Mauricio Zottarelli drum kit

Mauricio Zottarelli ’s new CD is most distinguishable by its opening suite, three panels conveying how we can be upside-down in life, and in need of re-orienting ourselves to a new path.

Part 1 has conflicting rhythms that pull each other forward, hold each other back- opening to a sweet sax solo that leads the drums. Guitar work reminiscent of Mike Oldfield, then the sax again with an expressive groove. The rolling piano intro of part 2 leads into its faster journey. Part 3 has complex stop/start rhythms commanded by the percussion. The suite fits together like three rooms of an open-floorplan house where each space has its own temperature and coloration. Musicians are keenly attuned to each other in easy, cool togetherness.

This is frontman Mauricio Zottarelli with a loving group of friends who happen to play different instruments. The CD “Upside Down Looking Up” is on GoFundMe here: https://www.gofundme.com/UpsideDownLookingUp and if you pre-order – only a few days left – there are free extras!

Were you the kid always bopping on the table or tapping your feet?

ABSOLUTELY!  Yes, I would be drumming everywhere I could. I ruined quite a bit of my mom’s kitchen pots and pans. And couches and chairs…and a few tables. One of my favorite things to do back then was to play spoons on the couch while listening to the radio.

How has your cultural background informed your playing style?

I definitely think that I play how I play today because of where I grew up, because of my family, culture and my early experimentation playing in Brazil. But my passion for Brazilian/Latin music actually developed much later on.

When I was little I loved listening to samba and Brazilian music. My dad had a lot of records at home that we would listen to. He’s a keyboard player, so I was always watching him play. Some years later I was accompanying him on bongos. As I got older I moved to other styles: rock, fusion and jazz. When I started taking drum lessons and studying music I was much more into jazz and fusion, not so much Brazilian music. At that point my playing was not very connected with my roots… but when I moved to the U.S. to study music, I actually fell in love with the music of Brazil all over again. Nowadays, I feel that my playing and writing styles are extremely connected to my years growing up in Brazil.   

How did you realize it was going to be a career?

It happened naturally – but later than expected. I was 21, finishing up my degree in Computer Science.  As much as I liked the possibilities of working in that field, something was off. It didn’t feel right to me.

I was playing music all the time with a couple of local bands and starting to travel and tour. Once I started getting busier with music (recording, playing and traveling) everything just clicked, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.  

A percussionist has many different instruments to master. What has been the most difficult of all the components of your set-up?  

Indeed! I think the hardest thing for me in the beginning was to get comfortable playing a normal drum kit. I am left-handed, and left-footed. But somehow it never occurred to me to switch the drum kit around like most left-handed players do. Back in the 80’s and early 90’s there were only a handful of guys playing like that (a technique that is now called “open handed playing”) so we didn’t have much information. I just went with my gut feeling. 

I’m happy that I kept at it this way, because being lefty on a “right-handed drum kit” opens up A LOT of new possibilities. I like to incorporate different percussion instruments on my kit sometimes, depending on the musical situation – congas, bongos, tamborim, cowbells, etc. This can be a bit challenging for our coordination, having to play several different layers of instruments/sounds at once. But I love the challenge! And I think most drummers do, too.

Do you play other instruments?

Back when I was in Brazil I studied classical guitar for a few years – upside down! Again, I didn’t want to change things around and switch the strings. If I had done that, I wouldn’t be able to play on regular guitars, so I just flipped a normal guitar around and played it upside down. I drove some of my teachers crazy, because it looked very odd and I had to re-work the technique so it would make sense for me to play inverted.  After a while, it was just so hard to get a good and clean sound. And the drums were calling me…

I always loved the piano! And it’s also a great tool for writing and arranging. I can’t really play it very well now… but we’ll see, I am starting to practice it more regularly.   

What is it like to be a bandleader- to direct the sound of many instrumentalists surrounding you in a performance hall?

It’s a pretty fantastic experience! To me, it can be a performance hall, a huge festival/stage, a small club or even a tiny rehearsal space. There’s something really special about having these guys come in and play music that was previously only in my head. It’s incredible. I am so lucky to have some pretty amazing players as my close friends, and it’s always humbling and fulfilling to hear them playing my ideas.

Directing the band is very exciting. As drummers we get to “drive the bus” many times, but as a bandleader you have to make many more decisions that go beyond your instrument, and it requires a different approach to playing; a lot of focus and keen attention to detail.

Also, I feel that great bandleaders have a natural sense of the overall sound of the band, and are capable of playing at a high level without getting caught up in their own “bubble” – they are playing great but their focus is on the whole group and everything that is being performed. That flexibility takes a bit of time to develop, but it’s a great experience.

What inspires you when you compose?

A lot of times I just hear ideas in my head: a melody or some sort of a chord progression/bass line which I try to record on my phone or put down on paper, or on music-writing software. Anything and everything can be a source of inspiration: a walk in the park, being stuck in traffic in NYC, watching a concert, a play, a movie. The other day I was reading a book about an actor I really like, and because of the way he was telling his story, and his method of working on his craft, that made me go to the piano to try a few things.

The actual method I use for writing can also be inspiring to some degree. Most times, because of my lack of proficiency on the piano, I go directly to the computer and I write ideas, melodies, chord progressions, grooves, etc. Sometimes these are good enough that they become a song quickly, other times they become something completely different.

On my new album, I have a couple of small sections on one of the songs that “happened” because I used “copy and paste” on the wrong musical bits! I like to think it was serendipity.

Which instrument is the hardest to compose for and why?

I haven’t branched out a lot beyond a regular jazz group with rhythm section, guitars/horns/vocals, and a couple of woodwinds. They all have their challenges and strong and weak points. Sometimes the blend of different instruments becomes more of a challenge for me. Because I have multi-instrumentalists in my group often, I am always trying to feature them the best way possible, thinking what instruments combine well with each other and how I can best represent what’s in my head for the composition. I would love to try to write for strings one day. It’s fascinating. 

How do you want to grow your playing- new techniques, new genres, new instruments?

Yes, absolutely! All of the above! As musicians we are constantly looking for new ideas, new sounds, new techniques; new ways of doing what we normally do. My goal is to study drums as much as possible, and to always look for new ways to successfully communicate through it.

As a composer, it’s very similar. I’m always searching for new ways to communicate my feelings and musical ideas. Significant improvement as an artist comes with hard work, obviously, but mainly through a systematic approach that involves regular practicing of our main instruments; experimenting with different instruments or different ways to play our main one, like different set-ups, positions, techniques and keeping our mechanics and muscle memory fresh and active, therefore making sure that we are in top shape to express whatever it is we want; and an open, conscious ear and mind to assimilate and enjoy music and art from different avenues, styles and cultures.

What is the funkiest/weirdest item you have used for its percussive qualities?

I have been known to use brushes on cardboard boxes quite a bit on recordings. It actually sounds fantastic!

I love experimenting with weird stuff in the studio. I always have some kitchen utensils around. I have done recordings by drumming on my shoes, and on chairs and couches too.  The genius Brazilian musician Hermeto Pascoal has used a live pig at a concert once (!!), so I think I’m actually quite conservative.

What do you like about free improv?

Of course I love the freedom! But to me, the most important aspect of improvisation is to be able to NOT think too much about the stuff we’re playing. It’s crucial to try to flow with the group, to feed ideas off each other, play as if the whole band was just ONE musician. To be comfortable enough that you can leave your pre-conceptions behind, you can leave your licks and worked-out ideas at home and just be in the moment.

To me free improv is all about discovery. I am not necessarily only talking about what we sometimes call “free jazz.” Interestingly enough, this can also happen on very structured playing situations too. I think it’s about being open-minded and unafraid of where the music will take us on a given day. It’s a courageous act with big risks, but also with enormous rewards for those willing to try it.

What do most people misunderstand about jazz?

As artists, we sometimes try too hard. Sometimes there’s too much planning and thinking and not enough room for the music to breathe and shine, and for things to flow, and for artists and audiences to go on a journey together.

Thinking about my perspective from live music and shows, I am always interested in seeing people’s reaction to jazz/instrumental music concerts. Most people feel an instant disconnect when there’s no singer and/or no lyrics. But most audiences would certainly appreciate a bit of a “nod” from the artists, a little gesture of “it’s okay, it’s different, you may not be used to this music, but it will be awesome!” I remember as a kid watching jazz and instrumental music on TV or live, and thinking, “Why are the musicians so pissed off?” Nobody smiled, nobody communicated with the audience. That always throws me off.

There’s also the fact that most people don’t necessarily know what’s happening when there’s a solo in a jazz concert (when the artist improvises melodies over chords/harmony where the original melody was, for instance). I played a concert once where the MC explained a bit of that to the audience before we played, and I saw the crowd very surprised and then instantly delighted to be able to follow the soloist to some degree and understand what was happening. That was very cool, and very revealing too.

Favorite venue?

I am not sure if I have one venue that stands out as being my favorite. There are many that I love to play, sometimes because of the sound, or the vibe, or the environment. But most of the time, it’s the audiences. Certain audiences are more engaging and more willing to take that journey with you, and let go of their daily routines and embark with you and let you tell them your story.

I actually remember more about audiences on certain concerts than the venues specifically. I love playing in Japan, for instance. People are extremely respectful and kind, but they are engaging and they love music. A lot of my experiences with festivals throughout Europe have been like that too: very polite, attentive and engaging audiences. In South America too, and in most of my experiences playing in my home country of Brazil.

NYC has a very interesting type of audience too, in my opinion. Very knowledgeable, opinionated, (sometimes they can come across as being a bit rude). It’s a lot of fun to play for them. Again, it’s all about that journey. If you are willing to be honest as a performer and tell a good story, I think people will always listen and engage with you.

Place you’d most love to perform?

Again, I am not sure I have a specific place in mind. When I think about the most memorable experience, it’s all about the communication with the band members, and the audience.

It’s about channeling so the music can seamlessly flow through us to the audience. Usually when I am about to go on stage, especially at big venues and festivals (maybe because of unfavorable setup positions, or sound, or other factors), I try to clear my head and be as focused and open as possible so if and when that special moment comes, I’ll be attentive and ready to respond. So I think the perfect venue has to somehow facilitate that too.

Why did you come together with Steve, Mike and Zach in the Steve Sandberg Quartet?

I had played with Zach before on a couple of recordings, and knew Mike from other groups and concerts around NYC where we had played together quite a bit. When Steve was looking for a drummer, Mike recommended me and I got in touch with him. Steve sent me scores and some demos to listen to and learn. Steve’s writing and playing immediately drew me in, but it wasn’t until we got together as a group that we all fell in love with the group sound we were creating.

Steve’s brilliant writing and musicality are a big part of the sound. We try to be as musically open as we can, and play his music as sincerely and as focused as possible. As our relationship develops as a band, Steve is writing ideas based on what he knows we can do as a unit. This is extremely exciting. I am always looking forward making music with these guys.  

What inspired “Upside Down Looking Up”- being overwhelmed?

When I started working on this album, it was the same process as with all the other ones I had done. I’d start picking up ideas, writing arrangements and eventually we went into the studio and tracked a couple of songs. Then a lot of things started to happen in my life, I felt overwhelmed and my focus shifted from the album for quite some time.

I was still having ideas and I was writing whenever I could, but the album just went to the bottom of the pile for a while.

But here’s the interesting thing: it wasn’t until a couple of years later that because I kept working on it, slowly but fairly steady, I eventually felt better, and I found a way out of the craziness I was in. The music had shown me the way out.

And then the title and the concept for the album just came to me very quickly. The title “Upside Down Looking Up” relates to those moments in life when we think everything is crazy, and the world feels upside down. If we look UP for a solution (be it because we believe in God, or superior forces, spirits, energy, the universe, whatever it is) we are actually looking DOWN. The main message of the album is a “perspective shift” that we may need in order to find our way out. To find love, peace, serenity – and to find ourselves.

The title track, a three-part suite, defines three key phases I think we all go through in these “Upside Down Looking Up” moments: the shift in perspective; the moment to breathe, see and analyze things and figure out the action to take; and, the new cycles that we must engage in to create new and healthier habits, better lives and happier moments.

The other pieces are also closely related to the album’s concept (even the ones tracked before I knew what the album concept was!) but they are also more personal to me. Each song has a specific meaning as they relate to this journey I went through to conceive the album, and all the things that happened in the past few years of my life.

What is your favorite track on it and why?

I think the Suite “Upside Down Looking Up” is my favorite. They were the last three songs I wrote for the album, and they were the ones that tied the whole thing together. I also really like “Luca” and “Samba pra Mi” –  two songs written to two very special people in my life. 

Who are the personnel on this CD?

I can’t describe how lucky I am to have these incredible artists participate on the album. These are some of my absolute best friends and favorite musicians on the planet!  Itaiguara Brandão on bass; Gustavo Assis Brasil on guitars; Oriente Lopez on piano, flute and accordion; Rodrigo Ursaia on tenor sax; Milene Corso on vocals; Klaus Mueller on piano; Helio Alves on piano; Eldar Djangirov on keyboards; Mike Pope on bass; and Christos Rafalides on vibes.

 Many special thanks also to these wonderful artists for the beautiful sound of the record: Kamilo and Sandra Kratc, Dave Darlington, Helio Ishitani, Giba Favery, Christine Vaindirlis and some of the musicians above who double as fantastic sound engineers too. 

A big thank you to Max Pelagatti for the fantastic artwork. 

What is the most valuable thing you have learned about promotion?

With the music business going in directions that sometimes seem impossible to understand, the most important element of today’s market is honest content. You have to be able to create and generate high-quality content all the time. With so many devices, technologies, and access to so much in so little time, we have to be creatively intense and engaging enough that people will fall in love with what we do and come back for more.

It’s important to have a following but also to have quality content to keep them coming back and supporting you.

Talk about your own drum kit, and what’s on your wish list?

Nowadays my drum kit is pretty basic, I enjoy performing on standard four-piece or five-piece kits. I sometimes attach cowbells, several snare drums, some Brazilian percussion and other things to the kit as well.

I am always moving things around and/or changing sizes, especially on bass drum, depending on the style of music I am playing. Same goes for my cymbals, I like to change them depending on the style or sound of the project. In the studio, I sometimes change my kit drastically from song to song. I do like to have my sound as a signature element, but I am there to serve the music. I’ll do whatever I can to facilitate the music and the flow.

I work with some pretty incredible companies, and I am grateful to them for the trust and partnership: Soultone Cymbals, Vic Firth sticks, FSA Cajons, Evans Drumheads, LP Percussion, GruvGear accessories, Powerclick In-Ear Monitors and Lexicon Pro-Audio.

My wish list may be the same from when I was 14. A huge kit with 200 tons and cymbals, and gongs, and 10 bass drums, etc. I just can’t keep my excitement down when I think about traveling and touring with a crazy kit like that.

 

What genre of music would you like to write that you have not yet?

I mentioned earlier writing for strings – I would love to write for bigger groups, and mix classical, jazz and Latin music in different ways. It will take some research and some “inner-searching” but hopefully that will happen at some point in my life.  

What is the jazz scene like in NYC today?

I have seen some of the most incredible, daring, revolutionary and inspiring music in the last few years living here. The NYC scene is pretty unique, intense and fascinating. But it can be overwhelming too. Being a full-time musician in NYC can lead to many “Upside Down Looking Up” moments! But, you know, many artists search for that intensity and craziness to unleash their creativity.

Do you have a positive outlook for jazz as a music form?

Yes, I think so. Jazz is embedded in the history and culture of the U.S. And it traveled the world and back. It’s a beautiful art form, one that can host and accommodate numerous ideas, styles, and influences…

Music can bring people together, cultures together, and I think the intensity and depth of jazz can really take this beautiful multi-cultural experience to the next level as it was in the not too distant past. But I think sometimes as artists, we try too hard, and we end up missing opportunities to be perfect conduits of powerful musical messages in favor of slightly more selfish offerings, or to cover up our own insecurities as performers and artists.

It’s difficult to get a lot of attention in the mainstream playing jazz, but I think both sides can be to blame. Some of this music has become extremely intellectual and exclusive, which is fine I guess, given that it is honest and it can still connect with the audiences. On the other hand, audiences favor more of the 10-second pleasure of YouTube clips rather than going to a live concert and being part of the show, and supporting the music and the artists who are creating it.

I think that with time, audiences and jazz artists will eventually find their common ground, and jazz can make a serious move into more mainstream circles and cultures, and larger and larger audiences. But, the main thing for me is this: it needs to be solely about the music – not individual artists creating individual and exclusive pieces. It’s a community, rather than polarization.  

Where will you perform for the rest of 2017?

I am working mostly as a sideman for the remaining part of the year. I have shows in the NYC area, the East coast of the U.S. and some concerts and recordings in Europe. I may have a couple of things down south in Brazil as well.

What are your goals for 2018?

To keep doing my sideman work, which I love. It’s always challenging and fun to play with different people and wear as many musical hats as possible.

I would love to be able to bring the “Upside Down Looking Up” project to as many people as I can. Besides the fact that it’s my music and I would love people to hear it, of course, the album has a positive message that many people may be searching for or need to listen to. Hopefully I can create opportunities for this music to go many places!

I would love to do more teaching too. I haven’t had many opportunities in the past few years due to my schedule. So we’ll see what happens! 

Other comments?

Thank you, Debbie, for the opportunity to share ideas, and talk about my music and my career. I wish you all the best in all your endeavors!

Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.

(c) Debbie Burke 2017