Eddie Roberts On The New Mastersounds, Colorado Living & The Questionable Politesse Of Sitting-In

Welcome to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Jorma Kaukonen, Jeff Sipe, Eric Gould, Tom Constanten, Col. Bruce Hampton and more.

Eddie Roberts is so visible these days it might surprise you to know that he still finds the concept of sitting-in a little untoward. It’s a cultural thing — sitting-in is somewhat frowned upon in his native England — but it’s one that, having lived now in the United States for more than five years and turning up seemingly everywhere, Roberts has clearly embraced.

Roberts’ wonderfully percussive approach to guitar has made him one of the jam scene’s most celebrated players. His band The New Mastersounds are blazing trails in jazz fusion and funk, while he’s also keeping busy with West Coast Sounds, the Everyone Orchestra and other collectives, and new collaborations with scene regulars in his adopted home of Denver. Beyond those activities, his ongoing series of The Payback benefit concerts continues; September’s installment in San Francisco featured members of The Meters, Trey Anastasio Band, The Greyboy Allstars, Tea Leaf Green, Primus and others and raised more than $35,000 for Compass Family Services and its work with homeless families.

Finally, Roberts will be back on Jam Cruise next month, and right at the end of the year, Roberts has yet another interesting project cooking: Foundation of Funk, which pairs him and The New Mastersounds keyboardist Joe Tatton with The Meters legends George Porter Jr. and Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste on New Year’s Eve in New Orleans.

Let’s hear from Roberts, who in a recent interview opened up about his many commitments and highs and lows from a wild past few years, including how The New Mastersounds came dangerously close to disbanding, as well as moving from San Francisco, to New Orleans, and now to Colorado, recently married.

JAMBASE: It seems like it’s been a big year for you.

EDDIE ROBERTS: It has. I live in Denver now, I got married in January and moved here at the same time.

JAMBASE: Was it tough to leave New Orleans?

ER: I got a little reminiscent when I was passing through in October and thought about the Maple Leaf of course. But I love Colorado. I have so many friends here, and I like the outdoorsy lifestyle. It’s a bit more healthy. I had a blast living in New Orleans, but as someone who might easily be led astray, I’m not sure how long I could have stayed there. [laughs]

JAMBASE: But a good year all around?

ER: Married in January, honeymoon in July so on a personal level, wonderful. On a business level, we took on new management in April. I’d been running it all myself before that and they do an amazing job, so it’s taken a lot of stress off of me and I can concentrate on playing music again.

[The New Mastersounds] recorded an album in January, and I had had my head so far into the business side of things that I knew something would have to change and I would need to get back on track. It was a matter of survival for the band. We’re all set now, morale is high and we just did the longest tour of our career.

JAMBASE: What prompted adding new management?

ER: We’ve actually spent a few years getting everything back in line. It was very difficult for us for a while, and a year and a half ago, we were nearly done — it was that bad. I had taken things on and found out things were worse than we thought. Once I had taken the reins on the management side, it took me a good year or more to get things back on track. I was reluctant to hand it over to new management — that was a scary step — but I’m very glad we did and for who we’re working with now.

JAMBASE: When it reaches a point like that where things may not continue, what are you and the band members telling yourselves?

ER: At that point it was, “Well, it’s been good.” “This could be the end.” “We’ve had a good run, we can’t argue with that, but this could be the end.” But where there’s a will, there’s a way. We just kind of powered through. They trusted me to handle it. The other three guys are in Europe still, and I’ve been out here for five years now. There’s not a lot they can do from over there, so they trusted me.

JAMBASE: Is it tough that you’re the only U.S.-based member of the band?

ER: I wouldn’t say tough. I’ve just got to be on top of things. It makes us organized. You can’t just take a gig and say, “hey, let’s go play a show on Friday.” There’s a lot more planning involved, and we’re booked now through May of next year.

JAMBASE: Any regrets moving to the U.S.?

ER: Absolutely not. I love it here. It’s been great to have side projects. I do The Payback shows, I have West Coast Sounds I do sometimes, and I’m starting a little regular thing in Denver with Gabe Mervine from The Motet and [Polytoxic drummer] Chadzilla called Orgy In Rhythm. This will be fun. I have a few albums under my own name doing something similar, kind of a jazz/house crossover, like St. Germain type of stuff. This is reviving that project really.

JAMBASE: I want to come back to your side projects in a minute, but staying in The New Mastersounds realm, what were you guys looking to achieve with Made for Pleasure? It’s a really invigorating listen.

ER: We try to get an album out about every 18 months – something we can put a tour around and also for our personal sanity so we have new stuff to play. We’ve got a pretty nice repertoire now. You can get a little stale if you don’t have enough, especially on a six-week tour. But it’s just fun making albums. I love putting music out and creating music, and it worked out that we had some time to do it in New Orleans in January, about a week before I got married and moved.

The original idea was to try to get some New Orleans guests on the album, and the week I chose was Jam Cruise — everyone was on the boat! [laughs] Mike Dillon literally got off the boat, flew to New Orleans and came straight to the studio. It was the last day we were there, he came in, he did it, and then left to go home. That’s dedication.

JAMBASE: You guys have noted that the horns were a big part of this one — that you actually wrote with the sound of the horns in mind. Talk about that.

ER: They come from my West Coast Sounds project. I’ve been so busy with The Mastersounds, but I wanted to keep them in the fold, keep them part of it. They are very well respected as horn players, and Lettuce and Skerik and all these guys, it’s nice to have them all be part of the horn community. In the past we maybe would have written a tune with space to put horns in it, and we’ll get them at another time or overdub them in. This time we wanted to get them right on top so they could actually lead the way — they could lead lines and we could bounce off the horn lines.

It was the same thing with [singer and album guest] Charly Lowry. She and I met two years ago doing Everyone Orchestra in the Carolinas, and the first note that came out of her mouth, I was like, oh, wow, hello. I’ve had her guest with The Mastersounds a few times, but I really wanted to get some recording done with her so we invited her down. She was really ill that week, but she powered through a really damp and cold period in New Orleans. “Enough Is Enough” is her with her flu — it gave a bit of roughness to her voice that I actually really liked. Her other two songs we did end up overdubbing when she was feeling better.

JAMBASE: You mentioned you’re booked through May. Will that be all touring with The New Mastersounds?

ER: Well, we’re not doing another six-week tour — I think we’ve learned our lesson on that one. It’ll be three-to-four week stints with breaks. Or two weeks, then maybe a three week or a four week here and there.

JAMBASE: Will you be mostly in the U.S. in 2016?

ER: I think we’ll be almost all U.S. We’re doing I think five shows in Europe, including Zurich, Hamburg, London, Leeds and Madrid.

JAMBASE: Let’s touch on some of your other projects. Tell me about Foundation of Funk. You’ve known Zig for a bit now.

ER: I met him very briefly a while back at a benefit in San Francisco, and I asked him then to do the first Payback. I had flown in from Europe, landed in San Francisco, made sure I got down to the gig in time and I really wanted to play with Zig, and it turns out the only tune Zig didn’t play was the one I got invited up on. I was like, oh man. [laughs] I did meet him in the green room, though, and he was his usual humble self, and told me he was aware of The Mastersounds.

I reached out to him for the first Payback, and we just love working together. We really hit it off both musically and personally. And I’ve known George [Porter Jr.] since 2007. He’s a lot more on the scene, I would say, he’s always at festivals, and Jam Cruise, and I see him a lot. It was a massive honor for them to ask me and Joe to play this New Year’s Eve show with them.

I wasn’t quite sure what the Foundation of Funk band would be going forward, and I had heard rumors that Ivan [Neville] was part of it, and I thought it was going to be a fixed lineup. But the concept is actually to use different lineups — do some different recordings and put out all of the collaborations. It’s such an honor to do this. I’m all about the drummers — drummers, for some reason, the way guitar and drums work together, the percussiveness of both instruments, especially the way I play, it’s all about locking in to that drummer.

Anyway, I love playing with Zig so much and George … George is the man. There’s no argument there. I haven’t played with both of them together yet so this really going to be something. I can’t wait.

JAMBASE: Will the focus be Meters tunes?

ER: Yeah. The focus for that set will be Meters tunes, for sure, but part of it is getting into the back catalog and some of the rarer stuff. We’ve delved into the B- sides and found some tunes that are not necessarily as well-known. The well-known tunes will enter it, I’m sure, but definitely the idea is to dig in the crates a little bit and find some of the obscure stuff.

JAMBASE: What’s a good example of that?

ER: There’s this interesting tune called “Meters Jam.” I found it on YouTube. I’ve never heard Leo [Nocentelli] play like that — he’s playing a little big like boogaloo or Grant Green, fast and very jazzy. It almost sounds like Lonnie Smith and Grant Green playing, instead of what you think of as The Meters.

JAMBASE: You mentioned Jam Cruise, and you’re now a regular on the boat. Tell me about your experiences.

ER: The first few years it was just great to be going. January in the Caribbean, and I remember the first time especially because I’d never been to the Caribbean before. All of these years later, my focus has changed a little bit. I’m very into the Positive Legacy side of it — the outreach they do. We’ve gotten more involved in that. I’m also involved in the auction, and the Masters Camp at Sea, doing those things. Like I said, I get easily lead astray. I don’t tend to stay up at all hours, at least not every night!

JAMBASE: What else are you working on that we haven’t covered?

ER: Payback is in there, it takes a lot of work and it’s a great thing. And we’ll see how this thing with Gabe and Chadzilla develops. It’s an actual working band. Everyone involved is thinking that way — to make it a band and not just a little jam or get-together. We’ll make some sounds, see what happens.

JAMBASE: Eddie, I typically close this column with a sit-in story: you with another band or someone else with one of yours. What comes to mind?

ER: So I actually thought about this given the name of the column, The Art of the Sit-In. Culturally, sitting-in is actually considered rude in the U.K. The point being, it’s like, I’ve got a gig, and some guitar player comes in, and it’s like, “get your own gig!” Over there it’s pretty dog-eat-dog. Everyone’s trying to get gigs and get on those same residencies. So as it is, it’s pretty rude — I’d never dream of sitting-in on someone else’s gig.

But we came to the U.S., and I remember being at High Sierra and someone telling me, you should sit-in. And I was like, I’d never do that, that’s so rude. I don’t think it’s really cool to do that. But then people told me, that’s what people do here. Literally, we had no idea. It definitely wasn’t acceptable in the U.K. and I’m still kind of weird about it to this day. Every time I go out in Denver, it’s like, “are you going to sit-in?” And I’ll sit-in when I’m invited but it’s still weird. I have to adopt this mindset where people want me to sit-in. It doesn’t come naturally.

JAMBASE: But you’ve clearly gotten into it a little bit — you turn up everywhere!

ER: Oh, by now more than a little bit. In New Orleans especially, we’ll put a setlist together for an hour and a half set and get through maybe half the tunes because there it’s going to be a lot of friends. Sometimes sit-ins disturb the flow of the shows — sometimes, yeah, it’s just nice to do a four-piece show and bang it out. Sometimes the individual sitting-in just isn’t mixing and it’s like pulling teeth to have the person up there. But the right person can bring a nice energy. If we do have someone sitting-in with the band, I like to trade-off with that person. It gives me a different inspiration point, and I think I play differently than I would in just the four-piece.

JAMBASE: Can you share one of those inspiring sit-in examples?

ER: It’s actually a sit-in that I did that really changed the way I play, it was that significant. I was in San Francisco — I had moved into an apartment a block away from the Great American Music Hall. It was Ernest Ranglin’s 80th birthday party [in June 2012], and he was playing with Vinyl and they invited me to come over and sit-in. This was pretty mind-blowing. Ernest has been a big influence on me anyway, and to get to play “Surfin’” on his 80th birthday, wow. But it was more just standing next to him and seeing the way that he played: the freedom and the fluidity of it. It just completely changed my approach. I don’t know if it’s all that noticeable, but a few people who know me and my playing really well have mentioned it. It really affected me.

That tends to happen any time there’s an opportunity to sit-in with one of these greats. I got to play with Idris Muhammad. I remember listening to all these records he’s on, and had it cranked up as loud as I could. And then I played with him and the time I did, he was so quiet — it was so him and absolutely what he sounds like. I adjusted to his pace and volume and that made me go back and listen to his records in a completely different way. All of these experiences are amazing. Bernard Purdie was another one — he sat-in with us at Bear Creek, which was incredible. I’m probably going to do some more with him.

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