Take Five With Mike Mainieri


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Meet Mike Mainieri: Primarily recognized as an award-winning jazz vibraphonist, Mike Mainieri's equally remarkable talents as producer, performer, arranger, and composer have contributed to shaping the cutting edge in music.

During '50s and early '60s, he performed with such legendary artists as Buddy Rich, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, and Wes Montgomery. At the age of 20, he won Down Beat's International Jazz Critic's Award.

In 1962, he joined the ground breaking jazz/rock group Jeremy & the Satyrs led by flutist Jeremy Steig. The Satyrs appeared at New York's Club A-GoGo, and performed with such monumental figures as Frank Zappa, Richie Havens and Jimi Hendrix. During the late '60s, this small circle of performers grew into what became known as the White Elephant Orchestra, a 20-piece, all-star, experimental ensemble. The group featured such soloists Michael Brecker, Ronny Cuber, Jon Faddis, Lew Soloff and Randy Brecker.

In the late '70s, Mike founded the pioneering jazz/fusion group Steps Ahead, which included previous cohorts Michael Brecker, Eddie Gomez, Steve Gadd and Don Grolnick. Delving into contemporary sounds while maintaining experimental sounds and compositional integrity, Steps Ahead was and is a launching pad for young talent and new musical ideas.

Steps 'alumni' include appearances by such notable artists as:

Saxophonists: Michael Brecker, Bendik Hofseth, Rick Margitza, Donny McCaslin, Bob Mintzer, Bob Berg, Bill Evans (saxophone)

Pianists: Don Grolnick, Warren Bernhardt, Eliane Elias, Kenny Kirkland, Rachel Z., George Whitty, Mitchel Forman, Robbie Kilgore, Dave Kikoski, Joey Calderazzo.

Guitarists: Mike Stern, Steve Khan, Chuck Loeb, Hiram Bullock, Dean Brown, Paul Jackson, Wayne Krantz, Jimi Tunnell.

Bassists: Eddie Gomez, Tom Kennedy, Victor Bailey, Daryl Jones, Tony Levin, Jeff Andrews, James Genus, Baron Browne, Richie Goods, Marc Johnson, Ed Howard, Larry Grenadier, Scott Colley, Richard Bona.

Drummers: Steve Gadd, Peter Erskine, Steve Smith, Rodney Holmes, Billy Kilson, Clarance Penn, Jeff "Tain" Watts, Ben Perosky.

Vocalists: Dianne Reeves, Bobby McFerrin, Richard Bona.

Other noteworthy jazz collaborations have included recordings with Joe Henderson, Art Farmer, Dave Liebman, Al Jarreau, David Sanborn, Marcus Miller, Joe Lovano, Jim Hall and Jane Monheit. As a composer, arranger and performer, Mike has contributed to over 100 gold and platinum albums. An active participant in the rock and pop scenes, Mike produced and co-wrote three albums with Carly Simon, and recorded with Paul Simon, Linda Ronstadt, Aerosmith, Billy Joel, Janis Ian, James Taylor, Dire Straits, Bonnie Raitt, George Benson, and on Don McClean's classic album; American Pie (EMI, 1971).

In 1991, Mike brought to bear his vast experience with the creation of his own Jazz label NYC Records Inc. The independent label is a vehicle for exposing new and established artists such as vocalist Luciana Souza, pianist Rachel Z, alto saxophonist Myron Walden and legendary tenor saxophonist, George Garzone. Mike is still active touring worldwide with his group Steps Ahead, guesting in workshops and various recording projects.

Recently Mike reorganized a collective quintet which performed in the early '70s called L'Image, and features drummer Steve Gadd, bassist Tony Levin, keyboardist Warren Bernhardt, guitarist David Spinozza and Mike on vibes. Their latest CD and the NYC Records catalog can be found at: www.mikemainieri.com or www.nycrecords.com.


Vibraphone and marimba.

Teachers and/or influences?

Teachers: Lem Leach (vibraphone); Phil Kraus (mallets), Doug Allen and Ted Reed (drums); and Alfred Friese (timpani).

Influences: Red Norvo, Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when... As long as I can remember. I began playing professionally at the age of 14 in 1952 when I appeared with my jazz trio on the Paul Whiteman Teen Club TV & Radio show. I've been performing ever since.

Your sound and approach to music: I played acoustic vibes in the '40s, '50s and early '60s, until I began performing with the jazz/rock group Jeremy Steig and the Satyrs in the early '60s.

It was the first electric band I played with and frankly my acoustic vibes could not be heard above the roar of the band. Folk singer and guitarist Richie Havens was using a 'hot dot' pickup on his acoustic guitar and the idea struck me that it might be possible to glue a hot dot to every bar on the vibes at the nodal point which would amplify the vibes. After some experimentation, it worked and I was able to amplify the vibes through an amp, like an electric guitarist, and also employ various effects pedals.

In the '70s I, with the help of friends, invented the first midi pickup system. First, mono and then a later version were created which was polyphonic.

To this day I still use pickup systems to amplify the vibe. So my 'sound' varies. If the music of a recording or live performance requires an acoustic sound, then I only use 3 overhead mics (I play a Yamaha 3 1/2 vibe). But if it's a more electric setting then I use both overhead mics and my pickup system.

The advantage of using the DI from the vibes, is that I can send the feed from the vibes to the musicians monitors on stage, totally eliminating feedback which is a problem when using only mics. For the audience (or house sound) I use a combination of the overhead mics and the DI from the pickup system so that the vibes can just as loud as the el. guitarist or saxophonist.

Approach to music:

  1. Playing on someone's recording, whether it's instrumental music or vocal, is to be open in my approach to comping, playing fills or soloing;

  2. There is a huge difference in how I play on a Boz Scaggs or Paul Simon album than I would on a straight-ahead or fusion album. I can explain this in more detail in an interview.

Your teaching approach: I do some private teaching, although I'm involved in quite a few workshops when I tour. I do teach at my studio in NY to intermediate students and professional performing artists.

My approach varies accordingly. At clinics and workshops, I'll talk about my experiences as a performer, composer, arranger, producer and my record company, then devote some time to Q & A. Then I'll perform some solo pieces utilizing my interpretations of a standard or two and then work with a small ensemble or, in some cases, a big band.

In a masterclass I emphasize the importance of learning standards. Typically, young vibists will perform a Wayne Shorter or Herbie Hancock tune, which is cool. May I add that both artists are personal friends and I have a great respect for their work. But I get a better sense of a vibraphonist's harmonic and melodic depth by hearing them play "Lush Life" or "Body and Soul," etc...then we go to work!

Road story: Your best or worst experience: I guess one of my worst experiences was subbing for Buddy Rich on a long U.S. State Department tour in 1961. Buddy left the tour early and I played drums with the band for the remainder of the tour with one caveat, that we were introduced as the Buddy Rich band. We were one of the first jazz bands to play in Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Viet Nam, Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Iran.

Then a quite amusing incident occurred a few years ago when I finished a gig in Germany and was approached by a distinguished elderly gent from India who introduced himself and mentioned that he saw me perform in New Delhi, India in 1961. After complimenting me on the set we had just played he subtly added, "Yes, it was in Delhi that I saw you last, but I knew you were not Buddy Rich"!

Favorite venue:

Although the acoustics, bandstand and 'treatment' sucked. I'd have to say the old Birdland on 52nd St in NYC was my favorite place to play and hear music.

Your favorite recording in your discography and why?

I really don't have a favorite, but a few lemons I'd like to have not recorded.

The first Jazz album I bought was:

Red Norvo trio, Move, with Tal Farlow and Charles Mingus. Although I had several 78s. My favorite as a kid was Hampton's version of "Stardust," with the Just Jazz All Stars.

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically?

I'm 71 years old and still performing. I'd say that keeping the Steps Ahead band evolving for 30-plus years has been rewarding in that I've involved over 40 artists as the band evolved.

Recently I was instrumental in reuniting a collective group that performed in the early '70s called L'Image, when we all lived in Woodstock, NY.

The band is called L'Image and includes Steve Gadd, Tony Levin, Warren Bernhardt and David Spinozza. We've recorded a CD and will be touring Japan in early September, 2009, and an appearance at The Iridium Jazz Club in NYC from September 24-27.

Did you know...

It has been listed in most jazz magazines and references as being born on July 24th, 1938. In fact I was born on July 4th of that year.

CDs you are listening to now:

Steve Reich, Different Trains (Nonesuch);

The Hi-Lo's, And All That Jazz (Columbia);

Herbie Hancock, River: The Joni Letters (Verve);

Vic Juris, Blue Horizon (ZOHO);

Dee Carstensen, Patch Of Blue (NYC Records).

Desert Island picks:

Miles Davis, Kind Of Blue (Columbia);

John Coltrane, A Love Supreme (Impulse!);

Miles Davis, Birth Of The Cool (Capitol);

Lionel Hampton, "Just Jazz" Jam Session 1944 (Verve);

Keith Jarrett, Facing You or My Song (ECM).

How would you describe the state of jazz today?

There are more outstanding jazz artists today around the world than any time in the years I've been performing. That in itself proves that jazz is alive. On the other hand, there seems to be less clubs and concerts to perform and with the economic global economic downturn, it does not bode well for jazz. I'm hopeful that it will the downturn will be short-lived.

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing?

Jazz needs to be introduced in early education in the US. Educators, instruments and private lessons must be provided to youngsters for jazz to thrive in the coming decades.

What is in the near future?

Upcoming releases.

L'Image, 2.0;

Mike Mainieri/Marnix Busstra, Twelve Pieces;

Mike Mainieri/Charlie Mariano Mike Mainiere/Charlie Mariano;

Mike Mainieri (solo vibraphone), Lush Life;

L'Image, Live At The Iridium DVD/CD.

By Day:

My label, NYC Records, keeps me pretty busy.

If I weren't a jazz musician, I would be a:


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