New Orleans funk maestro Stanton Moore has challenged himself once again, this time by revisiting his jazz roots. Conversations, the drummer’s first straight-ahead jazz album, not only showcases driving shuffles and impressive brushwork, it also represents a more sensitive, lighter-touched, and more dynamic Moore, who is widely known for his powerful fatback grooves with the modern funk band Galactic. MD wanted to know how Stanton aimed to raise his jazz game for this release.
MD: As a New Orleans musician, you were influenced by jazz. But Galactic’s fan base might be in for a surprise with your new direction.
Stanton: It’s kind of a reinvention. But at the same time it’s a return to my roots. I started checking out jazz when I was around seventeen, eighteen years old. At that point I realized that if I could understand and play jazz, it would make me a better overall drummer. I started buying records, studying with Johnny Vidacovich, and playing in the jazz band in high school. Then I went to Loyola University and got into the big band and combos there; it became very much a part of my development.
But then I became known for Galactic and my trio as a funk and groove player. I was still playing occasional jazz gigs around New Orleans, though, and I was always studying and working on a lot of Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach solos, and Tony Williams stuff.
MD: How did Conversations come about?
Stanton: What happened was I went through the whole Groove Alchemy [method book/DVD] project. That was almost a five-year process, practicing and transcribing all the stuff so I could demonstrate it on the video. It was a lot of work, and I was thinking, I’m never going to do THAT again. But, of course, a few weeks later I began thinking, What’s the next challenge? I felt like I had put myself in a five-year doctoral program in funk and groove drumming, so I wanted to do the same thing with the jazz side of my playing. So I started taking lessons with Kenny Washington, and when I’d stop by Jeff Hamilton’s house I’d pick up brushwork from him.
MD: What exactly did you work on with those two?
Stanton: With Kenny I wanted to find out more about Philly Joe Jones and the way Philly used the Charles Wilcoxon books to develop his vocabulary. Kenny would have me work on certain pieces, “Rhythmania,” “Paradiddle Johnny,” and “Roughing the Single Drag” in particular. He would have me play these pieces one measure at a time at a slow tempo, usually about 60 bpm. He would have me play the accents firm but play the unaccented notes as soft as possible. You can’t play the unaccented notes soft enough.
After working on these pieces like this, I started to internalize and memorize them, which made it much easier to recognize and quickly execute a lot of what I find in Philly Joe transcriptions. The stickings start to become intuitive as well. But maybe the most important benefit to practicing the Wilcoxon material this way was that I started to become much more comfortable playing at lower volume levels, and my touch and finesse started to improve.
With Jeff, we’re partners in Crescent Cymbals together, so we’ve gotten to know each other that way. Jeff has had me come over to his house a few times to drink some wine and hang and check out his awesome view of the ocean. My first time there, I sat down at his drums to show him what I had been working on with brushes. He watched and listened with wine in hand and a smile on his face, and he would say, “Yeah, but try to get a more lateral motion; get more snap out of your nudge in the left hand.” I said, “Show me,” and handed him the brushes. Jeff said, “Oh, it’s going to be like that, huh?” I said, “It’s going to be exactly like that!” We both laughed, and Jeff proceeded to show me some of the key elements of his brushwork, a lot of which comes from Philly Joe Jones’ book Brush Artistry. You really need someone who studied with Philly Joe to show you some of the strokes in that book, so Jeff taking the time to show me those things was invaluable information. On one of my visits to Jeff’s house I asked him to check out my ride cymbal pattern and to pull no punches. After he tore me apart a little bit, he showed me how to play “the stroke,” which is the way he plays the ride cymbal. You drop the stick on the cymbal on beat 4, let it rebound for the skip beat, pick it up on beat 1, then repeat that process on beat 2. The key is to do this with a loose, open, relaxed grip, but not let it sound too lazy or undefined. After working on that and internalizing it, my ride cymbal playing has become more relaxed and organic and has improved a good deal.
MD: You chose one of the best veteran New Orleans rhythm sections for your album, pianist David Torkanowsky and bassist James Singleton.
Stanton: Aside from “Driftin’” by Herbie Hancock, all the compositions on Conversations were written by New Orleans composers, including my tune “Tchefunkta.” David and James played extensively with all of them, so they understand this music. These guys know how to have a musical conversation when we play; nobody is “talking over” anyone, hence the title Conversations. But these tunes have also been the topic of conversation for New Orleans musicians for years, especially in the modern jazz realm. Songs like James Black’s 5/4 “Magnolia Triangle” are still kicking people’s asses today. Being able to play “Magnolia Triangle” is a rite of passage for any aspiring drummer in New Orleans. So even though the music may be considered more straight ahead, there is still my own personal connection to it.
MD: As well as rehearsing with your trio and shedding daily, you were refining your jazz playing by performing weekly at the New Orleans jazz club Snug Harbor.
Stanton: I wanted to make sure it was right before I decided to record the album. Snug Harbor would record the gigs for me, so I would listen back to the recordings, take notes, and shed things. Some of it was dealing with challenging forms, dealing with solo sections like the 5/4 vamp with the hits on the “&” of 4 in “Magnolia Triangle.” At other times it might be my articulation during an up-tempo song. In fact, some of the up-tempo stuff I didn’t put on the record because I didn’t think it was ready yet. Maybe it will make it to the next record, but the weekly gig gave me an opportunity to tweak things, like a workshop. I had a weekly outlet to perform the music, listen back to it, shed it, and refine and improve it.
MD: This is a very listenable and melodic jazz album, unlike a lot of modern jazz albums that focus on complexity, tricky arrangements, and chops.
Stanton: That was a major concern, because I didn’t want to just spit out a record of “Look what I can do!” When my wife and I are home, we listen to a lot of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. Sometimes we try to put on other things, like recently when I put on Coltrane as I was making morning coffee. Of course I was diggin’ it, but she came out of the bedroom saying, “This is a bit chaotic for me first thing in the morning.” When we had dinner parties we kept getting back to Louis and Ella, and I wondered why. Because it’s melodic, and it creates a vibe. It’s not too energetic, hectic, or distracting. That’s what I wanted to accomplish with this record. Like you said, there are some great complex albums out there, but the question is: Who is going to listen to it, and when are they going to listen to it? I tried to make this an album you could listen to in life. All the songs were picked appropriately for this album; there were a lot of other great songs, but they just didn’t fit.
MD: Can we expect any tours anytime soon with your jazz trio?
Stanton: Absolutely. My manager and I are exploring which jazz venues would work based around Galactic’s touring schedule. I’d like to do three nights at a venue, and then possibly do a weekend drum camp so I’m in town for five or six days. That’s the model I’m trying to put together, as well as doing some festivals.