Calexico and Iron & Wine Years to Burn
The follow-up to the revered indie acts’ first collaboration, 2005’s In the Reins, proves that lighting can indeed strike the same place twice. This month we listened to the music—and to drummer JOHN CONVERTINO, who tells how the recording went down.
Some drummers are easy to identify by their feel or favorite chops. For Calexico drummer John Convertino, it’s his sound: the smack of his brush on the snare, the sizzling decay of his cymbals, the room-y boom of his kick. The ambient sound of his kit-work is a focal point in Calexico’s spacey mix of Latin, jazz, country, and rock. And it provides a soft yet supportive touch in the more singer-songwriter-y setting of Calexico’s second collaboration with Iron & Wine founder Sam Beam, Years to Burn.
The desert-wide sound Convertino creates with his Calexico partner Joey Burns is present throughout the album, providing an atmospheric backdrop to the laidback folk-rock songs Beam contributes. On “What Heaven’s Left,” Convertino uses sticks to keep simple time with just snare, side-stick, and kick. Such spare rhythmic detail allows the song to breathe and eventually soar. He uses sticks again to tap out a slowed-way-down variation of the Bo Diddley groove on the snare in “Midnight Sun,” giving Burns’ trippy jam a solid foundation. Mostly Convertino employs his trusty brushes for sounds that are familiar and playing that is perfectly suited to everything here, whether he’s anchoring the beautiful melody of Beam’s “Father Mountain” or driving the ambitious three-part song cycle “The Bitter Suite.”
MD: There’s a folk-rock, singer-songwriter vibe to most of these songs. The drumming certainly doesn’t feel secondary in any way, but the songwriting definitely feels like the point of emphasis.
John: The connection that drummers have to the songwriter is key; it’s really important. Think about Stan Lynch and Tom Petty, Chrissie Hynde and Martin Chambers, Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm. That’s what I was feeling when I first met Sam. But when I heard his demos, I thought, I don’t know what to play to these songs. But when we got in the studio, it was like, Oh, I get it now. Sinking into his melody lines, and the way he sings his words—that’s the groove. That’s what happened on In the Reins. So coming in thirteen years later, I knew exactly how to get to where he was. It didn’t feel like we were reinventing or trying to do something completely different. It’s a good match.
MD: You mentioned Stan Lynch, and I couldn’t help but think of the parallels between the Heartbreakers finding another gear as a band from working with Bob Dylan, and how Calexico has had a similar evolution because of the work you do with other artists, collectively and separately.
John: For sure. It keeps Joey and I from having to always face each other and our musicality. We bring back something [to Calexico] that’s unique. As soon as we bring in someone like Gaby Moreno, who’s a songwriter with her own take on melody, it inspires us in a different way. It makes us think in a different way. For this session we had Rob Burger on keyboards, and he’s an incredible musician and songwriter as well. And the bass player, Sebastian Steinberg, I’d heard of him but never worked with him before. It was another great influence. All these great influences were coming together. It makes your brain work a different way. And I love it.
MD: Sam has a different voice from Joey—softer and airier. I would imagine that prompts a different reaction and different choices from you as a drummer.
John: It’s true that the vocal timbre is different, but their approach is really similar in that they write on acoustic guitar. As soon as I hear that it’s a nylon-string, I want to pick up the brushes, because I want to be able to hear [the guitar] almost acoustically. I don’t want it to have to be amplified and cranked in my headphones. I want to relate to it as it is—a natural instrument. Sam was playing that nylon-string a lot on this session. So I was leaning on the brushes a lot again, and really enjoying getting inside that acoustic guitar sound.
MD: Playing with brushes like you do, a little more aggressively than in the traditional sense, do you find that different studios and stages have different sweet spots?
John: That’s true, [the sweet spot] changes. A lot of times to find it, my go-to is the bass drum. I don’t have a hole in the front head, and I leave it open, with just a felt strip on the batter side. If I can just tap the bass drum with the pedal and get a certain response, then I know I’m in the right spot. From there, it’s just playing really, really softly, so I can get a response from the room. In the studio, I’ll walk around the room a little bit and try to find that spot. The engineer [on Years to Burn] suggested a spot for me away from the glass of the control room, so there wouldn’t be so much reflection. And that was a great idea. Because usually the control room is set straight forward and the drummer is right there. I always like to go in at a little angle. Even onstage, I like to move the kit so I’m not facing [the audience] straight on. I think that makes a difference. Patrick Berkery
At the Edge of the World
A drumming master returns after a decade and a half away from the spotlight with a lesson in groove.
Developing a groove and having a deep pocket is something many drummers aspire to, but for a certain few, the pocket is so deep that it becomes simply staggering. Such is the case with LEON PARKER, who returns here to recording after a lengthy hiatus.
A piano-trio recording mixing originals and standards, At the Edge of the World is a well-rounded program, with colorful, interactive playing throughout. Parker’s sympathetic drumming is supportive yet moves the entire thing with a toe-tapping, dance-like vibe that seems as if it could move mountains. Goldberg’s sparkling piano runs cascade over cymbals like sun shining on the water on “Isn’t This My Sound Around Me.” Fills and solo spots allow Parker to open up more, as on “Effendi,” but the emphasis throughout is really on support and the group. A couple of songs allow percussion and rhythmic vocalizing by Parker, who expands his palette seamlessly. At turns bright, sunny, and introspective, Goldberg’s album invites repeat listenings, and Parker’s inventive pocket plays a major role in this. (Sunnyside) Martin Patmos
Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions
The influential alto sax, bass clarinet, and flute innovator is honored in a quality deluxe reissue that thankfully revisits the artistry of under-acknowledged drummer J.C. MOSES.
This finely remastered three-CD package with an expansive hundred-page booklet reissues the Dolphy LPs Conversations and Iron Man, along with eighty-five additional minutes of previously unreleased alternate takes. The 1963 sessions capture Dolphy in his prime with various-sized ensembles that include the emerging vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, young trumpeter Woody Shaw, bassist Richard Davis, and the inventive and dynamic drummer J.C. Moses. In demand for both mainstream and avant-garde gigs, Moses—much like Dolphy—managed to push the envelope while still retaining hard-bop foundations.
Primarily active in the ’60s, Moses also performed frequently with Archie Shepp and worked with Clifford Jordan, Roland Kirk, Kenny Dorham, Sam Rivers, and Charles Lloyd, among others. His discography, however, remains fairly limited, partly due to his early demise at age forty.
Stirring it up with hard-swinging multilayers, Moses is also precise and tasteful here. On “Jitterbug Waltz” he offers a lilting ease that’s simultaneously gutsy. But the defining track is the blistering “Iron Man,” where Moses catapults the quintet while goading Dolphy’s feverish alto solo. Their bonded fearlessness feels bracingly new. (Resonance) Jeff Potter
Foreigner Live at the Rainbow ’78
Classic footage of the hit-making hard rockers provides a snapshot of rock’s—and drumming’s— permanent move into the big big leagues.
While the seeds of arena rock and its “double live album” artifact were planted by bands like the Doors (1970’s Absolutely Live) and the Allman Brothers (’71’s At Fillmore East), in the ensuing decade the genre positively exploded, as documented by a deluge of classic recordings including Deep Purple’s Made in Japan (’72) and Peter Frampton’s record-breaking Frampton Comes Alive! (’76). Extended jams and proggy interludes were en vogue, inviting fans to experience a deeper dive into their favorite groups’ talents. Among the emerging wave of arena rock groups were Styx, Journey, Kansas, and the Brit-Yank powerhouse Foreigner. Each of these groups had its own unique and entertaining twist on progressive-minded pop-rock and featured outstanding musicianship and soaring vocals. The restored footage presented in Live at the Rainbow ’78 features a blazing Foreigner just one year after the release of its self-titled LP.
At the time of this show, Foreigner had already logged significant hours on arena stages, sharing bills with the likes of the Rolling Stones and Bob Seger, but this performance was perhaps extra incendiary because it represented a homecoming of sorts for the band at the famous London theater. Lou Gramm’s soulful, driving, and unmistakable vocals grab the audience by the throat, and founder Mick Jones’ Frampton-inspired guitar work never fails to hit the mark. Drummer DENNIS ELLIOTT plays with excitable energy and a playful yet precise groove, at times nudging the music with a notably “live” forward motion typical of the day. It’s refreshing to see and hear the humanity in this timeless material and witness a youthful exuberance rarely allowed to flourish in today’s “production-perfect” live concert settings. ($15.97 Blu-Ray, $11.99 DVD, Eagle Vision) Mike Haid