AN INTERVIEW WITH PETER ERSKINE
by Cathy Segal-Garcia
Peter Erskine has been at the forefront of world-class jazz ensembles for twenty-five years. He joined the Stan Kenton Orchestra in 1972 for 3 years, then 2 years with Maynard Ferguson, and then a 4 year run of performances and 5 albums recorded with Weather Report. He then joined Steps Ahead with Mike Brecker, Mike Mainieri and Eddie Gomez. Touring and recording credits (300 albums) include Steely Dan, Chick Corea, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Gary Burton & Pat Metheny, Joni Mitchell, The Boston ‘Pops’ Orchestra, Ralph Towner, Sadao Watanabe, Hubert Laws, Vanessa Williams, Al DiMeola, Eliane Elias, Miroslav Vitous & Jan Garbarek, Ensemble Modern, “Bass Desires” with John Scofield, Bill Frisell and Marc Johnson, John Ambercrombie, Kenny Wheeler, Bob Mintzer and his big band, and his own groups! (This interviewer also was honored to have him play on her album, “Song Of The Heart,” with pianist Phil Strange, bassist Marc Johnson, and herself...vocalist Cathy Segal-Garcia.)
Peter has recorded 10 solo albums, on the ECM label and on his own label FUZZY MUSIC, which he started withe his wife, Mutzy. He composes for dance, theatre and animation, winning awards internationally. Included in his composition works is the Simon & Schuster books-on-audio series “Alien Voices,” starring Leonard Nimoy and John deLancie of Star Trek fame.
Peter has 3 instructional videos, a performance video titled “Peter Erskine Trio/Live at JazzBaltica,” 2 drum instruction videos, a collection of his compositions and memories in a book called, “My Book”. He travels around the world consistently, conducting clinics and performing. He has won the Modern Drummer Magazine Readers’ Poll in the Mainstream Jazz Drummer category 5 times, and was awarded an honorary Doctorate degree from the Berklee College of Music.
This interview took place in his home studio, “Puck Productions,” in Santa Monica, California.
CSG: You’re doing so many great things. The list of CDs you’ve worked on recently is amazing! Let’s start off with your group The Lounge Art Ensemble...some of my favorite musicians are in it!
PE: Well, it’s an interesting thing, because the name, “The Lounge Art Ensemble,” I think suggested by saxophonist Bob Sheppard, was suggested a bit tongue in cheek...you know, it’s sort of a goof.
CSG: Yeah, I was surprised it wasn’t called the Chadneys Lounge Art Ensemble!
PE: Yes, well, the reference to Lounge, of course, does have something to do with the fact that some of the first gigs we played were in this nightclub called “Chadneys,” in Burbank, where we don’t play anymore.
CSG: Yes, I noticed you’re moving up and playing at Cafe Cordial(in Sherman Oaks)!
PE: Yes, the band is becoming more renowned, so....! But you know, “The Art Ensemble of Chicago”...so with that little play on words and concept. Bob brought it up as kind of a spoof, and bassist Dave Carpenter and I both liked it! And then the first album reflected this sort of Lounge milieu ambiance. We decided to run with the ball. A couple of critics, including Bird magazine’s own Scott Yanow took issue with fact that we were calling it that, so I guess Scott might have missed the joke! He felt the music deserved a better moniker than that. Which I guess is a compliment. But the name is sort of catchy, and the fact that the band has zeroed in on this area of working with classic jazz standards kind of vehicles to create new tunes...seemed to fit. That’s a great bebop tradition, of taking the chord changes to one song and creating a new ‘head’. That’s pretty much what bebop was all about...Charlie Parker tunes, etc.
CSG: Did you start the band with that idea?
PE: I didn’t start it...actually Dave and Bob started it. Joe LaBarbara was the original drummer, and then the three of us we started playing. Often times when we played, we would just do ‘tunes’. What was fun about the group was that we never rehearsed...we did things on the fly. But the band definitely had more of a New York energy than the sleepy jazz or “west coast” styled jazz that Chadneys was used to. So that was encouraging. And I remember one time we played there, there was a line (to get in) going down the street! Pretty cool! And the horn trio format is very fun for a number of reasons, but most of all ‘cause it swings..it’s very open, and the drums can participate harmonically and melodically, as well as rhythmically. And it allows the other two guys to get into areas where they might not if it were a more standard type of quartet.
CSG: They’re both such great players.
PE: Yah, they are. Bob just keeps getting better and better, and Dave too! They’re both growing in such exponential leaps and bounds! I think that the band represents a really, I daresay, important jazz voice on the west coast at this point in time. Everywhere that we’ve played, people really like the group. They love the music, they love hearing, discovering, or deciphering the tune...as we’ve disguised them.
CSG: Have you just done one album?
PE: We’ve just done one..Lava Jazz. And the next one we’re tentatively titling it, “Java Bop.” Maybe Starbucks will buy a few thousand!
CSG: You never know! That leads me into my next question, regarding you playing with pianist Kenny Werner’s group. You played the 1998 Monterey Jazz Festival with both groups, right?
PE: Yeah, the Lounge Art was booked to play up at Monterey, and then Kenny Werner asked me if I’d like to play there, and I informed him that Dave Carpenter would be there as well. He said, “Great!”. So we rehearsed the morning after the Lounge Art played, and we played three sets that night! Kenny’s traveling around, playing with a lot of different trios, but I think everyone agreed this was a pretty special one. And the few nights at Catalina’s in Hollywood, were really great musically.
CSG: When I came in a saw you three playing, especially you and Kenny had this fantastic joyful communication going on between you!
PE: You know, Kenny is a very free spirit musically, and being around him, and occasion hearing him speak on this book he’s written, “Effortless Mastery,” it’s quite liberating. I’ve always known Kenny to be pretty much of a genius when he plays. It’s funny, the first time I worked with him on an album(Peter’s CD “Transition,” on Denon) he was playing this really great stuff...but playing a LOT of stuff, and I was looking for a more open, more sparse kind of approach...and I went up to him and said, “Kenny, it’s really great, but can you just give me like 10% of what you know?” He turned to me with this look on his face and said, “But that WAS 10% of what I know!” (Laughter) So I said, “OK, well 10% of THAT, then!.” So, ideas just come pouring out of him...like a running faucet...golden water...
CSG: I loved that trio. Dave Carpenter is really amazing. One time I heard him in the old Vine Street in Hollywood, with Kenny Kirkland and Jeff “Tain” Watts. He blew my mind..he was like the fulcrum of the group...Kenny and Jeff were stretching out on both sides and Dave was the glue holding the three together. He’s quite an amazing player.
PE: Yeah, for years I think he’s been the busiest man in show business!
CSG: What is the D’Addario Superband? Is that what we were just listening to?
PE: Yeah. The D’Addario Superband was a noble idea. About a year ago, Jim D’Addario, who’s one of the sons of the founder of the company...they make strings for guitars, acoustic and electric basses, violins, Van Doren reeds...they market those, and now they manufacture the drum heads that I use...Evans drum heads. So they had an idea...”Look, here’s a list of our endorsers...people who use our products. Why don’t you put together some kind of,” he used the word, “Superband.” And I said, “OK!” And at the very first, during this first conversation, I think he had this kind of a smooth jazz or sort of more popular music type of music orientation. And I said, “Well, if you want me to be involved, these are the musicians I would choose.” He said, “OK.” So, there was John Patitucci, who is kind of a sure thing. They were talking about Larry Carlton and Eric Marionthal. But I suggested Bob Mintzer and John Ambercrombie, and they said “Fine.” And they were knocked out when we did the first concert, which was at the big music Industry NAMM show, this past January. So a tour was put together...we did about 6 or 7 music stores. We have Guitar Centers out here (on the west coast), I don’t know if Sam Ash stores are in California or not. But the really big news in music retail are these shops called MARS...Music Recording Supply, or something like that. They’re opened and created by this guy who started Office Depot...very smart business man. And he’s got some enthusiastic and clever investors. They’re huge, amazing shops...with performance areas always set up, ready to go, lighting, sound, big stage right in the middle of the shop.
CSG: Is this on the east coast?
PE: Yeah. But they’re going to open up out here. And they’re just great shops...the customer can try anything... So, we did this tour, playing mostly these kinds of venues. Free concerts; the music industry supported this..combination concert/clinic. We packed the places. And it wasn’t the usual clinic thing, which I think has really run its course for a lot of people. Where some guy gets up there and plays with a DAT tape...particularly in the world of drum clinics, it’s really gotten tired. And this was about music, and we got up there and we played and we talked about music. The feedback was terrific, we decided to do it again, and we ended the tour up in New York city, with a video and live CD taping. We did it in the Manhattan Center, which is a really excellent sounding room, with a relatively small, invited audience. I think we wound up with a pretty good video and CD. That’s the case of a band being greater than the sum of it’s parts...and that’s what you look for, in combinations of players that, once you get everyone there, something else takes place...some kind of chemistry, synergy, some kind of magic. When you combine all the years and man-hours of playing and listening experience, the fact that we’ve all been band leaders..the fact that we all like each other and respect each other, its very cool what happens. Often times in bands, there’s some conflict in terms of musical direction or personality or something. After a while you just get to the point in your life where, if you have any say, that’s something you figure, “Well, I don’t need that. Let’s avoid that. I don’t need that anymore.” If I’m called to work on something, and you run into that, well that’s something you’re not going to spend too much time on, you know what I mean? But I’ve gotten that way, if I’m going to spend any time traveling with a band, I don’t want to do it with somebody that I don’t particularly like. For years I was in big bands, and there was always somebody there that you wouldn’t get along with, for whatever reason. I tried, but it didn’t always work out.
CSG: One thing I wanted to remind you of was that story you told me of when you first started with “Weather Report”... It was a great story, and it always stuck in my head. About when you first showed up for the gig, and you were playing like a typical jazz drummer would, duplicating the rhythmic line the horn or the piano player does...and Wayne Shorter told you not to.
PE: Well, first it was Joe Zawinul who pointed this out to me. We were listening to the playback of this tune “Black Market,” which appeared on the second recording we made... “8:30,” which was primarily a live recording. So, as it’s being played back in the studio, I go stand by Joe...we’re both standing by one of those large speakers. The drum and tenor duet is taking place, and Joe kind of looks towards me and grunts, “Sounds good.” I’m thinking, “Yeah, all right!” I’m feeling pretty good about myself! At that point on the tape you hear Wayne going to a rhythmic figure, what’s known as a hemiola figure, which is a rhythmic pattern that repeats, which suggests almost like another metric occurrence...like its a new tempo, another time signature. So he plays this rhythm, it goes like this (counts 2 bars of rhythm) and I caught the last few beats, figuring, you know, being a good listener. And then Joe turned, with a sour look on his face, as we’re listening back to this, “Too bad you had to do that.” Hmmm. And ultimately I figured out that being a good listener doesn’t mean that you repeat what somebody says. That you compliment or you know when to not say anything. If music is indeed , built around tension and release, which can happen rhythmically, which can happen harmonically, or even melodically...you know, a most basic example...you go over to a piano and play a tritone (goes over to the piano and plays a tritone resolving to a major triad)...I’m not sure if that’s a release or resolution. The tension/release in interactive or improvised music where you’re communicating, will occur when and if the rhythm section is playing one thing and then the soloist decides to go against that grain...that’s the beauty of it. And then you allow him to resolve it, or you might resolve it, but if you join him as he’s going against the grain, then every time he tries to put wind into the sails of the music, you’re changing tack, as it were, and there is no force, and you’ve just pulled the rug out from under him ..to mix metaphors.
CSG: That was the beauty of Weather Report too. That tension-release thing.
PE: That tension would occur over long beds...yeah, and I understand that now better than I used to.
CSG: You were kind of young when you were in the group, weren’t you?
PE: Yeah, I was 24 when I joined, I had my 24th birthday during the rehearsals for Japan or as soon as we got to Japan. Yah, that’s fairly young, I guess. I brought a fair amount of experience, and certainly a lot of gusto... a lot of love for the band...I was a huge Weather Report fan. In fact, Weather Report , a few years earlier, had put a notice in Downbeat magazine, that they were looking for a drummer. I was on the Stan Kenton band, and my father called up the office, and they told me. I said, “Dad, I’m not ready yet.” I knew I wasn’t conceptually well equipped enough.
CSG: So that was a few years earlier?
CSG: Did you play with Maynard (Ferguson) between that?
PE: It was Kenton’s band, then I went back to college for a year, and then I played with Maynard’s band, and that’s when I met Jaco (Pastorius) and Jaco was the one who recommended me, from having heard me one night down in Florida. And so they took a chance on his recommendation, and what worked in my favor, unbeknownst to me, before they finally confirmed that I finally had the gig...I got a call -- I was on the road with Maynard. I was in my hotel room, and I answered, and they said, “Hello Peter. This is (so and so) from the Weather Report management office, and Joe just has one more question for you. Can you play the beat to “Nubian Sundance?” So, that was on the album “Mysterious Traveler”...it was one of my favorite drum beats, and I happened to have been playing it. I think I used to goof around playing it anyway, but knowing that there was a possibility I might be joining Weather Report, I was playing it whenever I’d set up each night in Maynard’s band. Typical young cockiness there...a 23 year old at this point, without thinking I just replied, “Yeah, tell Joe I can play the shit out of it!” Which is, I didn’t know, that’s the kind of language he uses, respects and loves! They said, “OK, thank you very much! We’ll be in touch.” And when Joe heard that, he thought, “This is the guy!” And the other thing that worked in my favor, once we got there for the first rehearsal... I showed up early, which is typical for me. Got the drums all tuned, set up, meeting all the guys in the crew. We kept getting phone calls... “The band’s going to be a couple of hours late.” So by the time they showed up, rehearsal’s supposed to be at 2:00 in the afternoon and it’s now 7:00 at night or something. So I was bored, I wanted to play. Normally I would have waited... “ OK, Peter, do you want to come up and play this?” But instead, they walk in, and Joe shakes my hand and is looking at me checking me out, Wayne Shorter is quite friendly, and Jaco -- who was the one guy who I felt like I kind of knew -- poked his head in, waved, smiled and disappeared. Zawinul saunters over to his keyboards and starts checking out some sounds, so I just jumped up on the drums and started playing. You know, I wanted to play at that point! So he looked over, kind of surprised at my ballsyness. And he started playing, and Wayne started playing. So Jaco came back with a 6 pack of Heiniken smiling, like “This is exactly what I hoped was going to happen!” He jumped up on stage, and it was like it was all choreographed...his bass technician, or roady, literally threw the bass and he caught it in midair and started playing! And then we did this forty minute jam of all these different tunes! And I recognized the tunes. So, we end the jam together, playing the last notes of “Gibralter,” and there was a lot of hand slapping, high-fiving going around with Joe and Jaco and Wayne. And the next day we were posing for photographs..CBS sent a photographer over. As we were standing there, I said, “So, Joe, can I tell my friends I’m in the band?” He just turns, and says, “You can tell your friends you’re going to Japan.” OK. By the end of the tour to Japan and Australia, I was in the band. The beginning of a pretty intense, important, primarily happy work relationship.
CSG: How long did it last?
PE: Uh, that was ‘78... in ‘82 I left the group. And then I went back and wound up working on the last album... I co-produced it with Joe. Played on all but one of the tracks. And then, when Wayne decided not continue to play with the group, this Weather Report tour became the Weather Update tour. But without Wayne, a lot of critics...here’s an example of a name again...I think the band was nearly crucified because of the fact that it used the name Weather and Wayne wasn’t there. Critics really resented it. And Joe just said... “Here’s a Weather Update.” I think his wife had come up with the title, and we all thought it was clever. I think often times when musicians have a name for a group, it’s something that strikes them as sort of clever, it’s some inside joke reference...but the critics tend to take the stuff at a weird kind of face value. and react with umbrage.
CSG: Critics sometimes can be weird anyway...they’re many times frustrated musicans themselves, which reflects in their viewpoints.
PE: I guess so. So many reviews that I read seem to be a kind of exercise in polishing their own writing skills or sharpening their pencils, as opposed to dealing with the subject matter at hand and discussing it in some sort of contextual manner. Which, you know, if I read a film review, I’m curious what this film represents in this particular filmmaker’s body of work. I’m not so interested in whether this guy liked it or not...that’s meaningless. But if they discuss the script, the cinematography, the message, whatever...that’s interesting. I learned pretty quickly, shortly after I joined Weather Report. We had a Downbeat interview...it was on our first American tour, a few months after I’d been in the band. OK, the band’s having this interview, we’ll all meet at this Mexican restaurant. I think, “Hey great! Mexican food...Chicago!” We sat down, the guy turns on the tape recorder. As we’re sitting down, the guy says, “By the way, your new record, “Mr. Gone,” is getting a one star review in the next issue.” Well of course, the whole interview was... they were shocked! Especially Zawinul, he couldn’t believe it.
CSG: Was the one star review done by this interviewer?
PE: No, different guy. But he just sabotaged himself, and the band was quite hostile and angry, and it created this controversy. The publisher told me years later, “You know, it was the most issues we’ve ever sold!” ‘Cause, you know, the band was funny! I mean, these are witty guys...and they were so taken aback by this kind of effrontery. And it’s not a one star album by any means, by any stretch of imagination! This guy decided to do that. And at one point Joe felt, “Well, better that than a three star review rated...it would be so mediocre!” What’s discouraging is, that while there’s positively the need for some kind of objective analysis, many of these writers... you don’t know their qualifications, so to read their objective review, unless they provide some context...who are they to say? But it’s puzzling, because jazz music, more than any other music..there’s more of a love for the music and the music making, than any other music I’ve seen. I’ve worked in classical, quite a bit, with a variety of high level performers in classical, who are, of course, very committed to what they’re doing. And I’ve worked in pop and rock fields. But the passion for creating jazz music is higher than in any other form of music that I’ve witnessed. The only people I haven’t spent that much time around are country musicians. So, that being said, the jazz critic has a responsibility to not shoot a lot of these endeavors in the foot, if not in the heart. I mean, if something is obviously done to try to cash in on something, that’s fairly foul smelling, and nobody can be really too enthusiastic about that, unless there’s some redeeming quality that’s so well done. And it’s not against the law for somebody to make an album that they hope will sell well. But I think the integrity of this music...most jazz musicians I know play the music with very sincere respect and a lot of enthusiasm, to live up to as high a standard as possible. And these are the jazz players, potentially some of the jazz masters of the next generation. And the record companies don’t support them, in terms of archiving their music, like they used to. We can’t play the music live in the same manner that the people we all grew up listening to, did. Bands can’t play for weeks at a time at different jazz clubs. It’s just changed. So, for there not to be a more supportive environment...you know, jazz is desperately fighting to get more people to listen to it, I think it’s self-defeating that we don’t all try to clue more people in to the beauty of improvised music. Not by means of WAVE(radio station) jazz...I think that stuff sucks, I think it’s really missing the boat. I don’t think it respects the intelligence of the listener. It fits perfectly in this mass marketing thing of music that fits in the background, that doesn’t have any breathing room for any kind of interaction. We can’t interact with that, as a listener. But music with real passion and intelligence is...and real swing...is very appealing. And when people go, “Wow! I never heard stuff like this before! It’s great!” I think a great measure of the jazz critics have forgotten that should be part of their agenda. There was some article in JAZZIZ or JAZZTIMES... “The most under-rated and the most over-rated musicians”...The most overrated thing was I saw them taking potshots at a lot of players. Including Oliver Nelson! I would like to see any one of those guys write a tune that’s one-tenth as good as “Stolen Moments,” and then I’ll pay attention to your opinion. Oliver was a great writer...OK, he was hired to do some arrangements for some albums... But I always thought the craft in everything he did was really great. He contributed a tremendous amount to the music of jazz. “Blues and the Abstract Truth”...I rest my case! So... “Overrated?” Interesting.
CSG: What do you think makes a great artist?
PE: What makes a great artist, is, number one, a musician who has something to say. And number two, has the courage and the wisdom and the strength of character or self to surrender their ego, and thereby trusting the music, trusting themselves, trusting the audience, trusting the process...to allow something to be played at it’s highest artistic level and not for personal gain or reward. The parallel comes to mind, the Japanese word, Bushido...the Way of the Warrior. One translation could mean literally, the Way of Death. The samurai accepts that death is a natural part of what they do, so then they don’t worry about it. And their mind is clear to focus on what they’re doing. I think the same with music. If you accept the state of a poor performance is a given, then you don’t worry about that, you don’t stay preoccupied with how do I sound, how do they like the way I’m playing. Then something really natural can come out. Anything that’s self-conscious, too pre-determined or pre-conceived, that’s done for an effect...I think it’s not great.
CSG: In looking at all the things you’ve done in your career...I can imagine it must have been so much fun. Do you look at the projects and move on quickly; “Well, OK, that’s done...what am I going to do tomorrow?”
PE: I get real wrapped up in each thing that I get called to do. And I find that one style of music will inform another. For a while I was avoiding, when I first moved to New York, doing any commercial work...you know, just wanted to be a jazz musician! Then economic necessity and my pride in being a professional musician forced me to accept some of the work, like jingles. Breakfast cereal spot. And lo and behold, I discovered that my internal sense of time was being strengthened by doing these 28 1/2 second commercials, where you don’t have 4 measures to get into a groove...you gotta do it now. And I admire the craft of studio players and I wanted to be able to do that. And I found that as a result, my jazz playing improved. I do things with classical contemporary ensembles in Europe...we may do something with the L.A. Philharmonic.
CSG: Is that what I read about on your Webpage? That looked really interesting.
PE: Yeah...this piece that we recorded with Ensemble Modern...I should play you some of this, it’s really a mind-blower. I’m still waiting for that to be released in this country.
CSG: It’s an orchestra?
PE: It’s about a 35-40 piece orchestra. And John Scofield and I were the soloists. Really tricky music, written out.
CSG: Is this the first time they’ve done something like that?
PE: Well, Ensemble Modern is pretty well known. They did a recording of Frank Zappa’s music, called “Yellow Shark.” They can play anything. And this British composer wrote some pretty demanding stuff. And you know, I made this recording with Vince Mendoza and the London Symphony Orchestra ... and three days later I’m in the studio with Patrick Williams, doing a tribute to Sinatra...swingin big band stuff! It’s all great! And then I’ll go back to Europe and do some artsy-fartsy thing with ECM and Manfred Eicher. And he’s expressed, “You know, it worries me when you do so many different things.” And I wrote him a long letter about it. I said, “Manfred, this is what makes me the musician and drummer that I am.” You know, I can do them all, authentically, more than any other drummer I can think of. That’s just a fact. Because I try to meet the music on its own terms, and respect it...that’s all.
CSG: It seems like a very broad point of view too, philosophically. It seems like you’re open and hungry for different inputs.
PE: Yeah, exactly. We were in Nashville with this D’Addario Superband...and two people came up and said, “Would you like to come down here and record?” I’d love to go to Nashville and record! There are great musicians down there! It would be fun! The neat thing about Nashville is...it’s like L.A. used to be 20 or 30 years ago. Everything’s done live. There’s a ton of musicians. They told me that in that street, Music Row there...guess how many recording studios there are? Eleven hundred! In the greater Nashville area, they said there are seventeen hundred professional recording studios! Sixteen track or higher. That’s not counting home project studios. That’s a lot of music! I mean, most of it I don’t think is my thing, but its cool! There’s a very positive musical energy. You fly to the airport, instead of Wall Street business type of ads that they have in the corridors of most airports, they have ads for musical instruments and music software, and publishers!
CSG: Tell me something about the project with Andy Summers (from The Police).
PE: Andy’s doing an album of Monk tunes. He’s done a lot of research. The album, indeed, may turn a lot of people on to Monk that might not have taken the opportunity or chance to listen to him. Sting is singing “Round Midnight.” I was told that Sting really like my drumtrack, ‘cause it was so simple. And see, Cathy, the real interest for me now is finding the spaces between the notes now, and creating just that much of a better rhythmic feel for a track. And see, that’s what we were able to do on “Round Midnite.” I didn’t’ t think that thing was that big of a deal, but it was nice to hear back, through Andy, that Sting dug it. Hey, it was fun! Nice arrangements... we tried to do some thing kind of different with each tune, so they’re not museum pieces. That’s the cool thing about Monk, is that he was so inventive. And I would hope or guess that that might be a little more in the spirit of playing a Monk tune, than doing it like Monk would’ve. ‘Cause if Monk were alive now, I don’t think he would do it like Monk did it. Kenny Werner even suggested that, if Monk were alive today, he’d never win the Thelonius Monk Competition.
CSG: I heard him say that at his clinic. Very funny!
PE: Because Monk wouldn’t be playing like Monk DID, and that’s the standard that they’re going by, perhaps?
CSG: What about your trio recording on the ECM label, with Palle Danielsson and John Taylor? That is just a gorgeous group! A quick funny story about your album, “Time Being”...When I was working in Argentina this summer, it was the first time I had gotten a real good chance to listen to it...I had bought it in Japan the month before. So, I had had a long day teaching and singing, and put it on as I was lying down to go to sleep. Obviously not because it was noisy and bashing, but I could not go to sleep...it was just way too involving...the music totally drew me in and involved me, as you talked about earlier.
PE: Yeah, that’s my favorite album of the group too. John and Palle are incredible gifted players, and recording in that space in Norway just brings out some latent qualities in each of us, in terms of playing that much more open...playing with the sound. The room becomes part of your instrument. Sometimes you have to choose to ignore it. But other times, if you can embrace, then it really becomes a powerful ally. We’ve done gigs with the trio where we’ve used no electronics or P.A. They’re really brilliant, and I love playing with both of them. We have a new album, called “Juni,” on ECM...we did that well over a year ago, it might not come out till this Spring.
CSG: That’s four projects together, right?
PE: Yeah, four CDs under my own name, and I’ve done over a dozen on the label.
CSG: It’s a really beautiful group. And it was great to see the video, ‘cause its just like the record, just fabulous.
PE: Yeah, its a fun band to see and hear. It’s neat. Little by little, people are beginning to get the message. It’s funny, but when I left New York, I kind of ceased to exist. At least as far as critics went. (Checks his email!) This guy says, “Your comment the other nite about playing fewer notes to express more, reminded me of a Miles Davis quote... ‘Man, you don’t have to play a lot of notes...you just have to play the pretty ones.” There you go! There’s a quote for you!
So when I left New York, I seemed to cease to exist, as far as the critics went. But more and more listeners seem to be catching on, they do in Europe. So, its the kind of thing where I think, “Well, I have to be a bit patient.” It’s coming around. I don’t spend all my time checking out what all else is going on, but everytime I do... when I raise my head up out of what I’m doing and listen to other things...I guess I’m bias, but it seems more interesting around these parts than other parts. And musicians know. They know. So I’m glad I get to work with this nice variety of players...I’d like to broaden it a bit. But musicians are each other’s biggest supporters. Certainly drummers are, and almost all jazz musicians are. And when its the real deal, there’s no conflicting agenda’s. ‘Cause that’s what it comes down to...it’s kind of the honor code in jazz..is if somebody can really play. If they can swing, then they’re respected by their peers. And the swing aspect is important. Ellington’s quote, “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.” When I was younger, I didn’t know how to swing. I do now.
CSG: Somebody mentioned to me the other day, the “Jazz gene”... when you hear somebody, you can hear it or not.
PE: Yeah, well, you can tell in a second. But it has a lot to do with listening, and with experience. If you believe the argument that the acorn grows up to be the oak, no matter what, then some people are just closer to the inspiration than others are, because they build up layers of various kinds of defenses or fears or neurosis, or whatever. In my book, “The Drum Perspective,” I talk about this. How you can get eight different drummers to come up and play the same beat, and it’s gonna sound eight different ways. And maybe only one or two of them will play it in such a way that you’re going to go, “Yeah!”. Where does that spark of divine inspiration come from? A lot of it has to do with if the person either intuitively or intellectually, or somehow, understands that he has to respect the space in-between the notes, and get locked into the whole feeling of the music. The feeling of the music’s all determined by subdivisions, and that’s why when a band is real tight...the Ellington band or the Basie band...some of those recordings are just hair-raising, ‘cause of all this incredible synergy of all this musical expression, ‘cause everyone’s feeling the music the same way.
CSG: You’ve written a few books, haven’t you?
PE: There’s “The Drum Perspective,” just published by Hal Leonard. It includes a CD which represents a sort of “Best Of’ of my recorded work over the last ten years...it was quite an undertaking to get permission from all these companies to get permission to use this stuff! Each track is accompanied by either some kind of analysis, transcription, or the actual drum charts from the session.
CSG: That must have been a hard choice, to pick out your favorites from all those years of work.
PE: Well, this track seemed to go with this chapter, or that track seemed to amplify that point...that kind of thing. As soon as it was done, I was thinking, “Oh, maybe I should have used this track, or that...” Close enough!
“My Book” is a combination biography/collection of my compositions. I think there are about 18 compositions. We spent a lot of time making sure the transcriptions, the piano parts...the arrangements... were accurate. And the book is very very well done. The biographies are nice. There’s a lot of photos ...from the Weather Report days, and other things... recording sessions done over the years. Published in France, it’s available from Caris Music Services. And anyone can find out how to get any of these recordings, books, videos, whatever...from visiting my Website: www.petererskine.com. And if they explore the sight, there’s a lot of links, and I update it quarterly. And also the Fuzzy Music Catalogue is there. The Lounge Art Ensemble was our fourth release. The fifth one was “Behind Closed Doors”, which was a compilation of recorded material. I probably could have titled it, “Thank God for DAT tapes!” Got permission from all the various entities involved, and put together this collection.
CSG: That sounds very interesting!
PE: It is! That’s a fun album! When we just got interrupted, that was the travel agent who’s getting me a ticket to Cologne, Germany, to work with the WDR big band in Cologne Germany...one of these songs on the recording is from that band.
CSG: One more thing I wanted to ask you is about your compositions. I remember when the album Transition came out...did that have a lot of your compositions on it?
PE: Motion Poet had a lot...that’s one of my favorites. And Sweet Soul did too....that’s a nice album.
CSG: When did you start writing?
PE: I started writing when I was with Weather Report, pretty much. Zawinul kind of intimidated me. I had mentioned, when I was “in the band”, you know, this is like 2 or 3 weeks later, telling me, “You can tell your friends you’re going to Japan.” ... he said, “You’re in the band now, it’s going to be great.” And I said, “Oh, I can’t wait...all these things we’re going to do. I really can’t wait to write something for the band!” Zawinul said, “You’re going to have to be a hell of a writer to write something for this group.” Oh!! But I started at that time, to work with Eddie Gomez, Mike Mainieri, and Mike Brecker, and Don Grolnick...the original Steps Ahead. And they were very supportive with playing my tunes, so that’s when I started writing. I started off with a blues in C, and worked up from there! (laughter!)
So now, this week, I’ve started scoring “The Cherry Orchard” ... Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard” production in Tokyo. It’s going to be a theatrical production in Tokyo. I’m writing the music for that. And, I want you to listen to this...I want to play this for you...this is one of the scores I wrote for Alien Voices...the CDs put out by Leonard Nimoy and John deLancie. (He plays it for me.)
CSG: Fabulous! Very scary!
PE: Like it?! That’s like a 2 hour radio special.
CSG: What about the project with Bob Mintzer, pianist Phil Marcowitz and bassist Jay Anderson?
PE: “Quality Time”... That’s coming out on TVT..I think they did “9 inch Nails” or something! That label started with a guy who did TV tunes, and that guy just sold millions! Yeah, Bob just gave me a copy of the album..sounds great, great writing and playing. So, it’s neat, the D’Addario band...Ambercrombie wrote me an email...he never writes emails, Patitucci calls me up yesterday, Mintzer called me last night...they’re all saying, hey, we really have to do this some more. So, it might happen! I’m quite excited. And I was happy to play Bob’s album. That Patrick Williams record...”Sinatraland”...is a real swinger. Its killer. Have you heard that?
CSG: No, but I’d like to. And that project on Jaco?
PE: That’s not been released in this country yet. It was nice. I played on one tune, and Sanborn played on it. It was a ballad I’d written for Jaco, after he died. And this American Drumming Achievement Awards show, which was a tribute in Boston, to our four living drumming legends: Louie Bellson, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, and Max Roach. The evening was hosted by Bill Cosby, and the four of us who played and presented short speeches, were Steve Gadd, Terri Lyne Carrington, myself and Marvin “Smitty” Smith. Here’s a few quotes from my speech: “If I talk about a language of the drums, then it must be that while everyone else was speaking Be-Bop “English,” you were busy creating a new sort of drumming Esperanto...only your language endured, and influenced the rest of the world with far greater import than that other post-War linguistic dream. ... but where did Elvin’s drumming language come from? His is much more of a “revolutionary” than “evolutionary” advent. The fascinating thing about Elvin’s drumming, in addition to the selfless energy he has given to every bit of music he has played, is that Elvin brought drumming full-circle back to its African roots ... Einstein couldn’t describe the concept of time nearly as well as Elvin has done ... “relative” to all things, then, “E,” which tonight stands for Elvin, “equals” TIME, nothing “square” about it, multiplied by passion and love. ...The only drummer whose playing has moved me to tears is Elvin Jones.”
CSG: It was a great speech, Peter.
PE: Thank you. Elvin’s my hero. The other thing is that we’re talking about a Steps Ahead reunion. We’re hoping that it happens.
CSG: Would that be on the road?
PE: Yeah, on the road...Europe, hopefully do a recording, maybe Japan.
CSG: The original Steps Ahead?
PE: Well, as original as possible. The band will include Mike Mainieri, Eliane Elias, Marc Johnson, and Bob Berg.
CSG: Thanks Peter, for spending this time with me.
PE: Thank you.