Interview with Johnnie Valentino
Tafuri: So, you did your CD Searching Souls on Nine Winds with a more-or-less traditional "jazz" instrumentation. On your last CD, Eight Shorts in Search of David Lynch on ToneScience, you went pretty unconventional by having artists improvise with sound designs you created. Now, with Stingy Brim on OmniTone, you're doing an organ record.
Valentino: It's an organ record, but it didn't start out as an organ record. I really was in love with the tuba and the clarinet, and I figured that it's a hundred years later, basically, since the tuba was taken out of jazz. The tuba was in jazz from the beginning until about 1910,1 and the clarinet was still prevalent at that time, until about 1920. So, Stingy Brim is our tribute — one hundred years later — to jazz tuba and, with the clarinet, to earlier jazz in general by bringing back tuba and clarinet in a new music context. It's our look at jazz a hundred years later.
Tafuri: That's very interesting.
Valentino: We also included harmonium, because it's something I've also always wanted to do. When I hear harmonium, because it sounds like an accordion, I I hear Italian roots music with the accordion and clarinet. And, of course, hardly anyone plays the accordion anymore. What ended up happening was Mick [Rossi] wanted to play harmonium, because it was easier to play than the accordion and because Mick likes to play it.
Tafuri: And, I suppose for Mick, like for many Italians who were forced to play accordion as a child, it would have brought back to many painful memories! [Laughs.]
Valentino: [Laughing.] Yeah, that's right.
Tafuri: Maybe we shouldn't say that, because his father was a professional accordion player.
Valentino: No, it's okay. There's always
pain mentioning dads; when it comes to Italian dads from that period, there's
Tafuri: That's interesting, too. I didn't realize that.
Valentino: Yes, so there are all these different elements coming together. How the organ got onto the record is that, on fast things, it's impossible to play the harmonium, and it's hard to get a good harmonium that doesn't have keys that stick. That's how the B-3 got involved.
Tafuri: That's how it made its way into the record and then, as B-3's are wont to do, it kind of took over.
Valentino: [Laughs.] (Yeah, it edged its
Tafuri: I think that's your thing. Sound is your thing.
Valentino: I look at sound —
Tafuri: You look at sound?
Valentino: Yeah, I look at sound. [Chuckles.] I look at sound first, then I start writing to get that sound. I get a concept of what I want things to sound like, then I can write the music to match what I want to do.
Tafuri: So, you don't even start out with an ensemble, per se, in mind. It sounds like — at least for this CD — you started out with just some instruments you were interested in.
Valentino: Interested in, yes.
Tafuri: But generally your configurations include guitar, I'd suspect.
Valentino: Yeah. [Chuckles.] The guitar I never leave out.
Tafuri: Somehow, it's always on your records. Go figure…
Valentino: For this CD, I had access to a great tuba player, and that really helped the concept.
Tafuri: Randy [Jones] was on Eight Shorts, too.
Valentino: We used him on one track on Eight Shorts, and I said, 'It'd be great if he could do this.' Mick suggested the harmonium. That wasn't my idea; I was going with the accordion, but he wanted to do harmonium — which was a great call.
Tafuri: And they essentially sound the same. You don't have the chordal buttons (whatever they're called) on the harmonium that you have on the accordion but, for melodic lines, they otherwise that same reedy sound.
Valentino: That's right. At the end of it, I was really happy about the way it sounds. The CD has a unique sound. I'm really happy about the way it ended up. It's has such a unique sound that the listener — even if they hate the music or the playing — are going to hear some different sounds and are going to take away something from it.
Tafuri: Then, once you have the sounds you want to work with, the music springs out of those sounds?
Valentino: Then I can hear the tuba and, in my head, what I want to do with it. As I was writing the album, I could say, 'Aw, that's not right; he's not going to be able to play that.' Between the personality of the player and the sound of the tuba itself, there may have been things I had to — not toss away, but — say, 'Aw, that's a different thing that wouldn't be right for this ensemble.' The other thing about the clarinet and the tuba is that, even though the music is serious, they're happy. When you hear the tuba play the bass line, it makes you happy … and that kind of reflects some of my personality by my wanting to be a little more "comedic" in the music.
Tafuri: I think there is humor, even in the serious stuff you wrote. But that's also why I found it interesting to get people's reactions when they heard Eight Shorts. Even though that was a different thing than Stingy Brim, even with the "sound beds" that you picked in Eight Shorts — like the sounds of the "modulated bees" — it even had a sort-of playful element to it.
Valentino: I'm a serious person, but not so serious that I can't laugh about things. Like when you and I get together and talk about serious things, we can talk about serious things, but we have to laugh. I believe you have to do that in life.
Tafuri: Personally, I think there's a problem when it comes to "new music" — or "creative improvised music" or whatever you want to call it — that, in the name of wanting to be "serious" musicians, they don't have a good enough time or, at least, they don't look like they're having a good time when they're playing, and that can be a problem for drawing in an audience. Some new music people feel like if they're, at some level, "providing entertainment," they can't be or won't be considered a "serious" musician. I get the feeling that some of creative improvisers get a little to hung up with that notion, and it gets in the way of communicating with the audience.
Valentino: I mean, my primary purpose in making music is not to "entertain," but if you're "entertained" when you hear my music, I'm not bothered by that.
Tafuri: But you're very secure in your playing and about your music, so you don't have to worry about that.
Valentino: Yeah, so —
Tafuri: So, "Let's have a little fun."
Valentino: I think the clarinet and the tuba bring a little "lightness" to the music. You hear the tuba, and people start smiling.
Tafuri: It's like listening to "classic jazz" from New Orleans. It's what happens when people are hoppin' and poppin' in the Second Line on the way back from the funeral.
Valentino: That's right.
Tafuri: And it's clarinet that's prominent and, well, you're not going to carry a string bass with you if you're in a marching band.
Valentino: That the point. The whole "Dixieland" and the "traditional jazz" thing comes through in the clarinet and tuba — it has those elements in it, but it's seen in a different light.
Tafuri: There's definitely a real "good time" element
going on here. The music lets you have a good time.
Valentino: No, I didn't have tunes. When I met Randy, I had already been thinking along the lines of doing some music with tuba. I saw meeting him as a perfect opportunity to write some music by writing music that would fit him. Then I started writing things that I though would be very adaptable to the players I was going to pick.
Tafuri: You started with the tuba in mind?
Valentino: I did start with the tuba in mind and, from the tuba, that's how I got to the hat.
Tafuri: "The hat." What do you mean?
Valentino: I went from the tuba to buying a stingy brim hat, because the two reflect each other. The stingy bring hat is a fine hat, but it has comedy in it, and that's like the tuba. See, that's how my mind works. Right now, I'm trying to explain to you my head (which could be very dangerous — Frank, don't jump!), but I see elements of the hat reflecting the tuba. Both have a little comedy built in.
Tafuri: Why did you get a stingy brim hat?
Valentino: Just like tubas — which I've always liked, I've always liked hats, too.
Tafuri: You like hats, in general?
Valentino: I like hats. I don't wear hats, but I like 'em.
Tafuri: Were stingy brim hats in the community where you grew up?
Valentino: Stingy brims were always in the community. My grandfather worked at Stetson [Hats]. In those days, it could be 110° outside and you could be wearing a t-shirt and shorts, but you needed to wear a hat. [Laughs.] So, everybody had a hat. I went to a restaurant in LA recently and saw a 1920s picture where everybody at the beach had a hat on. You know, straw hats. Everybody was so well dressed; it was 1920-something.
Tafuri: So, you always wanted a stingy brim hat?
Valentino: I always wanted a stingy brim and, when I go to the beach now, I don't go without my stingy brim hat.
Tafuri: Oh, yeah. I wanna see this: you in a bathing suit and a stingy brim.
Valentino: That's it.
Valentino: I think people really like this CD, because we have great players. A lot of people may have never heard Bob Sheppard on clarinet.
Tafuri: He's primarily known as a sax player, isn't he?
Valentino: Yeah, with Chick [Corea]. He's amazing. And Mark Ferber did a great job on drums. We didn't have one rehearsal; we just looked at the music at that moment and said, "Oh, yeah, let's go for it!" And we were happy with everything that came about.
Tafuri: That's good, but I want to go back to the hat thing for a minute. So, was buying the hat the thing that inspired the song ["Stingy Brim"], or was writing the song the inspiration for buying the hat?
Valentino: Neither, but the hat was the "glue" that I used to relate all the songs.
Tafuri: Oh, really?
Valentino: But when I got the hat, I changed the title. When I write titles for songs, sometimes I have to switch them around, because a particular title might reflect another tune better.
Tafuri: Well, that's why we did what we did on Eight Shorts.2 [Chuckles.]
Valentino: And you're a man that likes to do that. [Laughs.] And I love that.
Tafuri: It's easier to talk about something when it has a name, so whaddaya gonna do? So, was "Stingy Brim" the first tune you wrote?
Valentino: It was one of the earliest tunes I wrote. I can't be for sure.
Tafuri: I think it was that one and "Dog Eggs."
Valentino: "Dog Eggs" definitely reflects the tuba and the more comedic or "lighter" flavor of the album. The "Dog Eggs" comes from Mick, who came to live at the house while we were doing the record, as I was making my dog three or four eggs, as I sometimes do. Mick saw me and said, "Whaddaya making? Dog eggs?"
Tafuri: And that was it. Well, the very idea of "dog" and "eggs" is kind of funny and lighthearted, and the song is kind of bouncy like Prima [Johnnie's dog].
Valentino: And the fact that we put the
stingy brim hat on the dog with the eggs in front of the dog.
Valentino: You can see that all of us had the same crazy idea.
Tafuri: Well, now you've let the secret out: that those are not really Prima's eggs.
Valentino: I guess, I should have kept that part out. Well, don't write that part.
Tafuri: No, these interviews are unexpurgated — that's how they work.
Valentino: The fact that they all enjoy ourselves when we get together is reflected in this album. I think, the joy we have when we all get together and have some grappa — that's the next album, that may be based on grappa . [Laughs.] I'm tellin' you: I'm the only artist who still does theme albums.
Tafuri: [Laughs.] Well … yeah. Sometimes the theme is a little hard to follow, but … yeah. How about "4M²" [four M-squared]?
Valentino: That's for Mick. So, it means "For Mick," but without trying to get too mathematical. [Chuckles.]
Valentino: We did two free improvisations on the record. What ended up happening with "Return" was we said, "Let's do a bunch of legato and long, expressive notes." We started like that, then we ended with an almost hymn-like tune. So, that's why it's called "[The] Return": we returned to sanity.
Valentino: [Chuckles.] We left from Mars and returned to Earth. [Laughs.]
Tafuri: It seems like there's this whole circular, spherical, "cyclical" theme thing happening on the record.
Valentino: Yeah, because of the hat and the eggs —
Tafuri: Oysters, well, sort of, on "Oyster Bay" —
Valentino: Frank, we're all Italian; we love food.
Tafuri: And now this "Return" and even with "Stone Balloons."
Valentino: "Stone Balloons"?
Tafuri: Well, balloons are circular.
Valentino: That's right! Man, you're seeing a whole new thing. Maybe the album should be called Circles?
Tafuri: No, I like Dog Eggs.
Tafuri: [Chuckles.] What about "Stone Balloons"?
Valentino: Supposedly, that's the way heroin came years ago. They were called "stone balloons," and there was a club — I think it was in the '60s — and I loved the name, because the two things don't really relate to each other.
Tafuri: It's almost an oxymoron.
Valentino: Yeah, an oxymoron. So, when I heard the term, I said, "Ahh, I gotta do somethin'." The guitar solo is played through a backwards effect3 that has a kind of hallucinogenic quality.
Tafuri: That tune was inspired by the title phrase?
Valentino: It was.
Tafuri: How often does that happen? (Although you already said, you have no problems switching the titles around.)
Valentino: You know, it's odd, because I'm a "title collector."
Tafuri: You make lists of things, saying, "Gee, this would be a good title"?
Valentino: That it would make a good title. I have a friend — a director, a very dear friend who collects names.
Tafuri: Proper names of, like, people or something?
Valentino: Yeah, like "Vin Rose," for example … or whatever. Sometimes I go, "Aw, man, that's a great thing!" and I may have a little musical "something" that I think really reflects that title, and then I'll expand the music from there.
Tafuri: That's interesting; there seems to be a lot of "cross-sensory" stuff that goes on with you.
Valentino: Yeah, uh, well, ah … yeah! [Laughs.]
Tafuri: So, what were you going to say? [Laughs.]
Valentino: [Laughs.] Yeah. In fact, I'm known
as a "cross-dresser."
Tafuri: What were you going to say? "Bhrrrt"?4
Valentino: No, I've been doing that low "bhrrt" for a while now — and really, Frank, yours was a little high for a trombone, but — "bhrrt" — it could be a high trombone or even tuba note! [Laughs.] But I must do that.
Tafuri: You got all of us doin' that now!
Valentino: Do you know, I was listening to Actors' Studio, and when they asked Robin Williams, "What's your favorite sound," he went "bhrrt"?
Tafuri: [Nearly wheezing with laughter.]
Valentino: I'm going, "He stole my sound! I've been doin' that shit for years!"
Tafuri: [Still laughing.] He stole your sound, man! You should demand a royalty.
Valentino: Yeah, well.
Tafuri: "Coyote Cowboy."
Tafuri: [After an extended pause.] Punto.5
Valentino: Coyotes aren't round, unless you're looking at their ass.
Tafuri: Maybe their howl is.
Valentino: Ahh, now I see the circular [reference]. We're trying to make anything work now, eh?
Tafuri: Alright. I'm giving up on that. "Off Balance."
Valentino: "Off Balance." That was our tune of short, rhythmic "stabs" that we put together.
Tafuri: So, that was another sort-of improvised tune?
Valentino: That was one of the more improvised tunes; the first one we did was very legato, and then the second one we were going to do was a very staccato improvisation. Again, we ended it with a little theme: "My Old Kentucky Home." And you know who keeps playing "My Old Kentucky Home." [Chuckles.]
Tafuri: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Listeners may hear it in another upcoming OmniTone album6 in the near future. Okay. "Quick Fix"?
Valentino: That's exactly what it was: a quick fix. We kind of cut the tune in half. There's one edit in the tune.
Tafuri: [Chuckles.] You got rid of half of it, right?
Valentino: Yeah, we got rid of half of it; that's why it's called "Quick Fix."
Valentino: Well, I thought we were asking a little much of the listeners.
Tafuri: Speaking of that, what do you think about the length of records? Now that we can go up to 80 minutes basically on a CD, what are your thoughts about that?
Valentino: You know, I remember all those older albums. Sometimes I pull out an older album, even Cream Live. I mean, they were 36 minutes. I think it's way too much to ask the listener for 80 minutes of their time. Instead, I base album length on "LA time." It takes about 50 minutes to go from Hollywood to Santa Monica. Since more people I know listen to most of their music in the car, that's what I base it on. Or, in the case here, it takes 'em that long to go over the Verrazano Bridge.
Tafuri: There you go.
Valentino: [Chuckles.] Yeah. So, there you go. You put it in, cross the bridge, and it's over.
Tafuri: It's "bridge-crossing music."
Valentino: It's bridge-crossing music. There ya go.
Tafuri: So, what is it? Is it one freeway you take to go from Hollywood to Santa Monica?
Valentino: Naw, it's more than one.
Tafuri: So, that could be a whole 'nother theme.
Valentino: That's right. Just because you can go up to 74 minutes —
Tafuri: You can go up to 80 now!
Valentino: Yeah, that's right: 80. That's an awful lot to ask somebody to listen to … I think. Just because of the way time is so short today. People are picking up their kids or, you know, whatever.
Tafuri: And, to me, from the way the CD is sequenced, you're really telling a story. There's a little adventure the listener goes on when they're listening to the CD. Somehow, at this length, it makes sense. You've told the story, so 50 minutes is enough.
Valentino: It is an adventure, and that's the only thing I have against ITunes and EMusic. I love them, but take out the opportunity for me to run you through the experience of the album. We spend time trying out various album sequences; we debate over what should go first.
Tafuri: You do it, because it's a program.
Valentino: Yeah, that's right. But, I guess, for pop music or dance music, listening to tunes in any order is alright. For jazz or classical, it may not be the thing.
Tafuri: I've maintained that most of OmniTone's target audience still wants the CD. They want the packaging, and they want the liner notes, and they want the artwork, and so on. But I also think that a lot of our listeners want the CD for the programming of the music.
Valentino: Me, too, as a buyer.
Tafuri: Because the way the music is programmed can be as intriguing — and, for some records, it may be more intriguing — than any individual composition by itself. How it all fits together, and what that does to you — where it takes you, from where and to where is important, and Stingy Brim certainly takes the listener on a ride.
Valentino: There ya go. Whaddaya want from life?
4 Makes a low tooting that sounds somewhat trombone-like, something Johnnie does occasionally in response to (or in lieu of a response to) a question or as a comment, probably as a sort of way of letting off steam. [Return to notes]