Drum legend has played with Lennon, Dylan, Rolling Stones
T Bone Burnett is the latest in a long, illustrious line of music artists whose great art has been made greater by the drum/percussion mastery of longtime Angeleno session “deity” Jim Keltner.
As that list includes John Lennon, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, John Lee Hooker, the Rolling Stones, Roy Orbison, Ravi Shankar, Pink Floyd, Elvis Costello, Joe Cocker, Neil Diamond, Brian Wilson, B.B. King, et al., let’s assume the reader is now down with the “deity” tag for the man who was the legends’ drummer of choice.
Between takes at West L.A.’s Village Recording Studio, where he’s currently recording with alt-country queen Lucinda Williams, Keltner remembers arriving from Oklahoma in 1955 as a teen who quickly got into the local live gig scene “playing all over the city — bar mitzvahs, weddings, birthday parties, you name it — for fifteen bucks a night and happy to do so.”
The heyday of West Coast jazz may be long past, but Keltner has surprisingly little nostalgia for that past. In his zenlike view, “There’s always been a music scene in L.A., and if something’s missing, you’ll create that scene.
“Now is just like it used to be and always will be; there are young musicians who are really good, and then there are some who need to work at it more.”
While Keltner is a player, as opposed to a Player, he does stay on top of what’s happening both in the suites and the streets. Lamenting the recent exits of music industry execs Michelle Anthony and Don Ienner “as another sign of what happens when the corporate sensibility takes over,” Keltner should by rights be similarly dismayed by how many drummers have been replaced by drum machines and how many session musicians have lost their jobs to the mechanized musical wonders of the software geniuses.
“Technology can’t be stopped,” is Keltner’s sober assessment of the current scene, but he’s no Luddite: “Listen, I’m sure that when we switched from horses to cars, people were concerned. If I solely made my living working on TV themes or commercials, I would be concerned, but I would also figure out a way to join the creativity.”
Casting his eye toward the creative vitality of the L.A. rap scene, Keltner says: “Look at Dr. Dre: From the beginning he was extremely ingenious and originally made records with no live players, just his imagination. Hip-hop producers and other modern record producers may make the records differently, putting sequences together and then adding musicians one at a time, but there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the end result is held to the same standard or criteria. And I’m not worried. We’ll always have live musicians.”