Name one contemporary jazz trombonist.
Robin Eubanks, right?
Eubanks is only one member of a notoriously musical Philadelphia familyyou're probably familiar with some of his brothersand was playing trombone at a tender age. He moved to New York City after graduating from the Philly-based University of the Arts, and has collaborated with an enormous range of musicians. He did serious road time with both Art Blakey and Elvin Jones, was a prominent participant in the 1980s M-Base movement most associated with Greg Osby and Steve Coleman, worked for Talking Heads and Barbra Streisandhe's played a lot of styles of music.
If you attend jazz concerts with any regularity, you've almost certainly gone to see the Dave Holland Quintet; the bassist's group is one of the top draws in instrumental music, and it's hard to imagine the band without Eubankshis thrilling trombone solo cadenzas and contrapuntal interplay with saxman Chris Potter seem integral to the Holland group, as are his tricky, time-shifting, sectional compositions. Eubanks is the sole Quintet member to also perform in Holland's Octet, Big Band and new Sextet.
Eubanks has been releasing records under his own name since his 1988 JMT debut, Different Perspectives
, and he's never made a bad CD. Karma
(JMT, 1991) and Mental Images
(JMT, 1994)both since reissued on Winter & Winterare particularly noteworthy but this is largely a matter of taste, as all his records feature his indelible, genre-smashing compositions and impeccable, vibrant musicianship.
Eubanks' Live, Vol. 1
(Kindred Rhythm, 2007) is, however, his best one yet. It's a DVD/CD package by his trio EB3 of drummer Kenwood Dennard and keys player Orrin Evans; obviously, it's a live recording, and on it the band performs mostly Eubanks material that he's previously recorded, often with his much-larger group Mental Images. EB3's a small band, but its sound is startlingly largewith Dennard and Evans doubling on keyboard bass and Eubanks playing both acoustic and heavily effected, looped electric trombone (as well as electronic percussion), this group's sound is much greater than its number of members would indicate.
It's also a fantastic bandfunky, virtuosic and frighteningly tight. A quick glance at the release's DVD will demonstrate just how much the players are enjoying themselves, the bandleader as delighted as the other two. And he should
be happy, because in this group, Eubanks seems to have combined all his musical appetites and abilities.
I spoke with the hard-touring trombonist (with a Holland group or EB3, he's probably headed to your town) about EB3, the new CD/DVD, the joys of electric trombone, and much more. Chapter Index
- Why a DVD? Why Such a Long Time Between Records?
- Passing the Bass Lines Around and Solo Trombone
- Is This Jazz? and "Mojo Jojo" as the Ultimate EB3 Song
- Electric Trombone and Wanting to Be Jimmy Page, Not James Pankow
- Composing and Working With Dave Holland
Why a DVD? Why Such a Long Time Between Records?
All About Jazz: I want to talk about your new recording with your band EB3, Live, Vol. 1. This is a live recording done at Montana Studios in New York City about one year ago. This is a great record, and features a bunch of your compositions (plus a tune of Kenwood's and one by Wayne Shorter) refitted for the trio of yourself, drummer Kenwood Dennard and keys player Orrin Evans.
Everyone in the band takes on extra musical roles, especially on keyboard bass; there's no actual bassist in the group, so Kenwood and Orrin cover that role. The overall sound is sparser than some of your musical projects, but incredibly tight and funky; it really shows off your great compositions. Before we discuss the band or music, I'm interested in just the fact that this is a CD and DVD packageobviously, seeing a DVD is very instructional in just how this band produces its sound. This is your first record under your name since your self-released CD, Get 2 It (Orchard, 2001). Why include a DVD with the CD? And why so long between Eubanks records? I know you haven't been idle.
Robin Eubanks: Well, I did a showcase gig for Western Arts Alliance in Albuquerque about a year-and-a-half ago. [Bassist] Lonnie Plaxico and [keys player] George Colligan were both playing with [saxman] Ravi Coltrane's band; it was a double bill with Ravi's band and EB3. Lonnie and George had played with my other band, Mental Images, for many years, and a lot of the music that EB3 was playing had been covered in the Mental Images band also. So they got to hear a lot of music that they were very familiar with, done by EB3. After the gig, they told me that it really sounded nice, and that it was really tightLonnie told me, "You should never have a bassist in your band again, and I'm your bassist!
And then he mentioned how visual it was, watching the bass parts switch between players, and seeing me do my looping and layering thing. I never thought of it as visual, because I'm in front. I can't see what's behind me; I don't get a sense of what it looks like for the audience. But when George and Lonnie told me thatand they're really good friends of mineI trusted their opinion, and started thinking about it. It made sense. Like, when I do my "Solo Latin piece. If you just listen to it, it just sounds like a song where each part's just coming in, one at a timewhat's the big deal? But when you see it, and see what's going on, then it has a much more significant impact.
So I realized that that was really something about this band: What you see and what you hear doesn't quite add up the way they'd normally add up. The visual aspect is really a strong component that contributes a lot to people appreciating what the band is doing. So I definitely wanted to add that visual component to the package. Besides, the internet is making everything so visual nowYouTube, things like that. People really want to see stuff now. So that's why I decided to do a DVD.
And the reason it's been awhile since the last record was just that I wanted to do the projects myself. I did Get 2 It, myself, and put a lot of money into it, and with this project, I was just waiting to get the fundsand the concepttogether. Really [laughing], I don't knowtime just kind of started flying by! And suddenly it was like, "Oh, it's been awhile, hasn't it? And I've been teaching, and crazy busyDave Holland's band has been really busy. Time just flew by, and I didn't even realize it had been that long. When the EB3 concept came together, it just seemed like it was the right time to do it.
I just really wasn't into doing stuff with record labels, and I actually did this project on my own. I was going to put it out on my own, but Ravi is a friend of minewe both have the same managerand he heard it, and said, "I would really like to put this out. And he had that distribution element, which I didn't have. So that's why I did it with RKM, Ravi's label.
AAJ: You own the masters, though, don't you?
RE: Oh, yeah. That seems to be the way things are goingand it's about time, actually, that musicians own the music that they create. Dave was on ECM for thirty years, and he didn't own one note of his music. Now he's got his own label, Dare2, and a lot of musicians are doing the same thing. It's good timing, because the whole label dominance and monopolistic ownership of music are definitely on the way out.
AAJ: You point out that the DVD really shows how the music works. Watching it was really helpful to me. It shows how these great bass lines are actually played by the whole bandmostly by Kenwood and Orrin, but sometimes by yourself.
You've never led a smaller band, but I don't think you've ever led a better one, either. And while this band can sound like a trio, it's capable of sounding like a much bigger group. This band also shows off your acoustic and your electric playing, so it includes everything you do. A band like this is really portable. Why'd you form this band, and what do Kenwood and Orrin add to the whole?
RE: Part of it was logisticssort of like the smaller groups of bebop came out of the big band era during the war. Economics just demanded a certain thing. And traveling with basses these days can be a major problem financially, with the levies that are applied by the airlines.
AAJ: You've got to check them.
RE: You've got to check them, and it's so arbitrary. You get charged if it's considered overweight, or oversizeand this is per flight. It's just ridiculous. Even Dave, who's probably the most celebrated acoustic bassist around nowand my favoritehas to run around after every flight looking for his bass, trying to find out where it is. Plus they're charging him all these dollars. It's just crazy. And I see this and think, "Wow, Dave Holland is going through all this. I don't want to go through it!
So that was part of it. I played with Jimmy McGriff's band, and he didn't have a bassistyou know, he played the bass lines on his organ. I'd also worked with samplers and sequencers for a long time. So I knew that the keyboard bass would supply what I needed, just in terms of hearing the bass parts.
My original idea was to have the keyboard player play all the bass partsbut at one rehearsal, Kenwood asked if he could try playing some bass parts, and I said, "Sure. And of course, he had no trouble with that. He can play bass parts on the keyboard while he plays drums with the other three limbshe does even more than that. I've seen him play bass and drums with two bass drums and a snare attached to one of the bass drumsso you've got a bass and snare thing happeningwhile he plays chords with the right hand, bass parts on the left hand, and sing. All at the same time.
He used to do that stuff a lot, especially in the eighties; he had a loft in New York, and he used to do one-man shows. So I've known Kenwood for a long time, and when he suggested playing some of those bass parts, I thought it'd be a great idea. It worked out really, really well, obviously. I don't know how he's able to do it; he's just developed that technique over the years. He plays really good piano anyway, so his left hand is very well-developed on the keyboards, and he's developed a really amazing technique in terms of keeping the feel and the groove. I remember that he told me one time, "You'll never have to worry about the bassist and the drummer not knowing what each other is doing.
AAJ: Yes, the two parts spring from one mind.
RE: Right. He can do accents and hits that separate bass players and drummers in a normal situation wouldn't be able to do. They couldn't know the other one was about to do something like that unless it had been arranged. So it works out really well, and he really grooves with it. He was a great choice, and having him really brings out a whole other realm of the music that I wasn't even thinking about when I was conceiving the bandbecause he wasn't the first drummer. Having him really opened up the whole band, because now the keyboard player can play two-handed soloswhich is what a keyboard player would normally do. That opens up the sound immensely.
And Orrin Evans is a young pianist from Philadelphia. I worked with him in the Mingus Big Band, but he was also a really, really good friend of my brother Duane; they came up together in Philly and played a whole lot together. He was always just really, really talented and creative. I'd really listen to his solos when we were playing with the Mingus Big Band; he'd always do a lot of unexpected things.
So when I wanted to make a change in the keyboard chair, he was definitely my choice. The way this band is constructed, the more creative someone is, the better everything is, because you're so exposed, and the music can easily go in different directions. There are only three people! The fewer people you're dealing with, the easier it is for things to really take off in certain directions, because you don't have to communicate the idea that that's about to happen to as many people.
And when he's playing bass lines and chording on the keyboard at the same time, then he's controlling all of the harmony at that point, so he can go in every direction. So you really want someone there who's very creative.
I think that some people don't realizebecause I haven't spoken about it very muchthat the performance on the DVD is only the second time the three of us had ever played together.
AAJ: I have to admit I'm shocked.
RE: I was shocked too, by the way it came off. I thought, "Wow! That really bodes well for the future if it sounds this good and we've only played together twice.
AAJ: The band sounds very tight.
RE: About a week earlier, we did a set at Tonic down in the East Village [New York], and we just took that gig so that the first time we played together wouldn't be in front of a live audience for a DVD! I said, "We've got to play someplace once. So the DVD was done a week later. It was pretty amazing how well it came together. We had played together as a group, but not with Orrin. I was really impressed with the results.
We did a tour in Europe in April, and it came together even moremuch more. So I'm really excited by the development of the music, and also by the response we're getting. The press has been good, and the people are liking it. I thought it sounded good, and I thought it looked niceI thought it was an interesting idea.
But you never know how people are going to receive something that's different. For me, the first thing is that I have to like it. If I like it, I think there's a shot that other people might like it. So I thought it was good. But the stuff I've read, both online and in the print media, has been beyond what I hoped they'd say. Some of it is [laughing] almost embarrassing. But I'll take it!
AAJ: Your tunes aren't easy to play; they're not simple. But the first thing I noticed on this record was just how much fun the band seems to having. It's not that it's not tightit's very tightbut it still sounds like people are having a good time. The band is, but the audience is too.
RE: Yeah. I think they do realize that it's something different. And Kenwood's got this history of playing the keyboards and the drums at the same time, but he doesn't get a chance to do that very often. And I don't get a chance to do my electric trombone stuff that often, and Orrin's not called on much to play bass parts at the same time as keyboards. So everybody is asked to stretch, and reach beyond the normal requirements of other bands. And people are really appreciating it, and stepping up to the plate, and finding stuff inside themselves that they can express, because they're called upon to do more.
So I think that's part of what you're hearing and seeing. It's fun! It's fun that we can actually pull it off. I know that when I'm doing, say, the "Solo Latin thing, and I'm using electronics, anything can happen when I hit that "record button. When it comes off, it's greatI think I even flash a little smile on the DVD: "Wow, it actually worked! I'm amazed and pleased that it actually sounds okay, because it could easily sound awful [laughing]. Every time we play, it's a challenge for me to stay focused on the next part I'm going to play, because that part's going to be heard for a long time.
AAJ: Sometimes there is no better feeling than relief.
RE: This is true.
Passing the Bass Lines Around and Solo Trombone
AAJ: I'm sure people have mentioned how amazed they are at the way the bass part is so seamlessly passed from player to player. "Pentacourse might be the ultimate example of this. But the bass sound is so uniformI think everyone is playing the same gear, the same kind of keyboard bass, but there's no significant change in tone, and on record it seems to be in the same place, sort of in the middle of the stereo channel. Are you all playing into the same amp?
RE: I don't even know what bass sounds they're using. They're not even using the same patch. I know when I hear it in headphones, it does switch from left to rightand I wanted that. I wanted the sound to be even more distinct, and the way we're doing it live now, it's more pronounced. It depends on what kind of keyboard we have; we rent keyboards, or they're provided by the promoter, and the different keyboard bass sounds are different. But I like having the bass sounds change, just because it adds different color, and sounds like somebody else is playing. We do pan on the recordingthe bass part Kenwood playing is a little to one side, and the one Orrin is playing is little to the other side. I wanted to keep that kind of separation.
But it does sound pretty seamless. I was shocked when I watched the video, because, like I said, I'm in frontI don't know what they're doing back there. And I liked how on "X-Base, the last song on the DVD, there's that big, rocked-out part, and when we first go into it, Orrin is waving his hands to tell Kenwood, "Okay, I'm ready [laughing]it was only the second time we'd ever done it!
AAJ: It's like two outfielders going for the same ball.
RE: Yeah, calling somebody off"I've got it! So they make this eye contact, and I'm up front thinking, "I hope they do this; I hope this works. And it kept going, and there wasn't any train wreck, so I assumed they had figured out some kind of way to communicate how to do it. But I didn't know what they were doing. But you pick people who you can trust, and you feel that they can do the job. I tell them, "It's your job to figure out when to stop, and when to start. I'm not playing that partit's your gig.
So they figure it out. Then at the end of that song, when it goes back to that slower tempo, you can see Kenwood on the video throwing a stick down and going to the bass line, and not a beat is missed. It's pretty amazing that he can go from playing all that stuff, slow the tempo down, come in with the right notesI was very impressed [laughing]. And I just can't say it enough: That was the second time we'd ever done it.
AAJ: "Indo is one of your best songs; you recorded it on your Get 2 It CD, and it's one of your most elegant and lovely tunes. It features the tricky mixed-meter time that's such an element of your work, as is the way the times blend so seamlessly in a way that makes the melody even more moving, instead of distracting from it. I love Orrin's restraint during your solohis chords are very non-interruptive, very measured, if you know what I mean. Tell me about this one, and tell me when the bass shifts from Kenwood to Orrin. I'll guess it's when Kenwood takes over during Orrin's solo.
RE: Yeah, during Orrin's solo. Kenwood plays the bass line there, and then I play a little percussion pad. I try to do that when Kenwood's playing the bass parts, just to try to fill in the drum sound a little moreadd in the extra hand that he's using elsewhere.
I really like that composition a lot also. The concept is to try to have different feels almost like different genresin one form. So it starts out with a little funk beat in seven, kind of slow, and then it goes into swing for about six beats, and then back into funk. But I try to make it sound organic. I think the way I explained it to the band was that it was as if you were listening to a radio, and you're moving the dial, looking for a station. You'll hear a snippet of this, and a snippet of that; you'll hear some country-western, the next station will be a rock station, the next'll be jazz, and then talk radio. It could be anything, but it just keeps moving in this kind of linear motion, because you're turning the dial.
That was the concept that I wantedscanning down the dial of a radio, and hearing just a few seconds of each thing. Conceptually, that's the idea, but you've got to make it musical. The most important part is having the rhythm section make it seamless, and once they got the feel, it's easyor easier, I should sayfor a horn player, or horn players, to float on top of it, and make the melody come together. If the rhythm section isn't solid and unified underneath, then nothing's going to work. So this song begins with them, with them having that understanding. Once I explained that concept, and the time signatures, and the temposhow it speeds up, slows down, the different feels, because the song does a lot of different thingsthey understood. And then you put the melody on top of that.
And to improvise on top of it is a whole other thing; you have to feel each section as it happens and try to keep your improvised line or ideas flowing through all these different, myriad things that are shifting underneath you. So it's fun; it's like an obstacle course in a way. "Pentacourse is the same way. It's a five-bar obstacle course; that's why I call it "Pentacourse. You just have to navigate the changes. I don't do it, but maybe it's like surfingthe waves go up, they go down, they slow. You just adapt to the environment and the situation. You just ride on it; you improvise. It's great. I like the feeling. So it's a fun piece to play, and I get to use the electronics on it.
I try not to use the electronics on everything, because I get tired of hearing them after a while, and, like I said, I use myself as a barometerfor better or for worse, if I don't like it, then I don't really expect other people to like it. If I think something is too much, there's a chance other people might think it's too much. Obviously, some people might not agree with my selection.
AAJ: Well, you also have to play it.
RE: Right. And if I feel like I'm hearing too much of the electric, it's great that I can just cut everything off and just play my horn. It's such a release, and a relief, just sonically, and attitude-wise, and vibe-wise. The band can go from this really heavy kind of rocking sound to a very relaxed acoustic thing. It's nice to have that kind of latitude in the music.
AAJ: You already mentioned your solo piece "Solo Latin. Another solo trombone number is the one that starts off the record, "Me Myself and I. It sort of acts as a sort of bridge to the group piece "Mojo Jojo. I really love it "Me Myself and I, and I'll say that, first, there's nothing that new about looping, but when the looped double trombones come in alongside your solo lines it's really startling in the best way. Second, the electronic percussion that comes in later completely changes the whole feel of the piece, although that loop stays the same, and your new solo line sort of pulls the piece out of its impasse. Any thoughts on this one and on performing solo with loops and electronic percussion in general?
RE: Well, I love playing solo. I'm trying to work up to doing a solo set. I have done a couple; I did something in Budapest last September, a solo set with my electronics, and it was really nice. I've done it a few times, and I'm trying to work up so I can do a solo tour. That would be pretty amazing to be able to do that.
But I think it's great. I mean, I play trombone! I'm a trombone player. And the fact that I can pull off doing a whole solo set with percussion, have a trombone choir and all these other sounds that don't sound anything like a trombone at the same timeas one personis great. Like on "Solo Latin, you have nine or ten parts going. People have told me they close their eyes and hear this big bandthen they look up and see one guy up there. For me, that's really gratifying. It's nice that I can give people this musical experience by myself.
And the electronics and technology let me do it in a way that was impossible to do it before. People have done solo trombone performance for a long timeGeorge Lewis and a lot of other great players have been doing solo trombone stuff for a long time. But without the aid of the electronics and the technology that's been developed, there are only certain things that you can do.
So for me, it's just great. And I love percussion; I'm like a closet percussionist. I always make sure I say it's percussion pads, what we used to call MIDI percussionbecause I respect percussionists so much, and I'm not a percussionist [laughing]. I can keep time, and I can put some rhythms on percussion pads. That's about it.
Is This Jazz? and "Mojo Jojo" as the Ultimate EB3 Song
RB: In a sort of tangentially related area, I don't really call what I'm doing jazz, because I have so much respect for jazz, and the history of jazz. I don't want to do anything that's diluting jazz, or diverting from jazz, or whatever people are calling jazz. I don't even know what jazz is, really. I'm just playing music that I like to play. People can call it whatever they like.
I'm really going off base, but pull me back if you like [laughing]. When we started the M-Base movement back in the eighties, I was the main person pushing the idea that we should name it something. I said, "If we don't name it, then the press and media will call it something. 'Urban-techno-funk,' or something. But if we name it, we define it, we say what it is, we control it. If somebody else names it, they define it.
And at the same time, I was playing with Art Blakey, and I had so much respect for Art, and for the history of jazz music. And at the same time, there was jazz-rock, jazz-this, jazz-thateverybody was hyphenating jazz, making it a prefix to whatever genre they were doing, to add validity, or whatever. I'm not really sure why they were doing it, but there were all kinds of jazz hyphens; all kinds of stuff was going on back then.
And I thought it was taking away from what people's perception of jazz was, so if you were talking about mainstream jazz, they'd say, "You mean that old-timey jazz? And I was playing with Art Blakey at the time, so we didn't like that term too much [laughing]. So I just said, "Let's just call it something else, and we came up with the M-Base thing.
I have similar feelings about this musicit's so rocked-out and electrified, and I'm not sure what to call it yet. I feel like I should come up with something. But I have a whole lot of respect for jazz, and the people who are trying to maintain a tradition. That's great. I have respect for that; it's just not what I want to do. And hopefully, they can respect that some people want to do something else. And that's all I'll say about that, unless you have more questions about it. I forgot where I started off!
AAJ: Well, I almost feel foolish going back to just discussing songs, because you've gone into much deeper territory there. And to completely miss your point, I have to say that I have always loved the term M-Base.
RE: Yeah. [Saxophonist/composer] Steve Coleman came up with that. He and [altoist] Greg Osby were the ones who kind of put all that kind of stuff together at that point.
AAJ: Well, when someone says M-Base, you always know what they're talking about.
RE: I liked that we named it something. It was different, and it served its purpose at the time.
Oh, and about "Me Myself and I I remember I read one review after we'd played a gig in London. The reviewer thought it sounded more like a Gabrieli classical brass piece than like jazzuntil the drum parts came in. I never had thought of it like that; I heard it as all one thing when I was writing it. And you mentioned the same thingthat it really changed once the drums came in. And that's nice, because I never thought of it like that, because before the drums parts came in, I was hearing the drum part in my head. But when you listen to it, you hear this three-part harmony thing, and it does sound kind of classical in a way, and the drums change the whole vibe when they do come in. I do like to hear the insights other people have about my music; it's often stuff I wasn't hearing initially, but once it's brought out, it makes a lot of sense. And I hear it that way now. Everything changes when the drums come in.
And that one goes into "Mojo Jojo, which is actually the only song from the CD that was written specifically for EB3.
AAJ: Well, it feels like an EB3 song.
RE: Right. And writing for this band is just making me think so differently, because I have to think, say, "Okay, does this line sustain itself with just the trombone playing it, or should I have keyboards doubling it? Should Kenwood play this bass part, or should Orrin? There are a lot of different things to think about that I had never had to think about when I was composing beforemostly because there are only three people. Although we're doing multiple things, we can only do two things at a time! So you have to take this into consideration when you're arranging and composing. You have to figure out who's going to do what whenand how. It's interesting in that regard.
I'm always just working on my sequencer. I use [the music notation software] Sibelius to compose, and [MOTU sequencer] Digital Performer. I just heard the bass line of "Mojo Jojo when I was walking around, and started singing it. Then I tried to figure out what meter it's in, because I just write what I hearthen I figure out what time signature it's in later. The only reason you've even got to figure that out is so other people can play it.
So I was just hearing it in my head. I heard the melody on top of the bass line, and the little counter-rhythms, and the melodiesit's kind of the basic stuff I do all the time. All of my pieces have that same stuff somewhere. So I liked it. I did I little of it in my studio, just to give Kenwood an idea of what it was supposed to sound like, and sent him a file. Then I had him come over, and it was just me and him playing it together as I tried to figure out the chords and the different sections.
It's nice because it features everybody in the band. It's a nice opener because there's an extended keyboard solo in the beginning, before the song even starts, and then Kenwood does this little break to set up the groove. Then I come in with the melody and I solo, and then Kenwood has his solo, there's that keyboard bass thing, and we take it out. It's a nice opener in that it features everybody and it really gives you an idea of what the band is about. It's got everything we do, except that I don't use electronics on it.
AAJ: Other than that, it really embodies what this band is all about. I think it's the ultimate demo to play to anyone who wants to know what this group sounds like.
RE: Right. Maybe I'll start playing some electric trombone solo in there at some point. You know, when I'm doing electric trombone solos, especially when I'm thinking about someone listening to it on a recording, I usually play a phrase of acoustic trombone and I repeat it two or three times, just to get that in people's ears and heads. Then I play that exact same phrase with the electronics on it, so they can relate it to what they heard before, and think that it's the same instrument. Or think it might be the same instrument, anyway.
Otherwise, it can sound like, "What happened to the trombone? Where did this guitarist come from? I'm always thinking how to bring people with me on this little journey; I don't want to lose anybody along the way. When they're seeing it, it's one thingthey can see that it's one person. But if you're just listening to it, it's different. So when I did it on the Get 2 It recording, I made a point of repeating a phrase acoustically before I would add the electronics to that same phraseso people can get drawn into it.
So that's how it works on the "Mojo Jojo thing. I came up with the title because I'm always playing with my daughter, who you see at the very end of the DVD. She loves the Powerpuff Girls, so we have to play Powerpuff Girls, and she makes me be the bad guy, because I'm big. Mojo Jojo is the bad guy.
Electric Trombone and Wanting to Be Jimmy Page, Not James Pankow
AAJ: "Blues for Jimi is, obviously, your tribute to Hendrix; it's a sort of "Red House -style blues that you recorded previously on Get 2 It. This starts with a great acoustic trombone cadenzaa specialty of yours that we've all seen with the Dave Holland Quintet. Just like you were saying you like to do, it starts with the acoustic trombone before your electric trombone comes in with its thick, effected sound. Your playing is phenomenal herenot just in terms of all the Hendrix-inspired effects, but just in terms of soul and melody. I think you ably demonstrate how well trombone works in terms of electronics and effects: You've got the slide in place of the bent strings on a guitar, and you really push the vocal quality that people noticed and used in trombones for eighty years now. Tell me about this one.
RE: Like I say on the DVD, I grew up with a guitarist, my brother Kevin. So I grew up listening to funk, and rock, and R&B. Then the horn bands came in a little bit later, but I was really drawn to all the rock and funkI was way into Led Zeppelin. I liked Black Sabbath, too, and Grand Funk Railroad. I was really into guitars, and guitarists like Hendrix, and Jimmy Page, and Terry Kath, who used to play with Chicago.
So I had tried putting effects on my horn a long time ago. When I was a little kid, evenbecause that was the music I was into, but all I could play was the trombone. The only trombones I was hearing in the music I was listening to were Fred Wesley with James Brown, and then James Pankow with Chicagothose kinds of things.
But I always wanted to sound like the guitar, and that was hard to do, but the technology kind of developed to the point that I was actually able to do it. Actually, I was invited to be a guest soloist with a band in Lausanne, SwitzerlandFrançois Lindemann's band. We were doing a gig, and preparing for recording, and the saxophonist had a microphone clipped to his bell. During a break, I asked if I could borrow it, and I clipped it to my bell, and I asked if I could plug the other end into the guitarist's rack. And when I did, I said, "Wow! All these bells and whistles went off. I said, "This is it!
Before that, [trombonist] Al Grey and [saxman] Eddie Harris had done a lot of stuff in that area. Actually, Al Grey was a friend of mine in Philadelphia, and he took a mouthpiece of mine and had it drilled for me so I could get a pickup on itand it was a good start, but drilling a hole in a mouthpiece wasn't really the way I [laughing] wanted to go. But when I put that mike on my bell and plugged it into this guitarist's stuff, I saw my future right there.
So I ran with that, and I've been working with electronics for fifteen to twenty years now. The technologies just continue to develop, and I got to the point where I was able to get the sound that I wanted. I got a guitar multi-effects unitwhich guitar players have been using for decadesand started tweaking with the parameters, just turning buttons until I got sounds that I liked. I got this one quasi-guitar sound that I liked a lot.
It makes me feel like I'm playing a guitar, almost. And from listening to that music, and loving that music so much, it's easy for me to emulate it on the trombone with the slidebecause the slide is like bending the strings, and I can do all the wailing sounds, and use multiphonics to get feedback sounds and double-stops, and all that. It really makes me feel like I'm this rock guitarist [laughing] when I'm doing it.
It was funny just to be looking at people's eyes when I first started doing it, seeing their faces. I really got this power trip in the beginningwhen people started covering their ears, I would just break into this huge grin.
AAJ: The power of rock. If they don't like you at a jazz show, they talk over you. But it doesn't matter if they talk when you're amped up to nine.
RE: It was so great that a trombone player could make you cover your ears. It was probably pretty immature of me, but [laughing] I got off on it.
AAJ: You'd waited a long time for that.
RE: Totally. But anyway, I always loved the Hendrix stuff. Band of Gypsys (Capital, 1970) was always my favorite of the Hendrix albums, just the sounds and the playingand the fact that I can actually emulate that and get that feeling, and play that kind of slow, "Red House kind of blues that he did, is just so much fun for me. The band loves it, tooKenwood loves playing the bass parts and the drums on that, then having the organ come in gives it that really bluesy kind of feel.
You know, I relate to that kind of blues more than I relate to "Now's the Time. The jazz traditionalists, or whatever, might disagree, but that "Red House -style blues is much closer to the roots of blues than the traditional jazz version is. I'm not knocking it; I love playing that kind of blues too, but I do get a thrill that I can emulate that other blues feelingand it's a feeling that's hard to describe unless you've had a chance to play guitar, to play it. It's wonderful, and I just break out into this big grin every time I get a chance to do it [laughing]. It's really like living one of my dreams. And it was always just a fantasy before, but now I can do it.
AAJ: On this record, that tune is sort of the beginning of a little psychedelic suite where the album gets seriously electric. There's "Jig Saw, Wayne Shorter's "House of Jade and "X-Base, and the last two really feature the electric sound of the band. Was this the actual order of the set?
RE: I don't think so. I sequenced it later. I just wanted to get everything recorded; I knew we could put them into the order I thought was most effective later. Actually, "House of Jade was the very first thing that I recorded. I recorded that before everybody else got therebefore they got on stage, anyway. So I started with that one. When I did it live, I thought, "Oh, I'll just start with this. It's not going to get any more electric than this. But I forget the order we did it in.
As for the record sequencing, I didn't even realize that all the heavy electric stuff was toward the end. I know we did end with "X-Base. There were four pieces that we didn't include in the DVD portion. There was one song I didn't include at all, because I didn't like the performance. This was only the second time we'd played, after all. We actually played "Mental Images, and it segued into "Indo, but I didn't like the way we performed "Mental Images, so you just hear the end of itall the electronic stuff. Then I segue into "Indo. That's what you hear at the beginning of "Indo.
AAJ: How does your playing vary from acoustic to electric trombone? Are there things you play on acoustic that just don't work on electric, and vice-versa?
RE: Oh, totally. With the effects, I have to leave space so the effects can take effect. Like, you play a note, and then you hear what the effects do to the note, to the sound. You have to learn how to shape the effectwhat to play and what not to play.
I remember one time I was doing a gig at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam. I had my electronics, and there was some kind of technical malfunction, so I had to play the second set without the electronics. But it made me play the acoustic differently. I had to shift mentally, and I did some physical adjustments, and it made the acoustic sound more electricaljust the way I was bending notes, and the way I would phrase things, was different. It was affected by my experience of playing the same song electrically.
So the two definitely help each other, and feed off of each other. When I play a blues now acoustically, I'm able to use some of the phrasing I would use on electric; I might not have played that way before when I was playing all acoustic. They affect each other, and I'm enjoying the experience.