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Chris Massey: Creating Forward Momentum

Gigi Brooks interviews drummer and composer about his musical approach and his latest release

Chris Massey

I was clicking through some emails, when I came across a jazz promotion of drummer and composer Chris Massey. His new digital only release, Whosoever; on Power Cosmic Records with his band The New Jazz Project, featuring Adam Larson on tenor/soprano sax, Benny Benack III, trumpet, Willerm Delisfort, piano and Chris Talio on bass, took me for a ride of musical changes, exquisite compositions and thorough arrangements. I contacted him immediately for an interview.

Chris Massey’s music has taken me through these moments of excitement in the past on his Jazz Times and DownBeat reviewed 2010 release, Vibrainium, which I wore a hole through the CD on my radio show. It is no wonder he has this affect since he was mentored by jazz legend, Shedrick Hobbs, who played with legends such as Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Massey’s other drummer inspirations derive from the technique and approach of notable drummers and composers, Jeff “Tain” Watts and Brian Blade; which can be heard in his performances.

In this interview we discussed his life with the drums, new release and his giving back through drum lessons to students of all ages. Whosoever is a must hear!

Gigi Brooks: I always think it is important to go back into an artist’s life. Lets go back to the beginning and your fascination with the drums.

Chris Massey: I am originally from Ohio and it started sort of like many kids in the Mid-West, kids going to band. Ironically, when we were picking instruments when I was in the fifth grade, I remember picking up a saxophone and liking it, the person who was talking about instruments mentioned something about saxophones needing a lot of extra work, because of the reeds. So the next thing sitting right next to it was the drums, so at random I said let me try the drums and when I picked up the drum sticks for the first time, I realized that was exactly what I wanted to play.

I took drum lessons, but what really sparked the interest of jazz for me was playing with my mentor when I was in college, Shedrick Hobbs; he played with a lot of famous musicians like Charlie “Byrd” Parker and Dizzy Gillespie who were coming through town, because it was a steel belt town. Shedrick was the drummer on-call and was the house drummer for a lot of the venues. As time went on and he got older, I really shadowed him and he taught me the organic nature of music and that for me was probably my biggest influence in not only my perception of the music, but my talent as well.

How were you fortunate to meet him?

Well he was one of the local legends. He never really left the hometown where he was from, so I went to see him and I sat in with him. I would go two or three times a week even, just hanging out with him, learning everything I could from him. Sometimes he would do things like…when I played along with his band he would take cups from the bar and click them in my ear as loudly and as off-beat as possible, just to keep my concentration and focus going…lessons you don’t necessarily learn in the classroom; he taught those life lessons about playing the drums.

I have never heard of that before. When there is noise you do have to stay in the pocket and on beat…like you said that is a street lesson.

Yes. Absolutely! He was hugely influential on my style in that aspect, sort of playing organically and internalizing all the music that is around you at the time.

He was a great teacher. I read where you stated that “jazz is a state of consciousness”. What do you mean by that?

What I mean by that is that jazz is something that translates throughout and outside of the music itself. It translates to everything you do in life. Having the mindset, I think jazz is one of the most organic forms of music…one of the purest forms of sound productions that can be done, because the musicians are creating art instantly at a flash in the pan moment and once that moment is over it never happens again. It’s just like conversation, this conversation while others will hear it and it can be recorded, it happens organically. To be able to do that throughout all aspects of life, that’s really the state of consciousness I mean about that and I think a true person who is dedicated to the art in that way-to jazz, understands and appreciates the fact that jazz sort of translates to everything you do in life as well.

That’s very true. It is not just a genre. I want to talk about your light style of brushing and lightly tapping on the cymbals, which is very effective and I hear you using them to create your music. What are sound and effect are you bringing to the music?

I really try to treat the cymbals as a separate drum kit, so a huge part of the cymbal has different timbres and different sounds and it’s like an artist with a color palette on using an easel while painting different colors on the music; hitting the cymbal in different areas constantly making different timbre effects creates an almost constant color blend that I hear in my head. So I do focus primarily on my cymbals, because to me that’s the most prominent sound and the most defining of a drummer. When you hear Elvin Jones hit on that Ride cymbal, you know exactly who that is playing on the Rides…Art Blakey…it doesn’t matter who it is… the cymbals are always the most defining part of a drummer’s style. I really take in a lot of thought as to not only why that is, but how that is. I really think it has to do with the color palette that the cymbals can offer to the music.

What does that do to help the other musicians in the band?

My job as a bandleader and drummer is to create forward momentum; even if the tempo is on the slower side or whatever it is to create that forward momentum and create the kindling for the fire as it were. That way the horn player has a foundation to play off of, play on top of or play around. That way I am giving them constant colors to work with as they also take those colors and paint the music as well.

You last album Vibrainium was so strong and aggressive and was a thrill for me, because I enjoy that kind of aggressiveness in music; especially in jazz and drumming. What do you think you did differently this time with Whosoever?

I had more of a concept with Whosoever than I did with Vibrainium. Vibrainium was a debut album to say here I am, this is what I am about, this is what my concept is about and Whosoever had more of a game plan I would say in terms of how I set it up. Without going into too much detail about each particular title, I will say right now that I planned it around an overarching theme and I turned each tune to that theme and even with the originals and the actual arrangements and compositions of the standards. I went into the album with that mindset before I even began writing the music and I think that’s what separates this album from the first.

Your band, The Nu Jazz Project is brilliant. Tell me about those guys.

Well..actually this a two-part overage of my group, they are my working band. I always feel really strongly about having people on my recordings who I play with extensively, because I think that gets the most organic sound. A lot of the guys are up and coming themselves…my saxophone player, Adam Larson, recently graduated from the Manhattan School of Music, Benny Benack, my trumpet player also graduated from there as well as my bass player, Chris Talio. Willerm Delisfort has been a very staunch player in the New York area and we played together a lot, so a lot of my band has a combination of unique personalities that compliment eachother. I’ll probably explain this in a little bit, but I am very big into comic books, Sci-Fi and things like that and one of my overarching themes is that I often times view jazz ensembles like super hero groups, like the X-Men and The Avengers. I feel that the best groups just like the X-Men and The Avengers, have unique individuals to make up that part of a whole. We all have different personalities and we all have different ways of doing things, but we work really well together and that’s what I look for in a band.

You know what to expect from each other when you’re playing together.

Absolutely. In fact it is to the point where the studio we were recording in had us isolated and looking away from each other, we didn’t have any eye contact while we were playing, but we’re so used to each other’s style that we didn’t need to see each other.

Where did the title of the album Whosoever come from?

It comes from a metaphysical reference. The whole album and all of the original titles of the album are from the comics, I am really big into comics. My first album Vibrainium is from the Marvel Universe. My dad got me into comics when I was really young and I’ve always had a passion for them; it is my guilty pleasure. My favorite super hero growing up that my dad introduced me to was Thor. It got a lot of popularity over the years with its own movie and The Avengers movie and it’s become a little more mainstream, so I can let it out of the closet a little bit more. The word “Whosoever” is actually the first words on Thor’s Hammer. It is Viking Mythology and on the cover of my album you might notice I am holding something and it’s actually Norse version of Thor’s Hammer.

Tell me about the track “Onyx Guardian.”

I actually wrote that tune after the actor who plays the “Guardian of the Rainbow Bridge” in the movie; I wrote that as sort of a theme song for him.

There is a mixture of classic standards and original compositions such as “Old Devil Moon” and John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and then “Warriors Three,” which is very elegant and beautiful. Also “Return of the Jitney” a Jeff “Tain” Watts composition. You have worked with him before and he is one of your mentors.

Yes, he has been a very big influence on me and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him and seeing him play a number of times. I’ve was happy to get a copy of the score from him and it really has been great to do that tune. When I first heard it, it was something that changed my perception of how drummers can actually compose and it really influenced me- it was kind of was almost my motivational point into doing this album. Hearing that kind of compositional style and a tune that intricate and that well done which still really had that drive of power that I look for in my ensemble was a really big push for me to get writing again.

It is beautifully done. And then you have Pedal Up by Rashaan Roland Kirk…I love it!

Yeah! That’s a song you don’t hear people do very often. It’s one of my favorite tunes. I really like how it came out so I just said lets do this tune.

I want to mention the fact that you are teaching and sharing your knowledge and talent with young people. I am so pleased to know it.

Absolutely! I think that music is taught through that mentorship aspect of it, many crafts and many arts were taught that way. The teacher would teach the students and then you go on from that mentorship relationship to really learn the craft. I think this music is something that can be passed down generationally and transverse all of the other music we think about in the current generation, whatever music they listen to for pleasure, its interesting to see how they can connect with artists who have been dead for forty or fifty years. It’s like my parents used to listen to old Motown records when I was a kid and I would dance around the house to it, because good music is good music. Keeping the music alive for future generations to appreciate through music and education is really important to me.

Originally Published