A Few Words With...John Novello

It's impossible to describe John Novello in a few simple phrases. Let's just say the man knows his way around a keyboard. Listeners who have been floored by his work in the prog/jazz/rock/fusion/fun trio Niacin know his prowess. A warm, enthusiastic man, Novello graciously gave ProgSheet his time and attention for a pip of an interview! Enjoy!

PS: I know you've told it before, but please tell me how you came to meet Chick Corea.
JN: Jay Lewis, a drummer that was in one of my first bands in my home town Erie, PA turned me onto a record of Chick's way back in the early 70's. Needless to say I flipped. I think it was called ARC featuring Chick Corea/David Holland/Barry Altschul. Man was it a scorcher. I wrote to him via his management that was on the back of the record and to my surprise, he responded. We sort of became pen pals until I moved to Boston in 1973 at which time I finally met him there at a sound check during his Music Magic Band Tour. He eventually moved to LA as did I in 1978 and we became good friends. Eventually I began helping him program his new Synclavier synthesizer and later he wrote the forward to my instruction manual "The Contemporary Keyboardist." We have been friends ever since and have worked together on many occasions. He is a real genius, a total class act for sure and an important mentor of mine. One of the most prolific cats I ever met! Total musical integrity!

PS: What was the most valuable lesson you learned from Chick?
JN: Artistic integrity, prolificness, effortless playing, passion and how to communicate to one's audiences even though blowing complex shit. I also learned "the spirit of play" meaning that when one is playing music it's supposed to be fun and inspirational; not serious and stuffy etc. I noticed that he always seemed to be having a blast when he played and this always communicated to audiences brilliantly and effortlessly! Having observed this in his playing, I tried to emulate it and it really helped me. I then began noticing this attribute in other great players and so this was an important lesson because ultimately, music is spirit communication, meaning communication between spiritual beings. It isn't really about the notes and style and form. These are a given and should be the best as possible of course, but in the end, what is the artist trying to communicate and is this communication honest and unshackled and free to soar, or is it serious and fear based and tentative? This is the correct importance.

PS: What first attracted you to the sound of the Hammond?
JN: Sorry to be silly here, but what attracted me was it's sound! It's a primordial beast challenging one to control it, and if one is successful, it's award is the awakening of one's own primordial beast - one's soul - YOU! The collision of all these magnetic sound waves generated from it's 91 tone wheel generator is not only endless but also simply "raw & organic!" The way I as a spirit "felt" deep inside seemed to be more easily expressed on the Hammond B3 than any other instrument. That said I now can express myself on any keyboard but that only came with a lot of experience and maturity. My first love is still the Hammond for sure and I was inspired by cats like Jimmy Smith, Keith Emerson, Bryan Auger, Mark Stein, Felix Caviliere, Peter Robinson, Tony Banks, Rick Wakeman, Jon Lord, Gary Peterson, Stevie Winwood, Groove Holmes, Jan Hammer and many more. I can still in fact get off just holding a chord and listening to the leslie speakers fire up from slow to fast and back to slow or grabbing those sensuous drawbars, or do a screaming glissando or just hold a high note and let the monster scream and that therein lies one of the secrets of playing and composing music - the sound is God and it only really communicates when it emotionally touches your soul - YOU - and YOU transfer that to your audiences! I believe all great artists are simply channeling their uniqueness (All beings are unique and special in my opinion) to their audiences through their art. This only occurs though when the artist is honestly in touch with his essence, HIS communication. Playing for any other reasons - to be famous, get paid, showing off or whatever - well... these are all ok but only harmonics of the true reason which is the artist having the courage and responsibility to fully express himself and his uniqueness through his particular art. This, in my opinion, actually applies not only to the performance arts but to anything - athletics, public speaking, juggling, acting, a chemist... anything! Well maybe not politicians and psychiatrists! :-)

PS: How have your spiritual discoveries effected your music?
JN: Since I was nine years old I was always interested in anything that increased my overall awareness and perceptions as to me the more aware one is of who he is in relation to others and the physical universe, then the more positive and productive he can be. I first studied Catholicism up until about age 17, and then I experimented with drugs which, thank God, I quickly discovered was the wrong direction. Then I read many many books about spiritualism and philosophy and eventually was thoroughly impressed by the research and writings of L. Ron Hubbard. He was the only one that not only made sense but that actually had a paradigm that one could study and apply to one's life. I've been using his concepts quite successfully now for over 30 years and if I had to sum them up I'd say his writings help a person fully get in communication with himself ( I know that may sound simplistic but most are not in communication with themselves at all) so he knows his goals and purposes and has the courage to go after them. Most people are so distracted with life's trials and tribulations - making a living, paying bills and getting along with others - that their own dreams get thwarted and when that happens you get one unhappy spirit. If a person is unhappy down deep with himself then how the hell can he add anything to society? How can he help others? Impossible! If a person has no self love and respect he'll never get others to respect him and he'll never be able to contribute much of anything to anybody. This becomes crucial for a performing artist because to really blow (perform at your peak) one has to be at one with one's self so all of his energy can be transferred to the listener whether live or on a CD.
In one of Hubbard's writings he discusses that the most important thing to rehabilitate in a person is not necessarily his actual abilities but his willingness to demonstrate his abilities! The key word here is willingness! Once a person is fully willing to "blow" without any fears or reservations, he has arrived because from that moment on, he will eventually come into his own! Now the key is how does one rehab one's willingness to demonstrate his abilities? Well that's why I like Hubbard's philosophy because he researched and developed an organized approach on how to attain this, no different than studying, say, the martial arts and going up the belt system until one is a black belt and has mastered the art of self defense. If Hubbard's concepts are applied honestly and correctly, it is the black belt of spiritual studies in my opinion. It's not a belief system; it's an applied religious philosophy and it can raise anybody's awareness of himself, others and the environment and after all... what is a person engaged in all day long anyway? Answer - himself, others and the environment and the successful interaction of all three. Another ability I developed using Hubbard's techniques was the ability to very quickly focus all of my attention and intention to the task as hand. This in regular terms is of course simply called concentration and attention span. But this is easier said than done, and to do any skilled action extremely well, one has to totally be there and be able to stay there while doing the skilled action. Some have called this "being in the zone!" What it means is that one's attention is so focused that the skilled action appears to be effortless! To play Niacin material, all three of us have to be and stay in the zone for sure!!!

PS: You've played with quite a few musicians. What is unique about the vibe you have with Billy & Dennis in Niacin?
JN: Well I have experienced this "vibe" with others as well and what I think it is when musicians click together is is that they really and truly love the music and are fully willing to thus let go and just play with no considerations! Each of us in Niacin are accomplished enough on our individual instruments that we can focus on the spirit comm and that's what creates the magic!

PS: As the three of you have more & more time under your belts playing together, have different aspects or possibilities come to light or has the dynamic remained unchanged?
JN: Well.... the chemistry was there from the beginning but as we have been writing and performing over the years, we have evolved into an entity where the whole is greater than the sums of its parts for sure - a total synergism. To me that's what any good group has to become - a synergism! The Beatles did, Led Zeppelin, The Cream, Return To Forever, Weather Report, Tower of Power, Vanilla Fudge, Hendrix, Chicago, Traffic, Oscar Peterson Trio, Gonzalo Rubalcaba Quartet, ELP, Quatermass etc. These bands all became greater than themselves and that = magic for everybody! But I have noticed that on our last two CDs, Time Crunch and Organik, we are raising the bar and I really like that. Everybody is on 10 but it's still groovin' and that's important. It has to groove, to have a pocket or the notes become stupid!

PS: Is it ever difficult to remain melodic while playing at 300 MPH?
JN: Not really because if you're playing music from the right viewpoint, meaning the viewpoint of passion and artistic integrity and wanting to share that passion and integrity with the listeners as mentioned above, then it all works out. If, however, one is playing out of fear, jealousy, uncertainty, dishonesty, tentativeness, condescension, ego only gratification etc, then if you have the chops, the tendency is to use only them and the result can become a "wank fest" of notes that don't do anything for anybody, even other musicians! It doesn't groove in other words. Rhythm is a vibration and that vibration is what oscillates and connects or resonates with the spirit and gets the spirit into present time. I think the reason for this was mentioned above in that when music has a lower frequency vibration - less spiritual - it doesn't uplift. And when that's the case, why bother in the first place?! It would be better to go get laid or something and hopefully at least mean that! Music to me should always be a spiritual communication; otherwise notes for notes sake are useless!

PS: Niacin has done some tasty covers - King Kong, Red, & Blue Wind to name a few. How is it decided which outside songs get the Niacin touch?
JN: Basically all three of us have extremely eclectic musical backgrounds. We can get off playing complex out jazz or a simple three chord rock tune. At sound checks we thus always jam on old tunes that we all know and love and when one of these jams seems to have some magic, then we consider that as a possible cover. We love covering and reviving old tunes. I mean Niacin basically is a retro progressive jazz rock fusion project so why not.

PS: "Barbarian @ The Gate" is an exceptionally challenging piece - was that a song that was worked on & recorded in sections, or played straight through?
JN: Yikes! You are correct - a very difficult piece for sure! It was written in sections and carefully crafted as a composition as a dedication vibe to RTF (Return To Forever) but then we went for it performance wise and got a good magical take and only afterwards corrected a few clams! We always go for magic as the main goal. The notes are always secondary otherwise the synergy never takes place. That's one of the tunes from the new CD that we'll be playing live. For me that tune is a keyboard aerobic workout and I have to be totally relaxed or otherwise I'll cramp up! Niacin is quite a challenging band to play in and therein is why I think all of us love it. We always try to push the envelope without blowing the musicality and losing our fans. Our fans expect us to go for it but still make music!

PS: Why is Niacin a three piece? What is it about a guitar or a horn that would not work in the band on a regular basis?
JN: I guess a) because Billy and I conceived of the band originally as a trio in this format and b) the trio format allows each of us to be on 10. Adding anything else is not only unnecessary but tends to take space away from one of us. It's not that we couldn't create some space for these other instruments. It's just that we already have done that in other projects and the trio is a fun and a challenging entity and seems to bring out the best of all of us. That's why on the last few CD's I began adding more piano, rhodes and synth colors. My other project, The John Novello Band is a quintet and has a percussionist and a sax player but it's intended to be that way and so it works!

PS: On a day that you know you will be performing live, what do you do that day to prepare for the performance?
JN: Well if I don't know the material by the day of the gig, then in this muscle band, I'd be screwed! So actually besides being well fed and rested, I don't do much of anything but clear my space of all distractions and totally focus on being on 10 physically, mentally & spiritually and then the rest just happens. What I like about the Niacin is that when we hit the stage and the music starts, it's bigger than all three of us and we seem to be swept to a higher plane. But you have to be prepared to go there, to go along for the ride, because if you tense up physically or mentally , then your frequency lowers and reentry occurs and the audience would not like that. They want to watch us take off! I remember one night in Japan, we were all totally fried! Hardly any sleep etc. Backstage, we were a pathetic looking bunch of cats. I was wondering how we would play but holy shit! We hit the stage and it seemed that our sleep deprivation actually became a plus as all three of us instantly forgot our worldly bodies and problems and moved to that higher plane and just burned. After the show we all collapsed due to the expenditure of unrestricted energy out put. That's what Niacin actually is - unrestricted music and energy out put!

PS: Take me behind the scenes on a favorite number of mine - how did Journey To Nowhere come together? What was the inspiration?
JN: That by the way is one of my favorite compositions and was recorded on my CD Threshold on Holographic Records with the John Novello Band. Conceptually when I write, I always have an overall concept in mind and this time what I wanted to rebel against was life's main theme - traveling away and coming home etc etc etc. I was thinking that just going somewhere and never returning and doing this endlessly would be refreshing and then it dawned on me that if one continually did this, this is really like going "nowhere." Hence, Journey To Nowhere! With that paradigm in mind, I then wrote a "through-composed" piece that started somewhere and then somewhere else etc and never returned to restate (home) the original theme. Usually this is a no no in music composition as "they" say that the listener likes the resolution of going back home, to a familiar theme like an AABACAABA type format. I figured, fuck that! We have enough of that in most all music and in our lives. So this tune's format is ABCD - 4 separate sections. Maybe I thought to myself the listener would find it refreshing to go on a journey to nowhere. I've tried to apply this concept in my life occasionally and wake up and go nowhere all day and it in fact this is quite refreshing to do occasionally as it disconnects one from patterns which can cause staleness of thought and direction. Now whether I was successful, communicating this in the recording, you tell me; but at least I went nowhere which was the goal!

PS: What is the single biggest mistake a musician looking to secure a record deal makes?
JN: Trying to get a record deal! The attention should be on musical integrity and developing enough expertise to express that musical integrity with no concern for success or for that matter failure. ( Immature artists think that the goal is getting a record deal. That's a falsity for sure! ) This dichotomy - success and failure - actually truthfully doesn't interest me at all anymore. It is a trap! If you validate them, then what happens when you "succeed", that goes to your ego head and it lowers your frequency; if you fail it still goes to your head and self doubt and fear and other lower frequency emotions enter into your space and again your frequency lowers. Besides all a record "deal" is is an agreement that some company will be your partner and share in some of the expenses of manufacturing and distributing and promoting your CD and of course take a bulk of your profits if any. The problem lies in the word YOUR, as most record companies are pretty much "bottom lining" their business operations, meaning they're only doing what they do for the money.
This started about 20 years when corporate America saw they could make a lot of money signing only artists who could sell mega millions of records. Before that, record companies had real A & R departments whose job was to discover real talented artists, sign them and develop them and their repertoire sort of like in baseball when they sign players to their minor leagues and then, when they're ready, bring them up to the majors. So at one time, there really was a focus on uniqueness and talent etc. Now it seems to have shifted ONLY to sales stats. This of course has ruined the market. Take a scan of today's top 100 in any category and compare it to say 1969! Wow... what a difference. Every band and artist in the top 100 then was unique and unbelievably talented. Nowadays, the uniqueness is gone in general (there are of course great artists but they are the exceptions whereas earlier they were the rule ) and the talent is questionable in many cases. So the point here: at any time your intention should be developing your craft and your music and your uniqueness and your message, and the rest will follow in due time. Today this is even more critical because if you try to develop what record companies want, which is just pure clone music for money making reasons only... then.... well I'm afraid you have lost your way and will produce nothing but mediocrity at best! Nowadays cats who can't even play in time or sing in tune are making hit records! Yikes! If you went to an NBA Basketball game and you watched players who didn't have their basics together like dribbling and shooting what would you think? You'd think like hey, these guys suck! They can't even play. How did they make it into the pros? Same in the music industry.
If real artistic talent was sought after and then developed and promoted, we'd have a much more healthier market in my opinion as we did in the 60's and earlier 70's. And no for those of you who think I'm just being old fashioned or have a chip on my shoulder, that's not the case. I would just like to turn on the radio and be amazed at the awesome talent as I used to be, instead of amazed at the no talent! Technology is a tool not a crutch to handle weak rudiments. Learn the basic rudiments of how to play and sing and write and then go make some music. We'd all be a lot better off, and in my opinion, this is the only way to get the music industry healthy again. It would be better financially and artistically to sign and develop 40 artists who had longevity and sold respectably over a period of time than to put all the marbles into a few just to get that 20 million mega hit! So if you're a record company and you're reading this, please.. there are so many unsigned unique talented artists ready to go. Sign them, not clones who aren't ready and let these talents produce their dreams and soon the top 100 will be alive and well again, and maybe I'll turn my TV on and actually be able to watch the Grammies again without throwing up!

PS: Please tell me 6 CDs you never get tired of listening to.
JN: In no particular order, and these are only some of the CD's I never get tired of listening to and the ones that I thought of at the moment:
Gonzalo Rubalcaba - Paseo
Return To Forever - No Mystery
Oscar Peterson - Put On A Happy Face
Jimi Hendrix - Are You Experienced
Vanilla Fudge - Near The Beginning
John Abercrombie - Timeless


Table Of Contents