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Don Alias

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Don Alias Calling upon a wide variety of musical genres, Don Alias has supplied the rhythmic foundation to such luminaries as George Benson, James Taylor, Al Jarreau, Quincy Jones, Chick Corea, Miles Davis and Roberta Flack. In addition, he has served as the long-time percussionist for saxophonist David Sanborn. Don's own band, Stone Alliance, has included players like Kenny Kirkland and Jan Hammer.

Alias' command of Afro-Cuban, Latin and other rhythms is unique in the jazz community. He is a master of the conga drum, and his kit includes many unique African instruments.

(posted 9/99)

DI: How did you develop your unique style -- a raw, primitive percussion sound combined with a straight-ahead jazz sound?

DA: I grew up in New York. We were all diversified, as far as music was concerned. If we went out and bought an LP, we'd buy something like Blakey & The Jazz Messengers; alongside of that you would buy something like Tito Puente; and alongside of that, you'd buy some doo-wop group like The Dominoes. Everybody was into diversification of music. If you went to see a show at the Apollo, you would see, on the same bill, Thelonious Monk, a Latin group and a rhythm & blues group. We were all into different kinds of music. I grew up liking just about everything. So I tried to incorporate that into my playing, although the original school where I came from was Afro-Cuban music. But I liked all kinds of music -- I tried to bring that into everything.

DI: What was the crowd like at The Apollo?

DA: If they don't like you, they will let you know. [laughs] There's a show that comes on, Live At The Apollo, that's an indication of what goes on. Wednesday nights used to be called "Amateur Night." When you didn't have any talent, they would let you know about it -- and not kindly. There'd be things like "Get off the stage!" and certain expletives we won't say here. [laughs] It was a rough audience.

DI: You were self-taught?

DA: I grew up learning this stuff on the streets of New York. My heritage is from the Caribbean. My parents were born down there, down in the islands. In the house we heard a lot of Calypso music. The guys that I grew up with were non-Latin. We had this affinity towards Afro-Cuban music. New York had this great Latin population. There were a lot of Cubans and Puerto Ricans, so we went searching for this culture. We liked this culture. So I actually started playing on the streets of New York. My brother and I used to play in the subway for money.

DI: Playing the "rhythm of the streets?"

DA: Some of that, but also the real ethnic, folklorical music that's indigenous to African music. We tried to get into the folklorical stuff.

DI: You used to listen to Cuban guitarist Arsenio Rodriguez?

DA: We had a nickname for him around the block. We used to call him Blind Pete. His sound was very traditional. In Spanish it's called cojunto, which means "group of guys with a trumpet sound." When we were kids, we used to watch him play. We got to know the musicians in the band, and they would let us play. That was really a sacred thing, to let somebody else play. We were non-Latin, but we knew the language of the music. At the end of the night, they would play this rousing, fast-tempo thing to get everybody out the door, and they would let us sit in and play. We all really liked Arsenio "Blind Pete" Rodriguez.

DI: Is it true you almost became a doctor, and you received a Bachelor of Science degree?

DA: Yes, I did. I have it in Biology.

DI: Why did you go to college when you'd already been playing music for several years?

DA: Mom did not want me to have anything to do with playing music. Being from a middle-class Black family in that particular era, everybody wanted you to have a profession -- a doctor, a lawyer, and so forth. So she sent me to school to study medicine.

DI: Where did you go to school?

DA: I went to Gannon College in Erie, Pennsylvania and Carnegie Institute for Biochemistry in Boston.

DI: Were you meeting up with some of the famous Boston musicians of the time?

DA: While I was going to school to study biochemistry, it was still in me to play. I would go around to the coffeehouses, which were the big thing. I would run into people like Tony Williams, when he was 15, and Alan Dawson. Gary Burton was there at the time. I would run into these guys, and they found out I could play. Eventually I found myself going to school during the day and playing at night. I met some great musicians there -- great people.

DI: And you were in a Salsa band?

DA: All the guys in the band liked Latin or Salsa music. We got this band together called Los Muchachos, which means "The Boys," and we played in this club for about two-and-a-half years.

DI: Tell us about your relationship with Gene Perla, and your involvement in the band Stone Alliance.

DA: It's been great. He's been my friend for 30 years. There were not that many Latin-oriented bass players going to Berklee at the time. We liked each other. I had a family at the time, but guys like Chick and Gene decided, "I'm finished with Boston, let me go to New York." Gene and I kept in correspondence. Then, on my way to California, I decided to stop in New York to do some research. I couldn't leave, because that's where the music was! We struck up a good friendship. He got me the job with Nina Simone. The friendship carried on, and we were at my mother's house and we decided to start a band with Steve Grossman, the tenor saxophone player who at that time played with Miles Davis. We started Stone Alliance. During that period of time, he decided to start a family. He wanted to get away from that "being on the road" music scene. He stopped for about 13, 14 years. Recently -- about a year-and-a-half, two years ago -- he decided that he wanted to get back in, so we started up Stone Alliance again.

DI: Didn't one of your first jobs involve Eartha Kitt and Dizzy Gillespie?

DA: Boy, that was really a turning point! When I was about 14 or 15, I really wanted to get into playing the conga drum. I joined a YMCA dance troupe, the Eartha Kitt Dance Foundation. I would go in and play for this jazz class. One day she came in to lead the class. Everybody was nervous, and I was, too. She brought in some guys who had been playing conga drums -- very well experienced -- and they started to play. They really opened up my ears, and I started to really learn. She got to go up to Newport to dance with Dizzy Gillespie's big band. This was 1957. All these great musicians were in the band. I was 17 years old. She decided that she would take me along to accompany her. Dizzy Gillespie would play behind her while she was dancing. "Oh, my god, I'm going to be playing with Dizzy Gillespie!" He had all these Latin-oriented tunes really suited for the conga drum. So she danced, and I played with Dizzy Gillespie, which was my first professional, union-card-carrying job. I was still going to high school. [laughs]

DI: What can you tell us about playing with Weather Report, Joe Zawinul and Jaco Pastorius?

DA: Well, I got this call from Miroslav Vitous, way back when the band first started. I was supposed to be the first percussionist with that band. I went to the rehearsals, spoke with Zawinul, and so forth. They were recording the very first album, called Weather Report. We got into the studio, and somehow or another we parted company. Time goes on, and I had met Jaco Pastorius. He called me up and said they were doing Black Market. I was doing a gig with Blood, Sweat & Tears. He called me up and said, "I'm going with Weather Report. Why don't you come?" Zawinul and I spoke, and patched everything up. I said, "Let's go, man. It's going to be great." [laughs] An hour later -- not even an hour later -- I got a call from Miles Davis. I had been in his band in '70, '71. He called me to come back. This is like '75, '76. Not putting anything down about Weather Report, because they later on went on to be a premier fusion group, but there's no choice. I had to call back Zawinul and tell him, "I'm sorry, I can't do it."

DI: You had earlier worked with Miles on Bitches Brew, even playing drums on "Miles Runs The Voodoo Down."

DA: I was working with Nina Simone at that time, doing jazz festivals. Nina Simone and Miles Davis were doing the same concerts. Sometimes I found myself playing, and turning over to my left, and I would see Miles Davis standing there, looking to see what was happening. I got a call to come down to this recording session. I walked into the studio and saw all of these musicians. Everybody knew it was going to be a monumental session -- it turned out to be Bitches Brew. Most of the songs we'd done were first and second takes. Miles counted off one particular tune. I was playing percussion, and somehow or another it didn't gel. Lenny White and Jack DeJohnette were both playing drums. He counted it off a second time, and it didn't gel. I couldn't take it any longer. I had been practicing this one rhythm that I had gotten from a drummer, and I knew it was perfect for what he was playing. I just kind of just took it upon myself to say, "Miles, I've got this rhythm." He said, [raspy Miles Davis voice] "Well, just go play it." I played it, and he said, [raspy] "Show Jack." It's one of these kinds of rhythms that doesn't require a bunch of technique. An accomplished drummer like DeJohnette probably had no problem doing it, but at that moment it was a little hard to get. He just said, [raspy] "Stay there." So I got a chance to play drums on that.

DI: You've played with so many great headliners. Do they know what sound they want from you, or are you the one who makes the decisions, or is it a combination of both?

DA: In the beginning, it really was a combination. At this particular stage of the game, I'm lucky. When they hire me, they want me to play me. It's very seldom now that a leader would say, "I want you to play this like somebody." They just say, "Do what you do." That's the greatest amount of musical freedom in the world, to go into a recording session and they say, "Go ahead, man. You've got the track." This is how it is, nowadays.

DI: You played with Joni Mitchell. What memories stand out?

DA: She had done the Mingus stuff, and somehow or another we got to be hanging out. I used to take her up to Harlem and up to the Bronx, to get the culture and the feeling. We're talking about an extremely prolific poet and songwriter and lyricist. That stuff comes off the top of her head. She will write exactly what she lives. If she puts some money in the soda machine, she'll write about putting money in the soda machine. "Dry Cleaner from Des Moines," on the Shadows & Light album, was about sitting next to a dry cleaner from Des Moines, playing a slot machine. She jumped into the Mingus project at that time. He asked her to recite T.S. Eliot over some of his music. He also found out that she was a songwriter, so he said, "Why don't you write lyrics to my music?" So she did that. Then when she was going out on tour, she got this band together -- Pat Metheny, Mike Brecker, Jaco Pastorius, Lyle Mays, myself, with The Persuasions, an acapella doo-wop group. What a band!

DI: She was really immersed in jazz music at that time?

DA: Oh, yeah. She wanted to have that element in her music. Of course, when she heard Jaco's music and met him, that floored her -- really grabbed her. She decided that Wayne Shorter was really conducive to her music. She would speak metaphorically about things. "I want this to sound like a taxicab driver, or a taxi in New York," or "I want this to sound like a telephone ringing." She would speak to musicians like that, and we really tuned into what she would want our music to be.

DI: In addition to Stone Alliance, you had another band, Kebekwa. Tell us about that.

DA: That's a play on words. I was living in Canada at the time, in Montreal. The terminology for the people from Quebec was Quebecois. I took it, and spelled it in African intonation, and called it Kebekwa. If you said Kebekwa, it sounded like Quebecois, from the French people there. This was '85 to '87. At that time I thought that maybe I was going to settle down a bit and get off the road. Montreal had that European ambience to it, yet it was still near the States. I went up there and got a band together, a 10-piece band with five percussionists. It turned out to be one of the greatest bands up there.

DI: Wasn't it about this time you got the call from David Sanborn?

DA: Wow! It's going on 14, 15 years.

DI: Describe your involvement in his band.

DA: I came up in that era when "jazz was jazz" -- improvisational music that people played. Nowadays, it's a little formulated. When they say jazz, it's smooth jazz, or it's this or it's that. This is a playing band. I'm not just up there to accompany. I'm not just up there to tinkle and play special effects here and there. When you join this band as a percussionist or drummer, you have to play it. This is one of the reasons why the longevity is there. At the end of the night, I'm sweating. I feel as though I have played. That's what I am -- I'm a player. I like to play out. With this band, I get the opportunity to do that -- to play. That's why I'm here.

DI: David told us that he sees you as an iceberg, where you can only see about a quarter of what you do onstage, while the rest forms the foundation.

DA: That's a nice way to put it. [laughs] That's definitely what I think when I approach it. If he brings in some music, I'm trying to think of how I can lay a foundation with this type of music. The association has been great. When it comes down to the musical language, he trusts what I do -- which really would make anyone feel good about their playing. He trusts what I'm doing. If there's some change that he wants, he just says, "Can we do it this way?" That's the extent of the musical conversation. We know each other. It's definitely a family.

DI: Didn't you play with Herbie Hancock recently?

DA: He did a record of popular songs with this star-studded band, and went on tour -- Michael Brecker, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield and myself. I couldn't tell you what a thrill that was. Recently I got a call to do a project of my own with some percussionists - Alex Acuna, Giovanni Hildago, Steve Berrios, myself, Mike and Randy Brecker, hopefully Gil Goldstein on piano, Gene Perla on bass, and Mitch Stein, who is a guitar player in my band. I couldn't have asked for anything better. It's a series of concerts around England.

DI: You've played with so many great jazz performers.

DA: I'm still like a kid with this stuff. I'm in awe of the musicians I sit next to. I'm in awe of guys like DeJohnette, Elvin Jones -- and, of course, Tony, when he was alive. I just read an article in a drum magazine, and I won an award as being the jazz percussionist. I really like that terminology -- jazz percussionist. They had different headings, like Latin percussionist and Salsa percussionist. I was the jazz percussionist. For me, that's a tremendous compliment, because it covers all the music.

DI: Didn't you play bass as well?

DA: When I was going to college, and I wanted a way to supplement my money. [laughs] I wanted to get a little bit more money, and this guy had a bass. I had been fooling around with it. When I moved to Boston, I played in a trio with Chick Corea. The drummer was Tony Williams. I think he was about 15 -- and Chick was about 18 or 20. We had this trio, and I played bass in it.

DI: At that time in Boston, wouldn't you guys play out -- just play all night?

DA: Oh, yeah. In this particular period of time, the music was changing. Things were happening all the time. There seemed to be a great deal of people who wanted to play. The music hadn't diffused to fusion or R&B. Everybody was focused into one type of playing, which was jazz. We all just liked to play -- wound up playing all the time.

DI: You've said that the conga drum is a "masochistic" instrument? What do you mean by that?

DA: If you're really digging in -- soul to soul, skin on skin -- you're going to do damage to your hands. It's an occupational hazard. You're going to be playing, and it's going to hurt. You're really going to have to love to play in order for you to do this kind of work, because it's going to hurt you. [laughs]

DI: Besides continuing with David, what's in the future?

DA: We're finishing up a new Stone Alliance record. Of course, this thing coming up in London. I'm really comfortable and happy at the space where I am now. All I'm really looking forward to is just playing, being accepted to play -- and in different areas that will challenge me. I like the challenge.


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