A hybrid of rock god and acoustic sensation, British guitar maestro Peter Frampton has taken a unique artistic detour with his 15th studio album, Hummingbird In A Box.
Instead of crafting crowd pleasing anthems, Frampton has crafted pieces designed for ballet dancers. A true about face, given that very few UK artists (Queen’s Freddie Mercury, Pet Shop Boys) have shown real interest in the genre. However Frampton is unafraid to show his affinity for ballet. His latest release still emphasizes that musically he’s a guitar man through and through whether he’s tinkering acoustically or electrically.
Hummingbird In A Box is a mini-album developed like movements in a symphony. Wholly inspired by the work of the Cincinnati Ballet, the album includes both bluesy, edgy numbers (“The One in 901,” “Friendly Fire”) and lighter fare (“The Promenade’s Retreat”). Overall, it’s an album with a purpose.
Frampton recently took time to speak with Elmore;s Ira Kantor about the album and its genesis, as well as life on the road this summer with touring dynamos The Doobie Brothers:
Elmore Magazine: Can you explain why you are making this musical foray into ballet? Why would you venture into this genre?
Peter Frampton: I’ve always liked dance anyway – not as much as I do now having seen what goes into it with top ballet dancers from around the world, which is what the Cincinnati Ballet is. They had taken four of my tracks – I think three instrumental and one vocal – a few years ago and asked me if they could use just the recorded music to do a pas de deux with one man, one woman ballet dancer as one section of a performance they were doing in Cincinnati at the Aronoff [Center]. I said, of course.
I was on the road when the performance happened but then I got sent an in-house DVD of the performance and [I] was just blown away, having never seen choreography and great dancing to my music ever before. So a couple of years went by and then Victoria Morgan, the director of the Cincinnati Ballet called me and we hooked up and she said, I’d love for you to come down and see what we do when we’re rehearsing and stuff and I have something to ask you. So I went down and that’s when I realized what goes into ballet. It was pretty interesting, to say the least, to see them practicing and rehearsing and stuff.
She said, look we love doing your music; would you consider playing live on stage behind the ballet and being part of it and playing the music for [it]? We would split it into three half hour sections and have three different choreographers; you tell us what you play live and then we can choose some stuff that would fit the ballet best. So I said, fine, but let’s not do all old music. If there’s three sections, why don’t we start and finish with tunes that people know but why don’t I write half an hour’s worth of music. That’s where the whole idea came from.
We actually performed three shows at the end of April last year in Cincinnati which was incredible. It was a completely different experience for me to do that and it challenged me. At this stage, I mean, I just love to do different things as much as I can within what I’m capable of doing. Well I’m definitely capable of doing something thinking about dance while I’m doing it, writing music. So I spoke with Adam Hoglund, who is the choreographer of the new music, and we talked about what he would like. Basically, he left it open to me. I got together with my co-writer Gordon Kennedy – we’ve been writing together for 15 years now – and he jumped at the chance too to do something where we didn’t have to write something specifically intro, verse, chorus, bridge, solo. Some of it is instrumental and out of the blue a vocal will come in, but just for one chorus or one piece. So it was definitely changing the rules of writing as I usually go by which made it very different and very inspiring.
EM: What are your hopes for the album? Do you envision working with a different ballet company using this music?
PF: Oh no, this is Cincinnati Ballet’s music as far as I’m concerned. I went to see them at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan. It’s their 50th anniversary this year and they got invited to go to the Joyce again after 30 years, I think. Wonderful performance they did, and they just used what you heard now. We didn’t play live – not big enough there – and I saw them from the front this time instead of the back (laughs). It was wonderful, it really was. But no. I would entertain other ideas of other things, but not specifically the same thing again.
EM: You’ve had a very long and varied career but there were points where you took some flak for specific music you released. Are you worried at all about this album taking a bite out of your musical credibility?
PF: Well I think music is music and it’s gotten to the point now where I don’t regard myself as just a rock musician and that’s where I came to be known. I think music is music. I’ve done and got a Grammy for my Fingerprints instrumental album, which is very varied from blues, jazz and rock and pop kind of instrumentals. I just regard myself as a musician and music is music. And I want it to be different every day. I want to write something today that is completely different from what I wrote yesterday. I’m not locked into any format and if someone gives me an inch, I’ll take a mile (laughs) and go somewhere I’ve never been before, you know. Everybody loves to put us into pigeonholes, you know, but music is music. It’s all the same, whether it’s EDM, whether it’s classical, it’s music. It’s notes and it creates emotion in the listener and the writer, I might add, and the player, obviously. So it’s a lot of emotion involved in music and everybody takes something different from it.
EM: Where do you think the musical bar goes next? Do you find you might explore a different genre next time that’s a little bit out of the ordinary?
PF: I wouldn’t say it would be out of the ordinary but whatever I do next will still be Frampton music, but it will have moved to another place, yes, absolutely. I don’t like standing still. As a (Rolling Stone) review said, the way my music is it’s looking forward, not looking backwards and I really like that, the way they put that for a change (laughs). Because I am. Yes, we do go out and play the oldies, but every tour we play something new whether they like it or not to be honest (laughs). And it seems to create a new audience along the way. I mean I’ve got 14 year olds coming with their parents, so it’s very interesting. If you just keep going and keep reinventing yourself – and it’s not that I try to reinvent myself – it’s what happens when I sit down at a piano, guitar or bass or whatever, something new happens.
EM: How’s the current tour going with the Doobie Brothers? What’s it like playing alongside those guys?
PF: Well, I’ve been opening for those guys for years (laughs) – way, way back. I think one of the last dates I did as a member of Humble Pie was opening for the Doobies, and I know I did with my solo career when I started out. So we’ve been playing together on and off for many, many moons. It’s just an honor to play with them and to be co-headlining with them on this tour. I think [guitarist/vocalist] Pat [Simmons] is going to come sit in at the next gig, maybe [guitarist/vocalist] Tom [Johnston] at that gig as well or the next gig so we’re very, very compatible, I think, and we really enjoy playing together. It works.
Also Matthew Curry, the opening act, this 19 year-old blues player is someone to watch. He is the next guitar hero. He is amazing and I had him sit in with us the other night on “[While] My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which is the last number and he floored everybody. The place just went berserk when they heard him play. It’s nice to be able to trumpet the new and I see a lot of myself in him. He’s so passionate and so into what he’s doing and he is the result of all the guitar players that have come before him and you can see that. But he does it his way, he’s got his own style. I love him.