Jeff Chimenti: Keyboard Ace Adds Dimension to RatDog
By Blair Jackson
When I catch up with soft-spoken RatDog keyboardist Jeff Chimenti for our Dead.net interview, he's only been home for a couple of days, after playing with the Dead at the Penn State concert for Obama (along with the Allman Bros.), and he's just a few days away from rehearsals before RatDog's fall East Coast tour, which begins in Long Island on October 30 and goes through to a November 22 finale in Florida. He's a busy guy right now, but he wouldn't want it any other way.
Jeff at the 7/1/08 show. Photo: Dave W. Clark/daveclarklive.net © 2008
One of the truly nice people in the scene, Chimenti (pronounced key-men-tee; he's Italian-American) is a formidable talent who has added immeasurably to RatDog's sound since joining in the summer of 1997. He also played on the 2003 and 2004 tours by The Dead-he was particularly strong on the latter tour, where he didn't have to share the keyboard duties with Rob Barraco. Yes, it was on that tour that we learned that lurking beneath that calm, unassuming exterior is a beast adept at just about any style.
Like so many kids who took piano lessons at a young age, Jeff grew up (just south of San Francisco, where he still lives) playing classical music exclusively. He sensed that music was his calling early in life, though as the years passed, he drifted into jazz, which is mostly what he played until joining the Dog. Okay, there was that stint with the funk divas from En Vogue in the mid-'90s, but that was a brief detour from what was a very successful career playing in all sorts of different jazz situations, from casuals to concerts. (For the record, Jeff says he still regularly plays classical piano at home-maybe some day in "stuff," the freeform jam in the last third of every RatDog set, he'll lay a little Bach or Rachmaninoff on us!)
As we pick up his story, he's starting to make the transition from the classical to the jazz world.
How did you pick up the jazz stuff?
From everywhere. From albums and 78s and the radio. Jazz at the Philharmonic; things like that. I had also gotten into ragtime quite a bit, so I was interested in that transition from ragtime into jazz.
How old were you then?
Probably 10, 11, 12. I turned 13 my first year in high school, and it was before that. The harmonic movement of it worked [for me]; the progressions and all. But when a teacher first put a "fake book" chart in front of me, I thought, "What the hell is this? [Laughs] I need piano music here!" But I got a grasp of it pretty fast, and then from there I was lucky to get the opportunity to play with some really good musicians. A lot them had been in college bands [as was Jeff, at the College of San Mateo, where Phil Lesh had been decades earlier] and were the working musicians, so to speak, of the scene. Pretty early on I started playing both club gigs and casuals.
Were you listening to much pop music then?
Not really. I grew up listening to a lot of classical stuff because that's what I was studying, and I sort of skipped the whole pop thing. I definitely heard people like Zeppelin, The Who and The Doors. I think my earliest recollection of what we had at the house was the Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow, and I liked that. I was even a Kiss fan for a while. But those were all my brother's records. I preferred jazz, and as I got more into it, it became like, "Check out this record," and it would be one of the classic Blue Notes and Big Bands.
Were you checking out the pianists, like Horace Silver and McCoy Tyner?
Of course, yes. And after a while you start to gravitate to certain people or styles of playing because it's how you're maybe hearing things. I ended up getting deeply into people like Keith Jarrett and Herbie [Hancock] and Chick Corea-and I'd put McCoy in there, too. He's great. I've met him a few times and seen him a bunch. He's a sweet man. He's definitely been an inspiration.
What was the first group that you were in that felt like, "Hey, this is different and original and interesting music"?
Early on I was involved in a band with this guy Glenn Cronkhite, who was a local percussionist who was deep into the ECM catalog and used to play with a lot of those guys-like Jan Garbarek. Glenn was in a band called the Rubisa Patrol...
With Art Lande-a great pianist! I liked that band a lot.
Right. I was very influenced by that approach. In Glenn's band I got to play with Mel Graves, who was a great [bass] player, and Dave Riekenberg, a New York saxophonist. Around the same time I was in this other band with a guy named Sheldon Brown, who was a local composer and saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist. He used to be part of the Klezmorim and the Club Foot Orchestra. Anyway, in that band, we mostly played music he'd composed, which was very interesting.
You mentioned Keith Jarrett a minute ago. Did his whole approach to freeform improvisation appeal to you? The notion of sitting down at the piano, and just blowing, figuratively speaking?
Oh, yeah. I loved that stuff and it definitely had an effect on me. That's why falling into RatDog and the Dead world seemed so natural in a way. It was like-BOOM I get this! I just had to learn all the music that went with it! [Laughs]
When you were growing up, how much of what you did was piano-based versus other keyboards?
I was more piano-based than anything. I occasionally did other keyboard stuff, but I never really gravitated seriously in other directions other than piano. I had a Fender Rhodes-in fact I have the same one I bought back in the '80s. It's still works great and it's more than paid for itself, because not every gig had a nice piano, obviously. [Laughs]
How hard was it to make a living playing casuals and in little jazz groups?
I was very lucky. I've been doing gigs since the age of 13. I guess from 13 to 18 it was mainly the occasional casual and party, just a few a month. But by the time I was 18, I really hit the San Francisco scene and started hanging out at the Jazz Workshop and jamming with different people and cutting my teeth that way. Then I started getting gigs here and there-although I couldn't get in some places because I was underage. But after I turned 21 I hit the scene hard.
Were you essentially living that jazzman's life until you joined RatDog?
Yeah. I never played in other rock bands. First it was casuals, then clubs and concert situations. There was one gig that was a little off the wall: Around 1989 or 1990 I got a call from a buddy one day and he says, "You've got an audition for En Vogue [the popular Oakland soul/funk group] tomorrow." He was already playing with them. So I went over and there were like 14 or 15 other keyboardists there all auditioning. And I ended up getting the gig, much to my surprise. I did their first tour, which was with MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice; we were in the second slot, before Hammer, who was very big at that time.
That must have been a little weird for you musically. It's not the most complex music...
No, it's not. [Laughs] Some of it was just triggering samples, though there's a trick and an art to that, too. I'm not putting that down at all. It was basically a good experience. I'd always had visions of being on the road and traveling, and this was that. It was an insane schedule-we played six nights a week, and it was mostly in basketball arenas. That was my first big tour.
So this must have been at MC Hammer's peak.
It was right in that Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em period. [That was Hammer's 1990 #1 smash album.] It was the middle of about a year and a half tour of his-we did a three or four month stretch with him. We'd play 30, 35 minutes a night. Like I said, it was a good experience, but when I came back I realized that it wasn't really the direction I wanted to go.
Were you playing electronic keyboards?
Yeah, and they had four keyboard players. [Laughs]
Were your jazz-cat friends horrified?
Not at all. They were very supportive: "Go do it!" Then, once the En Vogue thing ended and I came back, I was working solidly, almost seven nights a week, for a few years in all sorts of situations; mostly club stuff and some concerts. I had my own trios, which ended up doing OK, and I bounced around with various people, doing straight-ahead [jazz], post-bop stuff; all kinds.
Is there a wing in jazz you feel closest to?
Probably the mid- and late '60s and early '70s is the era I would have fit in with best. I don't consider myself a straight-up bebop player; I was always more post-bop in the way I heard things.
So, your tenure with RatDog came about through Dave Ellis [the group's original saxophonist], correct?
Right. I was in his quartet and he had just gotten the RatDog gig, and I sort of half-jokingly said, "Hey, if you guys ever need anyone to jam with, I'm here!" About two days later he calls me and says, "You're not going to believe this but they're looking for a keyboard player!" Johnnie Johnson [Chuck Berry's piano player] had been with them for a while, but I think he didn't really want to travel so much, and Bob wanted somebody local. They also had Mookie Segal in there at the same time, but he wasn't in the area, either.
So I started going up to Bob's house and jamming a few days a week.
I'm guessing you hadn't been a fan of the Dead.
No, I hadn't. Early on a couple people told me, "Oh, Grateful Dead-don't even bother!" What did I know? [Laughs] Now, of course, I wish I had listened, because I missed out on a lot of good stuff. But it was my own fault. At the same time, it gave me a fresh perspective when I did get involved and I had all this music to listen to and learn. It's kind of ironic to have come from not really knowing anything about them to getting to eventually play with all of the "core four" in The Dead.
Since you didn't have much of a background in rock 'n' roll, it must have been pretty challenging at first.
Well, yes and no. From the get-go I totally understood where they were coming from-how they approached the songs, how diverse they were, how they could take it totally "out" yet still keep it "inside." I could relate to that; it was right up my alley.
It's definitely a jazz-like approach, and there's interesting harmonic content...
Absolutely. That's what I'm all about. There was the freedom there to do whatever you could do.
And, of course, the bassist in that era, Rob Wasserman, was pretty jazzy...
I was looking forward to that, as well, when I got in there.
Was there much rehearsal?
Some. At first, Bob didn't want me to listen to Grateful Dead or Bobby & the Midnites or Kingfish or anything. It was like, "Let's see what you do with it," you know? But after a point you really have to listen to these songs to learn their essence, and you need to know where they came from so you can figure out better where to go with them. So I definitely did a lot of listening. I got stacks and stacks of stuff, including Grateful Dead and RatDog.
So we jammed at Bob's for a couple of months, but nobody had ever told me anything solid. And then the Further Festival was coming up as their next tour-this was 1997-and I needed to know something because I was getting calls and I needed to book my schedule. Finally, we did a couple of nights at the Sweetwater [the Mill Valley club] and then the next thing I knew I was up onstage at this benefit at the Warfield with Bonnie Raitt, Bob, John Popper, Bobby Sheehan and various other people. Finally, I got the official nod [that I was in] and we went out on the road.
How did the crowds strike you?
They were great! It was nice to see people up and dancing. It gave a better feeling for what the Grateful Dead had done, in the sense that they created this audience, and all the people they've touched. Getting to be part of that vibe was quite an eye-opener. I had missed it all, I'm embarrassed to say.
You have nothing to apologize for!
I'm just thankful that I got the opportunity-that the other guys in the band liked me and said, "Come on board."
It's been great. It's a constantly evolving process. This version of RatDog has been together about five years now, so obviously the telepathic sensibilities have heightened just from playing together so much and growing together.
What does adding Mark Karan and, later, Robin Sylvester do to the sound?
Well, those guys are steeped more in the rock idiom, and both have vast knowledge of music and music history, and they were both already really experienced. It's made for a good blend, because I'd say Jay [Lane, RatDog drummer] and Kenny [saxophonist], also deeply rooted in their idioms, are more from the jazz/hip-hop/funk background, as am I, and Mark and Bob and Robin are more from the classic rock side. And there's a lot of mutual respect. We've all learned from each other. It's like, "How can we all apply what we do, together?"
You seem to really enjoy the "stuff" section of the show.
I do. It's a lot of fun. It's an opportunity to take some chances. I guess originally it came out of the Wasserman solo time, then Jay joined in and they'd do some interesting things. As others of us have come in, we've gotten involved and it's become a vehicle to experiment. There's been some pretty cool stuff in there. It doesn't work all the time, but you give it your best shot, and it is what is. You put your stuff out there, pun intended.
Is the tenor of it usually affected by whatever precedes it?
Definitely. It might pick up the pulse, or it could go in the opposite direction. But it's riding the wave from where we left off. Nobody ever says, "Okay, we're going to try this in the ‘stuff' section." We're always trying to search for something different. But it's got to be an instant thing-everybody's got to be right with you; going with you. "Who's running with the ball here?" [Laughs] That's tricky. You're exposed, but that's the beauty and the magic of it. It's like that with the transitions between tunes, too.
What was your experience of the first Dead tour you did [in 2003]?
Like I said, maybe it was a good thing not having the background of having been a Dead Head and so forth. But I still kind of had to pinch myself-"Wow, here I am with the core four!" Also, thank God for Rob Barraco, because he was a big help to me. He really knew that music so well.
Did it feel different than playing with RatDog?
Sure. Of course there are similarities, but when those four guys lock up, they really create that classic sound. It was almost like I could hear Jerry blowing over the top of it.
The second Dead tour was you alone on keys. It was nice hearing you play so much organ.
Right. I hadn't really had any B-3 experience at all. Basically from day one of rehearsals they were saying, "You've gotta play a lot of B-3" "I Do? [Laughs] Okay, I better get workin' on that quick!" I'd worked with organ modules [in electronic keyboards] but it's not even near the same thing. It's such a blessing to be able to play the B-3... and I'm actually playing Brent's B-3 in my rig-the one that used to have all the stickers on it. You can still see the outline of the stickers. It also turns out that I have the same birthday at Brent Mydland. That's a little weird! [Laughs]
Did that second tour feel significantly different than the first one?
Well, I was by myself, so it was very different for me. I did miss playing with Rob; at the the same time it gave me a chance to do more, and on more songs, because in the first version sometimes I or Rob would play more certain songs. I think what Phil wanted [on that first tour] was for Rob to play tunes that I was used to playing, and vice-versa.
In the last few years, the RatDog repertoire has expanded quite a bit.
And there are still a lot of good tunes out there, depending on what Bob wants to do. We're still trying to work on more original tunes, too.
You've been involved in Alphabet Soup with [drummer] Jay and Kenny. What's the story with that group?
Well, when that started back in the day it was termed "acid jazz." There was a whole scene around here.
Right, at the Elbow Room...
The Elbow Room, the Up and Down Club, various other places. Actually, at that time I was playing in a band with a guy named Josh Jones called Hueman Flavor, which was another hip-hop band. At that same time, Dred Scott was the keyboard player in Alphabet Soup, and we were close friends, and I would even sub for him for time to time. That's where I first met Jay-probably three or four years before RatDog.
Jay's got his new project now, called Band of Brothers, which also has a couple of the rappers from Alphabet Soup; it's pretty cool. They have a record that should be coming out in February, called Deadbeats.
Jeff and Dred Scott playing with Alphabet Soup at a post-RatDog gig party in NY, 4/4/08. Photo: Dave W. Clark/daveclarklive.net © 2008
I heard that tune the rappers did with RatDog in New York last year that's based on "Franklin's Tower"...
It's called "Back to the River." They've done that with certain songs. It's an interesting group. I play with them when I can. I've done a handful of gigs with them. And I've done a bunch with Alphabet Soup.
Do they still exist?
From time to time, yes. [Laughs]
What are some of your favorite tunes to play in RatDog?
That's tough. My best answer for that is that I don't think about it in terms of, "Oh, I really want to play this tune." The magic can happen at any time on any tune. You never know which songs are going to be particularly good or inspired from night to night. So I don't like to pinpoint what I like. I think it's all good.
Though is it fair to say some nights you might be in a free-flowing "Dark Star" mood and another night you might like the power and precision of "Help in the Way" > "Slipknot"?
Sure. But what I'm saying is I don't set out and think, "Oh boy, I hope we're playing ‘Help on the Way' > ‘Slipknot' tonight!" I just wait to see what's happenin'.
Only the fans think that way. In fact some of them are taking bets on what will be played!
Right, the Fantasy Set Lists and all that. [Laughs]
Does it feel like the band is still evolving?
I think so. It's always getting better. I try to take it a day at a time. We've got a couple of rehearsals coming up in the next few days. It's always good to get together again. Maybe we can try to get some songs we haven't played in there, or maybe some things we haven't touched in a long time. And there are some new tunes that are close to being finished, though I don't know if they'll be ready for this tour.
Do the rigors, such as they are, of the RatDog touring schedule affect what you do with the rest of your time?
Yes. I've basically committed myself to RatDog. Early on I would try to book things in the off-times, but things kept popping up with RatDog so it became tough to arrange a lot of outside things. I'm still open to other things, obviously, but RatDog is my priority right now.
Is there some secret Jeff Chimenti solo project that you're keeping under wraps and is going to be unveiled some day?
[Laughs] Actually, there is some stuff from prior years I've thought about putting out. Like I did this project with Dred Scott and another drummer friend of mine, Gaelan McKenna, and this bass player named Wilbur Krebbs, who's also in Alphabet Soup. We did this totally avant-garde session-it was like Ferrante & Teicher [the easy listening piano kings], with a 9-foot Steinway and a 9-foot Yamaha interlocked. [Laughs] There was some good stuff. Maybe I'll put out a little thing sometime. Who knows?
Are you married? Kids?
Married, no kids. I met my wife in Japan. I had an offer to go over there in 1994, I think. I was playing a three-month stint at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo...
Wow, it sounds like the movie Lost in Translation!
That's the hotel I played in! That's where I lived! I played in that top-floor bar; that was the gig I had. It was me and a woman named Denise Perrier, who also from the Bay Area. Her brother is Paul Jackson, from The Headhunters, and he was living over there. I had always wanted to go to Japan, so I got to do that and live in a five-star hotel. I had to work six nights a week, but it was a great experience, and the second week I was there I met my future wife!