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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Derek Trucks Band: Music lessons

Derek Trucks has learned from watching and listening to others.

Derek Trucks

Courtesy photo

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By the time guitarist Derek Trucks was 15 years old, he was a veteran of the blues-rock guitar circuit. At 29, Trucks is recognized as one of the world’s great guitarists — a versatile player in demand for recording sessions and world tours.

So how does a player keep his head in check through all that? Mostly by watching and listening to what happens around him.

“I’ve seen so many friends and guys I played with just go down in a ball of flames, whether it’s substance abuse or [the] ego running wild, or whatever it is,” Trucks said. “It’s sad to see guys that were this force of good and light and just watch them take that turn. You see it happen often. You just have to constantly be aware of it and constantly realize that nobody’s immune to it. ”

So far, it’s working.

Trucks, who brings his Derek Trucks Band to Jefferson Center on Friday night , is a full-time member of the Allman Brothers Band. He has recorded and toured the world with Eric Clapton. He and his wife, blues-rock singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi, travel together with their own act, Soul Stew Revival. And Derek Trucks Band plans a January release for its seventh album, “Already Free,” which was recorded at Trucks’ new studio in back of his Jacksonville, Fla., home.

And Trucks is far from finished. Longevity matters, he said, citing the example of such Indian and Pakistani classical musicians as Ali Akbar Khan and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

He sat in on some classes at the Ali Akbar College of Music, watching and listening as the master taught his students. Trucks noted that Ali Akbar learned from his father, who played until his death at 104, and who had learned from his father.

It’s not unusual, Trucks said, for melodies in that culture to be passed down over several hundred years from father to son to daughter.

“I think the thing that initially attracted me to it was just how seriously they take what they do. It’s not entertainment. It’s not a game,” he said, laughing.

“They’re dead serious about it, and really believe it’s an essential part of your well-being.

“Seeing these guys that are 50, 60 years old and still learning, still growing, still with just a laser focus on what they were doing was really attractive [to me] at 14 and 15 years old. Still is, but that’s when I first got turned on to it.”

Trucks has made Sufi and Indian music a deep part of his own repertoire, which also includes plenty of jazz to go with the blues and rock music that got his career started.

Family business

Music really is the Trucks family business. Derek Trucks’ uncle is Butch Trucks, one of the Allman Brothers Band’s drummers.

From about age 10, the younger Trucks — a slide guitar prodigy — would sit in, where he was said to conjure up memories of the band’s original slide menace, the late Duane Allman. He joined the band full-time in 1999, and often Derek Trucks Band opens the Allman’s shows.

Trucks and Tedeschi have two children: Charles Khalil Trucks, 6, who gets his first name for legendary jazz guitarist Charlie Christian; and Sophia Naima Trucks, 4, named for a John Coltrane song about the saxophone giant’s first wife.

When the couple travel with Soul Stew Revival, the children come along. When they’re both on the road with their respective acts, the children stay with Trucks’ mother in Jacksonville, Fla.

“It’s a crazy life, but as long as the intention is there and the attention to the kids is there, I think even if it’s not a conventional upbringing, they’re getting a serious education on the road and are surrounded by people that have their best interests in mind,” Trucks said. “ It might not be normal, but it seems to be working.”

The children, particularly his daughter, are already showing musical talent, he said.

“If either one of them chooses to go down that road, they definitely have a head start,” he said. “We’ll see — whatever they naturally lean towards.”

Extended family

Trucks remembers being 11 or 12, with his father as his chauffeur/chaperone, when he first met Col. Bruce Hampton. At the time, Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit was developing a serious following in Atlanta. It would lead to a featured spot on the H.O.R.D.E. tours of the early 1990s, with such bands as Blues Traveler, the Spin Doctors, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Widespread Panic and Phish.

Hampton said in an interview with The Roanoke Times last year that he believed that, even then, Derek Trucks was the best guitarist in the world.

“They were great to me and for me and the band,” Trucks said. “The Colonel was an early champion of what we were doing and got us gigs around the country, just talking it up.

“When we first started traveling, a lot of times it’s all it takes for a promoter to book you is to have Colonel chewing your ear off — 'You gotta book this band’ — so we are eternally grateful to him and that whole thing that he had going on.”

Hanging with those players pushed Trucks in other musical directions. Hampton and Aquarium Rescue Unit drummer Jeff “Apt. Q-258” Sipe turned him onto the Indian and Pakistani players, while ARU guitarist Jimmy Herring (now with Widespread Panic) and Oteil Burbridge (now with the Allman Brothers) “were the guys that I would sit down with and just pick their brains,” he said. “And they were always just wide open. There was a lot of mutual respect going around. There was no better situation I could’ve been in at 12, 13 and 14 years old.

“Those guys I consider true friends and teachers. I learned a lot from both of them.”

Now that he has his own studio, he hopes it becomes a second home for them.

“Me and Susan realized that our circle of friends, a lot of them happen to be world-class musicians, and why not just have people come hang for the weekend, and if the spirit moves you, there’s a full-fledged recording studio about a hundred yards away,” Trucks said, laughing, “so let’s get to work.

“And we did that quite a bit. It’s just a really relaxed hang, and the music that comes out of it is really organic. A lot of it, when you’re recording music, comes down to how comfortable everyone feels with each other, with the situation, with the room, with the sound. And we’re starting to really hone in on creating an environment where people can come in, and the creativity starts flowing. The songs start writing themselves. It’s a pretty amazing spot.”

The new stuff

The first big example of the backyard studio vibe will occur about Jan. 20, when “Already Free” (Columbia/Legacy) comes out.

“When 20, 30 years from now we’re looking back on our career as a band … I think this one is going to be in the handful that we feel really strongly about, because we wrote a bunch of tunes and we had time to think about it,” Trucks said. “We had time to step away from it and realized if we really liked the tunes or not. It wasn’t as rushed as the previous projects. I feel really good about it.

“It’s — I don’t want to say the proudest I’ve been of any record we’ve done — but it’s definitely the one that feels like it’s the most realized of any project we’ve done.”

Just don’t expect to hear too much from that record at the Jeff Center show.

“We don’t wanna play all the tunes and have our core audience already know the record before it comes out. Especially when people are trading live tapes, we’d hate for them to get the record and be like, 'Yeah, I’ve already heard all of this,’” he said, laughing. “'Nothing new.’”

The band might play two or three songs from “Already Free,” he said.

“There’s something nice about getting a new record and putting it on and just being surprised with what comes out, instead of feeling like you already know which tunes are coming,” he said.

Then he joked: “God forbid we put out a record and the live versions are already better than the record.”
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