The Rippingtons' Tony Morales Making His Mark
by Stephanie Bennett
" To me, people like Kenny G and the Rippingtons-anyone who's categorized as contemporary jazz-are helping everyone in all areas of jazz, because we're opening up people's ears to instrumental, improvised music. "
Of the many faces of jazz, one is changing its expression more than any of the others, and that's the jazz of the '90s. With only a slight resemblance to its bebop mother, adult-contemporary jazz has its daddy's popular smile, grandpop's classic nose, grandma's easy-listening ears, and cousin's fusionistic antics. No one can deny the amazing growth of adult-contemporary jazz in the past few years.
Of the major movers in the loosely named genre, the Rippingtons have been rising in popularity faster than you can say "skidillyboom bam bang," and seated at the drum throne of their ever-increasing success is "groovemeister" Tony Morales. Though he's not real big on flash and garble, Tony's time and attention are totally taken up with laying down a solid, groovable backbeat. And that he does! Tony's style continues to emerge and expand as the Rippingtons' unique, upbeat sound continues to make an impact all over the globe.
SB Was the Rippingtons your first break in terms of big time success?
TM Hmm. Well, it depends on what you mean by success. [chuckling] Do you mean success as far as making a living playing the drums, or working with someone with a name?
SB I mean making a living. You know, the cutting -records- getting- radio- airplay - touring type of thing.
TM That would be David Benoit. That was my first gig doing this type of music, and subsequently it led to other things.
SB How did you come to work with Benoit?
TM My dad, Lloyd Morales, plays the drums too, and he used to play for Lainie Kazan. She was a really big show- type singer in the '60s. She needed a drummer at one point and my Dad couldn't do the gig, so he recommended me. So I went to her house to audition, and David Benoit was her piano player. We played a couple of tunes, and I ended up working with her. So I first worked with David-who was the conductor-at a hotel in Dallas.
SB That must have been an interesting gig.
TM It was really funny because I was so green at all this, following a conductor and everything. It was hilarious. David would put his arms up to give a downbeat and I would already give it. His arm would go up and I would crash on the up. I was pretty green. So I stuck with Lainie, doing gigs around the country with her, and then David asked if I wanted to play in his band. He had only had a couple of records out on a small label. He wasn't that big yet. So I started playing local clubs around L.A. with his band-you know, Dantes', the Baked Potato, for like forty bucks.
I ended up playing on a couple of his records, and then he got signed to GRP, which gave him much more national status. That didn't actually lead to the Rippingtons gig: What led to it was a bass player named Bill Lanphier, who recommended me to play in Russ Freeman's band. They played at the Baked Potato.
SB So you were playing with Russ Freeman before the Rippingtons were actually the Rippingtons?
TM Yeah. Then Russ did an album for Japanese release, but he couldn't actually use his name. That's when he called the band "the Rippingtons."
SB How did he come up with the name?
TM He called us the Rippingtons because it was a really good band, there was a lot of fire and excitement. The solos were much more extended than they are now, so it used to go into many different places-you know, lots of jamming going on. We used to tear it up quite a bit, so he would say, "Man, you guys are rippin'. I'm gonna call you guys the Rippingtons."
SB Who was in the band in the beginning?
TM The band that we had at the time was Bill Lanphier on bass, Greg Karukas on keyboards, Brandon Fields on sax, Steve Reid on percussion, and Kenny G was sitting in with us regularly. So that was the first Rippingtons band.
SB That's an impressive lineup. What was your first recording as the Rippingtons?
TM We put out an album on Passport Records in 1986 called Moonlighting.
SB Did you tour with that record?
TM Yeah, and that record did really well, so we had to go out and tour. I was still working with David Benoit, who also played on that first record-there are a lot of special guests on that one. So I was touring with David Benoit and with the Rippingtons, and there came a point where I became very busy doing both gigs. They were both starting to become pretty well-known, and things got real busy. I had to start sending subs to different gigs, and both Russ and David started getting a little peeved. They wanted me to stick with one band, so they asked me to make a decision. I thought about it, and since the Rippingtons were relatively new, and David was really starting to happen a little more at that time, I decided to go with him. So I left the Rippingtons for one year while I toured with David, and then after that year, I started talking to Russ again and hanging out with him, and I decided to go back to the Rippingtons.
SB But you still go out with David Benoit now, don't you?
TM Yes, but there's a whole friendship involved with David and me. He introduced me to my wife, Lorraine.
SB How'd that happen?
TM He recommended me for a gig with a group called Full Swing. It was a month in Brazil, and my wife was one of the singers in that group. So that's how we met.
SB You were their drummer for a while?
TM Yeah, I would go and play with them, too. You see, none of the groups I was working with at that time had become real popular yet, so I did a lot of different things. In fact, I remember that right before I went to Brazil with Full Swing I was touring Europe with another band called the Grandmothers, which was an interesting band that consisted of former members of Zappa's Mothers Of Invention.
SB When you first joined the Rippingtons you were doing a few other gigs around town.
TM Yeah, I did a lot of live stuff, studio dates, records for other people-you know, anything a musician does to stay alive. Basically I've been pretty lucky to be able to make a living at this.
SB During the earlier days there was much more use of drum machine and sequencing, especially on this kind of music. I noticed your credits on some records consisted of just cymbal overdubs and such. Now you're playing drums when you record. It seems things have improved for both the drummer and the music.
TM Well, earlier on, when Russ was pretty much sequencing everything-including drum tracks-he was really into getting that sound. It was much easier to use a drum machine to get a real clean sound, for him. That was his choice. He did like to have me lay cymbals down to give a more open feel, because live cymbals sound much better than a drum machine. For some reason he wasn't very trusting of anybody getting a good drum sound.
SB So I guess as the relationship developed you began playing on the albums?
TM The first album where he had me play all acoustic drums was Curves Ahead. We used a nice studio, we got a good drum sound, and it sounded great! Ever since then he's prefered using live drums.
SB I think the band's records really improved when the live drums were used.
TM Well, there are certain kinds of music that work with a drum machine, and the early Rippingtons albums worked pretty well with it. That sound was a part of the song. For instance, Russ had these toms that he called "god toms" that sounded like these volcanoes with a really long trail, and he really liked having that going.
SB Did you ever get into triggering?
TM Yeah, I think the first record I used it on was Kilimanjaro. I would play acoustic drums and then trigger different toms with them, but that's not particularly my favorite-sounding record, because it was all digital. We went to a Mitsubishi digital machine that just sounded brittle to me.
SB What direction did the Rippingtons take with the last album? Was it all live?
TM The last three albums are all live. The only thing that's not live are keyboard parts and some bass parts, but it's all live drums. Actually, though, there is one tune-the song that Jeffrey Osborne sings-it's the remake of the Spinners' "I'll Be Around." That has a drum machine and drum loops. When I was up at the studio, Russ asked if I wanted to play to it, but for that particular song I felt that it worked well with the machine. It seemed to work, so I didn't want to touch it. There were other tunes that we used drum loops on where I thought it would be cool if I played over the loop.
SB How do you approach that?
TM Drum loops are sequenced percussion and other drum parts that have a kind of a funky sound-you know, like that old '60s kind of sound, looping through the whole song. I just play along with it, and then the parts are carefully mixed together.
SB I noticed that you've also got some writing credits under your belt. Do you write with Freeman or Benoit?
TM When I was younger, before I was ever in these bands or with anybody of note, I was playing with local rock bands around L.A. There was one band I was in where everybody wrote. That was the last time I actually did any writing. After that I got more into the playing side of music-specifically the jazz side of it. That required more effort to acquire the skill for playing this kind of music.
SB Do you mean specifically Rippingtons music?
TM No, I mean overall. I like playing jazz more as a stylistic kind of thing, where somebody calls out a tune, and they say, "It's a songo groove." To be able to do that you have to know how to play a songo. Or say they call out, "It's a samba," or "It's straight-8th rock," or it's this or that. There are guys who do one style and they do it very well. But when you play jazz in this kind of situation, you have to know lots of styles. It takes a lot more work. So I didn't write as much when I really started delving into playing the drums and practicing a lot. Then when I started playing with David Benoit and the Rippingtons I didn't write at all. After I met my wife-she writes lyrics and sings-and after I started working with her group, I got into computers and sequencing. I realized how much easier it is to write on a computer if you're not really proficient on keyboards. I also used to play guitar in all the rock bands I was in, and I'd learn the songs. I know all the chords, but I never played keyboards.
SB How would you define the Rippingtons' music?
TM I guess I'd call it contemporary jazz. It's difficult because it's contemporary in that it's new jazz, it's not like the old-style jazz, or like the stuff that Wynton Marsalis does. To me, jazz is basically interaction between players, soloing between players-improvisation. There is a certain amount of improvisation with this music, but not as much. It is fusionistic in terms of there being other styles built into it.
SB It's obvious that this music is more appealing to the masses.
TM There's definitely something specific that sets it apart from other bands, but I also I think that a lot of it has to do with the quality of Russ Freeman's writing. He's a great writer. You know, a lot of people put this music down, saying, "It's just that Muzak crap." Yet they'd be hard-pressed to sit down and try to write a tune like that, you know? Maybe all of it is not like classic stuff, but there are some beautiful songs that Russ has written that are very original. When I hear them I think, "Wow." And the music does seem to touch people. To me, people like Kenny G and the Rippingtons- anyone who's categorized as contemporary jazz-are helping everyone in all areas of jazz, because we're opening up people's ears to instrumental, improvised music. We're reaching more people than you would if you were playing really serious, hard-core bop, because that music is just too esoteric for the general public. If you've seen the Rippingtons live you wouldn't think of calling us "fuzak." The live show is a lot more aggressive than what you're going to hear on the records- especially now, there's more rock-oriented stuff. We've gotten a lot more raucous in the last few years. You know, the whole crunch guitar, wailing type of tunes seem to be creeping in more and more on the records, and those are the type of tunes that don't get played that much on these "Wave" format stations. They play the pretty ballads.
SB Is this type of drumming your own favorite style?
TM I started playing rock. That was really my main influence. Groups like Yes, old Genesis, any of that English kind of progressive rock. I was always into that. I could understand odd time signatures and things like that. Playing with the Grandmothers and the Fowler Brothers is similar to that type of music. It's very difficult music, but it doesn't reach as many people as you would playing Rippingtons stuff. But I don't think I really like one specific style. I like playing music that has a lot of different styles in it. In some respects playing with Benoit or Russ, their music does tend to have different styles within it. I do like putting a Latin flavor on a lot of things, too. I like being able to play a bunch of different styles and maybe melting all of those different styles into something new. I like to play as if there is no style- just playing whatever fits the music and makes it work. I remember reading a similar thing about Steve Gadd. He said that he approaches what he plays on a song by playing whatever is right for the song. I can't hear anything that Steve Gadd has done that I would think should have been done differently. That's how "right" he is about playing.
SB It seems so many drummers are influenced by Steve.
TM He's the best. I don't think anybody's done what he's done. There are a lot of great drummers out there, but nobody's made the impact he has-and done it on hit records! I don't think you could name anybody who has put something like that little lick on that Ricki Lee Jones' tune, "Chuck E.'s In Love", that little drum break he does between the hi-hat, snare, and the kick-something as technically intricate as that-on a hit record. Or all the Paul Simon tunes, like "Late In The Evening." He put this really hip, Mozambique groove on that song, which made the tune.
SB Who else did you listen to growing up?
TM Well, I told you my dad is a drummer, and he used to have jam sessions all night long. I'd be sleeping and I could hear him jamming downstairs. Drums were always in the house.
SB Is that when you started playing?
TM I took a few lessons when I was about fourteen or fifteen for about six months, but I wasn't really into it at that age. I didn't get serious and start practicing until I got out of high school. Around 1974 or '75 I started thinking that maybe I could play drums for a living, and I started to practice. I got motivated when I was in a band that was doing fusionistic-type music, and the sax player was bringing in really hard stuff. One night he brought in this song called "Nitesprite," the Chick Corea song. It was Steve Gadd, who else? That was my first taste of Steve, and that was the whole catalyst for me to get serious and start listening and practicing. I started buying every Chick Corea record, listening to Gadd, checking all his stuff out. Then I got into Billy Cobham and Bill Bruford. When Phil Collins played drums with Genesis I'd listen to him too. I'd listen to bands like Gentle Giant. Those were my progressive days.
SB Was there one moment, on a real gut level, that you knew you wanted to be a drummer?
TM Yeah, and this one thing with my dad has always stuck with me. I remember he was playing with Les Brown at the Showboat in Vegas, and I was backstage. There was a spot in the music where it came to a big drum solo. The lights would go out and they'd put a black light on my dad, and his sticks were painted florescent colors. He'd be wailing, and his sticks would make him look like he was on fire. People were out in the audience yelling, "Go Lloyd." That made a big impression on me. He was burning one of the cats.
SB Was there anything particular about other drummers that you picked up on?
TM Oh yeah. There were these really fast things that Billy Cobham would do that I copped. It's so cool when you first learn something by one of these guys. When you first do that you probably overplay it and put it in places where it shouldn't be, but by doing that you come up with something of your own. I loved Bill Bruford because he had his own sound. I just loved the way his drums sounded and the way he would play odd-time stuff, like with Yes and some of his own groups. I listen to this stuff now, and it sounds really sloppy. I guess that's because we're in the age of the clock. Their time sounds kind of funny, yet they have this certain flair and style-who cares if the time fluctuates a little bit? Man, let's take the clock off, ya know? That's the thing about the Rippingtons: When we go into the studio I'm always playing to sequenced keyboards. I'd really love to go in there one time and play as a band. You can't move around on a click if you're playing to sequences, but live, usually the band will follow the drummer and ignore the click. You can move in and out of the click, which I do live.
SB What are you hearing in your headphones during the live show?
TM Mostly it's just a cowbell on quarter notes. I have the tempos set for each song, because from previous years I've noticed that the longer we're out on tour the more external forces seem to dictate the tempos of a song each night.
SB What are some of those external forces?
TM I used to hate coming back off tours and then listening to live tapes and realizing that everything was way too fast, way too nervous-sounding. Somebody might have had an extra cup of coffee, or maybe the whole band was excited and nervous on a particular night. I started figuring out the optimum tempos for songs and using the click because I hated listening to those tapes. It was very funny, because from one night to the next we'd be playing the same show, yet one night the band would be like, dragging. I would sound like I was pushing, but I'd be nailing the click and they'd have to wake up and jump up on me. Yet, it would be the same tempo as we played the night before, when everything had felt fine. When you're on the road your body goes through all these different changes, which can affect the music.
SB Does everybody in the band like using the click?
TM Oh yeah, everybody's very cool with it. In "Welcome To St. James Club," there's this little section where the time gets turned around on purpose because we drop a beat. So from that point the click is on the upbeats. So it's kind of like a cool game. [laughs] It's those little things that take the boredom out of playing the same songs every night. Sometimes we're using a DAT machine on songs because there's some extra guitar or keyboard parts. In that case I'm hearing a click and the stuff that's on the DAT. So I play to that too. Then on other things, like during drum solo sections and bass solo sections, I usually pop the click off so that the person can go wherever they want, and I can just go with it.
SB Would you say that this music is a challenge to play?
TM To tell you the truth, I've played much harder music than this. But this music is deceivingly hard because there are so many subtle changes in it. And when you play these tunes every night on a long tour you have to stay focused.
SB What kind of subtleties are there?
TM For instance, on the Benoit/Freeman record, there's a tune Russ wrote called "Reunion." It has these rhythmic kicks that go throughout the tune, and they're slightly different every time. Then there's this little drum break where I have to make these figures and then solo around them.
SB In the Rippingtons you also play with a strong percussionist, Steve Reid. You guys make the whole drummer/percussionist thing look easy, but it's got to be a challenge sometimes.
TM Steve does a lot of floating on top, with colors and shapes. I pretty much hold the whole thing down. My role is pretty much straight grooving.
SB From a listener's point of view it looks like you two really work well together, presenting a strong percussive presence on stage. How do you feel about your working relationship?
TM I think the percussionist should always play off the drums and not get in the way. Steve's very good about not getting in the way, but sometimes he may start playing something that I'm playing on the drums, which I don't really like. So I'll tell him, "Steve, I'm kind of doing that on the drums, so what about doing something to go off of what I'm doing?" He's really good about hearing that, though.
SB It sounds like good communication is a key to making it happen.
TM Exactly. He'll be the first to tell you, he doesn't want to hold the groove down for the band. He's got me cranked in his monitor and he's groovin' off me. I think he always likes to have me playing. He really likes floating around on top.
SB Another important element you bring to the music is the sound of your drums. You have a beautiful sound both live and on record. Do you have any specific tuning rules?
TM I try to tune heads pretty evenly. I just try to find the note that's the loudest for the particular drum I'm working on, and then I focus on that note. That's really the way to do it. Drums are different sizes for a reason: They each have a different primary note. If you stray too far from the primary note of the drum, that's when you start getting choking and weird overtones. So I just try and keep both heads the same tension at that optimum note.
SB Do you use any muffling techniques?
TM No. I don't put any damping on the heads. I don't like any tape or anything. I just let 'em ring.
SB A musician's life can be vastly different depending upon whether he's in the studio or on tour. You've been touring so much lately. What's everyday life like for you?
TM It can be tough. I'm the kind of guy who needs to get seven or eight hours of sleep. When I don't, my body metabolism just goes off. I get kind of weird sometimes if I haven't had enough sleep, and unfortunately that happens a lot when you're on the road, especially if you're doing a lot of one-nighters. Being on the road can be a drag, but in other respects, it can be great. You get to travel and meet a bunch of different people, and you're playing every night, so it's good for your chops. That's very satisfying for me. And you get to see a lot of new and interesting places most people don't get a chance to experience. As far as the work scene, you can get kind of labeled if you're on the road a lot. I do a fair amount of television and studio work in L.A., and when I'm on the road, other drummers get the call. If that happens too many times, you get labeled: "Tony's a touring drummer." I've been fortunate that it's worked out because I've still been able to travel and be a part of a band and keep busy while I'm home.
Drumset: Drum Workshop in white marine pearl finish
- 5 x 13 wood snare
- 8 x 10 F.A.S.T. tom
- 9 x 12 F.A.S.T. tom
- 11 x 14 F.A.S.T. tom
- 16 x 16 F.A.S.T. tom
- 18 x 22 bass drum
- 13" Paiste hi-hats
- 16" Paiste Full crash
- 8" Paiste splash
- 10" Paiste splash
- 19" Paiste Dry ride
- 18" Paiste Fast crash
- 10" Paiste Bell cymbals (used as remote hi-hat)
- 16" 2002 China
DW, with a Gibraltar rack system holding all stands and mounts, LP Black Beauty cowbell and tambourine Heads: Remo Powerstroke III on snare batter, Diplomat on bottom, clear Ambassadors on tops of toms with Diplomats on bottoms, coated Ambassador on bass drum batter
Sticks: Vic Firth 5B with wood tip
Electronics: drumKAT, Akai S-900 sampler, Alesis D-4 and SR-16 drum machines, K&K Sound Systems drum mikes and pick-ups