Q&A with pianist ‘Hurricane’ Sam Rudin
June 30, 2011
Sam Rudin’s “Boogie, Blues and Jazz” will be presented Sunday in the Valhalla Boathouse Theatre, which houses a vintage Steinway piano. An Oakland musician, Rudin is the bandleader of Hurricane Sam & the Hotshots. He will reflect upon and explore American music of the 20th century, entertaining and educating spectators at Tahoe. Here are excerpts from an interview with Lake Tahoe Action:
Tim Parsons: You are performing Sunday in the Valhalla Boathouse Theatre. How do you like that venue?
Sam Rudin: I like it very much. I make it a point to announce my availability for them. I’ve played there, I think, four times in seven years. I really like the setup. For what I do, it’s a nice setting. It’s a small, charming theater. It’s a pocket-sized theater. It really works well for an intimate show.
Q: What can people at Valhalla expect at your show?
Rudin: I call it “Boogie, Blues and Jazz.” … What I do is explore the entire 20th century of American music. I liked it when people started using the term Americana because that really applies to me. When I play a jazz festival, I’m like the bluesy guy, and when I play a blues festival I’m the jazzy guy. And I like folk music. I like the intimacy of the one instrument and the voice.
Q: Who influenced you?
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Rudin: Do you know who David Bromberg is? I would watch him when I was 17, 18, 19, and I always thought he was one of the greatest guitar players who ever lived but I especially like the way that he uses his guitar and his voice in solo context to create real sophisticated musicianship but in the service of very direct, simple structures. … Clearly with a flair of technical ability that he doesn’t not hide or run away from. David Bromberg is one of the most technically accomplished guitarists and fiddle player, for that matter, ever as far as I’m concerned but he puts his technical accomplishments, applies it to these basically rootsy structures of music that are very folky. I liked that a lot when I was young and that’s probably my biggest influence as a performer.
Q: You are going to cover many different styles. I’ve learned from interviewing musicians that they generally appreciate every kind of music.
Rudin: Musicians are listening from a backstage perspective. The average civilian who listens to music, he hears sounds that he likes and if not, well that’s not the flavor (they) like. Musicians tend to hear it from the musician’s standpoint as if they would be playing that music. When you’re doing that, they are judging it on the quality of the players. Are they doing something that is effective and maybe a little bit difficult? Are they putting into it the phrasing and emphasis that you would like to put into your own music? In other words, the musicianship itself is what you’re noticing. And then you appreciate the music itself. I enjoy country music and I never used to like country music when I was a kid. It wasn’t part of my culture.
Q: Elvin Bishop just played at Tahoe and he talked about straddling a fine line separating country and blues. Do you think they are closely related?
Rudin: It’s a very imprecise process with all kinds of overlap and the gray area of overlap keeps shifting each generation. So what you mean by that term of blues or country or rock is actually different that what was meant by that same term a generation earlier. And, at best, those terms overlap anyway, so it’s really tricky to use the language in a way that it’s helpful technically. Yet we do kind of know when our flavor is around and we recognize that as opposed to the other flavors. Each type of music has certain rhythms that are common within those genres and it’s not just rhythm, there’s a certain approach as to how you make the groove and the way you select your notes and the way the chord changes go. When you are a solo player, it all tends to blend together a lot more because the differences in music is the instrumentation and the setting you hear it in. A country band and a blues band sound different but when you take that same thing and put it on a solo piano in both cases, well, the difference is less. Especially if you are a player who enjoys muddying up those differences. The differences kind of go away.
Q: You cover a lot of classic songs with unique takes on your solo album “Live & Kickin’ “
Rudin: I write a few songs but I’m not a big songwriter. I like to take tunes that exist already and do something to them that is unusual or pianistic. If I can bring something out of it that wasn’t already there then, I’d like to include that tune. … Whatever style I am doing becomes easily interchangeable with other styles. What’s true about all of these styles is that they are all improvised musics that are player centered, not composer centered. They are all Americana. They all come down to us from this great system of music that has come down to us from blues. From African-American blues and gospel and early jazz, everything springs from that.
Q: Can you play jazz without blues, or let me put it this way, is blues essential to jazz?
Rudin: Of course it is. There have been people over the years who play certain forms of jazz who are pretty far removed from blues. Some of those players are good but a lot of them in my opinion kind of fall off the edge. If you’re not blues-rooted, it’s hard to be a good jazz player.
Q: You said your not a big songwriter, but you wrote a great tune “Once or Twice a Week.” Is that based on a true story?
Rudin: Yes. All of the songs I have written have been based on something true. The trouble is unlike Paul Simon who gets up in the morning and goes to a desk and sits there and sees if a song comes out and four hours later he gets up and goes and eats lunch. I don’t have that way of doing things. If a song comes out, it needs to come out. And I haven’t had that happen to me for a long time. Those urges have somewhat left me, I’m afraid. But all of the songs that have my byline on it have been based on truth.
Q: How did you get to play with Chubby Checker?
Rudin: Chubby Checker is a Philadelphia guy and I was born and raised in Philly, and lived there until I came out here in my late 20s. So my first adult decade of playing music was in Philadelphia. One of the guys I knew was playing with him. And he goes through bands a lot. He’s in constant need of musicians because he was always out on the road all the time and no musicians really wanted to stay with him for that many months in a row. So every three or four months he would need a new band, so I just happened to know the guy and I auditioned and that was that.
Q: You opened for a lot of well-known artists, including my all-time favorite guitarist, Albert King. Did you get to interact with him?
Rudin: I opened for him. I didn’t interact with him except to say “Hello, Mr. King.” I don’t think he actually heard me play. That’s happened for a number of people I’ve opened for. It’s nice to say I’ve opened for this or I’ve opened for that. I have a whole list of people. I used to do a lot of openings but only of a minority of them did I Interact with.
Rudin: You mentioned bluegrass. I am as far as I know, the only piano bluegrass player, although I can’t prove it. Certain tunes the style and the flavor I digested very early. I had a friend who was a friend who was a very good mandolin player and I found out a way I could imitate it if I tried. I figured out how to three finger pick the piano. Frank Wakefield, whose kind of an early important mandolin player, and he used to say to me, you are the only piano bluegrass payer in the whole world. He’s a mentor of David Grisman.