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A Conversation with Alex Acuna   Print

by Dave Blackburn
JoniMitchell.com
December 4, 2013

JoniMitchell.com speaks with drummer/percussionist Alejandro Neciosup Acuña (aka Alex Acuña)

Interview conducted by Dave Blackburn

Visit Alex's Facebook page.

Alex Acuña is one of the most admired and in-demand drummer/percussionists in the world, with an impressive resumé that lists his work with a wide range of jazz and rock artists over a forty year period. Coming originally from Lima, Peru, Alex lived in the US and in Puerto Rico before settling permanently in the USA in 1974. He initially found work in Las Vegas backing acts including Elvis Presley and Diana Ross. A year later he joined Weather Report and became a part of what many consider their greatest line-up: Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius, Alex Acuña and Manolo Badrena. It was this band that recorded their hugely successful album Heavy Weather, which in 2011 won them induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame and is one of only five jazz albums to go platinum. Alex played both drumkit and percussion with Weather Report, leaving in 1978 for a busy career of studio work.

Jaco Pastorius met Joni Mitchell during the later stages of the making of Hejira in 1976, and their friendship and mutual admiration grew over the next few years. It was during this time that Jaco's bandmates in Weather Report - later to include Peter Erskine, and Don Alias, who had been with Weather Report in '76 - were brought onboard to record with Joni, and the dimensional, painterly expression of her music she had sought for so long was at last available to her. She could imagine a musical picture and they could help her paint it, with their playing. Of the Weather Report lineups of '76'-79, only Joe Zawinul was not to appear on her records.

Alex played on Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1977), and is a big part of the "world music" tracks The Tenth World and Dreamland, along with his WR bandmates Manolo Badrena, Airto Moreira and Don Alias, who was also Joni's boyfriend at the time. Fourteen years later, Joni and Larry Klein brought in Alex to record percussion on six tracks of Night Ride Home (1991).

I spoke with Alex via email and Skype and he generously shared some stories about working with Joni.

JM.com: Could you give us a timeline of the period you worked with Joni?

Alex: Yes, I worked with Joni on and off in '76, '77 and I think '78. I don't remember the exact times.

How familiar were you with her work before you played with her?

I didn't know who Joni Mitchell was until after I recorded with her. Then she became one of my heroes...lol. It was Jaco who established a friendship with her, and Jaco told us to record with her.

In 1979 Joni was planning a tour with the whole Weather Report lineup opening the show and then backing her own set, as the L.A Express had done five years earlier. Joe Zawinul is alleged to have said "We ain't no fucking LA Express," and only Jaco was permitted by him to do the Shadows and Light tour. Did you hear Joe mention her? Did he disapprove of her in particular or just the idea of backing someone, do you think?

Actually she called me to do that particular tour also, Don Alias recommended me and I couldn't make the tour, for the same reason I left Weather Report: I needed to stay close to my family in Los Angeles. I never heard any comments from Joe about Joni.

Please tell us about the recording sessions themselves, and the direction or lack thereof she gave in the studio.

Joni is an incredible artist and musician and always had very musical comments in general. She always talked about the feel and the sounds and a lot about the concepts of the songs. We all listened to her because of the way she expressed herself, which was always with respect and professionalism, the way it should always be.

Do you think she is an artist who will be remembered for generations to come? If so is there anyone else that stands with her?

I do hope so. For sure, she is a composer, writer, singer, icon. I really don't know if the new generations of musicians or fans will keep remembering her, as such, but I know her songs will stay forever in the art of music composers and as a genuine unique artist. I did a recording with Jennifer Nettles and she can probably be next to Joni - a great singer/composer/writer. My belief about the art of music is that it has to be always moving forward with new sounds and new talents, because music is some of the most powerful art we have in life...

What is now called World Music, the fusion of North American and European musical traditions with those of more ancient cultures, was pretty new in the 70s, with Joni at the forefront. The Jungle Line in 1975 and the tracks you played on in 1977 spring to mind. Did she seem like an innovator to you?

Of course! She always has been an innovator since day one, in more ways than one.

Do you have some reminiscences or stories about working with Joni you'd like to share?

Well, really I wasn't that close to her; I didn't spend much time with her. And at the time that I met her my English wasn't that good, so our communication wasn't that deep. But the musical appreciation was definitely very mutual. When I discovered who she was, because I didn't know...you know. I'm a jazz musician mainly - that's why I played with Weather Report - and I always followed jazz musicians like John Coltrane, Herbie, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul. Those were, and still are my heroes. I didn't listen to singers that much, unless they were like Al Jarreau or someone like that, that was able to get out of the box. But when I discovered Joni Mitchell, she definitely impacted me. Her compositions and her chord progressions were very musical, although I didn't understand what she was singing about in English! But there was a time when I was offered the chance to go on the road with her and Lyle Mays, Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker, Jaco and Don Alias. And on one of the songs I had recorded for her [Don Juan's Reckless Daughter] I had done this Peruvian dance using Indian ankle bells that I had found, and she loved it and wanted to make it part of the presentation on the tour. But I was beginning to get into the session scene in Los Angeles and it was easier for me to stay than to go on the road, as I have a very big family. In hindsight, I would say I did the right thing, because my kids are really amazing! But I know she was disappointed. I told her I can't leave my wife alone with three kids. Joni said "well bring everybody, I'll pay for their tuition and everything." But she continued to call me for sessions so there were no hard feelings about it.

How many kids do you have?

Five - three boys, two girls. Everyone plays music in my family but only a few choose to go professionally. My youngest daughter is an amazing singer, arranger and composer, and she started recording when she was four years old, and she loves Joni Mitchell! That's her bag! My wife is an excellent singer and pianist. And I now have a 17-year old grandson who is coming to L.A to pursue music; he is a prodigy. Music runs in the family; my father was a teacher and all my brothers are musicians.

Joni Mitchell had great musical comments and she was very smart and intelligent so when she hired great musicians she knew you don't have to tell them what to do. You just say things that you would like to hear. The great studio musicians know how to play, and she was very sensitive about that; I noticed that. She would say "how about this, or how about that in this part?" or "if anyone has any ideas about this segment of the song, speak up."

For me, the musician that made the biggest impact playing with her was Wayne Shorter. And the way he played on Joni's albums was like a painter, because Wayne is also a painter! She was able to discern and notice people like that who had those qualities. That's why she was always surrounded by great musicians.

She seemed to have very good time, the way she sings and phrases. Was she laying down her vocals at the same time as you were playing?

Yeah, in those days there was no Pro Tools; it was straight to 2 inch tape, and I think she laid down her guitar and vocals. She's one of the natural musicians. When you say about her time, that's a natural thing you are born with. Other people maybe learn time in relation to their genre: like, if you play Brazilian music you have to have a different tempo, if you play Latin music you have to have a different tempo, but in the genre that she was doing it was very natural for her. Folk...jazzy...I don't know how to describe her music! But I agree with you; her phrasing and the way she tuned her guitars was very unique, you know. That's why she's Joni Mitchell!

It's been hard to describe her all along. She sort of has her own category.

Definitely. And also her music will be lasting. Which is great, you know. If you look at the great composers they probably never heard their own music but the music is going to stay forever. The big artists in the industry...in the art, not the industry - because it's different!...they get discovered late. John Coltrane, he's still not discovered, in a way, but he's probably the biggest jazz musician in the whole world. But Joni's going to be there for sure, because her voice was so fresh, her words and her melodies are not common.

In 1991, recording Night Ride Home, I was there many times at her house - she had a great studio - and she put me downstairs in the library, where I tracked all the percussion. But until recently I didn't even have a copy. In those days I was busy recording with a lot of people so I didn't really know which albums I played on. But now, people are beginning to listen to that music and friends on Facebook are telling me "Alex, I was just listening to Night Ride Home," and I said "Oh wow, I think I played on that." So I went and bought it!

I remember one time, while recording at her house, we took a break and I went outside to look at the stars, and she was sitting in her car (a 6 series BMW) listening to an NPR program. She told me she got a lot of her information about economic and political situations all around the world from talk radio. She was very much into knowing what was going on around her. I thought that was great and that I should start doing that myself! I asked her "why do you listen to the radio?" and she said "I don't have time to read the paper; and besides, they don't talk much about the news around the world, mostly about your own country."

My wife and my youngest daughter, they are really her fans. My wife knew her music all along and Joni is definitely talked about in our family when it comes to folk music and some of those unforgettable songs that she wrote. Joni's an amazing person, that makes you feel very comfortable around her. She was open to talking about anything. She's very smart, very intelligent, but never came across that way to overwhelm anyone.

What are you busy with these days?

Musically I'm still recording a lot with the Hollywood Symphony Orchestra for the big movie sound tracks, with composer Michael Giacchino. The last big movie was Star Trek: Into the Darkness. I also have my personal recording studio where I am producing and mixing lots of CD's for South American artists. I have an Alex Acuña signature line of percussion instruments for Gon Bops. They make a line of congas, timbales, bongoes, djembe and a cajon, which is an instrument from my country, Peru.

Life is great with my big beautiful family, and we have some great musicians who will be coming next to the music scene. Thank you for asking.

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, Alex. There are some lovely stories there. I wish you great success with the Gon Bops products.

Oh, sure, thank you for calling.

 

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johnblenkiron on 2013-Dec-05 at 14:01:02 GMT-5:
Alex Acuna provides a wonderful insight into Joni's creative genius in this interview. Joni's ability to zone in on the ideal musical accompanists to back up her creations seems to have been in the manner a painter chooses colour from a palette.She recognized performers that could identify with her idiom. Just as a Van Gogh could always be recognized as a Van Gogh no matter what the subject, Joni Mitchell's music could always be recognized as her brand in the way she applied timing, her unique phrasing and guitar tunings to whatever genre she chose.
debramann on 2013-Dec-04 at 22:19:38 GMT-5:
It's so great to hear a master musician like Alex Acuna talking about another master musician, Joni Mitchell. I love the whole interview. Thanks for posting.