Buy 'Hands' - my new recording with Dave Binney, Tom Rainey, and Chris Guilfoyle!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Gene Perla - a Life in Jazz

Gene Perla has been playing bass at the highest level for almost fifty years now. A respected denizen of the New York scene for all of that time, he has appeared on many classic recordings, and played with some of the greatest musicians in the history of jazz. Alongside his playing activities he's always been a model of the musician/entrepreneur, running his own record label and generally taking care of business in a way that's become more common now with the advent of the internet, but was way ahead of its time when Gene started it.  He's still going strong, playing, touring, recording, taking care of business and sounding great. At the recent IASJ Meeting in Lisbon I took the opportunity to talk to Gene about his amazing musical history (and special thanks to Colin O Sullivan for transcribing this for me!), and in particular about the many great drummers he'd played with. 

RG: So Gene, let me first ask you about this: you're one of the most experienced bass players working today, with a huge career.  What I want to talk to you about today, one of the primary relationships in jazz – and one that's not spoken about enough – is the relationship between bass players and drummers.  People talk about bass players.  They talk about drummers.  But this other, third being that appears in the rhythm section is so much about the energy and the connection between the bass and the drums.  I know you've played with some of the greatest drummers in the history of the music, but before I ask you about anybody specifically, what is your general overall commentary about the nature of the relationship between the bass and the drums in a band, in a genre, in anything.  The particular uniqueness of the relationship, and how you feel as a bass player, how you think about that?

GP: Steadiness.  Being even.  And that doesn't mean the music can't breathe.  It can have a feeling of, perhaps, going ahead a little bit in time.  It can pull back in time, but it's not almost all cases of the drummers that I've had an opportunity to play with – or the ones that I've had the most fun with, let's put it that way - there was a feeling of being very confident that I wasn't going to be let down.  My job was to work with them so I wouldn't let them down, so we could travel on the same path together.  Depending on where the beat was...some players play on top, other ones in the middle, other ones behind the beat.  But to me the most important thing is to stay even and steady.  And then for me, then I feel like I can go to work.

RG: Just to come back to one little point there.  If you're playing with a drummer for the first time, is that the first thing you check out: where the beat is?  Is it in front, on top, or behind.

GP: I don't check it out I just...well I guess I do check it out because I react to it, you know.  But I just start playing my thing and I see how the tap of the cymbal is winding up with the pluck of my string.  And often it's like “Wow, this is fun!”.  And sometimes it's like “Oh, this is a bit difficult”.

RG: Of those three things, is there any one that you find more difficult?  Obviously, in the middle of the beat is probably not that difficult...but behind or in front?  Where would you feel your time feel is? Because I feel mine is kind of in the middle, slightly to the front.  I know with certain types of drummers its a bit easier for me than with others. 

GP: I've not actually thought about that too much but in just reflecting on what it feels like for me to play, I don't really have an issue one way or the other.  If they want to go on top, that's fine.  I'll go there with them.  If they're behind, or in the middle...  There was an interesting thing when I first joined Elvin who...and maybe you even heard Liebman say this...Elvin's beat was so wide it didn’t matter where you put it, it would fit, you know?

But at the same time, I guess he recommended me to his brother because Richard Davis was leaving the big band – the Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Orchestra, and so I got the gig.  Until Elvin started to get busy and then I had to cut it loose, you know.  But I remember the first night I went on the gig because I had played with drummers on top, I had played with drummers behind and so forth.  And so I guess I went in with a little bit of an attitude - to say, “Well, I'm gonna push this band” - because I had been listening to the record and Richard Davis he plays on top of the beat - for me, sometimes it's too far out in front.  So I said, “Well, I'm going to go in and push”.  And I found it extremely interesting because Mel did not react one iota. He was going right down the centre.  And, you know, by the second tune we were playing I said, “Ok, that's where I'm going”.  And then it was fine, you know.  I mean it was fine before but there was no more experimentation.

RG: I guess you learn -  someone as experienced as you, that's one of the reasons you're so experienced - is that you learn how to adjust or to know what the scene is pretty quickly.

GP: Yeah, yeah.

RG: So the obvious one to start with is Elvin because you're on ‘The Lighthouse’ and, of course, others.  In fact, I remember seeing you with Elvin in The Vanguard, in 1982, with Pat LaBarbera and Jean-Paul Bourelly – a guy with a French name but I think he was an American guitar player.  

GP: Wow!

RG: I still remember that as an iconic gig for me of course, seeing Elvin in The Vanguard.  And I still remember the first tune you guys played.  I think it was called “Little Lady” or something, by Pat LaBarbera that starts with the bass.  So you opened up the gig with your [sings intro].  So there you go, we've a longer history than you know!

GP: [laughs]

RG: So,'re on those iconic albums, especially The Lighthouse album.  So how did you start playing with him?  Maybe let's start with that.  How did you get to know him?  How did he get to know you?

GP: Well, going to the beginning when I became interested in music and then went to Berklee school and was studying and now I'm - as all of us were at that time – voracious, you know.  Anybody who came to the clubs we'd go.  A new record came out we'd share it, and talk, learning, we're all experiencing.  So I finally came to the point when I decided I knew that I had to go New York if I wanted to get to the top of the scene, or try to in any case.  I knew I had to go.  And I went with the express desire to play with two people - Elvin and Miles – and I was successful in both.  But, when I first went to New York I saw that Elvin was playing somewhere – at the old Five Spot – and at that time I wasn't even a bass player.  I was trying to be a piano player, I was trying to be Bill Evans.  And so, went to The Five Spot, and the last set I asked to sit in and he said “Yeah, come on, sit in”.  It was funny, he said “What do you want to play?” and I said “Nothing too fast”. He said, “Me neither!”. [laughs]  He was a bit drunk, you know.  I don't know, maybe more than a bit drunk.  Anyway, I'm sure he didn't remember.  And then I made the switch.  When I was 24 I started to play the bass.  Then when I got a little more confident, and he was playing at a club called Pookie's Pub, I sat in with him twice there.  Funny story, Wilbur Little was playing the bass and the way the band was run, even when I joined, when it came to a bass solo everybody left the stand, you know.

RG: [laughs] The loneliness of the long distance bass player!

GP: You know you're there for like twelve, fifteen minutes, you know.  You gotta solo, right?!  You better not make it short because they're at the bar having a drink. [laughs]  So anyway, I'm sure he didn't remember me.  I have to believe he didn't remember me.  So I played with him three times.  Then I was in Boston, visiting, and playing some gigs, and I was standing in the lobby of the Berklee school and a phone call came in WGBH TV.  Elvin was there to do a half hour live show.  Jimmy Garrison went to New York to cop, missed the plane.  The TV station called the school -  because where are you going to find a jazz musician? – and the girl says, “Elvin Jones is looking for a bass player”.  All I had was my electric bass and I flew to that TV station.  I walked in.  It was about twelve minutes before we had to play.  I'm trying to adjust this amplifier that was set up for rock and roll.  Trying to get, you know, a round sound.  And Joe Farrell, and Elvin, and me.  That was it, trio.  Joe is, like, singing these things, there was no music, he was singing these tunes which I didn't know, you know. [laughs] Anyway, we hit.  Did the half hour show and I have a copy of that tape.

RG: Really?! Wow, I'd love to hear that.  Do you have the video?

GP:  No, I didn't ask for the video back then.  I just wanted to listen to it.  And you can hear me...I'm fucking up here and there but pretty much the beat, I got in there with him.  And later, I heard, when he went back to New York he was saying to people, “I played with this white guy who played electric bass that made it sound like an upright”.  That was the impression.  And when Wilbur left he called me.

RG: That's a great story.  I can't think of a more incredible lobby call than “Elvin Jones is looking for a bass player”... [laughs]

GP: I put my foot on the floor of that car, man!  I didn't care how many state troopers were behind me!  [laughs]

(Joe Farrell)

RG: So when you joined Joe Farrell was the saxophone player...

GP: When I joined it was Joe and Frank Foster.  Two saxophones, and Elvin and myself.  No chords.

RG: So when you started to play with him, how was that?  In terms of the feeling for a bass player of playing with Elvin Jones.  I mean, there are thousands of us – me one of them – who would definitely drive over their own grandmother to get a chance to play with Elvin Jones!  And, of course we'd love to know, as bass players, what's it like?  How did you feel in terms of just, the beat, the feel?  As a bass player, what was he like to play with?

GP: Well it mightn't be interesting for you but, when he called me the first gig we did was a recording.  Didn't even play live with him.  He said, “If you got any tunes, bring 'em.  Maybe we'll play them.”  And I brought them and we recorded two of my songs.  It was called Genesis, the first record.  I have to say this to you – and I've said this numerous times – that, not exact dates, but ball took me about six months and finally I came and I said, “Now I know I can play with this guy.”  But it took me a long time.

RG: What was it that you found challenging to figure out?

GP: Because he was different than everybody else!  You know, drummers had been playing on two and four and the hi-hat.  You know, ding, ding-a-ding-a-ding...and he's like, constantly shifting, you know.  He'll play a phrase...and then the triplet shit which he brought to the forefront...  But it wasn't quite patterns it was like sometimes it would be the high tom to the snare drum and then the next time it would be the floor tom to the high tom.  It was constantly shifting.  All the time.  And another thing, the very first ballad we played on the gig – we didn't do a ballad on that record, I don't think – but when I started working the first ballad we played on the gig it was like he left the room.  It was so quiet!  And if I went off a little bit or anything he'd go BAM! on the snare drum.  “It's here, motherfucker!” [laughs]  So it took me a while to finally say, “Ahh, I can do this”.

RG: And then, of course, you ended up doing the band that appeared on The Lighthouse which was such a great band.  And that TV thing has appeared from Paris in the last year which is fantastic to see.

GP: Yes, yeah!  Unbelievable, Liebman sent it.  Because I didn't think anything existed.

RG: No, me neither.  I won't say I grew up with it...but certainly when I got into jazz, as a player, I was listening to The Lighthouse all the time.  So to actually see the band was amazing, and the energy and that.  So when Liebman and Grossman came in the band, you were like a gang, like friends.

GP: Well I got them in there.  The both of them!

RG: So they were your guys, right?

GP: When I joined Elvin I said, “Lieb, I'm gonna get you in there”, you know.  And then the opportunity came and we had three saxophones.  Then Joe left, and then...I don't remember exactly...I think maybe Frank left, then Grossman came in.  I don't know if there was a layover.  I don't think we had three horns with Steve and Frank.  I think when Frank left Grossman came in.  And I was on Elvin, I said “You know, you gotta get this cat, man.”  Because at that point I felt confident that I could talk to him on a musical level, you know.

RG: And it's great, because this is definitely one of Elvin's greatest bands.  An iconic band in the history of his bands.  He led bands for a long time and probably hundreds of musicians came and went through his bands.  I think only a few of Elvin's “bands” are remembered as bands.  This is absolutely one of them.  Apart from getting your guys in there you obviously had a ear for a band as well! So obviously this is an iconic drummer that you played with, in an iconic band, for people of my generation.   

(Elvin's 'Lighthouse Band' playing live in Paris in '73)

RG: But I know you played with so many great drummers, and some of them very different to Elvin.  Now, tell me about Papa Jo Jones.  How that happened?  What it was like?  Socially, musically, aesthetically...

GP: I'm sure you've seen him on YouTube.  This guy was an amazing guy, man! [laughs]  The way he'd be smiling and doing this whole show business...but that music was there, boy!  It was solid.  So, there was a bar/restaurant in mid-town.  North of Times Square, south of the Park, over on the west side.  It was called Jim and Andy's and the musicians used to hang out there.

RG: Oh yeah, like the famous book: “Meet me at Jim and Andy's”.

GP: Yeah, that's it.  So we used to hang out.  And when I got into the city, and I became aware, I used to go there a lot and hang out because you'd meet people and blah, blah, blah.  So, he was always there.  Papa was always there.  Sitting in a booth, holding court.  I mean this guy was like, you know...

RG: The Emperor.

GP: Right!  Emperor Jones!  [laughs]  And somehow...and he had that scowl on his face and he'd just tell you right off, compunction about that at all.  But somehow, I don't know how it morphed into it, but the next thing I know I was sitting at his table.  He never laid any shit on me.  I guess maybe he felt that I was a straight ahead guy or something.  He'd be beating up other people and stuff and I'd just be there listening and stuff.  And then he started to hire me and we done a bunch of gigs together.  And one night – I'll never forget this – we were playing in Connecticut on a boat.  You know, like a high society kind of thing.  A yacht or wherever the hell we were.  Now he's going to take a drum solo and he turned to me and he said, “Watch this.”  And he started calling off names.  I don't remember them all.  Baby Dodds...I don't know who, right.  And he's going sequentially in time, up the ladder, right.  And he's talking about Buddy Rich.  And he's talking about Art Blakey.  He would play 8 bars or maybe longer, and the feel would change. It would be a total different feel.  And when it came to Elvin he got into triplets with that loose thing, man.  It was amazing, an amazing drum solo.

RG: And how was his time feel in terms of, like, did he play four on the floor bass drum?

GP: Gee, I don't remember.  All I know it was solid as a rock, man! [laughs]  I didn't have to worry about where the beat was with him, boy.

RG: And how was he socially?  Because the only time we ever see him is smiling and looking like the grandfather you never had.

GP: Well, as I said he was tough.  He was rough on people.  Especially the young ones.  He'd just beat them up.

RG: And guys in the band?  Would he give them a hard time?

GP: That I don't recall.  I think when we played gigs it was straight business, you know.  It was just in Jim and Andy's.  So I was...I remember I was treading lightly.  But, somehow he took me in.

RG: Fantastic.  Art Blakey?

GP: Art... I played with Art twice.  One time was at the Olympia Theatre in Paris where the quartet with Steve and Elvin, and Dave and myself, we played a concert.  And at the end of the concert there were three drum sets.  And here comes Art Blakey and Roy Haynes.  So we play a tune.  We just play a head and then they go into the drum thing.  That was one time I played with Art.  But what was interesting was they were all playing and finally, almost on queue, both Roy and Art, they stood up from the drum and both of them went like this to Elvin - {makes bowing gesture….} “You got it.”  They gave it to him, you know.  It was really great.

Then the other time...that was an interesting experience.  George Wein put together a band to help Jimmy Carter's re-election campaign, which he didn't win.  But anyway, it was at the Village Gate downstairs.  There were two bass players, Ron Carter and myself, and a bunch of people were sitting in.  Art was playing drums and so I played with Art.  Ron played the first part of the thing and then I played the second part.  We had...what was the the piano sounded like insects were jumping out of the piano...Don Pullen!  And it was a saxophone player from Long Island, and somebody else, and somebody else.  Three horns, I think, and Art.  And Art was going downhill at that time and he was wearing a hearing aid.  And I swear to you, man, I don't know where the fuck he was, man.  It felt to me like the beat was like an ocean, it was going up and down.  For me, I couldn't find a centre.  Now, I don't know if he couldn't hear.  I don't know if he was fucking with me.  I can't believe that – why? All of a sudden - because I play with my eyes closed - all of a sudden this trumpet comes in and it's like Gabriel, man.  The point is there, and the rhythm is there, and the whole band went whoom...including Art, and bang!, away we went on the time.  Wynton Marsalis had just came to town.

And the other thing with Art was we were on tour in Europe and he was around.  It might have been that time that we were in the Olympia and we went to some party, or somebody's house, afterwards and we sat down.  And Art was spouting off, man...  He was just going off, and off, and off, and off.  Talking, talking...  That's pretty much my experience with him.

RG: Pretty amazing experience.  As a bass player, like all bass guitar players of my generation, and all since then, we're all aware of Don Alias because he was on Jaco Pastorius' recording...

GP: Woo hoo! I was there!

RG: Were you?  You were there in the studio? Wow.

GP: In the studio, yeah.  One of the sessions.

RG: I remember hearing that album for the first time in a record shop and I had headphones on, and getting poked in the arm and told to stop cursing!  I didn't even realise I was swearing!  Because I'd never heard anything like that.  The Donna Lee...  [both laugh] Holy shit...

GP: Yeah, yeah! [laughs]  That's funny!

 (Jaco Pastorius)

RG: So, Don Alias...  I remember him because, again, he was quite ubiquitous, at that time, on a lot of recordings that I would have bought earlier on.  But he's maybe not so well known now.  I know he was a very good friend of yours so maybe tell me about Don Alias himself and your relationship with him, your musical stuff with him.

GP: I met him once very briefly when I was living in Boston.  He visited my apartment because one of my room mates was a bass player, John Voigt.  He never really did much with music.  He became the first librarian of Berklee library. Anyway, so Don and somebody else came to visit him, and I said “Hello” and “Goodbye”.  It didn't really register much.  And Voigt, at that time, was playing with Don in the only authentic Latin dance band in New England.  I had just started playing bass.  I hadn't been playing maybe four, five months or something.  And so Voigt said, “I'm going to quit this band.  You want the gig?”  I said, “Yeah, OK, but I don't know anything about Latin Music.”  He said, “You'll pick it up.”  So I went to a rehearsal.  I got hired.  So that's when my relationship with Don started.  We were working six nights a week.

RG: And he was playing congas in this band?

GP: He was playing congas.  Once in a while he'd play drums but mostly it was congas.  Congas, timbales, bongos.  And so we just became so close.  We used to go out and smoke joints in the break and talk about philosophy, and music, and all kinds of stuff, you know.  And then I decided to go to New York so I quit them and went to the city.  I was living in New Jersey just across the George Washington bridge.  He came down a few times and we'd have some jam sessions.  And then I moved into the city.  I got a loft for four months over the Summer.  It was my first time in.  And I called him and I said, “Man, I'm moving to the city.  Come on down, man.”  It was a weekend.  I think I moved in on the Saturday.  So he came down.  And unbeknownst to me – because he spent all that time in Boston – he used to play bass in a trio with Tony Williams and Chick Corea.

RG: Don Alias?  Played bass with Tony Williams and Chick Corea?

GP: Yeah, simple bass -  they just rehearsed.  They never played a gig.  And I asked Chick about it and he said, “Yeah! We had that then.”  Anyway, he called Chick and Joe Farrell.  I didn't know either one of them.  And at midnight they showed up at this loft and we had a jam session.  That was my beginning of working with Chick.  He liked the way I played, obviously, because he said, “Come on up to my house in Queens.”  And I was going up there two, three days a week rehearsing.  Serious rehearsing.  And I learned at lot about music through Chick, tremendous amount. 

(Don Alias)
But I have to say, you know...and I talked to the bass players during one of the things here {at the IASJ Meeting}, and I always mention that actually...learn the clave.  Because one and three will give you a tremendous amount of power.  Did you hear the show last night?  The bass player who was in my group...we were talking yesterday afternoon and he was saying, “What do you do with drummers that rush?”  I said, “Drop into two.”  Play on one and three and you can hold him back.  Anyhow, because of that quarter note syncopation...because one comes on four the way the chord changes are.  It shows you a whole other way to approach rhythm.  

I wound up playing with Machito, and Willie Bobo, and Patato.  Some of the heavy cats, Latin cats.  So I was so thankful that I had that opportunity in Boston.  So now Don is coming down once in a while.  I got the loft and every other weekend he'd take a bus and come down, and we'd jam and play.  Then I got the gig with Nina Simone and the drummer's fucking up.  So after the second gig I went to Nina and said, “Hey, look",  I have to speak because I want to play music, you know.  So I said to Nina, “This shit's not working, Nina.”  She said, “You know somebody?”  I said, “Yeah.”  So I got Don in.  He had a long relationship with her.  At the same time, he met – along with Jan Hammer – Jeremy Steig and we put a quartet together.  So we started playing this early, early jazz rock thing, you know.

RG: What year would this be?  Maybe 68/69?

GP: Yeah, something like that.  So Don and I have had a long relationship.  I got him in to play with Elvin.  Now, I gotta tell you something.  For a conga drummer who's going dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah... Even rhythm, right?  To fit with Elvin!?  Alias could do it.  I don't know if there's anybody else.  He could just fit right in there perfect.  A very special man.

RG: And Elvin liked it?

GP: Elvin loved it.  I got a photo of the two of them together.  It's beautiful.

RG: You worked with him for a long time after that, right?

GP: Yeah, a long time.  What happened was I went to another loft which was a fabulous situation.  Could play music there day and night.  I had a set of drums, a grand piano.  So it was a built-in jam session.  So many guys came by to play.  Mike and Randy and, you know, a ton of people.  And Don was the mainstay.  Jan Hammer was the keyboard player.  And Liebman came by quite a few times.  But Grossman was there all the time.  So we played a lot together as a quartet with Jan.  And Grossman's first record are those four people.  Then time went on, time went on, and we decided to form a band.  Me on electric bass.  Don on drums and congas.  Congas would be a specialty thing that we'd play in the show.  And Grossman on soprano and tenor.  Just trio.  We made several records together.  I got a tour of South America for fifteen days in Chile which expanded out to six months.  We recorded with Hermeto Pascoal in Brazil.  We made another record in Argentina with Argentine guys.  Six months, yeah.  It was fabulous.

RG: Those were the days.  You absolutely could not do that now.  You could not go down to Chile and expect to be there for six months.

GP: Sure you could!  No problem.  You know how?  You gotta bring your own money.  You've got your own money you can do anything, right?  That's why I keep hoping, you know.  [laughs]
And then we did a tour of Europe.  The three of us.  And Grossman fucked up.  We got two weeks at Ronnie Scotts.  The first week was Stan Getz, opposite Stan Getz.  And the second week was opposite Joe Henderson.  And Grossman was on fire.  He got stuck at a pharmacy over in Belgium,  missed the gig.  I cancelled the gig and that was the end of that band.  We were on the edge.  I think we would have got a record deal.  You could get record deals back then……  But that's what happened.

RG: That's a shame.

GP: Well, we made a lot of good music.

RG: Yes, absolutely.  Well, for the sake of all the bass geeks, tell me about the session with Jaco.  How you happened to be there?

GP: Don.  Don and I were always together.  He says, “I'm going up to Bobby Colomby's house”.  He had a studio in his house.  “You want to come along?”  I said, “Sure.”  That's how I got to play with Miles.  He said, “I'm doing a session with Miles, you want to come along?”  “Fine, yeah.”  Michael Henderson doesn't show up…… doesn't show up……doesn't show up.  Finally, I hear Alias – I'm sitting in the control room – and he says “There's a bass player sitting in the control room.”  And I could hear Miles say, “Tell him to get his ass in here.” [laughs] So that's how that happened.

RG: The right place at the right time, that's for sure.

GP: You know what we call it in America, right?  Stepping in shit!

RG: I'm sorry to ask you the Jaco stories...because I know so many people are interested in this...  When you sent to the studio had you heard Jaco before? Or was that the first time you'd heard of him?

GP: The first time I heard about Jaco was: Don was playing with Blood Sweat and Tears, they were working in Miami and Jaco shows up.  And he plays, everybody gets nuts, right.  Alias calls me on the phone because I have a record label, right.  Thinking maybe I can do something.  When I found out about his music I just felt like I couldn't do it justice, you know.  I'm just a one man show.  I have no distribution, I can’t tie up a guy doing this….. Although it would have been great, I guess.  But in any case, he said, “There's this bass player down here, Gates”  My nickname, Gates.  He said, “Will I tell him to call you?”  I said, “Sure.”  So a couple of weeks went by.  I'm sitting in my office.  The phone rings.  “Hello?”  He says, “I'm Jaco Pastorius.  I'm the greatest bass player in the world.” [both laugh]

You know what?  He was right, man.  That was the first time.  I met him before with Don but I know that when I went to the studio that day...I never spent too much time with Jaco because he was whooo...flying...  But whenever I'd see him he was always cordial, friendly and respectful.

RG: Philly Joe Jones.  You told me you played with him once.

GP: Once, yeah.  Whoo!  Oh, man.  What a sweetheart.  I was playing with Elvin at The Vanguard and he came down, sat in.  That was it.  One tune, you know, but boy...  I didn't have to worry about the beat with that guy, man.  And he was always know...hey, it comes from the music, right?  I'm working with the greatest drummer in the world - at least that's my opinion – and everybody, after a while, they get to know who's playing with who and so forth and so on.  And I know that Wilbur Ware, for instance, Philly Joe, Joe Chambers...who's a kind of a salty guy but a sweetheart.  I played a bunch with him, too.  He is a great drummer.  Wonderful drummer.  I wouldn't know these people.  Then they'd come up to me and always it was so respectful.  It was almost like a shock.

RG: Because you were in the club.

GP: Yeah, I'm in the club.  But, interesting.  When I was trying to get to Elvin, because that's why I came to New York: to play with him.  I'm playing these gigs around.  You know, I'm doing good.  I'm working eight nights a week.  I mean it was tremendous back then.  And some of the other bass players, especially the black ones, they wouldn't give me the time of day.  Wouldn't be friendly or anything.   The instant [snaps fingers] I got that gig with Elvin, I was their best friend.  “Hey Gene! man...”  It was amazing.  It was a flip.

RG: Because you'd been validated by the guys you were playing with so therefore you were in.  So, two final things.  First of all, is there anybody that I didn't mention that you had a great experience with?  Anything I didn't mention that you'd like to...

GP: Well, it's kind of an interesting story, is that one day I got a call from John McLaughlin and I had just joined Elvin.  I was with him a couple of months or something and McLaughlin called me up.  I had never met him.  Oh, by the way, I heard the very first gig at Count Basie's club up in Harlem.  Tony Williams, Larry Young, John McLaughlin.  Whew, man! That was interesting.

RG: You've been around a lot of iconic stuff!

GP: Anyway, John calls and he says, “I'm putting a band together.  You want to make a rehearsal?”  I said, “Sure.”  So there was a rehearsal downtown in Soho.  I went there and it was just Billy Cobham, John and myself.  That was it.  And at the end of the rehearsal John says, “It's your gig if you want it.”  And I said, “No, I'd like to make one more rehearsal.”  I knew already I wasn't going to do it.  But I knew that he was looking for a piano player, and my room mate was Jan Hammer.  So I said, “Hey John, I'd like to do another one.  By the way, I hear you're looking for a piano player.  I got my room mate.  I think he's going to fit with this.”  And obviously he did, you know.  So second rehearsal Billy had something to do so Don, who was there, who spent a lot of time with me in the loft, he filled in for Billy at the rehearsal.  So it was Don and Jan and myself and John.  So Jan got the gig and John said, “So? Yes or no?”.  And I said, “No, I'm going to stay with Elvin.”  I think I made the right decision.  Although I wish I could have done both!!  That was a hell of a thing, man.

RG: I know.  It's still so iconic.

GP: I would imagine that maybe my career would have, you know, but...  Whatever strength I have it's because I was able to beat up against that guy.  Because it was like I could throw a refrigerator at him, you know.  Amazing.  Sometimes...I remember at Slug's, several times, I'd be running out of steam and the only way I could get energy was if I start screaming. I'd go [screams]  George Mraz came in one night.  We got finished with the set and I walked back and he's kind of drunk, you know, and he's looking at me – we knew each other – and he says, “Perla, you gotta be crazy!” [laughs]

RG: And then the final question I wanted to ask concerns Elvin again.  Not everybody knows this album.  It always surprises me how many people do know it.  Anybody who knows it is absolutely in love with it.  It's the one that you did for your label which is “Elvin Jones On The Mountain”.  This is an incredible album.  It's him kind of playing fusion on some things.  And it's killing!  It really is.

GP: It's a very special record.

RG: Absolutely.  So was it recorded in one day, in one session?

GP: Oh, one day!  That's it.  Came up, went through the tune.  Few minutes.  Boom!  Record.  Next tune.

RG: I don't think he was a big reader, right?  So that coda to that tune which is really hard.  The one that he kills, you know [sings tune]

GP: Oh, my tune.  “Destiny”.

RG: How did he figure that out?  Because even by today's standards that's a hard coda.

GP: It's five bars.

RG: Yeah, it's a weird form and it's got all those weird hits.  Not weird but they're not obvious, and he kills it.  Absolutely kills it.   

So did he just hear that?  Did you just play it a few times and then he heard it?

GP: Unusual, yeah.  Do you know the record I made with him?  It's called “Bill's Waltz”. A big band record? 

RG: No!

I have one up in my room, I'm going to give it to you.  I woke up one morning in 1986 and I called him on the phone and I said, “Elvin, I've got this idea.  I'd like to go to the studio.  Just you and me.”  So he says, “Ok!”.  So we go to the studio two days in a row and we record ten songs.  Nine of my originals and “I'm Popeye, the Sailor Man” because I knew he liked to play marches.  I was playing piano on this to put the tunes together.  And drums completely isolated.  I was just telling somebody if you listen to a couple of ballads on there with the brushes, and you're just listening to the drums, it's like, What is this?  You know, it's just incredible to listen to.  So the intention was that I was going to start analysing those crazy hits.  Come up with a melody to go along with those hits and then orchestrate it.  And I was going to do MIDI and whatever the hell...  And so I started working on them a little bit and I had a partial work done on a few tunes.  And now I wind up on a gig in Switzerland with George Gruntz and Danny Gottlieb is the drummer, who's an Elvin freak.  I'm telling him about the project and had a few things on my computer.  He says, “Oh, I want to hear it!”.  So I played it for him.  He says, “You know, I do a lot of work with the NDR Big Band in Hamburg.  I bet they'd love to do this project.”  Boom!  Signed a contract. 

I go to Paris for one month.  I had to get away from everybody and everything.  I wrote the arrangements.  Came back.  Wrote out all the parts, everything.  Sent everything to Germany.  Flew over to Germany.  Conducted the band on top.  So the only thing you hear on this record from the original is Elvin.  Everything else is overdubbed.  There's two tunes that are Latin.  Don came in and overdubbed some Latin stuff.  The bass parts I put on.  All the horns, solos, everything.

RG: I don't know about this record!  Now, of course, I really want to hear it!  Listen Gene, thank you so much for sharing that with us.  What an incredible life you've had...

GP: It ain't over yet, baby!

RG: I know!  Absolutely, absolutely. ........... Thanks Gene.

GP: Yeah, man.  Thank you.


  1. Nice interview with a great musician and a nice guy to boot.

  2. Jazz is my favourite style of music. Gene Perla is one of the most experienced bass players with a huge career, it's a great man. Thanks for detail info from his life.