On the heels of a pair of multi-platinum albums and three Grammy Awards, John Mayer has stripped things down to the bone by forming the John Mayer Trio with drummer Steve Jordan (Bruce Springsteen, Rolling Stones) and bassist Pino Palladino (the Who, Jeff Beck). The trio's fall tour will be documented with a live album, to be released on Aware/Columbia before the end of the year. "The live record isn't John's next album," Jordan points out, "it's the trio's first album." The proper follow-up to 2003's Heavier Things will be released sometime next year.
"I'm excited by the trio idea," says Mayer. "It's about 'cats.' It's about personnel. For me, Eric Clapton is the template. Make another band and go out with another band. And whatever the muse is, follow it."
Says Palladino, "Some of my favorite bands in the past have been trios, going back to Cream, Hendrix, of course, and more recently the Police. It's just the three of us playing together, so there's no room for any extra luggage in the songs, and there's nowhere to hide, either. It's a really good situation. That's always interested me – the fact that if you're unselfish musically and you just play for the sake of the music, you getgreat results from that."
Mayer and his cohorts use words like "natural" and "organic" when talking about the way the group came together, and for good reason. "I played on three tracks on Heavier Things," says Jordan, "and what I took away from the sessions was that John could really play the guitar, which I didn't know, and I really liked the way he played. So I thought to myself, 'When I do some other projects, it'll be a great opportunity to use him on some stuff.'" They hooked up for a track on the Herbie Hancock duets album, again for the Sly and the Family Stone remix album on a track with Buddy Guy, and a third time for John Scofield's latest album, which Jordan produced. "On those projects," says Jordan, "we really enjoyed playing together and we'd push each other. From the time I worked with John on Heavier Things to now, he has grown tremendously from a purely playing standpoint, and that's been very exciting."
The three players broke the ice in January, performing Jimi Hendrix's "Bold as Love" for the Tsunami Aid benefit, and a month later they reteamed for the Grammys, doing Mayer's double-award winner "Daughters." Those two experiences, Pino says, "proved to me that we can all work together and make something happen. It has to have a special feel to it. I mean, it's kind of out of our hands, really. We just play the music, and when it starts to feel good, we know we're on to something."
"John knew that there was more to him than he was showing on the first album, so this isnot something that is a surprise to him," Jordan explains. "This is part of the bigger picture that he has seen in himself and wanted to do all along, and now he's got the personnel that will enable him to go out there and feel good about it."
"Now, I wouldn't just change just for the sake of changing, but I've always had another agenda," Mayer confirms. "That other agenda is a whole different set of heroes and hues and colors and textures. I've just decided to go to my next place, and my next place is Steve Jordan and Pino Palladino. It's a very thought-out process of taking what excites me about Eric Clapton and B.B. King and Buddy Guy and Blind Faith and Derek & the Dominos and the Band and Cream--taking elements of all that and place it in my thing. I love pop music. I love guitar playing. I love blues. I love jazz. And I love the idea even more that I could put my own stamp on all those things and roll them into one sound."
As for the tour, the three musicians can hardly wait to get out there and mix it up. "I'm really, really excited about it," says Palladino. I'm really pleased that it's come together and the way it's come together. And I love the fact that John is so into it. I really can't imagine what's going to happen. We've spoken a little bit about how we're going to approach it, but I think we're gonna just trust our reflexes."
"The way we're going to approach it," Mayer reveals, "is to take some of the tunes that I've already written and play them for the trio format. We'll do maybe two or three songs from the new record that just work as a trio. And then what I'd like to do--which I think makes every band great--is unearth a couple of old tracks from other artists--not 'Little Wing,' not 'Voodoo Child'--but something like Lightnin' Hopkins, or pull a great George Harrison track off of All Things Must Pass. And really what it is is the treatment that all three of us put on that tune, the way that we translate that musical information into our language. It's still very early for me. I don't even know a lot of the music we're going to be playing, or the songs that I'll write before we hit the road. But knowing that those guys are behind me makes all the difference."
The trio plans to rehearse only for a few days before hitting the road, trusting their instincts and wanting to keep things open-ended. "Obviously we're going to have songs that we know how to play, but there's got to be room for spontaneity and improvisation, and that's the exciting part of it," says Pino. "And also, we're not going to be playing huge places, which is the way to do it--the House of Blues and other smaller venues, where you can really get some interplay going and some reaction from the audience."
The tour, says Jordan, is "an extension of his songwriting, first. It's just another aspect of John Mayer that people don't know. So this gives us a wide-open playing field. John's singing great, and Pino's just amazing. It's not a straight blues thing, it's not a Hendrix thing or a Cream thing --it's kind of a thing. We don't know exactly what it is, but we'll have fun playing."
As time goes on, Mayer is making it apparent that he's an artist of overarching ambition and boundless energy. "I'm not a guy who'll release a record and go away for four years," he acknowledges. "This is what I do for a living. I'm coming to work. I'm coming to work on Saturday."