talks with Nate Chinen
What was it like growing up in Santa Barbara, and what was it that
prompted you to get involved with music?
I was involved with music since before I can really remember. As far
as just being drawn to it and even playing drums, it was just always there,
because my father was a drummer (not professionally, but he played the
drums). And so that was just always there. I sort of took it for granted.
I always had a pair of drumsticks; I never remembered not doing it, really.
I was growing up in Santa Barbara which is actually not such an easy scene.
Then somehow or other along the way, I decided that I was going to be into
jazz. It was almost like a choice that I made, I just wanted to do something
different. So I decided that I was into jazz before I really even knew...I
mean, I must have heard something. Well actually, I used to like to listen
to big band stuff. Then I just decided "I'm going to be into jazz," so
I started buying any jazz record, without having any idea what it was.
And that ended up influencing what I decided to do on the drums. But all
along the way I was doing everything: playing in school bands, the stage
band, then in high school I played in a rock band. So it was just kind
of always there.
Having had exposure to it so early, would you say that there was
a prodigy thing happening? Were you precocious, musically?
Well, drumming itself was always easy. It was really natural for me.
I'm sure it's because, like I said, I remember being five years old and
working on a paradiddle or something. So I was always kind of ahead of
the game a little bit, just because I got started so early. But then at
a certain point, when I was around thirteen, I decided: "I'm going to do
this. This is what I'm going to do." And I really took it seriously; I
started taking drum lessons, started practicing and working on it. Always
trying to get better and better, and listening to a ton of music. So I
was always the best one. Not to sound conceited or anything, but I was
always the cat. Until I was in high school, when I went to this music camp
and got my ass whooped. Because I wasn't the cat anymore. I was in a band
with older cats, who were the cats from their town. And I was sad. So I
really had an opportunity at an early age, which was a good thing, of getting
a comeuppance. Because I really thought I was the shit -- because everybody
was always telling me "You're the shit." Finally I had these guys saying:
"Look, your shit's sad." Then I kind of had to think about it a little
When you decided to get serious, where did you turn for guidance
Just in my town, in Santa Barbara, I studied with a drum teacher. It
wasn't like there were a lot of choices. I wasn't even sure how good of
a drummer he was, but he was a really good teacher. He was good with kids.
And he would just give me assignments and I would do them. But I must say,
it was always really easy. At that point I can't say like I was sacrificing
or toiling or whatnot, because I could sit and learn whatever I had to
learn pretty quickly; it was just natural to me. But I would practice every
day for a little while, work on my lesson, and then go and play. Same thing
that everybody else has done. But then I realized that I had to get out;
when I exhausted him then I actually studied with a guy in Los Angeles.
He was kind of a famous drummer, his name is Les DeMerle. He did a bunch
of big band stuff and has a fusion band of his own in L.A. He was very
cool because he turned me on to some other shit. He was more out there
as a real professional. And he was really into like Miles Davis and stuff
so I got into things like that. Also I had a great teacher who was a really
swinging drummer, he was just in Santa Barbara for a year; he had a steady
gig, he was working like five nights a week in this joint. His name was
Eddie Williams. So he would come over and teach me but it was really informal.
Because he was just a really good jazz drummer, so it wasn't any kind of
book stuff or anything. He was just kind of talking to me about it. He
was really helpful. A big influence. He had been around the block many
times. A really killing drummer. This was all in high school.
When did you start working?
In high school. Playing dances. We used to go up the road and play Army
bases. It was a rock band, we were just playing Top 40. But Top 40 in the
'70s was a lot of different shit. We would play everything from Deep Purple
to Chicago. It was a great experience. That was when I actually started
Who were you listening to at that time?
Everything. I was listening to a lot of stuff. Like whatever it was
called at the time, the rock stuff: like Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer
and shit like that. And I was really into funk, like Tower of Power; they
were one of my favorite bands. But at the same time I was also listening
to Miles and a lot of jazz; I was always buying jazz records. I used to
listen to classical music too. Anything that turned me on. And of course
the really obvious ones, like Led Zeppelin and the Beatles and stuff. Hendrix
What was the next step, then, from high school? Where did you go
When was that?
There were a lot of great players there at that time.
Yeah, there was a ton. Especially coming from where I came from. It
was mind-blowing. It was musically and culturally a shock.
From Santa Barbara to Boston. So it was a different kind of scene.
Totally. I mean, I can't really say that I liked it that much. I liked
being around a ton of musicians. Playing was what really saved me there.
But I can't really say I liked living in Boston. I like it much better
to visit. I was just there off and on for two and a half years. I dropped
out my fourth semester.
Is that when you came to New York?
No, I actually went back to California and moved up to San Francisco.
I was working there. We had a band, like a cooperative band just playing
our own music. Then I always had these steady gigs that I was doing all
the time. Top 40 stuff. I would do absolutely anything. Some really horrendous
I'm interested especially in the ways in which someone like you,
or someone like Drew Gress or Uri Caine, has a lot of gig history that
doesn't have anything to do with what we hear and what we see. The reconciliation
of making a living with doing something that is really about art, or about
your expression. Was there a sort of divide there, or was it all pretty
much part of the same package?
Well, to be honest with you, it kind of took care of itself. I was just
trying to survive. I still am in a sense, but luckily I don't have to rely
on anything too ridiculous to do that. And also the thing is, I never really
judged it. Because I can get into this thing where I just want to do a
really good job. I just want to be a professional musician: go in, do a
good job, get paid and leave, no investment with it. So I could sort of
do it that way, and just try to have as much fun with it as I possibly
could. But then it reached a point where I started getting a taste of really
performing, and actually doing concerts and people really listening. I
found it really difficult to be a functional musician once I reached that
point -- doing something where we're not actually the focus of attention,
or even playing a jazz gig where we're background music. It was really
hard. I was getting like pain in my back and everything. Because, for whatever
reason, I'm not supposed to be doing that. And it's not like a thing where
I judge people who do it. In a way I kind of envy people that can just
do it and not really care. The thing is, luckily I can afford to feel this
way. If the situation was different, then I might very well find a way
to deal with it and groove with it. But luckily I don't have to. It just
sort of took care of itself somehow. By the time it really started bugging
me that much, then I wasn't really doing it that much. Now if I do something
that's that way, it's easy to let go because I don't rely upon it.
When did things start to change in that way? Could you describe what
exactly was happening?
Time had passed. I don't know if there was any single moment, it's just
kind of like life unfolding itself. And it unfolded itself to the point
where I could actually be a creative musician as opposed to a functional
musician. The thing is, that was always my focus. That's the reason I'm
in New York. I wouldn't live here if it wasn't for that. I would much rather
live in Santa Barbara. Sometimes I rue the fact that I got into this, because
I can't live in Santa Barbara anymore. But I just think if that's really
your intent and your focus, it sort of figures itself out. It wasn't like
I even woke up one day and said "I'm never doing another one of these gigs."
I've never done that. It just sort of happened that way. But I mean, it
makes sense, because I put my energy into doing that. I didn't put my energy
into doing tons of club dates or Broadway or getting in a rock band or
something like that. I was really focused on something else.
It's interesting to talk about whatever dichotomy exists between
being creative and being functional. It strikes me that what you do is
an extremely functional sort of creativity: very much in service of the
music, very much fulfilling every facet of a situation. And then also totally
creative every time. So I wonder about that: what you said earlier about
being a professional musician and doing a really good job. There's definitely
a sense of that in this creative music as well.
Yeah. It's the same thing, it's just that the job description is different.
I'm in situations where I can't just go back and think: "Okay, this is
a rock beat, I'll just do this for a while." It's really like moment-to-moment
intense concentration, to try to just make the music sound the best you
can. It's the same function, but it's a really different job, because it
demands your creativity. Whereas the other thing doesn't really want your
creativity involved in it. Playing with Tim, or playing with Drew, or Malaby
or whoever, if I just started falling back on "okay, this works," they
wouldn't dig it. It's always just trying to make the music sound as good
as you can. Even if it's a club date. But it requires a lot more of yourself
to do this. You have to really give up, as best you can, your ego and whatever
thoughts of personal gain in this, and just try to make the music sound
as good as possible.
When was it that you moved to New York? What precipitated that?
I always knew I was going to. It was just simply that all the music
that I dug the hardest all came from New York. Especially when I was listening
to a lot of jazz, 90% of it was done in New York City. It just seemed like:
"Well duh. If you're really serious about this, I guess you have to go
there." That was in '79.
Who did you start working with when you got here?
The first real serious gig that I had, actually playing a week at a
jazz club, was with Mike Nock. It was a band with Tom Harrell and Ratzo
Harris. At the time that was amazing for me. I was pinching myself. It
was Sweet Basil, which at the time was still a jazz club. So that was cool.
Then I used to play a lot with a sax player named Mel Ellison, who moved
back to San Francisco. An amazing tenor player. Actually he played all
the saxophones. We used to just play a lot duo, or we'd play with Ratzo
Harris. We never did much in the way of gigs, but I did do some gigs with
him in Ted Curson's band, right around that time in the early '80s. But
one of the first associations that I started then went on for a number
of years was with Kenny Werner. I played in a band with him for like fifteen
years, with Ratzo Harris.
When did you start playing with Fred Hersch?
I've known Fred almost from when I got here; he was one of the first
people that I met. But we actually played in a band with Jane Ira Bloom
in the mid-'80s. So that was the first time we actually started playing
together. Then in the early '90s he started calling me to do gigs, I started
making recordings with him. I was in his trio for a number of years. But
we started playing together in the mid-'80s.
What was the New York scene like in '79? The loft thing had basically
run its course.
Yeah, that was pretty much dying out by the time I got here. The only
loft left was...Rashied Ali had a place. Then there was the Jazz Loft,
that was going for a little while. But the whole Sam Rivers loft thing,
that was over by the time I got here.
And the scene was...
The scene wasn't great actually, to be honest with you, because there
was a cabaret law at the time. So there were all these places that couldn't
have drums. That's actually why places like Bradlee's and the Knickerbocker
and all these places started: because they were piano duo rooms and they
could circumvent the cabaret laws. If you had under three people then you
didn't need the license or something, and it was a very expensive license.
So a lot of people just didn't do it. And there actually weren't that many
places to play, really. Unless you were doing gigs in hotels or something
like that. Or if you were lucky enough to be in a band that was playing
at the Vanguard or Sweet Basil or the Blue Note. There weren't a lot of
the Cornelia Street places. They just didn't really exist, because they
couldn't afford a cabaret license for such a small place.
So as you're gaining your footing with straight-ahead players, what's
happening as far as the more avant-garde tendencies?
Well, that was always there. My first association with Kenny, we would
just play free. When that trio first started going, we had a little bit
of difficulty actually getting through tunes together, because of this
free energy. Then we managed to fuse it somehow to where we could sort
of have this free energy but actually be playing a standard. But as much
as anything else, that came from just doing a lot of free playing with
each other. That was the avant-garde, at least for me at that time. Then
also that was the time that I first met Tim. So in the early to mid-'80s
I started playing Tim's music. And at the time that was a big deal. His
composing at the time was different than it is now, but there were elements
of that that nobody else was really doing. So that was kind of always around,
How did you meet?
We lived in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn. I actually lived in a
building with Kenny Werner and Tim just lived a couple of blocks away.
Somehow or other we both did a gig with John Zorn, it was actually Zorn's
gig. That was the first time I ever played with Tim or Zorn; first and
last time I ever played with Zorn. After that Tim got some gigs and started
calling me. He had a great band with Herb Robertson and Bill Frisell and
Ratzo and myself. And we did a handful of gigs.
That group never recorded though.
No, never recorded. I mean, there's tons of tapes of these gigs we did.
But never actually formally.
So what was it that struck you initially about the music itself,
and then about Tim as a musical personality?
Well, Tim was a drag! [laughs] No, I'm just kidding. What struck me
was that I liked the way it sounded. I really liked his writing. And then
I liked the way that he would negotiate the improvisation through the composition
in a creative way. It wasn't like: always do the easiest, most obvious
thing to do. He would actually put a lot of thought into it. And coming
from a jazz background, where nobody really does that -- they just count
off the tune and it's every man for himself -- it was really refreshing.
Plus I liked Tim. I thought he was a good guy and I liked playing his music.
Also just the sound of that band. I just really dug it. At the time, for
me it was definitely some different shit. And it brought out something
different in me that I wasn't really getting called to do with other people
Could you define that?
Just the thing that we were talking about earlier: being hyper-creative
and vigilant and not being able to just fall back on some shit. Because
the tunes, especially at the time, it was pretty much up to you. You weren't
exactly being directed in a certain area. It was really pretty wide open.
Just having that amount of room was and is a challenge. To try to make
something happen every night -- and not make the same thing happen every
What was the reception like to that group?
It was great. I remember we did a few gigs at Roulette and it was like
a bunch of people there and they seemed to really enjoy themselves. Then
we did a Kool Jazz Festival and that was great too. But then that was it;
for whatever reason that band kind of fizzled out. Frisell started doing
a bunch of other stuff. But for a little while that was great.
I'd like to address some of your instrumental influences. Would I
be correct in saying that there's a pretty heavy Tony Williams thing going?
Oh yeah, I listened to him a lot. Especially in college. I was really
into Tony Williams, for sure.
That's something I hear in your playing often -- and never stronger
than last week at the Knitting Factory. There were moments, with the Fender
Rhodes and Marc [Ducret] playing, that had this really burning Fillmore
kind of vibe.
Well that's there for sure, because to this day that's some of my favorite
shit. But early Tony too. The teenaged Tony, that's some of my favorite
of him, actually.
Go ahead, keep naming names. [laughs]
When I talked to Drew [Gress] he said that the two of you had listened
to a lot of the same stuff when you were teenagers.
Yeah. Some really odd stuff too: Stan Kenton, we were both really into.
We really were almost on the same line as far as what we got when.
Do you think that's sort of common for guys of your generation, your
Well, the people that I know, I would say yeah. But then I guess a lot
of people at a certain age decide they want to narrow their direction down,
like: "If this is really the shit, then this other stuff can't be the shit."
So they kind of narrow their focus. But I think it's natural; I don't know
how you can be in high school and not be...especially with pop culture.
But I'm glad I grew up with pop culture, because the pop culture I had
was bad. There were some great bands that were actually Top 40 bands. So
the popular music of my era. I mean, there was of course obviously a bunch
of crap too, but there was some stuff that we all still listen to, that
was popular music back then. And you really can't necessarily say the same
for the '80s, you know. Or even the '90s. How much are we really listening
to what was Top 40 radio of the '80s and '90s? I think people are still
actually listening a lot more to what was going on in the late-'60s and
It's interesting, too, that you came to New York at a time when conventional
jazz history tells us jazz was dying or dead. Before the great resurrection
spawned by Wynton Marsalis.
Right. The thing is, I never really got the newspaper, so I never knew
if jazz was dead or alive. [laughs]
But I wonder to what extent someone like Wynton coming in and saying
basically that jazz is this, and you can't corrupt it with these other
things...I wonder to what extent that mentality is fueled by, or feeds,
the whole phenomenon of popular music being increasingly insipid and improvised
music being more rarified.
I don't think it really has that much power, to be honest with you.
I don't think what Wynton says has any effect, especially on the pop world.
He certainly does have power in the jazz world. He's probably the most
powerful guy, if power means access to media and access to funds. But that's
really not a problem if you don't pay any attention to it. I don't really
have the time nor energy to pay attention to it. I mean, I know it's out
there: I know there's a debate about this, a debate about that. But I never
read about it, I don't really much care. I know what it is: it's like a
turf thing, and whatever motivation it is, it's there. So I don't really
care, because why complicate it? Why faction it? It just doesn't make any
On to composition. Did you study composition at Berklee?
Nah. I mean, minimally. I studied a little harmony and theory, arranging,
but I never really had a composition teacher.
I ask because I'm thinking back to my conversation with Drew. He
had just done the recording for the Spin and Drift album. And he said he
was floored by the way in which you addressed this really intricate music,
and with each successive take, you were able to come up with something
that was wildly creative and like I said before, fully functional. And
it was completely different from take to take. So when you do it
this way, and another way, and another way, it's a very compositional approach
to your role in a group. Could you speak to that a little bit?
The thing is, even though we're in a studio, we're still trying to simulate
performance as best we can, even though maybe we're partitioned and headphoned
and whatnot. In a performance I wouldn't approach the music the same way
twice. Of course, usually with performance you have to wait a day. But
it's basically the same thing. Also the more times you hear something,
maybe even subconsciously it might suggest something that I wasn't hearing
or thinking about on the first take. Maybe in the first take something
dawns on me that maybe I'm not even conscious of. So I do that. And again,
it is trying to be creatively functional, I guess. What could I do to actually
make this music sing, as best I can? It's simply that; things just occur
to you. We're improvisers. It's just spontaneous. It's very natural for
Drew too. But it's just that especially with written stuff, if you're actually
having to play parts, and I definitely have more of a free-agent role because
I'm improvising all the way through -- even though I'm trying to relate
it to what everyone else is playing.
Having seen Tim's Quartet and Sextet at the Knitting Factory last
week -- I saw the first night and the last night -- I'm interested to hear
your take on that gig. I know that the group just recorded as well. So
first the gig: the Quartet and the Sextet. It seemed to me like with the
exception of Tim, you were the person most consistently comfortable with
everything that happened.
[laughs] Those acting lessons paid off!
Anyone actively listening, especially to the sextet stuff, can see
that it's very, very difficult, and there's so much happening at any given
time. But everything seemed grounded, as far as what you were doing. Was
it acting, really?
Well it got better. The first night, it was a first night. It was definitely
a first night for me. I mean, I was out to lunch. But the thing is, you've
still got to play, and when it comes time to actually play, you have to
get over the fact that you've butchered something and try to make the most
of the rest of it. I'm sure even then there was probably some great stuff.
But you're just naturally really conscious of the fact, you're like: "Oh,
fuck!" Because you know what the potential is, and want it to be as good
as it can be. But you get over it, and the next night was fantastic.. The
next three nights I thought we really kind of honed in on it, started shaping
it better. I had a blast. But it was hard, it was very intense for me,
because I'm just playing constantly. Two bands, and then Herbie gets on
with all his fresh energy. The recording was really nice too, I think it
worked out well.
How did that go?
It went pretty easily, I think it's going to be good. I think it's going
to be really good-sounding, and we were comfortable with the music. I think
I was thinking of that combination of players, the four of you, and
the classifications that Tim has for his groups. There's Big Satan and
the Hard Cell trio, so this is kind of a combination of the two. And it's
also basically Quicksand, without Malaby.
I get really confused, to be honest with you. I can't remember, I don't
even know what band is what anymore. [laughs] The only one I can keep straight
Do you not necessarily feel a difference in methodology or personality
between the different Tim Berne groups that you play in?
Well, yeah. I mean, sure. Any time you add a Herbie or a Ducret. But
in more of an overall sense, no: because it's still a situation that allows
people to be themselves and deal with some music and try to be creative.
So in an overall sense, no, but I mean it's as different as whoever's playing
at the time that you're hearing it. Because obviously anyone that he hires
has a very strong musical personality. Nobody's a wallflower when it comes
to throwing down.
Has your interaction with Tim and with this music changed much in
the years that you've been working together?
I guess it's changed with age. We've known each other longer. But I
mean, we still do pretty different things. When we play with Paraphrase,
that's a really different feeling than playing with Craig or Marc or both.
I don't know if "change" or "evolve" is a better word. It's been pretty
smooth. We get along really well, we're really good friends outside of
music. There was a period when we weren't paying a lot, and we would still
hang. Like when he was doing Bloodcount and whatnot. We're good friends.
And so I think we can read each other pretty well. So I mean, I guess if
there's been any change it's that: as time goes by, we read each other
even a little better.
That would have to translate, from the nonmusical arena to the musical
Yeah. I mean, all my friends are musicians, basically. But I have really
good friends who I don't really enjoy playing with. But I really like them,
they're my friends. And then I have people that I play with that we're
not necessarily very close friends -- not because we have a problem with
each other, just circumstances or whatnot, we just haven't really developed
a friendship. But I value with Tim, he's such a good friend and also we're
working more and more for each other.
What's on the plate for you in the near future?
I'm probably going to be in Europe a lot over the winter and into the
spring. One tour will be with Tim and Craig. And I'm also doing a tour
with Drew. And I'm doing a tour with Andy Laster. And I'm doing a tour
with Simon Nabotov. And I'm supposed to do a tour with Brad Shepik too.
And it's almost consecutive. So I'll be gone a lot. But it's great. They're
all bands I really...they're all my bands.
I keep referring to Drew, but that reminds me of something he said
about Andy Laster's band. He said "If Tom can't make it, we just don't
Nah, that isn't true. He's played some gigs without me. [laughs]
He also said that you were born to play that music.
[laughs] Yeah, him too. Unfortunately we haven't been able to do it
a whole lot lately, but when he does do it, it's so great. So I'm actually
really looking forward to that, because we haven't done a string of work
in a while with that group.
When you say that those are all your bands, it rings true. I listen
to Brad's disc, or the Hydra disc, or whatever, and there's obviously a
consistency (because it's you playing), but it's really malleable.
It's different music, yeah.
Are you still working a lot in piano trio formats as well?
I'm not really in a piano trio right now, except for Simon Nabotov.
We did a recording with Drew which was supposed to come out. That's one
of the tours that I'm doing, with Simon and Drew. And that's a piano trio,
but it's not a mainstream piano trio by any stretch of the imagination.
Although on this last recording we did do a fair amount of standards. But
then we also did some other stuff. Simon's amazing. But as far as a band
goes, I guess that's about it right now in my piano trio world. There was
a while there that it was most of what I was doing: when I was playing
with Kenny and with Fred and with Simon. I was getting a whole bunch of
Do you enjoy being on the road?
I enjoy bitching about it, yeah. It's just a matter of balance. If I'm
getting on airplanes like every week and I'm never home, then I get tired
of it of course. But after I'm home for a few weeks then I start to think
"It wouldn't be so bad to be on the road." And you know, normally it's
good. It's usually like I'm gone for a couple weeks and I get to come back
for a little while and then go somewhere else for a couple weeks. And that
I don't mind, that's fine. But I mean, if I am actually in Europe for three
months, I'm sure by the end of three months I'll be happy to not be on
the road for a while. There's usually more of a break. I might do a few
different tours over a five or six month period or something. But as far
as the consolidation, this is kind of lucky, that it actually works out
this way. That I can actually do everything. Because a lot of times you
run into conflicts: you could have done two tours, but you're going to
miss a few gigs so you can't do it. But the thing is also, these are all
bands, so people work with each other. No one's pressuring me and saying:
"You've gotta do this or we can't do the tour." Everybody tries to work
with each other, because everybody understands. We're all trying to do
the same thing.
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