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Bobby Previte Talks Jazz

by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Oct 7th, 2018

Bobby Previte, photo by Kate Previte

Composer, drummer, and bandleader Bobby Previte has over the past thirty years and at least twice as many recordings become famous for his pieces for disparate instruments, as well as his improvisational skills, and impassioned drumming. He will be bringing his talented ensemble to perform for one night only at the newly renovated Hudson Hall in Hudson.  

KM: Where were you raised and what are your first musical memories? 

BP: I grew up in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Unlike many musicians, I grew up in a non-musical family. I was never taken to a concert. The only music I was exposed to in childhood was organ and choir in church, as well as television, where at that time, there was actually some good music. Yet as I look back, it was not, in its casual way, such a bad musical education.

KM: Who were your early influences in jazz styles and drumming styles?

BP: When I was young I appreciated the great players like any aspiring musician would: Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, but also many drummers like Cozy Cole. Then I got into Rock drummers like Mitch Mitchell from Hendrix's band, Clive Bunker from Jethro Tull, Michael Giles from King Crimson, Ginger Baker from Cream and Ringo Starr, from, well...

KM: In your early days were you influenced by Charles Mingus?

BP: Yes, I went through a Mingus phase when I first started writing music in Buffalo, NY.  At one point I was heavily into his approach. Beginning artists go through different phases and influences, until, if they are fortunate, they discover their own voice.

KM: Although it is not unheard of, it is rather unusual for a drummer to be a composer and receive such praise from music critics for your compositions that occasionally employ counterpoint and modern minimalist constructions. How did you become a composer?

BP: As William Faulkner said “if you want to do something, just start doing it.” When I wrote my first tunes I was lucky in that the band I was in at the time played them right away, so I could hear and adjust. That was very valuable.

KM: How do you do compositions and arrangements? Is it a collective, ensemble process? Do you write a first sketch?

BP: It's not collective initially, and my process is always wildly different. But since I write a lot for brilliant improvisers I usually include improvisation in the music, in varying degrees. And in those moments, you could say the person improvising is also composing the music. Spontaneous improvisation is also composition, is it not?

KM: You have an immense discography. You once did an album (2001) on the Catalan painter Joan Miro’s series called Constellations. I’m a Miro fan and I love that recording, which I think remains a minimalist masterpiece. Can you say something about how that album came about?

BP: I saw the 1993 Miró retrospective at MOMA. They had tons of paintings, including all 23 of the Constellations that hepainted in 1940-41. They were all in one room. Since many people own individual paintings in the series, there have been only three times that the series, as whole, has been exhibited. The originals were all done on paper during the war and they were 'framed' by the idea that they were all exactly the same size, so when I decided to do my music series on the paintings, I decided to 'frame' the music by duration and thus make each of them two-minutes long. I was keenly aware of how the forms and colors of the Constellations were having a conversation with each other, an idea that I wanted to echo in the music.

KM: I was amazed that all 23 paintings were reproduced in your album booklet! I once walked into a restaurant in Quito, Ecuador, that was called Miró and they had reproductions of his paintings on the walls. I asked the waiter if the owner was in and could I talk to him. The owner came to my table; I asked him if he had permission to use the name Miró for the sign design taken from a painting by Miró. He replied that he wrote a letter to the family and they readily gave him permission without any fee; he said: “You look very surprised…, and so was I.” … You have a harp in your ensemble. Isn’t that unusual for a jazz ensemble? Is that to get a lower string register?

BP: Yes, in some ways. The bass function shifts between piano, harp, and sometimes even bass drum. I knew Zeena Parkins from the downtown Manhattan scene in the 1980s. Zeena is a fantastic improviser. I tend to compose pieces more for people than for instruments. And my compositions are often influenced by my dreams. 

KM: In your current band configuration you have a Chinese string instrument, the ehru. How did that happen?

BP: Because I met Jen Shyu at an artist’s colony and I saw she is a mesmerizing performer. I wrote Rhapsody especially with her in mind—with her playing the erhu and with the quality of her singing voice. 

KM: Can you give a short description of what your upcoming concert entitled Rhapsody at Hudson Hall will be like? I understand that you wrote the lyrics for Rhapsody. Will there be improvisational moments?

BP: Rhapsody is the second of a three part series about travel. The first in the series, Terminals Part I: Departures, was a series of five concertos with Sō Percussion as the orchestra and master improvisers as soloists,  Rhapsody (subtitled In Transit), is written for a sextet comprised of the soloists from Part I, including Zeena and Jen, along with the superb John Medeski, Nels Cline, and Fabian Rucker. It's is a 60-minute acoustic song cycle/meditation on migration and the idea of the “in-between.'” As in all my music there will be improvisation, but this might be the most “composed” music I have written. The players in this band are so busy that it is always difficult to get them together, so if you want to see it, this may be one of the last times, you never know. 

KM: I am so looking forward to this 7 pm concert October 12that Hudson Hall. It was a pleasure to talk to you in San Francisco.