By Lou Perry, Jr.
Al Mouzon is a marked man. He has become stereotyped as just a jazz drummer in America, and has taken refuge in Europe by touring there exclusively. European audiences appreciate the versatility and quality of Mouzon’s drumming and music.
Mouzon was born in Charleston, South Carolina on November 21, 1948. Leaving South Carolina at the age of 17, Al moved to New York City and became a drum roadie working with a local society band. He later moved on to play with one of the premier groups of the decade, Weather Report.
Presently, Mouzon is working with Herbie Hancock in the United States. He also fronts his own group and released a new album, as leader, called In Search of a Dream. Mouzon plans to produce several disco records in New York, later this year.
LP: Let’s begin with your equipment, what kind of drum set-up are you now using?
AM: It’s a Pearl set, two 24″ bass drums, four mounted rack toms, two 12″ and two 13″, four floor toms one 14″, two 16″ and one 18″, and I also endorse Remo. I have five Remo Roto-Toms 6″, 10″, 12″, 14″, and 16″. I have 6″ and 10″ Pearl concert toms. I play all A Zildjian cymbals, two 22″ medium rides, one 22″ swish, one 20″ medium crash, two 20″ heavy crashes, two 18″ medium crashes and two 20″ light crashes. I’ve got a total of fifteen cymbals and use ten when I’m playing. It’s a circle all around.
LP: What about your sticks? Are you still using that modified one?
AM: Yeah. On jazz-rock things I saw the tips off of Pro-Mark 5B and 2B. Sometimes I keep the bead on there, for the light things where I need more stick bounce. For the rock or R&B things I just cut the bead off. You get more volume that way.
LP: Do you prefer the fiberglass sound over the wood?
AM: No, to me it doesn’t matter. I could go either way, it’s just how you tune. I can play any drum set, not just one.
LP: Do you have any extra equipment that you use?
AM: Yeah, I use two gongs, a 20″ gong plate and a 40″ Pearl gong. When there’s a big concert in the states I use them. And I have a 12’X12′ drum riser that I had custom built. It’s made of wood and aluminum and surrounded by plexiglass on four sides so I can change the colors of the lights when playing.
LP: Do you carry extra pieces of gear with you to allow for breakage?
AM: Yes, that’s why I have four snares, three extra hi-hat stands, six cymbal stands, and extra bass drum pedals. I’ve got cases made for them, five huge cases, made by a company in Cleveland. They’re Anvil type but much better. Those are the same people that built my risers. But I carry extra cymbals, usually sixteen though I use only ten.
LP: Do you break a lot of cymbals?
AM: Sometimes. I usually change them after a year. I have to be careful of those extra light crashes. I like their sound but if I hit them the wrong way they can give.
LP: Have you experimented with drum synthesizers?
AM: I haven’t performed on any live but I’ve gone into music stores and tried out several like Syndrum and Synare. They’re nice but I wasn’t overwhelmed. I wouldn’t go out and buy one.
LP: What do you think of the custom made units that some drummers use?
AM: I think those are nice, but there are only a few effects that you can use them for. You can do a “Star Wars” trip but you can also do that with an Arp 2600 or other synthesizers. You know I own about three synthesizers but I’ve been playing keyboard synthesizers. I have to figure out the drum synthesizer and how I want to use it for my music so it’s not mechanical and cold. I’ve heard a couple of records with that one particular effect, that tom tom effect. I heard it on that song “Nobody Does It Better.” It’s a nice effect, but that’s about it for that one effect. Every drummer who has it only uses that one effect. That’s all I hear, as far as the Syndrum is concerned. Another reason why guys are using those too is because Hollywood producers in the record industry always want something different, so he demands everybody have it. Mostly session drummers have them. If you’re doing sessions and one guy has it, all the studio drummers must get it. If you don’t have it they’ll call another drummer.
LP: Which of your past musical experiences do you feel you have learned the most from?
AM: I learned more musically with McCoy (Tyner), than Weather Report. For other things I listened to everybody, and learned from them. Things I listen to now include Top 10, Top 40, all R&B, and Rock ‘n’ Roll. Because my mind is open, I don’t want to always be identified as just a jazz drummer. I got my start through jazz, and I’m not putting it down. But there are other things I do.
LP: Do you have a warm-up procedure before you do a concert?
AM: I used to, but I don’t find it necessary now. When I was playing opposite Billy Cobham with Larry Coryell, I could see him in the back with a pad, doing his chops. I’d walk around drinking champagne or something. I might twist a wrist with the sticks or stretch before I go on but that’s about it. If after all these years your wrists aren’t developed, then you don’t have it. I f you’re not warmed up in the first song then you’re not going to get it.
LP: Let’s talk about the matched grip versus the traditional.
AM: Sometimes I use both. When I’m doing light things or jazz things or swing things, I might use the conventional but I like to feel primitive many times so I use the matched grip.
LP: Do you find yourself using that more?
AM: Yes, because that’s the way I started out when I was a baby. I stopped when they told me it was wrong, but it felt unnatural to put it in my hand from the left side with the second finger. It all started because in a marching band, the drums were slanted, so you had to play them that way. You can play matched grip too if the drum is in front of you but if it’s hanging on the side it’s more logical to have the stick slanted through the third finger for parade marching and stuff.
LP: How do you approach drum solos?
AM: It just happens naturally so I don’t think about it. I don’t try to plan it out because then it’s not natural. I don’t say, ‘well I’ll start soft here and gradually get louder.’ If it happens that way, it happens.
LP: Can you describe your concept of the drummer’s role in a rhythm section?
AM: The drummer’s role is part of keeping the unit together and keeping the rhythm together. The energy level must always be there when it’s supposed to be. He’s the anchorman. They are holding everything down and giving energy and accepting energy. Receiving and giving. When a drummer’s playing and can’t get energy, it’s boring if the other players do not supply energy. The drummer is giving the energy but has to receive it also. When I play with bands and I’m giving the energy and don’t receive it, I can’t play anymore. It drains me if I’m with players who can’t play.
LP: Do you find audience feedback important to obtain that flow of energy?
AM: Yes. If I see one person in the audience involved it will give me enough energy to channel back and put out. European audiences can be very passive, they look like they’re not enjoying themselves and yet they are into it because they’re serious. When they listen to classical music there’s no movement at all, no expression on the face, no twist of the lip or anything. But afterwards they show it by applause. They like what you’ve played so much that they want an encore. I’m always going through that. With this last tour people were jumping on the stage. I couldn’t believe it. This was a jazz audience and I was doing some funk things. I was trying to broaden my image. I was doing a jazzrock thing and just broke out into a funky thing.
LP: In other words, that type of audience doesn’t really respond like that?
AM: No, they usually don’t but they did in Berlin. I played a half an hour encore because I got scared when somebody threatened us. They told the bass player, ‘if you don’t play there’s gonna be a fight.’
LP: You play a lot in Europe. Can you tell me where and what places you like the most?
AM: I play a lot in Germany. That’s where most of my audiences are. I also play Paris, Scandinavia, and I’m supposed to be going to Poland this year. I do mostly concerts and play at a few clubs.
LP: Do you prefer playing Europe or the United States?
AM: I prefer playing in Europe more than the States. The audiences are better, people respect you more. I have been playing for more European audiences than American audiences for the past four years. I have just been touring Europe and that’s about it. It’s very rare that I tour the States anymore. Here in the States you must have a hit record to tour, otherwise it’s not worth anything.
LP: What is it like for the touring drummer in Europe?
AM: It’s not that difficult. When I go over there I have a lot of one nighters, and that can be the same in the States. I fly and travel by first-class train service. Their train system is much different than in America. In little towns you don’t fly so you have to take a bus. And that way you get a chance to see Europe. The country is gorgeous, just beautiful. I have European roadies that take care of all the equipment on the one nighters, so I just worry about getting to the hotel from date to date. It’s really no problem at all.
“I PREFER PLAYING IN EUROPE MORE THAN THE
STATES. THE AUDIENCES ARE BETTER, PEOPLE
RESPECT YOU MORE. . . HERE IN THE STATES YOU MUST
HAVE A HIT RECORD TO TOUR, OTHERWISE IT’S NOT
LP: What do you listen for in a drummer?
AM: It depends on the music. I listen for the creativity, ideas, concept, punctuation, articulation, the feeling. If it’s a funk band or whatever I listen for the same things but listen for the soul or funk in it. It depends on what kind of music. If it’s a bad group you don’t look for anything cause you know there’s going to be a boring beat. If there’s any kind of creativity you’ll listen. If it’s in the music the drummer should be applying it to the music.
LP: Do you believe Electric Fusion music is declining in popularity or will evolve into something else?
AM: It is declining in popularity. But in Europe it’s different because European audiences like good music, whatever it is.
LP: They listen to it first and label it later?
AM: They’ll label it but they’ll listen to it. They’ll keep listening to it if it’s good. In the States, what’s winning is pop music, rock music and R&B.
LP: Do you think Disco is still strong?
AM: Yes. Disco in America is different from disco in Europe. For Europeans when you say disco it’s a turn-off because disco is unfeeling music. It’s all programmed and planned with no feeling. Disco is very hard to define. In America, disco could be funky too. I’ve heard some good music and I’ve heard some electronic disco music that was very boring. I’m into the more feeling disco music of the Tramps and Bee Gees. Some of the stuff from Europe is good and some is boring.
LP: What about that French disco drummer? I’ve heard that he is not very good.
AM: Cerrone? No, he’s not a good drummer. He’s doing pretty good in America with the disco. The 4/4 on the bass drum, 2 and 4 on the snare and eighth notes on the hi-hat was his idea. It’s a very easy beat. I take that same beat but have everything funky underneath and music on top. And that’s where it’s important if you still have the rhythm underneath, and can play whatever you want on top.
LP: Do you listen to particular people in the area of Disco-Funk, Supersoul, or whatever you want to call it?
AM:: I listen to all the people from Philadelphia, and there’s a lot of them.
LP: How about Earth, Wind and Fire?
AM:: Yeah, you can say that’s disco, but it’s not disco, it’s R&B.
LP: Do you still play brushes?
AM: Yes! I played them last November on tour, I had Miroslav Vitous with me and Stu Goldberg, who plays keyboards on all my tours and Bobby Malach, a saxophone player currently playing with Stanley Clarke’s band.
LP: Do you have anything recorded with you playing brushes?
AM: No, I don’t have anything on record. I started out playing brushes in cocktail groups with the Horace Parian trio. I don’t play them as much anymore but I still know how to play them. When I played them last year it felt good playing brushes, stirring the soup.
LP: Do you hope to get back on the scene in the U.S. and tour sometime in the future?
AM: That’s why I’m working on it in Europe, just building my career over there.
LP: What do you think the music industry should do to better promote and expose the music and talent of people known and unknown?
AM: Well, they are doing it now with people who are unknown that I never heard of and selling them, people that can’t even play. They should stop doing it with people who can’t play and promote the people who can. Different people see different things that I can’t see or hear things that I don’t. You might say boy this is lousy but, they think it’s good and you can’t figure it out. You always say what do they see in her or what do they see in this guy, how come he’s got a record out? Who does he know? I’m always saying that. Who does this guy know, what is this? You see them on TV and you say anybody can make it these days. The music industry helps those they want to.
LP: Do you have any one thing to say in particular that you would like to see in print?
AM: The only thing I want to say is that I would like to join a super rock band that’s creative and sells too, somebody like Genesis or Yes. That is something I would really like to do. I’d like to tour and have the big promotion and records and everything. Nobody knows that, they think I’m a jazz drummer and that’s all. They’re crazy.
LP: You mean a lot of people think you play one way and that is it?
AM: Yeah, yeah.
LP: But you can play in any context?
AM: Right, but I don’t get those calls because people are scared. That’s why I don’t do studio too because I did a record with Donald Byrd called “Caricatures” and Sonny Edwards was the bass player. He used to play with Stevie Wonder. Edwards had a session and called the producer. He said, ‘I got Alphonse Mouzon man and we’re really hot together as a rhythm section.’ The producer asked, ‘Isn’t he a jazz drummer?’ Even though I play R&B, Disco and Funk, he didn’t want to take a chance. That’s what happens. They say, ‘Oh he’s a jazz drummer,’ and don’t call.
LP: So you’re typed just like film stars are typed?
AM: Right. I’m marked! I’m marked!