Erik Deutsch splits the difference

Former Fat Mama founder turned New York jazzer Erik Deutsch dishes on life with Leftover Salmon and next year’s big move

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Erik
Courtesy of Erik Deustsch

“I was kind of off the jam scene for almost 15 years,” reflects Erik Deutsch on his current stint as keyboardist for Leftover Salmon. “I mean, I’d do things like play Brooklyn Bowl, or do an Everyone Orchestra, do a tour with The Motet, things like that, but I kinda was off it.

“Coming back to it now, really for the first time since Fat Mama, it’s kinda nice because the fans are so good. Salmon fans really care about the players in the band, they care about your solo, they research all my side projects. Even when I was playing with Charlie Hunter, when I was just getting my sideman stuff going, the fans just weren’t as rabid.”

So yeah, it came as a little bit of a surprise — maybe in a squaring-the-circle kind of way, not so much a surprise — when Deutsch stepped in to fill Bill Payne’s vacated keyboard seat in Salmon in 2016. Sure, Deutsch and Fat Mama were amping up a horn and electronics funk brew in the burgeoning groove scene around the same time — late ’90s to early aughts — as the first phase of Salmon was peaking.

But still, versatile as he is, we always considered Deutsch a jazz guy, or at least a songwriter with the chops and deeply informed lexicon of a jazz player. For all their breadth and liberated genre-mashing, Salmon is and always has been essentially an Americana band, hatched from string music, garnished with Caribe and Cajun seasonings. They thrived in the same scene that Fat Mama did, but played a very different ball game. We love ’em both, but when Deutsch talks about coming back to the jam scene after years of putting out solo jazz records and sideman gigs — with Nora Jones, Phillip Phillips, Shooter Jennings, Roseanne Cash et al, supporting his solo jazz career in Brooklyn — Salmon isn’t exactly the scene he walked away from in the first place.

It’s all good, says Deutsch. He’s a little — a lot — less worried about what the NY scene thinks of Leftover Who from Where. His reputation is intact, and he’s out to play with a really good band and have some fun.

“The thing about Salmon is that they have almost no pre-determination about what the music needs to be.”

They’re past needing to define themselves.

“Almost all artists you work with, and I’ve worked with a lot at this point, are fairly precious about their thing.  Even if they try not to be, in the end there’s still a kind of ‘I built this thing, and this is the formula’ kind of vibe. With Salmon, it’s wide open.

“All the years of doing the jazz gigs in NY, doing my own stuff, doing the pop gigs, all that stuff I did was really fulfilling musically, really diverse and fun. I’ve gotten a lot of experience, a nice resume, respect from my peers. Meeting managers and crew members. What you don’t get is a lot of fans. Playing with Salmon I get a huge amount of support now, and that feels great.”

Somehow, squeezed in between more than 100 Salmon shows this year, Deutsch managed to cut a solo album, his sixth, released in September. Falling Flowers, named after the album’s one vocal tune (a disarmingly beautiful prayer of a tune, sung by his wife, Victoria Reed) is brimming with hook and scrape, detail and rumble. From the woozy, organ-driven New Orleans-cum-Cubano vibe of “Jump Change,” to the bouncing boogie of “Big Bongos” and the lithe, whimsical “Ghostfeather,” Deutsch jukes from vibe to vibe with authority. Each tune knows what it is and has the room to stretch out and mature. But this isn’t a genre-showcase exercise; we thought, upon first listen, this was a composer’s album.

“I’ve always wanted to make songs that are memorable. Even more than a composer, I want to be a songwriter. I’ve always thought the difference was a composer is a master of building from a simple idea, constructing something. Like Beethoven making a symphony from a cell — the Fifth Symphony, na-na-na-naaaaah — the composer artistically and mathematically building on that.

“But the songwriter thing is kind of like, there’s a song. Something magical that just comes out. I’ve been around some master…” He searches for the word and we volley some options back and forth, eventually settling on “melodicists,” neither of us quite sure that’s actually a word.

“I’ve been around some master melodicists, starting with Art Lande and Ron Miles. Those guys are my two biggest influences.”

Buried in the middle of the album’s program, at over 10 minutes in length, comes the atmospheric “Little Bell,” which may be, by Deutsch’s definition, part song and part composition. Debarking on a shimmery acoustic piano figure, cradled in lachrymose synth textures and, during its length, dressed and prodded by improv’ed brass gestures, (courtesy Mike McGinnis, sax/clarinet, and Brian Drye, trombone) the piece recalls some of the Nordic chill of classic period ECM Records, maybe even some of the spacious alchemy that Metheny and Mays cooked up in the early ’80s, before they dove headfirst into Brazilian pop and shorter tunes.

Deutsch had a seven-camera video crew in the studio (Trout Studio, in Brooklyn) recording this and a couple of other tunes from the sessions — the videos are out on YouTube and well worth checking out, even if the tunes themselves stand on their own just fine.

“We started doing that kind of thing in Fat Mama, where we’d have these extended improv parts in the songs where there wasn’t necessarily a soloist. We used to call it ‘trance jams,’ where there didn’t need to be that jamband orgasm-shaped solo, where it’d be just chill and cruise and get sonic. That was the beauty of Fat Mama — I think we were a little ahead of the curve with the sonic thing, before everyone had pedals and things, we had some of that going.

“I wasn’t sure it was going to work with the band, and I brought it into rehearsal, and (bassist) Jesse Murphy just immediately started dubbing it, and I was just really thankful for that. We just ‘tranced’ it — which is why it took so long. And that’s, really, one of my favorite things to do. It just feels so relaxing when you play it.”

Deutsch plays two album release party shows (Nov. 1 at Nocturne, in Denver, and Nov. 2 at Caffè Sole in Boulder), a couple of post-Thanksgiving shows with Salmon at the Gothic, and some West Coast dates in December.

In 2019, after 15 years of ecstatic struggle, triumph and anonymity in New York, Deutsch and his wife plan a move… to Mexico City.

“Since I’m gone with Salmon so much of the time, I realized that I can make a home base anywhere I can fly from. Victoria and I have been spending a lot time in Mexico City, and my career down there is really good. I’ve been doing a weekly radio show out of Guadalajara for about three years now and have really gotten to know the Mexican people, so we’re going to give it try.”

OK. Do you speak Spanish?

“I’m… working on it.”

On the Bill:

Falling Flowers — Album Release Party.

8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 1, Nocturne, 1330 27th St., Denver.

Falling Flowers — Album Release Party.

7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2, Caffé Sole, 637 S. Broadway, Boulder.