Dave Matthews Band: What Would You Play

From the quintessential postbop of Thelonious Monk to the otherworldly explorations of Sun Ra, Dave Matthews has a deep and abiding love for jazz. But his passion was first ignited when he heard such seminal South African artists as pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and trumpeter Hugh Masekela, after the Johannesburg-born singer-songwriter’s parents introduced him to their music. “I grew up listening to them from the time I was a small child: Hugh, Miriam Makeba and Abdullah, when he was still known as Dollar Brand,” said Matthews, whose syncopated guitar style and genre-leaping band attest to his eclectic musical tastes and upbringing.

“The music of South Africa is woven into the fiber and history of that country. It has a connection into South Africa in the way that Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan have a connection into what this country has become. My understanding of what jazz is begins with African jazz.”

For many college-age-and-beyond rock fans, gaining an understanding of the improvisatory spirit of jazz begins in large part with the Dave Matthews Band. The group is one of the most popular live acts of the past decade in any genre, able to sell out sprawling amphitheatres and even stadiums in the blink of an eye. Since its arresting major-label debut in 1994, Under the Table and Dreaming, the band has sold more than 35 million albums and DVDs. Despite a conspicuous absence of hit singles, four of the group’s studio albums debuted at number one on the Billboard pop charts.

Like the Grateful Dead in an earlier era, DMB—as it is commonly referred to by its followers—thrives on creating music in the moment. True, the band’s members don’t re-harmonize jazz standards or throw in cut-time Coltrane quotes during their solos. But they do use their songs as a constant launching pad for spontaneous instrumental explorations, less to showcase the skills of individual players than to ignite as an ensemble and achieve maximum levels of dynamic tension and release.

Unlike the Grateful Dead, however, this 17-year-old Virginia-based group boasts several members who were schooled in jazz and played the music professionally before coming together under the DMB umbrella. Most notable among these is polyrhythmic dynamo Carter Beauford, who from 1991 to 1995 doubled as the house drummer in the Ramsey Lewis-led band on Black Entertainment Television’s BET on Jazz series. “It was an awesome experience,” Beauford, 50, said several years ago. “I got a chance to play with Roy Hargrove, Michel Camilo, Paquito D’Rivera, Abbey Lincoln, and a lot of other great artists on BET. Being able to play with some of my heroes, I was like a kid in a candy store. And it was the same thing with the Matthews Band; I could play anything I wanted.”

That artistic freedom has been a longstanding template of DMB, which also includes sax stalwart LeRoi Moore, a key arranger of many of Matthews’ multifarious songs. The group’s core lineup is completed by California-born bassist Stefan Lessard, a former jazz studies major at Virginia Commonwealth University, and classically trained violinist Boyd Tinsley. On tour, the band is augmented by keyboardist Butch Taylor, Virgin Islands-bred trumpeter Rashawn Ross (a 2000 Graduate of the Berklee College of Music) and guitarist Tim Reynolds, with whom Matthews has also toured and recorded in a duo format.

Matthews, 41, is well aware that his group is viewed by many as the quintessential jam band. It’s not a tag he feels comfortable with, especially since he regards the jam-band designation as nebulous at best and absurd at worst. “I would say that, overall, our connection to jazz is more profound than to the jam-band phenomenon,” he said. “I grew up listening to Abdullah Ibrahim and Johnny Clegg. And Carter, no doubt, grew up listening to Coltrane and Bird. I was fortunate that he and LeRoi turned me on to that, because when I met them they were playing straightahead jazz and then they were in a fusion band. And Stefan was playing upright; he never played electric bass until he joined this band.”

DMB drummer Beauford, who was only 9 when he started playing in his first straightahead jazz group, is even more direct in dismissing the jam-band tag. “I relate to it from a jazz perspective,” he said. “To call what Coltrane did a ‘jam’ would be an insult. What the Grateful Dead did is another thing. They are good friends and I respect them. But I cringe when people compare us. I think, ‘What the hell are they listening to?’

“A guy in Boston told me, ‘For years I heard you were a Dead-like band, a jam band.’ Then he heard us, and he was like, ‘Wait a minute! This is dangerously close to fusion or straightahead jazz.’ So now he looks at the Dave Matthews Band with respect. Jazz and improvisation are two of the key reasons this band has had so much success. When we’re playing onstage the improv keeps everything fresh. We’ll go onstage and do a totally different set each night, rather than the same exact songs, and that’s what our audiences feed off.”

With improvisation almost always at the fore, the DMB’s musical template draws from rock, funk, blues, folk, country, Latin and more. The result is a diverse sonic blend that is rarely jazz, at least in any conventional mainstream sense, but almost always freewheeling and jazz-inspired. That may explain why seven of the band’s 14 albums for RCA have been recorded live in concert. (In mid-September, anyone who purchased a ticket to any date on the band’s 2008 North American summer tour can go to ticketmaster.com for a special iTunes code, to be redeemed for a free live album of tour highlights.)

“Quite early on as a kid, I realized that in some music the song is played the same way each time, the extreme example being classical music,” Matthews noted. “And then in other music, it’s imitated, so that it’s almost as good. That’s more the case with modern music, where you have the recorded example and someone attempts to repeat it, and it’s never quite as good.

“Then there’s music where there’s an understanding about what the core of the music is. And what’s important is how you express yourself within the context of that music. Everyone knows the songs: ‘This is how it goes, but now we play it.’ We want to stay within the context of the music and pay honor to it. It’s a matter of how to make it recognizable and original at the same time; that seems a fairly wonderful thing.”

By striving for, and achieving, a signature sound, DMB has carved out an instantly distinctive niche in an era dominated by vacuous pop-music automatons, formulaic rock acts and shallow, bling-obsessed rappers. With a frontline of saxophone, violin and Matthews on acoustic guitar and vocals, the group’s continuing commercial success is as unlikely as it is remarkable.

Less than a decade after its humble 1991 start as a Virginia bar band, DMB was able to sell out multiple nights at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, Soldier Field in Chicago and Foxboro Stadium near Boston. In 2005 alone, the group grossed $57 million from touring.

Now, as then, fans cheer mightily as DMB’s songs morph into new shapes onstage each night, the better to spontaneously capture the spirit of the moment. “We don’t play anything that we don’t feel is essential and honest,” said Matthews, who also takes great pleasure in using his group’s tours to introduce audiences to the work of some of his favorite artists. Opening acts on past DMB tours have ranged from Herbie Hancock’s briefly reunited Headhunters and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones to Ozomatli and Medeski, Martin & Wood.

“Music is a way for me to escape. If I’m listening, I listen as a way to enjoy the air and being alive—I don’t listen to my own music—and I play music with a similar devotion as I did back when I started out. ‘Music’ is such a blanket term. What is the importance of Beethoven or Coltrane’s music now?

“In playing or writing music, I find a satisfaction in solving a puzzle or learning about myself. I don’t spend any time thinking about my responsibility to anybody else. My music is what it is and I’m constantly trying to make it better. I don’t view my music in the same way I view other people’s music, because my relationship with it is completely different. It’s something I make, not something I take in so much.”

Beauford, the group’s stand-out instrumentalist, plays a key role in bettering DMB’s music, onstage and on record. A former high-school teacher, he relishes the opportunity to expand the stylistic horizons of his group’s fans in a visceral, rather than didactic, way. “One of the reasons for this band’s popularity now is because a lot of these kids in our audience weren’t exposed to any jazz or Latin music,” Beauford said. “It was rock, rock, rock, which was great. But my focus was to expose a lot of people to different styles of drumming and apply that to the Dave Matthews Band.”

What is also notable about DMB is that the group’s integration of musical styles is matched by its lineup. At a time when interracial bands are sadly still an anomaly in most popular music idioms, Matthews heads a group whose members are as diverse as the music they perform.

Of course, he sought out Beauford, Moore, Jones and Lessard for his band because he admired them as musicians and as people. But his youth in Johannesburg—which he left with his family as a boy but returned to during his high school years—exposed Matthews directly to the horrors of apartheid. His devotion to a variety of enlightened social and political causes, from helping combat global warming to drumming up assistance for U.S. military veterans traumatized by the war in Iraq, traces its roots to his youth in the then brutally divided South Africa.

“I’d be a liar if I were to say I don’t acknow-ledge race or history,” Matthews said. “I’m grateful for the aggressive way my mother raised me, by which I mean she was aggressive to impart to me the absurdity, the unforgivable absurdity, of judging people for things they can’t control. And it’s an absolute fabrication, a human fabrication, to suggest there is any actual legitimate reason to judge people for what they were born into and for what they are, when that was out of their control.

“But in South Africa, to be constantly—as you can imagine—exposed to racism, it’s certainly the depth of depravity as I view it. So that sort of always drew me away from the people most like me in my life. It didn’t draw me away from my immediate family. But in a sense, my curiosity was not to find out how to be exactly like my uncles or grandparents, but to be exactly not like them. And I don’t think that was something I planned out, or where I thought: ‘That’s what I don’t want to be.’

“The combination of my mother and environment made me realize it’s not about race so much as it’s about, ‘I like what these musicians are doing. What are they doing?’ So that drew me to the youth of Stefan, who was 15 when I met him, and these [older] profound musicians. And I think also, the fact is I admire people for the beauty, for what I perceive as their beauty. I don’t know what the reason is, but it was after the band had been together for a while that some people would point out the race issue.

“Obviously, I knew LeRoi was African-American, but what does that really mean? It doesn’t mean I knew where all the blood in his veins comes from; it was just one random division. To boil down the makeup of this band to something as simple as race, well, the reason it’s unique is we were fortunate enough, for whatever reasons, to see the beauty in each other, rather than the things that separate us. We were fortunate we had that opportunity before we were stopped by the cultural fears we’ve inherited.”

With the pinpoint timing of the veteran musician that he is, Matthews paused momentarily for emphasis. “I remember the first time I heard Carter play, it changed my whole life,” Matthews, who was then working mostly as a bartender, recalled. “I thought, This is the greatest musician I’ve ever seen. How is it possible he’s playing at a club in Charlottesville, Virginia, when he should be walking on rose petals? And it was the same thing with LeRoi. I became obsessed! So it was just a matter of wanting to be around the music LeRoi and Carter were playing, and to position myself so I would have every opportunity to enjoy the music they made.

“Then, when that window of opportunity was afforded me, I asked, ‘Would you guys be interested in working on some music with me?’ And they said, ‘Yes.’ That afforded the opportunity to go the next window and I could actually stand next to these guys while they were playing. I forget on occasion, but try and remember, that I’m more than fortunate to play with them.

We live in America, after all, so someone will ask, ‘What about the variety of races in the band?’ Thank goodness for the collection of genetics, whether they are European or African, which conspired to make Carter what he is. Thank God or faith, neither of which I’m much of a believer in, that they did. Because it’s made one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. I stood next to Carter and now I stand in front of him [onstage], and there’s no way on Earth the kid who once peeked in a hole in the wall behind Carter’s drum kit could ever have imagined I’d end up playing with him.

“The people I play with in this band shine so brightly that I still can’t quite figure out the details.”

Gearbox

Dave Matthews

Guitars:

Taylor 914C 6-String Acoustic

Taylor W65 12-String Acoustic

Taylor 714 Acoustic

Jerry Jones Baritone

Veillette Gryphon

Veillette Baritone 12-String

Amps/Accessories:

Matchless DC-30 Amplifier

Korg DTR-1 Digital Tuner

D’Addario Strings

Dunlop Picks

Shure UHF Wireless System

Shure UHE Antenna Distro

UltraSound/SoundWeb Custom Switcher

Carter Beauford

Yamaha Recording Custom Drum Kit, stock

Zildjian Cymbals

Originally published in August 2008

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