By Request – A.J. Croce speaks with Joe Burcaw
I seriously believe in the power of fate, and in the power of manifestation, when it comes to a person’s life path trajectory. A.J. Croce (son of the late, great singer/songwriter Jim Croce) is no stranger when it comes to facing adversity, setbacks, trauma, or fate. Go read his biography for a better understanding of his personal experiences. Yet he has prevailed because he believes in the gifts that have been bestowed upon him through genetic DNA, and through straight up musical talent. He has paid his dues by making sacrifices in order to get to where he is now; grounded, in control, and never looking back, only ahead. Sometimes it’s the hardships in life that propel you to move forward, at least that is what I would like to believe. A.J. really impressed me as person, and doubly impressed me with his keen sense of musicianship and songwriting insights. I kept him for just under an hour, and could have gone another full hour if permitted to do so. He was extremely articulate and eager to discuss his process, and what exactly goes on in that creative mind of his. By Request (released 02-05-21) is the new A.J. Croce album of cover songs that capture and represent close friends from the past three decades. The level of talent involved in this recording is like a ‘who’s who’ of studio and touring musicians coming together under one roof to let off some steam. It’s a house party of Soul and groove, and everyone’s invited to absorb the smooth vibes from inside.
JOE: Good evening A.J., how are you?
A.J.: Doing well thanks. Man, it's been in the 30s down here and in the 20s this morning, but not as cold as where you're at.
JOE: It’s freezing cold and currently nine degrees and holding steady. We’ll have to wait until April to get out of this arctic blast for good, so we have a couple more months ahead of us until things warm up. Let's talk about your new record By Request, which I am seriously digging. I wanted to ask you about the song choices being this is an all covers album. What was the motivation behind choosing these particular songs? It's very diverse and eclectic ranging from The Beach Boys and Allen Toussaint, to Neil Young and The Faces. Were your fans requesting these titles at shows, and in return, prompting you to eventually record them?
A.J.: The process was a little more personal than that. I've always had…up until recently… enjoyed having folks come over in the evening and play music at my house. Each one of the songs was for a particular friend, on a particular evening, when we were hanging out having some drinks late night. It's probably over 30 years of twelve different evenings with twelve different people, so that was how it all came about. Now how exactly I narrowed it down, I can't even begin to tell you because I started off playing Jazz and Blues and R&B. When I was a young teenager, up until maybe I was 19 or 20, I played Jazz clubs and piano bars performing three to four sets a night. It was mostly cover music and classic Tin Pan Alley stuff. I was never a stranger to playing covers. So, it was difficult to narrow it down because there were so many evenings with so many friends playing so many different tunes, but these were fun and somehow stuck around in one form or another. In the case of Randy Newman, that wasn't a song of his that I really played very often except for one particular night and the person I played it for was more familiar with the Flamin’ Groovies version of it than the original. So, I took that into account and I thought, how would Little Richard have sounded if he was playing “Have You Seen My Baby”? Things came about in a unique way.
JOE: Did you go into this project with 20-30 songs and have to edit it down to the best 10-12? Was there any material recorded that didn’t make the final cut?
A.J.: I just recorded twelve songs narrowed down from over 100. I have played literally thousands of songs over the years and it was just a kind of fun idea. I lost my wife in 2018 and it was hard to write for a while, so initially I got started on this project at the end of 2019. We went into the studio in December of 2019 and finished the album around this time last year with the intention of putting it out spring of last year, as things turned out it just wasn't practical. I am really pleased with it and it was a fun project. I've been on the road for a while with my touring group and just started throwing in songs that I thought worked for them. These are incredibly talented musicians who have collectively been on thousands of records, but I was thinking about the way we played together and which songs would be fun to tackle.
JOE: My condolences for your loss. Is this the first recording that you've done with this particular lineup?
A.J.: It's the first I've done with this touring band, yes. Although I've recorded with Gary Mallaber and David Barard before separately. I don't know if you're familiar with Gary’s work but he started off in the 70s working with Van Morrison on Moon Dance, he's the drummer on many of those great early records. He was a session guy in L.A. doing all kinds of things musically, and we met years ago. Then David Barard the bass player is from New Orleans, and he and I met almost 30 years ago and he was with Dr. John at the time.
JOE: Yes indeed, I was very impressed with David's swing and chops!
A.J.: Oh, he is amazing. It's interesting because he was on the original version of “Nothing from Nothing”, that is kind of how he got his start with Allen Toussaint, he was on “Southern Nights”. That whole period is when he started playing with Lee Dorsey and Irma Thomas and all of those great New Orleans folks that were around when he was growing up. I reconnected with him because I was working with Allen in New Orleans on some stuff and was looking to find a new bass player to tour with. David just showed up and we’ve been playing together ever since.
JOE: Initially I was going to ask about the tracking process. Did you all track live and then do overdubs afterwards?
A.J.: The singing and playing was all live, there's no fixes or anything like that. No overdubs either, I wanted it to feel like the audience was invited into my house. So, it was kind of an invitation for folks out there to come on over. I wanted that to be present in the recording, we recorded sixteen tracks to two-inch, which is pretty much my normal way of doing it in analog. In this case I did transfer over to Pro-Tools for mixing, it just makes life a lot easier. I had done it kind of the old way with Dan Penn on the last record and I hadn't been involved in that process since I started the first record, which was completely live back in 1992 and much easier. When recording my first album with Dan we recorded live to 16-track and never went over 16-tracks. There weren't sub-mixes or anything like that, we really treated it like his Muscle Shoals, Memphis period trying to get everything on three tracks and see where we end up. It’s the same kind of idea with By Request. I was trying to keep the tone aspect as sweet and honest as possible. I'm a huge fan of vintage gear too!
JOE: I think you were able to capture a special moment tracking live. I was going to ask you this earlier, speaking as musician to musician, I find playing with folks from the south differs from musicians up north. There is this type of swing and looseness. You're not hanging on top of the beat. I’m from New York City and we tend to ever so slightly play on top landing right on the one, but never rushing the tempo. Whereas, I find that a lot of cats from the south and west coast lay back with this ‘give and take’ feel. Would you agree?
A.J.: That is very interesting. L.A. has a kind of sound, there are more players who are comfortable moving from being a little behind and laidback to kind of pushing it. Then you have the session guys that are just right on it, they’re like metronomes when it comes to Rootsy music. It does have a laidback thing which I've always looked for in the way that I play, it's a push and pull. You know, when you slow something down in a solo section it makes the music wider and gives space to the soloist. As you speed up slowly during the solo it makes it seem more exciting and then you come back to where you were at. It’s a little trick I learned when I was young, and always kind of think about.
JOE: Would you say that comes from being a younger musician performing with a lot of the elder statesman who kind of schooled you, such as BB King or Ray Charles?
A.J.: It was. You know, playing with those people was obviously an amazing experience but even at that time it was my natural way to play piano. I had grown up listening to Ray Charles and all of these different R&B, Soul, and Rock’n’Roll players. Whether it was fast and driving like Wallace James B. Johnson, Willie Lyon, whether it's a boogie like Pete Johnson or Alberta Hammonds, it doesn't matter, it can still swing and you can lay back on the left hand and push a hair with the right and sort of move the time a bit. Since I started off as a solo piano player you do move the time naturally to create excitement and dynamics.
JOE: Absolutely, plus you feed off the audience too.
A.J.: It’s as simple as that.
JOE: There is complete control and great choice of notes with some serious pocket. As far as your piano soloing goes on the new album, did you go in with written charts or with a rough sketch ahead of time where to navigate concepts and ideas?
A.J.: Only when it came to the horns I arranged on “Nothing from Nothing”. I was looking for something a little bit funkier than the original which sort of has that circus feel. I wanted it to feel a little bit like that early 70s Sly and the Family Stone or Stevie Wonder kind of horn section where you have this line that's continuing on over the bar and ascending, that was my idea for it. As far as the piano, we probably did three passes and took the best one.
JOE: It certainly is groovy, ohh my goodness. I was listening to “Ain't No Justice”, that’s an instrumental from the 60s or 70’s by Shorty Long, yes?
A.J.: Yeah, I think it’s from around 1968.
JOE: For me, I heard a Steely Dan vibe going on which reminded me of something off of the Pretzel Logic album.
A.J.: Interesting, that's interesting. That certainly wasn't where I was coming from but I could see it was a little of where they were coming from too. I love them and came to them sort of late. I sort of discovered them in the last fifteen years and really started enjoying the music. The Wurlitzer solo I was recording in the room with the guys because unlike the piano, I didn't need to be isolated in a different room I could be in there with them. We had a whole group of friends hanging out in the kitchen and recorded at this place called Bomb Shelter here in Nashville. It's a little house and that was one of the reasons I chose it because we couldn't record at my home. So, I found another house that had been converted into a good analog studio. We had friends with us drinking and talking and we did a few passes of it. The solo on that reminded me a little bit of Herbie Hancock in that sort of late 60s or 70s early electric era. For whatever reason, I don't know why I played it that way. It was just the way the band was playing and what I felt. I wasn't thinking about him, he’s such a brilliant player and it's not like I can play like him. There's just something in the way that the notes I chose that remind me of it afterwards. I heard it and thought, that's kind of interesting. You know, I come from (Thelonious) Monk’s style of playing, that sort of melodic dissonance was always really important.
JOE: That is so funny that you mentioned Monk! I was going to ask you about his influence on your playing because I heard that in your style, and your possible interest in cluster chords? Monk’s Criss Cross album is one of my favorites. I heard inflections in your attack and it sounded like his playing approach.
A.J.: He's one of those people who I didn’t really feel when I was young but my band and I would play one of his tunes. I'll be honest, he's not someone I think is really meant to be covered or played note for note by any piano player. I think it's one of those things where he created such an interpretive way of composing, the way he interpreted which notes should be played was really in the moment, even though he had the basic structure there. You can hear different recordings of him doing the same songs differently probably a dozen times, and they’re all different. Yeah, whether he was playing solo which is my favorite, or whether he's with a band I’m always taken away in some fashion listening to him.
JOE: I think you owe it to yourself as a musician to broaden your horizons.
A.J.: Especially if you want to do it for a living, I always felt like I've had a lot of different periods. When I started off, I felt like I was shot out of a cannon. I started out at seventeen and got my first session here in Nashville, with Cowboy Jack Clement when I was still in high school.
JOE: How did you get the gig?
A.J.: I was at a friend's house in the Berkshires and a woman asked him to come over because she heard me playing and said there is someone that needs to meet you and hear you. A few weeks later I got a call to come to Nashville and do a session with Cowboy. I got there and walked in and Jerry Lee Lewis was walking out. I didn't know I was filling in, I really had no clue. I think it was Elvis's band sitting on the couch. That was my intro, and my very first recording ever. When I was nineteen, I got signed to a major label and started touring. It happened really fast and then I wasn't on a big label anymore. The company I was signed by was bought by BMG, and then I was on RCA everywhere else in the world. Here in the U.S. when that label folded into another label, it just was like okay, now I'm independent and I’ll probably never get to sell records like that again, or get signed by a major again. I didn’t have that kind of marketing and money and PR behind me to let people know that I am alive. So, I started my own label and I did a few records on my own, and it wasn't always easy. I figured if I cannot make a living with original music and touring then I would either play with someone else who was doing music that I liked, or play private parties. I could always do what I did when I was young. As long as I can make a living playing music, that has always been the important part.
JOE: Did you always have the vision and drive to pursue this? In a way you can look at the Berkshires experience as pure luck, correct?
A.J.: Yeah, it was luck and there's been luck here and there. There is also a lot of character building in between. If you're not paying your dues in the very beginning, then you're gonna pay them later. It's probably going to be harder if you start that way, and it was hard for fifteen years. Then things sort of came into a new place, I think I developed more and understood what people who bought my music were into. It’s always hard to understand, and I had gone in so many different directions that my audience didn't always follow me.
JOE: That tends to happen and it can be an uphill struggle, especially if you're going independently because then everything falls onto your shoulders.
A.J.: Absolutely, it's a lot of work. There were periods where I would focus more on writing. I moved back here in 2008. For about three years I was just writing for my publisher doing around 90 co-writes a year and 90 songs a year for other people. I was doing a lot of sessions during that time playing piano and found myself in these odd situations where I was just using two fingers on my right hand to play something anyone could be playing, the engineer or the drummer could play what I was playing. I am grateful for the work. but it wasn’t really that much fun. I learned a lot.
JOE: Was it unfulfilling?
A.J.: Yeah, it was musically unfulfilling at that point, and it was just at the end of that period of time I started meeting some really fun players and started playing with some folks that I really, really enjoy playing with. Marco Cimino was one of them and Buddy Miller, just some great players. There's so many great players here, and everyone is working as you don't always fall into the place where you want to be when you want to be there.
JOE: That's true, the musical God's place you where you need to be at that precise moment in your life. I always found that true. Let me ask you this question, having played with so many older seasoned musicians who possess such a huge pedigree of incredible artists they have accompanied in the past, do you feel like you've learned a lot with them as a musician?
A.J.: I learn every day that I play with someone else, even if I've played with them a thousand times, I learn something, and it doesn't matter where someone is at with their proficiency level or musicianship. I've always been aware of that even if someone is just learning how to play an instrument, everyone approaches their instrument in a different way. Just watching someone who is starting out sometimes can remind you that the fundamentals either need to be discarded or kept because of their importance to what you do. So, I think as long as I stay open and willing to learn, it will never feel like I know it all and then I'll stay creative.
JOE: I love what you just said, you definitely sound like a teacher. Do you teach?
A.J.: I have done some master classes on 20th century piano at University of Barcelona.
JOE: No no, I mean have you ever taught privately one on one piano instruction?
A.J.: I am really terrible at that, I don't see very well and my sight reading isn't very good. There's not a place in between reading glasses and my regular glasses where I can see the score very well. Yeah, so if I'm learning Chopin in C sharp minor Opus #10, which is a fast piece with a lot of notes I have to learn it by ear. Part of learning something like that is so different from playing Rock, Pop, R&B/Soul, or whatever, it's the posture and the way that I need to sit in order to play the way that my hands need to be. I don't need to be told I can hear it, I can feel it and know I'm not going to be able to execute this section unless I sit properly. It's always how I learned.
JOE: As far as the way you attack the piano keys sounds very rhythmic, are you fond of drumming?
A.J.: Oh, absolutely, it’s a percussive instrument! I do treat it as that, I've never had a kit in my house but I love playing percussion. I do play some hand drums and I do play a variety of different percussive instruments which have been recorded over the years on records. I've learned things from people I've worked with. It was funny because I hadn't played with Robben Ford for probably twenty-five years. He is my neighbor who lives directly across the street, so I called him up and said, ‘Hey, man, would you be into coming down and playing on something?’ He agreed and came in and I was playing a chord in this way he taught me years ago. I didn't even play guitar at the time, but he was playing something at Ocean Way studios in L.A. around 1992 and I'm sitting there saying, ‘What's that chord, how are you playing it?’. I looked at it and still use that shape when I'm playing guitar. The song he played on was requiring a chord voicing that I played guitar on. So, it was kind of full circle in this curious way, that was really fun. But you asked me about the way I attack. One of the beautiful things about piano is that it's so incredibly dynamic. It’s as if you have the orchestra right at your fingertips. I can hit very hard, and I can play with a lot of strength and emotion. You can emphasize things with your left hand, I'm lefthanded so it's easy to emphasize the bass line or rhythm or something with the left hand and play lighter with the right. But you end up emphasizing the groove by hitting it, whether it's on the one or whether it's on two, four or whatever. You have this ability to really emphasize the groove and the melody.
JOE: I thoroughly enjoyed the Sam Cooke track off of your album, I listened to it multiple times. Aside from the rhythmic piano solo I felt vocally you were digging into that Dr. John vibe.
A.J.: Yes, but I wasn't trying to do anything except what I do naturally. That's always the case, I just have to do what feels natural, but it just comes out. It's funny because when my first album came out there were a couple people that came to me and mentioned Dr. John, and I didn't know who he was. I had a conversation recently with someone who's writing a book on Leon Russell, and Leon and I had written a bunch of songs together, probably a dozen songs which I recorded a few. I loved his music and loved the songs he played. He wasn't an influence of mine, but when we got together, we really had a great conversation, especially the first time we met. We had all of these similar influences. When he plays, he has this strong ferocious one, and then he just lets it ring. He'll let it run for a bar. He makes a statement and then he tells the story, with a statement prior to the story. That’s what I dig, it comes from Ray Charles, it comes from that old Soul and R&B.
JOE: It never gets old listening to that man. I was reading somewhere that you were studying Middle Eastern & Indian scales. Are you still working on this project?
A.J.: Yes, it's a really challenging thing to do on piano and much easier on guitar for drones, obviously. I've been working on this project for many years, in the last couple years I started collaborating with a group called Antibalis. I had written this whole sort of short book about these origin stories. It was designed to just be a guide for putting this album together. There are fables and folklore and mythology and cultural anthropology and history and science and religious stories of origin and creation, it’s still in the creative process. While I had the downtime I started experimenting with a lot of different scales experimenting with how to apply it to popular music in Western form. I was deconstructing “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo”, by (Duke) Ellington, and you have this minor ascending line that just really goes between two chords until it gets to the bridge, instead of going a whole step I just went a have step between the first and second. I was listening to what he was doing, but then I sort of simplified this and apply these Indian ragas, sort of classical raga scales, to that form to see if it holds together and how far can I push it before it's not something that anyone would want to listen to.
JOE: Were you concentrating on drones as well, and soloing over a drone even though it’s challenging on the piano?
A.J.: Yes, what I was doing was using the bass sustain pedal playing fifths, fourths or these kind of notes that would eventually deteriorate. I was able to move half steps with the right hand on the scales actually playing the chords of the scales. Sort of experimenting sonically having these slight rubs, but it's in that Monk world of not quite a quarter tone but these semi tones of some sort. Then when you're working with the treble sustain you have other harmonics that are going on in the piano, so it’s really interesting. I can't say that I’m really proficient at it because there's so much to learn. I've just spent the last eight or ten months doing it as part of what I've been practicing.
JOE: All of that microtonal playing is no joke! Do you plan on recording a follow up release any time in the nearby future?
A.J.: This album comes out early February, so I'm going to promote By Request as long as the label wants to keep supporting it, and then I’ll be ready to go into the studio. I have songs written that I loved a couple years ago and still love, and last year I've wrote so much that I'm happy with. I'm really looking forward to recording the next project and that's not going to be the one with Antibalas, it's just the way our schedules have worked for right now.
JOE: I know we have to wrap up, and thank you again for your time and graciousness. What does 2021 hold for you?
A.J.: Of course! I have a really fun concert that I'm going to be streaming with many of the members of the studio band as well as my regular group. The singers are going to be there and my rhythm section, I'm just waiting to hear back from the horn players. I'm going to do an album release at City Winery and it will be broadcast live. There will be info on my website and on my Facebook page and Instagram and all that. The actual gig is on February 27, and on February 28th I’m going to do three different shows. The first one will have a limited audience performing By Request and the second day will be more of my full catalogue including stuff from By Request. So yeah, I'm really looking forward to that and I think there'll be some really fun stuff in there. We haven't played together and we miss it. My guitar player came over last week for the first time in months and we played from a distance and it was wonderful, it was just great to play with someone else.
JOE: It has to be cathartic getting back together with your musician friends.
A.J.: It really is, and then after that I think things are slowly going to pick up in March. Last year was full and now everything from last year has been pushed to this year and into 2022. This year and next year is completely full. I think it's going to start pushing into 2023 because of all of the tour dates, so I'll be working quite a bit. I always give myself time to come home for a couple weeks a month to be able to do creative projects that I'm thinking about, and to keep writing and have the experiences in real life to write about.
JOE: That’s so true, you need those life experiences in order to be able to put words to music. Please tell the people how they can reach you as far as your social media handles and website etc. What is the best way to get up to date information?
A.J.: Yeah, Instagram is at A.J. Croce and Facebook if you go to A.J. Croce music band page you can catch up on it and then AJCrocemusic.com is a good way to take a look at stuff and you can listen to all different kinds of music that I've done over the years and stories and all that stuff.
JOE: Well, if and when you get up to the Hartford/New York area I'm going to come out to a show and say hello, once life normalizes again.
A.J.: Good, good, good! Sooner or later I'll definitely be there!
JOE: Thank you so much for your time, it has been an absolute pleasure.
A.J.: Hey, thanks for having me, absolutely. Take care and be safe.
JOE: Same to you, be well
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