Making It Up

Sleepless nights with Willie Waldman

It may be New Year's Eve in Long Beach to you, but to trumpeter Willie Waldman, it's amateur night in an amateur town—fun, but child's play. Maybe that's a good thing.

"Shit, if you play around midnight, it's the cleanup slot. That's what Mike Watt calls it," says Waldman, a proud resident of Memphis, Tennessee, where men are men and sleep is seldom. "You need to go to Minnesota or Memphis. We have bars that stay open all night."

If that's too far to drive, you can catch the Willie Waldman Project, his free-form jazz ensemble, headlining Dec. 31 at DiPiazza's in Long Beach. Sitting in that night on upright bass—see, even the lineup fluctuates—will be none other than Grammy-winner Rob Wasserman, joining guitarist Eric Garcia and drummer Tony Austin.

"He's one of the best. He really listens good," Waldman says of Wasserman. "You have to listen. It's not marching band, where it's 'Here's my part,' and you play it the same way every night."

One step away from fusion, the Waldman Project aims at that period in mid- to late-'50s jazz when sidemen were often transient.

"My idea is, Coltrane didn't have the same band week after week, and it didn't seem to hurt him," Waldman says.

That's part of the band's appeal, Garcia agrees.

"I think people come liking this free-form music, but what knocks them out are these incredible players," says Garcia, whose résumé includes stints with guys like Bob Dylan. "There's times when Rob takes a solo and I go out and stand in the audience, and I'm jumping up and down, too."

Waldman's group draws jam band fans, jazz enthusiasts, even rock people—but, unlike Grateful Dead shows, no tapers, says Wasserman, who knows something about that from working with Dead guitarist Bob Weir in various combos.

"At the Willie shows, sometimes there wouldn't be any tapers, and there'd be some magical stuff—you're playing, and you don't know how you're doing it," Wasserman says, lamenting the absence of folks in tie-dye. Then again, the Dead belong to another time, he says, adding, "I don't think of it as the Grateful Dead spirit. I think of it as great people playing together. If you listen, it will happen."

The gig won't be saved for posterity, but so what? The Waldman players—captured on CD in 2001's Trumpet Ride—see their New Year's gig as a bit of a vacation. Particularly Wasserman; he's been playing hooky anyway this year, from Dead spin-off band Ratdog.

"It's a nonstressful, relaxing thing. For me, I started out improvising in my early days, in a school full of classical musicians who were terrified of it," says Wasserman. Waldman, meanwhile, shrugs off any notion of a set list, or even vocals.

"I always give those rock guys a hard time, guys at Ozzfest. They play things the same way every night. What's the difference between doing that and a Mozart symphony?" Waldman asks, pointedly pronouncing the "Z" in Mozart as if he were snoring. "You still play it down the same way."

Which is really why the Willie Waldman Project exists—to alleviate boredom on a club-by-club basis. Plus, when you're about ready to toddle off to bed in 2004, this quartet will be getting paid.

"That's the reason I got into jazz—you make a hundred bucks, but you see it that night," says Waldman. "It doesn't take six months for MCA to come up off it."

The Willie Waldman Project featuring Rob Wasserman at DiPiazza's Restaurant, 5205 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Long Beach, (562) 498-2461. Wed., 8 p.m. $15. 21+.
 
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