Since 1991, British trombonist, Dennis "Badbone" Rollins, has made a jazz noise in saxophonist Courtney Pine's challenging band. And, he's done the super bad soul thing with funk fusionaires like Brand New Heavies, US3 and Jamiroquai. Now he's exploring his own groove, gathering together a band of jazz-funk pranksters called Badbone & Co. They've just released an eponymously titled debut disc that's doing surprising things on the British charts: hitting No. 3 on the JazzWise poll and No 4 on Aire. JazzReview caught up with Rollins for an Atlantic crossing conversation on his States storming plans and that elusive question: What is jazz?
JazzReview.com: The trombone isn't generally considered the sexiest of instruments. What inspired you take on the big horn?
Dennis Rollins: "You know, it wasn't totally by choice. I got an old trombone handed down to me from my older brother who is also a musician and a trombonist. I was lucky to be trained well at a young age in England and attended the Duncaster Jazz Association. It's a kind of jazz institute comprised of three educational bands. It's very selective. Though I didn't have an audition per se, I had my brother already there so that gave me a leg up. It was great in that it provided a learning curve for young musicians with promise."
JazzReview.com: Is that where you got the nickname "Badbone"?
Dennis Rollins: "No, that was Courtney (Pine) who first called me that, and it stuck."
JazzReview.com: What got you into jazz and funk in the first place?
Dennis Rollins: "Well, I grew up on funk. It's what I listened to in my youth early James Brown, and then diverging into Sly and the Family Stone. I got into jazz when I was 15 or 16. My earliest experience with it was through learning Big Band in various stages. So, all of what I play is a combination of what I've been listening to my entire life. But, it was that Fred Wesley thing that attracted me from the first."
JazzReview.com: You definitely hear Wesley in your playing, but also I think J. J. Johnson.
Dennis Rollins: "Absolutely, J. J. was one of my biggest influences, especially his work with Kai Winding. But, there are many modern players as well people like Steve Turre, Robin Eubanks, and Frank Rosolino as well. Gosh, so many. Vic Dickerson was someone whose playing I love."
JazzReview.com: Are there particular recordings?
Dennis Rollins: "I've got a lot of compilations and such. "Blue Trombone" is one in particular I remember. It's got this incredible band Max Roach, Paul Chambers and Tommy Flanagan. Wonderful stuff!"
JazzReview.com: Reggae's an influence for you as well? You cover Bob Marley's "I Say (It's Alright)" on the new disc.
Dennis Rollins: "Definitely! My parents are from Jamaica so I wanted that element as well. There's the Marley tune, but also "Mellow Fellow" which has got a Caribbean lilt to it. There's even a bit of Weather Report in there for the fusion thing. Most of all, I wanted not to be pigeonholed or painted into one particular corner with my music. There are just so many angles to what is called jazz. I wanted to put as many as I could into my music. It's all part of my roots and I'm trying to incorporate as many flavors as I can."
JazzReview.com: The first I'd heard of you was with Courtney Pine on his "To The Eyes of Creation" disc. You both have similar thoughts about ignoring the perceived boundaries put up around jazz.
Dennis Rollins: "Yes. That first recording I made with him was "Eastern Standard Time." I still play with him and thankfully, he's been very supportive of Badbone & Co. I play with the band when I'm not touring with Courtney. It's a balancing act, but luckily any clashes in scheduling have worked out.
As far as the music goes and our ignoring of boundaries, much of that is informed by living here in England. It's so diverse here. There are many divergent strains of music that reflect life here so many people and various cultures. For me, I wanted my music to reflect that and what's happening in the here and now. There are so many fusions here that you don't have to work very hard to incorporate them."
JazzReview.com: Any that in particularly strike you, that maybe you'd like to fuse with your sound?
Dennis Rollins: "There's a very big Indian culture here and I'd love to explore elements of that. When you actually analyze Indian music with jazz, it hasn't really been explored much. And, of course, young people like the rock beats with jazz. So, I try to take all of this and then take what feels good without losing myself in the process.
With me, the strongest element has always been funk. I like the idea of a full-on '70's funk revival. That's the angle that I'm coming at. Yet, I don't want to just be about playing '70's funk. I want it to be updated and modern to reflect the world and myself now."
JazzReview.com: Was it tough making the transition from sideman to leader?
Dennis Rollins: "Well, I got much of that out in my first band, DeRoe. I looked at DeRoe very much as a musicians' band, a fusion band from a Headhunters approach. With Badbone & Co, I explore the angle of communication more. Badbone & Co has that sound I was looking for. This whole decade has really been a learning process for me learning how to write songs from verse to chorus, learning how to complete and blend sounds, how to write a tune that says something and still reflects my own voice."
JazzReview.com: In addition to writing, arranging and leading, you also handle the production chores. In America, that's what we call a hat trick.
Dennis Rollins: "Well, it is very difficult to wear all those hats. Yet, no matter how difficult it was, it was a necessary process in order for me to achieve what I wanted to achieve. Learning about recording levels, how reverbs work, the whole production process, it's an art unto itself really. I learned so much this first time out. The good thing is after one album, I've already got ideas about what I want to do on the next."
JazzReview.com: The band's gotten quite a reputation for its live shows.
Dennis Rollins: "I like the idea of the live gig exploring that idea of marrying structure and looseness organically. As long as there's some structure we're holding to and we're not just jamming, you know. I wanted the disc to capture some of that excitement, but there's nothing like the live interplay between the band and the audience. I never liked playing "at" the audience, but rather "with" it. It's about them, you know, just as much as it's about what we're doing. They've come out to be entertained, to hear quality musicianship, but to be entertained as well. If they can go away being exhilarated, I feel we've done a good job."
JazzReview.com: Do you foresee yourself branching more into a traditional jazz framework from the funk end at some point or is it just "your" music?
Dennis Rollins: "You know, it's interesting. I've had comments like 'No, that's not jazz it's funk,' then I get the opposite as well: 'That's not funk, it's jazz.' To me, that means I'm doing something right because people can hear in my music whatever they want to hear. It's about marrying the two. So, I don't mind the labels. I pretty much ignore them and just make the music that's saying something to me the music I hear. It's about making music I can be happy with."
JazzReview.com: What are your Stateside plans?
Dennis Rollins: "I spent a lot of time in the States with the Brand New Heavies. We toured for four or five months total throughout your country with the Smoking Groove tour that included Erykah Badu and George Clinton. So, I got a good sense of things there. It's a big dream of mine to bring Badbone & Co and enjoy the whole experience. It's something I'm looking forward to."
JazzReview.com: Your music would fit with the current funk fusion revival going on here with bands like Medeski, Martin and Wood, Zony Mash and Sex Mob. There's a good groundswell of a more youthful fan base for jazz.
Dennis Rollins: "I've been lucky here to be accepted by the younger scene, most which don't listen to jazz or maybe had never been to a traditional 'jazz' show. Yet they come to Badbone & Co gigs and say, 'This is great. I didn't think I liked jazz.' That's a great reaction to get. I've introduced them to jazz to a degree. So, I'm really pleased with how the young people in England have accepted my music. Realistically, it shouldn't be difficult to reach them with this music. But, with all the obstacles these days and the extremely manufactured music they're fed, it's not surprising that it's such a challenge. Yet I believe everybody eventually looks for that organic quality - that 'realness,' if you like. It's about good musicians standing on stage making it happen, as opposed to using backing tapes and studio gimmicks. You've got to have realness in terms of raw energy for younger people to latch onto it. That's what they're relating to with Badbone & Co. They don't want anything overly tame, yet at the same time they know what's real."
JazzReview.com: What are your plans for the rest of the year?
Dennis Rollins: "At the moment, we have a couple of British tours scheduled for November and December. There are some festival dates and European dates. I'm particularly excited about the Cork Jazz Festival in Ireland. It's a great festival with a lot of good acts, yet I'm looking forward to it because there isn't this element of jazz, the funk element that Badbone & Co explores. Then, of course, there's the States sometime in the future. It's being worked on."