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Chicago Tribune - October 29, 2000

To A Different Drummer

Paul Wertico Makes a CD To Please Himself, Mixing Genres Along The Way

by Howard Reich
Tribune Arts Critic


Take a glance around the den in drummer-bandleader Paul Wertico's north suburban home, and it's clear that the fellow does not lack for awards and accolades. His seven Grammy statuettes (won with the Pat Metheny Group) compete for shelf space with citations and honors from virtually every drum magazine imaginable.

But Wertico, as innovative and versatile an artist as any in jazz, ought to pull down another major prize for his newest recording, "Don't Be Scared Anymore" (on Chicago-based Premonition Records). Whether one relishes the Metheny discs or finds them hopelessly lightweight, whether one adores Wertico's experiments with the aptly named Earwax Control or considers them, well, ear-shattering, "Don't Be Scared Anymore" will take the listener into intriguing new territory.

By merging the spirit and technique of jazz improvisation with elements of rock, avant-garde, noise, techno and you-name-it, Wertico and his high-powered trio have come up with perhaps the most uncategorizable jazz release of the year. And that's precisely what the drummer had in mind.

"I didn't worry about genres or styles or anything like it," says Wertico, in explaining how he created a recording that may confound record-store managers everywhere.

"I didn't worry about boundaries or territory that I was crossing over. I firmly believe that almost every kind of music has some good qualities," adds Wertico, who's 47. "So why not draw on everything you can think of?"

In Wertico's case, however, that represent a galaxy of sound, considering that he has explored cutting-edge improvisation with saxophonist Evan Parker, bracing avant-garde with reedist Roscoe Mitchell, classic swing with bandleader Nelson Riddle, R&B with the Shirelles, and so on. The man has played practically every backbeat known to man, which goes a long way toward explaining the swirl of sounds and styles that drive "Don't Be Scared Anymore."

With John Moulder providing searing lines on electric guitar and Eric Hochberg raising Cain on acoustic and electric bass (as well as an unexpected turn on trumpet), the trio sounds as if twice as many musicians were at work. More important, the music-making defies routine chord changes, predictable solo statements and traditional structures. Everything about this record is somehow off-center and off-balance, as if the musicians have no intention of playing according to the rule book.

From the strange time signatures to the outlandish sound effects to the heady solos suggesting stream-of-consciousness soliloquies, this music represents a head-on assault on the strait-laced values of standard jazz recording at the turn of the century.

Yet it's sobering to note that has it taken Wertico fully three decades as a performing musician to be able to create a record his own way, on his own terms.

"This is really the first record where I was totally in control and could just make a record that I would believe in," says Wertico, who has been performing professionally since age 15 and has appeared on scores of recordings as headliner and sideman.

"For the first time, there wasn't any kind of pressure, any kind of financial or commercial consequence, any thought of accommodating anything besides the music that I hear inside me.

"This record was sort of my declaration of independence, as if I was saying: `Here I am, this is what I do when I do what I want to. Period.' "

True enough, Wertico cut the recording on his own time and budget, without zero prospects for a record deal. Once he had completed the disc, he knew that it was not exactly the sort of fare that would entice the likes of Verve, Blue Note, Columbia or the other corporate labels.

So Wertico shrewdly took his tape to Premonition, the David-versus-Goliath Chicago label that has become home to such local iconoclasts as singer-pianist-songwriter Patricia Barber and jazz-tinged folkie Terry Callier. Considering that Premonition recently scored a major hit with Barber's new "Nightclub" CD, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard jazz chart, Wertico hardly could have chosen a better showcase for his decidedly idiosyncratic talents.

"Usually when someone brings me a finished tape, even if I love it, I tend to want to change this or that," says Mike Friedman, founder of Premonition. "I might want a different kind of recorded sound, or a different song sequence, or some other thing changed.

"But you could tell that Paul considered this record the best thing he ever had done. To me, it's a record on the edge. He's trying things, he's making something happen, so why mess with that?"

It's still too early to tell if "Don't Be Scared Anymore" will make much impact in the marketplace, but there's no doubt about how it has been received among critics. Modern Drummer called the disc "the heaviest and most musical playing yet on record from Wertico," while Billboard termed it "a disc with plenty of appeal for fans of edgy instrumental music from the post-fusion division."

And All About Jazz gushed, "This album is like the soundtrack to the world's coolest vacation; let it take you along for the ride."

Indeed, there's a sense of journey and forward motion to the recording, with each cut venturing into another byway in Wertico's often bizarre, anything-goes musical sensibility. Yet even at its most outrageous, the recording conveys a virtuosity that many other experimenters would be hard-pressed to match.

As for the title, "Don't Be Scared Anymore," it's not intended to put wary record-buyers at ease. On the contrary, the phrase represents a kind of mantra for Wertico himself -- as well as anyone else who yearns to explore the unknown.

"The name actually came from Talia," remembers Wertico, referring to the daughter he and his wife, musician Barbara Unger-Wertico, are raising in a house where the music-making never quits. The 5-year-old makes a brief, spoken-word appearance on the disc, and her beguiling, child's voice adds to the disc's sense of wonder and whimsy.

"We were goofing around one day, and I was telling Talia that something or other was really scary.

"And she said, `Daddy, don't be scared anymore.' When she said that, I thought, `Yeah, that's the title.'

"It's as if I was telling myself, `Don't be scared, don't worry about what anyone is going think, just make some music.'

"And at the same time, I didn't want listeners to be scared that this was going to be a drummer's record," meaning a disc in which one bashing, seemingly interminable drum solo follows another.

"The idea was to make music that would really grab people and make them feel some joy and energy."

Images and Information from Chicago Tribune, Sunday, October 29, 2000, Section 7, Arts & Entertainment, page 21

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