February Artist Feature: Drummer Tom Rainey

(photo by Denis Dalby)

Drummer Tom Rainey‘s impact on the New York scene has been immense and often unappreciated (not to mention that his influence has reached far beyond New York). I recently had the opportunity to speak with him about his music and relished the opportunity to discuss his trio (which includes saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and guitarist Mary Halvorson) as well as his unique sense of rhythm. Rainey released a third record with his trio, Hotel Grief, on Intakt Records, at his annual December 30 gig at Cornelia Street Cafe (NYC), and is set to embark on a four-country European tour in April:

Tour Dates

  • April 4 at Jimm Glass in Valencia, Spain
  • April 5 at Jamboree in Barcelona, Spain
  • April 6 at AJMI in Avingnon, France
  • April 7 at Stockwerk in Graz, Austria
  • April 8 at Gallerie Maerz in Linz, Austria
  • April 10 at Porgy & Bess in Vienna, Austria
  • April 11 at Pardon To Tu in Warsaw, Poland

Interview

Conducted via phone, January 26, 2016

Cisco Bradley:   How has the Tom Rainey Trio developed since it came together around 2009?

Tom Rainey:       It’s really hard for me to kinda track how it may or may not have actually developed because from the beginning, it’s been an improvised affair with this group. So, you know, that really developed. That changed drastically from night to night, let alone from year to year. It’s like growing up. You don’t really know you’re growing up. You know what I mean? Suddenly you’re using words you haven’t used before or you’re thinking thoughts you haven’t thought before. It’s just sort of a continuum, I guess. I’d be hard pressed to actually describe how that might have happened. But, just like any other relationship, the more time you spend with somebody, the more that you can, especially in the musical sense, relate to each other in more immediate ways than when you’re first starting to play with somebody.

Cisco Bradley:   When did you first start playing with Ingrid Laubrock?

Tom Rainey:       Well, we started playing together actually after we became… you know, we’re involved with each other personally. I guess that happened in 2006 or it was probably around that time, 2006, 2007. The very first time I played with her, she asked me to play some nonet music of hers at a festival. And so that was my first time working with her with playing her compositions with a large ensemble.

Cisco Bradley:   And so you guys met in London for that concert?

Tom Rainey:       We actually met in Cheltenham. That’s the very first time we met. It was a festival in Cheltenham which is the festival where we actually first played with each other, in public anyway. But then I guess I was playing in London quite a bit around that time so if I was there and she was available, she would come to the concerts and then we just started talking and struck up some sort of a friendship. And then, I guess a year or two later, we struck up something slightly more than a friendship.

Cisco Bradley:   What was bringing you to London around that time?

Tom Rainey:       The same thing that brings me to Europe all the time. It’s just basically I was on tour with a band and we would oftentimes, you know, we might play at the Vortex in London and as well as other places. More often than not, I remember playing at the Vortex around that time when I was first getting a chance to talk to Ingrid. At that time I had no idea she was even a musician. She wasn’t much for tooting her own horn. When I first met her, I knew her as being the girlfriend of a musician that I knew. She never really talked about herself as being a musician. So it wasn’t really until around that time we really got together that I became aware of the fact that she was actually not only a musician but an extremely good musician.

Cisco Bradley:   What first struck you about her playing?

Tom Rainey:       Well, I’ll tell you, after we got together, she was going back to London and she gave me her most recent CD, which was a record called Forensic. I think it was her third release. I knew she was a musician now but I had no idea to what degree. I have to say I was a little bit reluctant to put the CD on because I really, really liked her a lot. I was thinking well, if I don’t like the music then it would be very awkward. So I put it on and in about two seconds I was really relieved because I really liked what I was listening to. And, at that point, it was mostly about her compositions which I found to be really interesting because it was several people on the record so she wasn’t just featuring herself. But it got to a one part where there was a ballad, she really did feature her playing and the first thing I was really struck with was what a beautiful sound she had and what great ideas she had to go along with that sound. I knew I was interested in her playing basically from that moment on.

The very first time we actually played, which was in my apartment when she was visiting, we just improvised a little piece together, and it was an instance—you know, it happens every now and then where you just know basically within five seconds that this is a chemistry that really works well, that makes it very easy to play. It feels like you really can’t do anything to destroy it. Like, even if I did something I didn’t intend to do, that she would make musical sense out of it. And so I basically knew after three seconds of improvising with each other that this was a chemistry that worked well for me.

Cisco Bradley:   Wow. That’s really incredible. And how about Mary Halvorson as a player? I mean, I suppose you met her a little bit later?

Tom Rainey:       Well, I actually met Mary before Ingrid. It was several years before that that I was sharing a double bill with Trevor Dunn’s Trio-Convulsant with Mary Halvorson and Ches Smith. I didn’t know anything about Mary before. And I was really struck by her in that context. I really thought she was one of the more interesting guitar players that I’d heard and interesting in a different way than a lot of guitar players.

A lot of guitar players use a lot of effects and the processing of sound, but with her it was just this big fat guitar, and it really sounds like a big fat guitar, and her use of… What effects that she did use, she used very minimally. And, to me, it never really detracted from this great, really nice natural sound that she had on the guitar and everything about her playing. The way that she was dealing with Trevor’s compositions and the way she would improvise over. I had no idea at the time that we would later play together. When we first started playing with Ingrid, I realized that there was something there to mine further musically. I’m certainly glad I did because it’s still continuously surprising and fresh but yet somehow very comfortable too.

Cisco Bradley:   So each of the three records that you put out, have all those been freely improvised? Or, do they have a sort of compositional basis?

Tom Rainey:       No. I’ll suggest a certain dynamic or a certain energy that I like us to explore. But, generally, there’s very little said and there’s no written instruction, whatsoever. So all the music that you hear is basically what we just come up with improvising with each other.

One of the things I like most about this band is that the music is completely improvised or we have a certain way of dealing with each other compositionally that I think can give the illusion that we might be playing something that we’ve practiced or something – you know, some kind of song or something. I really liked that a lot. That’s kinda what my interest is in this music – erasing whatever barriers there are between composition and improvisation. Where it doesn’t really matter if you’re doing one or the other, the result is gonna be music that can be interpreted as compositional or it can be interpreted as free.

Cisco Bradley:   What are the new directions you wanted to go with your new record, Hotel Grief?

Tom Rainey:       The biggest difference about this record to me is that it’s a live record and the other ones were all done in the studio. So the pieces tend to be longer. In the studio, I think we average like 10 to 12 tracks per CD, and on this one it’s 5. So it’s a different energy being live than just trying to manufacture that in the studio. Other than that, I just think it’s the next record, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t see it necessarily anything as a radical departure from anything we’ve ever done other than the fact that it’s a live recording and it captures what we do in front of an audience rather than in front of a bunch of microphones and a glass booth.

Cisco Bradley:   What’s behind the title, Hotel Grief?

Tom Rainey:       Well, it’s evocative. There’s a hotel in Wels. I don’t know if you’ve even been to the festival in Wels, Austria, but if you have, you probably have stayed at this hotel. And the hotel is actually called Hotel Greif. So I just transposed the ‘I’ and ‘E’. And it’s something that kinda got stuck in my head. I didn’t really particularly want to call the CD Hotel Grief but I just couldn’t come up with anything that I actually liked better. It has nothing to do with this hotel that actually exists other than this little bit of a play on words. It’s just more of a title that I guess sounds to me like it could be like a movie title or something like that.

And I think I do tend to put these records together almost cinematically. I want it to be some sort of story told even though I have no idea what that story might mean. So I just feel like you’re going on some kind of trip throughout the entire recording.

Cisco Bradley:   I was curious about the last piece on the disk that you dedicated to Keith Copeland. He was a trumpet player, right?

Tom Rainey:       No. His father was the trumpet player – Ray Copeland. Ray played with Monk on several records. But Keith was his son and when I went to college, he was my first teacher. He passed away in the last couple years so I thought to dedicate that last piece to him. He was not only my teacher but he was really a friend. When I first came to New York, I actually lived with him for the first few months I was here. He was somebody that went well above and beyond of call of duty as a teacher to help me do what I’m doing. I had virtually no contact with him for really a long time. He moved to Germany a long time ago. I think the last time I saw him was in Germany, but that was probably 20 years ago or something like that. I was definitely saddened by his—he was too young. I guess he’d been dealing with some medical issues for some time. He was about 10 years older than I am so he wasn’t even 70.

Cisco Bradley:   I feel like people are so fascinated by your utterly unique approach to rhythm. Could you talk about your approach to that? Even visually, I feel like you interact with the drum kit in a way that is unlike anyone else. I’m curious how you feel like you’ve developed your sense of rhythm over time.

Tom Rainey:       One thing I guess could be said is that I’ve been doing this my whole life, in one capacity or another. When I was 7 years old, I was playing at a drum corps and we would play in parades and play like drum cadences. And even before, I remember I was hitting things with sticks because my father handed it down to me. He wasn’t a professional musician but he played the drums. To me, it was just like maybe some sport would be to other kids. It’s just something I just always did and it was just a part of my life without really thinking about it. By the time I got to high school, I was getting some attention from the school and stuff. I was always the first chair in the orchestra and I would be in the stage band at the high school. I think just because I had done it my whole life, it was something that came pretty naturally. I can’t say I really worked incredibly hard on it except I just did it for so long and it was just so constant that it eventually added up. But I was never somebody who would practice for 5 or 6 hours a day or anything like that. But I would play as much as possible.

And so I guess by the time I was in high school I just started becoming interested in music that wasn’t popular music or mainstream music. I was also very interested in the stuff that was on the radio when I was in high school which is music I still like a lot. But, I became more interested in jazz and back then, what was known as jazz rock, which I guess became fusion. And the jazz rock at that time or the fusion were bands like the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the Weather Report. They were pretty challenging even though they were also pretty popular bands. You would go to the concert and there would be thousands of people at this concert and stuff.

So I sought both of those bands when I was in my teens. I was just always really interested in whatever I perceived as being new music. It didn’t sound anything like bebop. It didn’t sound anything like The Beatles or anything. And these kind of bands, they were dealing with rhythms that weren’t coming out of bebop or coming out of swing jazz. You know, different, odd time signatures. So I was attracted to that and so I would try to play like that. And then I would exhaust whatever that might be and move on to something else that interested me. So, I can’t really separate my development rhythmically or as a drummer from the things I was attracted to.

And then when I got to New York, if I heard somebody that I liked, I would try to play with them. Sometimes it would work great, sometimes it wouldn’t necessarily work. But I was just really attracted to playing with people that I thought were much better than I was and that I could learn something from. And then eventually I started playing music that it was asking something of me that was different than showing up and playing a standard jazz gig or playing with a singer.

And I didn’t really necessarily even have a template for that. I would just sort of force to kinda create something that— And I’m certainly influenced by tons of stuff that I would be sort of forced to create something that was a way to approach a piece of music that I didn’t really have a precedent for, I didn’t really know. There was just kind of a process of trial and error, I guess, with trying to do something on the drums that didn’t ruin somebody’s piece of music that they’d written. It’s continuous to this day to sort of be that case. I wish I could just say well, I studied this and I studied that and I studied this …

And I did study. I studied rhythm, practiced different rhythms. But as far as applying it, you know, applying all the rhythms and what not… I mean, I was practicing and studying polyrhythms but at that time when I was in college, I had no application for it, whatsoever, because nobody was writing music that involved that way of playing. And if you try to force some odd grouping of notes into a bebop tune, it would just be stupid. It wouldn’t make any sense. I was just kinda studying and working on this stuff for the sake of doing it because I was interested in rhythm. And then eventually time caught up to that and people that I play with now are using these kind of polyrhythmic ideas in their music. I’m very glad I took the time to become acquainted with these things so I was somewhat prepared to play the music of Ingrid Laubrock or Kris Davis or Mark Helias or whoever else that might be writing stuff that’s more rhythmically challenged than the mainstream.

Cisco Bradley:   According to your memory, when did that transition happen?

Tom Rainey:       I think it was just an evolution. One of the first times was when I first started playing the music of Tim Berne in the early ‘80s. And he was somebody who was writing stuff that was really different than anything I’d ever done before. People would write challenging or hard tunes but they would basically be tunes with chord progressions and forms that you would play on the form much more akin to a standard form. And Tim was writing stuff that didn’t do that at all. So that was one of the first instances of having to come up with an approach that at least was new to me in order to bring something to his music, other than me just sitting there playing a swing beat over one of his tunes, which would have made no sense, you know? But that was in the early ‘80s. From that point on, then I started slowly being exposed to improvisers and composers that didn’t write the way that all the improvisers and composers that I played with up to that point did.

Cisco Bradley:   The role of the drummers and percussionists has changed radically. What you are referring to is a huge part of the revolution in the music in the past couple of decades.

Tom Rainey:       I think that’s always been there, it’s just it sort of exploded more. I mean if you really go back and you listen to what somebody was doing in the ‘20s as opposed to what they were doing in the ‘30s, that’s already a huge change. And then, of course, if you go from the ‘30s to the late ‘40s, then it’s an evolution that just really sped up, I think, as decades have gone by. I mean I think the difference between somebody like Baby Dodds and Big Sid Catlett, that’s already a huge push forward.

To answer your earlier question about how it is that I got to where I got rhythmically or musically, I guess I was really aware of this kind of evolution and I was really interested in somehow being a part of that as much as I possibly could. To me, as much as I love Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, it never really seemed like I was really honoring them or doing them any service by trying to sound like them. Because, the whole point of them was they didn’t sound like anybody else. And so I guess in just my own way I just wanted to try to be a part of that as much as I possibly could.

I think that’s also what attracted me to the music that I was attracted to because I figured this is how I can do that. I could seek out musical experiences that I don’t necessarily have a big precedent for and maybe in my own way push that a little bit forward. At the same time, I really don’t mean it to sound like I’m trying to be a part of that great lineage of drummers. I definitely don’t want it to come across like I’m trying to put myself in the same group as Elvin and Jack DeJohnette and all these people that I kinda revered for my whole life. I just wanted a taste of that as much as I could find it.

Cisco Bradley:   So you mentioned Tim Berne. I know you said you started playing with him in the early ‘80s.

Tom Rainey:       His music and playing in his bands was a big part of my make-up in what I’ve been doing, in fact in New York pretty much.

Cisco Bradley:   I am curious to ask you about some of the bass players that you’ve encountered through the years and maybe talk about some of the relationships that you’ve forged with them in terms of the musical… what you feel like has come out musically. Could you talk about Drew Gress and Mark Helias?

Tom Rainey:       Well, maybe I’ll go back to the beginning. The first bass player in New York that really had an impact on me and actually my career was Ratzo Harris. I’d say the first 5 years I was in New York, pretty much everything I did was a result of being friends with Ratzo and playing music with Ratzo. The first two records I ever made were directly a result of him recommending me. And the first time I ever played a week at a club in New York, same thing. He was directly responsible for that. First time I went out of town to do a week with Ted Curson, that was because of him. It’s because he was in the band and he recommended me. Through the ‘80s, he was the musician I played with more than anybody. And, actually, the first gig I ever did with Tim Berne, Ratzo was also playing bass on that. And then as it happens in this business, one thing leads to another and somebody starts getting busy doing something else and then you lose your contact with somebody that you’ve been seeing on a daily basis for a while. And I guess around that time when I started playing less with Ratzo, I started playing more and more with Drew.

And then I guess in the ‘90s, Drew was probably the musician I probably played with almost more than anybody. We were about five different bands with each other at any given time. We played in a lot of different contexts. We did everything from the Fred Hersch Trio to Paraphrase with Tim Berne and everything in between.

And then Helias, I guess it was ’89 or something, he asked me to do a gig under not the greatest of circumstances. He had some gigs and a tour coming up with Freddie Waits, Nasheet’s father, and he had passed away right around that time. And so Mark asked me to do a weekend with him in New York. I guess he was he was happy with how that went and he asked me to do a tour with him. And then he’s been kind of calling ever since then, I guess. So I guess that was ’89 or ’90.

So as far as bass players go, there’s many bass players I really like playing with but as far as the ones I most played with, I guess it would certainly be Drew and Mark and then going back to Ratzo before that.

Cisco Bradley:   Wow. So maybe to bring it back to the trio, I’m curious what you see as maybe coming up next for the trio.

Tom Rainey:       A tour in Europe in April. And then after that, I will just try to keep it going as much as I can. I think everybody has to take a pretty long view and be patient. Just take your time since it’s impossible for everybody to work all the time. And everybody has to do so many different things. Right now, the main thing I’m concerned about is trying to do a tour to help support Hotel Grief.

Cisco Bradley:   Thank you very much.