Q&A with Stanton Moore: New Orleans Drummer Salutes Allen Toussaint

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Stanton Moore (Photo: Courtesy Royal Potato Family)

New Orleans-born drummer Stanton Moore has experienced a ton of acclaim and success with Galactic, the popular funk-based jam band he co-founded in 1994 and fueled over the course of eight albums, including 2010’s hip-hop and electronica influenced Ya-Ka-May. But something was missing.

Feeling a need to showcase other aspects of his playing, Moore formed his own remarkably versatile trio with fellow seasoned New Orleanians David “Tork” Torkanowsky on piano and James Singleton on bass, both founding members of the Crescent City’s premier and longstanding improvising quintet, Astral Project. Their 2014 album, the highly interactive Conversations, ran the gamut from spirited swingers (James Black’s “Magnolia Triangle,” Singleton’s “Lauren Z” and Moore’s “Tchefunkta”) to street-beat groovers (Mike Pellera’s “Carnival” and Paul Barbarin’s “Second Line”) to bluesy takes on Herbie Hancock’s “Driftin’” and Black’s “In The Keyhole.”

The trio’s second outing, due out July 21 on the Mascot Label Group/Cool Green Recordings label, is a all-star tribute to a late New Orleans music icon, entitled With You In Mind: The Songs Of Allen Toussaint and featuring vocalists Cyril Neville and Jolynda Chapman, saxophonists Maceo Parker, Donald Harrison and Skerik, trumpeter Nicholas Payton and Trombone Shorty. The following chat with Moore took place after the trio’s recent appearance at the Blue Note in New York.

Talk about your transition from the funk of Galactic to the swing of your trio.

I grew up studying jazz and swinging out and falling in love with that. By the time I started touring with Galactic, swinging seemed kind of out of context at that point. So I tried to keep it all focused on the groove aspect of my playing. But as I got older, I really wanted to dig into that side of my playing again, so I figured I’d start a piano trio with upright bass. And by doing it with Tork and Singleton, those guys can play any groove you throw at ’em and also play the funk stuff and second line stuff. So that was all built in. But they can also swing out. And what I also dug about those guys was they played with a lot of the drummers that I was drawing influence from—James Black, Zigaboo Modiste and Johnny Vidacovich, obviously. And the unifying thread of this trio is that the repertoire is all compositions by people from New Orleans, or at least Louisiana. So there’s a lot of James Black tunes, Mike Pellera tunes, Tony Dagradi tunes, James Singleton tunes.

Your new project focuses on compositions by another New Orleanian, the late, great Allen Toussaint. I understand that you actually shelved your next trio record in order to focus on this one.

Yeah. We were going into the studio, had the time booked. And before we actually walked into the studio, Allen passed [on Nov. 10, 2015]. So we had a little bit of time between Allen passing and us walking into the booked studio time, so we started thinking about it and we were like, “Man, you know, I think we would be remiss not to pay tribute to Allen in some way.”

Allen was so prolific, going back to the early ’60s. How did you settle on the tunes for this album?

We wanted to avoid doing things that were low-hanging fruit or super obvious or that were overly trad, and if we did we wanted to do our own take on it. So things like “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky” [a 1960 Lee Dorsey hit] and “Life” we did in different time signatures. “All These Things” we made into a ballad. “Night People” and “Here Come The Girls [a 1970 hit for Ernie K-Doe] we do pretty straightforward but different than how Allen did them.“Southern Nights” [a 1977 hit for Glen Campbell] is very different in that it’s spoken word on the lyrics in the beginning [voiced by Treme actor Wendell Pierce] and then it’s a slow jam that features Nicholas Payton playing organ and trumpet. And there’s one tune, “The Beat,” that is totally obscure. In fact, it was never recorded before. Tork remembered that Allen had written a book of poetry, and so we borrowed a copy from his son Reggie and set that poem to music. The idea was not just to rehash these tunes, because who can do it better than Allen already did it, anyway? There’s no point in doing the obvious tunes in a straightforward way.

Did you ever have any encounters with Toussaint, either personal or musical, over the years?

Definitely. The first time I met him was when Galactic was just starting out. We had recorded our first record but hadn’t started touring yet. So we started a little side band called The Ivanhoes, which was basically the Galactic rhythm section. The band was named after a club where The Meters played when they were starting out, The Ivanhoe. The purpose of this band was to play instrumental Meters tunes off their first three Josie Records.

One day we played a gig and an associate of Allen’s heard us and offered to bring us to Sea Saint Studios to meet Allen. So we came into Allen’s office, which was a time capsule of 1974 with green shag carpet on the floor and the wood paneling on the walls. And he was sitting behind his desk and said he liked what we were doing and asked if we would be interested in recording. And we said, “Well, Mr. Toussaint, we’ve already been into your studio to record our first record, and it’s going out in a few months. We have a label that’s putting it out.” And he said, “Well, it sounds like you’re already on your way. It’s nice to meet y’all.” We encountered him a few more times after that and started talking to him about writing with us. And then a few years passed before we actually did write with him. We wrote two tunes together that made it on Ya-Ka-May—one called “Bacchus” and the other one was called “Muss The Hair,” which was a bonus track for the Japanese release of Ya-Ka-May.

And through the years we would have Allen come out and open for us one tour, sometimes with his band, sometimes just solo piano. And he would sit in with us afterwards. And for the EPK for Ya-Ka-May, I got to go interview him sitting at a Steinway grand piano and talk to him about his career. So I didn’t get to interact with him and play with him as much as I would’ve liked to, of course, but we did get to play with him and interact with him a good bit. And it’s always interesting, whenever he would come and sit in with us, he would rehearse the band beforehand. And he wouldn’t just spit out rote arrangements, he would mold the arrangement to fit the band that he was playing with. He was always putting little touches on his own tunes that he had played a million times because he was going with the strengths or weaknesses of what that band did to mold that into an arrangement that would maximize that tune in that situation. So he was always on point, he was always in the moment, he was always very present.

Regarding your drumming on the new album, you play this mad street beat on “Java.” I imagine maybe you picked up some of that from Johnny V. Didn’t you study with him?

Absolutely. My street beat stuff is a mix between Johnny Vidacovich, Herlin Riley and Shannon Powell. Johnny’s stuff is all based more off of stickings. And on that tune I was actually mostly playing a straightforward right-left right-left combination, which is more of a Herlin Riley/Shannon Powell approach. But at this point, I’m just trying to throw it all in the blender and come out not focused on who I’m stealing from at that moment but just trying to come up with my own thing with it.

At this point I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s all kind of a blend of those three cats. And Shannon laughs when he hears me play, man, because he can hear what I stole from him, what I stole from Herlin, what I stole from Johnny, and also from Idris Muhammed and Herman Earnest. And there are times when I’m playing “Hey Pocky Way” with Leo Nocentelli and he wants to hear it the way it was on the record, so I play it without any embellishments like how Zigaboo played it, which is way more straightforward than how Johnny V would do it, for instance. But all those cats, man … there’s things that I’ve taken from all of them. I just try to absorb and assimilate.

Tony Williams once said that growing up he used to listen to all his heroes—Max Roach, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones—and try to imitate them. So as a young student, I started thinking, “Well, why don’t I apply that idea to second line and to funk?” So I started working on trying to do my best Zigaboo imitation, my best Johnny V imitation, my best James Black imitation. Eventually you gotta get away from that and let it synthesize into your own thing. But as far as the second line stuff, I think I’ve gotten pretty good at it. I can play you Herlin Riley, I can play you Johnny Vidacovich and I can play you Shannon Powell. But I don’t want to steal from those guys and steal their thing. I want to study it to the point where I can turn all that off and then make a blend of it. So on “Java” that’s pretty much a blend of what I’ve naturally absorbed from stealing from those guys.

What about the intro to “Here Comes The Girls”? That’s an interesting beat.

On that one I’m playing the right stick on top of the left cross-stick, which is something that I got from Herman Earnest. I didn’t play the beat that he played with it but I took that idea and I modified it to reference the march on “Here Come The Girls.” Because I didn’t want to play that march note for note so I did it with that stick-on-stick thing. So it’s the same rhythms but I wanted to do it with a different texture.

And that’s interesting how you put the 5 on “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky.”

Yeah. And I’m playing that with my pandeiro and cowbell, which is something I would like to think that I’ve added into things … playing with that pandeiro on the left of my hi-hat. But that idea of playing a funkier groove in 5 is an approach I’ve gotten comfortable with over the years by playing James Black’s “Magnolia Triangle.” The way we play it with the trio, Tork goes into a Professor Longhair thing and I’ve gotta come up with something funky behind it, and we kind of drift in and out of funk and a more swinging approach to it. So I’ve taken all that I’ve learned over the years by trying to follow Tork in and out of the funk connotations of “Magnolia Triangle,” and I’ve taken all that vocabulary that I’ve developed and applied it to “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky.” But it took years for me to get comfortable with all that vocabulary.

And then “Night People” is pretty much straight pocket funk playing.

It’s basically a New Orleans second line, but on the hi-hat, which is something that Zigaboo does on The Meters’ “Jungle Man” [from 1974’s Rejuvenation]. But the first cat I really heard do that was Smokey Johnson on “It Ain’t My Fault” [a 1964 Mardi Gras classic on NOLA Records]. And then I just took it and just did it over 4/4. So it’s not necessarily stealing from Zig or stealing from Smokey Johnson but stealing from both of them. It’s just about reapplying the second line syncopation.

So all these rhythms are really in your DNA at this point.

I would hope so. You just gotta get to the point where it comes out as your own voice. But I spent years studying and checking these guys out to the point of where now hopefully it’s become my own thing. But sometimes I’m borrowing from one a little bit more than the other and sometimes vice versa. But it’s all gotta come from somewhere. And at this point, hopefully, it’s in my DNA. DB


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January 2018
Esperanza Spalding
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