Percussionist and vibraphonist Mike Dillon certainly learned to play well with others when he was growing up in San Antonio, Texas. He has turned that into an over 25-year career as one of the most prized jazz artists of his generation, for both his fringe creativity that slams jazz aesthetic head-first into punk sensibilities, as well as his ability to adapt to any musical situation and put his gorgeous smear all over it. He has played with so many musicians, bands and configurations over the years it is probably easier to name the few people he hasn’t played with rather than the one’s he has played with. He has had an indelible mark on the jazz and live music scene and is member of the formidable Garage A Trois, Critters Buggin’ Trio and Les Claypool’s Fancy Band, as well as playing with everyone from Ani DiFranco to Professor Longhair.
This week will see the release of Dogs, the debut album from his newest band, Nolatet. The quartet is something of a dream come true for Dillon, who is joined on the record by some of the greatest jazz musicians to walk this earth and personal heroes of his: drummer Johnny Vidacovich, bassist James Singleton and pianist Brian Haas. Singleton and Vidacovich have been stalwarts in New Orleans since the 1970’s as one of the best rhythm sections in town and Haas is the founding member of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and has been playing with Dillon on-and-off for over 20 years. The seven songs on the album were all recorded in one day in one or two takes, live to tape with no overdubs in a burst of musical exploration and improvisation.
“I did a residency last year in New Orleans and I had Brian (Haas) come down and play a couple gigs with Johnny, James and myself and at the end of like five gigs— they were all a blast— we booked a studio one afternoon, beautiful Esplanade Studios, and we recorded “Dogs.” Before the run started, the concept was to play these five gigs with a lot of improv, but we’ll bring a couple songs, we’ll play a couple compositions that we’ll play over the week and weekend and then we’ll go into the studio and record it. So that is what you are hearing and that is what we are really proud of,” said Dillon.
The album is a wonderfully heady piece that juggles contemplative compositions that stroll peacefully along to Singleton’s deft plucks on the low strings or Dillon’s whimsical vibes and bursts of improvisational fury with Vidacovich’s drum rolls crashing off of Haas’ rippling piano. A couple of videos captured the recording of songs on the album, which are the versions that made it on record, and it is quite amazing to see the band’s chemistry as they play off each other. You see all four men smiling like the Joker, especially Singleton, and it is certain they have found kindred spirits.“Its like when you meet an amazing woman and you hit it off, then you go back and you stay over all night and it is awesome. Same thing here. We have a unique, orgasmic, musical experience, and that is what musicians of my ilk look for, live for: to find those guys or women that you got chemistry with,” said Dillon.
Dillon said his main goal in coming to the Nolatet recordings was playing from the heart and being respectful of the pedigree he was playing with. That is basically his M.O. whenever he is having the honor of playing with other people and creating art together.
“I bring the energy and I do my thing and create a respectful relationship with the musicians I am playing with. When I am playing with Claypool, man, I am staying out of his way of everything he is doing until it is my moment. He’s a very good bass player and it is not busy, wank-off busy, it is all a part of the composition. Same with Ani DiFranco. When I tour with her, her music is really intricate, not super intricate, but really interesting guitar parts that I don’t want to get in the way of. Now with this band, that is kind of my role. My role is to listen and see what each song is demanding.”
One place where his art of the sit-in has served him well is on Jam Cruise, the Mecca of musical collaboration. For this year’s Jam Cruise he was named an artist-at-large, along with other greats like Fred Wesley, Anders Beck and Ron Holloway, and walked around the ship playing with anyone he could. He has been doing the same thing for the last twelve cruises, and is one of the most veteran cruisers to date, along with lifers Karl Denson and Galactic, who have been there every year. This year he was also in charge of leading a jam in the new Jazz Lounge, which by the way is his favorite new addition to the experience, and played with Singleton and Vidacovich along with other friends like David Torkanowsky, Keller Williams and Marco Benevento.
“That is the best thing about Jam Cruise. I get to see buddies who I have played with off-and-on for twenty years now and seeing the musicians and bands you’ve become acquainted with over the years. There is a hardcore group of friends that I’ve come to know over the last 10 years. I did so many sit-ins this year, I was like by the time it got to Jam Room time at two in the morning, some days I had been playing since four in the afternoon non-stop, my hands were hurting I was done. And that is what I do when I am on the boat as an artist-at-large. I got a lot of friends who want me to be a part of their music and that is a role that I love. I try to leave a lot of space and not come in like a percussionist soloing over everyone’s stuff. I try to get in the groove with the drummer and be really respectful.”
The world is Mike Dillon’s groove, we are just living in it.
Mike Dillon’s new Nolatet album, Dogs, is due out on February 26th on Royal Potato Family. For pre-order and more information, you can head here. For those who like to get down to some New Orleans groove, be sure to check out the inaugural NOLA Crawfish Festival during the “daze between” Jazz Fest, featuring George Porter, Jr., Jon Cleary, Nigel Hall, John “Papa” Gros, Billy Iuso & The Restless Natives, Papa Mali and more. Info can be found here.
Get down with the new song “Pops” below: