Bobby Previte: Drums Unlimited

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Bobby Previte
By Jimmy Katz

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“I hit things,” says drummer Bobby Previte, playfully summing up his profession between bites of spicy squid salad and iced coffees at a favorite restaurant near his rehearsal studio on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Right, he hits things and Toscanini waved a stick.

One of the things that Previte has been hitting as of late is a new set of electronic trigger pads that are integrated into his regular acoustic drum kit and have essentially replaced the tom toms and floor tom while adding a brave new world of sound to his percussive arsenal. Although he has dabbled in the past with electronics—playing keyboards with the left hand while simultaneously swinging on the ride cymbal, accenting on the snare and keeping the kick drum and hi-hat going—this new techno-enhanced setup appeals to Previte’s arranger instincts, offering him a huge array of easily summonable sampled sounds, from gamelan, timpani, shekere, talking drum, bongos and kalimba to cathedral bells, Chinese gongs, humungous oil drums, the sound of rushing water, birds, insects and alien spacecrafts.

On recent gigs with his Voodoo Orchestra, and on freewheeling improv settings with 8-string-guitarist Charlie Hunter and saxophonist Greg Osby, Previte put his new hybrid kit to the test, unleashing dense waves of melody and harmony along with his signature polyrhythmic pulse. “Now I can be the whole orchestra,” he jokes. “I don’t need anybody!”

Previte’s experiments have culminated in a solo electronic-drum recording that he hopes will be released by spring 2003. “I wanted to document what the Ddrums could do in a live setting, played by one player with no overdubbing and no looping,” he says. “So even though the sounds are not only drum sounds—there are all kinds of different electronic sounds—it has the feel of a playing drummer. Normally when you hear electronic music you think computer and you think loop. But this has a different sound because it was played, which gives it a different quality. I’m really trying to surprise myself with the electronics and it’s leading me into all these other areas that I’m just loving.”

A prolific composer and ringleader for at least half a dozen working outfits, Previte often seems in a state of rapture when performing—eyes closed, head tossed back, veins bulging on his neck and forearms, mouth agape—while always remaining utterly in control, following the flow of the music and simultaneously directing it from behind the kit. Like an airborne cliff-diver, he brings the perfect marriage of guts and technique to the bandstand. And like Gene Krupa and Tony Williams before him—great drummer-bandleaders and proud ambassadors for the traps—Previte remains steadfast in his allegiance to his chosen instrument and the sonic possibilities they represent. “I love playing the drums. The drums are the most expressive instrument on earth,” he says. “They’re the greatest melody instruments in the world! There’s no instrument that has a greater melodic and expressive range than the drums.”

In a move that is as functional as it is symbolic, Previte always sets up his kit off to one side of the stage on an equal visual plane with the rest of the band to show that percussion is of equal import to making music as the melody and chording instruments. He never sets them in the back of the stage, an old-school jazzbo tradition that he feels instantly relegates the drums to second-class status. “I set up on the side for a couple of different reasons. First, I can hear better that way and, second, I don’t believe in anybody standing in front of anybody else, unless you physically don’t have the room on stage to do it any other way. There is no reason in a trio to have two people standing in front of the third. That’s some kind of weird instrument prejudice. I don’t understand that! What about communication? I don’t like to block the sightlines to any of the musicians on stage. Also, the way you set up on stage is a message to the audience about what kind of music it’s gonna be. You set up in a semicircle facing each other and what does that say? That immediately says, ‘Ensemble.’ That says, ‘Everyone is equal.’ That says, ‘No one instrument plays any particular role all the time.’”

Previte bristles at people’s ingrained bias against drums and remembers this story: “I was doing a session once and there was a tune where the drums were supposed to be the improvising solo instrument and everything else was written—it was a vehicle for the drums to solo on. But no one in the studio could really hear the drums in that context. It was amazing! The drums kept being mixed down, lest they dominate the texture for one second. Now if it was, say, a saxophone that was the featured solo instrument, and at one moment it was on top of the texture, it would have been cool, right? But if the drums, which, you remember, were supposed to be the only solo instrument of the entire tune, were at any one moment on top, that somehow wasn’t cool. Every time that happened, the engineer reached for the fader. And it was amazing how afraid people were of having the drums more present than any every other instrument, even for a second! I was astonished. I mean, it’s a concerto for the drums, OK? So where are the drums? Let’s hear the drums! People simply don’t hear the drums as melodic or as a lead instrument.”

Perhaps in jazz that’s true, but as Previte admits, in popular music rhythm has won. “Rhythm is the root, as far as I’m concerned. Most of the major innovations in music have been rhythm-based. You talk about swing era, bebop, rock, soul, hip-hop, etc., you’re talking mainly about rhythmic innovation. So I’m quite pleased that rhythm, at least in popular music, has finally returned to the front line of importance.”

There is a strong case to be made for Bobby Previte being not only one of the hardest-working drummers in jazz but also one of the most prolific and stylistically wide-ranging composers of the past 20 years.

A native of Niagara Falls, N.Y., Previte has played everything from roadhouse blues bands to burlesque shows. Arriving in New York City in 1979, he immediately fell into the fertile Downtown scene, a loose aggregation of iconoclastic figures that included Elliott Sharp, Fred Frith, John Zorn, Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz and Bill Laswell. Gigging around a network of now-defunct East Village nightclubs, Previte began earning a reputation as a reliable, risk-taking timekeeper while also building up a body of work that incorporated elements of jazz, pop, rock, avant-garde and minimalism. He currently is the leader of a half-dozen bands and continues to gig as a sideman in multitudinous settings.

Previte’s prolific nature was spotlighted in 2000 at the Knitting Factory’s 20-year retrospective of his career. Over the course of three days, in a dizzying array of back-to-back sets, Previte trotted out various outfits from yesteryear, from the early-’80s band Bump the Renaissance (his affecting jazz fugues project with trombonist Ray Anderson, tuba man Bob Stewart and pianist Wayne Horvitz) to the late-’90s group Latin for Travelers (a raucous two-guitar and organ bar band). There were also recreations of Previte’s Empty Suits, Weather Clear, Track Fast and Moscow Circus bands, each as stylistically unique as the next. Perhaps the most ambitious group showcased at the Knit’s Previte-a-thon was Claude’s Late Morning, a large ensemble including the unusual grouping of trombone, tuba, guitar, organ, piano, harp, pedal-steel guitar, accordion and three drummers. Previte fronted that band on a standup kit—two floor toms, placed left and right; a bass drum with pedal; and a rack-mounted small tom twisted perpendicular to the bass drum so that he can play both sides—while simultaneously conducting the multilayered proceedings like a combination marching-band drummer and imposing maestro.

Previte hasn’t slowed down in the two years since the Knit gala, creating new bands and sounds with apparent ease. He continues to tour and record with his Bump band, which earlier this year released Just Add Water on Palmetto. “That record really is a document of a pretty hard working band,” Previte says. “We had done six tours of Europe [with electric bassist Steve Swallow replacing Bob Stewart's tuba in a lineup that also included Horvitz on keyboards, Marty Ehrlich on saxes and Anderson on trombone] before we did the record. So it’s a real playing record. And the band at this point doesn't bear much relation to the Bump the Renaissance of old. Back then [1985] I was into a lot of medieval music and I think you could tell from the nature of the compositions, which involved a lot of counterpoint and orchestration yet also in a strange way were spare and with open harmonies. But this Bump is different."

On the heels of a recent West Coast tour, the new Bump band (with Curtis Fowlkes replacing Ray Anderson on trombone) recorded a second project for Palmetto, scheduled for 2003 and tentatively titled You Sounded Good. "Again, it's very different from the previous Bump record," says Previte. "It's a little bit more conceptual. It's a very rhythmic record, real propulsive. There are no ballads and not one moment of rubato. It's kind of one sort of vibe, which is pretty strong throughout.”

Previte is focusing a lot of drumming energy these days on his volatile Voodoo Orchestra, an electric ensemble dedicated to playing the music of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. Over the course of two years of weekly gigs at the Tap Bar (the Knitting Factory’s free, late-night hang), Voodoo Orchestra, then known as the Horse, developed an incendiary chemistry while turning a 20-something crowd onto sounds. The Horse eventually mutated into the Voodoo Down Orchestra for a highly charged appearance at last year’s Wall-to-Wall Miles celebration at Symphony Space, providing one of the cathartic peaks of that 12-hour marathon. The group continues to perform its brand of inspired sonic maelstrom around New York under the shortened name Voodoo Orchestra and with a rotating cast of characters that on recent gigs has included violinist Mat Maneri, soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, organist Jamie Saft, bassists Jerome Harris and Lindsay Horner and guitarist Pete McCann.

Counterclockwise, with Horvitz, Maneri, acoustic guitarist Brandon Ross and bassist Steve Swallow, is Previte’s newest band, but he’s most excited about his recent hookup with guitarist Charlie Hunter. At a recent Knitting Factory gig, the two showed an uncommon chemistry over a string of nights with such special guests as trombonist Ray Anderson, saxophonists Oliver Lake, Greg Osby and Peter Apfelbaum and turntablist DJ Olive adding to the purely improvised fray. The ubiquitous drummer also continues to collaborate in different recording projects with Saft and Seattle’s adventurous sax/electronics man Skerik, a member of bassist Les Claypool’s current band.

Previte’s most recent CD, The 23 Constellations of Joan Miró (Tzadik), is also his most compelling and profoundly beautiful to date. These 23 musical miniatures scored for a chamber ensemble reflect Previte’s emotional reaction to his first viewing of the whimsical, abstract and symbolic images by the Catalan artist when he attended a Miró retrospective that the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted in 1993. After waiting for consent from the Miró estate to do the project, and permission to reproduce the series of 23 Miró paintings in the CD booklet, Previte took up residence at the MacDowell Colony in January 2000 to begin putting his musical thoughts and feelings to paper. The work, commissioned by Forward Festival in Birmingham, England, received its world premiere on April 7 and 8, 2000, in Manchester and Birmingham, and was subsequently recorded in July 2001 in New York with an ensemble conducted by Kirk Nurock and including trumpeters Lew Soloff and Ralph Alessi, flutist Michel Gentile, harpist Elizabeth Panzer, Saft (on piano and celesta), percussionist John Bacon, bass clarinetist Ned Rothenberg and Horvitz on organ and electronics and Bloom on soprano sax.

Previte recalls the genesis of his latest major undertaking as a part-product of ego. “All artists are egomaniacs, right?” he laughs. “Those paintings are perfect by themselves, but here someone comes along and thinks, ‘Oh, I can do something else with those.’ Artists do that constantly. We are always reinventing the wheel. We’re creating our own worlds, our own order where we can decide exactly what’s what. ‘I’m going to tell you what instrument is going to play at this bar. I’m going to bring you into this or that emotional territory.’ Artists grab you by the collar and pull you into their world. It’s all about their view alone.”

While Previte previously had been exposed to Miró’s paintings (and had a Miró poster on his wall in college) it wasn’t until that MOMA exhibit that the lights turned on for him. “I had seen Miró’s work before and was never floored by it,” he says. “But when you see the whole breadth of somebody’s work you can really understand it in a much deeper way than if you saw just one or two paintings. Similarly in music, the jury’s out when you make only one or two records. You can make a great record, but make 20 great records, make 30 great records! Then you start to see the whole picture of a person. Suddenly, all the pieces start to fit.

“I think [Miró’s paintings] appealed to me because they were all of a piece,” he says. “The order of it appealed to me. They were all the same style, and they were mounted in a circle, so there were common elements that were being tossed around from piece to piece. This fascinated me.”

Likewise, common musical motifs are tossed from piece to piece on Previte’s luminous, dreamlike score for The 23 Constellations of Joan Miró. From “Sunrise” to “The Nightingale’s Song at Midnight and Morning Rain” to “The Beautiful Bird Revealing the Unknown to a Pair of Lovers,” from “Women at the Border of a Lake Irradiated by the Passage of a Swan” to “People at Night, Guided by the Phosphorescent Tracks of Snails,” there is a delicate, ethereal thread running through the commissioned work that speaks eloquently of Previte’s precise and ultrasensitive nature as a composer.

“When I’m composing I’m just trying to get a flow. It helps to be an improviser. Because I’m an improviser I know what it’s like to be on the wave—you know, when you’re on that wave and you feel at the height of your power, that nothing you could do is wrong. You’re really on it. Sometimes you’re on it alone; sometimes you’re on it with other musicians. And of course, the instant you stop to think about it, you’re off the wave. What I am trying to do is stay on the wave during the writing process. And I try to compose so that each section sounds inevitable, not in the sense that it’s expected but in the sense that once it happens, you know intuitively it simply has to be there. It just follows so naturally from the previous place, even if it seems the most unnatural thing to do in the world. It’s much like poetry where the lines track each other. And when the last few lines of a poem change what the first two lines mean—I love that! That’s what I love about composition. As music composers we can present something first to someone and then later on show something that makes that first thing different in their mind’s eye. That is something which makes the hair stand up on my arm, and in this Miró piece I tried to achieve it. When you hear number 23, what does that do to number 11, which you thought you already knew? This is very specific to music, because it’s sequential.”

Lately, Previte finds himself reassessing his own philosophy of playing music. “I’m thinking about restraint a lot lately,” he says. “I notice that in my own playing when I’m more restrained I really get to the heart of the matter. I’d rather play too little than too much. It’s really easy to play too much. It’s very easy to eat too much, do everything too much. And I hear that in music constantly, just a kind of gluttony of sound. I was never into that and am even less into it now.”

His goal these days is to shed his personal signatures, avoid clichés and meld more honestly and directly with the music. “I’m not interested in Bobby Previte,” he says. “I don’t want to be Bobby Previte. I’m tired of Bobby Previte. I just want to play music. Fuck Bobby Previte. I’m trying to hear the music in an impersonal way. I’m trying to hear it as sound, not Bobby Previte’s sound, not Charlie Hunter’s sound or Wayne Horvitz’s sound or Steve Swallow’s sound, but just the sound. I wish I could erase Bobby Previte so I can hear the music in a different way, not as Bobby Previte hears it but as somebody, anybody else on the planet would hear it.”

Listening Pleasures:

John Cage Works for Percussion (Wergo)

U2 All That You Can’t Leave Behind (Interscope)

Tito Puente The Complete RCA Recordings (RCA)

Lou Harrison Music of Lou Harrison (Crystal)

Various reggae dub recordings. “No one particular album, just a lot of King Tubby and stuff that Jamie Saft gave me. Boy, that music is deep, and really wild! Talk about using the studio well. They’re not afraid to overdrive and distort the drums like all get-out. I love that.”

Gearbox:

Previte plays DW drums, with either an 18- or 20-inch bass drum, depending on the gig, a 12 by 8 tom tom and 14-inch floor tom. His snare is a 14-inch DW Craviatto wood snare, and he also uses a DW Edge snare. He uses Paiste’s Fusion line of cymbals (14-inch hi-hats, 20-inch ride, 16-inch crash/ride). His electronic rig is a Clavia Ddrum 3. He uses Vic Firth sticks.

Originally published in November 2002

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