Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Previte, Bobby (Robert)

Drummer and composer Bobby Previte has championed an extended palette of sounds which combines influences from blues, classical music and rock. Often in the company of guitarists Elliot Sharp, and Charlie Hunter, and keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, Previte has been a key player on New York's experimental and crossover music scenes.

Robert Previte was born on July 16, 1951 in Niagara Falls, New York. As a teenager, Previte began to play the guitar before ultimately deciding that he wanted to play the drums. His early experience on the drums included visits to a cousin’s house, where he would play his drum set.

Taking matters into his own hands, Previte decided to make drums for himself using boxes, a rusted iron garbage can, rubber trash bins and other miscellaneous items. Bobby spent a considerable amount of time in his basement playing along with records on this makeshift kit.

Previte was then hired by a local band, only to get fired when they realized he did not have a professional set. His parents saw how dedicated he was about music and agreed to help him get a drum set. With money from his parents and money he saved from delivering the Niagara Gazette newspaper, he purchased his first drum set, which he continued to use until the 1990s.

Previte then rejoined the band in time to play at a party at Niagara Falls High School. Throughout his high school years, Bobby played with several rock and soul bands throughout the Niagara Falls area. He performed in an array of places from bars and clubs to burlesque shows.

Upon graduating from high school, Previte enrolled at the State University of New York at Buffalo. His father wanted him to become a doctor, and Bobby compromised by studying economics and classical percussion. At Buffalo, he studied with Jan Williams and Morton Feldman.

While attending school, Bobby discovered the music of avant-garde and minimalist composers such as John Cage, himself a professor at Buffalo, and Terry Reilly. A highlight of his time at Buffalo included performing with Jan Williams’ ensemble and as a guest artist with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

Previte began to focus on jazz after listening to the compositional efforts of bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Tony Williams’ work on trumpeter Miles Davis’s 1968 album Filles de Kilimanjaro. Bobby was drawn to the album’s synthesis of jazz and rock styles. Previte graduated cum laude< from Buffalo in 1973.

In 1979, Previte moved to New York City, where he instantly began to make a name for himself in the city’s vibrant “downtown” scene. Upon arriving, Bobby began to work with guitarist Elliott Sharp, who introduced him many of the scene's leading figures, including Wayne Horvitz, alto saxophonist John Zorn, and guitarist Bill Frisell amongst others. Previte performed at several clubs in the East Village, where he earned a reputation for his time-keeping skills and inspired performances.

After several years in New York, Previte formed a trio with Horvitz and cornetist Butch Morris and also collaborated with Zorn. Soon after, Bobby became a member of the New York Composers Orchestra, an organization founded by Horvitz and pianist Robin Holcomb with the intent of commissioning and performing new works for a jazz orchestra.

In 1985, Previte joined the band The President. Formed by Horvitz, the band included saxophonist Dave Sewelson, Kevin Cosgrove and bassist Joe Gallant. The group performed throughout the New York City area and by the time they released their self-titled album in 1987, the band’s line-up included Horvitz, Previte, Frisell, Sharp and bassist Dave Hofstra.

1985 also saw Previte forming the Horvitz, Morris, Previte Trio. The trio began to perform throughout the United States, Canada and Europe, but did not release a record until 1997’s Nine Below Zero. By the mid 1980s, Bobby became an in demand drummer, performing and recording with everyone from saxophonist Tim Berne’s group Caos Totale to singer-songwriter Tom Waits.

In 1985, Previte released the album Bump the Renaissance, his first album as a leader, for the Gramavision label. Bobby quickly followed the album up with 1987’s Pushing the Envelope and 1988’s Claude’s Late Morning. The following year, the chamber music ensemble Relache commissioned Previte to compose an original piece for the ensemble.

In 1990, Previte formed the band Empty Suits, an acoustic and electric group. The same year, the group released their self-titled debut album on the Gramavision label. The album features contributions from trombonist Robin Eubanks and saxophonist Marty Ehrlich.

The following year, Previte formed the band Weather Clear, Track Fast with Ehrlich, clarinetist Don Byron and cornetist Graham Haynes. The same year, Bobby composed “Cirk Valentin” for the Moscow Circus, which had its American premiere at the Gershwin Theatre in New York City in November 1991.

In 1993, Previte made an appearance in director Robert Altman’s movie Short Cuts. The following year, Bobby performed with soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom and toured Europe with Weather Clear, Track Fast.

Bobby continued his prolific performance schedule by forming the band Latin for Travelers in 1996 alongside keyboardist Jamie Saft, guitarist Marc Ducret and bass guitarist Jerome Harris. The group traveled internationally, recording the live session My Man in Sydney at the Basement Club in Sydney, Australia.

Around this time, Previte formed the group the Voodoo Orchestra, an ensemble dedicated to Miles Davis’s late 1960s music. Shortly after, Bobby formed the eleven-piece ensemble The Horse (You Rode In On), which he toured Europe and Canada with in 1997. The group explored the juxtaposition between avant-garde jazz and rock styles.

The same year, Previte formed his own record company, Depth of Field. The label’s first release was Euclid’s Nightmare, a series of duos with John Zorn. In 1998, Bobby’s career was the subject of a retrospective at the famed Knitting Factory club. The three-day event featured Bobby performing with various groups that he led throughout the years. On December 30, 1998, Bobby released In The Grass, a duo record with Marc Ducret. The album featured Bobby performing on drums as well as keyboards.

A shining example of the duo’s work is the song “Handy.” The song begins with Previte quietly playing while Ducret tremolo picks high on the guitar revealing a dark sound. The atmospheric performance of Bobby in the beginning is in stark contrast to his performance in the middle of the song where his more concrete sound makes him more akin to Elvin Jones.His use of time further expands Ducret’s performance, resulting in a fuller ensemble sound.

Beginning in 1999, Previte formed a quintet with Marty Ehrlich, Wayne Horvitz, trombonist Ray Anderson and bassist Steve Swallow. In February of 2003, Previte recorded the album Come in Red Dog, This is Tango Leader with guitarist Charlie Hunter. The album began an enduring working relationship between the two musicians.

On the song “All Hell Broke Loose,” Previte utilizes different chimes and percussion instruments in order to give the beat of the song a more sonically enjoyable timbre. The chimes combine especially well with Hunter’s guitar, blending seamlessly to create a base sound where the drums work more as a melodic device rather than rhythmically.

The same year, Previte and his ensemble Bump released the record Counterclockwise. Released on the Palmetto label, the album features Marty Ehrlich, Steve Swallow, Wayne Horvitz and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes. The ensemble is at its best on the song “Counterclockwise.”

The song begins with Previte playing a rock beat with Swallow behind him playing a two-feel. Previte and Swallow continue this feel while Ehrlich, Fowlkes and Horvitz play the melody, each to their own liking creating a contrapuntal effect. What is most striking about the song is how lyrical and melodic Previte’s playing is, with Previte playing different drums and cymbals to match the timbre of whichever instrument is soloing.

In 2004, Previte and Hunter formed the duo Groundtruther, with the intention of releasing a series of trilogies, each with a different featured instrumentalist. That year, the duo released Latitude featuring saxophonist Greg Osby. The group followed up with 2005’s Longtitude with turntablist DJ Logic and 2007’s Altitude with organist John Medeski.

In 2006, Previte recorded the more rock-oriented album Coalition of the Willing for Ropeadope Records. The record spawned into a touring ensemble which features Previte, Hunter, trumpeter Steven Bernstein, and organist Marco Benevento.

In 2006, Bobby toured Europe and the United States. In 2007, he was a curator for “April in New York,” a series of duets that was supported by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Featured in the duets were Elliott Sharp, harpist Zeena Parkins amongst others.

In August 2007, Previte formed a new version of Bump the Renaissance featuring Steven Bernstein, tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, vibraphonist Bill Ware, bassist Brad Jones and percussionist Jim Pugliese. The group’s first release was 2008’s Set the Alarm for Monday.

Previte lives in New York with his wife, writer Andrea Kleine. Bobby maintains a prolific performing, recording and teaching schedule.

Select Discography

As a leader

Bump the Renaissance (1985)

Pushing the Envelope (1987)

Claude’s Late Morning (1988)

Empty Suits (1990)

Weather Clear Track Fast (1991)

My Man in Sydney (1997)

Just Add Water (2002)

Counterclockwise (2003)

The Coalition of the Willing (2006)

Set the Alarm for Monday (2008)

With Marc Ducret

In the Grass (1998)

With Groundtruther

Latitude (2004)

Longitude (2005)

Altitude (2007)

With Charlie Hunter

Come in Red Dog, This is Tango Leader (2003)

With John Zorn

Euclid Nightmares (1997)

Contributor: Eric Wendell