DRUM!: Some of the pieces fit particularly well, like the strong Burundi beat on “Art Blakey.”
Watts: Yeah, well that is very Art Blakey, isn’t it. What I didn’t want to do on this was, I didn’t want to have a saxophone player, which I was sorely tempted to have. And I didn’t want to have a guitar or any familiar sounding instrument like that because the percussion and various electronic things make the music here. The overtones of the rhythm make a melody in themselves. So I didn’t approach it like I would normally do in a band, you know, where I’d hire five guys to play with me or something. I wanted to keep this as sparse and as simply “drums” as possible. But we also did it very electronically. And that was kind of the point of interest for me because I’m not normally into that. So myself, I don’t know how to judge this record. I just find I like it but I don’t know why because it’s not what I like, if you follow what I mean.
DRUM!: What kind of sampling did you do on this project?
Keltner: Well, my sequences are all organic. They’re not anything that anybody would recognize. There’s no real keyboards on any of my stuff. All my sampled stuff is like fish steamers and boiled egg cutters – just odd things – pipes and a lot of steel shelves, just things that I’ve acquired over the years being struck and sampled. On the “Max Roach,” for instance, I just used a sample of one of those old high-pitched PTS drums. The berimbau and opera gong samples have been pitched and filtered so that you can barely tell what they are anymore.
DRUM!: Although there is a lot of electronic sampling, it still comes across like a kind of organic percussion choir.
Watts: Exactly. That’s what it should be. And I didn’t want to pin it down with an instrument, you know. The only thing I did add was the piano, which I think is such a beautiful instrument anyway. The rest of the sounds, besides drums and percussion, are either electronically made or they are sampled or something. So it’s not a state-of-the-art way of making a record, but it is fascinating somehow.
DRUM!: I thought “Elvin Suite” was particularly evocative.
Watts: That was really the one. The melody was a thing that Blondie Chaplin used to sing and hum along, and it was so beautiful. Blondie’s from South Africa and so I made it into a very African thing, which seemed to work rather well.
DRUM!: I remember first seeing Elvin play. He looked so regal sitting behind the kit, like one of the kings of Mali.
Watts: Yeah. I first saw him in 1961 or ’62, and he looks exactly the same now. It’s amazing, man. And he plays as well. It’s unbelievable. Him and Roy Haynes, who is one of the most incredible musicians I know. Those two guys are ageless.
DRUM!: I thought that the jaunty attitude behind the “Roy Haynes” piece perfectly conveyed his spirit.
Keltner: That’s good. I just met Roy not long ago. Well, I met him with Charlie that night at Catalina’s when he subbed for Tony, and then I got to hang out with him at the PAS convention in Ohio late last year. I just didn’t have the nerve to tell him about this project at the time, but he was fantastic to hang out with.
DRUM!: The ageless Roy Haynes. He’s unbelievable.
Keltner: Oh he is. He truly is.
DRUM!: I once asked him what was the secret of his unorthodox snare/hi-hat combinations, and he said, “Watch [boxer] Sugar Ray Robinson.”
Keltner: Wow, yeah! That’s right. And it’s so beautiful to watch him now because he finally got to the point where he doesn’t even use the hi-hat anymore. He uses the hi-hat as just another voice, but it’s not a timekeeping device whatsoever. Often he just has his foot resting on top of the hi-hat stand. It’s a beautiful thing to watch. He’s so free and yet he’s so grounded. He just always has been a completely unique player. Totally unique. It’s funny because I know Jack DeJohnette really well. I met him way back in the ’60s with Charles Lloyd and Albert Stinson. I mean, we even exchanged sandals one time outside of a club. Jack is a real beauty and a really good friend, and I’ve watched him play for years. He blew my mind back in those days with his unorthodox approach. He had a real un-drummer-like approach, which was beautiful and fresh and fantastic. And I’ve watched him develop now to where I saw him at Catalina’s not long ago and he just blew my mind how he developed, where his time flow is so incredible and so “not there.” It’s just a mystery. It’s that wonderful place where I always wanted to go had I stayed with jazz. I mean, you just go to the point where there is no concern for structure and form and especially timekeeping. But it’s all there. But the point was, Roy’s so mysterious that I never saw a place where he came from, went to or arrived at. He just seems to me like he’s just been doing it all along. Ever since I first heard him play, he’s still doing the same thing except it’s even more amazing. It’s never really changed, but it’s gotten better somehow.
DRUM!: Where did this whole world music element come in on the CD?
Keltner: Well, the line is pretty fuzzy. The sampled berimbau on “Shelly Manne,” for instance, is on my original sequences. Phillippe overdubbed some oud and Hungarian fiddle on “Kenny Clarke.” He also added the bebop piano trio at the end of “Max Roach,” which I thought was a brilliant touch. And to hear Charlie playing that little bebop ride beat on that flat top cymbal of his, that was nice.
DRUM!: I was curious about the “Kenny Clarke” piece. It has a real strong Middle Eastern vibe to it with the oud and the violinist – not something you’d associate with one of the fathers of bebop.
Watts: Yeah, that came about through … my wife plays a lot of Arabic music and maybe that was part of the influence for it. Originally it was just straight drums and percussion with some samples on it. When I got to Paris, we chopped a bit up and I just said to Phillipe, “Do you know any oud players?” Because in Paris there are a lot of Moroccan and Algerian players. He’s also produced a lot of Arabic music in Paris, so he kind of knew that scene. So he found an oud player and a violin player. I was fortunate to have Phillipe to do things like that for me on this project.