then with Elvin Jones. I was a great admirer of his...he was the only conga player I ever heard who could fit in with and compliment Elvin's style. That says a lot right there.

"We worked together in different projects in the '80s and '90s. He played percussion on many of my albums. Don was a master at Latin percussion who was equally adept at jazz. I don't know of any others. His beat was exceptional and the sound he produced was phenomenal.

Steve Swallow called him the Casals of the congas and I'll second that. His nickname was Lungs but I'm not sure how he got it. Don always made playing music a lot of fun.....and deep." class="f-right"> Return to Index...

Steve Swallow

"Don Alias could play with anyone, anytime. In whatever music he played, he provided the invisible threads that held the rest of us together. He made music from anything at hand, all the time. class="f-right"> Return to Index...


Randy Brecker

"Don's vibrant spirit and unique music are irreplaceable—he was simply 'one of a kind' in all ways. In the late '60s and early '70s we would jam together at bassist Gene Perla's loft along with Jan Hammer on keyboards practically every day...both Jan and Don were great trap drummers, so they would split the drum chair. 'Lungs' as we called him just killed on drums, but due to his vast knowledge of world music and world percussion instruments he became best-known as a first call percussionist (more: a colorist), but I'll never forget him at Genes's loft...we'd say "c'mon Lungs let's bash," and he would class="f-right"> Return to Index...


Gene Perla

"Don represented a triumph of determination and dedication to music. But, he didn't lose sight of compassion for others. He had an inquisitive mind open to suggestion. Mostly, I could count on him to lead and follow at the same time.

"Musically, he was one of a kind who shuffled genre feelings in a constant stream of creativity. His sense of comedy was a joy to experience, and his commitment to seriousness a blessing. My best friend, my partner, may you be an inspiration to those who follow." class="f-right"> Return to Index...


Chick Corea

"It was sad news hearing of the passing of my friend Don. He was one of the Musical Gods in my life—a man and an artist with a strong and personal offering in everything he touched both musically and in life.

"My first contact with Don was way back in Boston in the late '50s when I was still in high school. We had put a little trio together, Don on congas and upright bass, myself on piano and a very young Tony Williams on drums. It was An Adventure I won't forget.

"I also have fond memories of Don playing in my band on the tour we did with Paco Delucia, Carles Benavent and Tom Brechtlein, going on to record together in South Africa on our record Again And Again (Elektra, 1982). I send my heartfelt condolences to Don's family and my love to Don wherever his journey takes him. class="f-right"> Return to Index...


Marc Copland

"One of the most life-changing things that can happen to an artist is when one's preconceptions are shattered. This forces one to reassess one's perceptions of the music, and can result in a period of fresh growth with a new, less fettered perspective. Don Alias shattered mine once, and I'm grateful for that. During the early '70s, Elvin Jones' band used to work the [Village] Vanguard all the time. In those days Steve Grossman, Dave Liebman, and Gene Perla were in the band, so those of us who knew them or played with them were down there a lot.

"There was a period during which Don played congas with Elvin's band. I'll never forget the first week they played with Don at the Vanguard. When Randy Brecker told me about it, I was incredulous. What, I thought, could congas possibly do—even when played by a virtuoso like Don—in a band with perhaps the most polyrhythmically-sophisticated drummer of his time, except get in the way? Randy replied that, believe it or not, it sounded great and that Don's groove was deeper than Elvin's, providing the rhythmic floor for the band. I was skeptical, but went down, and I'll never forget it. Randy had it exactly right—Don was playing loose in a way that didn't confine Elvin, and at the same time his groove was the deepest thing on the bandstand. I stood there, listening, and kind of shaking my head and saying to myself, 'This can't be happening.' But it was!" class="f-right"> Return to Index...


Jack DeJohnette

"The first time I heard Don he was playing drums with Nina Simone in the late '60s when I was with Miles Davis. He had a great feel on drums, which was interesting because his real thing was percussion. He had more than enough technique to execute his ideas but he had a feel that was just so fluid and put so much heart and soul in it that it really enhanced whatever was going on, whether it was on congas or on drums.

"Don swung on congas. A lot of percussion players have a lot of technique but they don't swing. He had a feel that was comparable to mine, because we had the same African thing, transfused to America. We always had a rapport when we played and eventually we wound up playing together with Miles. On "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" [Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969)] Don plays that beat on the drum set which is really, really nice.

"I remember playing somewhere in Europe [with Herbie Hancock's New Standards All Stars], and Michael Brecker was soloing. Everybody just dropped out and left Don and Michael playing, which was very interesting—you rarely ever hear that—for about a chorus or two. It was a nice contrast just hearing Don swinging, pushing Brecker, and then after the set Don said, 'Man, I was hoping you'd come back in and rescue me!' But it sounded great because you could hear it was swinging, and his thing was so complete.

"Sad as it is it's still a blessing that he graced us with his creative essence. He had the intuitive sensibility and sensitivity to know what to put in and what not to put in. We were like a rhythm team, and that's made us work so good, we never clashed. It's about listening and working as a unit, and Don was really a team player. But when it came time to shine and solo he could do that, too.

But I'm deeply saddened by the loss—he's not here doing what he does best, he made you feel good." class="f-right"> Return to Index...


Dave Liebman

"Don was known as 'Lungs' for a variety of wonderful, life-affirming reasons. As a conga player, he may be one of the few who knew what to do and how to do it in a jazz setting. He played in the Elvin Jones Group with myself, Steve Grossman and Gene Perla in the early '70s for an extended period. For Elvin to accept a conga player on a night-to-night basis was the ultimate sign of respect. As well, few people were aware of how well he played the trap set—he could burn like no one. Most of all, Lungs gave it all whenever he played—a true believer!" class="f-right"> Return to Index...


Peter Erskine

"Don Alias brought greatness to any musical project or piece of music that he played. His beat, whether on congas or drum set, was instantly recognizable and all his own. He was as serious a musician as I have ever known, yet Don always had the biggest and most beautiful smile for everyone around him. I feel so very fortunate to have worked with him, and blessed to have known him." class="f-right"> Return to Index...


Mike Stern

"Don was a really good friend of mine for thirty years. I was so shocked when I heard. I talked to him not too long before he died. I was on the road when I heard and was just shocked. It's very sad.

"We played with Jaco on the road for two years with Word of Mouth and also with Blood, Sweat and Tears. He was just incredible. He's on three or four of my records. We did a Hendrix tune on my record Give and Take (Atlantic, 1997)—'Who Knows'—where he played brushes on conga, and Don played the shit out of it. He's just awesome. He was a really special player. I love Don and will miss him forever and am glad to have to known him."

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Chuck Mangione

"I consider myself most fortunate to be among the many artists who had the pleasure of making music with Don Alias. He was an impeccable musician who always brought a positive energy to my music. I always loved his "less is best approach.

"Don was a warm, simple, passionate human being who loved life, music, sports, movies and most of all, his family and his friends. I am proud to say Don Alias was a friend of mine. Lord how I miss my friend."

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Corey Allen and Family

"Don Alias was my friend. We spent a lot of time together while we were on the road with Chuck Mangione. I don¹t know why he took to me the way he did but I am grateful that he did and better off for it. Don knew that I was interested in African rhythms and in Bata in particular. I remember one night at the Blue Note after a sound check; he called me over and began playing what sounded like random hits on the conga drum. He said, 'Where¹s one?' I closed my eyes and clapped my hands where I thought beat one occurred. When I opened my eyes Don was smiling. He stopped playing and said, 'You¹re ready for the next lesson.' It is no exaggeration to say that Don needed the same rarified air in which only the likes of Miles, Jaco, Herbie and Randy Brecker thrive—and Don knew it. It is who he was. We talked a lot about the costs of achieving and maintaining such musical heights in terms of his life, his kids, his regrets. He once told me, 'Corey, if I can't play, I'll die.' Despite all his bravado, I knew Don was fragile.

"A few years ago, while he was staying at my house in Sudbury, MA, he had a very serious asthma attack. I watched him struggle to breathe as I wheeled him through the Newton-Wellesley Hospital directly to the best lung specialist in Boston. The doctor told him that there was no way that he'd be able to play the concert we were supposed to play that evening and he¹d have to stop playing for a while. Again, Don just looked at me and smiled. Don knew himself well.

"Don's death came as a real shock to me and to my family. Don played on two of my wife's CDs (Cheryl Bentyne of The Manhattan Transfer). Just last week, I left a message on Don's answering machine about playing on her next CD. He didn't get a chance to respond. I loved Don and I know that he loved me. We send our condolences to his mother, his children and grand children. I will miss him. God bless his soul." class="f-right"> Return to Index...




John Abercrombie

"Don Alias was the most natural musician I've ever known. I met him in Boston, and had the opportunity to play with him on both congas and drum set. There is a tune written by Jan Hammer on my ECM record Timeless (ECM, 1975) called 'Lungs.' This was Don's nickname, from back in the day, and of course the song is dedicated to him. He claimed that I gave him that name, but I always thought that Jan did, or maybe Gene Perla. class="f-right"> Return to Index...


Steve Khan

"Don could play virtually any style of music, and was totally unafraid to venture down any musical path. There's a reason Don fit in so well with two other drum kits on Miles Davis' historic Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969), and that is because he knew how to listen, how to blend in, and how to make music with people—even those playing the same instrument. Don's trio, Stone Alliance—with Gene Perla and saxophonist Steve Grossman—blazed futuristic trails in the new music—in their way, ahead of the time. They had the courage to pursue a musical dream. Before Don's untimely passing, I believe that he was working on releasing some of their live dates on CD for the first time.

"The last time Don and I played together was on my album, Got My Mental (Evidence, 1996; reissued on ESC Records, 2006). For that session, Don was asked to play timbales only. He performed wonderfully, and has a great solo on Eddie Harris' 'Sham Time.' But the musical highlight for me took place in rehearsal, when Don sat down at the congas and joined me, John Patitucci, and his dear friend Jack DeJohnette for Ornette Coleman's 'R.P.D.D.' It was spectacular! It reminded me that, without question, no one had more swing on the congas in jazz than Don Alias. One of the great disappointments was that he had to leave the recording early and wasn't on the recorded performance of the tune. However, I will never forget that rehearsal!

"In the end, Don was never one to brag, nor to posture, because his body of work did all the talking that was necessary. He had the complete and total musical respect of his peers. It will be impossible to assess just how his loss is going to be felt by those who had worked most closely with him in recent years. Rest in peace Don!" class="f-right"> Return to Index...


Melanie Futorian

"It all started when I moved into apt 3E, one wall apart from Don Alias. We ended up playing a different kind of music together. We even had a code on the wall. One rhythm meant, 'Hey babe, I'm home' A guaguanco meant, 'Come on over"' We traveled the world, he played on my shoes in Japan, my water glass in The Dominican Republic. We danced under a Bajan moon with no music other than in our heads. I'll miss him lumbering into the apartment, his midnight snack of pasta and ketchup, his bear hug embrace, our artistic projects. Like you—I'll just miss him. I'll think of the beauty and the time that we spent." class="f-right"> Return to Index...


Read Don Alias' last interview: Don Alias: Heart, Soul and Lungs

Photo Credit
Peter Erskine

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