Pittsburgh is a 'Right Coast' hidden gem. Boasting names like George Benson, Joe Negri, Paul Gilbert, Ray Luzier, and Vinnie Colaiuta, this hardworking city has produced some of the world's top class musicians. Among the group of talented people hailing from this area, is a lauded guitarist named Tony Janflone, Jr. After several years away, you can call Tony 'Pittsburgh's Comeback Kid'. A veteran guitarist, Tony has staged a triumphant return to Pittsburgh's music scene, brandishing a lush, rich tone in his version of blues, jazz, and rock. While I didn't get to speak with Tony before this went to press, I did get to speak with his drummer Joe Marini. Joe's an interesting and affable fellow, with an ear for quality. He's gigged with most of Pittsburgh's music elite, and knows more about the inner workings of 'groove' then most. I was privileged to speak with Joe about his background, and a variety of interesting musical topics. Choice excerpts are presented for your edu-tainment.
Do you come from a musical family, or did your family instill a musical background in to your early years? Did you have any early mentors? How did you decide to start playing drums? Who influenced that decision?
Everyone in my family has an ear for music, but none of them moved forward with it. Just me. Again, I'm the oddball as is the case so often!
I took lessons from Babe Fabrizi in Pittsburgh for about 9 months in 1979. I was ten. He was a killer jazz drummer. I started lessons only because a buddy of mine was taking piano lessons, and my mother suggested I start doing it as well. I liked drums the most, and she was fine with that (until later). I didn't really love the lessons, so I stopped.
3 years later some kids in our neighborhood were looking for a drummer, and they heard I played, so they contacted me. I told them I was no longer playing. They talked me into it (damn them!) and I've been playing ever since. We put this band together, and the next thing I know I'm opening up for TALAS (Billy Sheehan's old band), who I'm still in touch with today. That was January of '84. Don't ask me how a 14 yr. old punk was playing an over 21 club, but I was. (Stage One, Plum borough, PA). I've been gigging pretty much ever since.
You were playing jazz as far back as the late 1980's which is fairly close to when you began playing. Did you start playing with jazz in mind - as an endpoint or goal?
We were strictly rock guys until around 1986. By then my dad had bought me a Jean-Luc Ponty album, and I really dug it. Steve Smith was playing drums with him at the time, so I immediately saw the crossover thing - that great musicians could play jazz, and rock out with Journey at the same time - a huge commercially successful rock/pop band. From there, we starting covering Pat Metheny, David Sanborn, Weather Report, John Scofield, Chick Corea, etc. My friends were all rock guys and thought I was nuts. One way or another we starting playing The Balcony in Shady Side (Pittsburgh), which was the biggest jazz club to play in the area. It worked out very well. We played there quite a bit and everyone seemed to dig us. We played there until it closed several years later.
The Balcony was famous for the steps of death. All musicians hated having to carry gear up and down those grease-covered steps, so we (Upfront) put a picture of them inside our 'Killing Time' CD in 1995. I still giggle at that picture to this day, and still listen to that CD a ton!
Quick jazz-fusion ed: When we first started listening to fusion, Jeff Lorber was huge to us. Check out "Tune 88" or "Toad's Place". These are great 'Fusion 101' type tunes. Great stuff. Fun. Then 'Phase Dance' from Pat Metheny was massive to us.
Playing jazz opened up a whole new world for all of us. It helps your playing a ton, I think.
You saw clearly, right away, that great musicians weren't limited by genre, and you crossed smoothly from rock to jazz. Your 'rock friends' took you for crazy. It implies a goal: did you set out to become a great musician? A quarter-century later, do your old 'rock friends' yet see this truth, of 'losing the labels'?
Most of my old friends now understand the rock to jazz thing, in retrospect. I do for sure. It's funny: None of the jazz stuff directly affects rock playing, but it makes the way you play grooves a little more profound. It loosens any worry there might be about playing one or the other, and just gives you enough vocabulary (hopefully) to just play what works for the song, whatever genre it may be. To me, any jazz influence there is tends to make all of your playing a bit more 'swampy', and gutty, and to the bone. The rigidity is not really there with the jazz stuff in the back of your head. I hope that makes sense. It probably doesn't.
Am I making a critical error, thinking of you as primarily a big-band, jazz and fusion drummer? It's that 'label' limit again, isn't it!
Big-band jazz, fusion, pop, funk, rock, Latin... I'd like to think all of them are a part of my history, so I can play comfortably with all of them. Additionally, having a bit of background with all of them makes every groove you play just a little deeper. This is what I really enjoy about it.
Please tell us about your influences, both for early times and current inspirations.
Early on, Neil Peart, of course. Many drummers will agree. As far as pure inspiration goes, he's tough to beat. In all probability he's the reason I play. "The Spirit of Radio" - that song can inspire just about anyone. If it doesn't, I question if you have a pulse.
Soon after that, it was Steve Smith, Dennis Chambers, Dave Weckl, Omar Hakim, and anyone who played with Pat Metheny, Teri-Lynn Carrington, William Kennedy, and Vinny Colauita, of course.
Lately, Jojo Mayer and Keith Carlock are heavily on my mind. Certainly, there's a ton of drummers who I'm leaving out - but these are the ones that come immediately to mind.
All of these guys are very comfortable in just about any musical style - and that's not by accident!
To you, what defines 'side projects' vs. the 'main band'? Tell us about 'In The Mood':
The main band plays the most gigs. The side projects are the musical diversions that typically pay less, but help you keep your musical honesty and sanity. Having said that, my 'main band' is called "In the Mood", and it's filled with head-crushin' musicians that make the gig outstanding. I'm very thankful for that. You have to see this band to believe it, but that's it in a nutshell; we almost never play public gigs. It's very frustrating. "Hey man, let me know when you guys are playing out, I wanna come see you!!" It's a statement I hear a ton, and can't really oblige. Did I mention this is frustrating?
The band is typically a 10 piece band, complete with a killer horn section.
Joe Munroe, Keyboards, Vocals. Don Marsico, Vocals. Karen Jeffries, Vocals. Erika Vasquez, Vocals. Nick DiBattiste, Guitar, Vocals. John Steez, Vocals. Randy Venturini, Bass. Me, drums. The horn section changes gig to gig. Top to bottom, killer players.
Regarding Upfront and your release "Killing Time"... [[http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/upfront]] In your opinion, what's the difference between West Coast jazz and New York jazz? Could you elaborate on the genre stuff a little bit?
NY or East coast jazz vibe is a little more aggressive, like much of Chick Corea's stuff, Pat Metheny, or the old school straight-ahead stuff. Generally the monsters from the old school (Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, etc.) are considered hardcore or 'real' jazz... more East Coasty.
West Coast is more accessible, commercial stuff, such as the Rippingtons, Fourplay, Kenny G, etc.
I'm checking out the preview on CDBaby and I like the tunes a lot. To me, each original is pleasurable and educational. The entire recording is clear and crisp. The mix doesn't bury any instrument. I like how the horns serve as exclamation points or stabs. They add an instant dynamic. I also like how in some tunes, piano occupies the space that guitar usually occupies. Could you talk about the writing process a bit? Who wrote the tunes, how were the arrangements decided, how long did the songs take to 'perfect', etc.
The songs on Killing Time were written by Nick DiBattiste, except for one. I've been gigging with him since 1984. Nick's a killer songwriter in rock or jazz. I remember us talking about keyboard sounds quite a bit back then, and almost always deciding on just piano. I'm very glad we did. Scott is a devastating pianist, but more importantly the album doesn't sound dated 17 years later with piano all over it. Again, the “LCF” is key.
'Spaces' is my favorite. It's incredibly funky or syncopated, and exploratory. Could you tell us a bit more about that song?
Each of the songs really have their own meaning to us, I think. You mentioned 'Spaces', which has a ton of layers to it. Tons of ear candy! I love it. I get an actual solo on this thing, and it's amazing to think how the years change your playing, comparing what I'd play now to then. Solos, of course, are very rare these days. In a jazz setting they are pretty standard.
Each song offers listeners something a little different, like a varied color palette. Can you pick out any parts and say "that's ME". ?
'Cindy Hill' is the only song that Scott wrote for the album. The head on this track is nuts. We brought in Matt Ferrante to play sax on this track, and he totally grand-slammed it. Before the solo section there's a 'lick of death' that Scott, Nick, and Matt play in unison that still actually scares me. It's a beautiful thing.
'Black Rainforest' has this thick, depressing vibe to it. It's really kinda heavy. With headphones on, this track is moving man. I still can't believe it to this day.
'In her Arms' is the best sounding song on the CD, I think. Brian Stahurski plays a killer fretless bass on this track, and I just smile every time I hear it.
'All There' is pretty fun and jammed out, with Scott Anderson playing this super fun piano solo. I've played a ton of gigs with Scott in many different settings; but the common thread with him is killer piano solos. It's actually sickening how good he plays, I really should slap him for playing that well. It's not fair.
'Sunday Impressions' is really George Benson-ish, I think. I freakin' love George Benson. At the end we did a pretend percussion section thing, using me, overdubbed about 5 or 10 or 15 times. Hilarious.
Do you have any plans to release more material?
I do have a CDBaby release 'coming out soon', which will just give a representative history of my stuff that I dig the most from the last 20-ish years. This 'record' will make no sense to the average listener. It will have no common thread with regard to musical style - and that's part of the point of this thing. I have been working on it, around all of the musicians' schedules, since about 2002. I cannot wait.
Oh, I was on a really nice Xmas CD in 2002 with a band called 'Cityscape'. It was killin'. Total Xmas Jazz CD.
Cityscape - Holiday (Dec. 2001, out of print)
In The Mood, 2013
Who's involved with In The Mood for live shows nowadays? What's that like, to play with a different set of people every gig? What kind of rehearsal do you get before those shows? What challenge does that present?
Musicians in and out... Yes, from gig to gig, the musicians change at times. We don't rehearse very much, if ever. It comes down to pre-gig prep, and then keeping your eyes and ears open on the gig. Mostly it's fine because everyone can play their face off, and it just kinda works. We'd be deadly if we rehearsed! I've always said, "if there is nothing to remember, there is nothing to forget."
With Tres Lads, 2013
I've played several times with Tres Lads, which is a cover band filled with Pittsburgh rock monsters: Kevin McDonald, Freddie Nelson, Jean-Marc Azoury, and Greg Joseph from The Clarks. We've yet to rehearse. Honestly I think it takes the pressure off. It is nothing but fun to play with those guys. I'm very thankful for those gigs, and the effect it's had on me.
So much of your work seems to thrive on 'the new': improvisation, change, exploration, playing with fellow band members without rehearsal. There's no opportunity for stagnation there, but there also seems to be a little bit less 'stability' or 'familiarity' that comes from repetition with the same musicians for years.
The thing about playing with a ton of great players is what they draw out of you on stage as a musician. For example, once, we played with two 'subs', Max Leake on Keyboards and Dave Brown on guitar. No rehearsal. You might know Max from being a heavyweight in the Pittsburgh Jazz scene over many years, and Dave - you may know him from his work with the Gathering Field. I've played with these guys off and on over the years, but it had been awhile. What they brought to last night's gig was a killer instinct and wherewithal, which exists if there's a rehearsal or not. We're reminded on a gig like this how fortunate we are in Pittsburgh to have top-notch players around. It's inspiring to my playing as well. We're blessed.
How much time do you spend in the woodshed?
I finally have a complete kit in my basement which is never removed. I have loudspeakers down there, and a drum machine. I play almost every day now, just playing grooves and testing my meter. Randy Venturini, a killer bassist in Pittsburgh, talks about this a lot. I set up two bars of groove on the drum machine, then two bars of nothing, repeated. It's on you to come back in after the silence and hit one beautifully. I go over this with fills as well, combined with silence, to work on not rushing fills. It really helps the internal clock. Without it, you just have a broken clock. Now, a broken clock is still right twice a day, but that's not really enough for me. So I work on these exercises quite a bit at a bunch of tempos and grooves. That's really where a lot of my practice time is devoted.
So often - when you aren't trying - things come to you. It applies in many ways. In drumming, it means 'practicing' while not behind the kit. I'm pretty much constantly in that mode. In the car, especially. That's why is so important to listen to a ton of different well-performed music, and absorb it to no end. It's huge man, it's huge.
What rudiments or chops builders do you depend on?
All the standards, with emphasis on flams. I stick flams into rudiments wherever I can, which for me, really strengthens my hands and forearms. Just check out any Dennis Chambers video, and there it is. Dennis is big into playing on pillows as well, because there's no bounce. It's kinda painful at times, but it builds the living daylights out of your forearms. Am I boring you? I'm kind-of boring me in a way. Sorry if so!
Steve Smith says, of meter "When a drummer plays jazz, you play a time-feel. You don’t necessarily play a beat, you keep the tempo and make it swing." That's fairly different from rock. Could you talk about 'swing' a bit?
Yes, Steve Smith can explain a lot about swing, and all things drums. He's just a monster. To this day I swear some people only know him because of his work with Journey. If they only knew...
Swinging is playing 'time/feel', which to me means there can be some legal 'drift'. It's the 'dirt', meaning if you were playing to a metronome (click track), you'd have some areas where the tempo strays a bit. This doesn't really apply to pop/rock music too much - but in jazz/fusion/swing, etc., sometimes I want to cheat the tempo up during the end of someone's solo, to build the dynamics and some tension, ya know? This may mean a pushed tempo, a bit harder strikes, more wash with cymbals, etc. Now I know I'm boring you! And then afterward, bringing the dynamics back down a bit, and giving the singer (if applicable) or the next soloist room to build the next passage. I still think that way a ton, even on a rock gig. I'm not a fan of bands that constantly play at the same dynamic level all the time. It's just not my thing.
Since you're fairly used to playing through previously-loved material, what challenges are you faced with when it's time to work with original material that isn't pure improvisation?
Okay, this one is really heavy to me. Long ago, Alex Lifeson said he always tried several guitar solos on Rush tunes, then picked the one he liked the most. This is big with Donald Fagen with Steely Dan as well. I forget how many guitar solos were cut for 'Peg', by several guitarists. They pick the one that really said something to them, and they go with it.
That's what I follow: listening hard to what the song is, and throwing down grooves, and then making an emotional choice about one of them. I remember doing 'Spaces' a few times with a few grooves on the Killing Time CD, and I think we still have that recording. But we are happy we chose the one we did for the record. I don't want to take anything away from the song; I just want to augment it, and hopefully take it somewhere else.
When or where do you get the most satisfaction or visceral joy out of playing?
I get the most satisfaction from playing when I'm actually getting something done. Connection. It could be with anyone who's watching, or with the musicians I'm playing with. It's either happening, or it isn't. I think it's pretty clear from gig to gig what's up.
Most often it's not what you are playing, but how you are playing it. For me, it's grooves mostly. I'm trying to get a visceral reaction from people with the way I'm playing grooves - and I'm working toward making them as deep and compelling as possible.
What are you listening to these days?
These days, I'm listening to more pop music than ever. Sorry. I know that's sad, but I guess having Sirius made a difference, and spending a lot of time in the gym, I'm hearing a ton of it. I think I like trying to pick up on what makes a 'commercially viable' song, commercially viable.
Beyond that, I've been all over Yes, ELP, Toto, Rush, Steely Dan, Wayne Krantz, The Raging Honkies, Mr. Big, Paul Gilbert and Freddie Nelson, Scott Henderson, The Yellowjackets, Upfront, and many others that I'm forgetting.
Sometimes I laugh really hard at the collection of songs on my iPod because it makes no sense whatsoever. It's really funny to me. I feel really alienated because it's like nobody could possibly like my playlist.
When you started gigging rock again, what did you like most about it? After so many years immersed in 'other genres', how did it feel to get back to your roots?
I feel like when you play jazz for a while, you start to buy into a notion that you are playing to a very esoteric crowd. Then you play a gig that is rock/pop/soul, etc., and you're reminded about the power of commercial music. It's powerful stuff, so in the power of well-intentioned people - it's moving. Conversely, the opposite also applies. Just listen to the Top20 at any given time. There's always a few tunes in there that are entertaining on some level - and the rest are just like chugging pure sugar. I can't even take it. That's why I think it's so important to have a ton of different musical styles behind you - it gives you somewhere to go. I could not imagine only having jazz, or rock, in my past. You draw from all of it to play the way you play today.
We've talked about where you are, and where you've been. Where are you going? What's in the future for Joe Marini? Do you have any other words to share with us?
What's in my future? Hopefully many great gigs. That's what I really love. Great gigs. That moment when the kit starts playing itself, kinda like a 'Drummer's high'... that is the great part. It's very calming and therapeutic.
I will be healthier in the future. I'll be thinking more clearly, both on objective and subjective levels. My drumming is going to be slicker and less labor-intensive.
I'm going to let the sticks work more for me - I'm going to break the laws of physics less often. I feel like I'm heading in a direction that involves more texture, and a more layered groove situation, that hopefully will bridge that gap between grooves and fills. I really want to make them meet.
Show dates! The frustrating wait to see some live gigs is over! Anyone who can catch these gigs is extremely fortunate. Please bring a friend! You can see and hear Marini in action with Janflone (and others) at the following shows:
Saturday, 3/2, with In The Mood, an outstanding 10 pc. band, at Silk's, Meadows Casino. Great room, great sound, great band
Friday, 3/15, with Tony Janflone, at Rivers Casino, North Shore
Saturday, 3/23 with Tony Janflone at Pizza Daddies. http://www.pizzadaddies.com
Friday, 3/29 with Tony Janflone at Jergel's. Great, great club. http://www.jergels.com
Saturday, 3/30 with Tony Janflone at Latitude 40
Friday, 4/5 with Tony Janflone at Big C's in Middlebourne, WV
Sunday, 4/7 with Tony Janflone at the Carson City Saloon. http://www.carsoncitysaloon.com/ to start steady Sundays there! This will be a crazy (birthday) party.
Promo Stuff --
Upfront, Killing Time (1995)
Facebook, In The Mood
Facebook, Tres Lads
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