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Pioneer Press - January 22, 2004

Doing What Comes Naturally

By Bruce Ingram
Assistant Editor

When Paul Wertico had to choose an instrument for high school band, his parents said anything was fine except drums.

"So, naturally, that's the only thing I wanted to do," laughed Wertico, a seven-time Grammy-winning percussionist with the Pat Metheny Group. "And it turned out I could just do it. It came very naturally to me."

It still does, as you can see when Wertico and the Chicago Percussion All-Stars perform not once but three times Saturday at Northwestern's Pick-Staiger Concert Hall: a concert for kids with percussive music from Africa, India and North and South America, a free drum clinic and a jazz and world music extravaganza at featuring Northwestern's percussion/dance ensemble, Boomshaka.

Sound like a busy day?

It's business as usual for Wertico, whose fourth recording with his namesake trio "StereoNucleosis," will be out soon. His productivity is apparent in discography that can only be described as dizzyingly long and diverse, and his resolve never to turn down an intriguing opportunity to perform, regardless of the size of the audience -- a hundred or so at Nevin's Live in Evanston or thousands at the Red Sea Jazz Festival.

"It's not a matter of playing in a big or small hall," said Wertico, wedged in between a recording console and an elaborate wooden drum kit in the basement studio of his Skokie home. "You have to always play like it's the last time you'll ever get the chance."

Wertico, by the way, likes to refer to his studio and basement in general, boasting a surprisingly large toy train set, as "Toyland." His 8-year-old daughter Talia, however, who recently released her first CD, "Songs for the Swing Set" with best friend Allegra Rosenberg of Skokie (daughter of musician Stuart Rosenberg), has posted a sign on the door dubbing it Rat Howl Records -- presumably after a particularly raucous session led by her dad.

"You have to take the moment and expand on it," mused Wertico. "Instead of being afraid of it, embrace it. What'd happening in the moment will tell you what to do next."

Anyone who saw the 18-year-old Wertico checking out the Who, Jimi Hendrix and Cream, circa 1968 in the New Place, a tiny club in his hometown of Cary, might easily have imagined his next move would involve fearlessly embracing an exciting career in rock. Especially anyone who heard him describe his wonderment at the Who, landing in a helicopter, blowing out the power seven times in one night (necessitating seven Keith Moon drum solos yards away from young Wertico) and smashing their equipment at the end of the night -- despite the fact that the New Place was not much bigger than Wertico's house.

"The music then was a total adventure, totally stimulating," Wertico recalled. "The industry hadn't ruined it yet."

Young Wertico's antenna was sensitive enough, however, to discover jazz -- unexpectedly -- when he overheard Buddy Rich playing on his mother's favorite radio station or bought discount jazz albums almost by accident. Wertico recalls the first jazz LP he owned was the mystical, experimental, anything but entry-level, "A Love Supreme" by John Coltrane. Instantly, he was hooked. He took the train to Chicago whenever he could to listen to jazz drummers like Barret Deems and sat in with groups at the Jazz Showcase.

Though he is essentially self-taught, Wertico credits much of the accomplishments in his career -- and his later vocation as an educator at Northwestern and Roosevelt University -- to Donald Ehrensperger, band director at Cary-Grove High School.

Ehrensperger not only saw something special in Wertico, he encouraged him to develop in his own style. Instead of having to play a snare drum in the marching band, for example, Wertico played a bass and cymbal, along the lines of a symphonic player.

"I was more interested in accentuating the melody than keeping time," said Wertico.

Ehrensperger helped Wertico secure a full musical scholarship to Western Illinois University. When Cannonball Adderly came to campus, Wertico asked if he could sit in with the band.

"Later, I told the drummer I wanted to play and he said, 'You should,"' Wertico laughed. "So I quit school the next day."

Beginning in the early 1970s, Wertico played in a variety of bands, including the ahead-of-its-time free-jazz group Ear Wax Control.

His biggest break, he says, was when his friend Bill Porter ("an amazing trombone player") asked if Wertico would sit in on an audition with a piano/singer duo -- and he met his wife of 27 years, pianist Barbara Unger-Wertico.

"We fell in love instantly and that was it," he said.

The Metheny approach to fusing rock and jazz proved ideal for Wertico, who performed with the group for 18 years, recorded nine albums and toured 49 of the 50 United States and 38 countries before quitting in 2001.

Fortunately, while performing with Metheny, Wertico also played and recorded with an almost mind-boggling variety of performers as side projects, including Ken Nordine, Kurt Elling, Terry Callier, Nelson Riddle, Ramsey Lewis, Paul Winter, Special EFX, the Memphis Nighthawks, Paul Berliner -- and his own Paul Wertico Trio featuring guitarist John Moulder and bassist Eric Hochberg.

"He's an excellent player, one of the best, and he has a very happy imagination," said National Public Radio's Nordine. "I can say, 'Give me the sound that was just beginning to happen before the Big Bang went off and he always does it perfectly.' He's very much with it, whatever the 'it' is you're with. It's always a pleasure having him in back of you."

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