An Interview with Bobby Previte
by Matt Snyder

Originally published in the December '97/January '98 issue of 5/4 Magazine.

 Photo by John Semel
Bobby Previte has been a formidable presence on New York’s cutting edge for many years.  A passionate drummer and composer, he has helmed his own groups as well as performed and recorded with a stunning variety of musicians and artists.  In addition to longtime cohorts like Wayne Horvitz, Elliot Sharp, John Zorn and Marty Ehrlich, Previte’s keen talents have also been shared with such varied artists as Jane Ira Bloom, the choreographer Marilyn Klaus, filmmaker Robert Altman, the Moscow Circus and the International Puppet Festival.

Recently, Previte has been leading two groups, Latin For Travelers and The Horse (you rode in on…), the second of which focuses on presenting the music of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew.  We started off talking about this band.

Matt Snyder: Is one of the purposes of this project to remind people of how important Bitches’ Brew was and still is?

Bobby Previte: I don’t like to think that there’s a purpose to things in that way, like a political purpose.  I’m sure that that happens, and is it in my mind?  Yes.  Is it even close to the main reason?  No, it’s not even close to the main reason I do it.

MS: So what is it about that music that strikes you most strongly that made you want to perform it?

BP: Well, it was groundbreaking, for one.  How much groundbreaking music do you hear now?  It was music that you had that feeling you never heard quite before.  It came from another place.  How much music do you hear now like that?  It was about, you know, a great freedom in music.  There was a lot of risk taking in that music, there was a lot of soul in the music: Three things that I feel are very lacking in today’s music.

MS: I could hear people saying the same things about various earlier eras of Miles’ music.  Is there something that separates that era from the others?

BP: All of his music was pretty soulful, I’m a big Miles fan.  But that music really broke away in a very strong way from the norm and from what people expected of him.  That’s the great thing, what everyone expected they didn’t get. But is that what really draws me to it?  Not really, the music draws me to it.  The soul of it, the heart of it, the feeling, the exploration of it.  And once you start to play it, you really see how perfect it is, because they were just improvising, but they had a common language and they sort of knew where they wanted to go.  And [the music] went there.

MS: Do you feel that this group is taking that as an example and defining its own language in the same sort of way?

BP: Well, we definitely have our own identity within the spirit of that music.  I mean, how can you play a music where the spirit of the music was to play free and to create things that hadn’t been quite done, I wouldn’t say haven’t been done, perhaps, but you know, something that was so expirational: How can you play that by rote?  You have to bring the same emotional quality to the music that was there in the first place, I think.  That’s what interests me about it.  So of course, it’s like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle:  The minute you start measuring something, you can’t measure it.  The minute you start playing it, you’re not playing it, in a way!  Yet, it eerily sounds like the music, because we’ve taken the same tack, we’ve taken the same emotional direction, and of course we’re using what I call the themes.  They didn’t call them themes, but I do and I wrote them out, but in no way do we try to imitate it.  It would be hopeless and silly.

MS: About six or seven years ago I saw a performance of one of your pieces, Gaboo Goes Down, which had been commissioned and performed by the Relache ensemble in Philadelphia.  Do you make a division in your mind between the way you compose for another ensemble, and composing for groups in which you are actually playing? 

BP: No, not really. I had to think about it in a little different way, because I wasn’t there going to be there to direct it all the time, so I had to sort of make it play itself.  Which I wasn’t entirely successful in doing. But they did a fine job.  It was also very different writing for a percussionist not myself, because I know what I do.  In fact I felt that was the poorest written part in the whole book, the percussion part.  I couldn’t believe it, I was quite astonished!(laughs)

MS: Was that the only time you had done something completely for other musicians to perform?

BP: No, but I haven’t done it a lot, and most of the time I’ve done it for ensembles that improvise a bit more than Relache does, so it was a great challenge and I really enjoyed doing it.  But I wouldn’t say that I’m an expert at it.  I learned a lot, and I still like the piece, or most of it, which is good.

MS: A few years ago you were featured in one of the jazz magazines where they play you a record and you have to guess who it is and evaluate it.  You were played Elvin Jones, and you gave one of the best and most succinct descriptions I’d ever seen of why he is so great.  What other musicians can you name who touched you so strongly?

BP: Wow, there are so many.  Mingus, Stravinsky, Ravel. Certainly, the man we were talking about before, Miles, he’s way up on top of my list.  Oh, and then people you wouldn’t imagine, like Joni Mitchell.  I think Blue is almost impossible to be improved upon.  That’s one of the greatest records ever made.  It’s perfect.

MS: That’s interesting, because musician friends of mine, and myself as a musician, are always hung up on albums like Hejira and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.

BP: No, not for me.  Those are good records, but that’s because there’s a lot of playing on them, you know, there’s a lot of hip playing and hip production and the cats are really blowing.

MS: There are still songs there, though…

BP:  The songs are great.  But on Blue, the songs are just so naked and so strong and they’re allowed to just be what they are.  I like all her work, but especially that period - Blue and For The Roses.  I can’t imagine a record that would be any better than Blue.  It’s just…gorgeous.

Copyright 1997 Matthew Snyder

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