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Mouzon Puts the Melody First : Sidemen Who Are Showmen Help in Reaching Crowd

On stage, surrounded by a bank of drums, cymbals, synthesizers, keyboards and indescribable sound-making devices, Alphonse Mouzon looks the very epitome of the thoroughly modern musician.

Ripping his way through complex, multilayered fusion pieces, laying down a body-moving funk foundation, zipping off a string of outer-space synth sounds, he moves like a monster determined to squeeze every vestige of sound and rhythm out of his massive battery of instruments.

But Mouzon’s image changes, chameleon-like, when he shifts to a keyboard for a surprisingly gentle reminiscence of a lonely time in Paris. And his drumming, powerful as it may be, has a dynamic range of subtlety and understatement that is rare in an era of up-front musical aggressiveness.

In an interview last week, Mouzon, who performs at the Coach House on Thursday, talked about his desire to keep his performances colorful, varied and entertaining. “The first thing I look for when I pick my sidemen,” he said, “is their ability with melody--lyrical values. And showmanship--stage presence.

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“I like musicians who can play good and move too. You have to remember that you’re up there to create, but you’re still entertaining people. It’s like going to a tennis match in which guys are playing great, but they’re boring. You can see a band up on stage playing great too, but sometimes they’re dead. You have to show some kind of physical movement--get the crowd into what you’re doing.

“Look at Dizzy Gillespie,” Mouzon continued. “He’s always been a showman. He plays, he directs the band, he spins around on his toes--that’s great. And Miles Davis too. He may turn his back and walk around, but he always has people watching him to see what he does next.”

A 20-year show business veteran, Mouzon has had wide enough experience to appreciate the value of reaching an audience. His early career ranged from society band gigs to Mongo Santamaria’s hot Latin ensembles, from Broadway musical pit drumming to work with Weather Report, McCoy Tyner and Larry Coryell.

Although Mouzon had been an award-winning percussionist during his high school years in South Carolina, he was not at all sure that music was his goal when he moved to New York City in the mid-'60s.

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“My first goals,” he said, “were to be an actor, or maybe a doctor. I started out studying theater at City College in New York, minoring in music and majoring in dramatics. I knew I wasn’t going to go completely into acting, because it was such a fickle business, but I did want to act.

“But then I wanted to go to medical school too, which I did. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be a drummer or an actor or a doctor. So I tried them all. I played drums, then I studied acting. Then I left City College, went to medical school and started working at a hospital as a lab technologist.

“But that got boring after a year. I was still playing music, so when I got a chance to come to L.A., I grabbed it and started studying acting again at the Lee Strasburg school. I soon found out, however, that with the money I was making with music, it just didn’t make sense to go through all the struggle to be an actor.”

For most of the ‘80s, Mouzon has led various bands of his own and has released a kaleidoscopic string of recordings whose one common element has been his strong percussion and innately provocative way with a melody.

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Interestingly, the muscular, macho-style performer attributes the growth of his compositional skills to the security provided by his marriage to his wife, Linda, and to the obvious pride and pleasure he feels in his two young sons, Alphonse and Jean Pierre.

“Some of my early albums,” he said, “like ‘The Man Incognito’ (with David Grusin, Lee Ritenour and David Benoit) had a few songs with strong melodies. But I think the real creative growth came when I changed my whole life style, got married and had kids. I think that’s what helped me to write differently.”

He is especially effusive about the acting accomplishments of his elder son, Alphonse, who had a small part in the film “Lethal Weapon.”

“It’s great,” Mouzon said. “I mean, I’m getting to live vicariously through my kid. He did what I never got to do--he made a movie--and he did it when he was 6 years old. And next month he’ll start working on another one, called ‘Michelangelo and Me,’ as a co-star, and he’s only 7.”

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Mouzon is equally pleased with the role Linda, an attorney, has played in helping stabilize the sometimes rocky financial aspects of his career. His last five albums have been produced independently and leased to record distributing companies. The procedure can be risky, but it allows Mouzon full creative control of his product.

“And it takes time,” Mouzon said. “I’m on the phone at 2 in the morning calling Germany and France, keeping track of my records, making bookings, etc. I handle my own contracts, and I negotiate my own deals--with Linda’s help.”

Even so, he has yet to break through to the larger record market. His current album, “Early Spring,” has performed well on most of the significant music airplay charts, but sales have been slow.

“It’s one of the problems with being on a small label,” Mouzon said with a shrug. “I know guys who’ve worked in my band and who now have deals with major labels, who are selling four or five times as many albums as I am.

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“The problem I’m facing is distribution. If the record’s not in the stores, you can’t sell it. This is the best record I’ve made in my life. If anything was going to sell, this should have been the one, because it was an honest statement. But it’s been slow--very slow.”

Typically, however, Mouzon takes an upbeat attitude. The versatility and energy which characterize his concert performances are clearly the reflections of a personality determined to do what it takes to succeed.

“You bet,” said Mouzon with a smile. “I’m a survivor. I can remember a time when a record company went bankrupt while they owed me $70,000, and I’d just bought a new house. So I went back on the road to pay my mortgage. I stuck it out. During the worst times, I stuck it out. As long as I’ve got a set of drums, I’ll be around. Count on it.”

Alphonse Mouzon will perform Thursday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. For details, call (714) 496-8930.

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