Friday, November 4, 2016

A Very Candid Conversation with Chris Rhyne

Chris Rhyne got his professional start playing keyboards with Canadian R&B/jazz fusion artist Gino Vannelli. He played on Vannelli’s album, A Pauper in Paradise (1977), and toured with him as well. Chris also played keyboards with Carlos Santana on the albums Inner Secrets (1978) and Oneness: Silver Dreams—Golden Reality (1979). When Chris toured with Santana, he played in two bands: the main Santana band that played hits such as “Black Magic Woman” and songs from the Inner Secrets album, and the Devadip Orchestra. At the time, Santana was a follower of Indian spiritual leader Sri Chimnoy and he was into jazz, so he created music that had a mix of jazz and spiritual themes. At Santana shows, the Devadip Orchestra would play the spiritual jazz first followed by the main Santana band. In 1979, Chris played keyboards with the famed jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. He toured with Ponty and played on two of his albums, Civilized Evil (1980) and Mystical Adventures (1982). (Randy Jackson, a judge on American Idol, was also member of Ponty’s band.) By the early eighties, Chris would leave Ponty to became part of the house band on The Merv Griffin Show.

Chris already had an impressive career as a keyboardist by the time The Merv Griffin Show came to an end in 1986. Yet, he would add something else to his résumé: producing. While producing records for other artists, Chris continued playing music, mainly for commercials, TV shows, etc.

Chris briefly retoured with Ponty in the nineties, and he continued producing music. Additionally, in the early 2000s, Chris toured with one of India’s most famous violinist, L. Subramaniam. (To this day, Chris continues to tour on and off with L. Subramaniam.) In 2010, his nephew, Tyler Glaiel, developed the video game Closure. Chris composed the score for the game, which won awards and was critically acclaimed. This year (2016), Chris produced renowned children’s music artist Stephen Michael Schwartz’s latest album Bucket of Wow!

In this candid conversation, we cover Chris’s impressive career with Gino Vannelli, Santana, Jean-Luc Ponty, L. Subramaniam, and The Merv Griffin Show. In addition, we look at his time producing and scoring the video game Closure and his recent work with Stephen Michael Schwartz. I want to thank Chris for his time for this interview.

Jeff Cramer:   How did you get started playing keyboards or piano?

Chris Rhyne:  Well, it was mandatory piano lessons for me and all of my brothers and sisters. We lived in Massachusetts just outside of Boston. For some reason, parents in the fifties were told that music helped develop you scholastically, so it helped you be better at math and other subjects. So, my parents decided we would all take mandatory lessons.

JC:  When did piano become a passion rather than something your parents forced you to do?

CR:  My parents forced me and my siblings to take piano lessons for disciplinary rules, but they didn't really want us to be professional musicians. I started getting very involved in it.

By the time the Beatles came out, instead of practicing my classical music, I was working out Beatle arrangements on piano and also playing clarinet in the school orchestra and accompanying all the school productions. I also started my own band called Reindeer Army. Actually, the band had a record deal on Laurie Records while I was still in high school, which was kind of big in New England.

It was kind of a Doors-type group. I played organ and bass—my left hand was playing the bass notes on the organ—and we had a guitar player and a drummer. We actually played all over New England at colleges and everything. I was already making money, and it seemed like, "This is fun. I want to do it for a living." [To hear Reindeer Army’s 1970 single, “Walk On,” click here.]

I had been playing in Reindeer Army through high school as a way to make money, and it just seemed logical to go to the next level and go to Berklee College of Music. I wanted to increase my knowledge.

JC:  So you went to Berklee College of Music. Gino Vannelli would be the first major artist you played with.

CR:  Let me think back . . . I played with quite a few bands around New England, but I hooked up with Gino while I was still living in Boston and flew up to Montreal to audition with him and got the gig. I really hadn't heard of Gino. I didn't know what a stir he was making in certain parts of the US and Canada, but I heard his record and thought it was fantastic.

I believe it was the first all synthesizer‑based music. It was around the same time as Gary Wright, but there weren't too many people doing it back then. I ended up playing left‑handed bass and synthesizer with Gino, just like I used to do in my high school band. I flew out to California. It was a fantastic gig—very well-rehearsed, very meticulous. And Gino's quite a talent. [You can hear Chris play on Vannelli’s “The Surest Things Can Change” by clicking here.]

Chris playing with Gino Vannelli in 1977

JC:   How did you go from playing with Gino to Santana?

CR:  Let me retrace my steps . . . I toured with Gino and recorded A Pauper in Paradise with him in London at AIR Studios in 1977. I had moved out to LA but didn't have a whole lot of connections yet, and Gino cancelled a tour that was supposed to take place. At that point, I was out of work and in LA and didn’t know anybody, so I needed a gig.

I was having many musicians come by my garage in Encino—a little house that I was sharing—and we would have jam sessions. A lot of really top studio musicians came by. I overheard someone saying that Tom Coster [the previous Santana keyboardist] had just left Santana.

Ironically, I had just seen Santana a week before at the Forum in Los Angeles and thought, "Wow, I love this band. I just loved the spiritual attitude and the sound of the music, and I could picture myself playing with it."

A week later, I heard that Santana needed a keyboard player. Being very bold and unrealistic at the time, I just cold‑called the manager. Before I knew it, I was on a plane to San Francisco to audition 
with them.

Chris (far right) in Santana (1978)

JC:  Graham Lear, who was Santana’s drummer at the time, had also played with Gino Vannelli before. Did you know Graham from your Gino days?

CR:  Graham had been with Gino right before I started playing with Gino. Casey Scheuerell was the drummer when I played with Gino.

JC:   Right.

CR:   So, I hadn't met Graham, and now he was with Santana. That was the first time I met Graham.

JC:  Okay, so you got the gig. Looking at the songwriting credits of Inner Secrets, you were involved in creating “Move On.”

CR:  Yeah, Carlos would run things by me, and we worked together on a few tunes. I did get songwriting credit on one tune, “Move On.” [To hear “Move On” by Santana, click here.]
JC:  During your time with Carlos Santana, you had two gigs with him. One was the band Santana, which played the new album Inner Secrets and the older stuff, such as "Black Magic Woman." The other gig was with the Devadip Orchestra. Can you talk a little about it?

CR:  Devadip was Carlos’s spiritual name. At the time, he was a student of Sri Chinmoy, who was a very popular guru in musical circles back then. John McLaughlin [a renowned jazz guitarist] was also one of his devotees.

Carlos was always exploring jazz aside from the Latin rock he played with the Santana band. It was music that wasn't quite as commercial. As a matter of fact, Carlos was working on something along those lines on the first recording that I did with him. He called me over to the studio across the street before I was even officially in the band. I did some overdubs in one of his records under that name. Oneness: Silver Dreams—Golden Reality was the title.

When we toured, interestingly enough, Carlos asked me if I would help musically direct and put together a jazz group of Santana band members. This group became known as the Devadip Orchestra. The Devadip Orchestra actually opened up for Santana in Europe. We did a whole opening act. The Devadip Orchestra was a smaller, broken‑down group that included a sax player named Premik Russell Tubbs, and we would open up for Santana playing the more jazz‑oriented stuff. Then we would take a break and come out and do the Santana show. [Laughs].

I have to say, doing Santana occasionally was a trip. I didn't write "Black Magic Woman," but sometimes we would be playing a concert—for example, us and the Stones on the same billing—and we would be playing a stadium with seventy thousand people. I would have to come up with that ubiquitous well‑known organ riff. I would be playing this little riff, and I would see seventy thousand people lighting their matches or lighting their lighters and freaking out just because I was playing a very simple, little well‑known organ riff. It was kind of fun, I have to admit. [Laughs]. And that band was very brilliant. I mean, Carlos, the percussion section, and all that. There was plenty of playing, but I was having fun. [To hear “Oneness” by the Devadip Orchestra, click here.]

JC:   It sounds like you were having a blast and you had some creative freedom, writing a song, musically directing the Devadip Orchestra, etc., so why did the Santana thing come to an end?

CR:  Oh, boy, it's hard to say. Let me think back . . . how did it come to an end? I don't want to divulge too much here.

JC:   That's okay.

CR:  I don't want to say anything bad about it, but there was just some disagreements in the musical direction at one point.

At one point, the road manager didn’t think me and Greg Walker [the vocalist for Santana] were fitting in well with the band, so  we were asked to leave the band. Later, Carlos wanted me to join the band again, but I had already gotten a gig with Jean-Luc Ponty.

The primary thing wasn't with Carlos; it was with the management. It started with the Devadip thing, because I had to put whole that project together [laughs] and they didn't want to pay me any extra money for it.

And then Jean‑Luc offered me more money than I was making with Santana, so the decision was primarily financial. I’ve always loved Jean‑Luc's music as well. I just decided it was time to go with Jean‑Luc and play a little bit more fusion.

JC:  With Jean‑Luc, you were also playing with Randy Jackson of American Idol. Randy was playing bass in Jean-Luc’s band.

CR:  Yeah, Randy was a blast on the road, very fun—pretty much the same personality you saw on American Idol is how he was. [Laughs]. He’s a great player, an awesome player. He was the bass player on some of the tours I did with Jean‑Luc.

I've played with Jean‑Luc a number of times over the years, starting in the seventies. I was doing more studio work in the eighties. Eventually, I went back with him in the nineties when he put the Western and African musicians together, and I toured again quite a lot with him. [To hear Chris and Randy on Jean-Luc’s “Egocentric Molecules,” click here.]

JC:   Now, from Jean‑Luc, you eventually moved onto The Merv Griffin Show.

CR:  Yeah. That had nothing to do with Jean‑Luc, of course. It just happened that I had been touring pretty much straight since the seventies, and I’d gotten a chance to audition for a spot with The Merv Griffin Show sometime in the eighties, which was nothing I ever thought I would do.

I thought it might be good to stay in LA for a while and just explore doing more studio work and see what it was like to not tour. So, I took that job for awhile. [You can hear Chris playing with jazz legend Benny Goodman on The Merv Griffin Show by clicking here.]

It was an interesting job. I got to play with countless legends, from Buddy Rich to Mel Torme, Lionel Hampton, etc. I mean, I could go on and on. Many of the people I played with, who were legends, are no longer with us. I got to play multiple styles, so it really helped my arranging and my ability to play in multiple styles. I have a great Buddy Rich story.

JC:  Okay, go ahead.

CR:   I was the young guy in the band at the time with Mel Gibson hair, and most of the guys were twenty or thirty years older than me. They were excellent players.

Buddy came out one day and he was gonna play drums with our band. It was a fast, complex, upbeat jazz tune that called for a saxophone solo. We had one of the best sax players in the world, Plas Johnson, playing in the band. The guy is a monster player, but he also played on The Pink Panther theme and all the Henry Mancini stuff. That's the sound you hear when you hear The Pink Panther theme. [Laughs].

JC:   Cool.

CR:   So Buddy kept looking at me and checking me out. I was thinking, "What's up with this?" Because I was just gonna play—you know, supplement the horn section. We only had three horns, so a lot of times I would be doubling the horns with the synthesizer sound or whatever.

We were going through the arrangement and Plas started playing an amazing sax solo during the rehearsal. All of a sudden, Buddy stopped and said, "No. I want this kid—meaning meto play the solo." Mort Lindsey, the musical director, said, "But, Buddy, this is a sax solo." Buddy said, "I want him," and he looked at me.

Buddy looked right at me, as if it was kind of like a challenge. He was known for doing that kind of thing. [Laughs]. Buddy was probably thinking, “Who's this young guy in his band,” you know? He wanted to put me on the spot.

Luckily, I had been practicing and reading a lot at the time, and my chops were really good. So I played the solo, and then it came down and we were filming it on the air live, and I pretty much let it rip. Buddy was staring at me and I was staring at him, and there was no other word about it.

JC:    [Chuckles].

CR:   But it happened. Supposedly, I met the challenge because Buddy didn't yell at me or anything. [Laughs].

JC:  Yeah. I mean, I’ve never met him, but he sounds like a guy who wouldn't mince words, you know?

CR:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.

JC:  Before you went on the road with Jean-Luc in the nineties, you also mentioned that you were in the studio.

CR:   I was producing people’s records.

JC:   How did you get into producing?

CR:  Well, that probably goes back to when I was thirteen or fourteen. I bought my first used Wurlitzer electric piano and started opening it up and trying to plug it into the hi‑fi system. I had an old tape recorder that could change speeds after recording stuff on two tracks, and I was overdubbing as many times as I could.

I always wanted to experiment with sounds and recording, so that is kind of natural. When I moved to LA, I started buying tape recorders and putting them in my apartment until the whole thing looked like a music store eventually. I've always been interested in arranging, recording, putting things together, writing songs, and getting the best performances out of musicians and singers.

JC:  Were you doing anything else in the studio besides producing?

CR:  I just got into being a studio-session player. You do three or four sessions a day, just running around doing sessions for whatever music comes up. Some of the studio music was playing behind films. Some of it was playing behind TV commercials. It was commercial studio work for the most part. Some of it was fun and creative, and some of it was just reading the music and doing what they want, you know? [Laughs].

Chris (left, in white shirt) in the studio (1987)

JC:  Eventually you would come back to play with Jean-Luc in the nineties.
CR:  Well, I didn't decide to play with Jean-Luc after the Griffin show went off. I was still in LA producing and just doing various sessions with different people, and then Jean‑Luc called me—I'm trying to remember what year it was—and asked me if I would come back and play with him. And at that point, I hadn't been on the road in a long time and I wanted the experience again.

That was when Jean-Luc had the African group, and that was really interesting. It just had all kinds of odd meters and different feels. It was very challenging. I decided to go back to him. I went back with him for a few years. It was on and off at that point.

JC:   What happened after you went on tour with Jean‑Luc? What happened next?

CR:  You mean after touring with Jean-Luc?

JC:   Yes.

CR: Since 2000, I've been touring on and off with Indian violin legend, L. Subramaniam. His nickname is Mani. He's the biggest violin star in India. Americans might not have heard him, but there's 1.2 billion people in India, and most of them have heard of him.

Mani’s wife is a Bollywood vocal star and a legend, Kavita Krishnamurthy. Mani's an amazing violin player. Nobody bends notes more expressively than Mani, and his wife, Kavita, is an amazing vocalist. He's kind of a master virtuoso Indian classical music player, but he also puts together a global music fusion festival, global fusion, and he invites top musicians from all over the world to perform together on the same stage. I played one tour and we had a Russian bass player and Norwegian sax player. A percussionist from the Ivory Coast. It’s a pretty big deal in India. It's all about promoting the idea that there's only one human race and cultural diversity is a strength. We need to pull together as one planet at some point, and Mani promotes that, so it's a really positive thing.

JC: How did you first get involved with Subramaniam?

CR: A friend of mine, who's a great guitar player, Thom Rotella. Thom had worked with Mani before, and Thom recommended me when Mani needed a keyboard player. The first job I did with him was a concert in Austin, Texas. I showed up and had to sight read [reading sheet music] the music I was about to perform because I didn't really have the music in advance, so it was quite challenging. After the first concert in Texas, he invited me to tour India with him right away. I think the next tour I did with him was in India in the early 2000s. I worked on some film score with Mani on an Indian film—I don't even know what the film was and I haven't seen it. I just happened to be in the studio working with them.

JC: Has there been anything else besides playing with Subramaniam in Texas and India?

CR: We’ve played quite a few different gigs around America. [To hear Chris playing with Mani, click here.]

JC: Are you still playing with Subramaniam to this day?

CR: You never know. I mean, the next time he calls me, I will.

JC:  When you weren’t touring with Subramaniam, what did you do?

CR:  Well, I still had my connections in LA, and so I was doing studio work, producing people.

You know, sometimes you have to do what you have to do to survive in this business. Sometimes I would be producing demos for people. Sometimes I would be playing a club gig. Sometimes I would be doing arrangements. I produced lots of children's records. I was writing stuff for Disney, NBC, a lot of TV shows, songs, game-show themes, all kinds of stuff like that. We actually get royalties and stuff.

There's a lot more you have to do as a musician, especially now. You have to be even more versatile now than you had to be back then. You have to wear a lot of different hats to stay busy because the money is pretty much dried up in records. The budgets are nowhere near what they used to be.

Records are almost a vanity project now. It's like, "Here, I made a record," and musicians get it out at their concerts practically for free. You can't sell anything. A lot of people I used to work with can no longer afford to have records produced the old way. You have to be quite creative in how you make a living these days.

JC:  You have been indeed creative. You scored a video game, the Closure game.

CR:  Yeah, that was quite fun. That came about as a fluke. My nephew, Tyler Glaiel, had been producing video games since he was a little kid. He was only eighteen at the time when he came up with the idea for Closure and got me in on the ground floor of doing the score for that.

The game ended up doing really well when it came out. It won lots of awards and highly acclaimed reviews. The score got a lot of good reviews as well—it ended up being on Sony.

That was a lot of fun, very creative writing inspired by the visuals. I ended up coming up with the kind of music I never would have written otherwise just because of the strange sci‑fi vibe of the video and the graphics. It was very fun. I love scoring.

JC:  You also won an award for Closure.

CR:  Well, the score for Closure actually won the 2010 Independent Games Festival for Excellence in Audio. It won that award, and I was quite surprised. It was my first video game I had scored, and I was up against a lot of people—350 games I think. It came out on top for the audio, so I was proud of that.

Chris (left)  winning the 2010 Independent Games Festival for Excellence in Audio Award 

I mean, I've been working on my engineering and mixing skills since the eighties, so it was kind of nice to be acknowledged for that, aside from the playing thing. That's a whole other art form—mixing and producing and knowing how to use compression and eq[eq is music terminology for frequency equalization] and all that to get a great mix. [To hear samples or buy the soundtrack for Closure, click here.]

I've won lots of awards for the children's music that I've produced. Children’s music is fun because you really get to do every style. You get to do orchestral stuff. You get to do rock ’n’ roll. You get to do some jazz. You get to do Cajun or anything all on one record, which is fun. I like variety. It's really varied. I just produced another children's record a few months ago for probably the top children's artist in the world right now, Stephen Michael Schwartz, who, incredibly enough, is a huge star in China.

As a matter of fact, Stephen will be touring China for a couple of months in a couple of weeks. He just did a big tour for two months this summer in China. He is an excellent songwriter.

We just finished a new record called Bucket of Wow!. It just got out and it came out wonderfully. That’s what's going on with that situation. [To hear the title track of “Bucket of Wow!”, click here.]

JC:  Do you have any other current projects besides producing?

CR:  Oh, I do gigs around. I played last weekend at the Sacramento Blues Festival. There's a band that's quite popular called Cafe R&B. I’ve actually been to Europe with them a couple of times. It’s a pretty kickass band with a killer singer. The singer, Roach, is amazing. She puts on an amazing show. It's a blues-oriented band. I still gig with them quite frequently, at least once a week.

Chris (right) playing with Café R&B

JC: You have had quite a career: keyboardist, producer, video game composer . . . what would you say has been the highlight of your musical career?

CR:  Well, I'm trying to think of any highlights . . . I take every job seriously. Every time you work with music with people who care about it, it can be a highlight.

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