Saturday, April 30, 2011

Airto: 1983 Modern Drummer interview

Here's part of another great Modern Drummer interview, from 1983, with Airto, the famous Brazilian drummer and percussionist. As always, I've excerpted the parts that are most important to me, and the headings are mine. Dig out your old issue, or get the MD Digital Archive to read the entire thing.

Here is a teaser anecdote about Miles Davis- all the best stuff is after the break:

Q: What was wrong on that session where Miles walked out and said, "This is shit"?
AIRTO: The music just didn’t come out. Today I can analyze it a little better. I think there were too many musicians there playing where there wasn’t that much music to be played. The parts weren’t really fitting together and it was a very experimental kind of thing. Everybody was going, "Yeah, yeah, yeah," and then Teo Macero asked, "Hey Miles, how is it?" And Miles said, "It sounds like shit. I’m going home," and he left.
I got very hurt because I thought I didn’t make it. I put everything on me, of course, but about three days later, they called me again. On that first session, there had been another percussionist playing tablas, sitar and some other things, but when they called me again, I was the only one. There was just one bass and less people, and then it was nice. I didn’t even know how to think about those sessions because I didn’t understand the music at all.
Q: How do you play on something where you don’t understand the music?
AIRTO: You listen and you play. You just have to be careful that you don’t play too much. If you don’t feel, you don’t play. It is better not to play than play too much.
Q: When you were young, did you find that you were anxious and overplayed?
AIRTO: Many times bandleaders told me, "Hey, shut up," or something like that. So I had learned that, but not to the extent that I learned that with Miles Davis. Miles is the best for learning to play the right time, the right note, the right space and everything.

Definitely keep reading:..

You do not have to go somewhere to get creativity and inspiration. That’s yours; you’ve got it. If you are a musician, you can be creative anywhere in the world. People don’t have to run to Brazil in order to hear the birds because there are birds everywhere. It’s just a matter of getting inspired and getting your creativity working; drawing the energy that is in the universe that we don’t see but is always here. To draw that energy, you don’t have to go to Brazil or China. You can do that anywhere because you do that on your own.

I always thought I would never come to the United States. I was happy in Brazil. I was not after any big thing. I just wanted to play, buy food, have a place to sleep, and that was it.

But Flora came to the States and she was writing me letters, telling me how nice it was and about the respect the musicians have here for one another- which is true- and how people help each other here. Brazil is a very hard place because there are so many musicians and not too many places to play. Nobody invites you to sit in because you might play better than they do. So she told me it was a whole different ballgame here. The musicians treat other musicians with much more respect. A singer would even tell another singer that she is singing good! That would never happen in Brazil.

Q: Flora’s book (Freedom Song) indicated that you were very unambitious when you came [to the US].

AIRTO: That is true, and I am still the same way. I have a lot of drive when I’m playing and when I’m creating, but I don’t have drive for putting things together and making plans for the future, getting musicians to rehearse and dealing with the whole bullshit. I don’t have drive for that at all, even though now, I do have some kind of drive, otherwise I wouldn’t be around. I was not ambitious. I never thought I was going to be playing with Miles Davis or Cannonball Adderley or anybody. This was not even a dream to me. I just knew that I loved to play the music and everytime I played, people said, "Wow, that’s good."

Q: Most of the articles on you make it sound like when you first came to the United States, the first person you played with was Miles Davis.

AIRTO: I spent two and a half years eating shit before I played with Miles. I used to sit in when they let me, but many times they didn’t know I wanted to because I couldn’t speak English. It was, "Me- play." And to them it was, "What is this?" It took me about a year and a half to start speaking English. I used to sit in at a place called Lost & Found, which was in New York. Benny Aronov was playing there, with Reggie Workman on bass. I didn’t have any reality as to who they were, but then I started bringing a snare drum and a cymbal, and they wanted to play some sambas and bossa novas with me. Flora was singing there sometimes and then we started working there for food. We didn’t have money to buy food, so we would play the whole night and eat. Then I met Walter Booker, a bass player who was with Cannonball Adderley at the time, and he helped me a lot. I was living at his house for part of the year and eating his food and playing his drums. He had a studio there where I would play drums. Cannonball and other musicians used to rehearse there and I had the opportunity to play with them, so they could see that I was a good musician, even though I was from Brazil and couldn’t speak any English.

[H]e was the most beautiful human being I ever met that was famous, respected and a great player. I consider him my musical father because to learn to be a person with a great musician is very rare. A lot of the great musicians are assholes as people. You cannot even talk to them, but Cannonball was very, very human; a beautiful man. Anytime we needed something, we could go to Cannonball and he would do it for us, just out of love.

I had met Joe Zawinul, who was also playing with Cannonball Adderley, and Joe was friends with Miles Davis. One day, Miles said, "Hey Joe, I’m looking for somebody that plays percussion, but I don’t want a conga or bongo player. I want something different." And Joe said, "Well, there’s this guy from Brazil and he’s got all kinds of weird things. He plays good drums too, but he’s a percussionist with some good sounds I think you’re going to like. Give him a call." So Thanksgiving day, I was by myself at Walter Booker’s pad because Walter and his family went to Washington to be with their relatives. Lee Morgan called and said he was coming over to pick me up and bring me to his house because his wife was cooking some great food. He came, and while he was there, Miles Davis’ manager called and said, "I am Miles Davis’ manager and he wants you to record with him." And I said, "Hey, what kind of joke is this? Bullshit," and the guy said, "No, I am Jack Whitmore and I am Miles’ manager," and I said, "Hey man, don’t play this joke on me," and I hung up. Lee Morgan asked me what happened and I told him some guy was playing a joke about my playing with Miles Davis. So Jack called back right away and Lee picked up the phone and said, "Oh, hey Jack, how’re you doing?" And I thought, "Wow!" And he said, "Okay, he’ll be there." He got off the phone and said, "Miles wants you to rehearse at his house and go to record with him at CBS on Monday." I went to rehearsal and rehearsed a little bit and then recorded with Miles.

The music he was playing was so alien to me because it was jazz, but it wasn’t jazz; it was much more advanced than jazz. He was beginning to use the wa-wa with the trumpet and everything. It was some kind of
crazy thing, it was two basses- an acoustic bass and an electric bass- with two keyboards, and people like Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Davey Holland, Wayne Shorter and Jack Dejohnette. I was thinking, "Whoa, what is this?"

Listening is the one most important thing in music besides playing your instrument. Nobody can teach you how to listen because all musicians think they’re listening. There is a way, though, when you are home in your livingroom and you put a record on, you’re relaxed, and you lay back and listen. Then you can focus your attention on the bass player or the drummer or the piano player, individually, but at the same time, you’re listening to the whole thing because you have the relaxation to listen like that. Then you know everything that is happening all the time. That’s the same way you have to be listening when you’re playing. The only difference is that you are one of the musicians.

[Y]ou are a complement of the music. You are not a soloist unless you are taking a solo. But you’re not supposed to develop the solo for the saxophone player because he has got to develop his solo and you have to back him up. It’s got to do with respect for other musicians and people generally. You have to respect what they play and you have to enjoy it. Another thing is sometimes the music drags a little bit and we want to make the music happen right away, so we push and push. That’s not the right attitude because sometimes, if the music is dragging a little bit, let it drag a little bit. It’s okay. It doesn’t have to be you that is going to lift everything. Don’t put it on yourself. Just keep playing because that’s the music right there that is happening.

Q: You don’t see that as the drummer’s responsibility then?

AIRTO: No. Even though you kick ass a little bit sometimes because you have to make your presence known and give it a little push, you have to come back to your place again. It’s to inspire the other musicians and give them a little lift, but then you have to go back to your place, the way you were playing.

Q: If you go sit in with somebody or do a session, you don’t have that time to sit back and listen to what everybody is doing, like you do at home. You have to be able to pick it up instantly and not play too much.

AIRTO: But that’s automatic. It’s just not getting in anybody’s way. The biggest problem is playing too much. Sometimes it is much more important what you don’t play than what you play. I don’t want to mention names, but I know some musicians who play so busy all the time, that to play with them, you have to be like exercising all the time- playing like crazy- and that’s not music.

You have to look at the other musicians, you have to look at the audience, and you have to communicate. You have to look at the musicians who are playing with you, otherwise it’s like you’re playing by yourself, just for the music. Playing just for the music is beautiful, but then where can you go? Then you’ve got to live on top of a mountain and play in a cave everyday.

Let’s say we’re going to play a free-form music- no song, just sounds and whatever comes out. That doesn’t mean that everybody is going to go there and just start playing, although a lot of bands do. I don’t like it. Everybody is screaming at each other and nobody is playing, actually. Somebody has got to start free music. Let’s say the bass player plays one beautiful, fat, nice note and the piano player plays a chord that comes from that note. Then the drummer makes a sound and the percussionist makes another sound. Then the bass player makes another one and it goes like a conversation, which has got a lot to do with the listening and the respect you have got to have for people. Then everybody likes it because something is happening there. It isn’t just a bunch of guys banging around or screaming at each other. Somebody takes off in some kind of pattern, and everybody jumps on that pattern. They play that pattern for a while until it breaks up or dissolves, naturally. Somebody has got to start all the moves, but it doesn’t have to be you, even though sometimes it is you. Just when you feel very strong about it, you suggest something. You don’t break the music up like that; you keep on that track and then you suggest a break, and then by the second time, if nobody goes, you come back. Sometimes the first time you suggest, everybody goes with you and that’s a new thing that you are playing right there.

That’s the way I explain free music. You don’t have to draw a line. The line is that everybody has got to be listening and everybody has got to respect each other, that’s all.

Right now, the authentic Brazilian music is actually very rare, even in Brazil, because everything that happens in the States happens all over the world. In Brazil, there is lot of disco music, and great musicians and composers in Brazil were very influenced by the Beatles. Even though they have their own personality, the real authentic Brazilian music is very rigid and it is rare to hear even in Brazil. You have to go to special places to hear it.

We used to call [Bossa Nova] "apartment music" a long time ago in Brazil when [it] first started. The bossa nova was created because in Brazil, everybody loves to play, especially percussion. A bar in Brazil is great because everybody is singing and banging the glasses and it’s a very happy scene, instead of the U.S. where a bar is very sad because people are all watching TV or feeling bad. So in apartments in Rio, they wanted to play, but they would make a lot of noise, and the neighbors would complain and call the police. So they started turning the volume down and the piano and drums weren’t played anymore. It was just a matchbox and acoustic guitar and then everyone would enjoy themselves and it was called "apartment music." The bossa nova was big in the U.S. in the ’60s, but in Brazil it was called "apartment music" because they had to restrain themselves.

RF: Do you not like the bossa nova?

A: It isn’t that I don’t like it. If I have to play it, I’ll play good, but it is the same way with casuals. If the only thing I have to do is play a casual, then I will go and play casuals really well, because when I play, I can make everybody dance. But I choose other kinds of music instead of bossa nova.

Ideally, I always look for a drummer who plays drums and percussion. He doesn’t really have to be a percussionist, but he’s got to be a good drummer, sensitive, and has to know how to cook on a low fire and also to explode at the right time and then go back to his place again. He’s got to be listening to the music all the time, he’s got to be a good person to deal with, he’s got to have some kind of musical conception about percussion and of course, he must have good time. If the guy rushes or slows down, that’s no good for me. I also look for a player who is solid, day by day; consistent. I think if you play good today, you have to play good, or better, tomorrow. I don’t accept that somebody plays good today and bad tomorrow. That is bad news to me. If someone just plays good every night, that’s enough. They don’t have to be great or take great solos or play swing or samba really good, just consistent.

Jack Dejohnette is my favorite drummer because I know exactly how he plays. I liked playing with him very much with Miles Davis. I learned a lot, just sitting close to Jack Dejohnette and playing percussion with him. Everything he played made a lot of sense to me, after I started understanding everything. He blew my mind right away- the whole group actually, the way they were playing. Jack respects a soloist and if you are taking a solo, he will back you up, and he kicks your ass sometimes and then goes back to his thing again. I think he’s one of the most musical drummers ever. I admire, very, very much, Art Blakey for his consistency over the years and he’s still a giant. He’s incredible. And I love the way Billy Higgins plays. I played with him at the Keystone Corner a few times. I look at his hand and it is so beautiful, so light, and he’s playing very fast. He’s so sensitive to the music. He can play a trio situation and he’s burning, playing fast, playing everything you can ever think that a jazz drummer would play and the drum stick looks like he’s not even gripping it. He’s burning and there’s no effort. He’s smiling, he looks at everybody in the band and he has a very good communication on stage with the other musicians and he’s very musical. Of the other kind of drummers, the heavy-weight drummers who play the Weather Report and Mahavishnu kind of music, Billy Cobham is my favorite and nobody can play like him.

For about two years in New York, I think 1971 to ’73, because of my unique sounds and that I had played with Miles Davis, people started looking at me like the new thing- new "thing." So they started calling me for all kinds of recording. First it was musical- albums and whatever- and then producers of TV and radio commercials started calling me a lot. I thought it was great because I was making a lot of money. I enjoyed it in the beginning because it was very, very different and creative.

[...] I stopped, because I realized I was becoming a real "thing," instead of being a musician and playing for the people, which is what I do. [...] One day I went to the studio and there were many people there, big producers, and it was a big thing. They were all just there for me because the thing was all done. It was a sausage commercial. The scene was morning and the mother says, ’Hey kids, time for breakfast,’ and the kids run into the house and say, "What’s for breakfast?" She says, "Oh, we have sausage," and there’s a close-up on the sizzling sausages. They stopped everything and said, "Stop. Roll back a little bit. Here. Right there! You are going to do the sausage sound." And I said, "Okay, great," and we experimented with that a little bit. [...] I picked up a piece of paper that was in the studio, a clear cellophane, and I played with it and they said, "Great, that’s it!" So I made the sausage sound with that on the commercial.

I admire very much those people who can do that. There are great percussionists who record with everybody today. They are very well requested and very busy all the time, jumping from one studio to another, but they grew up with that. That’s what they do. They are not players. They are recording musicians and that’s fine with me, but I’m a player and I like to play.

At the beginning of the year, I spent three weeks recording with Paul Simon, which is another kind of situation which is very experimental. The way he records is that first, everybody plays and then we decide jointly how to do it: "You play this; you play that; you lay out. Let’s change this verse here, because it doesn’t sound the way I thought." Even though it is not just going into the studio and burning and playing like I would like to do, I understand very, very much that his music is very well elaborated and when it comes out, it’s great. Sometimes you don’t believe that that song became so good. All of a sudden, that song that was not sounding that great, sounds beautiful. And then he’s not happy yet, so he’ll say, "Okay, tomorrow we’ll continue with this song." But he knows what he’s talking about; that’s the way he is and he knows exactly what he wants. Instead of telling you exactly what he wants right away, though, stopping you from the beginning, he doesn’t like to do that. So little by little we musicians understand what he wants. Instead of playing this beat which is a great beat, but it’s all over the place, we play a much more simple one which is exactly what is needed. It is almost like getting the gold from the mine. It looks like dirt, but then little by little it becomes gold, and that’s the way I see recording with Paul Simon.

I have a lot of respect for some of my instruments. I have two instruments I have never played, except in private. The owner of the Keystone Corner went to Africa and asked me what I wanted him to bring me back. I told him not to buy anything new, but if he found something old to bring it to me. So he brought two trunks of instruments and told me to pick out two of them. He said, "Wow, those are exactly the instruments that I thought you were going to pick out." I smelled them and I just touched them, they were so beautiful. There’s an old black kalimba that was hanging in somebody’s house. He went to this little hut to visit some people and there was this whole family living in there and they cook there, they sleep there, they have their incense burning there, they pray there, they cry there and this instrument was hanging on the wall. It smelled like people living together. They told him it belonged to their great, great, great, great whatever, so he brought the instrument and I picked it up.

The first day I got it, I didn’t even touch it that much. He tried to play it but he pressed a little too hard and it made a little hole in it, maybe because he was not meant to play that instrument- I was meant to play it. I believe in that. So then I looked into the hole and I could see two or three cocoons inside. Something had been born inside that instrument. What a beautiful thing! The first time I tuned the instrument, I spent five or six hours and it poked my fingers- there was blood all over the place- but it has beautiful vibes and I respect that instrument so much. I’m not going to take that on the road. Some very special situation is going to come where I’m going to say, "I have just the instrument for that."

Every time you play, it is new, even if you play the same song ten times in a row. It’s got to be a new unit of time, otherwise you are not playing, you are just reproducing whatever you think is good, cool or hip. That’s why I like to change my set-up. Tomorrow when I play the same song, I will play it slightly different and it’s a big difference to you and the people too, even though, if you go back and analyze what you played the night before, it’s not that much of a difference. In reality, it is, because every time you play, you play for real and you play for that unit of time.

1 comment:

Blake Thomas said...

Thanks for posting that Todd. He is very inspiring to me.