Chuck Loeb & Mitchel Forman interview by Arturo Mora Rioja

The jazz fusion band Metro did a Spanish tour in early February 2009, introducing their most recent CD, Express. Arturo Mora interviewed former members guitarist Chuck Loeb and keyboard player Mitchel Forman in a loose, fun, almost informal talk.

Foto © Sergio Cabanillas, 2009
Foto © Sergio Cabanillas, 2009

ARTURO MORA: Chuck, in the last two years you’ve  done the Presence album and the new Between 2 Worlds CD under your own name, you have also recorded Metro’s Express, produced Spyro Gyra and toured with the Metro Special Edition and with the Reunion band. When do you sleep?

CHUCK LOEB: [laughs] Thank God I’m very busy and have a lot of things going on, which is really great. I’m kind of a workaholic, as I think Mitch is also, so I like to be busy and have a lot of things to do. Maybe that’s going to end soon, and I’ll start to take it more easy, you know.

ARTURO MORA: What can you tell us about your new record, Between 2 Worlds?

CHUCK LOEB: It’s a little bit of a departure for me, because it’s the first album that I ever made that doesn’t have any keyboards. Sorry Mitch.

MITCHEL FORMAN: This man is wonderful [laughs].

CHUCK LOEB: There’s a lot of space to play along [laughs]. It was kind of a challenge for me to cover all the basics, you know, to play the melody, the harmony… It’s kind of a challenge, but at the same time it’s also an opportunity for the music to have a little more space. Normally my CDs are very full of a lot of different sounds, keyboards, strings, bells, organ and all that kind of different things; and in this one there’s a little more air, a little more space, and I kind of want that to happen. In the last few years I’ve been doing more trio gigs, specially here in Europe, in Germany, with the rhythm section in half the CD, [bassist] Dieter Ilg and [drummer] Wolfgang Haffner, and the sound of that group is more airy, and there’s more space, and things can interact in a different way.

So that was the kind of the idea for me, and the reason it’s called Between 2 Worlds is because it literally is my life divided between Europe and the United States, and in this case on the CD half the record was recorded by European musicians in Europe and the other half in America with American musicians, so it’s kind of an example of a picture of my life at the moment.

ARTURO MORA: Funny that you chose the European musicians to play straight ahead jazz.

CHUCK LOEB: It’s funny, right? [laughs] Not only that, it’s like a zen question. Regarding Wolfgang [Haffner], what made this German guy from a little town outside of Nüremberg, so funky?

ARTURO MORA: Did the guys at Heads Up like the idea of mixing styles in the album?

CHUCK LOEB: I just found out that they were a little surprised by the project, because… It’s really my fault, I should’ve been a little more in touch with them. But there’s still material on the CD that they will be able to use for commercial radio in the United States, which is still an important fact.

I think they were a little surprised, but also very supportive and they had a creative attitude towards the music, they wanted the music to grow and change and this is an opportunity for me to do that as an artist, because you can’t just keep doing the same thing all the time. Although I try [laughs].

ARTURO MORA: This is the 15th year in Metro’s life. What about the Metro experience?

CHUCK LOEB: For me it’s getting better, because we’re doing more live playing than we had in a long, long time.

MITCHEL FORMAN: The important thing is if you have a Metro card after 15 years [he shows an MTA NYC Transit MetroCard]. I always travel with it [laughs]. [To Chuck] Do you have yours?

CHUCK LOEB: A fifteen-year member. See, Mitch: I have two [Chuck shows two MetroCards] [laughs].

Foto © Sergio Cabanillas, 2009
Foto © Sergio Cabanillas, 2009

ARTURO MORA: Maybe that could be the title of the new album.

CHUCK LOEB: That would be a good one [laughs]. Seriously, we’re playing live more, we did a whole tour last summer with the Special Edition version of the band. It’s time for us to make a new CD as well, I think, because it’s been almost a couple of years since we recorded the last one, so for me I think it’s a good counterbalance to the other parts of the things that I do in my career, because collaboratively Mitch and I know each other so well… It’s a fun experience.

MITCHEL FORMAN: I had the opportunity to listen on the plane to the old Metro records and it’s so… they’re just great, I don’t know what it is. For me it’s something that I wouldn’t and couldn’t do on my own. I wouldn’t do that, I wouldn’t get that sound, or do that chord, or… To me there has been kind of a partnership, a marriage.

CHUCK LOEB: Me too. I have to say the same thing, it’s stuff that I wouldn’t do on my own, and because of that the band has kind of its own personality, it’s not only Mitch, Wolfgang or myself, because we’re the three that’s always been there…

MITCHEL FORMAN: It certainly is not the bass player [laughs] (1)

CHUCK LOEB: I think that it really does have its own personality, it’s kind of funny. When we enter the studio to record all of a sudden there’s some kind of chemistry thing that happens that is different for all of us. I think I can say that for Wolfgang too, because if you listen to Wolfgang, specially to his latest CD’s, they’re quite different than Metro, and we all love it, so it’s a chance for us to really express a side of ourselves that we don’t get to in another area.

MITCHEL FORMAN: Chuck and I like to be in control of the whole studio recording experience, and here we can trust the other people so much that you can give up that control, it’s so easy. That’s something that comes with time.

ARTURO MORA: The band started in 1994, but two years before you both played in that beautiful CD by Bill Evans named Petite Blonde. Did that have anything to do with the creation of the band?

MITCHEL FORMAN: Yeah. Through that record we were playing kind of a similar style to what we do, it was a fusion record, and we met the record company, Lipstick Records.

CHUCK LOEB: It grew out of that band, right? You and I were together, we met them… But Mitch and I were working together not only in that band, but going back many years before that we were playing together first of all in and around New York City, because we both come from there, and then we worked with Stan Getz, and then we did a lot of playing together in studios and in the clubs in New York, so we had a relationship going backward, we are very good friends. And so we had kind of thought of the idea of doing something, but this Petite Blonde project came along, we met the right record company that would support that kind of a project, and it kind of was the right moment and, interestingly enough, the bass player situation in Metro is very fluid. We had, I think, six albums, six players. Melvin [Davis] is the sixth. Because we had Anthony [Jackson], Victor Bailey for two [records], Mel Brown, Jerry Brooks and Will Lee.

ARTURO MORA: Tim Lefebvre did some live gigs too.

CHUCK LOEB: That’s right, he did, he did. (2)

Foto © Sergio Cabanillas, 2009
Foto © Sergio Cabanillas, 2009

ARTURO MORA: I’m a bass player myself, please hire me!

CHUCK LOEB: Oh, you’re next! [laughs]

MITCHEL FORMAN: Have you seen the movie This Is Spinal Tap? You should. It’s a fake documentary about a rock band around 1980, and one of the things that happens is that they keep changing drummers, but all the drummers mysteriously die. One of them, on his drum seat there’s just a green spot [laughs].

CHUCK LOEB: Yeah, and another dies in a gardening accident.

MITCHEL FORMAN: Another one choked on vomit.

CHUCK LOEB: But the thing is that there’s irony in the story that I was trying to get to: actually the first bassist was Anthony Jackson, who was, you know, a legendary bass player. The record company had suggested Anthony, because he had a big name and that would help promote the CD, and we were happy to work with someone of his stature and musical ability, but we didn’t have a drummer. So actually Wolfgang, who is an integral important part of the band, was recommended by Anthony, who’s no longer in the band. So that was kind of ironic. He had just finished to tour with Wolfgang and we were looking for a drummer, and since he’s the bass player it’s an important question. He said: “what about drums?” “We were thinking about so and so and so and so…” And he said: “d’you know what? There’s a guy I just played with who’s fantastic.” He recommended Wolfgang, who fit so well. And later as a composer… oh, and at the beginning, he did “Grand Slam” [from the band’s first record]. So he is a very important part of the band and we wouldn’t know him if it weren’t for the role of the changing bass player.

ARTURO MORA: You’ve just released the Express songbook, and Mitch has just released his own songbook. Did you do it to create stronger links with a specific part of your audience?

CHUCK LOEB: Mostly because they asked for.

MITCHEL FORMAN: I think we have a lot of musicians in our audience. I would receive e-mails asking for charts.

CHUCK LOEB: I also have a book with ten of my songs, none of the Metro songs. It’s published by Hal Leonard and called The Best Of Chuck Loeb.

ARTURO MORA: Regarding books, I just read on your website that you’ve written a novel, Double Read.

CHUCK LOEB: Yeah, [facing Mitch] did you read it? [Mitch nods] He didn’t read it yet. He said he was going to read it in the airplane [laughs].

ARTURO MORA: How did that project come out?

CHUCK LOEB: As you were saying before, in the first question about when did I sleep and all that, my life is a little dominated by music, you know, and at a certain point my wife, Carmen Cuesta… a friend of ours was talking to her about kind of a spiritual book were it said that it’s important for people at some point in your life to do something that takes you completely out of the norm, and I have always been a big reader, I read spy books, and I had kind of an idea of the plot, and I had thought: “maybe I’ll do that one day”, but I never started to do it, but when we spoke about this, about three years ago, I was spending quite a bit of time in aeroplanes with my computer with nothing to do for hours and hours, so I said: “well, let me do that”, and it was something as I started doing it I immediately loved it, and it did exactly what my wife and our friend said: it took me completely out of my regular life and into this other world. It was very therapeutic, it was relaxing. It took a year to have written this novel, 350 pages. People that read it like it, not Mitch really.

MITCHEL FORMAN: [laughs] I will, I will.

Foto © Sergio Cabanillas, 2009
Foto © Sergio Cabanillas, 2009

ARTURO MORA: Is it selling well?

CHUCK LOEB: It’s not published unfortunately, it’s just on the web.

ARTURO MORA: Mitch, tell us about your label, Marsis Jazz.

MITCHEL FORMAN: It’s kind of there when I need it and I use it for my own thing, it hasn’t been a big financial success, but it’s been good for me to just have my records out there without having any concern about the record company, what they want… and for that it’s good. For not having the support of a big record company is not so good.

ARTURO MORA: How difficult is for you the distribution process?

MITCHEL FORMAN: It’s a little hard, the whole world is moving away from the distribution of records. The model is changing, everyone hears mp3’s or whatever is next. I originally had thought that it would be easy and that Internet downloading would equal us to a Warner Brothers. It hasn’t been this way, but I think for a small label you do have a better chance now to reach all homes in the world, everyone can download your stuff.

ARTURO MORA: And regarding records and companies, Chuck: Indigo Records, from Madrid,had something to do with Express and the acknowledgements in Between 2 Worlds include Juan Miguel Ramírez and his team. Which is your relation with these people?

CHUCK LOEB: For me they’re almost like family at this point. The way I met them was when they published my wife’s first CD, when she put that out, we met them and since we’ve come to Madrid a lot to get to know them personally, and then when I started performing here more I first took the initiative to have Indigo to be in charge of distribution. We’ve been working together on literally every project that I’ve ever done, and at this point they’re really part of my life. It’s just fantastic people, because it’s not like: you make a deal, you put the CD out and then it’s over. No, they go pick me up at the airport, we go to radio stations together, we have dinner together… it’s an intimate relationship, wonderful.

ARTURO MORA: Mitch, what about your collaboration in the Mahavishnu Orchestra Tribute, Visions Of An Inner Mounting Apocalypse?

MITCHEL FORMAN: Oh, Jeff Richman. You know, I’m just a friend of Jeff’s, as Chuck, and he’s done five or six of these tribute records. It’s always fun…

CHUCK LOEB: But as a personal thing for you, I mean you played with John [McLaughlin], right, you were actually a part of the band [the Mahavishnu Orchestra itself].

MITCHEL FORMAN: Yes, for a few years I played with John.

ARTURO MORA: Is there any follow up to your last project, Perspectives?

MITCHEL FORMAN: I don’t know, still looking. I’ve done some trio gigs lately in Los Angeles that have been successful. I think I’ll do a duo record with Chuck.

ARTURO MORA: In the style of that acoustic song in Tree People, “Sleeping Beauties”?

MITCHEL FORMAN: No, maybe more electronic.

CHUCK LOEB: Maybe more electronic, more orchestrated, you know. There’s so much that you can do with the two instruments. Remember As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls [by Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays], it’s a very complete CD, even though it’s just two people.

Foto © Sergio Cabanillas, 2009
Foto © Sergio Cabanillas, 2009

ARTURO MORA: Pat Metheny: you dedicate a song to him in Between 2 Worlds, “360”. What can you tell us about your musical encounters with Pat?

CHUCK LOEB: I was his student, I was very young when we first met. To me he’s one of the most complete musicians on the planet, that’s why I called the tune “360”, it’s like full circle. He gave me that one lesson. We became friends later, and then he told me: “I didn’t even remember that I gave you a lesson.” But he said one thing to me that literally changed my approach to music, which is pretty heavy, you know, but that’s the kind of guy he is, he’s a very powerful person…

MITCHEL FORMAN: What was the one thing he said? [laughs]

CHUCK LOEB: At the time when I studied with him I was very close-minded, I was into pure jazz, and playing music based on Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and Miles Davis and Wes Montgomery, very strictly into the be-bop mode, you know. And he asked me to play a tune and he said: “it sounds really great, but it sounds like you’re playing a vocabulary instead of melody. When you’re improvising don’t think so much about trying to imitate these great artists, even though they are great. Instead, let yourself find your own melodies, and improvise in a way that’s more open and melodic.” It sounds very simple, but it was a moment in which kind of the light went off, and I realized that although we rely on licks and things and repetitive techniques that we use to play, we should be still looking for melody.

MITCHEL FORMAN: And try to find your own. I met him during the Reunion record [by Gary Burton], there was a short tour thereafter. There were a few long car rides, and I think I spent thanksgiving dinner with him and Gary Burton at some weird place, not a great restaurant. But the thing that impressed me the most is how hard the guy works. It’s obvious from his playing. He was similar to Chuck Loeb.

CHUCK LOEB: Much more.

MITCHEL FORMAN: He’s always playing, always playing, you know. His guitar is a part of him.

CHUCK LOEB: When you look at his career it’s amazing what he’s done, it’s just incredible, the quality of his work…

MITCHEL FORMAN: I think he’s so dedicated to his art… it’s inspiring to see that.

ARTURO MORA: Mitch, you’ve played with a lot of great musicians: Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny himself… Who influenced you the most and in which aspect?

MITCHEL FORMAN: I think the guys that influence me the most are the ones I share the experience of traveling with, which we do a lot, and still play at their top. I remember Wayne Shorter, after a long day traveling, when we did the North Sea Jazz Festival, and he just played his heart out, and the whole day just disappeared. These are the guys that can give everything no matter what the outside experience is like. That influences me, to see that and see that it’s possible.

ARTURO MORA: Regarding Metro: does anyone take care of their own songs in terms of arranging, or is it a more collaborative process?

CHUCK LOEB: It’s pretty collaborative. On the latest CD I think Mitch did more than anyone else in terms of the arrangements… I mean, in the studio we do it together when we’re recording the tracks. I may come in with an idea, or a certain layout for the song, or… and then Mitch or anybody might say: “why don’t we go first to the bridge, or…? Why don’t we do that twice?” That happens in the studio. There’s a song on the new CD called “Maikl Burreka” that was very sketchy in the studio, it was almost nothing.

Foto © Sergio Cabanillas, 2009
Foto © Sergio Cabanillas, 2009

ARTURO MORA: Really? In the CD it looks like having many sections, that it’s even a complex song in terms of form.

CHUCK LOEB: Yeah, what he [Mitch] did with it was just unbelievable. The song title stands for Michael Brecker, and the idea was: Michael Brecker loved African music, and Will [Lee, co-composer and bassist for the session] really had the concept of an African groove, and we did the different sections then Mitch put it together. When he had all the voices, and the kalimba, and the loops and all that kind of stuff, when I first heard it it was like: “wow, that’s perfect! That’s incredible!” I didn’t expect that, you know. So that’s an example of the band having its own personality.

The other thing that I was gonna say is that the idea of the band comes out of our love for fusion music from the 70’s: Weather Report, Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chick Corea’s bands from that time, Yellowjackets… That music is very important to us and it influences us quite a bit more than anything as composers, but also as a group. It’s kind of an inspiration. For me specially Weather Report.

ARTURO MORA: I was going to ask you about your acoustic guitar solo in “Maikl Burreka”. It looks like a perfect solo in terms of design, as if it was written. Did you record it in a row, was it fully improvised?

CHUCK LOEB: Not fully improvised, but I have to say that the idea of the solo was pretty much in one pass. I fixed certain things that I didn’t play perfectly, I went back and perfected them, but the idea was pretty much what I played the first time. And I think part of it was that that was the day when I first heard what Mitch had done to the song, so I was very inspired, it was so much fun to listen to all that stuff in the headphones and play with it. And there’s a couple of things on there actually that, after I played, you [facing Mitch] went back and kind of doubled, so it kind of grew as a piece of music.

ARTURO MORA: More technical stuff: in your last record there’s a song named “Let’s Play”, which you dedicate to Mike Stern and that features a rhythmic motif on the drum solo part that reminds of the drum solo part in “Rio Frio” [from Metro’s Express]. Was “Let’s Play” composed at the same time than “Rio Frio”, or after…?

CHUCK LOEB: After. Actually this is a problem that I have, I only know one rhythmic motif for drum solos [laughs]. I took the idea from “Rio Frio” because although Wolfgang plays in the original recording, when we were playing with the Special Edition version of the band Dave Weckl was playing on that part, as well as in “Bing Bang Boom!”. Dave was going to record on my CD, I wanted him playing a solo that was kind of like in that mode, and we did it in that song. But then later, there’s a song called “The Great Hall” on my CD where Wolfgang plays the solo, and it’s the same figure, so basically it comes down to that I’m not very original [laughs].

MITCHEL FORMAN: D’you know what’s funny? I have my son starting to play drums, he’s twelve. The other day we played “Rio Frio” and I made him do the drum solo [laughs].

ARTURO MORA: I just read you’re going to tour India. Is is the first time you do it?

MITCHEL FORMAN: Yeah, right after this we’re going to India. It’ll be my third time.

ARTURO MORA: How’s the experience of performing there?

MITCHEL FORMAN: The reason we go there is that I met a gentleman over there who’s a composer and a producer, actually head of Columbia Records now in India. And he’s got this passion, he knows every jazz record out in the United States, he can tell who plays on the one song from a record ten years ago. And he’s just bringing us over. And we’re all doing a record. Not all, not Wolfgang, but [David] Weckl, and [Eric] Marienthal, Chuck and myself, and Melvin [Davis], and it’s great, I’m doing four songs for him. It’s through this one guy, his name is Sandeep Chowta.

ARTURO MORA: How do you approach your solo piano projects vs. playing with more instruments?

MITCHEL FORMAN: It’s a very liberating experience, very difficult to feel that confident about your piano ability and put off a whole CD or a whole concert. One of these days I’d like to do it again, I haven’t been playing that much piano, I think it requires a little commitment to that project and hours of practicing to feel comfortable enough to do it.

ARTURO MORA: How do you get the ideas for programming loops in Metro?

MITCHEL FORMAN: I just fool around until something steps [laughs].

ARTURO MORA: Chuck, two years ago you told me about issuing a Reunion [Till Brönner, Eric Marienthal, Chuck Loeb, Jim Beard, Tim Lefebvre and Dennis Chambers] record, you were looking for a label.

CHUCK LOEB: It never happened. Two things: we had recorded a live concert. That was a great band, but when you’re doing a live CD you have to record several concerts, so that you can pick the best from each one of them. We didn’t have the material that we needed from that one concert. There was the idea of putting it out, but it wasn’t up to the level it needed to be to represent such a great group. The other thing is that because I’m involved with my own CD’s, I produce my wife’s CD’s and also in Metro, one more group was for me a little too much, you know, so for me that was another fact.

ARTURO MORA: Your wife is Spanish, you spend a lot of time in Spain. Have you thought about doing something with Spanish musicians?

CHUCK LOEB: Yeah, I got sort of a chance to be more involved, because I was involved producing a CD with Charlie Moreno, who’s a Spanish bassist, and also some stuff with [saxophonist] Kike Perdomo. I would like to do more of that, and in fact as my daughter is now living in Madrid, we’re planning on spending even more time in Spain, so I think I’ll have the opportunity to meet more people, play with more local musicians… I would love it, it makes perfect sense.

(1)   Metro has been constantly switching bass players.

(2)   Actually Gerald Veasley played live last summer in the Special Edition of the band, so the total number of bassists is eight.

Text: © 2009 Arturo Mora Rioja
Photographs: © 2009 Sergio Cabanillas

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