Bob Rees is well known around the Pacific Northwest for his work as a free jazz drummer and as an improvising percussionist as well as for performing with jam bands Beecraft and Flowmotion. His work with the Wally Shoup Trio has received critical acclaim as has that group's 2003 release entitled Fusillades and Lamentations .
AAJ writer Jack Gold was able to interview him in August immediately after Bob's return from a tour of Alaska with Flowmotion.
All About Jazz: When did you start playing music?
Bob Rees: I started playing the drums in seventh grade just like, you know, beginning band kind of thing. This was in Spokane. I got hooked up with a local teacher; I just took private lessons and by the ninth grade that teacher had sent me on to his teacher who happened to be Marty Zyskowski who teaches percussion at Eastern Washington University. He runs the percussion studies program there. So, by the ninth grade I had started to study with him and I ended up continuing all through high school and college with him so he pretty much became my mentor. And actually there are a few drummers over here that have studied with him. Mark Ivester is an old student of Marty's. Marty is a really well known teacher and I ended up studying with him from a pretty early age.
AAJ: Who would you say were some of your early influences? Musicians, drummers, you know, it could be anybody. It could be writers, you know, people that influenced how you played and how you studied....
BR: Well, even back in the seventh or eighth or ninth grade I was listening to all kinds of stuff. Prince was a big influence, still is. I remember listening to Buddy Rich, being a huge Buddy Rich fan and also being a huge Prince fan. And even to this day, I mean, I'm all over the musical map. Always have been and I think it reflects in the way I play and the projects that I am involved in. They are kind of all over the map (laughter). I grew up listening to country music because my dad was a fan and, you know, heavy metal, and eventually jazz and classical. I don't know, everything (laughs). Quiet Riot was like the first cassette tape I ever bought. But, you know, this was a long time ago. I would say in college I got really focused in percussion, like twentieth century classical music and jazz and that continued for a long time, even past college, really becoming obsessed with jazz knowing all of the players and all of the albums and who played with who and just that music. I just loved it and I thought I was going to be a jazz vibraphonist when I got out of college. I was mainly a mallet player and thought I was going to be like a Gary Burton or a Bobby Hutcherson or something. Not so much anymore (laughs).
AAJ: Well, you are still playing the vibes and a lot of percussion.
BR: Yeah, I still play the vibes and some marimba too. In fact, Flowmotion tours with the - I get to tour with the vibes now. So, I get to do percussion, congas and all that and then vibraphone.
AAJ: So Flowmotion is your current group then?
BR: Flowmotion is a group that plays a lot of shows, about 150 shows a year, and, you know, makes a little bit of money so we can pay our bills and stuff.
AAJ: 150 shows a year. And that's touring mostly?
BR: Yeah, mostly touring. We play in Seattle about once every month or six weeks like at the Tractor and then down on the coast, California, Colorado, and Alaska.
AAJ: That's quite a schedule. Are you still playing with Beecraft then?
BR: Well, Sabu, our bassist, went back to Japan and so the band kind of fizzled out. Some of the Beecraft guys joined Flowmotion which was doing sort of what Beecraft was doing, a little more accessible to more people and sort of on a bigger scale, so some of us jumped ship and went with Flowmotion. But, you know, Sabu is back so I think Beecraft will still play. It's just that some of us saw an opportunity. Flowmotion needed a drummer and a percussionist and a keyboard player so some of the Beecraft guys jumped onboard.
AAJ: Now, did you study music in college?
BR: Yeah, I studied music education with a focus on elementary music and got my ed. degree and I also got a performance degree - percussion. Marty taught us how to listen really well. We never studied improvisation from like a free jazz standpoint or anything like that but we were always free to improvise parts or come up with different ways or different solutions to a problem. That had a big influence on me. He is a tympani player and a classical musician and really open to twentieth century music - jazz and all sorts of music, exploring all sorts of different genres. He always let us explore and learn and kind of play the way we wanted.
AAJ: Do you teach or are you primarily performing music?
BR: Mainly performing. It has gotten to the point where I am pretty much playing all the time. When I am here, I do have an ed. degree and I substitute teach every once in awhile for the Bellevue school district. That helps me keep my teaching chops up which I love to do. It's fun and, you know, one day it's like a high school band - conducting, and another it's like a bunch of kindergartners and we're doing a drum circle or something. So I do that, but I don't get to do it as much anymore but that still happens and then I do some stuff for Pacific Northwest Ballet, you know, drumming for dance classes which is fun too. But it's kind of to the point now which is we've got a pretty full schedule. I'm just trying to play mostly. I guess when I'm home, also, I try to continue with Wally, doing stuff with Wally Shoup. A few years ago I just started to get involved with a lot of different things and was trying to play with as many people as I could. I have kind of narrowed my focus down to Flowmotion and Wally Shoup and a few other things here and there.
AAJ: What would you say is your approach to composition? Do you compose music also?
BR: I compose, and a few projects have performed my songs but I wouldn't say that is a focus. It may be someday but I am just really happy playing right now, either playing in an improvised setting or performing other people's music and seeing what I can bring to the table. I got a Jack Straw grant and I have a couple of things coming out but it's all improvised. Composition in the traditional sense, I haven't been doing any of that lately.
AAJ: Roscoe Mitchell and Gary Peacock use this term "spontaneous composition." I guess when I said "composition" it's kind of a two-sided coin. So there is "composition" and there is "spontaneous compostion" which is sort of free improvisation. So, how would you describe your approach to free improvisation then?
BR: That's a hard question to answer. I try to listen a lot, you know, listen as much as I can, from a strictly free standpoint thinking about what has already been explored on a certain night or a certain session and what hasn't and maybe trying to keep things varied a little bit and bring a lot of energy to the table and use really big ears and just go along for the ride (laughter). And also sort of learning that, you know, it's easy to get attached or psyche yourself out and worry too much about where a piece hasn't gone or where it is going and sort of have it fizzle. I have gotten better about not getting so attached to it and I think it has helped the music - not thinking about it too much but making sure you are listening all the time and just creating energy.
AAJ: When you are thinking about what you are playing, I know like being in the moment you almost don't think, but would you say that you are drawing from free improvisation or are you conceptualizing from a structural standpoint?
BR: I would say that I probably think about both. But from a structure standpoint I am thinking really generally. I guess you couldn't really even call it structure. I mean I am looking for - we are looking for a good place to end a tune, you know, and create some sort of form but it can be pretty open...and then mainly general things like dynamic contrast, being busy or being not so busy, texture changes, things like that.
AAJ: There is sort of a general approach to playing and then there is kind of a generic approach to playing. So when a guy plays generically he is just sort of playing one thing all the time and just sort of makes it fit all settings if he can get away with it. And then there is a general approach which might even be termed as eclectic in a way which is really keeping your ears open and paying attention to what is going on.
BR: Yeah, you know. As long as my ears stay open I find myself in new situations all the time. I guess I'm still learning how to play and deal in those situations. And it doesn't have to be specifically free improvisation. It might happen to be a Flowmotion song, you know, where I sit down and I don't quite understand the form or there is something I don't quite understand or I'm not sure what I am going to play. I'm sort of learning and trying different things and figuring out what works and what doesn't. It's sort of a Bob Rees way of playing that works for me in a lot of different genres or projects. I figure out things that are just in my bag - not tricks but ways to listen and to understand music and to react that work in a lot of different situations. I guess that's what I mean when I say general. They are general enough but they are very important and they work in a lot of different ways. Just to be more specific, and this works in free improv and it works in like regular ABA rock and roll songs or whatever, one example is how to create tension, how to create release using percussion and using sounds. So when I play the drum set in a free jazz setting I'm just dealing with those textures and figuring out how to create energy and move the energy or slow the energy down. And I'm doing the same thing with the congas and the cowbell, you know, textural changes. I feel like they are related, they are similar or basically the same thing at least from my standpoint, from my approach. One of the Jack Straw things that is coming out is a duo of Greg Campbell and me, a cd of all improvised percussion.
AAJ: You just finished a tour with Flowmotion and you were up in Alaska. Can you talk about that a little bit?
BR: Yeah, two weeks in Alaska. Alaska is a very special place, really beautiful people, the nicest people on Earth, and they love music up there. They are very appreciative and they don't get enough music. When I joined Flowmotion about a year and a half ago they had already been up there three times and developed a little bit of a following. Now it has gotten to the point where we do really well up there. Tons of people come out to every one of our shows and they treat us really well, they pay us well, and it is one of the best places to tour for us. This last one was the most successful one yet. We are trying to do it in other places, California and Colorado are next, but Alaska is just really good to us. The beauty of playing in Alaska is that no one up there is really from Alaska. They are either up there working for the summer or they have relocated, and they are from all over the country down here in the lower 48 so when we play shows like in San Francisco or anywhere, there is always somebody that has seen us in Alaska. So it has kind of paid off to play up there a lot. People bring the music back home, to their home town or wherever they are from.
AAJ: What can you suggest to help listeners open their eyes and open their ears to outside music better?
BR: For me, and this goes with not just music but all sorts of art forms and even different cultures, it's just having a really open mind. If something is done really well there is just some sort of inherent quality, a reason why it is good. I think that eventually people can understand it. I know it's really subjective too but there is good jazz and there is not so good jazz and there are reasons for that. It's the same way with anything, all kinds of art, and those qualities shine through eventually. I think people will understand it if they can keep their minds open. If you don't understand something try to ask somebody that does it or performs that type of music and try to find out about it, find out the reasons behind it. Learn more about it. The more you understand the more enjoyable - the more you can appreciate it. It kind of reminds me of my wife learning to appreciate free music and improvisation. She has a really open mind and when I first met her it was like she didn't really understand - she hadn't really heard the music anyway, and she was able to understand it more just asking more questions and figuring out what was going on. She actually enjoys a lot of it now. And she is also able to say what she doesn't like or what particular style of music she doesn't like or why she likes this and why she doesn't. I think people can evaluate that.
AAJ: I was going to ask about Wally Shoup a little bit.
BR: Wally is a good guy to play with. He respects drummers, I'll say that. It's just been a good experience to work with him. He comes over about once a month or we try to get together about once a month and just stay up on what we have as a duo and a trio when we have a bassist or whatever. But he has just been a good guy to help me understand the art of improvisation a little bit better because he is so dedicated to that one style of music. That's a totally different perspective than what I have so it's good to bounce ideas off of each other. He is good about explaining why he either wants to be part of something or why he doesn't and he has enough knowledge and has spent enough time studying that kind of music for people to respect his opinions.
AAJ: What do you suggest for musicians who are learning and are playing free improvised or outside music?
BR: You mean like people who haven't really played the music before?
AAJ: Yeah, or even like people who do play the music. I mean, you would be amazed at what you can teach somebody who has been playing it for 30 or 40 years.
BR: Well, I'm just sort of learning it myself. For me, when I first started, it really helped to play with a lot of different people. In doing that you sort of learn a lot of different ways that people approach the music. Also, you are in different situations, you know, different instruments, different configurations and that kind of changes the way you play. That was the biggest thing that helped me, to get out and play with as many people as I could, you know, just saying yes any time somebody wanted to get together and play, just saying yes all the time. Eventually you just become more sure of yourself as to what sort of improvising you want to do and the kind of improvising you want to do with other people. What happens to me is eventually I get to the point where it's either I have to take a break from it or I need to reinspire myself in a different way. And then I totally get turned on to maybe another type of music that I haven't either played or listened to and then I totally dive into that. For me, eventually it always comes to an end but I still have a love affair with improvised music, for sure. And I always go back to it because it is such a release and it is such an enjoyable way to express myself. But I have noticed that if I don't have like a Flowmotion or a more structured setting, eventually I'll go crazy and I've got to go back to that and do something in that setting. So I need balance. Being involved in a lot of different things makes me happy. Too much of one thing doesn't.