Joe Gallant & Illuminati: The New Chapter
The 18-piece orchestra Joe Gallant & Illuminati has been a New York City mainstay for several decades. Originating in the early ’80s on the then-gritty lower east side, Illuminati is known both for composer/basist Joe Gallant’s original works and for his unique, evocative reconstructions of Grateful Dead favorites.
Longtime friend and confidante, Chatsworth Van Nuys, agreed to interview Gallant recently in advance of Illuminati’s upcoming “Terrapin Station Anniversary Celebration” at Brooklyn Bowl on Friday July 27th.
So, i understand your Illuminati Orchestra is 30 years old this year…
Yeah- hard to believe! the first Illuminati gig was at Tramps in NYC, Sept 20, 1982. That first incarnation was a trio of baritone sax, bass and drums. We played my chamber-jazz tunes, to 6 people. I realized recently that I’ve been an NYC bass rat, running through the streets with my gig bag and my scores, for a very long time- my first NYC gig was in October 1975- I played in David Peel’s band on “The Underground Tonight Show” on NYC cable channel D.
How did the band get so large? It’s an 18-piece behemoth, I believe?
After some initial musical success with the early gigs, I saw my ideas were cohesive and working… I had the chops and the ears to begin writing for a much larger ensemble, but I wasn’t sure what the colors would be.. i knew it would be strings and horns-driven mostly.. so when friends started saying “i wanna play in Illuminati”, i had to figure the best way to fit that person in.. the band evolved to a certain extent from the exact people who wanted to be a part of it early on.
You recorded several Illuminati CDs of originals, and a number of Dead-related ones as well?
Yes. The Grateful Dead are one of the primary reasons I’m a musician. My affinity and respect for their accomplishments on every level is deep and forever. And yeah, so far I’ve produced 3 large-scale CDs of originals. And in terms of my arrangements of Grateful Dead music for Illuminati, there’s the “ Blues for Allah Project” CD, the massive “TERRAPIN” reconstruction of the Dead’s “Terrapin Station” album, 2 live-at Wetlands CDs on Relix Records, and an unreleased live CD recorded at the Fillmore West.
There’s talk of releasing this upcoming Brooklyn Bowl gig on Unseen Rain Records, a great new avant-jazz label I’m producing with, if the recordings are excellent and after logistics talks.
You often tell me that Garcia and Lesh are among the most important players of their generation. Why is that?
Both of them have utterly unique, signature approaches to their instruments, as a starting point. Their sounds and musical ideas are recognizable within seconds. That can’t be said of a huge majority of musicians, regardless of chops. That’s not a put-down at all- it really has much to do with what Garcia and Phil DON’T play- they both come from such a multi-genre place, such a non-specific stylistic gene pool, that they managed to avoid literally every cliche’ and trend while taking their instruments to a highly evolved place. This ability comes from being a very intelligent, self-aware Person, which enables The Artist to explore a powerful, unique path. Weir has these qualities. So did Jaco Pastorius, as another example.
We are extremely fortunate to have decades of Dead and side-project recordings- virtually everything they did is available, in some form! That’s extraordinary. Can you imagine a world in which only a few tattered snippets of Jerry’s playing was all that existed?
No! That would be horrible… you took some time off from active Illuminati gigging, I recall.
I had been at it weekly for almost 20 years straight at that point, from the original-music chamber-ensemble concert years through the huge Dead/jamband festival years, and I felt I had run the gamut of electro-acoustic colors available within the ensemble… a strange new direction presented itself to me and I became a filmmaker for a number of years.. it was incredibly interesting, definitely with some extremes in terms of energy, of light and darkness.. then, that chapter declared itself complete 2 years ago, and I returned to the Illuminati conversation with fresh ideas and a huge appreciation for the work that went into it, and for the fantastic, generous people who had participated in it over the years… whenever you do something you love and bleed for and cherish, it’s periodically difficult to see it as clearly and as detailed as others observe it.. there’s self-doubt and frustration and bar-raising, all of that, because that’s what a creative person does instinctively. But if you can step back a bit, you’ll likely see your effort has yielded some really great material. I have 8 huge boxes stuffed with Illuminati charts, scores, all the DNA strands of the band. That’s so great to see. It shows that something heavy was going on all that time.
So.. Brooklyn Bowl..
JG) Peter Shapiro is our Bill Graham.. that’s not a cheap throwaway line…the guy loves and lives for the music, and walks the walk in a massive way. It was obvious at Wetlands, and he’s upped the ante at B. Bowl. It’s an awesome space. Since this gig is on the 35th anniversary day of the release of Terrapin station, we’ll of course do a big chunk of the Terrapin stuff, lots of heavy-groove Dead tunes, a few of my tunes.. this Illuminati gig will be a big Grateful Dead dance party, with 20 people onstage, so that’s what we’re getting ready for! (laughs). It’ll definitely be a special night.
Awesome. Ok folks- Illuminati.. July 27th, Brooklyn Bowl.. Be there or be L7!