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Roger Burn & Shapes

What type of band has the audacity to debut with an album called The Last Farewell?

Answer: A group of mega all-stars, jazz icons, who just happened to get together for some fun; gigging at local spots-then grew into a super-hit group called Shapes.

In fact, this group is what devoted co-producer, Roger Burn, calls "the Swiss Army Knife of bands".

Fans couldn’t get enough of these brilliant performers, so they’re back with their second release, The Big Picture.

More than an album, The Big Picture is a work of art, from the selection of artists, to the compositions included on two discs and down to the finest details of the photographic expose` behind the project.

While many artists on this album are household names among the jazz set, others are possibly not as name recognized, but hold a mighty top spot among performers.

Eager to share his love and enthusiasm for Shapes and The Big Picture, Roger Burn jumped into this interview.

The moment Burn picked up the phone I felt his conviction, his passion and his belief in this project.

JazzReview:I’m glad your new CD is finally hitting the street. This is a very expansive album. I understand drummer, Dave Derge, has been added to the group for this album.

Roger Burn: He’s the new drummer. But, as you might have noticed on the song with Pauline Wilson, Mike Barsimanto, the original drummer, also came back and sat in with us. Mike’s been busy with other projects.

The funny thing is, when I first started this band, I called Dave Derge.

The week I called Dave, he didn’t happen to be available. I’d just bumped into Mike Barsimanto the week before. We hadn’t seen each other in years but, he was fun to play with. So, I asked him if he’d like to get together.

It wasn’t because I was starting a band. It was because I bought a grand piano and I thought it would be fun to get together with some friends and just play.

We all got together-Dean Taba, Andy Suzuki, Mike, Higgins and myself. That was the original genesis of the group. We had so much fun we just decided to get together again. It became a regular Monday session for about a year. After that, I started having Tollack come down and we started doing some gigs. About a year into this everyone said we ought to cut an album.

I said, Okay but if we do this, we’re going to do this all the way.

I’m going to get a real producer, a real studio, a real engineer, plus management, publicist and radio time. There’s no point in doing this unless we go all the way.

So, that’s how it started.

Derge would have been the drummer in the beginning. He just didn’t happen to be available when I called him-- when it was just a jam session and not a band.

Now it’s come full circle. Of course, it’s nice having both of them on the album. (Derge and Barsimanto).

And, of course Roy McCurdy plays on one of the tracks, Naima. I’m really thrilled because I’m just a huge Cannonball Adderly fan.

JazzReview:: Let’s talk a little bit about Tollak Ollestad and his amazing harmonica.

Roger Burn: Yeah, the name would suggest something more exotic than the reality. He was born in Alaska but grew up in Seattle, Washington. He’s American as apple pie.

I have an interesting group of guys. I consider my band the Oakland Raiders of Jazz

I have a Scandinavian- Alaskan harmonica player. Suzuki is Japanese-Finnish. He didn’t grow up in Japan but he speaks fluent Japanese. Taba is from Hawaii but he doesn’t speak Japanese. I’ve got two Japanese guys in my band, neither of who are from Japan and only one who speaks Japanese.

I’ve got Matthew Von Doran who was born in Germany. But he doesn’t speak German.

We have all these different ethnic backgrounds but it turns out we’re all just a bunch of phonies.

It’s an interesting bunch of guys. What solidified it for me was Tollak and I have known each other for a long time. He ‘s also an outstanding piano player and vocalist, as you has heard on the disc. He and I use to sub gigs back and forth as keyboard players.

He played in the group Ambrosia and whenever he couldn’t make it , he’d send me to sub.

We played together on other projects and sometimes we’d audition against each other for projects.

I actually met him on a little wedding gig, maybe 15-16 years ago when I was playing drums and he was playing keyboards. So most people don’t know I play drums and don’t know he plays keyboard.

We’re just a bunch of confusing guys.

JazzReview: That’s what makes it work so well.

Roger Burn: Hence the name of the group: Shapes. That’s kind of my idea of being able to shape shift, if you will. We’re not just a be-bop group. We’re not just a Brazilian group and we’re certainly not just a smooth jazz group.

There’s one lady in LA who swears we’re a smooth jazz group so she won’t book us

Never-mind that we were the feature band at the International Association of Jazz Education, in New York. Never-mind that one of my compositions from the first album is being taught at the college as the Genius of Bill Evans and jazz pianists one of my songs. If I were a smooth jazz pianist, why would he do that?

It gets to the point you realize you can’t help how people are going to perceive your work. If they like it fine. If they don’t well, ok. I’m not going to slit my wrist over it.

So, Shapes started as a quintet. Then, I added Tollak. This was a wonderful group but I needed something to offset it. Tollak is the perfect person for that. Yet, I had to convince him to play in the band. He was afraid he wasn’t good enough!

Imagine, this guy is currently on the new Al Jarreau CD, Accentuate the Positive. He’s on the track Midnight Sun. He’s on the current Earth Wind and Fire album, he’s on the current Natalie Cole CD, He’s the guy who played the theme song for Northern Exposure, the television show. Even funnier is that set is in Alaska, where he was born.

Tollak is one of the most outstanding harmonica players in the world. He’s the only one I know who can convincingly play the blues harp. He has his own unique sound though the Stevie Wonder influence is there.

And, I had to convince him to play in this band because he didn’t think he was good enough! (chuckle)

I told him to take 5% of my ego. I said, "I can spare it and you need it".

That’s what I’d like you to know about all the people in my band. They’re all just very nice people and all are just very humble.

I’ve got Larry Steen on several tracks. (Steen plays acoustic bass.)

And Dean Taba, when he was available, played on other things. Matthew Von Doran has his own group. I used him on certain days because either mike Higgins wasn’t available or I was looking for just a certain sound. Of course, we have some guest artists. But, the idea is that Shapes is: the group takes on different shapes, different sounds and moods.

The irony is, and I mean this completely and sincerely, the harmonica has become somewhat of the focal point. I’m so happy people are recognizing Tollak’s talent.

We’ve grown and just kind of expanded out with the band. I really want people to see the talent on this album.

If people recognize me as the puppet-master behind the group, that’s fine. But, I don’t need the recognition. I have a great group of guys and I would like the world to see them.

It’s not important to me to note I’m co-producing this thing with Jimmy (Haslip). That’s not an issue at this point.

I want Jimmy to get the credit because he’s been a huge factor in this project.

The spirit he brings to it, the doors he’s able to open for me, the people he’s been able to pick up the phone and call immediately, that I might not have been able to contact

Jimmy is the guy who had the idea of starting the first track with the harmonica intro. I never would have thought of that. And all of a sudden, trains are coming.

That’s brilliant. Why didn’t I think of that? Because Jimmy’s the guy with Grammy awards and I’m not the producer, dummy (referring to himself)

It was Jimmy’s idea to use pedal steel guitar on Naimia.

JazzReview: What is a pedal steel guitar?

Roger Burn: The pedal steel guitar is normally associated with country western music. It’s a guitar that sits on the lap and is but you manipulate the tone and the pitch with a series of pedals. If you look within the CD in the booklet, you’ll se some pictures of the steel guitar with Doug Livingston. In fact he played the first album In fact, he played on the title track of The Last Farewelll.

By the way, that’s Tollak’s arrangement-pedal steel guitar is his concept of the song.

I loved that. I want radio to play our be-bop but I also want them to know these guys can play a melody. Hey, what a nice idea.

That’s another thing I like to do; I like to use a thread, like Steely Dan, when Victor Feldman, when he was alive-they always used him. In fact, Victor Feldman is the only guy other than Donald and Walter who played on every Steely Dan album, up through Gaucho.

Playing the tambourine--You always saw Victor Feldman’s name on every album. I’m a huge fan of their music and I studied with Victor for six years. I always dedicate a song to him. In fact, the last Shapes record, The Last Farewell, was actually dedicated to Victor. He meant the world to me. He’s very large in my mind and in my music.

We decided to use the pedal steel because it filled a sonic space so we don’t have to use the obligatory synth pad. I like the idea Shapes is an acoustically based group. Yes, with Russ Ferrante, there are a couple songs where he used some nice little warm string pads but, other than that, there are no synthesizers on this record.

It’s all acoustic.

Oh, I take that back. Jimmy has a subtle little melody part where he plays and dubs alto flute On Love For Sale But that makes it 2 1/16 parts-it’s just a hint for the ambiance-- synth. It’s 98% acoustic.

Some people say, "Oh, you’re a fusion band". And, I say, well, --most people wouldn’t know this. But the word fusion first appeared in print in a was something about Louis Armstrong.. It was something about the Hot House Five. And it first appeared in the 1920s. So the word fusion means fusing different elements together. In that sense I guess it is a fusion group. But I tend to shy away from that term because to some people it tends to suggest really loud electric stuff, which is all well and good. But, it’s not what Shapes is about.

I have a lot of respect for Chick Corea and his band. But, we’re nothing like that.

Fusion-to most people, I think is kind of dangerous cause it goes in a different direction.

JazzReview: I think jazz is hard to categorize, anyway. I read someplace, and I think it was you who said it-something about attributing jazz to those who are already dead.

Roger Burn: Well, yeah. For me, for instance, I love Dexter Gordon, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderly, Phil Woods, Miles, of course; I worship Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Art Pepper. I love all those guys. And, I owe everything I am to them, but, at what point does the jazz community wake up and realize if it’s going to survive, it’s going to have to start embracing newer music?

I’m not in any way, shape or form comparing myself to any of the giants of jazz. I’m trying to do something different and still remain connected to the roots of the music.

Why is it so hard for some people to say, "Oh, harmonica?" Or, "Oh an electric guitar?" Can’t it just be good music?

We put the project together the way we did-you’ll notice the first eight songs on the first CD, I call them the non-ding-a-ding-ding songs. So, if you’re not a hardcore jazz person, listen to these songs. They’re more groove oriented-- more about the song and the melody rather than about the 36 courses this other sax player is playing over, I Got Rhythm.

Yet, there are still songs like Lobster and Eat The Heat. Those songs are very harmonically complex and rhythmically diverse and there are plenty of solos. But there’s mostly nice, groovy stuff.

Now, if you are more the mainstream jazz person and you don’t like that first CD, that’s okay. I won’t lose any sleep. Check out the mainstream one.

Yet, I’m sure some people will hear that first song on that first disc, Arc of Twilight, and say, "Nah I don’t like that Shapes group. I don’t like that stuff.

That goes back to the guys who passed away. I’d say jazz radio plays about 75% of guys who passed away. How are you going to keep the music alive if you never embrace the guys who are coming up? I could see if my CDs were holistically bad and the production was crappy, and the songs were cruddy. I’d say sure slam me .

But, at the risk of tooting my own horn, my music is very good.

JazzReview: Yes, it is.

Roger Burn: I’m very encouraged by the response we’re getting, even to this new record. Now the reviews are coming in and I think after four and a half, almost 5 years of me busting my hump I just feel sometimes that jazz, as a whole, is stuck in 1955.

I love Clifford Brown. But, I believe if Wynton Marsalis and I were asked who knows more abut jazz, I could give him a run for his money.

I’m not going to let this music be stagnant. And you know what? Duke Ellington wouldn’t have let that happen, either.

Again, I’m not comparing myself to Ellington. He’s a god and I’m the thing you find on the bottom of your shoe at the men’s room. (chuckle)

I’d like to think that jazz is finally realizing it needs to be more inclusive. It’s not about these balkanizations of how come it can’t be the whole nine yards?

How come it can’t just be good music?

Jazz is a big house and there’s plenty of room for whether its avante garde or mainstream or whatever.

Obviously, Peter Erskine understands it’s about whatever is good. Basically, there are two types of music-good and bad.

I’ve got the fire in my belly. I believe in Shapes. This is only the beginning. My manager shutters when I tell him I already have an idea for the next album.

He tells me, " You idiot. Will you first promote this one?"

I have a great manager. His job is to keep me in check. Fortunately he really does know the industry. He’s not just a friend who’s a fan. He did ten years in the jazz marketing industry. He has a degree in business. I have a guy who really knows the business end. I’m really lucky to have the right guy managing my career.

I wish jazz musicians would realize, ‘oh, you’ve released a CD? Now the work really begins!"

You can’t just make a CD and sit back and wait for people to come look for it. You have to get out there and promote it.

There are unique people like Thelonious Monk. But most of us aren’t like that. Fortunately I had parents who raised me to be pragmatic. They gave me a good foundation in terms of being organized. And yet on paper, I’ve spent how much money on this project?

Somebody at the IAJE convention said, " Boy, it’s really expensive to play jazz."

Jimmy Haslip has brought in some wonderful people from Japan for a project. And now, it looks like we’re going to be able to go to Japan for a couple of weeks.

The goal is, it’s going to happen sometime this year, probably sometime after the summer. And, I plan on getting Jimmy and Russ to do it with us. It’s a name game, you know. "We’d love to hear your band but do you have anybody famous with you?"

That’s another thing I like to do with Shapes. While it’s a core band, I do like to bring in guests, sometimes. If there’s any doubt this band can swing, listen to Softly As In A Morning Sunrise with Mike Fahn, New York valve trombone ace

JazzReview: Yes, you have three trombone players on this album.

Roger Burn: This is a funny story: Originally, Mike Fahn is the only one that I have in mind. He likes to play in a big band with my buddy Matt Catingub, who is the alto sax player on I Didn’t Know What Time It Was. He’s unbelievably talented. He played in big bands with his mother, Mavis Rivers. I don’t know if you remember her? She was the first female vocalist signed to Frank Sinatra’s reprieve vocal back in 1961. I met Nick Lane through Matt. And I met Steve Baxter, the other trombone player, through Matt.

I also met Mike Fahn through Matt Catingub.

As some of the arrangements began to evolve in the studio, Jimmy said, "Yeah man, on Eat The Heat, you need to try out that trombone player. That song was supposedly going to be an up-tempo, beat tune. I’d written the song 15 years ago but, I just never felt it. It just never worked for me. So, the night before we recorded it, I rearranged the whole thing. I mean I kept the basic form but I changed the style a tightened a few things up.

The rhythm section came back that day, Dean Derge, Larry Steen, Russ and myself. They said, like-what? They had an hour to rehearse it. Then, record it for posterity. And, I said, "wait a minute. That’s how guys use to make records."

So I said, "okay guys. Put up or shut up".

That’s another thing I love about my band: If someone was to say something silly about that’s a fusion band; 98% of what you’re hearing is live.

JazzReview:: I think that adds electricity to a performance.

Roger Burn: Oh, absolutely. I really worked hard to find the right studio and the right engineer. And we rehearse-a lot. That’s another thing about Shapes. There are very few bands in jazz right now. There are individuals and solos. But bands are few and far between.

We’ve got the core group. But then we’ve got the trombone section. I had just enough time to write an arrangement over and I didn’t have time to write out individual parts. But I wanted it to be four guys playing it as a section. We had the technology so I decided to just have one guy do all the parts so on that tune, Nick Lane overdubbed four individual trombone parts. The section part is one guy and the trombone solo is Mike Fahn. So that was over dubbed.

It really turned out great. And I went, "thanks Jimmy." You know, I never would have thought of that.

JazzReview: Please, tell me what you mean when you say overdubbed.

Roger Burn: Well, basically, you record the rhythm section live. You know; piano, bass, drums & vibes. We recorded all that live. Now I want to do this horn section. I’m going to bring in this trombone player. He’s going to record over top of the existing music. It’s also easier to do with individual parts because you can put them under the microscope, and make sure everything’s in perfect tune and you get perfect rhythms. And if you make a mistake, you can correct it.

Cutting solos live, for the most part, that’s what we do. But if I think there’s a part I could have played better, I’ll go back and fix it. I don’t call that cheating. I’m touching up my performance e a little bit.

Now, if I’m correcting every single note and fixing it in the computer because I wasn’t good enough to play it, then that’s something entirely different.

There’s a lot of hypocrisy when it comes to that sort of thing.

Some guys don’t do it because they didn’t record in a format that allows for it or they simply didn’t have the budget for the

Most guys have the feelings, "man I wish I’d done this or I wish I’d done that." I’m not going to have those feelings. I’m determined to get it right. I’m going to know I gave everything I could.

The only thing I did compromise was the ballad with Pauline. I was going to use a real string section. But if I’d done that it would have cost at least $5,000 more.

But, this is the level of commitment that I have.

We specifically had Russ record each string part individually

Still, I said, it still isn’t quite there yet. It still sounds a little synthetic to me in that sampled strings instead of real strings. So I said to my sax player, Andy Suzuki, who I usually have do all these reed arrangements, I said, "I want you to do a reed arrangement using flutes, alto flutes and clarinet and bass clarinet. Again, I could have done that but, I wanted to get his perspective. Plus one of the things I try to do with my guys is to thank them for all the free rehearsals and all the low paying gigs

JazzReview: The more the guys participate in the creation of the work, the more

Roger Burn: The more it’s a real band, yeah.

JazzReview: I believe when people participate in the creation of a work, they invest a different part of themselves.

Roger Burn: Well, absolutely. What it says to the guys in the band is that I want everybody’s input.

For instance, Dean Taba. Each time we get ready to record, he’ll ask if I mind if he looks over the arrangements. And invariably he’ll find something right something. Basically, it’s what I wrote. But he’ll change the bass line. The bass lines are altered by Dean’s playing and invariably they are better.

Then, Derge will come up with a concept, like on the song, Lobster. I could not for the life o me figure out, what is the tempo? 4/4? 5/4? Well we figured the math out and it’s 4/4/, 5/4/, 4/4-4/4/, 9/16, 6/8--pretty nutty in musical terms, the eight note remains constant for the math part of it. But I was playing at the piano I just couldn’t divide my brain up to figure out the math. So I said, Dave, you come over, play drums and figure out the groove with me and I’ll split the writer’s fee.

Again I took my cue from the Yellowjackets. To me, Russ and Jimmy are the epitome of the collaborative experience. They’re the epitome of the modern jazz group. Russ Ferrante’s compositional skills, I am in awe of. And Jimmy, well.. And, both those guys-have you met either one of them?

JazzReview: I did an interview with Jimmy last year

Roger Burn: Oh, you know from talking to jimmy. He’s a nice guy.

JazzReview: He’s wired. He’s energetic. He’s out there. He’s live.

Roger Burn: If you meet him in person, --or Russ, you’re going to say to yourself, "Come on. Nobody’s that nice". They’re the nicest, most generous, most thoughtful guys people you will ever meet in your life. I love those guys. They’re my heroes. So what they do when they write a song together, even if like 90% is Russ’ tune, they split everything 50/50.

"I won’t give you the personals cause that wouldn’t be right. But this is the exchange Ring.-- "Robben? This is Jimmy Haslip. I got this thing-and, Roger’s doing a project. We’re wondering if you could play on a couple of tracks yada, yada, yada! He has this (x) amount to pay." I’m telling you, Jimmy is fantastic.

And, Robben says, "hmmm, seems a little high. " And, he quotes a figure for $200 less!

That’s how nice this guy is. He doesn’t even know me and he’s trying to talk me down in price.

I just looked at Jimmy and said, "Are you guys aliens?" Nobody’s this nice!

I’m telling you, if there is a jazz hall of fame, those guys from the Yellowjackets need to be in it. This interview could just as well be about the Yellowjackets. That’s how big a fan I am of theirs

So jimmy is the one who made the suggestion about Robben Ford. He’s the one who made the suggestion about the trombone section. And he’s the one who made the suggestion about the pedal steel. Those are three great things that are unique about this record.

JazzReview:: And, you know what else you haven’t mentioned? You’re being modest. What about YOU? You’ve played with Lionel Richie and Brian Setzer orchestra. You do vibes. Lots of folks think of Lawrence Welk when thinking about vibes. But this is definitely NOT a Lawrence Welk project.

Roger Burn: I started out as a drummer. I was percussion major at Cal State, North Ridge. And, I got so busy working I never seemed to make it back to college. I got to study with some excellent teachers. Among them was a fabulous drum teacher, Freddie Gruber. Freddie is like a who’s who of drummers

He was a protégé of Buddy Rich. He basically figured out the mechanics of what Buddy did.

Until 1990, I made a living freelancing as a drummer. But, I always played vibes. And vibes is always a close second to piano which I did more for composition. Around 1989-90 I decided I want to make a switch. I decided to become a full time keyboard player.

Part of it was, I woke up one day and realized, wow, I don’t think I’ve done a drum gig in a year. I think I’d better get back to it. It just happened I got more calls to be a keyboardist, rather than a drummer. I still play drums occasionally when I’m teaching or at recording sessions. But, I don’t enjoy lugging drums all over town

The joke is, you get to play a keyboard and you’re lugging a keyboard all over the place.

Then there’s Tollak with his little box of harmonicas and I could just slap him. (chuckle)

So I switched instruments. Around 1992 I started working with Vanessa Williams. I did the Grammy Awards with her when she did Save The Best for Last. The musical director for that was a friend who later hired me for the Lionel Richie gig.

In between, I worked for Brian Setzer for a couple years, including one album that went gold called The Songs of West Side Story. Then we did another that went platinum and won two Grammies. That was the Jump, Jive and Wail record.

I have to say I love working with Brian. Of all the people I’ve worked with as a side band, I had the most fun working with Brian. He’s not a jazz player per-se. But, he’s got a swing style

I learned a lot from him-how he handled himself on stage and how he presented himself. He ‘s the consummate showman How I handle the business and what I do with Shapes has to do with experience I got working with Brian. And, Lionel and others.

It was just a wonderful great experience. He had me bring my vibes on the road It was great. But after two years, the Lionel gig came up and it payed like mega---you know.

Lionel was major because the drummer, when I first came on, was Ricky Lawson, the drummer from the Yellowjackets. Later was Omar Hakim, who worked with people like Sting and Weather Report.

Lionel’s band had some amazing musicians. It was a lot of fun and paid very well. Then the budgets got tighter. He went from two keyboard players to one keyboard player.

From there I did some work with other people--kind of an eclectic career. Everybody from Ann Margaret to Weird Al Yankovich.

I work these days as keyboardist, arranger, composer and I do a fair amount of work for a company called Megtrax, who records a lot of my work for inclusion in television commercials. And things like that.

JazzReview: Oh, really? That’s Megatrax?

Roger Burn: Yes. Megatrax-- Kind of freelancing around LA but spending more and more time trying to make Shapes a known band. I want us to be the new Yellowjackets.

And I tell Jimmy that. I said, " You guys are my model". I could think of nothing better than being so busy and being all over the world. I would love to do that.

I think what’s going to happen is, people are going to hear this record and say, "okay these guys have evolved". You can see we have evolved in terms of the arrangements. Even the production and the 18-page color booklet included.

My manager cut it down from 24 pages. (I go, okay no more coffee for me)

So we’re evolving and I’d like to think this record is going to put us on the map enough to garner out of town bookings.

I’m really trying to make a statement: We’re not going away. Shapesis the Swiss Army Knife of bands.

As a parent is loving, nurturing and expanding with the growth of a newborn, so Roger Burn is caring, protective and pouring himself into the awesome group, Shapes.

Co-producer Burn is sure enough of this album to open with a great harmonica solo; confident enough to give credit to the all-star line up of musicians on this team; investing all of himself to tell the world "We Have Arrived!"

Shapes is just beginning and The Big Picture may be the roadmap.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Roger Burn & Shapes
  • Interview Date: 3/1/2005
  • Subtitle: The Big Picture
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