Denny Seiwell: Unbroken Wing

The former drummer for Paul McCartney reconnects with his love of the organ trio

The Denny Seiwell Trio

Above: The Denny Seiwell Trio (left to right: Joe Bagg, Seiwell, and Joe Chiodini). Photograph by Alex Solca.

“When you play with Paul McCartney, it can really fuck up your jazz career.” As Denny Seiwell says these words over the phone from his southern California home in a gruff but friendly voice, it’s easy to believe that he’s had cause to say them many times over the past 45 years, with a similar mix of bitterness and pride.

Back in the ’60s, a long career as a jazz drummer seemed assured for the Pennsylvania-raised Seiwell. A 1963 stint in Brazil with the U.S. Navy Band had opened his ears to samba and bossa nova, and his sensitivity to those styles took him far once he went professional. “When jazz cats and session guys played Brazilian music, they swung it too much, gave it too much of a lilt,” he notes. “Because I had that background in the music, I played it straighter, and I think that’s what made me catch on in New York.”

Seiwell’s first major pro gig was with the Zoot Sims/Al Cohn Quintet. Soon after that, he became the house drummer at the Half Note for a couple of years—“playing with everybody, six nights a week, six sets a night,” he remembers. He also joined Astrud Gilberto’s band for a month’s engagement at the Rainbow Room and a few tours. His recorded debut was on the 1969 J.J. Johnson/Kai Winding album Betwixt and Between, cut at the Van Gelder studio for CTI; numerous sessions with other artists followed. Then, in 1971, he went on a fateful audition for a certain ex-Beatle.

“Paul had invited all the cats that were doing the records in New York at the time,” Seiwell says, “but didn’t tell them it was an audition. His initial plan was to use three drummers, one each for two weeks of recording, but that soon changed. I had the right attitude.” Seiwell stayed in the studio for the full six weeks of sessions, and ended up being the sole drummer on McCartney’s Ram album. When the future Sir Paul decided to form a new band called Wings, he asked Seiwell to join. Seiwell duly relocated to England and would record and tour with Wings for the next two years. You can hear his playing on such notable tracks as “My Love” and “Live and Let Die,” but his finest Wings moment is arguably the cover of Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange” on Wild Life (1971), which succeeds in large part because of his deep-in-the-pocket, reggae-inflected groove.

In 1973, when McCartney decided that Wings would record their next album in Nigeria, Seiwell abandoned ship. That was a good move in the short term; the trip was a disaster, as McCartney was nearly killed by a gang of thieves in Lagos who made off with everything the group had recorded so far. In the long term, though, Seiwell’s departure may not have been the brightest idea, for the material McCartney had started working on in Nigeria eventually became his commercial and artistic high point of the ’70s, Band on the Run. Instead of playing on a multiplatinum smash, Seiwell returned to New York, where he found that the jazz world no longer took him seriously. And so he moved to Hollywood, where he forged a more lucrative career as a studio player on a bunch of pop albums and too many films and TV shows to mention here. (Okay, we’ll mention two: Happy Days and Waterworld.)

Even so, Seiwell never lost his taste for jazz. He kept his hand in when he could, playing occasionally with other musicians who’d braved the jazz/rock divide, such as pianist Mike Garson (a veteran of several stints with David Bowie). Seven years ago, a friend of Seiwell’s opened a restaurant in L.A. and mentioned that he’d like to have live jazz there. That was all the incentive Seiwell needed to call up two fellow sessioneers, guitarist Joe Chiodini (Natalie Cole, Tony Bennett) and organist Joe Bagg (Larry Coryell, Madeleine Peyroux). “I’d always wanted to have an organ trio one day,” Seiwell says. “I love that sound, so when the opportunity came along, I leapt at it. We’d do it occasionally for kicks, and it was so easy for the three of us to communicate; we didn’t have to talk a lot, we could just play. Then Bruce Quarto [president of Quarto Valley Records] heard about us, and he came along and signed us to his label.”

Nodding conspicuously to its leader’s past, the Denny Seiwell Trio’s first album, 2011’s Reckless Abandon, featured clever rearrangements of several McCartney songs. Its follow-up, the newly released Boomerang, is mainly made up of solid originals by Chiodini and Bagg (with saxophonist Edgar Winter, another longtime genre-crosser, making a guest appearance on the latter’s “Baby Mama”). But there is one doozy of a Macca remake: “Live and Let Die,” converted into a bluesy shuffle, which works almost inconceivably well. “Why not do the track that I’m best known for?” Seiwell reasons. “As soon as we recorded it, I sent Paul a copy and he dug it. We’re in touch all the time. When he’s in L.A., he’ll usually give me a ring and we’ll get together. He’s doing magnificent right now; he’s about as happy as I’ve ever seen him.”

And his old drummer’s not doing too bad either. “I’d love to tour with this trio,” Seiwell, now 75, says. “We’re kind of limited because of our schedules—Joe’s one of the teachers at Musicians Institute—but if the right opportunities come along, we’ll make it happen. It’s so much fun. And that’s why I called the album Boomerang. You know how you throw a boomerang out and it comes back to you? That’s kind of what I did with my jazz career.”