EXCLUSIVE: Lettuce’s Ryan Zoidis On J.E.D.I., Jazz Fest, Herbie’s Magic, Peasant Parties, & More (B.Getz on L4LM)

Fresh off the most exhilarating tour in Lettuce’s storied history, saxophonist extraordinaire Ryan Zoidisis feeling beyond the clouds in 2018. The longtime psychedelic-funk juggernaut has recently catapulted itself upon a confident new frontier of jamming styles, to go along with Lettuce’s machine-gun tight workouts and limitless musical vocabulary. The results have been nothing short of astounding, and no band member is more responsible for the collective’s newfound force than the venerable sax scientist.

Zoidis is too humble of a cat to admit it, but his innovative, poetic use of KORG synth module X9-11 has revolutionized both his own voice as a player and his band’s sonic trajectory. A couple weeks before the LETT machine pulls into its home away from home, the band is primed and ready to take the Crescent City, as they are wont to do around this time of year. In addition to their mammoth, annual RAGE!Fest at the Joy Theater, Zoidis has himself an atypically packed NOLA schedule over Jazz Fest.

Live For Live Music’s B.Getz caught up with Ryan by phone at the conclusion of Lettuce’s wildly successful tour, while he was maxin’ and relaxin’ with his ten-year-old daughter back in Portland, Maine. Zoidis was excited to run down his plans for New Orleans, which include the massive J.E.D.I.collaboration with Aaron Johnston and the second Sunday celebration of all things Herbie Hancock—the latter of which boasts an all-star squadron of humongous proportions. Buckle up and strap in as we enter the Zoid Void.

Live For Live Music: Last time we talked, Lettuce was in the middle of the Beyond The Clouds tour, which took place over the past couple of months. You and Jesus [Coomes] were really stoked on how things were coming along back in mid-February. Now that’s the tour is over, could you please share some reflections?

Ryan Zoidis: Yeah, I mean the band just feels ridiculously cohesive right now. Because of this tour… just the energy flow is really pure right now with the krewe. Everyone is just vibing and on the same level, and it feels really great. I can’t even explain it really, but I think that the chemistry is better than it’s ever been. Creatively, we are able to explore places that we couldn’t get to before, and it’s a joy! It is a pure joy just to play with these guys every night.

L4LM: Now, you guys are heading into Jazz Fest, which is always huge for the entire LETT krewe. One thing I’ve noticed in recent years is that Lettuce only plays one gig. Y’all used to play two or even three during Jazz Fest, but now you have really focused on RAGE!Fest, always the second Thursday at Joy Theater. Go big—two sets, all the bells and whistles. This is a premier Lettuce event on the calendar. This year, for a change, other than DJ Soul Sister, there are no openers, so it’s a traditional ” An Evening with Lettuce.”

Zoidis: That’s kind of where we want to be, eventually, wherever we go—you know, when we can carry our own weight at our favorite venues in different cities. We want to do bigger places, but we just really want to play more music every night. We don’t want to play the standard ninety-minute set with one or two support acts before us. We just want to play all night.

I like playing two sets because we get a little break to regroup. The vibe changes a bit for the second set, and I think its just a better show in general. We don’t get the opportunity too much to do it—I think we only did it a few times on the last tour, but it feels great when we do two sets. I think we all want to do it more.

I love the Joy [Theater], I love that we have DJ Soul Sister coming along. I know she’s going to school us. She always does. [laughs]

L4LM: Speaking of NOLA, you obviously have a full plate. Let’s dive in! First weekend, you’re on a Sunday night show with J.E.D.I., which is improvisational dance music with Aaron Johnston of Brazilian Girls. For the uninitiated, would you please introduce us to him, and tell us what J.E.D.I. is all about?

Zoidis: Yeah, Aaron [Johnston] just reached out to me randomly because he felt like playing. He played with a really cool group out of New York called Brazilian Girls, and when I was living in New York and hanging out with [Eric] Krasno and [Adam] Deitch and the whole crew down there, we used to see them a lot at Blue Note.

They are a super artsy, vibey band, and Aaron is a really badass drummer steeped in world music and electronics, jungle, house, etc, He really knows that music in and out, and he is master at playing triggers with sample sounds live. He can effortlessly play with a loop. He’s been doing that for twenty years. Now, he’s on a world tour with David Byrne!

L4LM: Who will also be at Jazz Fest…

Zoidis: Who will also be in town, yep. You know, he could probably make this gig go off. I know that Aaron said that a couple other percussionists are coming—a few Brazilian dudes that are supposed to be pretty amazing. We are going to do some Brazilian stuff, some cool Eddie Harris kind of vamps with jungle beats. It’s all over the place, but it’s also very free. We stretch stuff out, it’s going to be amazing. Borahm Lee will be on it, Marc Brownstein of The Disco BiscuitsBenny [Bloom] is going to be doing it too.

J.E.D.I. – Ardmore Music Hall – Ardmore, PA – 11/30/2017

[Video: 215music]

L4LM: Right on! On that sort of improv tip, let’s explore more about what you have been developing soundwise with your synth rig and the KORG X9-11. That EDM realm crossing over into the improv space, it sounds pretty cool. It’s hard to believe it’s a sax sometimes. I guess because… it’s not!

Ryan Zoidis: Usually, it’s hard to tell where it is coming from. I mean, it’s so far from the saxophone—it’s such a different instrument, but yes I am controlling it with a saxophone. Without getting too nerdy, it’s basically converting the notes that I am playing on a saxophone to analog synth language, which is called control voltage, which is how synths talk to each other. So it’s basically taking the note, and turning it into that, and from there, I can play any synth, I can play a Moog, I can play an ARP. I can play just about anything!

This little KORG box I have is a pretty powerful thing on its own, and over the past years, I’ve just learned how to get all kind of textures and different sounds out of it that I hear, and I finally have figured out the learning curve on it. That took a while—a good solid year of figuring out what worked best—and now I have it dialed. It’s just an extension of my instrument now. And dude, it’s a blast.

L4LM: I’ve been stoked hearing you rock the new sounds with Lettuce. Now, with all the different gigs you have in New Orleans during Jazz Fest, I’m stoked to see what you play and how you employ the rig in different settings.

Zoidis: I am excited to get it out there in NOLA and be able to stretch out with it. Because I can loop with it, I can basically create a whole soundscape with multiple instruments, multiple octaves, and then I have the sax too, and I can play sax along with it, so it’s a pretty cool thing. And figuring it out has really paid off huge for me. It’s a lot more exciting to me to have that palette to choose from rather than just being boxed in with sax.

L4LM: I think it also motivated Benny to explore textures with his own horn.

Zoidis: Oh yeah. His pedals have come a long way too. He’s got great sounds as well. For both of us, it’s a constant battle to keep evolving. I wanna give credit, like, for instance, Skerik has always has crazy effects and takes things to a new place. What really put it over the top for me was something that I learned from Cheme [Gastelum], who taught me the trick to always use a pick-up with a microphone, and that has changed the game.

L4LM: Cheme delivering the key to the universe.

Zoidis: Yes. Exactly. And once you get there, you can go anywhere.

L4LM: You did a Herbie Hancock funk night at the Maple Leaf a few years ago with the LETT krewe and few others. It was among my favorites that Jazz Fest, and that Herbie catalog is totally your lane going back to “Hang Up Your Hangups”. That was probably the first Lettuce music I ever heard way back in the day, but that was actually a Herbie [Hancock] joint. I want to open the Herbie vault with Ryan Zoidis and dive in.

Zoidis: Yeah, you right! That was probably the first music we all bonded over when we met when we were coming together at Berklee before the members of Lettuce actually became a band. I mean, Herbie [Hancock] funk was the connection through all of us, and in some ways, it still is. Each of us was already all into that Headhunters-era of Herbie. SecretsFlood—man, we listened to Flood over and over and over; we wore Flood out. Thrust and Headhunters as well, and Manchild too, obviously. That was our bible man. Jeff Bhasker [original Lettuce keyboardist, currently writes with Kanye West] was huge on that Herbie sh*t too, and to be honest, it was Jeff who kind of showed us even more about this music, because that dude knew it in and out.

I mean, I have a Headhunters tattoo on my arm! It was one of the first records I listened to out of my mom’s stack when I was probably like seven years old.  It put me in such a mood, and I wanted it playing all the time.

L4LM: Thoughts about this particular Herbie tribute on Jazz Fest’s second Sunday at Maison? Looks killer!

Zoidis: It will be cool to flush it out with Sput [Robert Searight] and Garrett Sayers, and I’ll get to use my synth and play some Herbie string lines. Bennie Maupin was one of the only sax players to use effects back then. He had a cool wah-wah pedal set-up with a delay, and he got really cool textures with his rig.

L4LM: That dude definitely had a unique sound. When you think back to those early days, hearing the Herbie stuff and that 70s funk, what are those Bennie Maupin moments or solos that live in your soul?

Zoidis: Oh man, so many! All the Secrets stuff when he takes a little eight-bar run—very spacious, just a thoughtful little thing. Those are some of my favorite moments in the history of music. When he is just tastefully blowing a little bit, when he’s letting it breathe, he’s leaving so much space. He’s always funky, so soulful, he will hold the right note, just to give it some tension. He’s just like, the coolest. Such an original voice, you can always tell it’s him.

L4LM: I feel like you are on your way there too, man. When we listen, we can tell it’s you. So let’s run through the rest of your schedule in NOLA. What’s up with you and Jon Cleary at the Fairgrounds?

Zoidis: Nigel [Hall] actually recommended me and Bloom for the gig. Benny has gotten to know Cleary better than I have because he has been living in New Orleans, but now, I have been playing with Jon for years. We won a Grammy together for his last record Go Go Juice. Just recording with him is always such a great experience at his house in the Bywater—he has a really cool studio. There’s like ten pianos in the joint, and every one has a story! Everything on the wall is memorabilia from generations of New Orleans music and culture.

L4LM: Sounds like a museum.

Zoidis: Exactly. It’s a museum of New Orleans in there. He is the ultimate NOLA tour guide too. He knows every nook and cranny of that place and everything about the music in and out. It’s ridiculous. The dude has got a ’45 jukebox at the crib, a huge record collection that no one can even touch—it’s insane. Not to mention, his wife is an amazing costume designer for major motion pictures. She’s always cooking amazing food and hanging out, just taking care—she’s awesome. The Cleary hit is at the Fairgrounds on the first Friday.

L4LM: And you’re doing something with Nigel Hall at the Fairgrounds. So, have you ever played the Jazz Fest proper before?

Zoidis: Yeah, I have with Soulive years ago, and again with Cleary a couple years back. The Nigel hit is Saturday at 11:55 a.m.—it’s early. I am just going to play one tune, just take a solo on something.

L4LM: My favorite gig last year was the Big Lil Baby Jesus Peasant Party. I feel like Jesus is a different cat in the bandleader role, but it’s all improv. Let the people know about the Peasant Party, please.

Zoidis: Really, for me, the Peasant Party is just like the dream Jazz Fest gig. It’s been different every year, but that is the beauty of it. There’s a mystery to it because we go fully improv, and it’s definitely going to be dope. It always is. I’m also playing Dr. Klaw’s set at the Bayou Rendezvous with the Shadys. Then Deitch’s jazz quartet (AD4) on Tuesday night at the Blue Nile, which is another ridiculous band. I love playing in that. I close it down with a Break Science Live Band gig, which is second Saturday, late-night at One Eyed Jacks. Going out with a bang! [Laughs] It took a while to shape up my schedule that I was playing enough variety that it would not get redundant.

L4LM: Well, it’s a lot of things, but redundant is definitely not one of them. One last thing I am asking everybody that I am talking to before Fest. Respond to Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?

Zoidis: The food, the people, the vibe, the colors—man, the energy there is just unstoppable. I love that city, it is kind of like a second home for me. I have real family there now. I can’t wait to get back down there. I can’t wait to get a Hansen’s snowball!