Words by Kayceman :: Images courtesy of www.johndensmore.com
We all know the music of The Doors. Formed in 1965, the band including Jim Morrison (vocals), Ray Manzarek (keyboards), Robby Krieger (guitar), and John Densmore (drums) became one of the most influential, important, and controversial rock bands of all time. We're familiar with the albums, the earth-shaking live shows, the movies, and the legends. But perhaps we should listen more closely. Tucked behind the rock ethos was a beast of freedom, a beat that was born not from the standard blues progression, but from something deeper, something different.
"I wrote an obituary for Elvin Jones [drummer for John Coltrane] who died a year ago," says John Densmore, "and the way he accompanied Coltrane is what I tried to do with Morrison. I just got something from the freedom and the improvisation and the jazz. It's in me, and it's how I do it." If you allow yourself to listen with a more developed ear, if you shed the adolescent bond that many form with The Doors, you begin to hear this jazz influence. You start to feel the depth of what Densmore was doing in this band. "If you listen to 'Break On Through,'" Densmore explains, "it's a bossa nova, which when we were in the garage writing songs, 'Girl From Ipanema' was coming up, all this bossa nova stuff, so I did the same beat but made it stiff for rock & roll. And I've always been into jazz. I mean I was a snob until The Beatles came along. They were cool, but before them, [with disgust] rock & roll?"
As he speaks of his storied past, one is quickly struck by the passion Densmore exudes as attention shifts to the present. It's not that he doesn't show pride and joy in what has been done, but like any true artist, it's what's coming next that fuels his fire. After Morrison's untimely death in 1971, Densmore began to explore the rhythms of reggae before they ever drifted from the islands to America and Europe. Still searching, Densmore found an outlet in theater music with Tim Robbins's The Actor's Gang. Working around L.A. at the time, he realized that another side was starting to come out: writing. Since then, he's penned articles for magazines like The Nation, The Guardian, and Rolling Stone. He's written the critically acclaimed autobiography Riders on the Storm: My Life with Jim Morrison and The Doors and been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Yet after all this, with a family, fame, fortune, and more, at 60 years of age, he is far from done. We now find John Densmore breaking through to his other side.
"I always thought I'd make a more jazz-oriented album someday, and God, 30 years later I'm finally putting my sticks where my mouth has been, even before The Doors." What Densmore is referring to is his exciting new project Tribaljazz. Spawned from an impromptu collaboration with saxophonist, flautist, and fellow parent Art Ellis after an evening that found the two playing music at a benefit for their children's grammar school music program, Tribaljazz now includes Densmore, Ellis, and five other musicians from across the globe, each a star in their own right. There's bassist Osama Affifi from Egypt, percussionist Christina Berio - daughter to Luciano Berio, Italy's most famous composer short of Puccini, two African drummers, Aziz Faye from Senegal (who makes his own drums), and Marcel Adjibi (who also does French spoken word on the band's debut), and then there's Quinn Johnson. Densmore elaborates, "Quinn Johnson is this monster piano player. He's 30. I'm really looking forward to playing with jambands because the people like improvisation, but I'm equally not afraid to play on the bill with Herbie Hancock at the Monterey Jazz Festival because Quinn Johnson is scary. He's in that league in my opinion."
John Densmore with The Doors
With the more than competent team in place, Densmore explains the music of Tribaljazz. "It's a synthesis of modern jazz a la Miles Davis and John Coltrane and master African drummers. And so we find ourselves when we play live going through the audience, playing our way up to the stage, like a tribal ritual. We get everybody going before we even get to the stage. And now we're doing that when we leave, so it's kind of a ritualistic sort of drum fest. One of the Senegalese drummers is a master African dancer as well, so he starts doing that too and folks start imitating him and we end up kind of with a Grateful Dead séance."