Prying Jazz Wide Open With Two Sticks

Robert Castelli 2

A rolling and rollicking drum intro kicks off “2 Lumps for Humpty” courtesy of percussionist Robert Castelli. Crashing the cymbals and attacking his kit, he sets the pace for measures later, when the guitar sounds a chord and the sax pops in with a funkadelic melody.

Robert, who can wail away on a 12-string guitar as well (though it’s not his primary instrument), is interested in the growth and expansion of jazz. The art form needs to move onto new ideas, he says. Let’s get creative here and inject some innovative melodious elements, utilize more odd meters, and explore unconventional intervals.                              

Why the name “Boom Quartet” and “Trio of Boom”?

Trio of Boom was a play on words to John McLaughlin, Jaco Pastorius and Tony Williams’ “Trio of Doom.”  But the concept is about the energy of music. It’s not about volume. Or violence.

Sometimes you go to a club and there’s a band playing and you hear people talking and glasses clinking. Then you see another band, they are not louder, but all of a sudden, an electricity goes through the room and everybody is quiet. That’s Boom. And that’s why I named my quartet that. And being a drummer helps! 

What strengths do each of the musicians bring to your ensembles?

I try to pick great players, explain what I’m hearing/envisioning and then get out of their way. I grew up in a place and time where you’d be riding in the car and you’d hear the Beatles, Hendrix, Cream, The Mamas & the Papas, Sly and the Family Stone. Then you’d turn the dial and it’s James Brown, Santana, Sinatra, Nat King Cole. Then Beethoven, Mozart, etc.

I need players who have that wide a comfort zone. They bring a version of what I just described but from their own perspective. And it’s inspiring. Each one brings something different. Rhythmic, harmonic, melodic. The way they solo. Their life experiences. “If you don’t live it, it can’t come out of your horn.”

Do you think your percussion sensibility is inherited from a familial lineage of drummers?

Probably. I’m a 3rd generation drummer. My father’s father played but not professionally. He was a carpenter by trade. One of my uncles had a band but my father and his youngest brother were pros in NY from the 1940s to the 1980s. I’ve always been attracted to music but I guess I gravitated to and focused on drums because of my father. I think it’s in the genes. Both of my daughters have great rhythm. 

What are some of the more unusual/funky components of your drum kit?

I once did a jazz recording only using brushes and a newspaper. For a while in Vienna I had an “exotic” percussion set up with rain sticks, chimes, etc., but nothing too far out. Never could afford electronic stuff but I don’t really like that. At home or anywhere else, everything is a percussion instrument.

You are touring shortly in Vienna. How would you describe the jazz scene there?

I’ve toured all over Austria. They love jazz and have a great school in Graz.

They know where jazz comes from. The scene is small and struggling. There are of course a few Austrian stars who have been on the scene a long time. But it’s a small scene. Some great players but they are the exception really. It’s hard for jazz anywhere now. But we’ll get into the word “jazz” later.

Talk about composing for musical theater- how is that different from songwriting for a CD?

My dream was to score film. I got into Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith, Ennio Morricone, etc. at a very early age. Writing for theater is not so “in your face” like jazz and popular music. You are painting the scenery in the background with music. You are setting the emotional or even visual tone of the scene with music. You are not the center of what’s going on. When you do a CD, it’s all about you, even if you’re just doing standards or covers.

What is the most memorable theatrical production you’ve been part of?

It was an Off-Off-Off Broadway production of Richard the III in the 90s, adapted to modern times, during the US elections. They wanted an all-percussion score and they had access to Lincoln Center’s percussion department. Whatever I needed, they could sign out as long as it wasn’t being used. I was in heaven!!! I said, “Glockenspiel here, chimes there,” etc. It was a blast. 

What is the biggest challenge today for jazz musicians?

Making a living, finding an audience but most importantly, moving the music forward while doing the other stuff.

How does one become innovative on drums – what new effects, time signatures or other elements do you have yet to explore?

I don’t think one sets out to be innovative. And I don’t think it’s a special technique or technology. But if you listen well, doors will open and you pick your palette.

I’m always exploring and learning. And as a composer, it seems music comes to me in not such traditional time signatures. It’s like light through a prism. The melody falls in a different rhythmic space.

If it comes off right, the audience is blown away. But it seems that too many players are not comfortable in odd meters. The best odd meter grooves like a motherfucker and doesn’t sound “odd” at all. There’ll be some more on the new CD. 

What is your favorite venue in NYC?

Most of the ones I loved are closed. 7th Avenue South, not just because the Brecker Brothers owned it, but it was the time. The Bottom Line because you could see anything. The Blue Note is great and classy and very New York but it was always a “tourist trap” to me. But of course, they had great music. Seen all my heroes there multiple times. The Knitting Factory.

What moods do you like to paint with the drums?

The music tells me what to do. And I like it all, from strong rhythm to just color.

Where do you go in your head when you are soloing?

Too often when I’m touring as a bandleader, it takes me a while to let go of the logistics, money, travel, if the band is “on,” etc. I need time to let it go, then just relax and play. Then I go to that source where the music comes from.

 What do you like about the Porgy and Bess club?

It’s a great venue because it’s not too big but it’s not small. And great for any kind of music. I’ve seen Zawinul there, McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, Nguyen Le and more. I’ve performed in three World music festivals there playing Balkan Rock, Turkish/Kurdish music and African music, and with both Trio of Boom and Boom Quartet. It’s a true music club. Very eclectic.

What elements of World do you like to incorporate in your music?

For me everything is music and everything is part of the world. I love percussion obviously, but I love indigenous string instruments, and quarter tones in singing or an instrument. 

Talk about that fantastic tune “Temporary Insanity” – how you wrote it, and what you enjoy about it?

Well first, thanks!  Again, a play on words. I heard this dirty, funky riff. It was about the times then (2007-2008). What was going on in the world. Imagine now!!! The insanity doesn’t seem to be temporary. It was like a “get out of jail free” card. The phrase was all too often used for abominable behavior. Hence the voice samples of those lovely people.

It’s funny because it’s a very electric tune but I wrote it on a steel string acoustic. I heard the rest in my head.

What do student percussionists struggle most with and how do you advise them?

Feeling the space between the notes. I’ve actually taught rhythm to non-percussion students. For example, they couldn’t feel triplets as three even beats. The key is getting it in your body so when we’re analyzing a tune/rhythm, I ask, “What’s the bass drum doing? Sing it. Now, the snare drum…” etc. Then I say don’t play it, just sing it. Then when I can sense that it’s getting in their body, then I get them to play it and we work on the physical/coordination aspects from there.

How do you want to develop your music in 2018?

Very carefully. I’m now in Barcelona and have access to a wider range of musicians so I can really get closer to what I’m hearing. I felt limited before. Sometimes by musicians, sometimes by my inability to be able to afford what I want. To get the sounds for what I’m hearing.

No one ever talks about the financial aspects of being a musician. If you’re running your own project there are a lot of costs.

But musically I’m adding more sounds and rhythms from different countries. I’m also hearing more “orchestral” or “arranged” music so there’s more of that now. And even though I like to record in a jazz way, meaning no overdubs or little post-production, I want to have more of both in the future. 

Where would you most like to perform in 2018?

I haven’t performed in France yet. They have great clubs, festivals and a very mixed musical culture. Also, it’s close enough that my girls can come with me.

Comments on the melodic direction of jazz today?

So here’s where I want to talk about that word. “Jazz” was an idea or ideology or attitude that became a label and it stopped being what jazz is: spontaneous and “now.” But a lot of those old standards were reworked pop tunes. Then they added different rhythms, they extended the harmonic structure, etc. It kept evolving.

Jazz got stuck in the mud around the 90s when it became a museum piece. There seemed to be less creativity than previous years.

I think jazz will change melodically as it incorporates more melodic structure from outside traditional jazz.

Comments on the marketability of jazz today?

To sell and market something, a label gets put on it. I think the best way to market jazz today is the way they did it in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Namely, put a jazz group on a concert with pop musicians. Mixed programs crossed a lot of people over into different genres. I don’t think that would’ve happened otherwise. The word gets out, it becomes hip and it’s easy to market.

Also, multiple night runs for bands. Again, like the old days. Let them build a buzz, build an audience. Everyone loves a great live musical experience. How will they know about it if they don’t hear it?

Other comments?

For about 20 years now, it seems that everywhere I go to hear music I hear the same 10 tunes. In the States and Europe. In jazz or funk, at sessions, etc. And if it’s original music, with less and less artistic vision.

Most people believe music is a language. If you saw me tomorrow, next week, next year or 10 years from now and I said the same stuff I said before, you’d think I was crazy, right? Well?

Two great quotes from two great musicians.

“Too many musicians play when they should be practicing, and practice when they should be playing.”


“After you get through playing what you know, then play something.”


For more information, visit

Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.

(c) Debbie Burke 2017


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