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Mike Mainieri: Man Behind Bars

John Kelman By

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Mike MainieriDropping Out, Tuning In and Turning Up

Working with Rich led to gigs with Sonny Stitt and Kenny Burrell, amongst others. He met bassist Eddie Gomez, who was playing with Bill Evans, and who would figure prominently with Mainieri soon enough. At the same time in the mid-1960s, everything was changing. The British Invasion and the emergence of the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco were but two signs of the massive import of pop music that was changing the musical landscape. It was around that time that Mainieri hooked up with flautist Jeremy Steig and his group, The Satyrs. "I'd quit the band [Buddy Rich] in 1964, when I got married for the first time and we got pregnant with our first child. I decided I wanted to stay closer to home and not travel as much," Mainieri says. "I started hanging out in The Village. I met Donald McDonald and Eddie Gomez.

"Jeremy and the Satyrs started around 1965; I joined a little later," Mainieri continues. "They were backing Tim Hardin, so we were playing The Electric Circus [New York] and The Fillmores [New York and San Francisco]), opposite Jimi Hendrix; this was pre-Miles. It was like a renaissance in that period, the goals weren't the same—the marketing has changed everything. Cross-pollination is still there, though. That I'm going on tour with Richard Bona, that my bassist is from Cameroon, reminded me of the '60s because back then you were playing with guys like our guitarist in Jeremy's band—he was a blues singer, his background was Howlin' Wolf. He would sit out when we were doing our jazzier stuff, but it was also a blues/rock/folk band.

"That was the milieu of that day," Mainieri concludes, "and I feel that's happening again now. I'm encouraged by the collapse of the major labels. I saw what the major labels were like in the '90s—it was the beginning of the end. I saw the marketing budgets, and they had to grease this palm, that palm—a lot it of was smoke and mirrors. I'm glad that it fell apart; you put out a jazz album and the company had to put out $100,000 to compete with some smooth jazz guy. So the leveling of the playing field and the feeling that I'm going to do my record is a big change."

Not that there wasn't divisiveness in jazz of the 1960s. "There were camps," says Mainieri. "Free music was popular in Europe. There were some cats that played straight-ahead—that was their love and they looked upon our music experimentation and said, 'What the fuck is this?' And we got fired [Jeremy and the Satyrs] from The Village Vanguard (New York) one night. We were playing opposite of Rahsaan Roland Kirk because he refused to play on the bandstand with us. He thought the music we were playing was a disgrace."

Hard to imagine, now, that Kirk was the voice of conservatism. "It was a big deal," says Mainieri, "we had a two-week stint there and it really hit home. It wasn't what Gary Burton, Paul Motian or Steve Swallow were playing, it wasn't that kind of a band. It was screaming. We had a blues singer, Jeremy with his Echoplex, Warren [Bernhardt] with his pedals, and by then I had amped the vibes. It was like, 'What the fuck?' [Jeremy & the Satyrs bassist Eddie] Gomez had played there; Warren played his last set with Bill Evans. There were camps, but I couldn't help myself. So people moved to Woodstock and I did, too. You were surrounded by rock and folk musicians. Mingus and Sonny Rollins lived up there, too. There was a great club called the Joyous Lake, and everyone came there. That was the place everyone hit, Pat Metheny and Gary [Burton] played there a million times. It was a great club to play in. L'Image played there a lot after the White Elephant experience.

Mike MainieriDespite the purist backlash, the late-1960s and early-1970s remains something of a Golden Age, where artists began to fuse all kinds of musical elements into jazz, most notably the energy and pulse of rock music. The emergence of jazz-rock fusion may be attributed by many to Miles Davis and two seminal 1969 albums on Columbia—In a Silent Way and, especially, Bitches Brew, but the trumpeter was hardly the only one experimenting with the combination of rock's power and the improvisational freedom of jazz. Mainieri had been involved in the nascent fusion movement long before 1969 with Jeremy and the Satyrs, but it was with White Elephant that the vibraphonist dove head-deep into finding ways to bring jazz and rock together. A large collective of nearly 30 musicians, including Gomez, Spinozza, Bernhardt, Levin, McDonald and Gadd along with Michael and Randy Brecker, Joe Beck, Lew Soloff and Jon Faddis, White Elephant was effectively a hippie commune of emerging musicians. That Mainieri—and Bernhardt—was nearly a decade older than most of White Elephant's members didn't matter. "Guys that I've known all my life will ask me, 'What are you, 62?' Mainieri explains. "I've always had a youngish face and I'm kinda thin. Even amongst guys who never asked, they always thought I was their age."

Mainieri had, by this time, released a few albums under his own name—his straight- ahead debut, Blues on the Other Side (Argo, 1962), the equally mainstream Insight (Solid State, 1967) and the more adventurous Journey Through an Electric Tube (Solid State, 1968), which included the 13-minute, completely free "Allow Your Mind to Wander." "It was pretty wild," Mainieri says with a chuckle. "I wish you could have seen the look on the face of the engineer after that long, free piece. He was used to recording straight-ahead, George Shearing type of jazz, and it ["Allow Your Mind to Wander"] ended with the drummer throwing his cymbals against the wall, which scared the hell out of Chuck Rainey, who was an R&B bassist. I remember Chuck played the bass, and then unplugged his bass and left the room, leaving this hum, like mmmmmmmm, which was great, because it was at this amazing crescendo. I put my bottom bars on top, you know, like the naturals on top of the sharps, and I was banging on them; we were totally stoned, and we thought that it was the greatest thing we had played all week. We looked up at the booth, and I knew that was the end of my recording career on that label."

But it was out of Journey Through an Electric Tube that White Elephant emerged. "There used to be a dark studio on Broadway," says Mainieri, "where they used to let me jam, and it was whoever showed up—we'd just jam and get high and play. It'd range from five musicians to 35 musicians, and girlfriends and wives; it'd just be this big hang. "

The farm from which White Elephant ultimately emerged, however, was Mainieri's; even at this early stage in his career, he understood the value of diversification. "I was raising seven children," says Mainieri, "and I was also a weekend farmer. I bought a 100-acre fruit farm with eight acres of grapes for $45,000. Everyone from White Elephant knew about the farm. I used to make wine there, too. I had the farm until about 1979. It wasn't a lot of work, not like what Joe Beck did, which was to drop out completely and become a dairy farmer, which he did twice in his life. I was a weekend farmer; you harvested in late September, and then you did nothing until the next harvest.

"I was a hustler," Mainieri continues. "I went to the city and roomed with Spinozza as I couldn't afford an apartment in New York. I was making enough money to raise a family that large. My overhead was low; I had a little Volkswagen Beetle. We didn't even have a TV at the farm. We were hippies, living off the land. The farm had a lot to do with the record. We believed in hope and helping the environment and your neighbor. But we were fractured then too. "

White Elephant, a double-LP, was released in 1972 on Just Sunshine Records. "It was actually released by one of the promoters of the Woodstock festival," Mainieri says, "who had a big deal with Paramount. He heard the band live and he said, 'Yeah, what have ya got?' I said I had a bunch of tapes, and then there were jam sessions and arrangements. I think I played vibes on one tune, but mostly I was singing, playing piano, and organ, and just fucking around. A lot of it was for fun."

Mike Mainieri / White Elephant"But it was not to last. After the record company fell apart, White Elephant disbanded," says Mainieri. "Gadd, Levin, Bernhardt and I spent six months practicing in my barn, every day. That was the beginning of L'Image. We played Rochester, Boston and New York, and then Steve Backer came along from Arista and said, 'I love this band.' It was a fusion band, rockin,' and I had some video of the band and tons of tapes. It was '73 or '74. But then, as soon as we got the record deal, the band split up. We were devastated because we'd put years into playing with L'image and people were going nuts, and here we had a chance to record. That's when I made Love Play (BMG, 1977), with a few tunes from L'Image. I recorded the song 'L'image,' which we used to play, on my next record, Wanderlust (Warner Bros., 1981). So there were bits and pieces, but I ultimately made a commercial record for Arista that [producer/label head] Clive Davis wanted me to do. I lost some steam from that experience. All of us did. And then we all went our own way, although we joined forces later on."

White Elephant, and ultimately L'Image, germinated the uptown New York scene that, while considered a part of the fusion camp, was more informed by funk, soul and R&B than higher-octane groups like Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever. The Brecker Brothers, most notably, garnered considerable attention with albums like its self-titled 1975 Arista debut, as did guitarist Steve Khan for his string of Columbia albums beginning with 1977's Tightrope. But in many ways, Mainieri was a seminal figure, almost a lightening rod around which much of the New York uptown scene coalesced. Like many of his friends, Mainieri had become, by this time, a busy session player as well, performing on pop/rock albums by artists ranging from Paul Simon to Billy Joel, and on jazz albums by George Benson, Pat Martino and Bob James.


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