There’s a reason there aren’t many artists making records in the power trio format: it seemed to reach its peak shortly after its creation. For the uninitiated, a power trio consists of the absolute essentials of a rhythm section, namely bass and drums, and one other instrument that fills in all the rest of the space, that instrument usually being a guitar (and in all fairness a voice, too). The power trio was arguably perfected by Jimi Hendrix and since his era has pretty much stayed the same: a singer accompanies her or himself on guitar, occasionally taking solos while the bass and drums lay down a rock solid foundation. Why fix what’s not broken?

Leave it to the inimitable Adam Rogers to take a classic instrumentation and nearly reinvent it. With his latest record, Dice, Rogers, bassist Fima Ephron and drummer Nate Smith take the power trio and show us all just how much is possible with the sparse instrumentation. The longtime collaborators explore rhythmic complexity in ways both subtle and overt. We spoke with Adam Rogers about the origins of the trio, how the record is infused with his trademark rhythmic approach as well as his bandmates’ and how the power trio is in his DNA. Scroll down to check out the full interview and get your copy of Dice wherever you buy your music.

Nate Smith, Fima Ephron and Adam Rogers
Revive: I’ve been looking forward to this record for a long time, since the checkout: live gig you did several years back. How long has Dice, this power trio, been an idea for you, and have Fima and Nate always been a part of it?

Adam Rogers: Well, the “power trio”, I have to say – at the risk of sounding corny – is sort of in my DNA. Hendrix’s music was the impetus for me to start to become serious about music. The three studio records, Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold As Love and Electrc Ladyland were seminal influences, as was, Band of Gypsies. The way he integrated R&B playing with this completely new sort of psychedelia and virtuosity with the addition all of the unbelievably new sounds he was able to coax from the electric guitar was staggering to me. Hearing his music for the first time was a revelation and inspired me deeply.

I still listen to Hendrix all the time. His music is still totally relevant to me. So this sort of trio thing, the Band of Gypsies/Experience band paradigm has always been part of my musical consciousness much in the way that a jazz trio/quartet/quintet is. The sound of a band like that has always been playing within my inner ear.

Having said that, Fima and Nate have always been part of it. I was inspired to put this band together in, I think it was, 2008. I’m not sure what specifically compelled me to at that point. I think I was listening to a lot of things that inspired me to explore some music in this setting, in addition to the general undercurrent being there since I was a kid. Regardless, I wrote a bunch of music for a group like this. You can write a lot more parts the more instruments you have, so writing for guitar trio such as this – I don’t want to say it’s limiting because that sounds like a cop-out or something, but – it’s sort of a positively unforgiving setting to write for. I wanted to keep the music within the sonic realm you hear on the record or when we play live, these kind of, I don’t know what – power trio sounding things (laughs). So I sat there for a while and wrote something like 10 tunes to play in this context. Stratocaster, P-bass and drums.

Adam Rogers, Nate Smith, Fima Ephron
I’ve been playing with Fima since the 1980’s. We go way back. We co-led a band for 11 years called Lost Tribe. We also used to play on the street together in addition to doing local funk gigs. To me he’s the ideal candidate for this group. He really knows what to do with the music we play. Even though we cover a broad of swath of music, he totally understands the nature of the simple pocket and playing a repetitive groove a la James Brown, etc… Nate, along those same lines, is one of the best musicians I’ve ever played with. He can effortlessly handle the most rhythmically complex ideas while understanding the profundity of the simplest grooves. They both infuse seemingly elementary things with a tremendous amount of commitment and subtext, if you will. To me, a quarter note is as complex as you choose to make it. You can hear that in a lot of the music that influences this band and that has generally influenced me so much: 60’s and 70’s R&B and soul and rock. Fima and Nate both have innately incredible feels and they understand where this music is coming from. I don’t really have to explain much.

When we’re investigating whatever kind of rhythmic approach we do in this band, which goes from the very, on the surface, simple to the very complex, it always feels incredible. Playing with them, whether I’m playing rhythm guitar figures or soloing, is so easy. I’ve had the good fortune to play with many great musicians who have impeccable time and.. In this particular situation, Fima and Nate stand out to me; they understand the overtly complex while totally getting the profound nature of the uncomplicated.

So, to make a long story a little bit shorter (laughs), I knew without even thinking that they would be perfect candidates to sort of workshop this music. Nate and I had played with Chris Potter together for quite a few years at that point and around this time Fima started playing with Chris as well. There’s a lot of connective tissue there. We’ve never done a DICE gig where it hasn’t been the three of us so.. It’s a real band. It started in 2008. We’ve played a lot in New York at 55 bar and just kind of let the music marinate. It’s changed noticeably over the years. The music has been, as tends to happen, influenced by all of our evolving approaches. Once in a while I’ll go back and listen to live recordings from when we started and it sounds really different now. I think that everybody’s been able to, in the way that people do with music, sort of discover their identities in the music that I’ve written and express themselves through it. I think the record honestly highlights that and reflects where the band is at today.

R: Listening to the way you play in various contexts, whether it’s your own jazz records or in Chris Potter’s Underground, it seems like you’ve done a lot of rhythmic homework. You used the word simple, but the there’s a lot of subtext, a lot of subtle stuff going on. For example, in the title track, Dice, you’ll at times lay back on just one note and there’ll be this tension between that and the tight pocket in the rhythm section. That kind of playing with feel seems to be a defining element of this band. Can you talk a little about that?

AR: Absolutely. I’m glad that you mentioned that. That’s a sort of overt demonstration of big influences for me. I grew up listening to everything that was going on in the 1970’s which was obviously a pretty florid world of music. The first things I heard were like The Beatles, and then growing up in New York City, because I heard it on radios in the street The Temptations, The Four Tops and Curtis Mayfield. I was just obsessed with that music even before I discovered Hendrix and later Led Zeppelin, P-funk and all kinds of other great 70s music. Like, Superfly. I would listen to that record over and over again. Issac Hayes the theme from Shaft. When I heard the wah-wah on that for the first time I went nuts. I had never heard anything like it.

I really love the production on a lot of those records too: the strings and the horns and electric sounds. It was really sort of kaleidoscopic. In addition to the songs the productions really piqued my imagination.

I think from an early age I probably, it was pretty unconscious, I heard this way of playing rhythm in that music, and the way people will groove in a particular way and infuse – as I alluded to before when speaking of Nate and Fima’s playing – patterns with so much subtext. Listen to any Earth Wind and Fire recording. I used to listen to (The Commodore’s) “Brick House” over and over and over again, and to this day, I still can’t believe how, on a studio recording, the rhythm section put so much into the way they play time. It sounds like the ultimate part of a dance party. The depth of the rhythm tracks! Really amazing! That’s always been in my head. Also the influence of J-Dilla and D’Angelo and the way musicians have been exploring that push and pull rhythmically in a more extreme way.

I like to practice with a metronome and explore playing on various sides of the beat. As an instructor I talk about this because sometimes people don’t think about it. One certainly doesn’t have to but, being conscious of the world that exists in the “beat” and where you place a note is worth exploring so as to be able to discover the language that exists there. Is it behind? Is it ahead? If you listen to Otis Redding and the Stax rhythm section – Booker T and the MGs – the feel in that rhythm section was so amazing. I don’t think they were really discussing where they were putting things. The probably just played the way they played. Their feel as opposed to guys that played on Philly sound recordings as opposed to the Motown musicians – there are so many beautiful rhythmic approaches that exist just in the way different musicians play downbeats!!

I had a really interesting experience while recording Walter Becker’s first record. It’s a really cool record called Eleven Tracks of Whack. Obviously Walter and Donald were famous for the way they explored rhythm with different musicians on their records. They’re very conscious of feels and where things are placed. Being a New York kid, I played a lot of very aggressive New York kind of music. I probably, at that time, played kind of on top of the beat. I was doing an overdub session with Walter, playing a rhythmic pattern, and he said something that really stuck in my head. I’m paraphrasing but he mentioned that just because you’re attacking a note or chord hard on the guitar shouldn’t mean that you’re also playing on top of the beat or rushing. He said it in a very nice way, but I remember thinking, wow, that’s really interesting. That was probably just my natural thing at the time but I thought, “I’d really like to have more control over this”. I worked on being able to control and manipulate those kind of “approaches”.

I was part of Michael Brecker’s groups over a few years. It was truly amazing playing with him in so many ways. The first group of Mike’s I played with was with Larry Goldings and the extraordinary drummer Idris Muhammad. We were playing a week at the Blue Note here in NYC. I was soloing and doing some typical musician thing, like “ugh, I can’t fuckin’ play,” and I’m trying to figure out what to do and Mike’s up there just playing so brilliantly. I stopped playing at one point and looked over at Idris while listening to him. He was playing quarter notes on the ride cymbal and two and four on the hi hat and nothing on the snare and it sounded so incredible. It seemed to be everything you could possibly want from the drums. It was so identifiable. I remember thinking. In two beats, you could tell it was Idris, just from the way he was striking the cymbal and the feel he was communicating, even though he wasn’t playing any subdivisions beyond quarter notes. His innate beat was so profound and identifiable it was almost like listening to an incredible singer. I thought, man that is incredible. I thought if I could get anywhere near that, to be able to cut away the non-essentials and infuse music with that much, I might be on my way to something.

With DICE we sometimes play pretty sparse, simple rhythmic figures, we’re able to sort of overtly explore the thing related to beat placement. When I listen to Philly Joe Jones, or Jimmy Cobb or Elvin I love all the conspicuously amazing things they do as drummers in terms of facility and nuance and sound. The subtext is their incredible, indescribable feels that, literally makes me want to dance when I listen to them play. It seems to me that that comes from this beautiful history of music that was specifically music for dancing, and listening. To me, at it’s best, Jazz music has that undercurrent of dance-ably expressed rhythm.

I’m a bit of an LP nut and I was listening to some ’30’s Basie the other day and I was so struck by the sound and feel of the rhythm in a way that made me want to jump up and down. It’s really amazing! The rhythm is so fuckin‘ badass! The underlying feel and swing – it’s just timeless. You could add a backbeat to it and it might sound like James Brown. There’s so much there, there. That’s one of the things when I think of music that swings, or grooves or whatever, it just has this underlying thing that makes you want to dance. You can hear that in Beethoven. When an orchestra is really rocking some Beethoven, I mean…that shit is hard cold man (laughs).

I guess in a lot of the music I’ve written for DICE I’ve unconsciously and consciously constructed the music so that we can explore rhythmic nuance in a particular way. Also, the sound of the guitar in this setting is more “visceral” than when I play more, for lack of a better term, “acoustic” jazz music. In this setting the guitar sound is the kind of a full bandwidth, sometimes distorted, sound that highlights the way I attack the strings. On the majority of the record I play a 1965 Stratocaster that’s incredibly resonant. It’s very responsive to the way you play. Nerds like myself look for vintage instruments because we love old shit and vintage instruments are great, but also, to quote what a friend of mine said: “When you find an old instrument that really responds to your nuance of touch, it can truly aid in your exploration of music”. It’s true. When the instrument really reacts to what you’re doing, it’s musically inspiring.

Playing on the street in the ‘80s we would keep tunes going for long periods of time. If we had a crowd that was enthusiastic we’d try to spontaneously extend and arrange the songs using techniques like breaking everything down to just drums or rhythm guitar to create drama that would then build when bringing the band back in, for example. We do a lot of that stuff in Dice. More obviously live although on the record there are elements of it. We improvise with these spontaneously composed groove sections that sometimes will change tempos completely. I’ll cue out Nate and Fima and maybe change keys and play a slower tempo, or play free, and they’ll come in with something and then we’ll cue the melody back at a faster tempo, all of which is possible because we’re very familiar with each other musically. One of the things that I love about this is that it makes for a different kind of improvisational palette. It not just soloist with a rhythm section. We improvise with these variable groove ideas, so to speak. It’s incredibly satisfying to me to be able to explore making music in this way!


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