Reclining on the back seat of a van is apparently Johnny Vidacovich’s preferred position while on the road with Nolatet. That’s just where the renowned drummer was when talking about touring the West Coast with the all-star group—Vidacovich, vibraphonist/percussionist Mike Dillon, bassist James Singleton and pianist Brian Haas, who stands as the only non-resident of New Orleans. The band, which is promoting its stunning debut album, Dogs (Royal Potato Family), will regroup again to perform at the Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo.
Vidacovich was pleasantly surprised at the reception Nolatet received at the clubs and small theaters it hit during a series of one-night stands in California, Oregon and Washington. “They liked it a lot—a lot more than I imagined,” he offers. “I thought the music would be a little too orchestral and maybe [I’d have to] ask the audience to have an open mind. There are a lot of things that we’re doing that are just out of the norm.”
“I can tell you what it sounds like to me sometimes when I’m involved with the music and my head is spinning,” he continues. “It reminds me of a circus and a Christmas tree with a lot of lights.”
Both Nolatet and the album Dogs came into being spontaneously. The four members first performed together at the 2014 Telluride Jazz Festival, where Dillon, Singleton and Vidacovich were booked. “We asked Brian to come up and play with us because we were all crazy about him,” Singleton said.
Afterward, Vidacovich remembers, everyone was of one mind. “We said, ‘Let’s play with this. Let’s push this around.’” So Nolatet did a couple of gigs in New Orleans and one in Mississippi before heading into Esplanade Studios to record. No big deal was made of the session and Vidacovich remembers just throwing down his drums in the middle of the studio.
“We all sat in a room with the piano wide open and we just played and that’s how the record got made,” Vidacovich explains.
“Brian said, ‘Hey these tracks sound pretty good’ and Michael [Dillon] said ‘Hey these tracks sound pretty good.’ By the time I listened to the tracks I barely remembered doing it. I said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the day we went into the studio and messed around. This it what it sounds like?’”
The result was Dogs, named not because these guys are unsavory characters but sweetly because of Haas’ love of canines. “I’ve seen him on the road with two or three of his dogs,” Singleton explained.
The material, which comes from the members’ pens, dominates Nolatet’s sets, augmented with classics from band favorites pianist/composer Thelonious Monk and trumpeter/composer Miles Davis. As for the tunes from the album, says Vidacovich, they constantly change.
“In the beginning there were never any set arrangements so we’re all enjoying the fact that every night we’re playing the shit off the record but the arrangements keep getting broader and broader. We’re having fun like kicking the ball around like a bunch of kids. It’s a lot of kicks. Too much fun for a guy my age.”
“In music it takes two things,” Vidacovich observes. “It takes somebody to play it and somebody to listen to it. Then you’ve got the music. If you play, it’s not music. If somebody is sitting down and listening and you’re playing, it’s music. That’s only what I’m saying and I’m sure I’m not right but I know I’m not wrong. I’m in the gray area and that’s where I like to be. Am I funny or am I being arrogant?”
“I love that gray area and I found that this band does have a gray area where I can express myself more not only musically but as a human being. This band has brought out another part of me that I didn’t know I had. I thought at my age, 66, I knew everything about me and I just found out that I don’t. This band has kind of turned my head around. It’s crazy and these cats are younger than me and they’re killing me and I love it. I think it’s changed just the way I can relax a little more.”
Considering the make-up of Nolatet and its strong percussive elements, listeners might be surprised at the quietude of such tunes as the disc’s opener, Dillon’s “Pops.”
“That piece is pretty personal because Michael’s dad died and he had this little melody,” Vidacovich relates. “He played it and I like pretty shit because I can play mallets and brushes and get sounds and colors. Me and James know how to do that shit.”
On the other hand, Vidacovich calls “Melon Ball” “some basic, straight-ahead fun. I never know what’s going on with that song. That’s one of the things I like about this band and one of the reasons that I committed to playing with it. It’s because I have a lot of freedom and a lot of expressions and these guys make me feel good. There are no egos, nobody’s tripping, and everybody is already a good musician so there’s none of that need for over-playing or making the bandstand out of balance.”