“Hola, how’s it going? I’m glad you called me.”
Those were the warm words that greeted me on the other side of the phone when I called up vibraphonist and percussionist Mike Dillon about a month ago. He had been in Lake Tahoe a week earlier at the Divided Sky playing a show in the pouring snow.
But on the phone it was evident he was out driving around somewhere sunny, maybe New Orleans. At one point in our conversation I could hear him telling someone to “just put 20 in the tank.” Talking to him from thousands of miles away, I grasped he is just a normal, grounded dude who just happens to be one of the most coveted jazz artists today.
Dillon has been hustling around the country as hard-touring, working musician for the past 25 years with a gung-ho attitude toward his craft. He has worked with everyone from Les Claypool to Ani DiFranco to Professor Longhair, variety certainly being the key ingredient in Dillon’s life. He has set up shop in New Orleans for a number of years now and his latest project, Nolatet, is product of Dillon’s love for New Orleans, jazz and improvisation.
“Dogs” is the group’s debut album, which was released today, Feb. 26, and Dillon couldn’t have surrounded himself with cooler company than drummer Johnny Vidacovich, bassist James Singleton and pianist Brian Haas. Vidacovich and Singleton are legends in New Orleans jazz circles and have holding down the best rhythms in the city since the 1970s. For Dillon, forming Nolatet with these guys as the backbone was a no-brainer.
“James sat in with my band in (Los Angeles) — Oh yeah, I was on tour with Claypool, Les Claypool, and I met James. He was in L.A. because he was displaced from (Hurricane) Katrina, and I had a killer set with James. Now mind you, I’ve been a fan of (James and Johnny) for years. Whenever I’d go to Jazz Fest I’d see them around town, see James play in his projects and watch Johnny V. play. I was already fans of them and when I tried playing with them it was like ‘Oh my god, I love making music with you two,’ ” Dillon said.
Haas is the bandleader of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and is an old pal of Dillon’s who shares the percussionist’s love for high-intensity agro-jazz. Quick and off-the-cuff, the idea was to play a week of shows in New Orleans and then record the whole album in one day — live — and to tape with no overdubs and only or or two shots to get it down. They captured the magic in famed Esplanade Studios in New Orleans.
The album is a fun, little seven-song romp of jazz compositions that are light and airy. “Bongo Joe,” one of the highlights, is a playful rhythm built on Singleton’s fuzzy bass and Dillon’s gingery vibes and other accoutrements. “Dogs” starts off heavy and contemplative with Haas’ piano but the group eventually breaks down into a breezy stroll through the park with Vidacovich always pleasantly keeping the band moving forward.
What you notice throughout is how respectful all the musicians are of each other’s space and sounds. Whether it is on the meditative “Pops” or on the more spastic moments in “Mellon Ball” where vibes, piano, bass and drums are bouncing off each other, it never feels like anyone is scribbling over anyone else’s drawing. Dillon said he was like a “kid in a candy shop” playing with such thoughtful musicians and was especially complimentary of the Vidacovich’s laid-back vibes.
“Right away, when he hears a song, Johnny does what all great drummers do with compositions, he was like, (imitates Johnny’s voice) “Michael, on that one song right there we are putting an extra measure in and that is going to let the whole song breathe.” And it was amazing because it was like, wow, that one little suggestion… That’s what Johnny kept saying. He was like, ‘I’ve been waiting my whole life for a band that lets it breathe like this,” Dillon said.
What Dillon also appreciated about the songs on “Dogs” is that each one feels like its own little story. The band went into the recordings with very basic sketches of songs and the intention of a lot of improvising, which really makes every song feel like its own conversation between the musicians.
That musical conversation was therapeutic for Dillon, who revealed that his father had died during the making of the album. He mentioned that the day of our conversation was actually the one-year anniversary of his passing. The musician turned to the loving envelop of his brothers in music to help pay tribute to his father on the beautiful “Pops.”
“When I got the news, I just went to my vibes and it came out of me and I didn’t even write it out. I brought it into rehearsal and said this was a song I wrote for my dad, and we played it and it was so awesome to play with those guys. Life is full of joy, full of sorrow and while loss is sad we get the chance to celebrate someone’s life and what they bring to the table. That song was played those five days and we haven’t played it since, except for one time at Jazz Fest last year. It was a lot of emotion and feeling going on and I couldn’t think of a better group of guys to be going through that period,“ Dillon said.
Nolatet goes on the road in March and April to support the album, with shows in New Orleans, Brooklyn, Boston, Denver and San Francisco among others. Dillon was psyched to get these songs in front of people, though it is obvious he is just jazzed to get the chance to play with these musicians again since they make it so easy.
“Let the ears and heart dictate what the music needs and bring emotion to it. That is always the No. 1 answer, feeling an emotion, a passion. I don’t have to think about it too much with these guys cause they have been doing it for so long. There isn’t a lot of thinking, it is a lot of feeling and listening. When it’s on it’s effortless,” Dillon said.
As effortless as a breezy drive around town filling up on gas.