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Joey Baron: Just Say Yes

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Combining technical acuity with a deep sense of groove, Joey Baron drums with playful exuberance. Throughout his more than 35-year career, he's propelled experimentalists like guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist John Zorn, as well as mainstreamers like vocalist Carmen McRae and saxophonist David Sanborn. He's even played with pop stars David Bowie and Marianne Faithfull. But Baron makes no distinctions between gigs, keeping an expansive, welcoming view of music. After leading the groups Barondown, Down Home, and Killer Joey, he's recently focused on percussion work in solo, duo, and trio settings. A rare December, 2009 solo concert at Roulette offers the chance to experience Baron's artistry at its most distilled.

Joey Baron

All About Jazz: Let's start with the easy one: you said you were in "extreme travel mode" the last couple of weeks; where have you been and what have you been doing?

Joey Baron: I just finished a tour of my band [Killer Joey] that includes [guitarist] Steve Cardenas, Brad Shepik on guitars, and Tony Scherr playing the bass. We were in Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Croatia, and...oh, and Poland.

AAJ: And that was over how much time?

JB: One day each. There were a few other places—there were seven countries we went to. And then I flew here [NYC] and I'm just here for this week and then I go to Milan on Monday for a concert with a Masada project. It was supposed to be [saxophonist] Joe Lovano, but...I'm not sure what happened, and Chris Potter is filling in for him.

I go to Milan; and [then] actually for one concert with a wonderful saxophonist, Julian Siegel. We have a trio with [bassist] Greg Cohen and we're playing at the London Jazz Festival. And a couple of days later I'll be performing with Bill Frisell and the BBC Orchestra conducted by Michael Gibbs. And right after that I join [guitarist] John Abercrombie and we do a tour of Europe with his quartet: on this episode, it is Drew Gress playing the bass, and [violinist] Mark Feldman, and myself.

AAJ: You're keeping busy then?

JB: Yeah, it's pretty active, a lot of travel. I mean, I say "extreme travel mode..." For me, these days it's normal, but for most people it's rather extreme.

AAJ: Has it been going like this for a while now?

JB: It's on and off, you know. It's kind of like there will be periods of not much going on, then all of the sudden everything. It's like you've got blocks of time when you're wishing people would call, then all of the sudden there's one week and everyone calls for that week. I don't know why, it just seems to be the way it is, sometimes.

I keep pretty active and with a lot of different types of things. Over the spring and summer, I was involved with some workshop situations. One of them in particular was probably one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. It was in Ingolstadt, Germany, working for Robyn Schulkowsky, she's a percussionist. She had organized a music thing for the story of "Antigone," working with kids who had no experience with music or performing or anything. And the whole story was told with percussion and movement. It was a theatre presentation with about 60 kids, and she basically taught them these rhythms and stuff to play on various found objects—barrels, oil cans, stuff like that. And Kenny Wollesen and I were brought in to help support that. It was just an amazing experience to see these kids rise to the occasion.

AAJ: Well, you guys would be naturals for that, I would think. Kenny plays anything, right?

JB: Well, he's really special.

AAJ: Actually, I once saw you play a chair at one of those Tonic workshops about 10 years ago.

JB: Oh yeah, wow.

AAJ: Do you find it difficult trying to juggle all this stuff, or is it just second nature at this point?

JB: Well, it's what I do. Sometimes it's tiring to juggle, to keep it organized, and sometimes it falls into place, it's never any one particular set thing. Some days things cancel or things happen that throw a wrench in the works.

AAJ: Do you find it difficult going from some of the extremes in the projects you work in: say, the really out Zorn Moonchild stuff and then turning around and playing with [guitarist] Jim Hall a day later or something?

Joey Baron / Steve KuhnJB: Actually not. That's always what I wanted to do. One of my many heroes was [drummer] Grady Tate and I was always really inspired by the way he could play so many different situations. I never set out to do that; I just thought, well, that's what you do. At the time, that is what you did. If you learned to play an instrument and somebody asked you to play, the answer was yes. It didn't matter what it was for; you learned on the job. That was the atmosphere when I came along. I didn't have an attitude: "Well, I'll only play if it's a jazz gig," or something. I had not that attitude. That was my background, so to do these things, to me it's not really that special. I think, well, isn't it supposed to be that way? And basically, the job is really the same whether it's for John Zorn or whether it's for Jim Hall: the job is to try and help each person you're working for realize what they want to hear, that's the task. And it's the same, only they use different tools and different language, but that's not such a big deal.

Joey BaronAAJ: That's been fairly typical throughout your career to go back and forth between more mainstream and other [music].

JB: And it's really weird how people make a big deal out of it. But from my perspective, I don't downplay it; I mean I realize that it is extremely different. But from my point of view, I know how to approximate the language that John wants, I understand what he wants, I understand what Jim wants. And I like them as artists and I like them as people. I'm just mentioning those two, but anybody I work for, I hold that attitude. I respect what they do. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here.

AAJ: You've played with both of them for 20-plus years at this point.

JB: Yeah, it's a long-term thing. I really value that more than ever, having long-term relationships with people. Sometimes you go long periods of time and you don't end up working together, then your paths cross again and it's really interesting because people grow and you still have a mutual respect for the language that you use together. I don't know; it's interesting to have time, the passage of time, be a part of the equation when you're working. It adds a depth, I think. For me, the older I get, the more I appreciate that depth.

AAJ: I didn't realize that you were still doing the Killer Joey band. I haven't seen you play with them in New York, but you're still doing it in Europe?

JB: When Tonic closed, that was really our home. We used to play there every week and then later on, not quite as often. We played a week at the Vanguard a while back, it's been several years. Basically, the scene around town is different now. Everything is very hyped, or you're a legend. This band doesn't really fit into that. When you call someone and you ask them, "Are you interested?," and they never get back to you or whatever; at a certain point you're begging and I just don't find that something I really want to do. So I just let it go as where we work, where we can work, and usually that's Europe.

AAJ: Are you still writing for the band?

JB: Basically, I've been playing material that's been written and I add other tunes. I come up with things every once in a while. Recently I've just been interested in adding some standards that I've always wanted to play that I don't get to play with other people. I mean that's part of the strength of that band. When I put it together, I wanted people that could deal with playing chord changes and deal with navigating standard material. So it's real easy to just mention a song, and I'll bring in a sheet on it or something and work up little things on it, or not, and just play it like normal. I like doing that. I like modeling something that's not such a show.

It's not in fashion, like a lot of things I am a part of aren't particularly in fashion. Like the way Abercrombie's group plays, it's not in fashion. It's an aesthetic that I've always aspired to, which is you show up and you play: meaning you listen and respond and react and you give and you take. Funny, that seems to be a kind of a secondary concern these days. People seemed focused on getting their identity and letting everybody know it's them. It's very clever and very technically astonishing, but sometimes the depth is a little funny.

AAJ: I've always found that interesting in some of your quotes in the past: that someone should be able to walk in off of the street and be able to respond to what you're playing, not so hung up on the technique of it.

JB: For me—I don't say that everybody should run their thing like that—but for me that's important. That's kind of where I came from and that's what attracted me to music. And it made me feel something, and it made me feel inspired to learn how to do that and how to generate that for other people. That's been one of my main motivations for playing music since I started. It's very important for me to model that in any situation I'm in, to some degree. I'm not that interested in having everybody know that it's me. If I'm doing what I set out to do, they'll inquire, or they'll ask. But the main thing is that the listener can get something generated from the music that can possibly change something or make them think something. Hopefully something positive. Or question, they can question something. [It's] not just entertainment.

Joey Baron / John Zorn / MasadaI made a decision a long time ago—even though I'm a performer and when you play music you are performing, and I'm very comfortable doing that behind the drum set—but I'm not, I don't relate to show business, that aesthetic in music. It's not very interesting to me, it's more shallow. I mean, it has its place and its function in society. But to me, to get people to listen and pay attention and hopefully to get them to feel something from music and from your commitment to playing it, or writing it, or making it—that's the whole point to making it. It's a serious thing and it's not something that's fixed. I don't think it can be fixed to happen the same way every night. Even if you play the same songs every night, different things happen.

In all genres of music, when that happens, it's the artists who go with whatever is going on, not trying to push it in a box. Yeah, I think that aesthetic... when I look around, I don't see it. When I was coming up, I was listening to Abercrombie, [pianist] Keith Jarrett, and the Miles Davis band. It just seemed like that was the aesthetic: that's what you did when you were really committed. It's funny, today everything is marketed. If you don't have that machine behind you, forget it. That's part of what's really happening today.

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