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Peter Erskine: Up Front, In Time, and On Call, Part 2

Jim Worsley By

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Whenever I play somewhere, I always try to honor and respect the space I am in. If it is a great space it pays you back tenfold. —Peter Erskine
Part 1 | Part 2

This past February Peter Erskine greeted me at his studio with a warm smile and welcoming handshake. Nearly two hours later we had discussed many aspects of his long and storied career. We talked at length about his experiences with Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, and Joe Zawinul in Weather Report, and his subsequent book, No Beethoven, that chronicles and fuses it in time. Even the amusing aside as to how that title came to be. We also went from his days at Interlochen High School, through his tenures with Stan Kenton, Maynard Ferguson, Steps Ahead, and on into his current role with The Thornton School of Music at USC.

Recently, I was invited back to his studio to complete the second part of our interview. We traversed from precious childhood memories, to an expansion on his live recording process, to his sincere admiration of Herbie Hancock, to his in-depth analysis of jazz clubs, to his still very active career, and much more. In a most generous well over two-hour session, one thing it didn't include is a repeat of anything that we covered back in February. It did, however, include his trademark humor. A lot of it.

AAJ: You have, of course, played hundreds and hundreds of jazz clubs in your career. What are the trademarks and absolutes that make a club an institution? A place where the serious jazz musician really wants to play?

PE: What are the 'hallmarks' of a great club?

AAJ: Good word.

PE: Thank you. There are two things that kind of go hand in hand. I was about to say first and foremost the sound of the room, but that is tied in importantly and closely with the general ambiance. You take into consideration if a room is proportioned correctly, length in conjunction with width. The seating and the sightlines. A club that engenders more listening versus socializing. Some rooms magically seem to do that. The audience gets that they are there to listen. I should mention as an aside, that the club policy plays an important role in how they suggest, recommend, or enforce a listening policy. So that people understand that they are among a group of others who are there primarily to listen. The acoustics of a room are very important. If the room presents any part of the sonic output of a band disproportionately, if there is a problem with too much boominess or low end, or if it has sort of a grating hard metallic quality to the sound then it is not pleasing to the performers. If the performers don't feel comfortable then they are less apt to play their best. That's just natural. So, if you have a room that sounds good and feels good with right level of lighting and a general level of quiet then you have a great club. A club that doesn't position or operate their high-speed blenders where they are going to interfere in the course of the music making. Some clubs think about that and some don't. A staff that is attentive to your needs and can speak in a sub rosa manner to respect the music. That they can make themselves as invisible as possible and just be part of a seamless architecture.

AAJ: You recorded a live record at the club Sam First in Los Angeles this year. How do you rate Sam First in regard to all of that?

PE: Sam First seems to get it right on all counts. More than anything else, it is the acoustics. The room sounds great. It reminds me of the Village Vanguard.

AAJ: That's quite a statement.

PE: Yeah, the Village Vanguard is reckoned to be among the best in the world. It's sacred. Club owners from around the world, specifically from Japan, have come there to photograph it and measure it. They try to recreate that kind of sonic environment. It can have a lot to do with whatever old stuff might happen to be on the walls. That can have a lot to do with sound absorption or how the sound moves around the room. My studio, for example. I have this very nice CD case that's next to that bookshelf (pointing) that acts as a low-end diffuser. It prevents boominess from building up in parts of the room. One of the favorite rooms for a lot of listeners and musicians is what was known as the Contemporary Studio. This is where Lester Koenig recorded for the Contemporary label and Shelly Manne did all his records, and so many great records were recorded there. This studio was in the same space as the album warehouse. So, you had all these shelves of LP records that acted as an acoustic treatment. It wasn't designed to be a studio, but it was a unique-sounding space and became the sound of that record label. That became the face and sound of west coast jazz.

AAJ: The fact that people are truly listening to the music at Sam First is appealing just in itself. What kind of effect does that listening room environment have on your playing? Perhaps on your concentration or just the fact that you know people are being attentive and really digging it.

PE: What it means is that you can explore the spaces between the notes better because you can trust that the space is not going to be invaded by, ah...

AAJ: Yacking and whirling blenders?

PE: By yacking and whirling blenders, yes. It's Margarita Night. Who cares?

AAJ: The music is more important.

PE: Yes, and it's easier to trust the other musicians as well because you don't have to worry about extraneous sound. Whenever I play somewhere, I always try to honor and respect the space I am in. When it is a great space it pays you back tenfold. When it's not a good space, you just have to play on regardless. Strap your helmet on and do the best you can. A room becomes a greater room because of the number of great musicians that have made music in it. When you walk into certain venues or recording studies you sense it. You know that great music has been played there. As a drummer, you are reluctant to let other drummers play your cymbals. Your feeling is that you have been playing them and that they have been trained to respond to your touch and that you have learned to respond to the molecular structure and attributes of that cymbal. You don't like the thought of someone banging and clanging away on them and perhaps changing them a bit. A club feels the same way as to who they are going to allow to play their piano. It may not be good for the instrument or the room.

AAJ: Your new record, 3 Nights in LA (Fuzzy Music, 2019), with tenor saxophonist George Garzone, pianist Alan Pasqua, and bassist Darek Oles, is a magnificent treat for the serious jazz listener. The sound is remarkably crisp, clear, and vibrant. I think it would be interesting to know about the recording process.

PE: First of all, the room sounded great. None of us had to make any adjustments whatsoever. I brought a lot of equipment from my home studio with me, including a portable wall. You know those plexi-glass things you see around drum sets?

AAJ: Yeah, I saw a guy using one of those just a few weeks ago at the Baked Potato.

PE: To me, those are baloney. They're dumb. They cause more problems than they solve with reflection and all that. They're really stupid. This, on the other hand, is a panel that I got from an acoustic company in Japan that helps keep the drum sound from going too much into the bass microphone. So, we got a good clean signal on the bass. Anytime that you have instruments in the same room it's not just the microphone assigned to an instrument that hears only that instrument. They are hearing other stuff as well. If the drum sound starts invading the piano mic then you have a problem with getting washed out and not clear. I brought my best magnificent matched pair of DPA mics for the piano. I recorded the drums with just a mic on the bass drum. That was a Shure SM7, and a pair of Sony MC100's, that are right over there (pointing). I discovered them a couple of years ago touring with Sadao Watanabe in Japan. They were fantastic, so I ordered a pair. Here in my studio I discovered that I don't even need to mic my tom-toms. They hear everything. I don't like close micing on the tom-toms. Maybe on the snare if you need it for the brushwork. What I told the engineer at Sam First was that I want the mics set up where they hear what I hear, and that's the way I am going to play.

AAJ: It sounds very logical the way you explain it.

PE: Yes, very simple micing. Good pre-amps. There was no editing on the album. The engineer, Aaron Walk, did a great job of mixing. It was kind of a "set it and forget it" thing once we got to a relative balance. What did help is that we sent the mixes out to a Grammy winning engineer named Rich Breen. He did a nice mastering job and added just a bit of reverb that opened the sound up. A good mastering engineer just knows how to make it blossom.

AAJ: They just have that ear.

PE: Yes. In the old days we would take everything to Bernie Grundman. He was THE guy on the west coast. He would nurse a bottle of Ramlosa, a Scandinavian mineral water, throughout the process. He would take a sip, turn the knob just a bit and say, "That's' a nice sounding record." Many other finished masters came his way. Always the same. A sip, a turn of the knob, and "That's a nice sounding record." (now laughing out loud)

AAJ: (laughing with him) He had his process.

PE: Yeah, and I don't know how he did it. But they always sounded better. Of course, the reality is that now many people are going to listen through the little speakers on their smartphone. You don't hear it that way. Really, the only way to listen to this music is to have a good pair of speakers or a really good pair of headphones.

AAJ: That's the only way I listen. You indeed aren't really hearing it any other way. Jazz has so much depth. You are missing the point not to hear it at its fullest level.

PE: I have many specific thoughts on that (shaking his head). But, yes, if you are listening only on those silly little earbuds you are just cheating yourself.

AAJ: It's all so tunneled down.

PE: Exactly.

AAJ: How and when did Garzone, Erskine, Pasqua, and Oles come together as a unit?

PE: I met Alan in 1971 while attending Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. I was seventeen years old and had just gotten there. I went to a jam session. Alan and I connected right away and formed a band pretty quick. We were in the band and became housemates. We left school at about the same time. I left to go on the road with Stan Kenton. He left to attend the New England Conservatory. At one point when Stan was ill, they were bringing in piano players. First, they brought in Nat Pierce of Woody Herman band fame. I was itching to get Alan out and he was able to come out for a while. We have known each other for nearly fifty years and have been playing together much of that time. Darek I met initially when he was a student at the California Institute of the Arts. I ran into him a few years later when he was on tour with Brad Mehldau. Alan and I were playing a lot with a bassist named Dave Carpenter. Dave passed away far too soon and far too suddenly. Then we thought Darek might enjoy playing with us. He is incredible. Incredible ears, time, pitch, and he always seems to make the right choice. He is so easy to play with. One time I played with Darek in a trio setting with a saxophone. We played with Bob Sheppard in San Diego at an art gallery. It was time for the bass solo during some standard and Darek is just walking. Beautiful notes, just fascinating, but just walking. Second chorus comes around and he is still walking. He played all quarter notes. At the end of the solo, the entire place went nuts. I told him later that it might have been the greatest bass solo that I had ever heard. That he had the discipline and the cleverness to just do that. He built up so much tension. It was amazing. Nobody could believe it. Here was a guy that actually had the musical balls to do that.
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