Oteil Burbridge: Long Live the Dead

Alan Bryson By

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It seems when people overcome that darkness and don't let it kill their spirit, there seems to be some really fine wine that comes out of that.
In 2015 rhythm guitarist Bob Weir and drummer Bill Kreutzmann, founding members of the Grateful Dead, formed the band Dead & Company, along with longtime Grateful Dead keyboardist Jeff Chimention and drummer / percussionist Mickey Hart. They enlisted some fresh blood into the band with the addition of singer/guitarist John Mayer, and bassist Oteil Burbridge. A couple of months prior to their first summer tour I interviewed Oteil Burbridge, and published it here on All About Jazz in audio form. Although the spoken word captures the nuances of the interview particularly well, it lacks the ease of accessibility and permanence of the written word. So to serve musical history, here is a transcription of that interview.

Oteil Burbridge is best known for his 17 year stint with the Allman Brothers Band, for which he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He was also an original member of the cult band Aquarium Rescue Unit, and in the original lineup of the Tedeschi Trucks Band. He's one of my favorite musicians, someone whose empathy, enthusiasm and energy are focused like a laser beam on serving the music and supporting the soloist with whom he is playing.

The night before we spoke B.B. King passed away, so initially our conversation turned to him and the blues, I asked if he had met and or played with him.

"We played some shows together when I was with TTB (Tedeschi Trucks Band) but I actually went with my wife Jess to see him at the Fox, and we just paid, went and bought a ticket and sat in the audience. It was special because that was the first time I got to see him live. He was already much older at that point, but it was like when I saw Bobby Blue Bland—just the opportunity to see them live at all was such a great gift. They are living history. But I did get to meet him at either the Montreux or the North Sea Music festival. My wife and I got to meet him and have our pictures taken with him."

"When you consider the place and time he was born in, to have overcome all of that, I mean if you put aside his career and how many people all over the world who loved him, and whom he made so happy—just the fact he ended up throughout the ages as not bitter, it's so huge. He and Willie Nelson are two people I've met whose humility is as big as their iconic status—that is a freakin' rare thing right there. I think it was his humility that kept him from being bitter."

"He was such a gracious person. He fostered his gift, and how far it took him, all that he did and accomplished. To me it's a day to celebrate the human being and all that he accomplished, and the example that he set of what musicians are capable of doing. And good for him that he played right up until the end, you know, that was his whole life. When I went to see him, he mostly told stories the whole night—I wasn't there in '64, I was just being born. So I was glad just to lay eyes on him, people could lay eyes on a lot of their heroes and it wouldn't matter if they weren't the same as they were in their '20s. I mean who cares, I'm so glad that he went for as long as he could."

Seeing Bobby Blue Bland

"I'll never forget, it was in the late 80s or early 90s, and I was working for Col. Bruce (Hampton) and if I recall correctly, and my memory's not always the best, Col. Bruce canceled a gig and said, (laughing) 'If I don't see you at the Bobby Blue Bland concert your fired!' I said, man we're so poor we need the money, but he was like, 'Bobby Blue Band is coming, and you gotta go see him, that's it!'"

"But he got us on the list and all that. So I got to see him, and I think Wayne Bennett was still alive. It was so great, not just Bobby, but the interaction between him and the audience—especially the women. They would come up and bring dollar bills up to the edge of the stage. And that album of BB and Bobby together, I think that's the one we're gonna put on today. (Laughing) Although, "Live at the Regal" in '64 is just.. ."

His first B.B. King album

"It was very late in life, I was such a jazz, funk, fusion-head that I didn't really listen to the blues until I met the Col. Although my dad was a big jazz fan, he had some blues in his collection, and he listened to BB King all the time. But it was really Col. Bruce who turned me on to Delta Blues which helped me to understand the later blues and bluegrass and the different American folk music. So it was pretty late for me, buying a BB King record. But by the time I did get one, what I didn't get before, was what blew me away the most. (Laughing)"

"When you come from a jazz or classical background, it's all about chops, chops, chops. But with BB, he could play the same licks, but they would be different every single time. That's seemingly impossible (laughing) but it's not! It's never the same thing. He never had any blockage between what he is and his guitar. And his voice, you hear every bit of what you love about him, and all the hardship and adversity that he came from."

"We have a theme that just keeps coming up about the adversities of life, and I kind of learned it out of the Bible, but the metaphor or analogy of the wine-press, everybody loves the fine wine, but nobody likes being the grapes, (both laughing) That's what BB and all the greats are, it's just that fine wine that came from them being crushed. Everybody got to drink it and appreciate it."

The power of Son House

"If they had had an easier life, we might not have got that. I don't know, but I have a suspicion that for some crazy reason that was all part of the plan. Because you don't get the wine without the grapes getting' stepped on. Some people just embrace it, you don't necessarily have to be born into a hard situation as far as prejudice or race, or anything like that, but you might be born into an abusive family. Who knows what the situation is. But it seems when people overcome that darkness and don't let it kill their spirit, there seems to be some really fine wine that comes out of that."

Musical parents

"My dad did, but he didn't think he was good enough to risk making a career of it. He wanted a family more than anything and that's what he chose, thankfully for me, because I'm really glad that he was home. I just had my first child at 50, and I'm so glad I'm not on the road all the time that I get to spend this time with him. It makes me think of my dad so much, but he did play flute—which is probably how Kofi (Oteil's slightly older brother) played flute, (laughing) when he really wanted to be a keyboard player, although he loves the flute too."

Kofi's flute solos

"Oh my God, it's his first instrument, and I'm still trying to catch up to him. He knows so much musically. What a great gift that was to my dad, because they discovered at seven that Kofi had perfect pitch (laughing) so my dad was really psyched! That was a great confluence of events there, as far as my dad loving music so much, and then at seven finding out his son had perfect pitch. So he turned him on to all the greatest stuff, he had a huge library of music at the house. I obviously benefited from that too, from Kofi and my dad. I started playing the drums when I was five, I started playing earlier than that (laughing) but they got me drums so I would stop beating on everything else. I picked up bass guitar around 14, we all played piano at some point when we were young, and had piano lessons, and violin for me and my younger sisters. But Kofi had already taken off on the flute, so I don't think he ever had to do violin."

Acoustic bass

"It was always electric bass because I was into funk—well, I was into jazz on drums, and had studied it on drums. My brother Kofi actually bought the first bass guitar, and when he went away to school I picked it up. It was like Earth, Wind & Fire, Parliament Funkadelic , and Stevie Wonder was what I wanted to play. That kind of stuff was just ubiquitous when we were growing up. Like so much jazz too, so I might not know who was the drummer or keyboard player was on this or that session, but all that stuff is so deeply ingrained in my head—because we heard it everyday."

"My dad wanted me to get into jazz, and I think my brother kind of used fusion as a bridge to jazz. So it started with funk and Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire were a bridge that took me to fusion, which then took me to jazz. But I never wanted to carry around an upright, and that wasn't my first love. My first love was Bootsy Collins and Verdine White, and Larry Graham—it was electric bass. To this day I still don't play upright bass."

"I own a broken one that a friend gave me (cracking up) and I still haven't had it fixed. But I've played other peoples, and it actually hurt my arms because its a different set of muscles, like in my right arm and forearm. If I went long enough, I'm sure it would go all the way down my back. And the left hand spacing is so different and alien to me, and I've always played fretted instruments. I never pursued fretless because there were so many Jaco (Pastorius) clones that I just went in a complete other direction."

Jaco with Joni Mitchell

"You know it's interesting you mention Joni Mitchell, because Joni Mitchell was the first folk music that I heard that I absolutely fell in love with. It was that album Blue and it's pretty much just her, I don't think there a band on the whole record. I absolutely fell in love with that record, and at the same time, I was about 17 years old, so I was already way into Jaco."



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