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Alphonse Mouzon: Conversing Through the Music

Gigi Brooks interviews drummer and composer about his life in music and about his latest album

Alphonse Mouzon
Cover of Alphonse Mouzon's Angel Face album

The soul and life of music is fueled by the presence of the drums. In this in-depth interview I sat with my dear friend, legendary jazz, R&B, funk drummer, Alphonse Mouzon, whose influence has reached a scope of genres, including rock. In 1995 the legendary rock band Led Zeppelin’s lead singer, Robert Plant, publicly thanked Alphonse Mouzon during their induction speech into the Rock Hall of Fame, for his great influence and inspiration in their music.

His new release Angel Face, has won critical acclaim and includes a list of jazz greats such as Arturo Sandoval, Christian McBride, Bob Mintzer, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, Wallace Roney, Antoine Roney, Don Menza, Emma Alexandra Mouzon and many others.

We also talked about his life’s work of over 40 years as one of jazz’s leading drummers from his early years as drummer for piano legends Billy Taylor and McCoy Tyner to his stint with Weather Report and his tenure with Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House fusion band and more.

I found his work fascinating and enjoyed it thoroughly. I hope you will feel the same.

Gigi Brooks: The drums have been your first choice from the very beginning. Please take us back to where it all started for you, especially jazz.

Alphonse Mouzon: Let’s go all the way back to Charleston, South Carolina, where I was born. When I twelve years old when I started playing professionally and five when I started playing drums. I was just beating around and playing on a toy drum, beating on boxes and cans and making my own drums the primitive way.

Even at an early age we tinker with things. What was it about the drums that made you stick with it?

Emotion. When I was stressed out I was able to play the drums and relieve all of the tension. I just liked the feeling. It was a God-given gift. I gravitated on playing the drums and beating on things.

When I was twelve I got a drum, not a drum set, but I did get a drum. I knew how to play and my dad got a call from a club and a group from Georgia…an organ trio. The drummer of this group was drunk and I was the closest drummer around…local drummer and I went to the club and I played. I wish there was a recording or a video tape back then of me twelve years old playing. Oh my goodness! That would have been nice to have that documented.

That would have been wonderful to have the opportunity to see you at that early stage in your life. Now moving into your teenage years, you are of course taking your drums seriously, what happened next?

I did have drum lessons from Charles Carter, he lived in Charleston and he went into the army. When he went into the army I took his spot playing with my band director, Lonnie Hamilton III and his band. It was all older guys, I was the youngest one, but I got the same pay. We would play R&B, jazz, everything. We would play restaurants, clubs and we had a guitar player with us too. It was the first time that we integrated a guitar player, a white guy, Joe Wilson and he played with us; we played a lot of places that we couldn’t have played if we were an all black band.

I was making more money than my parents were back then…you know? Twenty-five dollars a night, if I played five nights that was $100; versus $40 a week my mother was making as a cook, you know?

Your style is quite different than most drummers. You’ve learned how to take a jazz drumming pattern and blend it into R&B and rock.

Well I came from R&B and coming from that I was listening to Motown and all of that stuff on the radio… actually in Charleston we used to call it the “record-hop”, where you spin the song and have a drummer play along with it and that’s what I would do.

When I listen to your recordings, the way you play and your style it is active. You use your hi-hat sharply and I believe that wakes people up when they are listening.

Yes. The timing is very important. I’m not a regular drummer just keeping time, what I do, because I am a musician who plays other instruments I try to propel the soloist and keep my patterns and I keep them constant and then I shift them around and shift tempos around within the tempo. It’s like having a conversation and that’s what music should be. I don’t want to keep and steady pattern…it’s too boring. I like adding solos and colors and ride it instead of just hitting and banging.

Larry Coryell is a good friend of yours and you have a great history in music with him. What was it about him that you both were able to work so well together?

After I left Weather Report and McCoy Tyner, I was at a health food store and ran into this guy I knew and he said he had this band and would you be interested in playing with Larry Coryell, he’s a guitar player and I said o.k. I’ll check it out.

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