One Track Mind: Alphonse Mouzon on Weather Report, McCoy Tyner, Solo Songs


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By Nick Deriso

On this special edition of the Something Else! Reviews' One Track Mind, we hand the reins over to legendary fusion drummer Alphonse Mouzon.

A life around jazz, and fellow jazz greats, has left Mouzon with his share of stories. So did the lengthy sessions for his impressive new recording Angel Face, which was 10 years in the making. Find out how he used to stash towels and refreshments behind his drum kit during marathon songs (several of them approaching 30 minutes a piece) during a celebrated tenure with pianist McCoy Tyner. And how Mouzon came to meet jazz legend Miles Davis—after unknowingly making a pass at his girlfriend ...

“SAHARA," with McCoy Tyner (SAHARA, 1972): McCoy Tyner's initial solo recording for Milestone was an astonishing, fiercely individualistic, Grammy-nominated triumph. Also featuring Sonny Fortune on saxophones and flute, this project was topped off with a grueling title track that stretched to more than 23 minutes.

Mouzon: McCoy Tyner can play a song for 30 minutes! (Laughs.) You have to keep that energy going. There were times when we were tacit, when the piano plays along. That gave me time to rest and get some water or chewing gum or whatever—to towel off. I always had that stuff behind my drums. (Laughs.) It was like an intermission in the NBA: the cheerleaders come on, and you take a break. McCoy had melodies. That was the form, then you improvise within that. But he had a thousand choruses. With McCoy, it was all high energy. More than on Weather Report, this was the same energy as rock. Sort of (Larry Coryell's) Eleventh House but in a jazz context.

“UMBRELLAS," with Weather Report (WEATHER REPORT, 1971): One of the more rhythmic efforts in a fusion recording that breaks all of the rules, sounding something like an ambient, more acoustic version of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew—which, after all, featured two of the future members of Weather Report. “Umbrellas," co-written by pianist Joe Zawinul, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Miroslav Vitous, has a conversational feel, almost like it was improvised on the spot.

Mouzon: We would play these motifs that usually Wayne or Joe wrote. We would take these motifs, like a little passage, then we would listen and play. It was orchestrated in a way, then we would start improvising and it all started coming together. It sounded like it was written down. We worked off cues from there, a nod of the head or somebody would lift two fingers. A lot of the songs were like that. We wrote motifs and played.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Alphonse Mouton discusses hanging out with Yes and Led Zeppelin, career-making performances with Weather Report and McCoy Tyner —and, yes, those funky, funky outfits.]

“STEPPING STONE," solo (ANGEL FACE, 2011): Trumpeter Wallace Roney and saxophonist Ernie Watts take impressive turns on a track that also features a rhythm section rounded out by pianist Kenny Barron and bass Christian McBride. Most interesting of all, however, is an eight-part harmony vocal by Mouzon's daughter Emma Alexandra—recorded at three different ages, 5, 12 and 13 years old. It's a testament to the decade-long journey Mouzon took to complete the record.

Alphonse Mouzon: I put in the piano parts, then trumpet and alto sax. I played the bass on the keyboards. Then I did a rhythm track. Then I had Wallace do his part over, to replace my parts. Then (pianist) Cedar (Walton) came in and replaced my parts, and so on. Christian McBride, everybody played on top of that basic drum track. When Ernie Watts was in town or (fellow saxophonist) Don Menza—that was seven years ago—I'd have them record. They'd play their solos. The whole time, I was shifting guys around. One track originally had Wallace and (saxophonist) Antoine (Roney) then I replaced Antoine with Ernie Watts. All of that was before my drums were on. I put the real drums on last. That way, everybody is playing. I know what they are going to play before they played it. That's what makes it so tight. I'm swinging right with it. After years of recording, mixing and remixing several times, my mixing engineer (Paul Tavenner) said that I had to stop—because it sounded great and couldn't sound any better.

“FUNKY SNAKEFOOT," solo (FUNKY SNAKEFOOT, 1973): An underrated blending of jazz, R&B and funk, this Blue Note release wasn't just a showcase for Mouzon's skills as a drummer but also as an organist and Moog player. Even featured within a trio of keyboardists including Leon Pendarvis, the South Carolina native's impassioned efforts stand out. He sang a little, too, in a kind of Stevie Wonder tour de force of funk-fusion.

Mouzon: You know, I played with Stevie Wonder. He can play jazz, too. I'll never forget, at Freddie Hubbard's funeral, Hubert Laws brought him up on stage. Christian McBride was on bass. Patrice Rushen was on piano. They did 'Little Sunflowers.' Stevie played his butt off. He always wanted to be a jazz musician. I'll never forget that day. As far as my favorite instruments, that would be the piano, and then the trumpet. Or maybe the trumpet, and then piano. I'll compose on any instrument.

DINGO soundtrack, with Miles Davis (1991): Mouzon had a chance to work with Miles Davis at the end of his career, playing drums on the soundtrack for a film the trumpeter starred in. Michel Legrand, channeling the legendary Davis sessions with Gil Evans, composed the score for what would become one of the legendary trumpeter's final recordings. Yet Mouzon has a more memorable Miles story, from the first time they met ...

Mouzon I miss Miles so much. You know, I dated his ex-wife Betty Davis, the singer—and he dated an ex-girlfriend of mine. We met years before when I saw a girlfriend of his on the street after he and Betty had split; he ended up coming to see me with McCoy. He found my card in this girl's purse. I saw her on the street, stopped and told her I was playing with McCoy Tyner at the Village Vanguard. She said: 'Maybe me and my old man will come.' That Friday, I saw this girl coming down the stairs from stage. She was fine! Then I said wait a minute—who's that behind her? Is that Miles? They walked in together, and sat at a reserved seat up front. He sat there, staring right at me. (Laughs.) I couldn't even look over there. I was scared. We played for an hour, and I never looked over!

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