Instrumental quartet Banyan Sunday at Belly Up
The Aspen Times
It’s possible that Willie Waldman, a trumpeter who has worked with singers including Perry Farrell and Tupac Shakur, has used the word “singer” without prefacing it with some variation of the “f”-word. But he certainly didn’t do so in a 20-minute phone conversation dominated by Waldman’s rambling thoughts on various topics, always circling back to his problems with lead singers.
“We don’t like lead singers,” Waldman said from near Red Rocks Amphitheatre. (For considerations of space, decency and an aversion to repetition, I’ve deleted all the f-bombs.) “If I’m with a lead singer, I get to play two songs a night, have to play the same stuff every night. I can’t stand that.”
Banyan, the group he has been part of since 1997, suffers from what Waldman calls L.S.D., and it’s got nothing to do with an addiction to hallucinogenic drugs. It’s lead singers disease, a malady he shares with Stephen Perkins, Banyan’s founder and the drummer from Jane’s Addiction, and to at least some extent, the instrumentalists who have shuffled in and out of the group over the years. When Banyan makes its Aspen debut Sunday night at Belly Up, the quartet will include bassist Rob Wasserman, who has played extensively with Grateful Dead singer Bob Weir and guitarist Brian Jordan, who spent 12 years in the funk group Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. There will be no vocalist.
As far as can be told, Waldman doesn’t have much personally against singers. It’s more that singers tend to need songs, songs have structures, structure impedes with freedom, and freedom is the quality Waldman values most in music. Banyan plays music that is entirely free-form, with no advance idea of what will happen each time they take the stage.
“It’s not like playing these same tunes every day,” he said. “It’s always different. And not like a jam band, where I’m going to play over these chord changes. It’s 100 percent a conversation.”
With Waldman’s trumpet as a primary lead instrument, the band’s sound is reminiscent of Miles Davis’ groove era of the late ’60s and early ’70s, when he released such classics of loose, jam-oriented electronic music as “Bitches Brew” and “In a Silent Way.” But Waldman, who considers Davis an essential influence, likens Banyan more to John Coltrane’s combos.
“It’s based on the Coltrane concept of listening,” he said. “Stephen Perkins — I wanted him to be like Elvin Jones” — a key member of Coltrane’s best-known quartet — “where it was the drummer as the leader instead of the singer. We follow the drummer.”
Waldman expresses some affection for Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur, on whose hit albums from the ’90s he played on. Waldman called the rappers “awful cool” and even went so far as to tag the late Shakur “a visionary.” “But you had to keep it pretty simple,” he said of the music.
Banyan was formed as an antidote to simple music and tightly choreographed performances. Perkins started the group in Los Angeles; Waldman joined a few months later. Since then, the group has attracted a string of players — saxophonist Jeff Coffin of Bela Fleck & the Flecktones and the Dave Matthews Band, bassist Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers — looking to loosen things up.
“We like Banyan to be an outlet for guys stuck in a pop situation, who are dying to blow,” said the 48-year-old Waldman, who made his name with Memphis jazz and blues players, co-owns a Los Angeles studio and lives in Indiana. “It’s a relief to get away from the singer telling you to sit down; your solo’s too long. Banyan was built to play. We’re trying to get complex, especially harmonically. I’m a big student of Persian Sufi music, Indian notes. Which you can’t throw in a rap record.”
Among the musicians who have taken refuge in Banyan was guitarist Nels Cline. When Waldman first saw him, Cline was playing for three listeners. “They used to tell me not to bring him: ‘He’s too weird.’ I was his biggest defender,” Waldman said.
Eventually, Cline was discovered by Jeff Tweedy, leader (and singer) of Wilco, and Cline has added the avant-garde element as Wilco has become an immensely popular and significant modern rock band. But Waldman believes Cline still has a warm spot for his time in Banyan. “If something happened, Tweedy croaks tomorrow, you know Nels will be back in the fold,” he said.
Waldman says current guitarist Jordan “is like Nels in 2001. I’m not going to be surprised if some big black artist picks him up — just like Wilco got Nels. And I’ll be happy for him. I’ll get backstage passes, like I do for Wilco.”
Not everyone has fared as well in Banyan’s approach to music. Waldman said Flea craved structure. “He wants a chart. He wants the chord changes and stuff,” he said. “But we had to put our foot down. That’s not what we wanted to do.”
Among those who have fit in particularly well are Coffin, guitarist Joe Satriani and Robbie Krieger, who did a short stint on guitar before going back to playing songs by his old group.
“He’s a hell of a player,” Waldman said. “But he had to go back to playing Doors covers. But he does fusion so well.”
Waldman takes some pity on Krieger. If there’s anything Waldman likes less than singers, it’s cover tunes.
“I hate covers. F—kin’ hate ’em,” he said. “Won’t play ’em. Haven’t played 10 of them in the last 10 years.”
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