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Have drums, will travel: Drummer Terry Bozzio brings his supersize kit to the Iron Horse

  • Celebrated drummer Terry Bozzio brings his otherworldly drum kit to the Iron Horse September 6. Photo courtesy Terry Bozzio

  • Celebrated drummer Terry Bozzio brings his otherworldly drum kit to the Iron Horse September 6. Photo courtesy Terry Bozzio 

  • Terry Bozzio combines rock, jazz and African rhythms in his drumming. Photo courtesy Terry Bozzio 



Staff writer 
Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Terry Bozzio is a drumming legend known for his work with rock and roll iconoclast Frank Zappa, British rock guitarist Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger and scores of other famous rock and jazz musicians. Among a number of accomplishments, he’s been listed by Rolling Stone as one of the top five drummers of all time, and he won a Grammy award for best rock instrumental on Jeff Beck’s 1990 album, “Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop.”

The California-born Bozzio got his start on drums at a young age in the 1950s and, after seeing The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, begged his father for formal lessons. He’s been touring constantly since the 1970s and next Thursday, September 6, he brings his unique solo show to Northampton’s Iron Horse Music Hall at 7 p.m.

The Gazette spoke with the celebrated drummer by phone ahead of his performance, which will feature Bozzio performing compositions that draw from jazz, classical, and ethnic percussion styles across the world on his massive custom drum kit (26 toms, two snares, eight bass drums, 53 cymbals, 22 pedals, including xylophone, glockenspiel, gongs, and two electronic drums).

And Bozzi’s show is much more than just a “bombastic two hour drum solo,” according to the Iron Horse. The veteran drummer combines classical forms and structures, ambient electronic loops, atmospheric percussion effects, looped bass sounds, and a number of other sounds. 

Daily Hampshire Gazette: Could you tell me how you developed your current musical project building these musical compositions on percussion?

Terry Bozzio: I try to improvise in a compositional way. It’s not just throwaway soloing or licks. It’s thematic and developmental. Over the years, that’s just become what I do … It’s not a typical, Ginger-Baker-type long rock solo. At least 10 or so compositions have a wide variety of feels and textures and moods.

DHG: What was it like working with Frank Zappa, specifically on “Baby Snakes”? (Zappa’s legendary 1977 Halloween concert at New York City’s Palladium Theater, which was later released as a concert film including footage of backstage antics) 

TB: It was a really great experience. By that time I was kind of a veteran in Frank’s band and was pretty comfortable. Deep character development was moving forward. When [saxophonist Napoleon Murphy Brock] left the band, there was nobody putting on masks. I took up the con there to do that missing element that I enjoyed from Frank’s music. I put on the devil’s mask and [sang on] Punky’s Whips. 

When we were filming some of that stuff, the camera guy was standing right in front of me and so I thought, ‘The audience can’t see me, but I know Frank is going to be looking at this full screen in the editing room.’ So, I would do things to crack him up and junk. He liked it. So, there I am spitting and doing all that stuff.

DHG: Was there anything on “Baby Snakes” that you found particularly challenging and that helped you grow as a drummer?

TB: Everything was. It was more at the beginning. You kind of get used to the work and the level of intensity. Being with Frank was a very intense situation … Every day there was a sound check and a rehearsal, and we would do new arrangements.

We were kind of like Army training or boot camp. You just really dug in, and music was your life. That was a fantastic experience. Plus the guy was such a genius, was so funny, and great to be around. I consider myself very lucky to have had that opportunity to play with him.

DHG: You’ve performed with a ton of famous musicians throughout the years. Who are some of your favorites, and what did you like about performing with them?

TB: One of my favorite bass players and dearest friends is Patrick O’Hearn, and we’ve done a lot of things together. We used to play jazz together with Eddie Henderson, Joe Henderson, and Woody Shaw, and Julian Priester — all the great jazz musicians that came to San Francisco in the early 1970s.

And then, I would say in terms of projects one of the favorite things I’ve ever done was [instrumental improvisational group HoBoLeMa] with Allan Holdsworth, Tony Levin, and Pat Mastelotto … Jeff Beck was another great instrumentalist and just unmatched in his sound and tone and his expression. I loved playing with Jeff.

DHG: What initially led to you becoming a drummer, and who were some of your biggest influences during your formative years?

TB: I would imagine seeing Little Ricky on the “I Love Lucy Show” and Cubby O’Brien on “The Mickey Mouse Club” in the 1950s on black and white TV. Those were the first two children that I saw play drums. I probably assumed it was an adult activity until then. That was a moment I can remember.

And my dad had a Tito Puente album and we had a kind of end table that was a set of three nesting tables. They were solid wood and they had three different tones, so I would call the nesting tables my bongos and I would play along with Tito Puente.

DHG: Is touring different now compared to when you were younger?

TB: Absolutely. You have these levels that you work on. The jazz level is you throw the drums in the back of your car and you go to play in San Francisco or something, and then you’re thrown in the Zappa level … I’d never even seen these big lighting rigs. So, that level was private bus, private planes sometimes, or flying commercially. It’s something you adapt to, but everything’s provided for you at that level. The same with Jeff Beck; a very high level of touring.

And then there’s projects you do out of love. You maybe rent a van and pile in with the three guys you’re playing with and make it work. I come to find in my solo situation, having done drum clinics, that maybe the company would send a pick-up kit for me to use. [But then] – I can’t adjust things the way I like.

So, I thought, ‘Okay, I need to have my own drum set everywhere.’ We have an SUV and a trailer and that’s the best way to go. It takes longer and it’s more expensive because you’re driving a lot between big states. You eat up at least $500 a day just traveling, and every off day is losing money, but that’s the way to do it. I have my wife with me and our trusted tech and the drums are in the trailer in the back.

DHG: Are there any projects in the works that you’re really excited about now?

TB: “Reality” is a project I recorded in 1991. I just went into the studio with a beatbox and my drums and just made up sections and breakdowns and solo sections based on very melodic beatbox patterns; not like hip-hop, but more African sounds. I basically had this empty bunch of drum tracks, and since 1991 I’d been working on that. I finally finished it over five or six technological overturns. 

That’s a really beautiful project. The first two tunes are my favorite. They have flute that I play through a vocoder [an instrument that replicates the human voice], which has a kind of a Weather Report-ish feel to them. It’s almost like a hybrid musical experience with classical and film and ambients and electronics mixed together.  

Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@gazettenet.com. 

Terry Bozzio will perform next Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Iron Horse Music Hall, 20 Center St., Northampton. For more information about Bozzio and for tickets, visit iheg.com.