“It’s Not a Karaoke Band, We’re Making Music Here”: Steve Jordan on the Rolling Stones, Mix Master Mike and the JFA
photo credit: Jane Rose
[Last night at Love Rocks, Keith Richards reunited the X-Pensive Winos with Steve Jordan, Waddy Wachtell, Ivan Neville and Will Lee (subbing on bass for Charley Drayton). In this Parting Shots piece from our Jan/Feb issue, Jordan discusses touring with Richards and the Stones, as well as his friendship with the late Charlie Watts, his ongoing collaboration with Mix Master Mike and his work with the Jazz Foundation of America.]
“I was not coming in to reinvent the wheel. I’m respectful of all the stuff that Charlie did because there’s only one way to play most of this music and he played it the right way,” drummer Steve Jordan says of his new role as The Rolling Stones’ touring drummer. Jordan was initially announced as a temporary replacement for the group’s 2021 U.S. tour after Charlie Watts was sidelined due to health reasons. But that status changed after Watts passed away on Aug. 24.
Jordan first met Watts while working in the Saturday Night Live house band in 1978, and the two remained friendly over the years, bonding over their appreciation for fellow drummers such as Chico Hamilton, Papa Jo Jones and Roy Haynes.
Beyond his gig with the Stones, Jordan remains active on many fronts. The Jazz Foundation of America, where the drummer serves as Artistic Director with his wife Meegan Voss, continues to support musicians in need, with an increased urgency wrought from the pandemic. Jordan and Voss are also creative partners in The Verbs, and they intend to complete a new studio album over the months to come. Meanwhile, Beat Odyssey 2020—the album Jordan recorded with Mix Master Mike and released through the Jay-Vee imprint he founded with Voss—was recently named Best Recorded Performance in the 2021 Modern Drummer Readers Poll.
On Dec. 6, Jordan was on hand at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London for a special private show honoring Watts. He describes the event as “a very moving evening, but it wasn’t dour by any means— it was a celebration.”
He explains, “We were there for his family—to pay tribute to this man. And, like they said, he was their father, which was the main thing.”
As for his own connection with Watts, Jordan adds, “He had such a gentle nature and every encounter that we had was full of gems of information. We didn’t talk all the time but, whenever we did, it was all the way in, which made for a very rich relationship.”
How did you initially approach the Stones material, some of which has evolved over the years in the live setting?
I started with the records. I knew all of that music as a fan. Of course, a lot of the recording arrangements changed because certain things can’t be replicated from the records. Also, similar to performers like James Brown, they didn’t necessarily want to play it the way they recorded it because they’re giving a show, not reproducing a hit record. It’s also your prerogative to change the approach of a song if you’ve been playing it for over 30 years—you get an “I can change it” card.
I also referenced what I thought was one of the hottest periods of the band’s live performances. From ‘71 to ‘75, Charlie was in particularly great form—one of the many times he was in great form. So I cross-referenced that period and the original recordings to see what kind of blend I could come up with that felt natural. Of course, Charlie played a lot of musical hooks that wouldn’t sound the same if you didn’t play them in a certain way. I gladly play them because they’re in my DNA so I don’t even have to think about it.
Then, Meegan reminded me: “You’ve gotta be yourself or else it won’t work.” That was very sage advice. I brought my own interpretation to it because it’s not a karaoke band; we’re making music here. So it’s a combination of everything I described with all of me as opposed to a restrained version of me.
As you found your way inside of these songs, is there one that particularly surprised you in a pleasant way?
Well, it’s all incredibly pleasant. I mean, that’s an understatement; it’s amazing. [Laughs.] The rehearsals were really fun because we played over 80 songs, including plenty of deep tracks. We rehearsed about five hours a day straight through. We didn’t take a lot of breaks because there was a lot of material not only to learn, but also to feel and play—not just to get through it, but also to actually engage the music in its entirety, which doesn’t happen overnight.
But it was great to revive “19th Nervous Breakdown,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and “Under My Thumb.”
The jewel of the night was “Midnight Rambler.” That was the one that I first wanted to tackle when I was visualizing what I needed to do. It’s a blues tune, but it has a few sections where there’s improvisation. Those sections are different every night, and we all have to really communicate with each other. It’s been a special one.
So the whole thing is great. We’re still working on feels, but it’s very exciting, and it’s evolving in a very good way.
Moving on to your project with Mix Master Mike, you’ve received so many accolades for Beat Odyssey 2020. Is there a chance that we’ll get to hear the two of you in the live setting?
When Mike and I get together, it’s like spontaneous combustion. It’s very much like jazz because it’s improvisation. We might say, “Why don’t we do create this kind of vibe?” Or maybe we’ll agree on a tempo, count it off and we’re in. There’s some really great energy.
You can see some of it when we play with Super Soul Banned because Mike is in that band. It also consists of Isaiah Sharkey, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Ray Parker Jr., Clifton Anderson, Clark Gayton, Eddie Allen and Wayne Cobham. It’s a hardcore soul band and, usually, we play instrumentals. So if you’ve ever see that band live, there’s an element of that to what we do. But Mike and I have also received some offers and we’re just waiting for our schedules to free up. So you’ll see that happen.
You’re doing wonderful work with the Jazz Foundation of America, supporting musicians who have given their lives to music but now find themselves in need. How did COVID impact those efforts?
The numbers quadrupled in regards to the amount of clients we’ve helped. Of course, we did it all with a very personal touch, which is really profound. It’s not just filling out forms and waiting online. There’s a real family feeling to the Foundation— everybody’s in it together to help people get through this.
So many people have supported us. A consortium of record labels helped to contribute to our COVID-19 Musicians’ Emergency Fund with a new relief album. For our “Bird Calls” virtual fundraiser, Herb Alpert allowed us to record at Vibrato in Los Angeles, and [Relix Publisher] Peter Shapiro let us record at Brooklyn Bowl. Peter also livestreamed it through FANS.
We’re always looking to do more and, with more support, we can do even more. If anybody wants to go to our site, jazzfoundation.org, they can see the programs that are in place which can use some funding. For instance, we keep musicians working through our educational programs, which also help children. We have a lot of things going on, and all the programs could use some extra juice. We have an obligation to keep growing the foundation because it truly is a lifeline.