Percussionist Tom Rainey was born in Los Angeles, California in 1957. Since moving to New York City in 1979 he has performed at festivals and clubs throughout North America and Europe with a wide range of artists, including John Abercrombie, Ray Anderson, Tim Berne, Jane Ira Bloom, Ted Curson, Marc Ducret, George Gruntz, Mark Helias, Fred Hersch, Andy Laster, Joe Lovano, Carmen McRae, Mike Nock, Simon Nabatov, New and Used, Matthias Schubert, Tom Varner, WDR Big Band, Ken Werner and Denny Zeitlen.
Tom Rainey received an National Endowment for the Arts grant to compose and perform a concert of music for percussion and drums featuring Dave Samuels and Arto Tuncboyaci. Currently he is busy with the Fred Hersch Trio, Tim Berne's Paraphrase, and the Simon Nabatov Quintet, the NY Downtown Allstars, featuring trumpet virtuoso Herb Robertson, and with jazz trio Big Satan, featuring alt saxophonist Tim Berne and guitarist Marc Ducret.
In 2010 Tom Rainey released his first album as a bandleader, 'Pool School'.
His father had already started Tom Rai on the drums: "As long as I can remember, I always had a pair of drumsticks in my hands. My father wasn’t a professional, but when I was a little kid I thought he was the best drummer in the world. He taught me the rudiments."
Rainey also inherited his earliest idols from his father: "The first guy that I remember noticing was Gene Krupa because that was my dad’s favorite drummer. I adopted him, like if your father said Ted Williams is the best hitter in baseball, you go, ‘Oh yeah, Ted Williams is my guy too.’ Then I heard the drum battle with Buddy Rich and I started going, ‘Hmm, I don’t know, Buddy might have some shit.’"
Before the age of 10, Tom Rainey was marching in parades with the local Boys Club drum corps, and through his teenage years he played in school bands by day and gigged at dances with his rock band at night. “The Top 40 back then was really good,” he recalls. “As a drummer you could get to a lot of different stuff because they weren’t all the same beats. It was really varied, everything from Tower of Power to Santana to the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Chicago.”
At the same time he was immersed in the pop music of the day, Tom Rainey took a contrarian interest in the genre that he would end up pursuing most intently. “At some point I just decided that I wanted to be into jazz,” he says. “I think mostly because nobody else was. I also used to go to this day camp in the summer, and one of the counselors was really into jazz. He was probably just a college-aged kid, but I thought he was a really slick, hip grown-up, so I thought, ‘I want to be into that too.’ So I just started buying any records that had ‘jazz’ in the title, like the Modern Jazz Quartet, the Jazz Messengers, the Jazz Crusaders.”
Tom Rainey spent two summers attending music camp at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, which ended up being both a humbling and a life-changing experience. As something of a hometown rock star, Rainey was stunned to find himself suddenly surrounded by musicians playing at a more advanced level. “It was the first time I wasn’t the star in the band,” he explains. “In high school, it was such a small town that I was a big fish in a small pond. [At camp] I was nothing. I conned my way in and was really cocky, but I got my comeuppance. They were merciless, and they should have been. I sucked.”
One of his fellow campers was bassist Ratzo Harris, who would go on to be one of Rainey’s most important collaborators, but at the time was a chief component in his humiliation. “Ratzo might have been 16 when I met him, and he was a phenom,” Rainey says. “He kicked my ass all over the place. I thought I was this hotshot little drummer and Ratzo decimated me. He was on my ass about my time and I almost quit playing drums. But he did a really beautiful thing and wrote me a letter a few months later, giving me suggestions about what I could do to improve. It was incredibly giving and mature for somebody who was in high school.”
At 17, Tom Rainey embarked on a short-lived stint at Berklee, dropping out in his fourth semester and returning to the Bay Area, where he resumed his pop career. “I was working my ass off, playing like five nights a week,” he remembers. “I also had a quartet, one of the first times I was in a collective band and writing music. We tried to sound like early Weather Report. I was playing a lot, but most of it was pretty horrifying. I was still young enough that I could enjoy it, but I wouldn’t recommend it.”
In 1979, Tom Rainey made what would turn out to be a permanent move to New York, where he soon reunited with Ratzo Harris. His old campmate invited Rainey to an after-hours jam session. “The first thing I noticed,” Harris recalls, “was that he was 6 feet tall, he no longer had a pageboy bob, and he’d grown a beard. The next thing I noticed was he was a bad motherfucker.”
The two began working together steadily, most notably inaugurating a trio with pianist Kenny Werner that would last for 15 years. “At the time,” says Werner, “Tom and Ratzo had probably as advanced a rhythmic ability as anyone. I wrote tunes that had some surprise moves, and Ratzo and Tom could play them with ease; they could play them well before I could. My goal was just to learn how to play with them.”
In Tom Rainey, Werner found a dedication to exploring new avenues similar to his own. “When the two of us played together,” says the pianist, “we’d feel like it was one hand playing both instruments. Once you hear a groove, as great as swinging is, you’re locked in as far as surprises. Tom, like myself, liked time moving by in a way where you weren’t so cocksure of what was happening, and therefore it was very fresh. Tom liked those solutions rather than the solutions that were tried and true.”
The Werner Trio could never be mistaken for Rainey’s other long-term trio gig with pianist Fred Hersch and bassist Drew Gress. According to Rainey, the two situations were “as different as Kenny and Fred are. It’s the same as asking what it’s like to talk to Fred as opposed to talking with Kenny. When you’re in it, they could be playing different instruments. After a while, the instruments are almost incidental to what’s happening. You’re really playing with personalities.”