by Mark S. Tucker
A Baby Boomer tossed into the world in 1953, Mark Nauseef's career in music – like legion unsung musicians – is actually a long and colorful one if you check the archives. His is a surprisingly varied career for a man currently ensconced in what one critic has called "world chamber music."
Nauseef comes from a New York Lebanese family whose patriarch boasted a cadre of five brothers, all of whom were percussionists. Had Nauseef entertained thoughts of study, say, a career in car mechanics, he was to be swayed by history and genetics. The adults surrounding him were quite well known as whirlwind players on their native instruments (dumbek, darbouka, etc.), and took every chance that came their way to play. Exposed to such an invigorating milieu, the young boy's mind was conditioned to a life in art.
It didn't take long for the infection to spread from heart and mind to hands, so, like many, he jumped into garage bands via rhythm and blues. Unlike most, however, Nauseef was engaged, sincere, and inquisitive. Cognizant of the true task of the percussionist – beyond bad jams with struggling starry-eyed youths banging away in suburban garages, playing dance gigs to troll for chicks – he got the fever and undertook studies with the likes of Horacee Arnold (who issued two excellent but largely unknown LPs on Columbia featuring Ralph Towner, Jan Hammer, John Abercrombie, and others), Sue Evans (one of Gil Evans' many percussionists), and Warren Smith (a session player for everyone from Miles to Janis). On the side – teachers proving insufficient to sate his thirsty ears and busy hands – Nauseef read theory books and took to keyboard instruments, using whatever was at hand in tandem with extensive studies.
It all paid off in 1972. At 18, Nauseef was chosen to tour with one of rock's seminal bands: the Velvet Underground. By that time, he'd fortuitously ingested the likes of Elvin Jones, Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker, and the top skins-pounders of the day.
Unfortunately, the alliance wasn't exactly what one might expect: shorn of Reed, Nico, Cale, and, basically, the entirety of VU's talent, the band was really just a way for multi-instrumentalist Doug Yule to keep a small paycheck coming in. He'd been touring for a couple years, desperately picking up whomever was available and playing whatever was offered.
Documentary evidence of the gigs from this time show that the concept was going fairly miserably before Yule got to Nauseef. Thus, Yule hipped up for a second and pulled in several other competent players, forming another of the Velvs' many incarnations. Not only was its genesis a bit rocky, the very climate the ensemble toured in was bleak – cold, stormy, snowy, sodden – but this only seemed to push a gritty muscularity out of the musicians, resulting in the best recitations the band's faltering repertoire could muster at the time; a recently released four-disc box set of rescued recordings makes convincing testimony.
When V-Yule finally collapsed ingloriously, Nauseef, in '74, tucked into the southern U.S. rock outfit Elf, with whom Ronnie James Dio was cutting his milk-teeth. These Rebs provided a riotous atmosphere in which to flex musical muscles, party in the psychedelic scene, and get a firmer foothold within the industry. Nauseef appeared only on their swan song, Trying to Burn the Sun, an LP that didn't go over tremendously well with the public but has since become something of a cult item (as has the rest of the group's short and highly uneven catalogue). But if the band was ignored, Nauseef was noticed.
Elf had been one of Ritchie Blackmore's (Deep Purple) hobbies and, when the Scowling One split rancorously with Deep Purple (chiefly over their refusal to cover, of all things, a Quatermass song), he reconstituted the band as Rainbow, a precursor to Dio's later engulfing fame.
Nauseef played with Rainbow in its infancy, but never appeared on LP. However, as you can imagine, when one rubs shoulders with a Purploid, job prospects suddenly spring up. Jon Lord liked what he heard, and invited Nauseef to ply a wide selection of percussion instruments on his Sarabande LP. It wasn't one of the keyboardist's best by any stretch – few of his out-of-the-nest tries ever shined – but for Nauseef, it was a reputable if brief slot under a well-known and revered rocker.
He also got to team up with a low-level prog guitarist who'd later hide his roots and cash in on the punk craze: Andy Summers (much later, he'd "rediscover" that early affinity and team up with Robert Fripp while issuing interesting solo fusion recordings that fizzled in the market; hence his present entombment in anonymity). Pete York, an old saw on the British scene – well-respected amongst fellow musicians if not the public – was his tag-team partner.
Ian Gillan, Jon Lord's mate from the old stomping grounds, had also paid attention, and grabbed the drummer as soon as Lord was done with him. That was Gillan's Purple side-project, the Ian Gillan Band. Nauseef helped found it and remained for several years, aiding the vocalist in the crucial, nascent period of an effort that, while far from his glories in Deep Purple, was sufficiently popular as to produce a string of substantive releases (which too often suffered from poor choices in guitar players, like Ray Fenwick). In many ways, Gillan's new playground was a low-rent Deep Purple, which was no fault of Nauseef, who contributed impressive performances.
Gillan hadn't been the only cat appreciative of the drummer's talents: Phil Lynott had been eyeing him, and when he was at loggerheads with fledgling skins tryout Terry Bozzio, who wasn't fitting in with the hard living, heavy drinking and drug-guzzling in Thin Lizzy, Nauseef was nabbed. He served admirably, but the Irish bassist's gig was a group grossly out of control; making them his new career wasn't the most advisable gamble Nauseef could have taken. He split.
If you played with Thin Lizzy, Gary Moore was going to find out. When he discovered Nauseef, Moore then dragooned him into G-Force, in 1980, a group Moore hoped would expand the success of his solo LP Back on the Streets. If only things went so smoothly.
While it was a complementary move for Nauseef, reputation-wise, the band was destined for a one-off, with only minor touring. The band started out with Tony Newton on vocals, but switched to Willy Dafern (then Willy Dee), a suicidal move, as Dafern had fronted the weak Truk and ruined the stunning Captain Beyond in their sinew-less drowning last effort Dawn Explosion. Seeing the horizon from this sinking ship, Moore leapt into another abomination: Greg Lake's 1981 solo band, a shuddering example of good talent gone bad if ever there was one. Moore later regained his senses and settled into a vigorous solo career. Nauseef, likewise, headed for greener pastures.
Though long-vanished from Lizzy, he was yet friendly with the increasingly fragmented and heroin-soaked Lynott, who asked him to help out with solo LPs. Mark was only too happy to comply. This placed him on the 1980 and 1983 slabs, but with all the standard rock 'n' roll tomfoolery, he was gravitating away from the form, returning to childhood influences.
Nauseef started turning out unusual fusion/world/jazz CDs that explored and emphasized percussive instruments more fully, releasing his first solo album Sura in 1983. The disc came from an L.A. meeting with Joachim Kuhn, a jazz pianist and improv artist who'd surfaced briefly in rock circles when Jan Akkerman (Focus) guested on one of his albums. Nauseef worked with Kuhn in improvisatory musics and the ivory tickler suggested he consider stopping the for-hire wage-slave routine and start coming up with his own material. Sura, appropriately, featured musicians from India and Indonesia, two cultures whose musics were rooted in percussion. Settled in Hamburg, Germany, the drummer also came across Trilok Gurtu (Barre Phillips, Oregon) and Glen Velez (Paul Winter), both of whom imparted valuable lessons.
1984 saw Nauseef release Wun Wun (titled after his lighthearted "1/1" theory: one beat always follows the other). That year, he was endowed with a scholarship to the prestigious California Institute of the Arts, remaining for a little over two years, studying a wide range of classical ethnic musics, as well as the techniques of modern radicals like Cage, Varese, Lukas Foss, and Zappa. Ever the eclectic, taking tabla lessons from Carnatic masters, Nauseef was also sitting in with soul diva Thelma Houston, thanks to Tony Newton, a bass player who'd been part of the Tony Williams Lifetime, whence John McLaughlin had issued.
The dark arts of improv proved to be just too attractive to Nauseef's deeper aesthetics so he decided to pursue them semi-religiously from that point forward. Nauseef's catalogue now boasts a heavy backlog with Kuhn, Abou-Khalil, Gurtu, MIroslav Tadic, and a recent ECM player, long-time avant-garde pianist Sylvie Courvorsier. On the neoclassical side, he also played with Lou Harrison and, in 1986, formed a temporary improv group, Dark, straying more rock-ily into fusion territories.
Nonetheless, the strobe-lit stage beckoned him from the shores of Lethe, so once again, he took up with old chums in the Ian Gillan Band for What I Did on My Vacation. From this point, he'd continue to bounce back and forth between a strange, heady solo schedule and the gigging that'd pay the bills. In recent years, though, this ceased, as Nauseef took to a Jerry Garcia-ish role, producing in-country albums of Balinesian and Javanese musics, with a special love for gamelan and a particular fascination with the un-tuned synchronicities in expressive peculiarities.
What has most marked Nauseef is his willingness to not only forsake comfortable Western modes, but also to experiment. Like a latter-day Harry Partch, he has an unusual armada that numbers new instruments built by a bunch of guys in Minneapolis calling themselves PureCussion.
The outfit's bizarre but thoughtful inventions have delved more deeply into pristine sonics, pitch and frequency accommodations to unorthodox settings, all allowing Nauseef to fit into both ethno-trad and weird improvisatory settings with a far more kindred resonance, harmonically suited to instruments like the oud. Amongst those, he's added "chime boxes," invented by classical modernist Carl Orff, who'd fashioned the devices for deep rolling waves that could be felt by children with genetic hearing deficiencies, turning tunings into vibrations not often manifested in music.
Just as philosophically-oriented as many of the more rebellious modernists, Nauseef has been recording on the Japanese MA label, run by an American ex-pat. The term "ma" (space) refers to the zen notion that the intervals between everything (thoughts, musical notes, events) are of crucial importance. In this, Nauseef is holistically oriented to high art concepts in the same way Cage, Cunningham, Christo, and others have been. That has extended so far into the ozone that a few of his recordings were made in a Japanese hall where space itself could be tuned through controlling humidity via hydraulics; pretty exotic, even as avant-garde thinking goes.
Such stratospheric ways of producing music won't appeal to many, obviously, and thus Mark Nauseef's name has steadily declined from the limelight. Nonetheless, he's proven himself since 1972, over thirty long years, and deserves a bit more attention than the tinselly rock world normally lends its non-star personnel. In 1993, I talked with him, to obtain an interview for i/e magazine; the publisher disallowed an article to accompany the conversation. The above is now matched to the interview below, to complete the original intent and better orient the reader with an artist who deserved such attention the first time around.
PSF: I've heard very few releases so prevalently pointed towards percussion, yet simultaneously as fully musical as Dark's first release. Was that the intention right from the start, or did it just evolve as things progressed?
Nauseef: The intention is always to make music, but there was no really big idea except that we wanted these people to play together. They had all studied or performed in situations where drums were the leading voice; that's actually how we met. When I went to study in India, Ghana, and Java, these musicians had already been studying there, and so we all met at Leonice Shinneman's house, which was full of percussive instruments. We'd hang out and improvise.
Basically, we were meeting through other cultures and the stuff we were doing came mostly from the garage, playing in the basement, starting groups, trying to get a sound together, and having a lot of fun. I mean, we were also coming from an R&B tradition, so there was a lot of funkiness going on, too. We were just screwing around, y'know? [Laughs]
PSF: I hear you – if you're not having fun, what's the use? But you obviously paid a lot of attention to Carnatic musics, as is strongly evidenced by the interludes in a number of your songs and the recruitment of Indian musicians. Would you agree that progressive musics are missing a lot by not infusing elements of that culture's music into their repertoire?
Nauseef: I don't think any music has missed its calling because it's always just what's coming from the people making it at the time. I will say, though, that I do think some Western music may have missed something when it comes to such things as what the South Indians do with vocalists and vina players, how they play with the notes; you know, this grease they put on them, and it's a grease that stinks.
It makes the note really stink. That's what we need more of over here, the kind of thing that makes your nose-hairs curl up, so that the listeners truly smell the music. The South Indians don't just sing or play the note, they add spice to it, sauce, they give it taste and flavor. It's a lot like real-time processing but with no equipment!
Of course, there are people who are using elements of other musics without knowing it, but they're employing the modes to play certain mathematical things, to make structures. That's a wholly different viewpoint but some pull it off really well. I don't know if Vinnie Coliauta has ever studied Indian music, but the stuff he does is totally South Indian [Laughs]. So, no, I don't think anyone missed much, although a few more mathematical calculations would definitely be a welcome addition to the resolution of the kinds of rhythms we hear on MTV.
PSF: Have you ever considered luring some of the young Carnatic lions, such as Srinivas, into a fusion effort?
Nauseef: I'd consider it, but it's not something I'm really going after, or that's in the front of my mind. Leonice and I did a thing with Trichy Sankara, the incredible mrdingam player. He'd written a piece for – get this – Javanese gamelans with South Indian and Javanese drums. It was wild, he was playing five mrdingams, Leonice played the kanjira, and I was manning Javanese drums. It was a real double-whammy crossover because here were these American guys playing South Indian and Javanese drums with a South Indian drummer who'd written a piece for Javanese gamelan, but...in the end [chuckles], it sounded like Sudanese music!
From the minute fraction of the small crumb of knowledge I have of this music, what I try to do is take the mathematical ideas and put them to use in my playing, trying to sub-divide space and time, playing things to a bigger pulse so that there are wider spaces to work within. I like to steal and use these kinds of things, in my way of thinking about rhythms and time, rather than superimpose styles upon each other.
PSF: A percentage of the Dark material is in the vein of King Crimson's Lark's Tongue in Aspic. Have you been at all influenced by them or was that just a matter of coinciding tastes in composition?
Nauseef: Yeah, I guess I've been influenced by them in that I've liked a lot of what I've heard, but I don't have pictures of them up on the walls or anything. Actually, we, the Snakes – David Torn, Miroslav Tadic, Markus Stockhausen, and I – played a concert recently with Bruford's band. It was nice to meet him; he told me he's a Dark fan.
PSF: I'd like to throw out the names of a few stylistically differentiated drummers and get your reaction to them: Jon Christenson.
Nauseef: Christensen is a great drummer, with that open and real loose European thing, and that light touch of his. Very elegant.
PSF: Jamie Muir.
Nauseef: Ah, Jamie Muir! I just saw some of his paintings and they were amazing, pretty weird stuff.
PSF: Nana Vasconcelos.
Nauseef: Of course I like Nana – he's like something that grew out of the ground, very good.
PSF: Mike Shrieve.
Nauseef: The only thing I've recently heard from Michael Shrieve is what he did on Marty Fogel's record, and I liked that.
PSF: Jack Bruce, one of the all-time great vocalists, has often been chosen for avant-garde, or just unusual, rock musics. You used him on Wun-Wun. How did you and he come to work together?
Nauseef: We met when I played on a television show – a concert – with him in Munich. There was an orchestra, a conductor, and a rhythm section, and Jack was going to play piano and sing three of his tunes, so they asked if I would sit in. I'd never met Jack but was always a big fan. I had a great time, and we became friends, so he asked me to be a part of his Jack Bruce and Friends group. I was working on Wun-Wun while I was traveling with him, so I played him some stuff and mentioned that I'd like to have some vocals on it. What he did was brilliant. We, the Snakes, just did this new record and Jack's on that, too, singing and playing bass. I love working with him; he's great, a special person.
PSF: How is your relationship with CMP and how did you come to be affiliated with them?
Nauseef: That relationship is unique. We've done quite a few things and had a number of experiences together, producing records, some beautiful stuff. With an independent company that has balls like CMP, to try to do what they're actually doing in a business that's highly controlled, where people aren't really given the proper chance to make fair judgments about themselves and their music, that's unusual.
The major labels are the ones controlling these things: space in the shops, airplay, television, and space in journals, but CMP is getting through. Their level of production is very high. To be able to work with Walter Quintus is a very large part of the relationship because he's such a talented guy and a great musician. Often our communication in the studio is totally telepathic.
PSF: Your history's impressive. You've played with Elf, Jon Lord, Rainbow, Phil Lynott, and a host of others. What influenced your decision to head in the direction you now pursue, rather than chasing the eternal dream of a big-time rock group? Care to relate any anecdotes about those days?
Nauseef: I think it has always been one direction. These things are all related to one another and have all led to other things. I don't think anything I did with, say, Elf is unrelated to what I do now. What I've been doing in the last so many years is just in a different kind of network. So, if some big rock star wants me to play with him, I'll play, if it's something I like. As far as "the big time" goes, all these things I was doing, Dark and such, well...I think they should have been Big Time [Laughs].
And there are some real outrageous stories. Elf...those guys are like my brothers. We all grew up together, did tons of gigs, slept ten people to a motel room, the whole deal. Those guys were great. I didn't get from Thin Lizzy what I got from Markus Stockhausen, and what I got from Jack Bruce maybe I don't get from the gamelan, but the reverse is also true. You get a buzz from all situations.
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