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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.

AAJ: It kind of goes back to what you have said before about artists rushing to get to fifth gear, or wanting to spend a lot of time there. Here he was blissfully meditating somewhere between third and fourth gear and taking the audience with him.

PE: Third and fourth gear, exactly right, Jim. You can make a baseball analogy that you don't win games just by hitting home runs all over the place.

AAJ: Well, as exciting as fifth gear can be, it can also get old if an artist just wants to camp out there. It ceases to be special.

PE: Yes, that is my philosophy. But certainly not everyone agrees with me. I find, for me, I really like being a little bit more patient. That being said, I think this band does kick into some pretty high gears.

AAJ: No question about that. That brings us to Garzone.

PE: He definitely will kick it. With George, it's a case of can we make it burn or simmer. He creates a lot of musical tension, energy, and excitement. We do this without being too loud and getting the audience's ear tuned into it. This comes right back to why the acoustics of a club are important.

AAJ: You released a three-cd package recorded over three consecutive nights. Was the original idea to choose the best from the three nights and put out one CD? Or was the larger volume the concept from the get-go?

PE: We were thinking one CD. But then as I was listening to it, I thought, let's just go for it. Part of it was that there was just the one song that we played all three nights. That being "Have You Met Miss Jones." The three cuts are just so different and so interesting. We are excited about this project. It's a nice album. I hope it gets the recognition it deserves.

AAJ: I hope so too. With so many great standards to choose from, what was the basis of the selection process?

PE: We didn't have a setlist. George would just call out a tune and we would go. Sometimes he would just start playing and we would figure out what he was playing on the fly. We had maybe a forty-minute rehearsal before the first afternoon and that was it. We wanted it to be spontaneous.

AAJ: Basically, just a sound check.

PE: Yeah, it kind of functioned as both. There is a nice sense of discovery on the record. For example, on the tune "Tutti Italiani," if you are paying attention, you can hear me kind of getting it as we were going along. It's an interesting listen. It's a dynamic interaction.

AAJ: I would agree with that. My only "problem" was getting to the second and third cds. I get a new record that I like, and I am going to listen to it three times consecutively to really absorb it. Did that, of course, with all three discs. This would have been an outstanding live record if there was only one disc. The fact that there are three with all different, save one, tunes makes it a treasure trove. I have heard a lot of great new music this year, in particular by artists that I wasn't much familiar with. But here we are in September, and I would have to say this is the best record of the year.

PE: Thank you for that, Jim. I appreciate that. You know, I look at it like putting out a long book.

AAJ: Yeah, you don't need to, or aren't expected to read it all in one night. But you look forward to getting back to it. Let's get back to Garzone. I know you had more to say, and we kind of digressed in another direction.

PE: You know, it used to be that you could recognize a tenor player's sound. For a period of time, in more recent years, and I don't mean this in a derogatory way, there were tenor sax players that were good, but I couldn't put my finger on just what they were doing. Just not hearing anything specific. Not hearing any particular choices or vocabulary that was pointing to anything. So, I just wasn't hearing it, wasn't getting it. The tenor players always used to have a language. You heard Dexter Gordon, you heard Hank Mobley, and you knew it was Hank Mobley. You could identify these guys. Then, all of a sudden, there are all these players I can't identify with. Garzone is a guy that you can spot a mile away. His playing energizes me. Every time I hear him begin to improvise, just the way he plays a melody, inside I am just laughing with joy because it is just so cool.

AAJ: You have a lot of room to play on this record and you seriously take advantage of it. You must be having a blast being able to play so freely and expressively throughout the record.

PE: Well, I am very inspired by George. Also, you can't discount Darek's contributions. This guy is just amazing. Darek is doing two things at once. He is totally paying attention to everything I am doing, yet he is wearing blinders. He is not influenced unduly. He stays his course. That is the dream thing, to have a bassist that hears you and can respond to you. Let me share with you a great experience I had a few years ago playing with a bassist named David Wong, who plays with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. We had never met, much less played together, and were paired together to play this mini-concert at Stanford. He was a bit shy, and I didn't know what to expect. But, as soon as he started to play, it was just holy cow this guy is a dream to play with. I could see that he was watching my stick on the cymbal. Afterwards, I told him that it felt so great I wanted to give him a hug. I asked him who he had played with. He told me that he had been working with Roy Haynes. I smiled and said that's' where you learned the thing about looking at the ride stick. As along as the drummer is dependable, then the groove is going to be there, it's going to swing if the bassist follows the ride. You can't be fighting one another, or not trusting one another. Some rhythm sections seem to like that kind of fighting each other tension. I don't. If you are fighting, you are not swinging.

AAJ: Yeah, I'd much rather hear a pocket groove than two guys that aren't on the same page.

PE: It's an oil and water thing sometimes. You might both be good players, but just aren't hearing the same thing or in the same place.

AAJ: Tell me about "Twelve" (an Erskine composition on 3 Nights in LA). I really like that tune and can't put my finger on exactly why. It just has a unique sensibility. How did that come together?

PE: The chord changes are courtesy of Cole Porter's genius. The song form is his "Easy to Love." The melody is an exercise in serial composition. In twelve tone composition at its most basic level of rules, is that you have to utilize all twelve pitches, and you can't repeat one until you have gone through the cycle of notes. So, "Twelve" accomplishes that. It's what they call contrafacts or writing different melodies to existing standards. We used to do that a lot as a good exercise, and part of it was coming up with a clever title. Dave Carpenter had the best. He wrote a tune based on "I Hear a Rhapsody," but he titled it, "I Hear A Rap CD." (laughing)

AAJ: (laughing) Oh, that's a great one. I like that.

PE: (still laughing) Yeah, that's pretty good. You know, Jim, I have been lucky enough to meet and play with a lot of great musicians in my career. If I had to answer the question, and I am readily offering it without being asked, who is the single most talented musician, I would have to say Herbie Hancock.

AAJ: Thank you for offering that. It's a question I don't ask often, as it seems to put people on the spot. They don't want to say this one guy is the greatest guitarist, or whatever instrument, as they feel as if they are going to disparage all the other players they know. I understand, and respect that, so generally don't go there. So, it is very cool that you are sharing that.

PE: Well, without disparaging anyone else, I have to say that it is Herbie. I had the opportunity to play with Herbie several years ago. He is the most talented and has the best time of any musician I have ever run into. We were doing a concert tour with Joni Mitchell. Herbie was brought in as a guest at a few of the concerts. Like in New York City and a few other places. Chuck Berghofer and I are in the rhythm section and we start playing. The announcement that special guest Herbie Hancock is made, and the spotlight is on him. He sat down at the piano, very relaxed, and he played two chords. I felt my right arm locked into time purely as a result of the rhythm he created with just two chords. I never experienced that before or after. I was just like, holy cow this guy has got something. I had no idea that was possible. It was actually like a ghost moving my arm.

AAJ: Wow. And another wow.

PE: Herbie has a very special place in my book.

AAJ: I just saw him at the Vancouver Jazz Festival.

PE: He's heavy. That doesn't take anything away from all the other musicians. Herbie has an extra level of some musical mojo happening. I also want to do your readers a favor and suggest they check out Swingin' New Big Band (Pacific Jazz, 1966). Buddy Rich's first album with his own big band. Listen to the sound of his drums, particularly the bass drum. I just ordered a fourteen by twenty-four bass drum. I want to learn how to play that bass drum. I want to learn to do a little bit of what Buddy did sonically. Buddy was one of a kind. But that will be fun to do that. If nothing else, maybe it will bring that size back a little bit.

AAJ: That's cool that you are excited about it. I know you are also very excited about your daughter's successful acting career. We have seen all ten episodes of Pen15 on Hulu. It's very funny, quite poignant, and very relatable. Maya and Anna Konkle are hilarious, and surprisingly believable as thirteen-year-olds. After all the years of fame and being in the spotlight, how does it feel to be referred to as Maya Erskine's dad?

PE: Oh, I love it. The more of that the better. I'm so proud of Maya, Anna, Mutsy (Maya's real-life mom and Peter's wife, who also portrays her mom in the show) and Sam Zvibleman (co-creator of the show). It just really took off.

AAJ: And it's been renewed, yes?

PE: There are fifteen more episodes in the pipeline, yes. They are in the writer's room right now. They are all really delightful people. The writers, the producers, all the young actors, everyone involved in the project. I think that one thing that draws people to the show is the fact the kids are representing real people. They are not portraying Hollywood starlets waiting to be discovered. There are kids in all shapes and sizes. It's all done very respectfully and ethically.

AAJ: It's relatable to anyone who has ever been in seventh grade. No matter how long ago that might be. It is still the same range of emotions and fears and discovery going on.

PE: Yes, although different in some ways too. There was not even the thought of something like the internet when we were kids. When I was a kid, my parents were kind enough to buy me a set of the World Book encyclopedias. Every night when I went to bed I would grab "E" or whatever letter, and read as much as I could, and bookmark it before I fell asleep. I just loved reading all this different information. So that was sort of my internet. I had a deep drawer that I would put all my Halloween candy into. You would be surprised at how long I could make that stash last. Every night I would have one piece of chocolate along with the World Book.

AAJ: That's a fun childhood memory. Thanks for that. Getting back to music. You have that distinctive sound that you were talking about earlier, referencing sax players like Mobley and Gordon. You along with Steve Gadd and Colaiuta, in particular, can be spotted a mile away, to borrow your line from earlier. Was there an intent to be distinctive or more of a natural occurrence?

PE: The second one. I always worked to sound my best. It's like I tell my students. Play what you want to hear. Not what someone else wants to hear. I have imagined if we were to compare drummers to the way we view actors, that I would be the Claude Rains of drummers.

AAJ: Interesting. I'm old enough to remember Claude Rains.

PE: Someone will say "how about Spencer Tracy, man?" But I like the fact that Claude Rains acted in a number of roles. Some were magnificent. Some were cheesy. He did good work. He was a pro. I always wanted to be thought of as someone who does good work.

AAJ: If I know you at all, Peter, even though we have talked about several topics, you likely have something else to share.

PE: I was talking to someone about my gear, and they noticed that I didn't have any sub woofers. No, I don't have them because I think sub woofers are probably the worst single development in music audio that's taken place. Particularly when it comes to live sound. This guy couldn't believe I was saying this. They are always too loud and way too much low end. Wherever we play, I just turn them off if they are there. I'm not interested in hearing sub woofers. It's not representative of what we do, so just shut them off. You end up having that argument sometimes. So, I told this guy I was talking to, that the way to use sub woofers is the way people use hot sauce. You pour it all over everything and it burns your asshole, and you get off on the fact that it burns your asshole. Sub woofers are burning the asshole of music. (laughing out loud)

AAJ: (laughing very hard) What more needs to be said? That's hysterical. Thank you for that story and laugh. Moreover, thank you for being so generous with your time (well over two hours had passed) and for being so candid with your responses and remarks. It's always a true pleasure talking with you. Always interesting, educational, and a lot of laughter.

PE: Well, then let me leave you with a good, bad joke. There are three men discussing what is the most important invention of all time. The first guy says it's the internal combustion engine because it made automobiles and airplanes possible. The second man says that it is the incandescent lightbulb because we can extend the hours of daylight into the evening for the manufacturing of goods and so that people could read by something other than candlelight. The third guy goes, I got you both beat. It's the thermos. The other two men were incredulous. The thermos??!! It just keeps hot things hot and cold things cold. Yes, says the third man....but how does it know?

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