Wednesday, April 11, 2012

SoundSpike Interview: Drummer Jim Keltner

SoundSpike Interview: Drummer Jim Keltner

In drumming circles, his name is spoken with the same reverence as Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa or Ringo Starr. Yet it's somehow possible you're not familiar with the name Jim Keltner. Rest assured, you have certainly heard him. In case you don't think so, here are a few names to jar your memory.
John Lennon, Manhattan Transfer, Delbert McClinton, the Traveling Wilburys, Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Mick Jagger, Joe Cocker, George Harrison, John Lee Hooker, Randy Newman, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, Pink Floyd, James Taylor, Boz Scaggs, Linda Ronstadt, Ringo Starr, Indigo Girls, B.B. King, Rickie Lee Jones, Freddie Hubbard, Eric Clapton, Ry Cooder, Brian Wilson, Fiona Apple, Neil Diamond, the Bee Gees, Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, Rita Coolidge and Harry Chapin.
Keltner's latest recording is a collaboration with Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts. The "Charlie Watts Jim Keltner Project" features Watts on drums, Keltner as sonic alchemist with a multitude of electronic and acoustic instruments, and appearances by the likes of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Blondie Chaplin--creating nine description-defying musical auras which take their titles from the names of seminal jazz drummers like Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and the late Tony Williams.

With his resume, Keltner's schedule is appropriately filled to the hilt. Still, the down-to-earth drummer was kind enough to spare some time before leaving for a Neil Young tour to talk about the new album and a few names in his Rolodex.

SoundSpike: The origins of the "Watts Keltner Project" go back to the Rolling Stones '97 "Bridges To Babylon" recording sessions, around the time when Tony Williams died. The "Tony" track has the deep, mysterious vocal, which I actually recognized from one of Tony's interviews. How did all of that come about?

Jim Keltner: It was an interview that I read and brought to the session that night. I was reading it to Charlie, and later on in the evening he suggested, "Well why don't you go out and do a vocal?" I was laughing, "Sure." Then I thought, I had this silly little voice-changer out by the drums. I figured I'd go out there and surprise him with the voice-changer, but I didn't know what to say exactly. So I started quoting Tony from various parts of the article. It wasn't meant to be anything at the time. You have to remember, all these little tracks were borne earlier in the studio by Charlie and I just goofing around. They got their form and their structure later.
There were some that were already structured, but "Tony Williams," "Art Blakey," and "Airto" came simply from grooves.

SoundSpike: Do people actually get what it's about?

Jim Keltner: My wife says about "Tony," "Oh that goes on so long!" She can't quite hang with it. [Laughs] A lot of people will listen to that and not be able to figure out what we're talking about. It has nothing to do with Tony's playing or anything. How that came about was, obviously, I was talking about Tony, and it became like a requiem, really. He had just recently died, and we were all still reeling from that. The chords that Mick [Jagger, playing keyboards] played over Charlie's sloshy hi-hat sounded very requiem-like to me.
So when I finished my little vocal and walked back in the room, Charlie understood what I was saying. It was fresh on his mind at the time, plus the initial playback was a little clearer than the final mastered version. And he was touched, and said, "I got a tear in my eye over that." That's why he called it "Tony Williams," and we pretty much left that one as we did it in the studio.

SoundSpike: We have to touch upon some of the musicians you've played with, like John Lennon. I knew [Yes drummer] Alan White played on the "Imagine" album, but wasn't aware you were on it as well.

Jim Keltner: Alan White played on the "Imagine" song, which was a couple of days before I did "Jealous Guy." And I also did "Don't Want to Be a Soldier, Mama." That had been [already recorded] with Jimmy Gordon, and they wanted to try it again, so I ended up playing on that track for the record. [The experience] was brief, but it seemed like a long time to me because it was so intense.

SoundSpike: What was Lennon like to work with?

Jim Keltner: He was amazing, of course. His songs were all complete. He was the ultimate songwriter in the same way that Bob Dylan is. Neil Young. Guys who write songs where the song plays itself, basically. That's been one of the great blessings of my life, is to have played with some of the greatest songwriters of our time.
And Yoko, I remember her there...Yoko played a big part in his life. People only think of her as a detractor, the person that sort of broke up the band, was distracting him, and stuff like that. Nothing could be further from the truth. Well, as far as breaking up the band, I can't speak to that because I 
wasn't there. But as far as being a big force in John's life, she was. I know that.

SoundSpike: Then there's two of America's greatest bluesmen, John Lee Hooker and B.B. King.

Jim Keltner: I played with John Lee on a song called "Mr. Lucky" pretty recently. And I played with him live, a couple of songs with him and Ry Cooder. Playing with John Lee is amazing-- I haven't done it enough!
I've been on a lot of records with B.B. The best one probably was "B.B. In London," which was nominated for a Grammy in the '70s. "Ain't Nobody Home" was the single. B.B. King is just one of the great gentlemen of our time. A national treasure.

SoundSpike: And what happened with Barbara Streisand?

Jim Keltner: I did an album with her, with Richard Perry producing. That's one of the most favorite things I ever did. "Since I Fell for You." I love her version of that. You usually don't think of her singing that song, you think of other soul singers. And she did John's "Mother." I was doing a lot of stuff with Richard Perry at the time, so that was how I got to work with Barbara. Back then, she was this major, major force, you know? Unbelievable voice. And that was in the days when the artist would record live with you. It was a tremendous thing, to hear a voice like that in your headphones.

SoundSpike: Of course, thinking again about songwriters--Bob Dylan.

Jim Keltner: The first time I played with Bob was in the early '70s with Leon Russel, Carl Readle and Jessie Ed Davis. We did "Watching the River Flow" and "When I Paint My Masterpiece" on that same day. And then I didn't see him again until we did "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" in Los Angeles. That was a monumental session for me because it was such a touching song, it was the first time I actually cried when I was playing. When I hear that on the radio now, it's very special to me. I almost well up again when I hear it, because it's a frozen moment in my life that will always be there.

Story by Don Zulaica
SoundSpike Contributor
Published August 4, 2000 11:49 AM