Published on March 21st, 2013 | by Ballard Lesemann0
The Charleston Jazz Orchestra’s Ron Wiltrout on the Basie Beat
Presented by the Jazz Artists of Charleston, the Charleston Jazz Orchestra (CJO) is set to jam out this weekend on a new program based on the music of pianist, composer, and bandleader Count Basie. Conductor and trumpet player Charlton Singleton will lead the 20-piece big band through two sets of Basie classics from the iconic 1958 album The Complete Atomic Mr. Basie.
Veteran drummer Ron Wiltrout, one of the CJO’s regular timekeepers, weighs in on his role in the rhythm section and his experiences with Basie’s swingin’ music.
Metronome Charleston: Tell us about your own experience with the music of Count Basie. Did you get into his popular swing material when you were first getting into playing jazz, or did you dig into it later on?
Ron Wiltrout: Count Basie’s music — the arrangements of Neal Hefti and Sammy Nestico, in particular — were standard repertoire with any jazz big band when I was growing up. I played some of the music in high school jazz band and such things as All-State jazz band. I never really liked listening to it when I was in school, though, because it seemed old-fashioned. I was more into listening to rock music like the Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana, or quasi-funk fusion records by John Scofield, or just more modern-sounding small-group jazz like the ’60s Miles Davis quintet. I was into more freedom, and I didn’t realize then how valuable and important it is to study such things as Basie and Ellington. My ignorance at all this persisted for many years, even through college. I always wanted to play the more modern big band stuff like the Mel Lewis/Thad Jones group was doing, or the Mingus Big Band, or even modern things like the Matthew Herbert Big Band which incorporated electronics in the group.
Basie’s stuff seemed simple to my small world mind back then, but as I’ve heard it more and studied it in the past few years, I realize how modern his sound could actually be. The Atomic Basie record has some pretty abstract stuff on it. Background figures under solos that are kind of out or really busy. The fact that they sound so natural on the record is because the band plays so responsibly and creatively. It’s hard to pull that off. Even Basie’s piano playing is so unique. Everything he plays is like a part that makes the whole song more interesting, rather than just soloistic noodling the whole time — which I also really like, by the way. The Basie Orchestra then was more like the rock bands I was listening to in high school than any of the jazz I was listening to.
Metronome Charleston: How does the music on The Complete Atomic Mr. Basie album most differ from his early-era swing of the 1930s?
Ron Wiltrout: I’m definitely not very hip to the history of Basie, but I bet the later stuff is a continuation more than a departure. The arrangements always accentuate the strengths of his individual players, and the abstract nature of some of what I hear is probably written with the knowledge that they can pull it off and make it sound natural and continuous. I really appreciate how the arrangements are often made with unusual solo forms where the soloist has to navigate background figures and keep the whole tune heading in a good direction. I bet the earlier stuff is more cut-and-dry for when a soloist is featured — with improvised background figures building underneath to help them build intensity in a more linear, traditional fashion. But then, I’m not terribly hip to the whole history.
Metronome Charleston: You recently mentioned that you have to balance your naturally loose drumming style with a more strict approach and technique when playing big band material. How do adjust your style and approach when playing Count Basie-style swing? It’s probably much different to playing drums on John Coltrane or Miles Davis material.
Ron Wiltrout: Again, I have to point to how natural everything sounds, even when the background figures are pretty “out.” Or the unusual forms of how things are supposed to build. I have to play more on the deliberate side to make some of that work. If I try to play pretty loose and abstract, I might end up making the band sound like the Mel Lewis/Thad Jones Band, but I don’t think it would be as effective. I have to play more responsibly so that the whole piece comes together and we play our roles.
Another reason I feel I have to be more strict and deliberate is because of the volume. This is a big band. I don’t feel my strength is to play very complex ideas at such high volumes and communicate with 15 other people. I can play interesting things that are also pretty clear for the band, and we all sound better. Small groups are a different story. Playing in a quartet gives me a lot more freedom — depending upon with whom you are playing, of course — and I can be loose and take chances and get weird, but the big band is more like a band, and I have to play my role in the band.
Metronome Charleston: The Charleston Jazz Orchestra’s rhythm section for the “Atomic Basie” program will feature you alongside pianist Gerald Gregory, guitarist Tyler Ross, and bassist Jeremy Wolf. Has this particular rhythm section developed a unique musical relationship over the last few years — one that’s flexible and expressive enough to handle multiple styles?
Ron Wiltrout: We’ve all played with each other for years. One of my first gigs in Charleston was with Jeremy around 2001. I’ve been playing weekly with Gerald for at least the last five years, and I’ve been trying to play with Tyler as much as I could ever since he moved to town four years ago. We have played with each other in dozens of configurations and challenged each other to do different things in each. That has definitely led to us having a rapport. But most of that stuff was small group work, which is very different from playing in a big band. This rhythm section feels particularly strong as the backbone of the CJO, and I’m sure it has something to do with our experiences with each other and our trust and responsibility to make it all work. Again, we have to work together, and we do.
Metronome Charleston: You mentioned the Charleston Jazz Orchestra has a tendency to play pretty loud much of the time, which creates a challenge to the rhythm section when trying be subtle and dynamic. How have this rhythm section and others in the CJO family stuck a balance between driving the beat and playing expressively and delicately when necessary?
Ron Wiltrout: Basically, I just have to play really freaking loud when necessary. I had to work on this. It’s not my strength. There have been times in rehearsal when Maestro [Charlton] Singelton has to remind the band of their dynamic — the soft moments — and I think sometimes that happens because the rhythm section is trying as a section to play quieter but still clear when necessary so the band realizes they can play quieter, too, and it will all still work… even sound better. I want them to know that when they have to blast to make a moment happen, I will be there to support them. But I also want them to know that that moment will be more effective if the “non-moments” are at a lower relative dynamic. We’re working on it.
Metronome Charleston: The “Atomic Basie” set includes a variety of songs, from uptempo/brassy numbers like “Kid from Red Bank” and “Whirlybird” to moodier, slinkier tunes like “After Supper” and “Midnite Blue.” Will you and the rhythm section try to emulate the dynamics and rhythmic feel of the original recordings, or will you put new twists on a few thing throughout the show.
Ron Wiltrout: There won’t be a huge diversion from the original ideas, but, as you know, recording is different than playing live. The Basie Band didn’t feel beholden to recreate the recordings exactly when they played, and so neither do we. Even from rehearsal to rehearsal, if a particular soloist is feeling good his/her solo gets a little more oomph out of the rhythm section. That being said, a lot of what makes the music work as a whole is written into the dynamics and feel of the tune. In that way we are more like a chamber ensemble or band with everyone fulfilling their role.
Metronome Charleston: As the drummer, what’s your favorite Basie tune of this week’s, and why?
Ron Wiltrout: Maybe “The Kid From Red Bank.” It’s fast and driving and offers me a lot of challenges. “Flight of the Foo Birds” is the melody that gets stuck in my head the most. I admit it reminds me of the theme to The Family Guy. Also, “Sleepwalkers’ Serenade” is totally badass. The trombone!
Metronome Charleston: What might surprise longtime Basie fans about the Charleston Jazz Orchestra’s rendition of The Complete Atomic Mr. Basie material?
Ron Wiltrout: How great those melodies still are.
The Charleston Jazz Orchestra presents “Atomic Basie” at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. at the Charleston Music Hall. Tickets are available for $40, $35, $30, and $25. Visit charlestonmusichall.com and jazzartistsofcharleston.org for more.
Top photo by Tessa Blake, courtesy of the Jazz Artists of Charleston.
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