Mondays with Morgan: Richard Baratta (new album ‘Off the Charts’ out 25 Aug)

Mondays With Morgan is a column in LondonJazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. Therein, he dives deep into the jazz that moves him – his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.

This week, Enos spoke with drummer Richard Baratta in person, in his basement rehearsal space at his home in Tenafly, New Jersey. 

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His new album, Off the Charts – featuring saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi, pianist David Kikoski, bassist John Patitucci, and percussionist Paul Rossman – will be released on 25 Aug via Savant Records.

Richard Baratta wearing a red shirt holding drumsticks
Richard Baratta. Photo credit Anna Yatskevitch

Richard Baratta’s bandmates wanted to go electric. The drummer was skeptical.

As Baratta recorded his latest album at Trading 8s Studios in Paramus, New Jersey, his pianist – the revered David Kikoski – asked recordist and engineer Chris Sulit for the electric piano.

This was in the service of “Afro-Centric”, a Joe Henderson tune from 1969’s Power to the People, written on electric piano for Herbie Hancock. In turn, for the take, Ron Carter – known as a double bassist above all – had picked up an electric.

Just like Carter, the preeminent John Patitucci pivoted from the upright bass. The result?

“We sat down, and played it like when Herbie had the Mwandishi band,” Baratta tells LondonJazz News. “It was a one-taker. It was smokin’. I said, ‘That’s it. We don’t even have to go back.’”

By plugging into the jazz of his youth – in two senses – Baratta has hit a seam of magic. Off the Charts, consists of tunes by jazz colossi, from Bobby Hutcherson to Wayne Shorter to Charles Lloyd.

The other throughline? Despite their calibre, the tunes – like Hutcherson’s “Herzog”, Shorter’s “Lost” and Lloyd’s “Sombrero Sam” – have slipped through the cracks of the canon.

“They’re like the B-sides; the record could have easily been called The Flipside,” Baratta says, evoking a working title for the record. (Another was Almost Famous.)

Another lens through which to view Off the Charts: Baratta is back in the jazz game after a long break – almost four decades. 

In that extended interim, he worked in the film industry as an executive producer; his résumé includes 2007’s Across the Universe, 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, and 2019’s Joker and The Irishman – as well as five Spider-Man films.

In 2019, Baratta came back with Comeback, a live album of Latin jazz – then signed to Savant for two ensuing albums of movie music, rendered syncopated and swinging.

Read on for the full interview with Baratta about his history in film, the all-star lineup on Off the Charts and his restless creative drive – far afield from any easy “movie guy plays jazz drums” narrative.

Richard Baratta in his home studio
Richard Baratta. Photo credit Morgan Enos

LondonJazz News: How would you describe the on-ramp to Off the Charts?

Richard Baratta: I did my first two recordings for Savant/HighNote: [2020’s] Music in Film: The Reel Deal, and then [2022’s] Music in Film: The Sequel. Those drew from my familiarity and my time with making movies.

[Pianist] Bill O’Connell did all the arrangements; we collaborated, but he put it all on paper. We incorporated tunes from movies that I had either worked on, or movies where we both felt the tunes were great. We put them in a Latin jazz feel.

Those two recordings did very well, in terms of a jazz recording. And especially for a guy coming out with his first studio record since going on a musical hiatus in 1984. That was great, but it showed just one side of me that was part of another industry that I worked in for 35 years.

So, for this recording, I wanted to exhibit that I wasn’t a one-dimensional type of player.

LJN: “Movies plus jazz drumming equals you.”

RB: Exactly. I wanted to say, “Hey, I go way back. I’ve been around.” Plus, I wanted to use different players, because I wanted people to know I’m not just playing with the same six or seven guys all the time. 

I’m branching out. I’m playing with a lot of different, incredible musicians, and I wanted to memorialise that. That’s why I brought in who I brought in.

LJN: Tell me about your associations with saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi, pianist David Kikoski, bassist John Patitucci, and percussionist Paul Rossman.

RB: Dave, I’ve played with probably a dozen times. The guy’s a savant; he’s incredible. He’s a great improviser, an unbelievable player. He swings his ass off. I knew what I was getting from him; I wanted an energy from him. But there’s also beauty in his playing.

Jerry, I had never played with. But I liked his sound. I wanted Patitucci because he’s one of the greatest bass players on the planet. So, that was easy. Getting him to do it wasn’t all that difficult. Everything worked out beautifully.

I had gone out and seen them all play. And believe me: when I had seen them play, I never in my wildest dreams would have thought I would do something with these guys. That never even entered my mind.

Then I added percussionist Paul Rossman on three cuts. But he’s easy. I use him a lot. His mother and my mother were real good friends. Because they were sisters. So, he’s my cousin. [Smiles] 

He and I have been playing since 1960; he’s my age. We’re both drummers, so we’ve got a thing going. He was involved, and he helped produce it.

LJN: How did you curate this sequence of tunes? You endeavoured to bring to light lesser-known tunes by recognisable names; I connect with that.

RB: That was the idea behind the record. I wanted to do something that I grew up with – great tunes that a lot of people haven’t heard.

“Peresina” isn’t the major tune on that record [McCoy Tyner’s Expansions, 1970], but it’s a great tune. And it’s only been recorded once, that I’ve heard: McCoy. I haven’t heard anybody else do it. It’s unbelievable.

[Charles Lloyd’s] “Sombrero Sam” is on [his 1966 album with Keith Jarrett] Dream Weaver. “Autumn Leaves” is the tune on that record. Yet “Sombrero Sam” – I think I’ve only heard it recorded by Kool and the Gang!

Now, the most probably well-known tune that I recorded – and I almost didn’t do it, because it was kind of out of character recognition-wise for this record – was “Tones for Joan’s Bones.” 

Because a lot of people have done that composition. But with Patitucci, and Kukowski’s influence of Chick, I said, I gotta do that tune. Patitucci told me that he never played that song with Chick. Ever.

LJN: Considering that you grew up on this music, Off the Charts is a long time coming. It could have conceivably happened in the ‘90s, the 2000s, the 2010s…

RB: It couldn’t have happened then, because I wasn’t ready for it to happen. There’s got to be something going on. Physically, I could have done it, but I was into a whole different world.

I did five Spider-Man movies; they take up a lot of time. My head was into a whole different space. A creative space, but more of a business space, making movies.

In all those years of not playing, I matured. I realised certain things about the music, and I became more mature with the music. And I certainly became a better player than I was in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

LJN: How so?

RB: There’s no competitiveness now. Back then, you were competing with all these people, trying to get gigs.

As the saying goes, old too soon, wise too late. Spiritually, I grew up. Worldly, I grew up. My perspective on things changed. What was important became less important, and vice versa.

A lot of musicians will say I’m a better musician at my current age than I was in my 20s. Not physically. I’m in pretty good shape; I still feel pretty strong. But I can’t do things I did at 25 now.

But from a mental and spiritual and experiential level – that’s what has informed me to become a better player.

Richard Baratta in his home studio
Richard Baratta. Photo credit Morgan Enos

LJN: How did working in the film industry change how you navigate the music industry?

RB: I learned a lot about the business side as an executive producer.

The music business – and there is a business element to it. Big time. If you’re not aware of that, you can’t survive. You can hardly survive anyway; it’s extremely difficult.

At least for the movies I have been part of, and associated with – they’re big studio pictures. It’s stressful, and it’s demanding, and the hours are brutal. But there’s always money. 

In the music business, there’s not at all. So, I went there, and I did well enough where now I can play music and not have to worry. There’s a level of comfort and security that I have, which clears my head to play what I want to play. It frees you up.

LJN: Where do you think you’ll go from Off the Charts?

RB: I love straight-ahead; I love all kinds of music. But I don’t want to continue to make those records. I want to keep challenging myself. I’m looking for the next thing; I think a lot of people are. I don’t think I’m unique in that way.

But I’m looking for something different that can attract the attention of people to the music, without compromising the music – to the extent that it’s not that music anymore.

It’s a difficult thing. I don’t know what it is. I want to keep moving forward – listening, keeping my ears open and challenging myself.

LINKS: Richard Baratta’s website

Pre-order Off the Charts

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