Today I'm very excited to be posting some questions I posed to the great Joe La Barbera.
...and for those of you not familiar with his work (for shame!), here's a recent bio...
Joe La Barbera enjoys a rewarding and varied career in music which takes him all over the world with some of the finest names in jazz. He is regarded by his peers as a musical drummer and a supportive accompanist. Jazz great Bill Evans summed it up best when he said that “Joe is very dedicated to playing quality music, and he’s willing to make the concessions of dues toward that end. He’s a top soloist and he does the right thing at the right time.”
Born in Mt. Morris, New York, his first musical experiences began at home as part of the family band with his parents and two older brothers, saxophonist Pat and trumpeter and arranger/composer John La Barbera. From his father he received a solid foundation in drumming as well as lessons on clarinet and saxophone. His education continued at the Berklee College of Music in Boston where his teachers included John LaPorta, Charlie Mariano, Herb Pomeroy and the great Alan Dawson.
After Berklee and two years with the U.S. Army band at Fort Dix, New Jersey, Joe began his professional career with Woody Herman and the Thundering Herd. The Chuck Mangione Quartet followed with gigs ranging from jazz clubs with the small group to symphony halls with full orchestra. Then it was onto New York and a fruitful two-year period of freelancing with Jim Hall, Phil Woods, Art Farmer, Gary Burton, Art Pepper, John Scofield, Bob Brookmeyer and Toots Thielmans to name just a few.
In 1978 Joe was asked to join Bill Evans in what was to become a landmark trio, widely regarded as one of Evan’s finest. After Bill Evans untimely death in 1980, Joe joined singing great Tony Bennett, touring internationally for over a decade.
Since settling in Los Angeles in 1987, Joe has worked with many well known jazz artists over the years, including Lee Konitz, Bill Mays, Eddie Daniels, Toots Thielemans, Larry Goldings, Dave Liebman, Bill Cunliffe, Alan Pasqua, brother Pat La Barbera, Bud Shank, Conte Candoli and Teddy Edwards. Recently Joe was reunited with Bob Brookmeyer for memorable performances of Bob’s New Arts Ensemble in Los Angeles. The Joe La Barbera Quintet remains active with concerts at the Rochester International Jazz Festival and dates in Seattle, San Diego and the Los Angeles area. Joe’s latest CD, Native Land, received unanimous praises from reviewers and fans alike.
On the international scene, Joe has toured Europe with Eddie Gomez, Rosario Giuliani, Joe Locke, Don Friedman, John Proulx, Philip Catherine, Kenny Wheeler, Bassline (with Hein Van De Geyn and John Abercrombie) and the renowned WDR Radio Orchestra. This year Joe toured Europe with performances at the Umbria Jazz Festival, Fribourg Jazz Festival and Dinant Jazz Festival.
Joe has also toured Japan extensively with artists such as Lee Konitz, Karrin Allyson, Roberta Gamberini and the prestigious 100 Golden Fingers tour featuring piano greats Junior Mance, Cedar Walton, Kenny Baron and Don Friedman among others. This year, he will tour Japan with with his own Quartet including brother Pat La Barbera and Grammy Award winning pianist and composer Bill Cunliffe.
Joe’s discography continues to grow with the latest CDs from Enrico Pieranunzi, Ken Peplowski, Eddie Daniels, Joe Locke, Rosario Giuliani, Eden Atwood, Don Friedman, Bill Mays and the Grammy Award winning Resonance Big Band.
Since 1993, Joe has been on the faculty of California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California. He has served on the National Endowment for the Arts council in Washington D.C. and has been a guest clinician and lecturer at many universities and colleges including The Eastman School of Music, North Texas State, University of Nevada in Las Vegas, McGill University in Montreal, Humber College in Toronto, University of Louisville, Cornish College, Mannes College and Arizona State University. In 2010, Joe was again on the faculty of the 19th annual Festival Ren Contres de Contrabasse in Cap Breton, France. In 2011 he will be touring extensivley in Europe, Japan and New Zealand and will be in residence at the Jazz Cool Roma and the Cap Breton Jazz School and Festival in France.
Phew! The man is in demand. Joe graciously agreed to answer my questions and his responses (like his drumming itself) were thoughtful and sensitive.
1. You come from a very musical family (Joe's brother John, is a accomplished and well known Composer/Arranger and his other sibling Pat is one of the leading Jazz Saxophonists in the world today) and were surrounded by music from en early age, I imagine. Do you think there's any way for a young player to artificially create an environment like that for him/herself?
I don’t think that it would be possible to recreate that particular environment without the support of your family. Certainly a person on his or her own can immerse themselves fully and single-mindedly into music but it would not be the same thing. My father had studied music (on his own) and led bands from the 1920’s until my brothers and I came along, so he was well prepared to continue this legacy with his own family. Try to imagine being born into a home where music was a primary part of life. Now add to this a house full of instruments: 3 pianos (no waiting) all the brass and woodwind, 2 string basses and of course, drums. There was even a violin that Pat started to learn but it wasn’t his axe. We each received personal instruction from my father daily. I studied drums, clarinet and alto sax from Pop. John had trumpet and piano and Pat got clarinet and sax lessons. My mother learned bass from Pop and joined the band when I was able to keep a decent beat. We did everything together as a family from Boy Scouts (3 Eagle Scouts thanks to our parents) vacations and of course, the music.
2. From your teaching experiences (at Cal Arts, among others) do you find there are things that young musicians, particularly drummers, might be missing from their playing currently?
I feel that there is a noticeable lack of melodic phrasing from many younger players not just drummers, even some who are highly regarded in the jazz world. By this I don’t mean quoting or playing the melody, but having a melodic flow to improvisation in general. When I was a student listening to this music, everyone from Miles to Blue Mitchell had the quality I am referring to. At his most abstract, Coltrane always possessed a melodic sense. My students are required to listen to a list of recordings that include artists from Lester Young to Tony Williams. Through this listening process, my goal is that some of the melodic lines that other instrumentalists use will hopefully sink in. I know that in my own development this was a crucial element.
3. The area of Rochester NY has produced many fine musicians ( you and your brothers, Steve Gadd, to name a few). Was there a particularly fertile environment for a young musician when you were growing up there?
There always seemed to be good music happening in the western New York area, either in Rochester, Buffalo or Syracuse so we were able to see and hear many greats when we were still in high school. People like John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck and Stan Getz are three that I can remember experiencing live that had a huge impact. The local players were equally impressive including Chuck and Gap Mangione (where I first heard Steve Gadd at 18!) Joe Romano, Roy McCurdy and Vinnie Ruggiero. Also, the Buffalo players were important to us. Sam Noto, Larry Covelli and Don Menza were heroes whom we always went to hear. The first name drummer I ever heard live was Gene Krupa, who played a week gig in my home town of Mt. Morris in 1957. The scene would fluctuate from time to time and from city to city but for the most part, we enjoyed a lot of great music nearby.
4. In some of your clinics, you've mentioned your fascination with the piano. Did this result from your association with Bill Evans or did it start earlier than that?
It started a lot earlier. My father wanted to give me piano lessons but I foolishly rebelled because I already was practicing 3 instruments. How I wish I had listened. In any event, I was drawn to the piano because of hearing Bill Evans on records. His sound just captivated me. I would try to recreate some of his harmonies on the piano and learn tunes by ear.
5. Did Bill Evans ever show you anything specific on the piano ( or mention anything specific about he preferred his music to be played) or was everything worked out by playing?
I used to stay at Bill’s apartment whenever I worked a gig in the city, even if it was for someone else. Bill would lay in bed most of the day so I would play the piano and he would comment and occasionally come out and show me some things. Most real piano players would kill for an opportunity like that.
6. If you ever get time to, what sort of things do you work on as a drummer these days?
I am fascinated by metric relationships these days and work on that a lot. Being able to feel 5 and 7 over 2 makes it so much easier to deal in those time signatures and allows you to bring ideas in those meters back to 4/4.
7. Can you name a live performance/recording that had a particularly profound affect on you?
I would have to say hearing Coltrane in Rochester when I was 14 was very important. Pat was the driving force behind all of these events for me. What impressed me was the dedication Coltrane showed to his performance that evening. We arrived at the beginning of the first set while they were playing “My Favorite Things” and of course it was amazing. Roy Haynes was on drums, subbing for Elvin and he was killing. When the set ended, Coltrane went into the dressing room and practiced for the entire break after which the second set started. This process was repeated 3 times during the evening which meant that Coltrane never stopped playing all night. From what I have read about him during this period, he was following this routine daily. My brothers and I cornered McCoy out front and talked his ears off for the first break and he was a total groove.
Thanks so much Joe.
here's a couple of videos of Joe in action. One with Bill Evans and Marc Johnson in '79 and the other from 2008 with Joe Locke's group. Note that even at Joe LaBarbera"s level of playing, he keeps improving and refining his art. Very inspiring.