Listen! Drummer Chester Thompson

Screen print by Patricia

Screen print by Patricia

Next July 28th, 2016, Alphonso Johnson’s Quartet will be playing in Teatro Solís, in Montevideo. This means Uruguayans will have the rare chance of listening live to four wonderful musicians: Alphonso Johnson (bass), Chester Thompson (drums), Federico Ramos (guitar) and Gary Fukushima (keyboards). Some of us are really amazed at the fact that we will be able to attend a concert in which two ex Weather Report musicians will play on stage. This is something so unexpected as mind blowing.

Talking about surprising chances, please be my guest to read my interview to Chester Thompson.


Patricia Schiavone: We are really delighted that you are coming to Uruguay with Alphonso Johnson’s Quartet. You have played with Alphonso for a long time. I’d like to know what feels good about playing with this particular quartet with him.

Chester Thompson: We have not played together yet with this quartet. When I get to Los Angeles we will play for the first time. I think he has been playing with them, yes, but it will be the first time to me. But I’ve played with him many, many times and I think we breathe the same when we play.

PS: What does it mean to breathe the same when you play?

CT: It’s like we are so close, we are like one instrument.

PS: Singers usually seek a special emotional state before singing a song. Do you do anything similar?

CT: Sometimes… It depends on what I’m doing. To me it’s very simple. My very simple job is to listen. And I trust it: If I’m listening, then the right thing will happen.

PS: What do you listen to?

CT: When I’m playing, I don’t listen to me. I only listen to the other musicians. It’s like if I’m sitting in the audience and I’m listening to a band. If you listen to a band, you know everything is working ok. And if it’s not working ok, that means somebody is not listening. It means somebody on the stage is only listening to themselves.

PS: I’ve heard you really concentrate when you play.

CT: Yes, I don’t smile much [he laughs].

PS: Have you practiced that concentration somehow?

CT: Yes, yes. If I’m practicing, especially if I’m practicing something very difficult, very challenging, if I listen it comes much more cooked than if I think about it. If I think about it, the brain will make it confusing. I tell my students this: “Don’t think so much; only listen.” Because if not, you lose it. Music is to be listened to.

PS: You know, I wonder how did you manage not to hurt yourself when rehearsing for so many hours and touring so much.

CT: It’s very simple. If I’m doing something that hurts, I don’t do it anymore. Actually I’ve changed my technique many, many times. The moment it hurts, I change it. It’s a very physical instrument. You have to hear what your body says. Most drummers sit very, very low. I sit very, very high. My legs are very long and it feels natural to sit high, so that my legs are down. If I play with my legs up, it hurts my back very quickly, so to me it’s silly to do that. Also the drums should not be played with the elbows out. When you play in an orchestra, you learn to play with your elbows out a little bit, but in the drumset that does not work. In the drumset you have to be completely relaxed. And it’s really more fingers than anything with the sticks. A little bit of wrist and a lot of fingers. Not so much wrist and not so much arms.

PS: Tell me, have you had moments of stagnation, when you didn’t advance in your playing?

CT: Yes, of course. Many times.

PS: And how have you dealt with that?

CT: Well, you practice more [laughs].

But when you learn about listening… everything makes more sense. It’s more connected. Because there’s too much thinking, you are always thinking about what you do. And it is happening too fast to think about it. Even now, if I play something I know, if I start to think about it, I will make a mistake.

PS: Taking what you said about concentration and not thinking, do you practice meditation?

CT: No. I pray a lot. I’m a Christian. But to me it’s really about focusing on what I’m doing.

PS: If you could give a piece of advice to 13-year-old Chester, which would it be?

CT: [He laughs]. Oh, My Goodness! Wow. This is very interesting. I remember this guy [more laughs]. Because this is the year when I started playing in nightclubs. And this is also the reason why when my son was 13, I stopped touring, to be with him. For a boy it’s a crazy time, because inside you’re becoming a man but your mind is not of a man yet, and your body is changing. It’s very confusing. Mmm, I don’t know… I think I would tell me to just learn to relax. I think I would practice differently if I knew at that age what I know now. I enjoyed practicing. I never had a problem to practice. But, I would tell him to listen more. Not only to music but also to people. I was not a tough guy. One of my pleasures was reading. I used to read a lot, and I still like reading. Maybe, I’d tell me to be patient, although I was at that age. But I remember that it was a confusing time. I grew without a father. My mother was great, but at that age a boy needs a father to talk to. I think I would have had more discipline if I had had a father. Not in drums, because I had discipline in it, but in everything else.

PS: If your students took home only one lesson from you, which one would you like it to be?

CT: Well, there’s a couple of things. First, if it’s difficult, play it very slowly… many, many times and you will hear it get better each time. And this in combination with the listening. Because we cannot be in hurry to be fast. If you do it over and over, speed will come anyway. And sometimes I tell my students, if they almost have it but not quite, I tell them: “OK, next time when you play it, I want you to listen and to imagine that you are teaching someone else how to do this, and that you are listening to see if they are playing it correctly”. Then, they always play it right.

PS: Why is that so? What does teaching have to do with it?

CT: Because it changes the side of the brain. The listening side and the creative side is different to the intellectual side. That is why we can enjoy music: because music can take us to another place. I mean, sometimes you need to do both [listening and thinking]. When I have to read music, I have to do both and it takes a long time to be able to do both. But in the beginning, when you are just trying to learn, it’s important to slow it down, use the brain to keep the time. If you listen and not stop when you make a mistake, if you just do it over and over and over, if it gets a little bit better each time, then it’s good. It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time or the second time.

PS: Why did you choose to teach?

CT: Oh, I only started teaching because in the university where my son is going the drum teacher left. They asked if I would come and teach. And I didn’t like what he was teaching my son; I didn’t like the way he taught. I always want to give my son everything, but it’s very difficult to teach your son. Suddenly, I had the situation that I could teach him and if he didn’t listen to me, instead of giving him an A, I’d give him an F. And I get paid, also! [laughs]. So, it was only to teach my son, because I wanted to make sure he had the right thing.

PS: And what happened then. Did you enjoy teaching?

CT: Yes, I found that I really liked it. Because I used to never teach, I have to say. If somebody asked me, I used to answer “No, I don’t teach”. But after this I found I really enjoyed teaching, I really like it… but I like playing more [he smiles].

PS: Have you been in South America before?

CT: Not in Uruguay. You see, three years ago I made a tour for DW drums and I’ve been to Brazil a few times, to Ecuador, Lima, Perú, Central America a few times, Salvador. I’ve been to Buenos Aires in Argentina, but I’ve never been to Montevideo.

PS: Now that you mention Brazil. How did you meet Hermeto Pascoal?

CT: Oh, man. I was playing with Airto and Flora. I knew these people from Weather Report. And they asked me if I wanted to record with Hermeto and I was very excited.

PS: Did you meet the pigs during the recording?

CT: [Laughs]. No, no, no. I didn’t meet the pigs. And after the recording I was in his house, in Brazil, and there were no pigs. [Laughs].

[Chester Thompson recorded, together with Alphonso Johnson, 3 tracks of Hermeto Pascoal’s CD “Slaves Mass”, 1977. Two pigs were taken to the studio to be included in the recording].

PS: Do you remember how did playing with Weather Report feel?

CT: [He smiles in a very beautiful way]. Oh, goodness. It was magic. Really, really amazing. By the time I started playing with them I had played with Frank Zappa, which was completely different. I had gone to rehearse in Los Angeles and somebody told me that Weather Report was looking for a new drummer and he told me to come and jam with them. I told him that I’d like to come and jam but I did not want to audition. He kept saying, oh, no, it’s not an audition. So I went there, and of course there was another drummer there. I was very fortunate to have been chosen. The other drummer was very good. They asked me if I could play with another drummer but I had already played with another drummer with Zappa and I told them I didn’t want to do that again.

PS: Why not?

CT: Because to play with Weather Report you have to have freedom.

PS: But then you played with another drummer, with Phil Collins!

CT: Oh, yes. He asked me because he knew I had played with another drummer with Zappa. I mean, Ralph Humphrey is a fantastic drummer, but we feel music very different. It we listened very closely, it was ok. But with Phil Collins, from the very first time we played it felt like we were one person; it felt as if we were playing together for a few years. So it was very easy.

PS: That amazes me, because the styles of music you played before were completely different.

CT: Yes, but he listened to the same people I listened to: Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Tony Williams. So we grew up listening to the same music. I had not listened to so many British musicians as him, but we both listened to the same jazz musicians. Playing together was very natural.

PS: Have you had the chance to listen to some candombe or not?

CT: Not so much. I’m curious.

PS: You have been in bands that have split apart and you have been in bands that have stayed together for a long time. What do you think it is necessary for a band to stay together long.

CT: It’s such a difficult question. I don’t know… chemistry. Everybody has to want the same thing. And you have to be patient. You cannot be selfish. It’s important to see what is best for everybody. In Genesis we had a very unusual chemistry. I had never seen something like this. There was no leader. People think there was a leader, but there was no leader. We were all equal. And the Manager was just as important as musicians.

PS: Why is it that you sold not many copies of your first solo album, “A Joyful Noise” (1999)? (*)

CT: Well, you have to have promotion, advertising. The company is very small and the copies are distributed by another company, which makes more efforts for musicians who record under their label.

PS: Chester Thompson, it will be a real pleasure to have you here. I heard you say that if you had a superpower you would like to make everybody feel joy. I would like to tell you that you are already making people feel joy with your playing. Thank you.

 CT: Thank you!

Screen print by Patricia

Screen print by Patricia

(*) His first solo album, “A Joyful Noise” was released in 1991, receiving excellent critic in the jazz circles. This record was re-edited in 1999. In 2013 he released his album “Approved”. I must say I’ve listened to both and they are, as I expected, wonderful masterpieces. I fully recommend you to get a hold of both of them.

Chester Thompson has played, recorded and toured with Frank Zappa, Weather Report, Genesis, and Phil Collins.

As a session player, he worked with several pop, rock, jazz, rhythm and blues, and religious performers, including Neil Diamond, Ron Kenoly, Duane Eddy, John Fogerty, George Duke, Michael McDonald, Steve Hackett, Kirk Whalum, Andy Williams, Denny Jiosa, Donna Summer, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Andrew Oh, Hermeto Pascoal, and others.

Believe it or not: Alphonso Johnson’s Quartet will play in Teatro Solís

On July 28th, 2016.

An additional note on the 28th show: Guitar player Federico Ramos is Uruguayan, born in Treinta y Tres. He has played with several musicians: Eduardo Mateo, Ruben Rada, Hugo Fattoruso, José Luis Pérez, Dr. Yusef Lateef, Jon Anderson, Milton Nascimento, Ray Brown, Jr., Freddie Hubbard, Cheb Mami, Joan Sebastian, Alejandro Fernández, Vicente Fernández, Jon Hassell, Mark Isham, Elton John, James Moody, Terry Plumeri, Hans Zimmer, John Powell, etc.


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