Watching Bob Moses hover over his drums at Right Track Studios in Manhattan like a marionette spider, deadpanning Buster Keatonish responses to the groove of fellow- percussionists Don Alias, Billy Hart and Pheeroan ak Laff, I thought back to what he’d told me when I suggested we do an interview: “Cool—but I don’t want to be portrayed as a drummer.” Yet here he was surrounded by Boo-Bams, LinnDrum computers and the cream of contemporary drummers making an album of dance-like rhythm grooves, where the ritual aspect of the traps and congas was front and center. It was poetry in motion as they say—a wealth of rhythmic slang and contrapuntal cadences that just as often sounded like synthesizers as acoustic instruments, without bass guitar or keyboard in sight. And yet he didn’t want to be portrayed as a drummer in Modern Drummer. What gives?
Well, appearances are deceiving, and too often we fixate on the more obvious aspects of an artist’s craft, when a deeper truth lies somewhere below the surface. It is not enough to ask what someone plays, or how that person plays it, as it is to ask why? Why? Why become an artist? For many, it is not a matter of choice, but a calling, and clearly this is the case with Bob Moses. His imaginative, phantasmagoric dreamworld is reflected in his drumming, but not defined by it. Saying that art imitates life is an old cliche, but few drummers have ever pursued this goal with the single-minded verve of Bob Moses.
Best known among jazz fans for his crackling action-painting behind Gary Burton, Steve Swallow, Steve Kuhn, Sheila Jordan, Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny, Moses perfected a loose, deceptively frenetic soundscape that somehow split the difference between the symmetrical elisons of a Max Roach and the controlled spasticities of Roy Haynes. In Moses’ hands, firm, pulsating grooves would suddenly dissolve as if subjected to a psychic acid bath, dissolving into streamers of cymbal explosions and bombarded tom-toms, yet remaining as lithe and centered as a galloping antelope. Bob Moses’ drumming always threatened to self-destruct, yet this looseness was deceptive—order masquerading as chaos.
More to the point, he is a composer masquerading as a drummer, for who is more likely to be a conductor of notions in motion than a drummer, or less likely to be acknowledged as such? Yet with the release of his first two Gramavision albums When Elephants Dream of Music and Visit With The Great Spirit (and the imminent release of his drum book, Drum Wisdom), Moses looms as a potentially major force in American music—a homegrown baby of the urban jungle, as if Charles Ives had lived among the Incas of Peru. Where his first album suggests an amoebic, shifting impressionism redolent of Gil Evans, his latest album synthesizes the tumult of Charles Mingus with a “funkified” tribal groove, centered in his woody, high-stepping drumming, and his multi-tiered layers of texture and color—a sanctified blend of jazz, rock, funk, bohemian poetry and the third world.
In truth, Bob Moses—wry, witty, opinionated, spacy and unpredictable—is much more than a drummer, and his music much more than an artificial fusion of airplay prayers. The fusion has always been there, because he never acknowledged a difference between styles and, in fact, often seems as if he were trying to play them simultaneously. Also, as a member of The Free Spirits and the original Gary Burton Quartet he was there at the very birth of what we now call fusion. So this interview is concerned less with the nuts and bolts of drums, drummers and drumming, than it is with a representation of an original mind. What follows is an overview of the attitudes and dreams that shaped Bob Moses’ art, rather than the art itself. It is also an overview of the method by which Moses came out of the wilderness of his fuzzy-headed inspirations, and into the realms of discipline and control by which he channeled his art, as well as a discussion of where he hopes to take it. When drummers dream of music, anything is possible.
CS: How would you characterize yourself as a drummer and what you’re trying to do musically?
BM: I’m a teamwork man. I have no stake in improvisation. I’m into parts. I like it when it sounds like traditional music, but not something you could pin down as if we’d been doing it that way for 400 years, like salsa or Latin. That’s what I’m going for. I’m into parts and holding the fort.
CS: Isn’t that a kind of strange attitude for a drummer? Aren’t you supposed to be liberated?
BM: Well, I’ll tell you, I never knew what we were trying to be liberated from. Music? To me devotion is the opposite of liberation; devotion is like commitment to something. Also, I don’t play for enjoyment either. I play for the results, and the best results don’t necessarily come from freedom, although they can; it depends on who it is and the moment, of course. But I don’t rule out any tactic, and I find that the more composed things are, the better they work out—especially with rhythm things. On Visit With The Great Spirit, there’s almost no live playing. Almost all the record was done first with drums and bass, then percussion, then guitar and horns, then synthesizer and whatever else I thought was needed. So I don’t think I could ever go back to live recording. I have no desire to do so. But then, who knows? I’m an ex treme person, so I could change my mind.
CS: Well, you’re great for extremes, but you’re also great with instinctual responses to a jazz ensemble, so I’d hope that would remain some part of what you’re doing.
BM: Well, my music is simultaneously further out, and more inside and traditional than anything I’m hearing now. My whole thing is emotion. Sometimes the blues is the only music with enough emotion to cut through. Of course, you can play blues without emotion, which is what a lot of people are doing now. They play the blues without throwing in any of the cliches that make it the blues—like they want to disguise it or something. I like the older, pre- Charlie Parker blues style because there’s more emotion in it for me, even though it’s not as sophisticated. Even in my own mu sic, it bothers me when it just becomes a head trip—an ego thing—where I can’t cut through all the artfulness I spent years developing. I really don’t expect popularity until my music gets as good as the Wailers or Michael Jackson. And I really mean that. To me, that music isn’t just more popular; it’s better.
CS: Why is it better?
BM: Because it’s not an in-joke. It’s not a treatise on craftsmanship. It entertains. It’s really more noble to reach out to people and entertain. Ideally you want to have that and the art, too, but I suppose what really reaches me is the functionality of it. And as it is, my music is still just communicating with the elite; it’s getting closer all the time to the average folks. A lot of it is just letting go, so you don’t have to show that you know so much.
CS: You just don’t have to demonstrate that all the time.
BM: I’m into a real precision control thing. My concept is not about long, drawn-out solos. In fact, I want all solos to be amazingly brief, unless they’re extremely incandescent, and even then I want them to end just short of reaching the maximum. See, I’ll trance out when I listen to my music—it’s meant to be an aural movie—but not in the playing process.
To tell you the truth, I’m looking for ward to somebody dominating me, with some purpose, by saying, “Take this head off; tape this; put a pillow over there.” I’m anxious for an engineer to tell me how Jerry Marotta gets that tom sound on the Peter Gabriel record. See, I already know how to get my sound. What I want is to try to reach some people. I’d love to sell out.
CS: If only you get your price.
BM: It’s not that high. Sell in, sell out, sell sideways—I’m not into the money per se, as little money as I make. What interests me is the musical challenge of playing pop music creatively. I don’t think it’s any less of an art than playing jazz. I always wondered why jazz musicians don’t listen to hit singles, because there’s so much to learn about craft.
CS: You know why they don’t? Because in many ways it’s harder to play.
BM: In many ways? In every way! And that’s what scares jazz musicians to death. I don’t know many jazz drummers who can cut that music. I mean, except for the real greats, jazz drummers are a dime a dozen. With pop music, chops aren’t so important. You have to play a lot simpler, keep it in the pocket, and not try to play everything all the time.
CS: What’s the basis for your solo ideas?
BM: I always begin with an idea of what I want to play, and that usually takes the form of a melodic framework. I never just play the first thing that comes to my mind and go from thing to thing. I might have to sit back and think about what it is I want to play. It’s not that I can’t change or go to something else, but it has to be built on a solid framework, and when I change, I move to another definite idea. There should never be a time when there isn’t a central idea, which is why everyone sounds better playing with a band than playing alone. That’s why I try to bring that focus to my soloing, because variations on a theme are a lot different than just playing a lot of different themes. Once you establish a central theme it will make things clearer for the listener.
The first rule in my book is that you should always play from something; never start from nothing. Music, by its very nature, is very abstract. What can be more abstract than sound in the air? So even if you abstract an idea, at least make it recognizable. That’s why lately I’ve been listening a lot to drummers like Bill Bruford, Stewart Copeland and Jerry Marotta. I just love Jerry Marotta; he’s a monster. Those English drummers like Bruford and Copeland project so much power in their playing; what they don’t have is a certain roundness to their sound, which is why sometimes it comes off as a little stiff.
CS: It’s not in their environment.
BM: Right, but I think if they wanted to cop it, they could. But what they play is great and I wish I could play some of the things they do. When they play a funk thing, the impact is so strong that it makes up for how straight it feels, whereas if I played the same thing it would be coming from more of a black, New Orleans approach. What I’m trying to do now, is to get the power of those cats with the feeling and roundness of a Zigaboo Modeliste, and the tone of a Zigaboo as well, because American drummers seem to be more in touch with the pitch and timbre of the drums. But a lot of what I’m reaching for now has to do with the impact and power of Bruford and Copeland. You can hear all that on the new album.
CS: But you’ve had a big, warm tone on your drums—even when you had the kit tuned up high and tight.
BM: Well, the impact of the drums on the new album is much more prominent than on most jazz records where you hear cymbal, snare, and not much tom and bass. Since I’ve been using two bass drums it’s great, because even if you can’t always hear that deeper drum, you can feel it, and it makes everything sound rounder and more present.
CS: How do you tune your drums?
BM: I tune them like the blues [hums a passage]. It’s like fourth, minor third, tonic and then maybe the tonic below on the bass. The snare drum isn’t so pitched, I don’t think.
CS: You always had a nice pitched sound on the snare. On Bright Size Life with Jaco and Metheny, it sounded as if you had the snare mechanism off for the entire album.
BM: Sure. I do that a lot, because I’m really into the toms, and in getting timbale-type effects off the rims and all. Right now on my current kit, I even have a Brazilian drum called the Retinique out over my floor toms, which gives me a big, fat, metal drum sound, so I can come up off the big wood drums and get all of these accents and vowel sounds instead of just hitting another cymbal. An open snare goes well with that, because the snare, to me, has certain military connotations, whereas I’m coming more from third world dance musics—although, obviously, where they mixed is in American music. Of course I love to use it for that funky march. I’m real good at that, although Steve Gadd is the master of that style.
CS: Why are you using those short drumsticks? Is it because it’s more like hand drumming?
BM: That’s it exactly. For a long time I’d practice in this place I was living mostly on brushes, and it was uncomfortable for me to go to a longer stick, although I’ve been using them again recently without any discomfort. But with these shorter sticks, it feels more like the extension of the hands when I’m playing congas or something like that. It just feels more natural to me.
CS: Your work on record used to be dominated by a razor-sharp, hyper-crisp cym bal sound. But now when you do go to the cymbals the sound is wet and soaring. What are you going for?
BM: I used to be into very dry cymbals, but now I seem to go for something much warmer and more resonant, and if I want to, I know how to pull the definition out and get them to say ping. Zildjian made a couple of mini-cup K’s for me that are like the best of that kind. I hardly use the cymbals anymore; I’m much more into the drums. I’m using a pair of bass drums that are tuned wide open, and the only muffling I’m using are those Dr. Scholl’s Corn Pads, so they’re really deep. Gradually I’ve come to the point where everything on top is tuned much deeper, too. I used to tune my toms and snares really tight, and I have a small Sonor kit that’s tuned that way for when I get calls to do gigs like that, which isn’t all that often, but I’m not into that top cymbal, tight jazz sound anymore. I want to feel the drums—elemental drumming with no bullshit and no flash; that’s what I’m reaching for. And there’s such beautiful tone to these Eames drums—big, pretty and strong.
CS: What do you practice?
BM: I don’t practice.
CS: Come on, man, you sound like you’ve been practicing. Your playing and the music you’re writing sound so much fuller.
BM: See, drumming is not a casual thing with me and it takes up so much energy. For me, the only thing is the final experience—the playing. There’s nothing else to practice other than that; that’s so intense, and I think so hard about every note. It’s like anytime I play a drum I’m thinking about how this is my life; this has got to be like a finished thing. That’s a lot of pressure, and it doesn’t come lightly. I have to be in a whole state of mind to play, and in the course of my regular day I can’t really afford to go into that state of mind. I have to really get high—not on cannabis or anything…
CS: But on the music itself…
BM: Right, so that I’m really out. I don’t have that much time to do that.
CS: How much time do you spend writing?
BM: Usually I only compose on the inspiration of the moment, but I’ve been doing more lately, because Jonathan Rose (of Gramavision) has been giving me a lot of projects to do. I don’t know what I’d be doing now if he hadn’t taken an interest in me and given me a chance to work out some of my ideas, because it’s not like I write every day at some specific time, al though I try to sit down every day and work things out. But that’s so intense, too. It’s not just a pleasurable thing; it’s not something I do to get off. Music, to me, is not something you use just to get off; it’s like a ritual, and a very serious responsibility. That, to me, brings the music higher, and balances me.
CS: Well, genius tends to favor the prepared mind. So you must have done something at some point. Let’s put it this way: What did you practice when you started out on the drums?
BM: That’s a good question. I didn’t practice anything. It was always a finished thing. Basically, I used to just play all the time.
CS: Yet you know how to read. How did you learn that?
BM: Well, somebody showed me that in school—showed me notes, showed me the staff—and I figured that out. I learned all that in the third grade, I think. And I had friends who were musicians, friends of the family like [guitarist] Mundell Lowe. But basically, I learned from just playing. I would practice stuff I might be called upon to do on a gig. At that time it was a lot of jazz, so I’d practice fast swing, tunes like “Cherokee,” mambos, backbeats, and shuffles.
CS: But how did you learn to gain command of the drums? You never played from a drum book or studied with a drum teacher?
BM: Oh, I had some teachers, but I don’t credit them with anything in my development.
CS: Well, what did they think they were doing for you? Or perhaps I should ask, when did you first realize you were a drummer?
BM: That’s a good question… That’s got me stumped, man. I think it was from the very first time I played. In the sense of career it was very clear to me, judging by my personality, that the only two options available to me were the traditional ghetto options, which were sports and music. I was actually a pretty good athlete, but I wasn’t particularly big; I didn’t have the body for it. I played basketball, football and baseball. In baseball, Willie Mays was my man, not so much for the hitting as for his fielding. That was my specialty, and I could make amazing catches, because at the crack of a bat I could tell exactly where the ball was going.
CS: Where was this?
BM: In Queens. I don’t remember where because we moved around a whole lot: Forest Hills, Cue Gardens, 108th St. …Eventually I got real hot to live in the city [Manhattan] because Queens was like
CS: Long Island in drag . . .
BM: Yeah. A lot of little white kids—small babies. I didn’t feel that any of the adults were particularly hip, and I missed the culture. I used to go into Manhattan a lot to see movies and music, and eventually I kept bugging my parents. I don’t know if that was the only reason; I did threaten to run away from home if they didn’t move to Manhattan. I don’t know whether I would have.
CS: So is that when you moved to the place on Central Park West?
BM: No, but pretty close—same neighborhood: 97th between West End Avenue and Broadway. That was my old stomping ground. They used to have the hippest ping-pong place run by this cat, Marty Reisman, who was like the top American player. I used to go there and get hustled by these guys, but it was a great learning experience. I’d lose a few quarters. These guys would spot you 18 points, let you get two, with only one more to go for 21, and you would figure they would have to miss one, but they never did, and they’d just waste you. So I really used to enjoy that. It picked up my reaction time, that’s for sure.
CS: Let’s get a time frame for this. When were you born?
BM: January 28, 1948. I moved into Manhattan at the end of the sixth grade. And it was a big difference; I dug it immediately.
CS: What did Manhattan offer you that you were aware of?
BM: Mostly jazz clubs and movies. Around the neighborhood there were six or seven great theaters within a three-block walk. And I used to go to Birdland where they had the “Peanut Gallery,” and a lot of other clubs. I used to go to a place called the Jazz Showplace where Mingus had a gig for almost a year with a quartet including Eric Dolphy, Ted Curson and Dannie Richmond, and every Sunday I’d go down to see a matinee, where you could get in if you were a kid. I was able to hear this music when I was 12 or 13, and allowed to sit in, too. I got to play with Dolphy. I knew him very well. And every Sunday they’d have me sit in for a couple of tunes. You can ask Dannie Richmond. I see him all the time, and he’s always super friendly. I keep meaning to ask him, “Hey, man, what did you think?” But the cats must have seen something in me, because they were nice enough to let me play.
CS: So it really was a jazz workshop, not some bullshit?
BM: Oh no, it was on-the-job learning—on-the-spot.
CS: So, when did you finally get some drums and cymbals?
BM: Well, I’d had a drum since I was ten years old. My godfather, Ed Shaughnessy, gave me a drum. He was a friend of my father’s.
CS: What did your father and mother do?
BM: Well, they did a lot of things over the years. But my father had a connection to the music business, because he did publicity, and helped a lot of cats with their business. They grew up on the scene. My mother was very hip. They grew up in Harlem. They knew everybody in Duke El lington’s band. And my Uncle Norman was very hip, too. Grandfather had a cleaning store up there—funky, you know. And my father was a would-be playwright who never really made it, but he was hip, you know. They knew Billie Holiday very well. Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, all those cats—they were there. My uncle studied trumpet with Frankie Newton. And I carried that on. And at the time we moved to Central Park West, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and Rashaan Ro land Kirk were all living there. It was a killer.
So anyway, Shaughnessy gave me a tom-tom after I asked for it. I was aware of seeing this kid at camp do a snare drum solo, and here were these 300 people watching him, going “Oooh, wow.” So my motivation was very shallow at first; I just wanted to be liked, I guess. So I thought, “I can do that, and then I’ll have 300 people looking at me.” But that’s cool, because the more I think about it, later on I got into music for music’s sake, and admired a lot of people who were very underground. They weren’t really being heard, but they continued with their art anyway. Now I think it’s very good, practical motivation, because it forces you to come out of yourself and think about how you’re affecting people. There’s kind of a thing that became fashionable in the jazz mode of thought where you didn’t care about the audience; “We’re so into the music and the art that we’re going to do the hippest thing we can and hope you like it.” But I’m more into having a beautiful effect—moving people; entertaining them. If you’re an entertainer as well as an artist, it makes you a much more rounded and complete artist. It forces you to discipline yourself, package yourself and reach out. I think that a lot of really great art could be very popular. Like in the movies, Alfred Hitchcock was a great filmmaker and artist, but everybody could dig what he was doing. I’d like to get to that stage. I don’t believe that being popular has to diminish the art. For me, the art is a given, but after all these years, I’m more concerned with establishing the balance of the entertainment and communications.
CS: It was probably there all the time, but there was the peer pressure of being accepted as an authentic jazz musician.
BM: In my case, it was a self-defeating thing, because a lot of my heroes were people who were rigidly pure in their pursuit. It was very admirable, but in a lot of ways they boxed themselves into a corner. Since they were my heroes, there was a natural patterning after them. The way I describe those people is as “inspiring losers”: basically losers, but really inspiring. As they go down in flames the few who know acknowledge, “They were neglected geniuses; they were really heavy.” Yet as much as I loved those cats, there was a very negative aspect to it.
CS: They never swerved from their pursuit.
BM: But my thing is that you can take the knowledge that you have and…
CS: Reach out to people.
BM: Right, so that they don’t have to be initiates to be drawn into it.
CS: I’m interested in the motivation behind your music, and why you were drawn to this art form loosely called jazz. You don’t get to sit in with Mingus and Dolphy at the tender age of 12—after two years of whacking away aimlessly—unless there’s some sort of very strong drive and curiosity, where you were pursuing something, with, if not discipline, at least some forethought.
BM: No doubt I have some talent. I’m a very intelligent person and I have a natural compositional mind .I’ve always had thou sands of ideas, and a knack for form and composing; things I wrote when I was 12 and 13, knowing nothing about music— just totally instinctual—have held up with anything I’m doing now. They’re not as involved because I was lazy in a way. I’m now more disciplined as a writer. There was a piano in the house and I’d write things.
CS: But you never studied piano?
BM: No. But I used to have vibes and that was my first axe. I played vibes right through my teens, doing some of my first gigs in Latin bands. And I studied a little bit with Teddy Charles, who was one of the first four-mallet players, although he didn’t do it in the modern Gary Burton style, but very soulfully. So I guess it was tangential, but I knew a little bit about the keyboard. But I never took a whole bunch of lessons; I just started writing. When I first started out I didn’t know about chord symbols, so I’d write the whole chord out on the piano. And it’s interesting, but I’ve gotten back to doing that. If I want to help the musician, I’ll give chord symbols. But other times I’ll deliberately not give them, just to force the musicians into my voicing. However, the reason I don’t usually give them chord symbols is so they’ll play off of the melody. A lot of people don’t even put the melody in. For a horn harmony or a piano, they’ll just give you the changes, which already puts you into a real linear thing improvising-wise. I’d rather put in the melody if I’m just going to do one, because I prefer for people to play slower and more thematically. But I’m digressing.
As a kid, with all the talent I had, I think the quality those cats saw in me was love: that I really loved what they were doing; that I was serious and not bullshitting. And I think when they see that, most of the truly great musicians are really open. I can think of numerous examples of that. For instance, when I was a little bit older, but still not really playing—weak in so many ways—I had a gig in the Catskills with Dave Liebman. He was also in that stage, maybe more so, because I, at least, lived in Manhattan and knew a lot of hip cats, and Liebs was just a kid from Brooklyn. Shit, he wasn’t even as hip as me [laughs], although since then, in many ways, he’s surpassed me. Anyway, Herbie Hancock came up with my folks. At the time he lived right next door to us, and he knew my parents. They met on the street and told him, “Hey, we’ll go up and visit Bob. He’s got a gig upstate and they’ve got a swimming pool and everything. Do you want to come?” And Herbie said, “Sure, I ain’t doing nothing.” So he came to the ballroom that night and played with us. No bass—just piano, tenor and drums. He was so open and loving, and enjoying the experience, when realistically, objectively, it was nowhere near what he was used to playing with Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter. But I’d seen him play with Miles, and I felt the same amount of joy and love and giving and real interest in the music—just trying to make it sound better. And there was no attitude, because he could feel the love. It turns out he was right, because Leibman and I eventually turned into good players, but we sure weren’t at that point.
CS: But he could feel the sincerity, and a good musician will hear what you want to play, even if it isn’t fully formed at the moment. I guess the main thing is to play with musicians who are so strong that they can pull you along and set a strong example. Because too many musicians don’t listen; they don’t talk and breathe with the music. It’s about interaction. That’s the real freedom music.
BM: Absolutely, and cats like Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones and Dannie Richmond had a real strong sense of structure and composition in their playing. In a sense, that’s what really attracted me. There was a lot of freedom in the music, but they were great enough composers that they could deal with the freedom, which brings me to an interesting point: To me, freedom, in the improvisational sense of spontaneity, is not the important issue at all. I said this in down beat, and I thought people would hit the roof, but it slipped right by them. The aspect of freedom in music doesn’t interest me at all; what interests me are the results. Mingus, in particular, got an amazing amount of control and structure in his bands spontaneously; as it was happening he got you to think, by sheer force of character, like he did—to improvise a part as if he had written it. He got some amazing things out of improvisers because he made the context so strong; people played so differently with him. Duke Ellington was also a magician and a master psychologist. Mingus often did it through brute force.
CS: Duke would organize a structure where everyone could put in their two cents and make a composition, but he was like the ultimate editor.
BM: And he knew who to get and how to direct that person. The most important part of any composition is how you get to play it. I always go for people with balanced talents, so it doesn’t lean in any one direction. I’ve had people who were really childlike and primitive next to some amazing virtuosos, and it works.
I bring out the best in cats; I really do. I make them play better than I’ve heard them in other circumstances, just because I won’t settle for anything less, and I won’t let them get away with their typical responses. I believe in making them go way past what they think they’re capable of.
CS: You could call it “comprovisation.”
BM: Yes, you could; I’ll accept that. But, like anything, I’m equating it with the Almighty. The Almighty is nameless, or has thousands of names. There is no one name.
CS: When did you first realize that you had a living relationship with magic and otherness in your life and in your music?
BM: Pretty early. It had to do with dreams. I’ve always been a very disciplined dreamer, and I was always aware that, when I was dreaming, it was a very important and delightful part of my day. A lot of people don’t like to sleep because they feel like they’re missing something, but I feel when I’m awake that I’m missing something, because my dreams present more interesting possibilities. Dreams can combine dimensions in ways that you usually don’t when you’re awake in the body state. When you’re asleep you could be underwater, you could be in the air, or you could change shapes. I’ve always loved visionary trips.
Also, I’ll go on trips that are dedicated to that purpose. Like I went to Mexico, Hawaii, Brazil and Peru last year. And those trips are to concentrate on the dream part, because when you go to another place where you don’t even speak the language, and you’re in a totally strange environment, it’s like being in a dream. I use that experience when I come back to New York, and I always have.
CS: Didn’t you once say there was a specific dimension you used to visit where you tried to bring the music back from?
BM: That’s right. That’s part of my history, too. There was a time when I was very consciously disciplining the dream to go to a specific place. I haven’t been going there recently. The dreams have been going to another place of late: It’s called Casta Laquinga.
CS: How are the laws of gravity and such different than here?
BM: In the Casta Laquingan scheme of evolution, the species I was with was maybe equivalent to a bear—tree climbers. We did have a type of music that was very interesting. But there was some other music that would come from dome beings that were invisible to us, and that music was something beyond my description. The only comparison I could make is maybe the way a dog perceives Bartok or Schoenberg. The music that we played, which was much simpler, is actually equivalent to the Earth music that everybody thinks is so far out. What these other beings were doing was like Bach, only a thousand times more systematized—mathematical to the nth degree.
CS: Back to planet Earth. Again, why the drums?
BM: I could have played any instrument, but I was playing all of them within the drums. Sometimes I play bass lines on the drums. I have them tuned to play bass, really. Sometimes I play like a saxophone—sometimes drums. Within the drums I hear all of the orchestral functions; sometimes I’ll play melody or a bass line. Also, I write all the time, and my main thing was always composition. For the first couple of years, I wasn’t sure of which instrument I would play. I did play some acoustic bass, classical style. I had a trumpet for a while. I always had xylophone and vibes. If, at the time, electric bass had been the thing, I probably would have gone with that. When I went to camp I studied a classical sort of thing with the bow, and it was beautiful, but the electric thing is more my concept of what the bass is. It got to the point where the other instruments just got too hard. On trumpet I could never get much past middle C, and when I got to F, my lip started to kill me. Vibes I liked, but except for Latin gigs they became less and less practical, because unless you have Gary Burton-type chops, you can’t comp. So the drums became sort of practical, because everyone needs a drummer. And in a way, drums were easier, in the sense of sounding credible—at first. To become a great drummer is, if anything, harder than any other instrument. But to be merely functional is quicker. I even played bass clari net for about a year; I played in Ben Webster’s style, with a big, sweet, expressive sound, a big vibrato, and a lot of sub-tones and growls to vary the dynamics in a phrase.
CS: For somebody who just sort of picked up the drums without “practicing,” you had practical experience on virtually every instrument in the orchestra.
BM: And painting, too. I’ve always done that. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the same impulse. Sometimes when I’m at the drums, I’m painting. The drums just seemed to be the most functional. Perhaps I loved the drums more. Hearing people like Max Roach, who had such a beautiful, sensual tone, was inspiring. It was a very physical instrument.
CS: Yet Max had a very stately, architectural approach.
BM: But I quickly realized that that was not my approach at all. I was much more into sloppy motion. It would be interesting to see how Max would paint; I imagine it would be an almost austere, Japanese style in a way. But with my paintings—as you can see from the album cover—even though they have a strong structure, they’re filled in with a lot of soft texture. It’s like leaves or something in nature; there’s a mushiness.
CS: As if the water had got in and washed out some color, or maybe washed some in.
BM: Exactly. So they’re running together. Yet there’s a very strong linear structure. Those all start off as line drawings done with fine magic markers. When I have all the lines defined, then I start smearing them together with a brush and water, so that I get a very precise feel mixed with the organic. That’s always been my concept: starting with a very simple, obvious, elemental structure, and at the same time an almost-chaotic organic movement going against that.
This concept actually relates very closely to the groove canon, which is a concept that I use quite a lot, and the groove canon invokes something I call the internal hearing concept, which will be prominently featured in my drum book. The thing about the groove canon is this: I love vamps and ostinatos. But I’ve found that no matter how hip the vamp, you reach a point of diminishing returns where you get tired of it. So I’m employing a very old concept, although I’ve never heard anybody else use it this way, called groove canons or groove rounds. I take a figure or rhythm pattern, and have the group divide it and play it in several different places, perhaps two beats apart. For instance, on Visit With The Great Spirit there’s one piece where I use the groove canon called “Suite Bahia.” It’s based on a two-bar figure in seven, which is used in three different places. Theoretically I could use it in seven places before it got back to unison again. The effect is of an incredibly strong groove, but you could listen to it over and over again without ever figuring it out. With vamp tunes you can figure out where the center is—the clave. That doesn’t necessarily make it less compelling, but somehow it loses a bit of the mystery. However, with groove canons you can sense that there’s an order, but you can’t put your finger on where the 1 is. And there’s something inexorable about it, like a train, but there is no single 1. For me, it makes vamps more listenable without taking away from the dancing power.
Learning to do these things is very good for your internal hearing. Internal hearing postulates that a lot of times you’re not actually listening to what’s going on; you’re listening to what you’re playing off of. When I have people do a round like this and come in with the same rhythm two beats later, they usually start listening to what I’m doing and we end up in unison. This concept requires “creative ignoring.” The basic rule is this: If there’s any danger that anything you play or someone else plays can throw you off of your basic internal idea—which is what you’re using the groove to focus in on—then you cannot afford to listen to it. The stronger you develop your internal hearing, the more you can listen.
See, the key to what I call “organic drumming”—which is what Elvin, or Jack DeJohnette, or I do—is a simple, grid-like structure. I call it the 8/8 structure, because generally I don’t think faster than 8th notes. If we’re dealing with a 4/4, one of my methodologies is to work on the eight points individually as resolution points, so that you master the eight points and learn to hold them in your head. Eventually they can be held so strongly that you will be able to play anything—different tempos and time signatures, things that are almost indecipherable—organic—like the waves of the ocean or the rustling of the leaves.
CS: So your grid is very flexible?
BM: No. The grid is very rigid. What goes on top can be very flexible, and it can only be this flexible because of the fact that the grid I’m keeping inside is extremely rigid and never bends. And in fact, a lot of what goes on top is very instinctual rather than conscious. My conscious being generally dwells on the internal. You can be as complex as you want externally, but internally you keep it simple. That’s the key to internal hearing. I could play “Stella By Star light” at a medium bounce, and play a fast seven against it, without losing the 4/4 swing form because I’m holding to that 8/8 grid. So in that way I can take movement and motion from life and put that in my music—the shape of a wave; the beautiful way an egret flies across a valley from tree to tree; the way Dr. J looks when he goes in for a slam dunk.
CS: Before you arrived at the groove canon, how did you establish your center as a drummer? What disciplines of the mind, heart and ear did you work on?
BM: Good question. For ten years I practiced that 8/8 grid, and I never played a thing where I didn’t have a specific resolution in mind. Sometimes the song itself will suggest it. When it wasn’t given, I would impose one. And when I was young I played a lot of organic drumming, which one might characterize as sloppy.
CS: Sounds like you played more dependent than independent.
BM: I was capable of playing freely, but I was always concerned with making it swing harder. And after my initial Elvinish phases, I disciplined myself to stick with that grid and play nothing extraneous, so that those points became automatic—like a feeling. I practiced all that for years to master the drums. That’s what I studied, and found thousands of ways of resolving them, and what beats sounded best with them. So having come through all this dogmatic stuff, now I’m able to get back to that feeling I had as a child when I first began playing. But now I have that authority, so even when I’m playing organically, cats can still relate to my internal rhythm.
See, the art is incidental, and comes much later. I’ve always had the art, creativity and soul; those are given. But what I needed to make me complete and what had been my weakness was mastering the structure.
CS: How does your groove canon relate to your harmonic canon?
BM: I have very distinct theories about melody and harmony. I write a lot of things where there are different tempos, tonalities and rhythms, which is in the tradition of somebody like Charles Ives. Like on “Suite Bahia” there are three or four overdubs in seven, but the melody is at a much slower tempo in 4/4, and the sevens are anchored by a 2/4 figure. That’s some thing I also always do with odd meters, which is to invariably play backbeat which makes them swing more, so you’re not hitting I every two bars. Max used to do that: play 4/4 on the hi-hat and then play seven on top. So I’ll do that by layering all sorts of things over a basic four.
CS: Given everything you’ve just described to me, how come you don’t want to be characterized as a drummer? What’s the matter with that?
BM: Because I just think it’s an incomplete picture. Basically, I’m a nature-mystic-visionary. That’s where my talent lies, and that manifests in my drumming, composition, painting, poetry, dance and movement. They’re all expressions of what I do.
Drumming is one of the strongest things I’ve done, precisely because it was the thing I was the least talented at of them all; it was the hardest for me. See, when you’re composing, you’re in charge of the over view, which is where I excel. In making an album, I hear it as a movie; I think cinematically. My problem has always been the execution, not the inspiration. Drumming has always kicked my ass because, as a sideman, I’m trying to execute somebody else’s concept as good as it can be. As a working drummer, I was obliged to master the givens of styles and stylists: Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes. Doing club dates, I had to learn to play rhumbas and cha-chas and mambos. I had to play funk and rock things, and learn to play with a Charlie Watts feeling. Whereas in painting, I never felt like I had to master figure drawing; I just started to do my painting. Yet my painting and composition are not primitive. My first composition, when I was 14, was a perfect example of polytonality. I had no idea of what that meant; it was just common sense.
It’s like if you mix more than one kind of color, so that it’s not all primary colors: You get a more subtle blend. People always considered the interval of a second dissonant, but to me it’s a very beautiful and necessary color. So I’m breaking all sorts of rules according to the way they’d teach chord scales at Berklee—like using minor harmonies against major chords. Basically, what I’m saying is that, if you mix two beautiful things, even if they’re totally different, you’ll get a third reality which is mysterious and beautiful.
CS: Who are your antecedents for this approach?
BM: Among composers, Ives and Messeian. They liked to juxtapose separate realities. But in a sense, most of my influences come from real life. I perceive life and sound like a blind person. I used to listen to the grass sing as the wind whipped through, while cars sped up and came towards me or faded by. I would hear them as a symphony of sounds and changing pitches. I like to make sense of the seemingly chaotic by superimposing it against an arbitrary grid of my own design—giving it a context.
It’s like when I read about Renaissance Italians who were masters of depth perspective. They’d actually go to the top of a tower for a view, and they would bring a grid made of wood—like an empty checkerboard—through which they could look at a landscape. In that way, they could take this chaotic scene of natural life that had no obligation to be symmetrical, and portray it against a symmetrical grid, which enabled them to really see the reality that was there. I do the same thing with sound, so that you no longer have an isolated area of sound, but it’s falling against a particular rhythm.
Now the people I listen to who helped me develop this perspective on real life were Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Rashaan Roland Kirk, and Thelonius Monk; I’ve listened to and been inspired by Elmo Hope, Edgar Bate man, Hermeto Pascoal, Herbie Nichols, King Sunny Ade, Bob Marley, and Ray Charles singing country & western music. I also listen to Peter Gabriel; I like his stuff a lot. I like what Robert Fripp, Bill Bruford and Stewart Copeland are doing; I’ve listened to James Brown, African music, samba-school, and pop. When I was a kid, I listened mostly to jazz, because at that time in the ’60s, it seemed like the most vital thing happening. I don’t necessarily feel that way anymore.
To sum up, at this point in life, I don’t feel that there’s any one form of music that’s innately superior to another; I also do not feel that sophistication necessarily makes for better music, because I’m a heart musician, and that’s what makes music for me.