Tom Rainey: The New Standard

by Troy Collins

Tom Rainey                                                                                                                                              

Born in Los Angeles in 1957, drummer Tom Rainey grew up in Santa Barbara before moving to New York City in 1979. Rainey got his start playing straight-ahead jazz gigs in the Big Apple during the early ‘80s, often as part of a trio with pianist Kenny Werner and bassist Ratzo Harris. Subsequently, Rainey met Tim Berne, forming a working relationship with the maverick saxophonist that continues to this day. At the same time, Rainey was performing with luminaries such as Jane Ira Bloom, Fred Hersch, and Andy Laster – before recording dates and tours with Berne became the drummer’s primary gig, many of which also featured bassist Drew Gress. Rainey’s partnership with Berne was documented on numerous live and studio recordings made from the mid-‘90s through the turn of the millennium, in Berne’s groups Big Satan, Paraphrase, Hard Cell, and Science Friction. Berne’s ensembles allowed Rainey great improvisational freedom, with collective group interplay that balanced rhythmic drive and colorful textures.

Rainey also collaborated with other artists during this fertile time, playing with Mark Helias, Brad Shepik, and Angelica Sanchez, among many others. Despite Rainey’s unassailable credentials as a master improviser, the drummer had not led a recording date as a bandleader until the release of Pool School (Clean Feed), the debut of his trio with guitarist Mary Halvorson and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock in 2010 (the same year that Rainey and Laubrock were married). The trio’s sophomore effort, Camino Cielo Echo (Intakt) followed two years later, with Rainey regularly appearing in Laubrock’s ensembles as well. In 2014 Rainey issued Obbligato, his third album as a bandleader, leading a quintet by the same name with Laubrock, Gress, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, and pianist Kris Davis, which freely interpreted jazz standards. The group’s second recording, Float Upstream, was issued in the summer of 2017 by Intakt, concurrent with this interview.

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TC: Considering your involvement in the early Downtown New York scene, and its reliance on new writing, the first question that comes to mind regarding Obbligato is: why standards?

TR: During the early “Downtown New York Scene,” which as far as I was concerned, meant playing somewhat regularly at The Knitting Factory and Tonic, I was also playing in the piano trios of Kenny Werner and Fred Hersch which both involved lots of standards being played. Back then (as well as now), I didn’t think of these genres as being mutually exclusive. It’s simply a different discipline to express yourself in. I’ve felt just as free playing standards in the right company as any improvised or heavily composed setting. It’s all the same if you have the right chemistry. Obbligato came about from a desire to explore this material with a crew of great improvisers who also have an affinity for songs.

TC: Do you have any special criteria for picking particular standards to reinterpret?

TR: The main criteria was to pick tunes that everyone enjoyed playing and knew by heart. I wanted the band to feel as free as possible, and if there’s sheet music involved then the material isn’t really internalized. Also, I wanted to mostly avoid tunes that were written by jazz composers, although I broke that rule on a couple of occasions. If you play a Monk composition, it’s hard to avoid the power of his musical personality whereas “Stella By Starlight” is much more of a blank slate.

TC: It sounds like tunes culled from the Great American Songbook lend themselves to your approach more readily than classic jazz numbers. Are there any particular composers whose songs you tend to favor from that idiom?

TR: As far as Obbligato is concerned, I guess I don’t. So far, the selection of songs seems to be spread amongst many different composers. The era is more consistent.

TC: The band’s personnel has been the same since it’s self-titled 2013 debut; how did this line-up happen to come together?

TR: A couple of years before the first Obbligato recording, Kris, Ingrid, Ralph and I made a recording as a band called Lark. Although the music was improvised, it sounded very compositional to my ears. It wasn’t difficult to imagine the sound of that group in the context of playing standards and there was no doubt in my mind that the perfect bassist for what I was imagining was Drew. Once I had the go-ahead from Intakt, we picked the repertoire, rehearsed a bit and went into the studio. The result was all that I’d hoped for.

TC: So, I assume from your previous mention of the imprint, that this project was funded by Intakt, rather than you having to shop around the idea (and/or recording) to multiple labels? Is that a different working method than you typically use? Or do you normally like to have the support of a label before you record and tour?

TR: All the CD’s I’ve made were recorded with my knowing they would be released, with the exception of the last trio recording, Hotel Grief, which was live. I’ve been extremely fortunate in that everything I’ve proposed to Intakt and the first one for Clean Feed was funded, which is becoming more and more rare these days. I suppose that waiting until one is fifty years old before producing your first recording cuts out a lot of shopping around – by the time I was ready to have a band I was already known by these labels.

TC: It’s true, age does have its benefits in that regard. Which makes me curious: why did you wait so long to release an album under your own name?

TR: I’d always felt creatively satisfied to the point where I never felt the necessity to attach my name to a project – other than the occasional co-op group. One of the motivating factors was when Ingrid and I became involved in each other’s musical lives, I wanted to find a project that allowed us to play more, and that led to the trio with Mary Halvorson. But even before that, I’d been imagining a different approach to standards playing that would eventually lead to the group Obbligato. Not being the biggest go-getter in the world would also explain my late entry to band leading.

TC: Ingrid seems to be a key player in all the groups you lead at this point. When did you two first play together?

TR: We first worked together when Ingrid invited me to play some nonet music that she was commissioned to write for the Cheltenham Jazz Festival in the U.K. in 2007. But the first time we played together was improvising as a duo in my apartment in Brooklyn. It isn’t very often, but every now and then you have an initial musical encounter with a player and it’s immediately clear that there’s a strong musical chemistry that’s begging to be explored and this was certainly one of those occasions.

TC: I assume there must be other musicians from earlier phases of your career with whom you’ve had a similar chemistry. If so, who might those artists be?

TR: There is a number of musicians that I’ve shared a strong chemistry with, but for many of them it took some time to develop and often that was achieved in the context of a band. Kenny Werner with Ratzo Harris, and Fred Hersch with Drew Gress are two good examples of that. Now that I think of it, many of my longest associations in music weren’t necessarily magical first encounters. I found early on that you can really enjoy someone’s playing and imagine how great it would be to play with them only to find that it doesn’t hook up at all like you thought it would. But if there is a spark and you keep fanning it, a strong connection may emerge. Some of the other musicians I feel that connection with are: Mary Halvorson, Tony Malaby, Angelica Sanchez, Kris Davis, Tim Berne, and Mark Helias, to name a few.

TC: I’m actually a little unfamiliar with your work before the Downtown New York scene. Could you relay how you first got into playing?

TR: I’ve drummed since before I can remember. My father got me started and it was a childhood hobby until my early teens when I started taking it more seriously and also started getting into jazz music. My first professional experience was in high school playing in a cover band. But as my interest in jazz increased I moved away from ‘70s rock and more into improvising. I studied for a few semesters at Berklee College of Music and since then have pretty much been on the same path that I’m still on – trying to play music as creatively as possible. After arriving in New York in 1978 I began playing with the great bass player Ratzo Harris which led to my first recording and performing opportunities with Mike Nock, Ted Curson, Kenny Werner, and Jane Ira Bloom.

TC: Since your arrival in New York predates the start of what is now celebrated as the Downtown Scene (which you are still often associated with), I’m curious: from your perspective, did the work of artists like Tim Berne and John Zorn seem revolutionary at the time, or more like a natural progression of ideas that were already in the air?

TR: The first time I performed with John Zorn and Tim Berne, we played the music of Ornette Coleman, so that was revolutionary, albeit a couple of decades before our gig. Not so long after that, Tim put together a band with Bill Frisell, Herb Robertson and Ratzo Harris, playing his compositions, which for me at that time was unlike any music that I’d played before. I never thought about it in terms of how revolutionary it was and still don’t. Most musicians I knew from that time were finding their own voices and trying to stretch the compositional and improvisational boundaries in their own way and many still are. I guess history gets to decide which of them are deemed revolutionary.

TC: Perhaps “revolutionary” overstates the case. Did it feel like something new was happening in composition and improvisation when playing with those musicians (as opposed to say playing traditional standards gigs)? I hear parallels in the new Brooklyn scene, with many of the younger musicians you’ve been playing with.

TR: It was new to me but I never thought much about how new it was objectively speaking. I think of it more in terms of a continuation of a long tradition of exploration and occasional innovation. Back then I had experiences of playing standards that also seemed new to my ears but maybe not to someone else’s. I’m very aware of my influences and find it hard to detach my playing from that awareness – if that makes any sense.

TC: That makes perfect sense to me. Who do you consider your primary influences?

TR: The drummers that influenced me the most were all in my favorite bands. A brief and somewhat chronological list would look like: Ringo Starr (Beatles), Gene Krupa (Benny Goodman), Buddy Rich (Buddy Rich Big Band), Jack DeJohnette (Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis), Dave Garibaldi (Tower of Power), Billy Cobham (Mahavishnu Orchestra), Alphonse Mouzon and Eric Gravat (Weather Report), Tony Williams (Miles Davis), Elvin Jones (John Coltrane), Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins (Ornette Coleman), and Paul Motian (Paul Motian Quintet and Trio). There is so much more music across every genre that has informed me and this list represents only what I listened to through childhood into my early 20’s.

TC: I remember the first time I saw you perform; it was with Andy Laster, at the Knitting Factory. I was struck by how clean and tight your drumming was – more Roy Haynes say, than Elvin Jones. And then years later I saw you play with Tim Berne, and your approach had changed somewhat – looser, with some additional percussion, ala Jim Black, who was on his way up at the time. But most recently, your sideman work with Jason Stein’s bop-oriented quartet suggests that earlier, crisper style. So, I’m curious, do you adapt different drumming techniques for different playing situations?

TR: It’s not a conscious choice to play one way or another but I hope that instinctually my playing will adapt to different music. The music that Andy Laster wrote, back when I was playing with him, has demands that are very different to the music that I last played with Jason, so it doesn’t make any sense to impose the same approach to both projects. Plus there was a gap of around twenty years between these two examples – hopefully my playing has somewhat evolved in that time.

TC: Speaking of performing, how do you feel about studio recording compared to live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation?

TR: I really like both but they are different. When recording, you’re thinking in terms of the listener hearing the music on multiple occasions and will make choices in the studio based on that. Whereas a live performance is much more fleeting and one might take a few more risks.

TC: Similarly, what are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry at large, especially in regards to archival copies (CD’s, vinyl) versus more ephemeral formats (downloads, streaming)?

TR: Recording industry might be an oxymoron as far as our music is concerned and the culture of streaming and downloads is partly responsible for this. I grew up during a time when a new release was somewhat of an event. We’d wait for months and visit the record store regularly looking for the latest Beatles, Miles, Mahavishnu Orchestra, etc., recording and when it finally arrived we’d then BUY IT, take it home and play it over and over again. Now, it’s all at your fingertips even before it’s officially been released. There are obvious advantages to that immediacy, but the sheer volume of releases is pretty overwhelming and so much gets lost in the shuffle.

TC: I understand and partially agree, but as a collector who still regularly buys music in multiple formats, I’m curious – if you feel recordings are so much less important now than they once were, why bother recording at all?

TR: I didn’t mean to imply that recordings are less important now than they once were, but the whole marketplace has definitely become over saturated. Regardless of that, I think it’s still vital that we document our music.

TC: Understood. As far as documenting your music goes, what immediate plans do you have for the near future? Any recording projects on the horizon?

TR: Ingrid and I are going to record with Sylvie Courvoisier and Mark Feldman in early October for the label Rogue Art. And later this week, Ken Vandermark, Nate Wooley, Sylvie and I will go into the studio. I’m excited about both of these new projects.

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