Oteil Burbridge: Long Live the Dead

Alan Bryson By

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"And then I found out Joni and Jaco recorded together and it was like a tornado hit me, I'm like, are you kidding! In terms of emotion two of my favorite artists got together, and then I found out Wayne (Shorter) was on some of that, and I was like, oh my God. It just blew my mind. So it was such a great thing to me, here was someone with a totally different style of music, and she loves Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker, Jaco, Wayne, and Herbie. But getting back to your initial question, the first time I heard Jaco was when my brother Kofi turned me on to him. It was really over my head, he played me Jaco's first solo record."

"Donna Lee"

"Yeah, without a piano playing along I couldn't contextualize chord changes, but I'd heard the original and I knew it was right, but it was too early, I was like 14. But I was knocked out by Continuum it hit me very hard. But when I saw Jaco when I was 17 at Constitution Hall, that's when I decided I was going to become a musician."

"I'd been in love with Wayne (Shorter) for so long, and I'd been in love with Weather Report before Jaco joined the band. Wayne and Joe (Zawinul)—they were it, like Mount Rushmore guys you know. Those two plus Herbie Hancock, Jan Hammer, George Duke—they are my Mount Rushmore. Those bands, and the bassist Alphonso Johnson, and the drummers—everybody."

"So when I saw Jaco with Weather Report that night, when I was coming home, I thought, whatever the risk, and everybody said being a bassist is crazy, but I thought, these guys are doing it, and if I could get to a quarter of what they were doing it would be worth the risk. (Laughing) I guess that was me embracing the wine press at that moment."

"We always had known that Kofi was going to be a musician because he left Washington DC and went to the Carolina School of the Arts at the age of 14. My parents didn't let me go to music school I think—well I guess if I had really tried they might have let me, but they thought it was risky for two kids."

Sidwell Friends School

"Yeah I did, and it was that. And it's weird because we had this kind of dual upbringing, we lived in Anacostia, South East Washington, and anybody who knows the area, knows that's the legendary hood. So living there, and then going to Potomac School and Sidwell Friends with all these rich kids, whose parents were running the world, either in the corporate or government world (laughing) or the clandestine CIA—so it was an interesting and kind of fascinating upbringing. They did have a program, but there weren't any opportunities for us to play jazz, funk, or fusion, or anything else. I wasn't into school, I just wanted to get out and start playing. Music was all I cared about."

"Being There" with Peter Seller in 1979

"I watch it every once and awhile when it comes on, but it's actually been a pretty long time. That came about because Kofi used to do commercials and stuff and he went to Russia with this play called "Inherit the Wind" and they called him for an audition. Of course he wasn't there, so they asked, doesn't he have a little brother?"

"So then I joined central casting, and that was the big agency in DC for TV, movies, commercials, and local television. Usually it was for work as an extra, but you could get speaking parts too. That movie was made in Washington DC and Asheville, North Carolina. So I went in and auditioned."

"It was really fascinating, Peter Sellers came into our trailer and he told me and Ricky Keller that he had had four heart attacks, and said he'd died during one of them and that it was really beautiful. He then said he was going to die after the movie was made. We were like, 'Oh man, don't say that, that's terrible!' And he said, 'Don't feel bad for me, because I'm actually looking forward to it.' And he died right after that."

"He called it man. I had no idea how heavy it was until much later. And the funny thing is, it's another crazy irony, much later when I met Col. Bruce his whole philosophy is really wrapped up in a nutshell by that movie."

"I didn't really understand Joe Zambi, Joe Zambi is an actual person, and in jest Bruce made him into a Deity, and that's his religion—Zambiism. And he was explaining it to me in a very roundabout metaphorical Merlin way, and I was just totally confused. And as I finally started to get it, I said, 'You know, I think I made a movie of what you're talking about.' And he's like, 'You were in a movie?' And I said, 'Yeah, it's called "Being There."' His eyes got so wide, he's like, 'God Oteil, that's totally it!' And he had gone to see that movie with Joe Zambi and the bassist Ricky Keller, and I said, 'You know Bruce what's really crazy Bruce, the actor who played the gang leader in the movie—his name was Ricky Keller!' We still laugh about how crazy that is. So if people want to really understand Bruce's philosophy, they should watch "Being There." (Laughing) And find somebody named Ricky Keller to go see it with!"

Deodato's jazz version of "Thus Spoke Zarathustra"

[ See video below for scene with Peter Sellers, Oteil and a group of teenagers ]

"You know I forgot about that! My dad's got a bunch of Deodato albums. I gotta check that out. Oh my God that's crazy. Man there's no coincidences."

I asked him what his life might have been like if his path had never crossed Brue Hampton's, he might be in New York with an entirely different life.

"I can (laughing) because I see people doing it! Like, that was gonna be me you know. And in another sense that was never gonna be me, because I'm a round peg that can't fit into a square hole. So I do think that at some point I would have taken a complete left, I mean if I hadn't met Col. Bruce, I would have met Sun Ra at some point and ended up in his band. (Laughing) Like something was gonna happen totally left, you know."

Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit

"It was really thanks to Jeff Sipe, I was just frustrated, and I literally thought, maybe I did make a mistake becoming a musician. Playing music, and doing it for a career are two completely different things. I would advise more people to just do it for fun. But on the other hand, if you embrace the wine-press and you're ready to get crushed and take it, then go for it as a career."

"So I was really frustrated, and Jeff Sipe told me that guys who are frustrated go play with this guy Col Bruce, so you should come and meet him. And all the top cats in Atlanta, the best musicians, the top studio musicians, the top touring guys, they all played with the Col. I was like, alright, but I was warned that he was really crazy. I even had someone take me out to lunch, and I was really poor, so a free lunch I said sure. He was musician who had hired me for something, and the whole purpose of the lunch was that he wanted to talk me out of working with Col. Bruce. He was like, 'Oh dude, it's gonna kill your career if you do that.'"

"By that point I was already too far out, too far gone, to go back. But when I met the Col. it was just what I needed. I can't even say it was just what I needed, because what I thought I needed was something totally different from what Col. Bruce was. It was a great gift, and I could never have see that one coming in a million—in ten million lifetimes I couldn't have seen that one coming."

"It was like Saturday Night Live if SNL were a band. We weren't just coming to play music. Music was just skeleton for all the muscle, skin and everything else that was Col. Bruce. Music was something, I don't know how else to put it, it was just something we were hanging our coats on. But the coat was Col. Bruce and his vision of life and music, which I totally understood just on an emotional level. And then I began to understand on an intellectual level. It's difficult to get it on an intellectual level, it's better to come to it on an emotional level. Actually it's emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. If you try to come at it from just your left brain, it's going to seem like nonsense—like most religions do. If you come at it emotionally, then your spirit grabs a hold of it, and then somehow your intellectual somehow understands it."

"It's really about life. People think he's crazy, and they think I'm crazy, but it's actually the world that's crazy. This is our response to how absolutely friggin' crazy this planet is, or some of the people in it. We just wake up here in the situation we find ourselves in, and this insanity that's just super dark. But there are these amazing lights that are given to you along the way as you're getting crushed, like BB King and Col. Bruce Hampton. Thank God Col. Bruce was a light to Duane Allman, and Duane got him his first record deal. If that hadn't happened, I don't know, how many of us would even have ever known about the Col.? He's been a light to a lot of people over the years."

"Bruce is like a charismatic shamanic figure, and if you fall under his spell you'll learn a lot, and you'll get so much from it. And you'll laugh so much. The things I think about when I think of the Col. it's not about music, it's about laughter and how much good food we enjoyed together. You know, just sitting in a restaurant with the Col. and people are walking by the plate glass outside the front of the restaurant. And he would point out how funny it was, like look at this guy, it was like watching a movie. He taught me to look at life like I was watching a movie. And he taught me to listen to music that way, and that's how I began to start becoming aware of how great people like BB King were. You hear their life story, and it's like, oh my God! And then that ruins so much other music. You realize they aren't telling their story, it's a total lie."

"I never would have fallen in love with Allison Krauss if I hadn't met Col. Bruce. I literally think I was destined to meet him, because there is so much other music that I just wouldn't have paid attention to if it weren't for him."



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