Tom Coster Extended Interview

January 31, 2013
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Tom Coster Interview By Jerry Kovarsky

 
Editor's note: This extended interview with Vital Information and former Santana keyboardist Tom Coster accompanies our feature in the March 2013 issue of Keyboard. Enjoy!

JK: I would like to start by recognizing the fact that Vital Information is celebrating its 30th anniversary. I’m sitting here looking at the cover of the new release. “Live! One Great Night” which was actually recorded back in 2007. I recently got a chance to hear you guys in NYC celebrating the release, which was amazing, so I’d like to start out by talking a bit about the history of the band. You came into the band about three years into its formation, can you tell me how it came together?

TC: Yeah, that’s correct. Vital Information was one of Steve’s bands that he put together with some friends from Berklee College of Music in Boston (Tim Landers - bass and Dave Wilczewski - sax). He recorded two great records, it was basically two guitar players (Ed: Dean Brown and Mike Stern on the first release, Dean Brown and Eef Albers for the second). Then as we became friends we started to resurrect the band, because when he joined Journey, anytime you’re in a band like that it takes over all your time, so Vital Information took a back seat. We played some gigs together and Steve liked the addition of keyboards so I became the keyboard player and have been ever since. It’s hard for me to believe it’s been that many years, I’ve got to tell you, the time goes by so quickly.

JK: The band’s gone through a couple of stylistic phases over the years, looking back how conscious were those changes; was it a natural evolution, or related to personnel changes?

TC: I truly believe this band was always spearheaded by Steve. Obviously and deservedly so he’s the bandleader. The amount of work that Steve puts into having a band is incredible. In fact, most people would have abandoned it years ago. But he has the resources in which he can keep this band going, keeping us touring enough to where the band stays alive. And he loves the band because it’s his band and he can do absolutely anything he wants. I never really became that actively involved because it’s his band; he’s paying the bills. What I ended up being, and still am, is a principal writer for the band. A great deal of the library in Vital is tunes that I’ve either written 100% or co-written with various members of the band. But as far as direction is concerned its always been based on the kind, and type of musicians that each of us are as individuals, and you’re right in thinking that personnel changes will dictate a new direction. Once Frank Gambale left and we got Vinnie [Valentino] in the band, who is more of a George Benson-type player and a very good writer…Frankie is an excellent, excellent writer as well, but Vinnie just writes quite a bit different and it has changed and influenced the band in a different way.

JK: Baron (Browne) joined in 1998 so he’s far from a new member at this point, and it seemed as if you took a little bit more earthy, groove direction when that change happened.

TC: Oh yeah, most definitely. It’s interesting looking back at this whole thing because Jeff Andrews was the bass player in the band prior to Baron and every now and then I’ll find a YouTube video of the band with Jeff and man, it was definitely different! When I look at the people in Vital Information that I have been blessed to play with, this guy was one of the most outrageous bass players I’ve ever played with. As far as bebop and swing Jeff Andrews to me is one of the greatest players in that genre. When Baron came in, Baron personally he is more of a funk and R&B player, great jazz player, great fusion player, but the way he hears note placement is a totally different imagination. And Baron to me is one of the most underrated bass players in the world. And it’s not just me saying that, everyone that knows Baron feels the same way. Baron and I have that same thing in common where we don’t do anything to help ourselves, we don’t run out there, we don’t have websites, at least I don’t have a website, we don’t pay somebody to try to get us interviews and this or that, we just love to play music and to lay back. If I were to pick probably one thing that I… I’m not sorry that I haven’t done it, but I just don’t do a lot to help myself. I just go one with my playing and touring; it’s worked for me. But getting back to Baron I think that it sort of keeps him in a place where a lot of people are kind of unaware of who he even is.

JK: The bass players and the real fans of the art will know, but he’s not a real “personality” so to speak.

TC: No, but man he is amazing to play in a rhythm section with. In Vital Information I play a lot of organ as well as Rhodes; the more retro sounds, because that is what our band is about from a keyboard perspective. I do a lot of organ rhythm comping and I have to tell you, one of the phenomenal aspects of Baron’s playing is that he changes the stuff up every night and it affects the way I play as a rhythm section contributor. As a soloist, this is why I love touring with the band - it’s because we can approach the tunes differently every single night that we play and that is the payback, for me.

JK: That’s right – coming from a jazz and improvisors background you’re not a guy who wants to play set parts.

TC: No, I couldn’t do that, I mean I did some of that in Santana although while I was in Santana he and Michael Shrieve wanted more of a jazz direction, or should I say some jazz flavors brought into the band along with what Santana already represented to millions of fans. So I’m not going to say I had to play three-chord and two-chord tunes all night. I did get to do a fair amount of improvising considering the type of band that it was. In those type of bands there has to be some restriction because you’re dealing… restriction meaning in the way you play a tune from night to night simply because there’s millions of people who listen to your music: they really aren’t ready or willing to hear a lot of change. Those people who will come to a jazz or fusion concert want to hear the musicians really get into playing their instrument, and that’s the part that I really love.

JK: Let’s follow this thread for a moment, and we’ll get back to Vital. When I listen to early live recordings of you with Santana, like Lotus, for example, I can hear exactly what you’re talking about. There are certain iconic parts to songs that you have to do, but immediately it became apparent that you’re not really relating to Gregg Rolie’s solos in your performance of the classic tunes. There are people in rock and pop that really feel that the solo on the record becomes the thing that people want to hear. Keith Emerson will have to play that “Lucky Man” solo for the rest of his life – it’s iconic. But I listen to Lotus and Moonflower and you immediately hear that while you’re playing those still-classic tunes there is definitely a new freedom and approach to them. I read one interview with you. Maybe you can speak to this: Carlos Santana used to come hear you with Gabor Szabo, and he used to be the first one there and he even was recording you guys, so obviously he was scoping you out, but when you started there were two keyboardists in the band, correct?

TC: Yes, even before Carlos asked me to play in the band, and I’m kind of guessing but I think my guess is pretty much right on, at that point the band, Carlos and Michael (Shrieve), who were, by the way, in my perspective the decision-making people of the band at that time…they were very heavily influenced by Miles Davis. And at the time Miles had two keyboard players, and they really wanted that exchange of having conversations between keyboard players. They already had a guy in the band, I really don’t remember his real name, it was over 40 years ago, but his stage name was Bayete [Ed.: Todd Cochrane] and he was a pretty good player as I remember, and it was interesting because you have to remember this was in the days way before synthesizers and MIDI, and he would take a Clavinet and use effects and make it sound like a guitar. And I was playing with Gabor and I was putting my Rhodes through a thing called a Vox ToneBender, and what would happen was when you pressed on a note in the low register and just felt the note, and let it vibrate the tine, as the signal went through the ToneBender you could play all sorts of stuff in the right hand and it would sound like a guitar. I found it completely by accident by just screwing around. Remember, these pedals were all primarily designed for guitar, because there were very few effects for keyboards at that time. And because of that sound, while I was working with Gabor, George Duke came in and heard me playing. He was offered the gig with Cannonball Adderley at the time and because he heard me play this fusion stuff with this ToneBender, and because George and I have been friends since we’re both from the Bay area, he got me the gig with Frank Zappa to do a European tour, cause he figured I was a good enough player but I was also into electronics. It was kind of interesting how that whole thing happened.

JK: So you did that European tour with Zappa?

TC: No, no, what happened was I went over to George’s house and picked up some music which was some of the most amazing [sheet music] I ever saw; there were so many pages that you could wallpaper a wall of your house with one tune. We kind of went over the music and he gave me an idea of what I was in for and he said, “Look, I already made the call, you’ve got the gig, all you got to do is fly to L.A. and start rehearsing with the band.” This is 1972 and within one week I'd gotten the offers for Zappa, I got two weeks with Elvis Presley at the Copacabana, Jorge Santana who was in a band called Malo, and the Santana gig.

JK: Wow!

TC: Yeah, it was a pretty amazing week for me. I took the gig with Santana and I had heard they were into some new music, and I guess they decided that maybe I could work with this kid Bayete, and I didn’t know it at the time, but I guess Carlos asked Bayete something and Carlos didn’t like the answer he got from the guy, at least that is what I was told, and he fired him. So I got the gig and then they wanted Richard Kermode to come in, and so for a year or two Richard and I were the two keyboard players in Santana, and I have to tell you, that Lotus record to me is an amazing record. I don’t know how many people are aware of it, but it came about while we were in Japan. It wasn’t scheduled; Columbia in Japan just wanted to record it because we had five sell-out shows at the Budokan in Tokyo, which at the time set a new record for attendance. But yeah, it allowed us to do a lot of experimentation. The music wasn’t well received by the majority of the fans, as you could well understand because the direction took quite a change. You know, that’s what happens when the artist tries to grow, quite often the audience doesn’t want to or desire to keep up.

JK: Right, there’s a nostalgia factor in general pop and rock listening…

TC: Absolutely.

JK: The Lotus album didn’t come out in the U.S. until the early 1990s on CD, it was a three-LP package that you had to import from Japan, so it was the real Santana aficionados that would chase that one down.

TC: That’s right, and the artwork and everything was so beautiful. The cover was by a very famous artist [Ed.: Tadanoori Yokoo], and it was just beautifully done. Everything about it to me was fantastic, but you’re right, it wasn’t something that was made available or embraced by the majority of the fans.

JK: Yes, this was the start of the “new band,” which was a pretty big departure. Looking through the discography, you did one cut on Caravanserai and from there forward until 1978, but it seemed like during your tenure the band went through the more experimental jazz influences for a while and then regrouped, trying to be sure to get some pop component back in. Was that a reaction to the audience response?

TC: Well in a super-band like that it all comes down to, like anything--whether it’s a musical product, a computer, a hamburger, whatever--if you change it too much and sales go down, the people who are putting up the money start to complain: “Here’s what we think you did, here’s what we don’t want you to do anymore, and here’s what we want you to do.” The record sales in the eight years I was in the band, and I have to be truthful, we did not sell millions of records. Our albums went gold, but they weren’t multi-million selling albums because the music was forever changing. So here again, the fans didn’t hear what… why they became fans of the band, that music was no longer there for them. So consequently records sales went down substantially, and Columbia Records came down pretty hard on the decision-making people in Santana and said “you guys better write some music that’s going to bring your fans back into your world, otherwise we might not give you the kind of record deals you’d like to have.”

JK: Right, or support.

TC: Yes.

JK: But you had some significant compositions during that time, I mean the obvious 800-pound gorilla for you in your career is “Europa” (from the Amigos album, 1977), which has to have been your retirement fund and beyond. Was that written purely from a musical standpoint, or a little bit reactionary to these pressures?

TC: Oh no, that one there was, well that particular album “Amigos”, yes. On that album there was a lot of pressure to write material that would get the fans back to listening to the music. But the tune “Europa,” it wasn’t like we had to write a song like “Europa.” Carlos brought part of the idea to me while we were in the U.K., and there was an upright piano there so we started working on it before sound check, and then when we got done with the tour he came over to the house, which is the same house I live in now. And we wrote it with him playing an acoustic guitar and me playing an acoustic piano. We wrote it in the front room of my home and then we recorded it. And obviously it wasn’t like we were these hit writers who said, “Okay, this is going to be a hit.” We did it, we loved it, everybody loved it, but we didn’t pay any attention to it until we landed in Tokyo, which was the first part of the tour for that album. People ran onto the tarmac, because we had our own aircraft, and they said, “Can we talk to you about that tune 'Europa?'” to Carlos and I while we were walking down the stairs from our plane. They wanted us to come to the radio station to do an interview, and we said, “What about the tune?” and they said, “It’s a huge hit.” So it happened overnight.

JK: And it happened naturally, not as a result of promotion?

TC: Yeah, absolutely. You know, for those fans who may read this article, I have to tell you something from a person who’s written a lot of music, both in super-bands and in jazz/fusion bands, whatever. When a song comes easy, and it just flows from your heart and soul at that moment--especially in this situation where it involved two composers and was easiest tune I’ve ever co-written with anyone--I think the chance that it will become a tune that people will embrace becomes very high. And then on the Moonflower album I wrote another tune to try to follow up “Europa” called “Flor d’Luna” and that tune also does very, very well for me. But when you write a hit tune like “Europa” it’s not like you can keep cranking those tunes out, because that was then and this is now, and things change. But I am so grateful for that tune in many ways, not only because it continues to be very successful monetarily, but because as you get to be my age (71), you’re either happy with what you’ve done or you say “Man, I really could've done a lot better.” Well when I look back on my life the only thing I could say is how grateful I am and how fortunate I am. But the other thing that continues to loom above it all for me, besides being able to play music as a career and become successful at it, doing something you love, which is truly a gift, is that I co-composed a tune that has literally touched millions of people. And I continue to hear that from so many people around the world and I consider that a privilege.

JK: It’s one of those iconic songs that you only need to hear a couple of notes and you know what it is. And just when you guys have run the course of playing and promoting it, then Gato Barbieri comes along and there’s a whole new resurgence of interest, and that was pre-smooth jazz but still an era when jazz had a decent commercial return.

TC: Well you know what’s interesting, there have been a lot of comments made to me over the years from people who are not really rock-oriented, but listen to the smooth jazz thing; they thought Gato was the composer (laughs). But he brought the tune into a whole other domain of listeners. You know, with so much music available today you’ve got so many cutoff points of what people will listen to, I think it’s much more difficult to write songs and for them to become mega-hits because I think there’s too much out there for them to choose from.

JK: You’re overloaded with choices… I’ve always felt that familiarity breeds acceptance. It’s happened to me in jazz and fusion, even classical that on the first listen I’m not so sure about it, but if I gave it more time and lived with the music, that it would become some of my most favorite. When you had radio everywhere that played stuff more often, the more you heard it that drove its popularity and acceptance. Now there’s millions of channels out there so it’s hard to find the music, and if you don’t own it or buy it you won’t get that repetition effect.

TC: Exactly. You know, the other thing that’s mind-blowing is because of the 30 years of Vital’s existence we have been doing a lot of touring this year, and we played this gig in Grass Valley, California, which is close to where my daughter lives. So we played this last gig of our West Coast tour in this old theatre [The Center for the Arts] that had an exceptional sound. And this place is a kind of rural, but they do bring in name artists, but not a lot of fusion so we were wondering what to expect. Well we drew pretty close to a full house, and my daughter and wife both brought a bunch of friends, and my granddaughters were there with their friends. The band was burning, we just killed, and after the show I got to talk with these kids and one of them said, “Mr. Coster, I don’t know anything about jazz, or the music you play, but I loved the concert. I loved the music and I loved watching you.” And I think that is such a big part of the success of music; if people just give it a chance, and not pass judgment on something without listening to it or seeing the band perform. And this touched my heart, and this came not only from the young kids that were there, but people that were there in their 80s too. They loved it. So there’s something to be said about opening your heart to something and also going and hearing, and watching the band, because when we play we’re not sitting up there like a lot of these bands who look like stones and don’t move. They play great, but there’s no emotion coming from anybody in the band. When we play we have so much fun that it relates to the audience.

JK: Sure, they’re seeing the act of creation and the improvisation when you guys look at each other when something happened, or cueing each other and they realize it really is happening live, in the moment.

TC: Yeah, you’ve seen the band plenty. You know that we enjoy what we do up there.

JK: The band is absolutely a labor of love for all of you guys; I look online at Steve Smith’s site and he’s balancing a number of things that afford the ability to do it, but at this point, and I’m not talking about age, what does it takes to tour behind such progressive, or dare I say non-commercial music? Here’s a band with a number of legends, but what is life like on the road for you?

TC: I was really hoping you’d ask me this, and I think the question is something that many musicians who are striving to make their musical venture a reality, the struggle, the love, the desire to be a musician. In my case, and in everyone’s case in the band, the two people who spend the most time and probably work the hardest as far as setting up and tearing down are Steve and myself, obviously due to the amount of gear we have. Even at this level, in the States we travel in a van; we don’t always get help. This year was very special because he had two guys; we had a driver who also was a drum tech, and we had an incredible person who did our sound for us, Tyler Soifer. He did a remarkable job, because in my opinion and the band’s opinion, you can play wonderfully every night, but if the sound doesn’t get out to audience in an appropriate musical manner, you’ve lost the war. So having this kid on tour with us and doing sound was a gift.

JK: So in previous years you wouldn’t even tour with your own sound engineer?

TC: No, we would have a driver, and we would just relate to whoever was in the club, and for the most part it was in their hearts to do a great job for us, but they don’t know the music. They don’t know when the solos are coming up, and this or that. Of course we try to do as much as we can on stage to play with dynamics so we can almost mix ourselves, but that’s a difficult thing to do ultimately in getting the sound perfect. So it’s just been the last year and a half that Steve has been able to provide two guys. It was great for me, because I used to help load and unload the van because somebody has to do it. I set my own keyboards up to this day, and I also put my own keyboards and rack away, because I want to make sure everything gets put away the same way it came out and nothing gets left behind. Steve does a lot of his own tearing down and setting up as well. It’s going to be that way for me until I die, that’s just the way it is. Now when I tour with Billy Cobham, Terry Bozzio, and people like that, they have crews, everything is usually set up by these crews. The only thing I prefer to do myself is to patch my own stuff in.


JK: Do you have any routines or maybe advice about how to handle these difficult travel conditions, to help get your focus and get centered to play this difficult music? How you change from roadie to performer?

TC: First of all, the biggest thing is you have to do your homework and make sure you’re prepared. I leave on a three week European tour with Vital next Tuesday, and what I’m doing now is going over all the music, and even though I’ve played it before, I’m trying to find out what I can do to add something new, to make it sound a little different, to make it enjoyable and to hopefully take it to another level. The other thing that I do is every time I find a spot in the music when I’m on the road and I know I can improve on some stuff, every chance I get to look over the music and do a better job, I do. In other words, after the gig is over I don’t go up to the bar and get trashed, and go to bed and sleep for three hours… I can’t do that. I’m there to play music, nothing else. If I’m lucky enough to have a beer after the gig because maybe I can sleep in until nine o’clock in the morning the next day, then I will. But if there’s a problem with the music the first thing I do when I get back to the hotel is go over the music and make sure I know it.

Now what’s currently happening in my life is that I have the Korg Kronos. Most bands I play with I usually use an organ “wannabe,” and for many years I used the [second-generation] Korg CX-3. But that instrument is no longer made, and it’s no longer available around the world. Fortunately for me the Kronos has a CX-3 mode built in, it has my organ sounds in it, and they sound incredible! So what I’m able to do for the first time in my life is play the entire gig on that one keyboard. Because of that it does several positive things: first of all it means that I can depend on the sounds every night, I can find a Kronos anywhere in the world and not have to use some other piece of gear somewhere in the middle of Europe, for example. I’m fortunate to have the same instrument so the feel is going to be the same, but more importantly I have all the sounds I need. What this does for me is I have the peace of mind to know I’m not going to play my Korg synthesizer and then some foreign organ that I don’t know anything about. I can count on the fact that I’m going to have the same keyboard every night, because I rely so much on how my keyboards and sound are presented to me onstage…this is a total gift for me.

The other thing is it is so much easier to set up. I just have to open up a stand, plop my keyboard down, and I’m up and rocking! Now I could go on and on about why I love this keyboard because Korg has come up with a lot of things in it that make it easier for me to play and to approach my live playing in Vital Information and the other bands I play in. So from that perspective this has made my life easier. Packing the van, there's more room because there’s only one keyboard. Keyboard players these days have to travel light. The amount of money paid to jazz and fusion bands doesn’t cover airline overweight charges. It’s terrible to travel around the world now, the airlines used to help you if you were a traveling musician, but they don’t do that any more. So we have to travel very, very light, so obviously one keyboard helps. I’m very fortunate and grateful for my long relationship with Korg, who help me with gear around the world. So for me I take my USB sticks, a couple of backups, of course, and I take a rack with a mixer, some pedals and cords, and I take my accordion – that’s basically it. I think everyone wants more firepower in a smaller package whether you’re playing in a Holiday Inn or on tour--that’s what we’re all looking for.

JK: Now of course some of this is based on these economic and physical necessities, but compared to your rig in the 1970s when you had a music store’s worth of gear, and your days of the Moog Invader, which was your Moog Liberation, a guitar rig, and lots of outboard effects. Full disclosure for the readers, I worked for Korg for many years, so you and I have worked together on the second-generation CX3 making your signature sounds, exposing you to many other Korg synths, and making your new signature sounds on the Kronos. But how have you handled this migration from multiple keyboards down to one? With multiple keyboards you know that this is sitting there and it can always have this sound ready, and as you went to two keyboards you had to develop some splits and layers for the lower synth. Now you’ve gone to your most “severe” setup, if you will, down to one. So what are the things you had to do to allow the Kronos to cover the gig?

TC: Yes, I had to go in and make some changes. The most difficult thing for me, since I don’t like playing on weighted keys, especially for my signature guitar leads and organ, of course, was moving to the 61-key version of the Kronos. They don’t make a longer synth-action model.

JK: Right, you always used to use a 76-key synth so you had room for splits.

TC: Right, when I heard that 61 was my only choice I went “oh my goodness, what am I going to do?” Interestingly enough, as I was playing it I realized that there is something familiar about it when I played organ sounds, since it is the same amount of notes as the CX-3 or a real organ. So cool, for playing organ I’m at home. Where the complexity came about was when I need those big brass sounds, where I need to play the low octave, and then when I select an electric piano in the Set List mode, I have to remember to go down an octave for my comping. So the biggest thing for me was remembering where each sound was laid out. The other thing, when I was on the road for three weeks on the West Coast tour a wonderful thing happened. When I had everything in Set List I obviously matched all the sounds to where I thought the level needed to be. But when I played live quite often the way we hear things through our own system is not the way they sound when you’re playing live through the venue’s sound system. So fortunately having the sound mixer travel with us, I was able to listen to what he had to say about my various sound levels, and in real-time I could adjust them to be better balanced so nothing was too weak, or jumped out. I think that is so important when you take things down to only one keyboard.

JK: So you started your programming in your home studio, and then things were different when you went out. Do you guys carry your own monitors, was that a stable part, or was all of it from the club?

TC: No, I did have my own monitors but certain sounds were too piercing, or jumped out. So from the comments each night from our sound man, I was able to dial everything in better. And some sounds, when you’re playing at home sound real good when you put a lot of delay, or a lot of repeat on them, but then a lot of the soloing on a patch like that, according to the sound man gets lost. So he suggested I dial back some of the reverb and delay so my busy soloing didn’t sound like just a big mess.

JK: That’s an interesting area, and having come from a manufacturer and been involved in voicing, sound engineers have talked to us about that very issue. Some even feel you should remove all of the reverb for example, and allow the room to provide that space. Do you feel that way?

TC: No, not really. I’ve got my sounds set up the way I like them, and though I'll make adjustments based on feedback from the front-of-house, most of my changes have been about balancing levels. Now, another important issue that I’d like to share with the readers is that often, you’ll dial up some patch that sounds great in your studio. But the reality is how those sounds will fit in to the band you’re playing with. I have run into a lot of situations where I’ll come up with a sound at home, but when I play it with the band it doesn’t cut through the other instruments.

JK: Right--frequency masking and other issues…

TC: Yes, so what I’ve learned to do with certain bands is to change the texture or EQ of the sounds so they cut through what’s going on around me, and I think this is an important thing to keep an open mind about. At home they sound killer, but when you get into a live setting it may or may not work out. It doesn’t mean it’s not a good sound; it just may not work in that environment the same. Make a mental note of why it doesn’t work and when you play in that band adjust your mix, or EQ as needed to fit in or cut through the other timbres of the band.

JK: Yes, in my job over the years, artists, and especially recording people would say something to me about one of the keyboards we were making, or promoting at the time, and they’d say “I did this perfect sound for this track on the record” and they’d play the sound for me and by itself it seemed okay, but kind of small, or whatever descriptor you want to use. But it is that exact thing, the sounds that are made to wow you in the store, or where you play a big left-hand octave and a triad in the right hand sound great on their own, but may not ever fit into a track.

TC: Yes, that’s very true.

JK: So voicing is always a balance of impressing you with the instrument but also making musical and useful sounds for production and band performance. Here’s one that I know all the members of Keyboard’s online forum will want to know: Do you play and monitor in mono or stereo on stage?

TC: I insist on monitoring in stereo. I have a serious problem of being inspired by sound… the sounds are so spectacular coming off the board, so clear and clean that if I don’t hear them that way I will have to dig very deep to play a good set.

JK: I understand, if you’re doing a gig where you’re just playing set parts, and triggering sample it’s pretty mechanical…

TC: Exactly.

JK: But when you’re improvising, listening, and reacting to other players you will be affected and inspired by the sound, both good and bad.

TC: That’s how it is for me. I need to hear that rich, spacious sound via my monitors to play my best, what gets fed to the house I have no control over. Some small venues may only have a mono PA and I do whatever they request.

JK: But it must be working for you, or your sound man would've pointed out if your piano was getting phasey or things like that.

TC: Yes, he’s had no issues with my rig like that.

JK: You’re not doing as many splits in the band?

TC: My splits are basically things like brass in the left hand, organ in theright, organ in the LH, another synth sound in the RH, things like that. But the majority of my sounds are not splits, maybe 25% are.

JK: So just the most obvious stuff that was necessitated by collapsing from two keyboards to one?

TC: Yeah, even when I had two keyboards I rarely used both at the same time. When I was playing organ I was really playing like a real B3 player… on occasions I would comp with the Rhodes sound. In some situations I would add some brass punches, but I’m able to do all that with some basic splits. For me, in about 90% of the situations it’s working out fine for me with the one keyboard.

JK: You do something interesting: when you pointed it out to me it surprised me so I’d like to share it with the readers. You’ve come to a point now with your organ sounds, while you certainly still do some drawbar work, some live moving of the drawbars to create those shimmer effects that you’ve given credit to Larry Young for inspiring you to do, but you’ve moved into a mode where you’re changing presets in places where somebody might have changed a drawbar, hit the Chorus/Vibrato button, even changed the rotation speed of the Leslie. What brought that about for you?

TC: Just because I had to do it quickly. When I was playing Hammond I used the reverse key presets a lot so it’s not that different. But then remember that you could set up 4 sets of drawbars and then using those controls. So by my setting up my most used sounds in the Kronos I can dial them in super fast. Another thing that is cool in the Kronos/CX3 is I can program a sound with the Leslie already spinning fast. So as I’m playing and I start crescendo-ing and I want to simulate pulling out the drawbars I would change patches, which only took a nanosecond. It would sound like I was pulling out drawbars because the change was fairly subtle, then by the time that I got to the full drawbars sound which was at the height of my solo, where I was playing some power chords or such, the Leslie would already be ramped up. For me that was kind of cool to be able to do that on a small wannabe organ like the CX3. It was helpful because I didn’t have the real thing there, and that’s why I did it.

JK: Right, and I know with the CX3 you had the presets right in the center of the panel above the keys, as close as possible to where you were playing already, so it was the least physical movement to get the result.

TC: Exactly. Now there are tunes that I play where I do still only use the drawbars, because the tune calls for so much organ subtlety, meaning in the course of the tune there are 4 or 5 areas of the tune that to my ears call for a very different organ sound. It’s a tune that Vinnie wrote called “J-Bend Jazz”, it’s a beautiful tune on “Vitalization” and my approach to it is to play with them “old school”.

JK: And on the new CD there’s a tune you wrote that is obviously a tribute to Jimmy Smith called “Jimmy Jive” and watching the DVD as well, that’s one where you’re playing the old school vocabulary.

TC: Yeas, that’s another that’s all drawbars.

JK: There’s a section of your solo where you start to play block chords with that whistley rack mount tone…

TC: I call that the “Shirley Scott” approach.

JK: Now to your lead synth sounds. I’ve gone back and studied all the older Keyboard Magazine interviews and articles and again, back in the old days you got to the point where you had a guitar player’s rack of effects, you had a 4x12 cabinet with an amp head, you had both rack mount and floor pedal effects. You described some interesting techniques like using a stomp box for a heavy/wet, regenerative delay that you would wait until the end of the solo to kick it in. Are you finding that you’re developing or maintaining that in your programming or have you simplified your approach over the years?

TC: I’ve played nothing but Korg products for many years now, by choice - no one has forced me to do it, it’s a choice that I make because they do what I need to do. Now when I had my 24-track studio in my house I of course had 40 or 50 keyboard and module combinations, and of course I had a lot of products in my arsenal of sounds that were made by Roland, Yamaha – you name it and I owned it. I can’t even think of them right now, Moog, Oberheim, TX816 rack – I looked at the sound of each manufacturer as a color palette, and sometimes I would want one of those colors when I was making a solo record, or producing another artist. But for live performances I would use Korg.

...I have always been very happy with the lead guitar-type sounds that come with the keyboards. The way that they work, as you know, so much of the way the sound lives in how long you hold the note. So the technique for me now has changed in the way that I play the solo, how I choose my notes, how I start the solo using longer notes, playing intervals, which tend to sound more like a guitar. If I’m playing fast you’ll just hear the pitches, but if I play a long note then you’ll start to hear the note oscillate like you’d hear when a guitar interacts with the speaker. So for me now it’s the technique and the approach as to how I play the patch, that’s what’s changed for me.

JK: And over the years every instruments had a different feel, and one of the big things was wheels versus ribbons; most of the Korg gear that you play has a joystick, did you find it difficult to adapt, do you find advantages, disadvantages to one versus the other?

TC: You know, because the wheel was the only thing that was available for so much of my life I wondered what it was going to be like, but I prefer the joystick now because it’s much easier for me to bend both up and down. It just works best for me, so now, even though you can assign things to pedals and buttons; I use the same joystick to turn the Leslie speed up and down, where on the CX3 I used a foot switch. So the joystick has become an all-around tool, a very important tool. I do a lot of pitch bending when I play a Rhodes sound so it’s become a part of my playing, I wouldn’t know what to do without it.

JK: And you always recommended doing your lead synth vibrato from pitch bend, not from Mod Wheel controller LFO modulation…

TC: Exactly. It (LFO) just doesn’t sound as real to me.

JK: You’ve played with one of the most iconic guitar players of all time with Carlos, but certainly with a lot of other masterful players, don’t you find with the tempo of song you like to be in control of the depth and speed of your vibrato?

TC: Oh absolutely. It changes depending on how I feel about the tune, a given night - so many things. As a keyboard player over the years, not realizing where technology was going to go, I’ve always envied guitar players and sax players for their ability to what I call caress a note. To bend it and caress it. For me it was such a magical thing to realize that a keyboard had been invented where you could play a note, but also pitch bend it and control your own vibrato.

JK: I appreciate that when you bring out the accordion and you play a ballad. Not being all that familiar with that much maligned instrument, when you would do a variety of bellow shakes (rapidly pump the bellows in and out to produce a type of tremolo), I thought, “wow, what a gorgeous horn, what a beautiful vocal sound you’re getting that I never attributed to the squeeze-box.”

TC: Yeah, I don’t know anyone else who does that, who vibrates the bellows like that. I just started doing that naturally when I added the accordion to my Vital rig, which I thought was kind of cool.

JK: Well, when you purchase the live CD, you get a DVD of same concert with a bonus track of a ballad called “Positano” where you bring out the accordion and you can see what we’re talking about.

Reading about your background you’ve stated that while you started with piano lessons you really didn’t connect with it, and it was when you got to try an accordion that something clicked. What was it?

TC: Well I didn’t like my piano teachers, and I didn’t want to study classical music. When I was young I started teaching myself how to play boogie-woogie. That’s the kind of music I wanted to play, not realizing at 5 years old that you really needed to take lessons and learn much more. But when my parents took me to visit some friends, they had an accordion and offered to let me try it. I was fascinated that you could push a switch and change the configuration of the tone chamber and alter the sound. And the way that when you pressed a key how your touch felt in conjunction with the tone fascinated me, and really drew me into that world.

JK: Your first chance to change the sound and as you say, caress the note.

TC: Yeah, and you know it’s interesting, I didn’t know why until I got much older, why the Lord, or life, or whatever inspired me to embrace the accordion, because even though it is very limited compared to the piano, it was a natural transition to the B3, and then from the B3 to the world of synthesizers. So there’s this crazy reason why the universe chose me to embrace the accordion: now it makes so much sense, but I certainly wondered why before.

JK: Did you drop it for a long time and then bring it back a couple of years ago with Vital, or had you always kept it going at home?

TC: No, I stopped playing it and it was in storage for years. I only brought it out to play “Happy Birthday” here at the house for someone, because everyone loves the accordion… And then I got a call from Boz Scaggs, he wanted me to play it on one of his records. It had kind of a French vibe musically, so I went up in the attic and got it down and started playing it and it started falling apart. I had to take it apart and glue some of the pads back on. I took it down to the session and did one or two takes, and man, he loved it. So I kept it down here, not in the attic, and then Steve thought, “why don’t we start playing the instruments that we are known for? Like you’re known for the organ, and the accordion, why don’t we bring those into the band? Have it more organ-based, bring out the accordion, and show everybody that these are the instruments that we play.” And that’s how it started.

JK: That was the gestation for the CD “Where We Come From”?

TC: Yes, absolutely.

JK: I’ve sat with you numerous times when we were voicing a keyboard, or showing you a product, and you have an incredibly relaxed touch and technique. There doesn’t seem to be any motion or energy wasted. I assume this comes from the accordion and organ background?

TC: You know, I have no idea (chuckles), I think the accordion has a lot to do with it. The thing is on your back and you can’t see what you’re playing, so you need to address the keys as close as possible. It’s not like playing a horizontal keyboard, where you can lift your hand up – you just can’t do it. I’m assuming this – it just came naturally. A number of people have said that to me, including my son. He said, “Man, Dad, when you play you still have a lot of speed, a lot of technique, and you keep your hands really close to the keys.” And I said, “You know son, I’ve never really paid much attention to it.”

JK: It’s not something you consciously worked on?

TC: No, it seems like if you’re going to play fast, because I know a lot of guys who, for some reason, find it hard to play with a lot of speed, I don’t really know what that is but it’s different in all of us. It seems to me if you’re going to play the keyboard you want to keep your hands as close to the keys, with the least movement as possible to instill and promote accuracy and touch. It never made sense to do anything other than that. But I think you’re right, I think it’s from the natural design of the accordion. You have to keep your hands close to the keyboard.

JK: Yet you’ve played piano, you had a CP-70 for years with Santana, and you’re well known for your Dyno-My Rhodes sound. The Fender Rhodes could be the polar extreme from this, so did you feel you were fighting those instruments more?

TC: Yeah, sure. That’s why I tell people constantly I’m not a piano player: I don’t have the technique that a real piano player has, and I don’t have the strength in my hands that a real piano player has. My touch is totally based on an accordion/organ/synth action – that’s been the majority of my life. If I play a Rhodes or an acoustic piano I don’t have anywhere near the technique and prowess that I have on a synth, because my hands get fatigued.

JK: Coming back to Vital and the music, there’s obviously some deep rhythmic stuff that goes on when you’re playing with a player as virtuosic and schooled as Steve. You guys do a fair amount of odd-time signature music and Steve’s been influenced more and more by Indian music elements. How do you go about working on and learning those songs? Does Steve bring in this stuff, do you shed by yourself, do you work on it as a group, how do you make that go from complex to what’s natural when I see the band play?

TC: I wasn’t excited about it, because I’m not a big fan of odd meter music. I don’t enjoy it or play it very much; I never really embraced it. But here again, Steve being the band leader and pushing boundaries, wanting to do his Konnakol stuff (South Indian rhythmic percussion vocal style), I had to move forward, and it’s like anything else, it was difficult at first and very rigid for me. I had to get my brain in a different place. But now my comping, like in 7 ½ which is basically in 15 I’ve learned to play some incredible organ grooves in 15. Baron and I, if you listen closely to the new CD, there’s some serious, killing syncopated grooves in odd meter. But it’s like anything else, we wrote and learned the tunes as a band. We actually did that album and those tunes in a place Vinny and his parents own. We went there for like a week and we rehearsed every day, and got them to a point we were ready to record. The more we’ve played them on tour they’ve grown and now they’re off the hook. Once the brain learns what it has to do, the mechanical part of it becomes natural and you can take it to another level. Once you’ve recorded something and then you go out on the road you wish, “I wish I could re-record this stuff!” If you’re fortunate to do a live recording then you can capture the growth of the music. But yeah we learned all that stuff together and then we practiced on our own.

JK: Not sure how you set up your metronome for 7 ½…

TC: You know, you’re right about that, I think I just did it on my own and when the time got turned around I just tried to overpower it (laughs).

JK: It’s interesting when I read about this, the tools we have today for studying and transcribing are incredible, and things that for the masters used to happen naturally have now been analyzed and codified. So in reading interviews with Steve one of terms he discussed was called metric modulation, I don’t know if this is something that the band talks about consciously, but the idea is that within a given pulse other subdivisions or divisions of the beat can imply another tempo, or there’s the more common concept of playing time against time (5 against 4, 3 against 2). You guys play around with that a lot, certainly Steve is a master of that, does that come about organically or do you guys consciously work at it?

TC: If it’s a composition like “Seven and a Half” those subdivisions are part of the tune, but Steve does that stuff in almost every tune. And that is because he just does whatever he wants and we better be alert, because if I’m not paying attention I’ll turn the time around. So I have to be very careful. Because right away, I want to hear the downbeat, you know. Well if he’s playing all this stuff and I’m taking a solo and I’m already in my world, and he starts playing these strong downbeats I find out I’m one beat off.

JK: It’s easy to go with it but then it’s hard to come back to the “one”?

TC: Yup. “Uh-oh, where am I?” Guys like Steve and Cobham as so amazing with this stuff, so you have to pay very close attention to what you’re doing so when that stuff comes around you know what’s going on. Steve to me, probably more than any other drummer I’ve worked with, he does it more within a tune because it’s his band. He doesn’t do that when he’s a sideman because he’s being asked to play a particular role. But in Vital, that’s one of the things that makes up what our band is, it’s Steve Smith and Vital Information. If he wants to do that stuff anywhere he wants, it just happens. It’s certainly not rehearsed or quite often premeditated.

JK; How would you describe, not really the differences, but your reaction to playing with Billy versus playing with Steve? Everybody you play with has a personality and a vocabulary. Do you find you adapt differently, are there certain things you need to do?

TC: This is also a very important subject to relate to young musicians. Every time I play with a different rhythm section, this is not just drummers; it’s drummer and bass player combinations. The last couple of tours I did with Billy Cobham it was Victor Bailey on bass. So right away I knew the feeling of the time was going to be different than playing with Steve and Baron. What you have to do as a musician is you literally have to split your brain in half. Everything you’re hearing that goes along with performing has to be split in two. And the reason for that, at least the way that I look at it, is you’re listening to the music and what you’re playing, because when I get offered a tour with these people we don’t have much time to rehearse. We basically are given the mp3’s and the music via email and then we have to do our homework. Once the plane lands and everybody goes to the hall to rehearse, we usually have only one 4-5 hour rehearsal and then we start touring. So while you’re playing this music you’re listening to how your parts are fitting in with them, but the other part of my brain is listening to where the groove is. Because a Victor Bailey and a Billy Cobham are going to put the groove in a different place then a Baron Brown and a Steve Smith. And everybody is going to change a little bit when Steve plays with a different bass player, when Baron plays with a different drummer. So as musicians we have to not just do our things, but we have to be conscious of what’s going on around us and fit into that. With some rhythm sections you may have to lay back a little bit, cause that’s where they’re feeling the time. Especially in my case, because I do a lot of rhythm playing with the organ stuff. So I definitely want to hook up with them, and I pay really close attention to where they’re feeling the time.

JK; Whether they’re pushing it, or pulling it back…

TC: Exactly. I just did a jazz festival with a group of incredible young Mexican musicians. It was a fusion gig and we played my music for the most part. Those guys really played on top, so I had to adjust my playing to fit into the whole circle of what was happening musically. I’m not going to sit there and say, “Oh, I’m going to lay back” in reaction to it, I have to see where they’re seeing and hearing and feeling these tunes and fit in with them. And it’s interesting, because every culture, when you go to different countries, it’s interesting how German musicians feel the time. When I played at the MusikMesse for Korg this year, I played with two incredible German musicians (Stefan Rademacher – bass, Daniel Schild – drums). And when I play the same tunes that I play with Vital and then I play it with them, it’s smoking, but where the time is different. Not that it’s rushing, but they feel the “lean” of the beat differently. They tend to push it a little bit. Everybody feels it different, and it’s not drastic; it’s not like they’re playing incorrectly, it’s just where the energy factor lies. And as musician you can’t just bring your thing in and say “this is where it’s at”. No, you have to say, “this might be where I feel it, but that isn’t where it’s coming from now, and I have to accept and become a part of the overall groove.”

JK: This relates to something I’ve read a number of times in interviews with you, your whole approach is to serve the band and serve the music. You have said that when playing with Carlos you really appreciated and enjoyed accompanying him; comping and building the music, not just “going for it”.

TC: Wonderful, absolutely. I feel that one of my strongest talents as a keyboard player is the way I comp behind people. And I’ve heard that from a lot of the musicians I’ve played with. I listen, and I try to make a conversation of it, Don’t overpower them, and when you have a chance to be a part of their musical conversation while they solo then you do that. Some comping is more rhythmic, where you and the bass player are setting up this infectious groove that just drives the soloist into this euphoric state. But if you’re playing a Rhodes sometimes you want to play pads, but you want to do it in selective areas where it’s really going to enhance the soloist. You have to listen to what the soloist is playing: is there a lot of space, or are they playing a lot of notes. And you just don’t do your own thing, you want to be sure you’re listening to what that person is playing, because they have the stage at that point. He’s the main character in the play, and you have to support that. Comping to me is a whole lesson in itself.

JK: {Reference to his Jun 1996 issue comping lesson (MIDI + audio)}

JK: I would describe your soloing at times as a “slippery, modern chromatic/modal approach”. I’m sure it’s not conscious for you anymore, but when you were developing your playing where do you think that came from?

TC: When I listen to really great piano players I noticed that when they’re playing a standard, they start re-harmonizing the tune. I’ve always been into that. What I learned is there is “in” playing and there is “out” playing. When I’m playing a more traditional organ solo, I’ll play in, using licks and harmonic figures that come from the organ vocabulary. But when I’m playing a solo on the Rhodes, but it can be on anything, it depends on the tune, I like to take the solo out of its normal domain. I do that by observing what are the strong, needed chords in the progression and which are weaker, or more passing ones. So I always make sure to clearly cover the critical chords, like in a blues progression starting on the “I” is important, and then changing to the “IV” in the fifth bar, and so on. But what I do to get from the “I” to the “IV” is completely open to my creativity; you can play pretty much anything up to that. So in my brain I construct what I call “systems”, which are combinations of re-harms that will make a musical voyage from the “I” chord to the “IV” chord. I make sure to come down hard on the “IV” chord so people can hear that it’s the blues structure. But how I get to that structure is my own creativity. I’ve come up with my own chord patterns to do that, and I like that slippery approach as you called it. I’m really into that these days and I’ve been working on it for a while.

Now what I notice with a lot of young musicians is they understand all this, but they play too many notes. If you know what you’re going to play that’s part of the technique, but what makes the solo interesting is not just the notes, but the rhythmic “conversation” you have with those notes. That brings attention to the solo because you’re playing with your touch, dynamics, and rhythm in such as way as to make a unique and interesting conversation. So once you learn the notes, and the chords of a tune you need to come up with a creative way to play them that’s going to be interesting to the listener. That may be simplistic, but it’s the only way I can describe it.

JK: I get it. And you’re less about learning and practicing licks and more about absorbing the vocabulary and then playing more in the moment?

TC: Yeah, I don’t do that anymore, I don’t do the lick thing anymore. I mean if I discover something and I like it then I’ll learn it. My philosophy is that when you listen to a great keyboard player, and I know so many of them because I’ve been blessed to have met so many of them, to work with them and share the bandstand with them, they’re not thinking when they’re playing. You shouldn’t have to think of what you’re going to improvise. What should happen is that you should have so many tools in your toolbox that you can take anything out at any time and use it without having to think about it. When you have to think about what you’re going to play, I can hear it; I can hear when an artist is thinking about what they’re going to play, it comes out in their presentation. What I think about when I’m going to take a solo is, “How do I feel at this moment? Do I feel adventurous, do I feel happy, do I feel like I want to be funny, do I want to play comical?” That’s what I think about when I take a solo, not what notes I’m going to play. And it’s taken me a lifetime to get to that effortless point.

JK: Do you feel that during that soloing it’s a dialog with the other players rather than just you?

TC: Yes, absolutely. That’s what I love about Vital Information, the kind of solos that we take, if I play a lick, they’ll answer me back. If I bring the level way down they’ll follow me. We’ll start a solo section very delicately, not a lot of notes. So I’ll start in the lower range of the keyboard. But every night we play that song we might start it in a different way, this is what’s delightful about playing with the band. Everybody’s got the ability to always be “in the moment” on stage.

JK: For me, “Time Tunnel” on the new CD is a great example of both your soloing concepts, using your “anchor points” concept. The tune seems to be written to allow that.

TC: Yes, the tune is open for 16 bars then goes into definite chord changes that you have to play through. It’s a great example of this.

JK: I’ve read and spoken to you and know that at this point in your life and musical adventures you’re really looking to make your own records anymore. But there’s so much great music under your name, and while I can still find your solo albums from the 80’s and 90’s, starting on Fantasy and then on the JVC label used on Amazon, and the like, none of it is currently available via iTunes, or Spotify, or has been reissued. Is there any chance that this great music will ever see the light of day again?

TC: Well, I have to say that the second album I did for Fantasy [“Ivory Expedition”] was one of my favorites and that came out on CD. That was some great stuff, and it really showcases the Moog Invader. But then the latter albums I did for JVC (“Let’s Set The Record Straight”, “From The Street”, “The Forbidden Zone”) -- I am so grateful to JVC for letting do those, because they’re some of the best fusion music ever recorded. And that’s not me, I hear that from many, many fans. But they are hard to find. I just want to make my life as simple as possible; I don’t have a website or any of that. Between touring and fishing, my children and grandchildren, my life is busier than it’s ever been. But I guess I could make an attempt to see if those albums can be licensed. I have been asked by our current label if there’s anything that I’m interested in having done, so maybe I should approach them and see if they can do it.

JK: OK, now it’s in print, and I’m going to be the nudge that sees that you do it!

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