Touring much of the last two years in Bruce Springsteen’s band, and busy with other national and global tours (including Barbra Streisand and Billy Joel), local gigs (the varied likes of Sting and Tom Wopat), Broadway shows (The Color Purple and Movin' Out) and album session work (his website shows his participation on 179 albums for artists including Streisand, Celine Dion, Paul Simon and David Byrne) in the many years prior, Danielian hasn’t been able to follow up his own solo album debut Common Ground since he released it back in 2004.
“Part of it is that when you’re doing it yourself, there’s the financial thing,” says Danielian. “Funding is everything, and it took a few years before I recouped the investment on Common Ground, but I did--which many friends on record labels never do. It proved to me that the do-it-yourself model can work.”
But there was also the matter of Danielian assessing where he wanted to go musically.
“The first record was in the smooth jazz/adult contemporary radio format, and even though I was trying to create my own sound within the realm of that format, the format died shortly thereafter. So it became about me trying to formulate what I thought my sound was--because I play so many different styles of music and love playing them all.”
For Danielian to “go into the studio with a rhythm section and record a straight-ahead jazz record might represent an aspect of my musical scene,” he adds, “but not the totality of my musical scene.”
Indeed, Danielian’s “musical scene” comprises jazz, R&B and funk, Latin music, world music—“all that stuff,” he says.
“So it became a process of me figuring out how to amalgamate all those influences into a sound that didn’t just sound like a hodepodge but had some cohesiveness.”
This process took “a lot of years of experimenting with all those different elements” in determining what resonated personally as “the most honest thing.”
Composing and producing on his own, Danielian did have specific musicians in mind for certain tunes.
“I didn’t want a band with the same five guys on everything,” he says, “so I had to deal with the logistics of people being on and off the road. And they were my buddies, so I had to wait for this guy or another to be available—and then I was working as well.”
“Working,” in Danielian’s case, doesn’t quite do him justice. After all, he’s been an integral member of one of the biggest touring shows in the world the last two years.
“I guess Bruce decided that Clarence (Springsteen’s friend and E Street Band saxophone stalwart Clarence Clemons) was irreplaceable, so he went with a horn section,” says Danielian. “I had recorded on [Springsteen’s 2010 album] The Promise, and I went back with [his guitarist] Steve Van Zandt to the late ‘80s, when I played in [the Van Zandt-produced R&B horn band] Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes. The [E Street Band’s] other trumpet player Curt Ramm suggested me, because we’d done session work for Bruce.”
It proved “a great fit,” he says.
“In hindsight, they probably knew after the first day of auditions that musically I was the right fit, but on tour, other stuff has to fit as well,” relates Danielian, who also played in bands including Tower of Power and Blood, Sweat & Tears.
“There’s no shortage of great trumpet players, that’s for sure. But you can be a great trumpet player and be a fish out of water on stage if you don’t like to perform and are uncomfortable in that setting. So the guys that can do this kind of gig and understand what it is are maybe on a shorter list: It’s not jazz or recording, but a different animal having to perform on stage before 80,000 people.”
Not to mention perform behind Bruce Springsteen.
“Bruce throws out curveballs,” notes Danielian. “In a lot of ways he’s like a jazz musician: He doesn’t do the same thing twice. You never know where he’ll go, and he likes to keep you on your toes because he knows that’s where greatness comes--when all the balls are in the air and you have to catch them all. It’s not the same thing night after night.”
Being on the road with Springsteen has “reconnected me with the power of music,” Danielian says.
“I’d been sitting in the Broadway pits or in studios or in my own studio writing music for TV or sessions, and it had been a long time since I was out playing in front of people who were there to actually hear you play. But now I have the best seat in the house: I get to watch arguably the greatest perfomer out there now, who can sing to 80,000 people in a stadium and make every person feel like they’re in a little club in Greenwich Village and he’s singing right to them.”
“That’s the biggest thing for me—having my faith in the transformative power of music restored,” continues Danielian, “and also to see how whatever illusory boundaries or walls we put up to keep each other separate—politics, religion, nationality, whatever it is—how once you get people in a room together playing or listening to music, all that goes away and people are connected. That’s a powerful thing, and that’s really the big thing about this tour for me.”
And it overlaps with his finally finished Common Ground follow-up album Metaphorically Speaking.
“It represents a convergence of three paths in my life that have been there from very early on: my musical life, my martial arts life and my spiritual life.”
Besides trumpet player, Danielian defines himself by his longtime martial arts study and his Islamic practice.
“If they came together at all, it’s only because I think I’ve grown to the point where I don’t see them as divergent anymore,” he explains. “They had seemed like three different entities that did not intersect too much--and that was really a huge illusion for the most part.”
Rather, Danielian’s music, martial arts and spirituality are “hugely connected,” he continues, “in fact, all three require you to look inward: In order to get on stage and play and have what you do move people, you have to come from a place of sincerity, and in order be sincere requires you to know who you are and be connected with what’s in your own heart. This is most definitely true for martial arts, because you have to develop self-control because you can’t control anybody else unless you control yourself! But at the same time, you find out what you’re made of when you run out of gas and you’re tired, with no energy left--and some guy’s coming at you in the ring or on the mat or wherever you may be and you have to dig deep.”
“It comes down to confronting what your fears are,” says Danielian.
But how is all this manifest in the album?
“I don’t know if you can pinpoint any of it in my music or not, other than on the most basic level: You put out music that you create from the best place you can, with love and sincerity and you hope for the best in that it resonates with people--and that's a courageous act to do. A lot of my friends are way more talented than me and haven’t done anything other than play gigs. They won’t put anything out because it’s scary, and people might not dig it.”
As for the “illusion of the three divergent paths,” Danielian has “thankfully” come to see them as one, from his Islamic/Sufi perspective Tawhid—the Islamic fundamental concept of unity, or “oneness.”
He references his Metaphorically Speaking album track “The Longing,” which was inspired by one of his teachers, the late Shaykh Hassan Cisse.
“I wrote that tune all in one shot, and that usually doesn’t happen for me,” he says. “Usually writing tunes is like experiencing labor pains: They come out a little bit at a time. But this just came out, boom!—the whole thing. I kind of felt his spirit, which for me personally, whenever I was around him, I could feel the divine presence."
"The Longing," then, "signifies the struggle to maintain that presence when all the stuff in the world is pulling you away from it—materialism, paying the bills, earthbound energy. But within your heart there’s the longing to remain connected with the divine, so that song is about that--and the most I felt that was always when I was around him.”
Danielian also points to “RumiNation,” the title of which evokes the 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic.
“The title is a play on words, and I used words of speeches of some of the American Islamic teachers in this country who you never get to hear about: All we hear about are angry people in the Middle East who spout hatred and vitriol, and that gets conflated with the religion as the totality of Islam for a largely uneducated American audience that doesn’t even know the creedal beliefs of Muslims. This becomes very problematic because we all get cast in a light that’s not what we believe--irrespective of what goes on in the Middle East.”
So Danielian felt compelled to clarify that "the extremist voices aren’t the only ones out there, and that we have a deep, deep spiritual, philosophical, pragmatic and ecological tradition that’s been around for centuries, but has been left out of the table conversation.”
None of this, it should be noted, is stated in a tone that could be construed as contentious or preachy.
“We’re not asked about global warming or the economy, even though we have a tradition that addresses that, which I think many Americans would find enlightening and appealing. But again, those voices are missing from the conversation. So ‘RumiNation’ is my attempt to capture a few snippets from the people I’m influenced by and mold them in with the music, so that people might want to check them out after hearing them.”
Musicians and artists in general, Danielian believes, “have a huge role to play right now in putting a balm on the wounds of humanity. We’ve been led down a path to real deep imbalance in terms of how we interact with our planet and ourselves. Artists, aside from making people feel good, always play the role of reminding people of our humanity.”
He concludes: “There’s nothing wrong with making money or being successful, but when I was coming up, the goal was to make music that was uplifting--that expanded people’s minds and lives. That was the goal, and I’d like to see the polarity shift back to that paradigm.”
[The Examiner is a long-time kali and silat student of Barry Danielian.]
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