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John Densmore: "I'm A Jazz Drummer"

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Posted 14 June 2008 - 02:53 PM

The Windsor Star News
Ted Shaw, Windsor Star
Published: Thursday, June 12, 2008

'I'm a jazz drummer'

The first time we heard John Densmore was with The Doors. But his new band means he's more than a rock 'n' roll stick man.

After years of claiming he could play jazz, John Densmore has the band in front of him to prove it.

The original drummer in The Doors, Densmore recently has been keeping time for Tribaljazz, a fusion big band employing African rhythms.

Of course, anyone who goes back to those classic Doors songs won't deny Densmore had the chops for jazz. Just listen to the delicate brush and cymbal work on Riders on the Storm, or the altered bossa nova beat of Break On Through (To the Other Side).

It's just that Tribaljazz returns him to the very reason he plays drums - hearing Elvin Jones back up John Coltrane.

"He gave me my hands," said the 63-year-old Densmore.

And that's what he told the Pontiac-born Jones when he met him backstage at a Los Angeles jazz club in 1995, a few years before the jazz giant's death.

"I brought him a copy of my autobiography (Riders On The Storm)," said Densmore.

"I was really nervous about how he might respond to it, him being the higher art form, jazz, and me just a rock drummer. I thought he might be condescending."

Jones had no idea who The Doors were, of course. "It didn't seem to matter. He was just grateful that he'd had that kind of influence on me."

At a later encounter, Densmore was granted the supreme honour of getting to carry Jones's cymbal bag to a waiting car. For the first time in his life, probably, Densmore got to play roadie for a few seconds.

"I wrote a piece in the Los Angeles Times," he said, "about how now I'm playing in the same clubs where I first saw Elvin Jones and John Coltrane. I'm sitting on the stool and I can honestly say now I'm a jazz drummer."

Densmore's drums are the first thing you hear on The Doors' first song, Break On Through (To the Other Side), on its 1967 debut album. The song was also the first single.

He lays down a distinctly non-rock 'n' roll beat. It's a Latin rhythm snatched from the then-current radio hit, The Girl from Ipanema.

"I definitely incorporated bossa nova into that song," he said. "Girl from Ipanema and Antonio Carlos Jobim and all that stuff was coming up from Brazil when we were in the garage in Venice (California)."

The other influences, the Elvin Jones effects, for instance, seeped into a lot of what he did in the years to come. "It was more subliminal than conscious, but I know I was affected by everything I heard."

Drumming in any context, he said, is a matter of feel. Take The Beatles' Ringo Starr, another key influence.

"People don't give him credit," Densmore said. "Technique isn't everything, thank God, because there are many faster drummers. But if you're musical and you have the feel, that's the backbone of the whole thing."

In the last few years, California's Rhino Records has been reissuing the entire Doors catalogue under the supervision of Doors Music Company. New releases of live dates in Pittsburgh and Detroit have also found the light of day nearly four decades after they were recorded.

Densmore himself sometimes muses on the band's continued popularity, even 37 years after lead singer Jim Morrison's death. "Maybe it's because of the drumming," he said with a laugh.

"I thought maybe we'd be an influence for 10 years, and here we are in 2008. Forty years and still going."

One thing Densmore won't relinquish is control over The Doors' catalogue. It has created friction between him and the two other surviving members, Robby Krieger and Ray Manzarek.

Densmore used his veto power to turn down an offer of several million dollars from General Motors to use the Doors' signature song, Light My Fire, in a television commercial. "They wanted it for a campaign called, C'mon Buick, light my fire. But it made me think, wow, Jim really cared about the whole catalogue, the body of songs.

"I'm not going to forget that. He's not with us, so I'm trying to honour him."

Tribaljazz does make a token nod to The Doors, said Densmore.

"It's disguised as a salsa and nobody sings the lyrics. So I make the audience guess what it is."

Hint: It's about the weather.


John Densmore's Tribaljazz performs at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Carrousel By The River at the Riverfront Festival Plaza. Also on Sunday are Motown's The Contours (5 p.m.).

Carrousel By The River opens Friday at 4 p.m. and includes Irish vocal group McCabe's Ladies (7 p.m.) and Italian-Canadian singer Alfie Zappacosta (9 p.m.).

Saturday's lineup is a Latin fusion fest featuring Detroit-based Cuban big band Tumbao Bravo (7 p.m.), and legendary saxophonist Gato Barbieri (9 p.m.).

Numerous local and regional acts fill out the weekend. Nightly tickets are $5, or $10 for the weekend, at the Multicultural Council of Windsor and Essex County, 245 Janette Ave., 519-255-1127, or at TD Canada Trust banks. For details, go to www.themcc.com, the Multicultural Council's website.