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The "new" NYC Young Lion: An Interview with Jazz drummer Ben Perowsky

By Brian L. Knight

[Editor's note: This interview was conducted in 1999] The first time I heard the name Ben Perowsky, I thought nothing of it. The name did not ring any bells and I had never heard of any of his collaborations. What I soon discovered was my own ignorance as Perowsky is one of the most active drummers in New York City jazz scene. In recent years, Perowsky has played with notable jazz guitarists such as Pat Martino and Mike Stern as well as multi-instrumentalist Don Byron. He was also a member of John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards, toured with the funky vibraphone playing of Roy Ayers, contributed to the jazz fusion group Lost Tribe and is member of the dub/electronica group Liminal. His musical involvement has also crossed into the world of rock and roll as he has jammed with Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and the Velvet Underground’s John Cale. Perowsky leaves no musical stone unturned. In an earlier interview with the Vermont Review, slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein spoke of Perowsky: "Ben has the best time of any drummer I ever met. His wrists, they way they hit the drum, are always in time. Some guys work their whole life to try to get that. He can’t help it – he just has perfect time. He plays the drums perfectly."

Music fan have recently had an opportunity to hear Perowsky in action either through his tour with John Scofield or his latest album, Ben Perowsky Trio (Jazz Key Music, 1999). Through bands like the Lounge Lizards, Spanish Fly, Elysian Fields, Liminal and Lost Tribe, Perowsky has covered many different styles of music through many different band incarnations. But when it comes to leading his own trio, Perowsky keeps things plain and simple. This release, which features saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Speed and drummer Scott Colley was recorded live at the Knitting Factory and contains a variety of jazz cuts reminiscent of the acoustic jazz trios that proliferated New York City in the 1950s. The trio works through five Perowsky originals as well as versions of Charlie Parker’s "Segment" and Duke Ellington’s "In A Sentimental Mood." At times, the music moves from be-bop and hard bop and into the avant-garde, but in general the band remains true to jazz convention.

The music has strong roots in tradition but still manages to push the envelope and allow for new and stimulating musical expression. The biggest deviation from this format arrives with their bop interpretation of Pink Floyd’s "Money." The trio takes a contemporary pop song, arranges it in a traditional jazz form and then takes the song beyond its already mutated limits. The trio is definitely a "band of equals" as each member is essential to the overall sound. Perowsky, influenced by everybody from John Bonham to Elvin Jones, leads the band through exhilarating time changes, Colley keeps the band rooted down with steady bass lines and Colley’s playing ranges from the melodic to the free. This collectivity is best shown by the two originals "El Destructo" and "Janitor" which feature aggressive and vibrant drumming similar to Tony Williams and extensive blowing by Colley in the tradition of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. As the tunes journey through many phases and moods, it is Perowsky’s incredible time management that keeps the songs alive and well. The most interesting original would have to be "Pixy99", a 2+ minute romp, which reminds this listener of many of the free grooves created by Medeski, Martin and Wood. The Vermont Review spoke to Perowsky via email while he was busy on the road with John Scofield’s Bump Band.

Vermont Review: Who first turned you on to the drums? You played with your father Frank Perowsky. Would it be too blatant for me to assume that he was a major influence? Were you surrounded by musicians as a youth?

Ben Perowsky: I'll try to answer all these together. I definitely grew up in a musical household, between my dad practicing various woodwinds all day long, my older brother blasting his stereo and my mom's impressive Sly Stone/Miles record collection, I was getting it from all angles. I imagine that Bobby Thomas, a close friend / college (Julliard) buddy of my fathers first turned me on to drums at a very young age. he later became my most important drum teacher . My grandma got me a snare and a hi-hat when I was about 3. I think. my dad got the rest of the kit for me at age 5. So yes, he has been a major influence on me. We’ve been playing together since I could reach the bass drum pedal, but we made our first recording a couple of weeks ago.

VR: What drummers can you claim as an influence?

BP: There are so many, it's really hard to narrow it down. But I can sort mark off a turning point with Tony Williams. He really turned my head inside out when I first heard him and still does, but there have been many others before him and since. I used to be a Keith Moon fanatic as well as John Bonham, Buddy Miles...I got to meet him a couple years ago (Buddy). I was fortunate to live down the street from a club where I was able to check out Art Blakey on a pretty consistent basis. He made a huge impression on me. I’m leaving out a lot of obvious names but should also mention some drummers that I have been around and close to since we were kids. Sterling Campbell, Zack Alford, and Gene Lake have all been great friends and big influences on me. There's not enough room here to put their collective credits, which read like the Rolling Stone hall of fame.

VR: Who are some of the hot drummers out there today?

BP: Again, there are so many. But I really like Kenny Wolleson, Jim Black, Ahmir Thompson, Eric Harland, Brian Blade.....there are a bunch of good young drummers in N.Y. now that I’m just beginning to hear about.

VR: I see that you attended the Banff School of Arts. Is that Banff in British Columbia? Have you ever been to a more beautiful location? (It is the only place in the world where the golf course rules said that you can replace your ball if it lands in Elk poop. It is also the most Japanese place that I have ever been to)

BP: Banff totally blew my mind on a lot of levels. first of all growing up in NYC I had never been in nature or mountains like that. On a musical level I hadn’t been around that many great players concentrated into one place. In a month I got to play with Dave Holland, David Leibman, John Abercrombie, Steve Coleman, and something I will always remember is playing duets with Cecil Taylor (he broke an f# off the piano). I didn’t play golf there, I was more taken with all the other "greens" in the area.

VR: You live in New York City. Do you feel an intense amount of jazz tradition in the Big Apple?

BP: New York is definitely the place for jazz. I grew up watching all the greats here. but it has also been a pretty fertile place for the arts in general. Hopefully it will stay that way. I think it may be getting worse...but there is always Brooklyn.

VR: I am going to name some musicians/bands. I would like to hear what you have to say about them. You don't have to answer the ones you don't want. Guitarist Pat Martino?

BP: What an amazing guitarist. He's a living legend. I was very fortunate to get to play with him a little a couple of years ago. He's got an amazing way of playing lines.

VR: The band Spanish Fly?

BP: My old pals. I had a great time playing with them. we did a lot of great gigs at the old Knitting Factory. Steven Bernstein, Marcus Rojas and David Tronzo have all been doing great and inspiring music. I was never a band member though, just a "special guest" , which was cool because I didn’t have to take part in any arguments. I later became a frequent special guest in the birth of Bernstien's latest project.

VR: Multi-instrumentalist Don Byron?

BP: Don is really great!! I like his simultaneous sense of history and future.

VR: DJ Logic?

BP: I’ve had a chance to meet Logic a few times when he was over at "Good and Evil" making Project Logic. He's a really cool guy. "Good and Evil" is the recording studio my friends and partners in Liminal own and run. This is where Sex Mob, MMW, Oren Bloedow, WE, Liminal, myself and loads of others have been recording.

VR: Guitarist John Scofield?

BP: I’ve been a big fan of John since I first heard him with Miles when I was in high school. I’ve wanted to play with him ever since. Now I’m finally getting that chance and it's really a lot of fun. Aside from his extremely soulful and gritty guitar playing, he is a great band leader ....he really lets the music breath and take on it's own life.

VR: Drummer Tony Williams?

BP: Well, I already told you what an influence he had on me. It's tragic that his time with us was cut so short. He was truly an innovator on the drums and he is greatly missed.

VR: Drummer John Bonham?

BP: And of course before I heard Tony, there was Bonham. The roots of my adolescence, and everyone else’s right? His huge beat was always there at the backbone of everything. I heard he lined his bass drum with tin foil. I haven’t tried that one yet.

VR: Guitarist Walter Becker?

BP: Getting a chance to work with Becker was a total blast and I hope I get the opportunity to do more. He is a great person to be around. (especially in Maui). I’m glad the Dan is back in action but I hope his solo efforts weren’t just a one-time thing. He's been really supportive of me.

VR: Percussionist Mickey Hart?

BP: Actually I was more of a Billy Kruetzman fan when I was listening to the dead as a kid. They actually served as a kind of bridge to jazz for me.

VR: Tell me a little about the trio on your latest album?

BP: The trio on my CD consists of Chris Speed on tenor sax and clarinet, Scott Colley on bass and myself on drums. Scott, I have been playing with for years in many different situations but never with my own band. He is an incredible bass player with a great sense of melody and a rock solid groove. Chris is a very unique player amongst a lot of horn players today. He has incredible taste and passion when he plays, leaving all the cheese and flash behind. These guys make the music speak and we have a great hook up. We played together a lot at the Knitting Factory's Tapbar when I was just getting the music together. That is a good place to work out stuff. so before I gave up the weekly slot I decided to document some of the nights and that is what made it on the CD.

VR: The trio has an old style feel to it. Were you trying to return to your roots?

BP: I guess in a way , to one of my roots. my father, being a tenor player, had all the Sonny Rollins' trio recordings. So my trio is the same instrumentation as that and we all were influenced by those records but were using that more as a place to jump off of rather than something we will keep going back to.

VR: You spend a lot of time playing other bands. How often do get your trio together?

BP: Whenever possible. it's not easy, due to everyone's busy schedule but we do play a lot together.

VR: Your album features a version of Pink Floyd's "Money". Are you longtime fan of Floyd?

BP: I guess you could say that. I think I was 13 when I first heard that tune shaking through the wall of my older brother’s room.

VR: Which was the best Pink Floyd frontman : Barrett, Waters or Gilmour?

BP: I’m not that big of a fan but what little I heard and saw of Barrett, he seemed to have the most spark. but I’m not really an authority on Pink Floyd, I just thought that would be a good tune to play in a trio setting.

VR: Mike Stern's Play is an aural onslaught. Was this as fun an album to partake in as it is to listen to?

BP: It was a lot of fun to play with Frisell. we had to go out to Seattle where he lives. We recorded in Pearl Jam's studio, those are Matt Cameron’s drums on the CD. Of course it was great to play with Scofield too, I think that date may have led to him hiring me for his current band. ( which I am thoroughly enjoying playing in right now. We played a great show last night in Indianapolis and now were on our way to Minneapolis.) I also had a good time playing with Mike again. We hadn’t played together in a really long time and I feel like my playing has changed a lot since we were playing back in the early 90's.

VR: With your band Liminal, you take a foray into the world of electronica. How did this band come about?

BP: First of all just for the record, Liminal is Danny Blume's baby. Danny and I started playing together in a band many years ago called the Fertile Crescent, which broke up a long time ago. A few years ago Danny started Liminal as a means to make improvised electronica. There were weekly gigs that led to a couple of CDs recorded for the Knitting Factory label. I was closely associated with Liminal then but didn’t do any tours and appeared as a guest on the CDs. The band then included DJ Olive and Loop who went on to form a band called WE. They recorded their latest CD at Danny’s recording studio, which I mentioned earlier. "Good and Evil" (http://www.goodandevil.net). Danny's partner, Chris Kelly and I make up the latest incarnation of Liminal. the music is totally improvised, electronic, dance/ambient jams. It's really a lot of fun for me, and a new experience every time we play.

VR: The album was recorded on Knitting Factory. Would you consider that club/label to be the champion of experimental music and ultimately responsible for a "revival"?

BP: Actually I don't think Liminal necessarily fits into an "experimental" category , especially these days. as far as the knit goes, it's been a cool place to play at and do some recording for a lot of years.

VR: With out listening to any of the albums, it seems that Elysian Fields, with songwriters Oren Bloedow and Jennifer Charles, may have more of a pop-folk sound to it. Could you tell us a little about the genesis of Elysian fields? Have you had a chance to hear the Oren Bloedow album with Medeski, Martin and Wood? That is one of my all time favorites. Is Elysian Fields similar in approach?

BP: I hope you don't mind me bunching those questions together since they are all related. I met Oren Bloedow back in '87 when we were both starting to play in clubs in NYC. We were on a blues gig at "Dan Lynch's Bar". We later crossed paths on the, I guess you could call it downtown scene but that term is kind of ambiguous. We would play double bills together with the Oren Bloedow band and the Fertile Crescent. Back then Jennifer Charles was just starting to sing, and she would come up on his gigs and do a couple of numbers. I think this is also around the time when MMW were in early formation stages. Billy Martin played drums in Oren's band then as well as Danny Blume on guitar. Later, in 1992, there was a huge tour that the Knitting Factory put together with three bands touring all across America. Oren had Billy and John Medeski in his trio, the Fertile Crescent played as well as Sam Bennet's Chunk. This was one of the funniest tours I had ever been on. It was rough but we were all good friends. This is where I first experienced John's gourmet tour bus cooking. Anyway, a few years later Jennifer and Oren started to get more serious about Jennifer being a front person to her own band. They are an amazing song writing team. At that time they had James Genus on bass who I had played with a little in jazz circles (who I now play with in Dave Douglas' sextet and quartet). When they asked me to play I jumped at the chance. We started doing gigs and eventually added Ed Pastorini on piano, also an amazing writer/player legendary in N.Y. deserving much wider recognition. soon Elysian Fields got signed to Radioactive Records who put out an EP and the CD entitled Bleed Your Cedar. We made another CD but Radioactive had something else in mind. It was a struggle with them from the moment the relationship started until they end. They never really understood what Jennifer was all about and basically prevented anything from happening. We did do some touring and had a lot of great gigs, but, in my opinion that was not the right label for the band, . We just did some demos at Good and Evil so who knows, there may be something happening in the near future. I’ll let the music speak for itself.

VR: Could you discuss yet another group of yours, Lost Tribe?

BP: Lost Tribe was a band I was in from 1988 to 1999. it started out as a trio with Adam Rogers on guitar ( now playing with Michael Brecker and Cassandra Wilson), Fima Ephron on bass (who now plays with Screaming Headless Torsos, Michelle Ndege O' Cello, and Hassidic New Wave). later Dave Binney joined in on alto sax (currently head of Mythology Records) and David Gilmore on guitar (Wayne Shorter, Steve Coleman). We made 3 CDs. two as a quintet and the last one as a quartet. We played our own blend of jazz, funk and rock and even added a little hip-hop in the mix. Walter Becker helped us get signed in the beginning and had us come down to Maui to produce our first CD. That was amazing! He later hired Adam, Fima and myself to play on his solo CD "11 Tracks of Whack."

VR: Is there a common musical theme amongst all of these groups?

BP: The only real thread between all these bands is that I play(ed) in them. Otherwise they are all really different. I guess that makes me a little schizo... but it keeps things interesting.

VR: Are any of these groups still performing/recording?

BP: All except lost tribe and fertile crescent.

VR: How long were you with the Lounge Lizards?

BP: Not too long. I came in the band right after Billy Martin and John Medeski left. They got too busy with MMW. It was different for me in that I was playing percussion. It was a lot of fun because all my close friends were in the band then. It was good timing for me too because they recorded a CD when I was in the band.

VR: Did you work with Steven Bernstein of the Sex Mob?

BP: You mean the same Steven Bernstein of the Lounge Lizards and Kansas City Big Band? Yes, I also worked with Steven Bernstein of "Spanish Fly", "Foreign Legion", "Word", and he guested in a band I had in high school called "Trio Funk". He's come a long way on that slide trumpet. I just keep telling him to stick with it. Someday he'll thank me. He keeps trying to get my girlfriend to go on the road with Sex Mob, which kind of pisses me off but she is kind of an honorary member in that she played straight man to his in between tune schtick at the Tapbar, ( he used to use a bullhorn to direct the band and audience.)

VR: What do you think of the Sex Mob sound?

BP: Small, but dirty, big and bouncy.

VR: Are you looking forward to your upcoming tour with John Scofield. In a recent years, Scofield has gained a wide audience as a result of his work with Medeski, Martin and Wood. Have you felt a difference with his crowds then you have felt with, let's say Mikes Stern's performances?

BP: It's really great to be playing for a younger more energetic crowd then the average jazz crowd. although there are still the guitar/ drum jocks that come to all the other shows. It's nice to see a bigger female presence. john is a major sex symbol for the youth of today.

VR: When playing with so many bands, is it difficult to go from one mode to another?

BP: I just think about how much more money one band pays then another and that usually helps in my transition.

VR: If you could play with any musician in history, who would it be?

BP: Mozart.

VR: What do you do when you are not playing music?

BP: I got a new snowboard this year but haven’t had much opportunity to break it in. I did have one nice powder day up at hunter Mt. (believe it or not). I’ve only been snowboarding for a few years but I was one of the dinosaur skateboarders who owned a snurfer(and still got it).

VR: Is there anything that you want to tell us that we have not discussed?

BP: If there are any boarders out there interested in swapping music/drum tips for riding/gear/where to board in Vt. tips, get in touch with me through my new site at http://www.perowsky.com I hope my answers weren’t too long winded, there's a lot of time to kill on the road. Thanks Brian.