Johnny Vidacovich - Drums, Vocals
Michael Pellera - Piano, Rhodes
Tony Dagradi - Tenor & Soprano Saxophone, Flute
Khari Allen Lee - Alto & Soprano Saxophone (Spanky)
Grayson Brockamp - Bass
Produced by Jeffrey Meyer
Arrangements & Co-produced by Michael Pellera
Paw Maw Music
The jazz tradition is often one featuring drummers leading bands. Gene Krupa headlined a group known by his name as have jazz greats Art Blakey, Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones and the list goes on. Appearing on that same list of the 50 greatest jazz drummers, why not Johnny Vidacovich too?
With no explicit intent to break the molds from which jazz drummers emerge and set new standards, his thing comes effortlessly—it is who he is rather than a self-conscious effort. Still to place Vidacovich into a tidy little box as solely a jazz drummer is hardly fair either, though this is a jazz record.
Aside from his weekly trio assortment of different musicians playing everything from modern jazz to the blues at a local venue throughout the year, he managed to gather the collective wits of himself and those of his friends and musical family to produce Out Da Box.
Calling them musical family is not over the top or an exaggeration either; he has been playing with some of these guys for so long, he is able to read their body language and musical intent with closed eyes, literally.
Upon recording the first track, "Steely Magnolia," in a single take, the producer stopped the session, approached Vidacovich wondering aloud if he wanted to add anything to what was merely a simple back beat, a modest showcase for his innovative skill set. Without hesitation he replied, "No, every CD needs a good dance tune."
The title track begins with an upbeat syncopated flourish joined by the horn. Vidacovich's drum lines are as equally inventive as the sax solo; the interplay of the two back and forth vie for the lead. Finally Michael Pellera steps in with innovative keyboard trading licks with Vidacovich; naturally, no one misses a beat. Driven forward by all three players in tandem, identifying the actual composer's name is unimportant; jazz is improvisation and who's paying attention to those details anyway?
It is impossible, though, to ignore Tony Dagradi's tenor sax on "So Long," and his sensitive touch on each delicately nuanced note while Pellera fills in from behind as Vidacovich, brushes in hand, tastefully accents the decidedly pensive mood. One might guess the title may refer to irreconcilable lovers parting ways for good by the light of the moon on a damp, misty late evening in a remote alley of the French Quarter?
Occasionally, chosen tunes on an album reveal one's history. Even if he had not once discussed it, few will miss the reference with "When 6 Was 3," a brief opening tribute to Mitch Mitchell's brushwork and his days with the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Recalling the impressionable 18 year old hearing "If Six Was a Nine" for the first time, he has never forgotten that experience—how could he with "three years of education condensed into eight measures"—realizing brushes could be effectively used in any musical genre.
Ever the one to dabble with vocals, the unmistakable stamp of a Vidacovich live appearance seems to include a rap of one sort or another and he has composed a proper one here—a surreal allegorical tale—the lyrics of which appear on the liner notes. Accented by the drums, a wailing, almost plaintively crying, horn emerges into the forefront closely followed by Pellera's soft melodic hand on keyboards; the intended effect is complete. How many jazz drummers write lyrics and sing ... or rap?
What inspires Vidacovich to continue to produce, play and perform? Easy to draw out in conversation, he will speak of molecules, sound waves and empathy. A deeply spiritual person, thinly veiled behind a no nonsense approach to expressing himself, his soft, sensitive side—beloved in New Orleans, his home town- -is well known to all who have kept their eyes and ears open. As with life, he performs with an equally soft and sensitive touch. With no notes on drums, he is never out of tune nor misses a beat either, while creating some totally unexpected rhythms.
Johnny Vidacovich’s name is magic in circles where great rhythm and finesse are king. That Out Da Box boasts the drummer’s handle makes sense in arousing strong interest. His stamp is definitely here though he is credited as a co-composer on only one of the 12 tunes on the disc.
In reality, the excellent ensemble itself with Vidacovich, keyboardist, co-producer and arranger Michael Pellera, bassist Grayson Brockamp and saxophonists Tony Dagradi and Khari Allen Lee, maintains predominance. Vidacovich’s old friend, drummer Jeffrey Meyer, who contributed material to and produced three of Vidacovich’s previous fine albums Mystery Street, Bank Street and ’Bout Time is back as the major composer and producer.
Paraphrasing the late great James Brown, Meyer’s and Pellera’s “Steely Magnolia” “wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without” the groove set by Vidacovich. Next the drummer pounces on the title cut with Khari Allen Lee blowing some mean alto. “Puree,” bebops acoustically with Pellera moving from Fender Rhodes to acoustic piano. Brockamp enjoys some open space to further explore the tune on bass. Dagradi returns on tenor for one of the few ballads, the beautiful “So Long.” Vidacovich’s impeccable brush work—he’s one of the best-ever with brushes—enhances the mood. One of the interesting aspects of the recording is the use of two saxophonists—Lee and Dagradi. They turn up on separate cuts as well as blowing together as they do on “Don’t Eat My Grits” and others. We hear Vidacovich count out in scat-like style the opening of the Latin-flavored “Chick Ole.” He recites his sweet, Aesop fable-type tale on “Oneida” the words of which are featured on the album sleeve.
There is a certain comfort zone found within Out Da Box rising from like minds and old friends coming together. These talented artists use it to their advantage in providing diversity, sincerity and musical imagination.
From left to right: Grayson Brockamp, Khari Allen Lee, Tony Dagradi, Johnny Vidacovich, Michael Pellera