For almost four decades, drummer Tom Rainey has been one of the most creative and versatile drummers working in New York. Whether playing with lyrical pianists like Fred Hersch and Kenny Werner, or bracing and experimental horn players like Tim Berne and Ray Anderson, Rainey is an ideal sideman, always supporting the music, but never afraid to mix it up. Rainey has also begun to step out as a bandleader in recent years, with groups like a free-improv trio featuring saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and guitarist Mary Halvorson, and a standards quintet called Obbligato.
This Friday, January 20th, Rainey and Obbligato—featuring Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Ingrid Laubrock on saxophones, Kris Davis on piano, and Drew Gress on bass—will come to The Jazz Gallery for two sets. The group released an eponymous debut record in 2014, and are heading into the studio this week to make a followup. We caught up with Rainey by phone to hear about the origins of the band and their collective approach to enlivening the standard repertoire.
The Jazz Gallery: In classical music, “obbligato” can mean a few different things, whether “essential” or “decorative.” What made you decide on this name for the band?
Tom Rainey: That’s true in the classical world, but in the jazz world, it can refer to when a horn player is playing behind a singer. That could be the decorative element that you mentioned. It’s not really a solo, but it’s a soloistic line that accompanies the singer, or the main melody of a song. That’s sort of the approach of the band—it’s not centered on soloists, but more on group interaction. I never thought of the word decorate here, but everyone is decorating what the others are doing. The focus can shift from musician to musician, but it’s never really about anyone taking a solo, and then somebody else taking a solo turn. So the name is somewhat descriptive of what the music is like, but I also just liked the sound of the word.
TJG: What made you want to focus on group improvisation with jazz standards, rather than with original compositions, or playing free?
TR: I guess if I were doing a lot of original composing, I may have opted to do that, but I don’t really spend much time composing. And I have a trio with Ingrid and Mary Halvorson where the music is completely improvised. I’ve always liked playing standard songs, but it’s tricky because I don’t enjoy those gigs where you play the song and then there’s a string of solos and then the song is played another time. But then again, I like playing on forms. I like drawing on those kinds of materials. So in the spirit of improvisation, I really wanted the effect to be a group improvisation where everyone is dealing with shared materials. I liken it to each song being its own playground. Different playgrounds have different apparatuses that you can play with, and these songs—whether harmonically or melodically—also offer that.
TJG: On some of the tunes on your first album, it seems that some players will stick closer to the given melody and chord changes while others would play farther out. Were those roles discussed beforehand, or fixed in the arrangement, or did that happen more on its own while playing?
TR: As far as how people interpret the songs, I have absolutely no fixed opinion about how one should go about it. As far as I’m concerned, everyone is free to abstract it as much as they want. The one thing that I asked of everybody is to just deal with the form and keep the form. You can take it as far afield as you want, but you have to be able to snap back to it at any point. On the record, we really adhere to the forms. If you were to listen closely, all of the forms are very much in tact, no matter what is going on on top of them. Like I said, it’s a playground, and so you can play with it in any way that you want. You just need to know where you are in the playground so you can join up with the others. The only things I set beforehand were the tempos or the vibe of each song. Sometimes I decided to play them in a different mood than they were originally intended, or change the time signature. I made some suggestions about how to start particular songs, whether it’s just Drew and Ingrid, or just Kris and Ralph. It was some very light arranging in terms of how to present these pieces.
TJG: We’ve talked about how the band plays together so far, but what about the tunes you’ve picked? Did you choose them for particular reasons?
TR: It’s mostly songbook standards, but there is a Monk tune and a Brubeck tune. The rest of the songs were popular songs—even in the case of Duke Ellington, “Prelude to a Kiss” was popular song in its day. I wanted to look for tunes that had more of a blank slate to work with. Like with a Monk tune, it’s so identifiable with his performance. When you play it, you’re either going to have his version in mind, or you’re going to purposely not try and sound like it. Either way, you’re really effected by the fact that it’s Monk’s tune. In my case, I feel that “Reflections” is one of his tunes that is open to more interpretation. But in the case of a standard tune, like say “There’ll Never Be Another You,” there are so many interpretations that there’s really no quintessential version.
TJG: I think your point about playing Monk or another jazz composer is really interesting in how it dovetails with the difficulties of playing more contemporary pop tunes in a jazz context. People know songs based on the recording, rather than just the melody and lyrics, so you really have to take that into account when doing a cover.
TR: Exactly. That’s why I avoided more contemporary pop songs. Like for a song like “Stella By Starlight,” everyone would have a different idea of what the best version of that song is. It was a popular song at one time, but I couldn’t tell you who made it popular. In a lot of cases, it’s almost as if these songs are a part of the public domain. They feel like they could be everybody’s song.
TJG: What gives these standards their identities? Is it the character of the melody? The harmonic progression? Does it depend on the tune?
TR: That’s a good question and to be honest, I don’t really know what the answer is because I don’t know why I prefer certain tunes over others. I have a long history of playing tunes over the past 40 years or so, and I guess over time I’ve had really nice experiences playing certain tunes, and maybe not-so-nice experiences playing other tunes.
As far as the selection of the tunes on the record, the most important criteria was that everybody knew the song, they weren’t things that people needed lead sheets for. Because of that, people could be really free with the material. Other than that, everyone had to like the song. It wasn’t like I picked my ten favorite standards of all time—I don’t really have a list like that. I spoke with everybody and we came to a consensus of songs that everybody was comfortable with. After I had that song list, I gave some thought into what I wanted to turn them into. The big thing I wanted to do was make them fit together in a sort of program.
TJG: Since you’ve started playing this material as a group, have you found that your collective approach has changed at all? Do you find yourself focusing on new things in each tune?
TR: Over the past few years, the only really concentrated work we’ve done was a tour of Europe about a year ago. That was the opportunity to see how the group might evolve. Everybody in the band is a strong individual improviser, and other than some certain arrangement ideas, I’m very opened to being surprised by what everybody does. I think that’s where everybody lives in this band. I don’t think anybody goes, “This works, so I’m going to do this every time.” For me, it’s no different than a completely open improvised situation—you’re listening to each other and you’re connecting and you’re making music that hasn’t happened before. We approach playing standards the same way, just that it’s influenced by the songs and the harmonies that we’re contending with. The music certainly changes from gig to gig, but it’s still a vehicle for everyone to express themselves in a collective way.
TJG: Do you feel like when you’re a bandleader, your playing changes compared to when you’re a sideman? Do you feel more responsibility to shape the music and offer direction to everyone else through your playing?
TR: That’s another good question. I think when it doesn’t go well, I’m probably trying to force things. Even though I have an idea of what I’m aiming for with this group, I think in terms of my own playing, it works best when I approach it like I approach any other music, which is show up, pay attention, and play well, and not have a strong agenda about how the music should sound. I’m very much influenced by what I hear around me, whether dynamically, or intensity-wise, more than I’m trying to influence. In all the bands I play in, everybody has that role of influencer sometimes, and other times it’s more a role of compliance. I’m mostly reacting, but if I feel the opportunity to make a certain point and want people to come along with me, I’ll do that too. If I’m too conscious about directing the music in a certain way, that’s not usually the best approach. When you’re leading something, it definitely feels different than when you’re a sideman—this is my music and it’s what I have to say. So there’s a different kind of pressure and I think it does influence my playing, but I don’t really like that. The more I can get out of that way of thinking, the better the music sounds. It’s really fun when I can get lost in it and not be so conscious of my role.
Tom Rainey & Obbligato play The Jazz Gallery on Friday, January 20th, 2017. The group features Mr. Rainey on drums, Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Ingrid Laubrock on saxophones, Kris Davis on piano, and Drew Gress on bass. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.