Category Archives: Alto Saxophone

A 2007 DownBeat Article on Phil Woods for his 80th Birthday

For Phil Woods’ 80th birthday, here’s a DownBeat cover story from 2007.

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Like all his fellow 2007 NEA Jazz Masters, Phil Woods worked hard at the International Association of Jazz Educators Conference in January. On the final afternoon, after three days of luncheons, dinners, panels and receptions, Woods engaged in a spirited public conversation with Nat Hentoff, an old friend, in a packed ballroom at the New York Sheraton Hotel. Barrel-chested and moustached, wearing his trademark captain’s cap, Woods was avuncular, charming, and amusing, spinning yarns and speaking his mind with declarative, salty language. After the interview he greeted a line of admirers for a half-hour, giving each his full attention; he did the same for assorted friends and fans as he made his way to the exit.

Trailed by his wife, Jill Goodwin, Woods entered the elevator. The door closed, and he allowed his face to go slack. He took deep, measured gulps. With deliberate steps, he exited the hotel and crossed 53rd Street to the Hilton, stopping twice to catch his breath before reaching his room. Once inside, he removed his hat and coat and shirt, turned on a portable oxygen machine, sat in an armchair, inserted a tube in his nose, and breathed deeply. In four hours he was due to perform three tunes with alto saxophonist George Robert, one of his many proteges. It would be his final IAJE obligation, and it was hard to see how he was going to fulfill it.

“There’s nothing wrong with my lungs,” Woods insisted, referring to the corrosive effects of emphysema, which caught up to him in 2001, when, for good measure, his prostate flared up and he had all his teeth extracted. “It’s the blood-gas ratio that makes me tired. If I stoke up before the gig, as I’m doing, I’ll be fine. I’m not so debilitated that I can’t perform. Don’t get me wrong. If I hadn’t been a saxophone player, I could be really in trouble.”

As he has done on a gazillion recorded solos for more than a half-a-century, Woods shifted to another gear and cut to the chase. “I smoked two packs a day from 15,” he said. “And did a lot of blow, smoked a lot of grass and drank a lot of booze. I’ve had fuckin’ fun! I never thought life was a lemon to be squeezed dry. You’ve got to live it, man. I don’t eat anything organic. Give me some butter still!”

Backed by Robert’s band a few hours later before another packed ballroom at IAJE, Woods uncorked theme-and-development solos that were models of melodic logic, incorporating wicked runs and subtle quotes, projecting a soaring tone instantly recognizable as his. It was no anomaly: a series of strong 21st century albums attests to Woods’ undiminished abilities on his instrument.

The most recent one is American Songbook, a beautifully played 2002 studio date for Vertical by the Phil Woods Quintet that disappeared after the label, as Woods puts it, “went horizontal,” but came out last year on Kind of Blue. On the weekend following IAJE, Woods convened the group at the Deerhead Inn in his home town of Delaware Water Gap, Pa., in the Poconos, to play two Saturday night sets as a quasi-rehearsal for a followup songbook session. Restricted by post-9/11 jazz economics and the leader’s dependence on his oxygen machine, the band hadn’t played together for many months, and hadn’t seen the music, but at the afternoon runthrough they coalesced as though it were the 1980s, when the Phil Woods Quintet was a constant force on the international scene.

As the players examined the sheet music for “Careless,” a bouncy theme song for ’40s band singer Eddy Howard, Woods said, “I’m hearing Kirby,” referring to the John Kirby Sextet, known for the precision of its ensemble playing during Woods’ formative years. Trumpeter Brian Lynch responded, “That means a cut mute.” Nothing more was said.

On break in the studio the next day after the Quintet had wrapped “Careless” in a single pristine, soulful take, Woods rested in a recliner, and sipped mineral water. Pianist Bill Charlap’s harmonic cogitations on the next number came softly over the speakers, and bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin, Woods’ partners since 1974, when he formed the quintet, sat with Lynch at a table laden with trays of focaccia pizza, eggplant parm, and chicken cacciatore that a fan had brought from a store in New Jersey’s “Sopranos” district.

“I might have given Brian a sparse sentence on that—like ‘just put a little grease on that motherfucker,’” Woods said. “This front line knows exactly when to put the chitlins in the piece, and when to play it straight.” As an example of the latter, Woods referred to his elegant introduction for “I’ll Take Romance.” “It’s kind of a classical thing, and we played it without vibrato. If it’s funky, we’ll put some bends in it. It’s instinctive; we barely even discuss it.”

Lynch spoke up. “It may surprise you to see us work so efficiently and do tunes on one take, but on the last edition of this series we sight-read the whole thing,” he said. “This band has no fear of that. Each of us can look at a piece of music and almost instantaneously, as the sound starts happening, figure out how to play it and what it should sound like—to understand the style of a piece of paper. With Phil, you get to the artistry as quick as you can.”

“Brian and Bill could do that when they first started playing together in the quintet,” Goodwin said.

“If you’ve played with Horace Silver and Art Blakey, you get that shit,” Woods retorted, referring to Lynch’s c.v. “That’s the school, man. Any musician worth his salt from my generation could do that.”

Woods formed a working group not long after making Musique Du Bois, a combo date that reunited the famous Prestige-of-the-60s rhythm section of Jaki Byard, Richard Davis and Alan Dawson. Some consider it a classic, but he was dissatisfied. “It’s a good record, but I wanted more from the band,” Woods said. “I only see the seams.” After that date, Woods took gigs as a single, including one in Hartford “with some young kids who had their Real Books. I was tired of telling them what tune to play so they could look it up, and I carefully delineated the bridge to ‘Body and Soul,’ every harmonic nuance and melodic thing, and then I gave the downbeat for the melody. They all looked at me like, ‘What the fuck is that?’ I ran into Bill and said, ‘We’ve got to get a band.’”

So he did. On the strength of Musique Du Bois, high visibility solos on Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are” and Steely Dan’s “Doctor Wu,” and featured status on Michel Legrand’s “Images,” Woods won the first of his 22 DownBeat Critics Poll awards for best alto saxophonist in 1975, and the first of 29 Readers Poll wins in 1976. In 1977 he garnered the first of three Grammys for Best Jazz Performance by a Group for Live From The Showboat, with a band comprised of Poconos musicians (guitarist Harry Leahey and pianist Mike Melillo joining Gilmore and Goodwin). By 1981, Hal Galper was the regular pianist, and by 1983 trumpeter Tom Harrell was sharing the front line.

“I needed at least one other horn to get into the compositional thing I wanted,” Woods said. “I like to utilize the bass and piano and drums as instruments, as part of the arrangement, not just read the chord symbols and chug along with the front line only playing the melody. I wanted to get some orchestral colors that I think haven’t been used yet by most small groups. We continue that to this day. My piano player has to really know what the fuck is going on. It’s really a five-piece band, not a rhythm section backup to a horn player.

“When we were really hot and working a lot, we’d do 12 sets a week, all different,” he continued. “The book is huge. That’s how you keep a quintet together for 30 years. When the rhythm section starts to sing your chorus along with you, it’s time to get a new bag, baby! I always bring in new tunes. To this day, I think we stand for something more than ‘Giant Steps’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’ and bashing and thrashing. But I also love a band that knows exactly what they’re doing every second, but it doesn’t sound forced and it isn’t stylized. I have the ability to make an arrangement right on the spot. It’s still fresh, because they’re great improvisers. These guys don’t need to look at the Real Book. They’re trained in the trenches. They know every song I know.”

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Among the more entertaining documents of Woods’ recent discography are encounters with Lee Konitz—already famous as the “cool” voice of the alto saxophone when Woods was establishing his white-heat tonal personality in the ’50s—from the 2003 Umbria Jazz Festival, on which Mister Cool and Mister Hot dialogue on repertoire by Konitz, Woods and Enrico Rava. They appear on Philology, the Italian label that bears Woods’ name. So does a profound two-disk navigation of Gershwin by Woods and pianist Franco D’Andrea.

“We both came into that invitation with trepidation,” Konitz recalled. “Phil is a superb player and logician, while I’m coming at it more from scratch, so there was potential for a head-on conflict. But he made me very comfortable. Back in the ’50s, Phil was one of the guys who made me realize how flexible an instrument the alto saxophone is. I wondered how in hell you can play it with the kind of pizzazz and skill and accuracy he’s always displayed. Even now, with the emphysema, he can fill up a hall without a microphone.”

Woods embraces the ethos of the soup-to-nuts musician, and he displays all his wares on This Is How I Feel About Quincy (Jazzed Media), from 2004, performing dearth arrangements of Quincy Jones charts with a nine-piece, six-horn “little big band” (he augments his quintet—trumpeter Brian Lynch, pianist Bill Charlap, bassist Steve Gilmore, drummer Bill Goodwin—with two saxes and two brass). One of the pleasures of the associated DVD, A Life In E-Flat: Portrait Of A Jazz Legend, which juxtaposes scenes of the proceedings with Woods’ account of his turbulent life and times, is the opportunity to observe him playing lead alto saxophone with almost reverential concentration and craft, as he did on the original recordings of this repertoire between 1956 and the mid ’60s. In fact, as Jones recounts in his autobiography, Q, he recruited Woods to play lead alto on Dizzy Gillespie’s legendary 1956 State Department-sponsored tour of the Middle East, the gig that launched Woods to the status of New York’s first-call session alto saxophonist, a function he fulfilled over the ensuing decade on dozens of dates by the likes of Oliver Nelson, Gary McFarland, Gil Evans, John Lewis and George Russell.

“I was a fine musician,” Woods said without false modesty. “I could read flyshit and interpret it. There wasn’t many of me. I was the first-generation jazzer that actually went through the conservatory. The music became more complicated, and it required a better level of musicianship from the section players. Writers like Gil and Quincy, John Carisi, Billy Byers, Al Cohn, Elliot Lawrence, Manny Albam and Bill Potts had to get younger players, because the older guys were not doing justice to the new bebop time feel. I was well-equipped to handle all that.

“At that point, the music, commercial or not, was always an ensemble,” he continued. “It wasn’t done by three idiots with EWIs. You had at least four or five horns, then you did four or five tunes in a three-hour session. Quincy used to change his charts on the fly, and he’d sing the new part—you had to hear it and transpose and be able to execute. So only people that knew their onions!”

What differentiates Woods from the pack, Charlap opined, is his ability to excel—a la Hank Jones, Clark Terry and Milt Hinton—“as both a master section player and a master improviser with a complete personality on the instrument.”

“He has the blues, a raw edge, but he’s also very sophisticated,” Charlap continued “There’s the tough side, but also a tender side. When Phil plays a ballad like “Goodbye, Mr. Evans,” he reminds me of a great operatic tenor, less like Carmen McRae than Pavarotti. His mind is like a computer, and it sure seems like he can execute anything that comes into it. He also has an incredible ability to reach out beyond the bandstand and grab the audience right away. He’s a star, and it’s beyond being a great player. It has to do with charisma and communication.”

Lynch honed in on Woods’ meticulousness and attention to detail. “Every aspect of what he does is at the highest level,” he said. “Some people do some things well, but don’t take care of others. Phil has taken care of everything. A lot of people’s styles are based on artfully disguising their weaknesses. Phil’s style is based on artful presentation of his strengths, not on a limitation, but abundance.”

[BREAK]

While Woods’ solos are marvels of spontaneous construction, he has a rotation of anecdotes which he accesses and repeats verbatim at a moment’s notice with the panache of a lecture circuit veteran. One such addresses a series of “field trips” to New York City with teen chum Hal Serra for lessons with Lennie Tristano during the summer preceding Woods’ senior year of high school in Springfield, Mass., his home town. Already a member of the local musicians union, he was  jamming with such luminaries-to-be as Joe Morello, Sal Salvador and Teddy Charles.

“There was a tenor player named Bob Rich, and we took down all of the Tristano-Warne Marsh-Lee Konitz stuff and played it just before I moved to New York,” Woods recalled. “After the lesson, we’d go to 52nd Street. They knew Hal, and gave us the seat by the drums, not the choicest acoustical spot, but nobody bugged us, and we had a Coca-Cola and sat all night. I remember hearing Tatum and Dizzy’s big band, and Milt Jackson’s Quintet and Howard McGhee. They closed at 4 a.m. and we strolled down to 42nd Street and jumped on our 5 a.m. bus for Springfield.

“After one lesson Tristano said, ‘Are you going to 52nd Street tonight? I’m opening for Charlie Parker, and I thought you kids would like to meet him,’” he continued. “We held back on the pasta and the records so we could buy two Coca-Colas, showed up early at Three Deuces, and got our usual spot by the drums. Tristano’s trio played the first set, and then somebody took us backstage—well, it was a papier mache curtain and a small space behind the bandstand—and there was Charlie Parker sitting on the floor with a cherry pie. He said, ‘Hi, kids! Would you like a piece of cherry pie?’ ‘Oh, Mr. Parker, cherry is my favorite flavor.’ We sat on the floor with Bird, and he pulled out his knife, cut us a big slab. We wolfed it down and talked about music. Then we went back and listened to the genius of the world play the saxophone.”

In 1949, Woods matriculated at Juilliard as a clarinet major, and joined New York’s young fraternity of card-carrying beboppers. “In Springfield we listened to records and jammed all the time, but the only Bird solo I ever copied was ‘Koko,’ although I would cop licks and analyze,” he recalled. “Sal Salvador was the first cat among us to go to New York, and he had a pad in a big old brownstone on Riverside Drive and 93rd Street. Tal Farlow and Jimmy Raney were in that building, too, and Chuck Wayne, Johnny Smith, John Collins and Billy Bauer came to jam sessions. There I finally understood what bebop was. I was still into a diatonic approach, more a swing approach to improvising. That’s when I started understanding the use of all 12 tones, those in-between notes.”

During his four years at Juilliard, then located in Morningside Heights, Woods heard Ussachevsky’s early taped experiments and musique concrete and attended John Cage lectures. He heard new work at the Composers Forum, and attended the rehearsals of Stravinsky’s “Rake’s Progress” at the Metropolitan Opera with a score in hand. For his final thesis, he analyzed Bartók’s “Music For Percussion, Celeste And Strings.”

“I’d listened to Stravinsky and Schoenberg in high school because I knew Bird liked it, but I was not equipped to play classical music when I got there,” Woods said. “My first couple of years I spent hours each night at the record library, trying to catch up to violinists who played Beethoven. By the same token, for my first year keyboard harmony placement test, I played a Bud Powell solo, and was put into the third-year class.”

In stark contrast to such highbrow influences, Woods, who had started a family and moved to Brighton Beach, in southern Brooklyn, made rent money on club jobs around the boroughs and dance band gigs, most notably with Charlie Barnet. In 1953, he joined Barnet on a tour that concluded at the Apollo Theater, coinciding with Woods’ final recital.

“Between shows I’d leave the Apollo, where I was playing for Pigmeat Markham and Honi Coles and the sword swallowers, and run over to Juilliard to play Mozart, Brahms and Stravinsky,” he recalled. “Or I’d practice them unaccompanied between shows, and then stash the clarinet in what I thought was a good place. Like a fool, I left it there overnight the day before my exams. Somebody stole it. When I told my teacher, he said, ‘You were doing fine until you started sticking that needle into your arm.’ I was scuffling, and it was not a joyous time. I said, ‘Fuck you,’ went back to the Apollo, did the six shows for the day, and never looked back.”

Soon after, Woods had a steady gig with drummer Nick “Fabulous” Stabulas, trumpeter Jon Eardley and bassist Teddy Kotick, all boppers, at the Nut Club, a strip joint on Sheridan Square. Gil Evans and other friends came by; a gallon of wine on the bandstand alleviated the boredom.

“I was going through this agonizing youthful angst,” Woods said, launching another oft-told episode. “I went to Juilliard, played with a couple of bands, and all I’m doing is playing ‘Harlem Nocturne’ for strippers. I don’t like the mouthpiece, or the reed, or the horn, or even the strap. I’m not making progress. I’ve got to get some new equipment, and break this mold I’m in.”

One night a report came in that Charlie Parker was jamming across the street at Arthur’s Tavern, still extant, at Seventh Avenue and Grove. “There was a three-octave piano and a 90-year-old guy playing it, and his father was on drums, which consisted of a couple of pie plates and a 10-inch snare,” Woods said. “Bird was playing on Larry Rivers’ baritone sax, and I could tell he was having trouble. I said, ‘Mr. Parker, perhaps you’d like to use my alto’—the one that I figure is not very good and I’ve got to get a new one and all that shit. I retrieved my horn for him, and he played ‘Long Ago and Far Away.’ Then he handed it to me and said, ‘Now you play.’ I played my imitation of a master, all the masters I had listened to and loved, and he leaned over and whispered in my ear, ‘Sounds real good, Phil.’ I can still hear him saying it. I levitated back across Seventh Avenue and played the shit out of ‘Harlem Nocturne.’ I stopped looking for the magic reed, the magic mouthpiece, and started to practice—stop the maudlin Irish horseshit and just get on about your career. It was a great musical lesson.”

Woods took the lesson to heart. While remaining in Barnet’s employ, he worked with bop pianist George Wallington, hit Monday nights at Birdland with arranger Neil Hefti and drummer Jim Chapin, and recorded as a sideman with all of them. Another sideman date, with Jimmy Raney for Prestige in 1954, led to three well-received Woods-led quintet sessions for the label. In 1956 Birdland owner Morris Levy paid Woods $400 a week, big money then, to play on a 10-week “Birdland All-Stars” tour as an opening act (with Al Cohn, Kenny Dorham and Conte Candoli) for a lineup including the Count Basie Orchestra, Sarah Vaughan, Lester Young and Bud Powell.

“Al Cohn and I took the seat over the wheel, right behind Bud and Prez,” Woods said. “They didn’t talk for 10 weeks. Bud stared out the window, and Prez rolled joints and shot dice with Basie in the back seat. Al and I would play two tunes, and get the rest of the night off, and we’d play gin rummy and sip from a pint of scotch; Bud always came by in hopes that we’d give him a drink. Once the Basie cats got their itinerary, they knew exactly what their existence would be like for the next ten weeks, which amazed me. ‘We’ll stay with Annie Mae here, and have some collard greens, we’ll eat this here, get a reefer here, get some good corn liquor there.’ When we got south of Baltimore, the black cats had to go to a different hotel, and I became an irate white guy. I said, ‘I’m going to go stay with you guys.’ They said, ‘Phil, it don’t go like that. We don’t want you in our hotel; it’s just going to put heat on us.’ I had to learn all about that.

“The black cats viewed the world with a certain street-wise sophistication,” he continued. “You’re playing music; this is important shit. You look right, you be right. They had to exhibit a certain level of professionalism to rise above the position that white society put them in. ‘We do shit that you cats can’t possibly touch.’ But if you’re an ofay and you can cut the mustard, man, they’re going to share with you.”

Although Woods earned respect—and gigs—from such tough-to-please black elders and peers as Gillespie, Benny Carter, Quincy Jones and Thelonious Monk, the skin game worked against his reputation as a hardcore jazz musician in the racially charged environment in which jazz operated from the late 1950s through the ’60s. It didn’t help that Woods was making a name as an heir to Charlie Parker’s throne, most visibly in a battling saxes combo with white altoist Gene Quill. To add fuel to the fire, in 1957 Woods married Chan Parker, the mother of two of Charlie Parker’s children, drawing accusations on the level of Art Pepper’s subsequent shit-sling, “Phil Woods loved Charlie Parker so much, he married his wife.”

“I could feel the buzz,” said Woods, who in A Life In E-Flat recounts a night at the Five Spot when Charles Mingus, noticing that Woods was blowing on Parker’s old King alto, glared balefully at him from the foot of the bandstand. “But most cats were pretty cool—I was with Dizzy’s band, and you didn’t mess with Dizzy’s guys. And Miles was a dear friend; he never gave me any crap. I knew I was good, but I wasn’t sure I had it. I was aware that it’s a black art form, and had the self-doubts of a white guy coming up, but Dizzy and Art Blakey said, ‘Get yourself together; you can play!’ That was the end of that shit. So I was ensconced in a level of musicianship that, ‘OK, he married Bird’s widow, but I don’t think we should mess with him.’ People who knew me knew I was not exploiting the issue, that I was genuinely in love with Chan and I was taking care of the family. Even Mingus knew that. He wouldn’t mess with me! Chan would have killed him.

“The first music I studied was Benny Carter, and I hear more of Benny than Bird in my work early on,” he continued. “I was trying to become my own man, and when I listen to the early records, I think I was already finding my voice. I sounded pretty damn good. I never tried to sound like Charlie Parker. As Lee Konitz said, it was too hard. Or as Gene Quill said, ‘Here, YOU imitate Charlie Parker.’ When I heard Bird’s recording of ‘KoKo’ at 14, that’s all she wrote—no pun intended. It was my epiphany. Within 8 bars I understood that I wanted to be a jazz musician. ‘KoKo’ was the only solo I transcribed, but I learned all the tunes, of course. If I heard a phrase I liked, I’d steal it. That’s how you learn music—or writing or painting. It’s a noble tradition.”

Unlike many Parker acolytes among his peer group, Woods did not succumb to heroin. “People tried to get me to do it, but I never related to it,” he stated. “I snorted some once in Florida because I didn’t know any connection, and wouldn’t be able to get it again. I hated it. I’m an uppers guy. When I was a kid, I’d break down benzedrine inhalers, put them in a Coca-Cola and then listen to Charlie Parker for six hours straight.”

The drinking got worse, as Woods, feeling increasingly trapped in the New York studios as the ’60s progressed, binged after sessions and spent more and more nights in the city. It’s not hard to see why: of the hundred or so sessions comprising Woods’ discography between 1960 and 1968, he led only two—the Hentoff-produced Rights Of Swing (1961) and a novelty album called Greek Cooking (1966).

“My jazz credentials were not quite what I thought they should be,” Woods said. “I was known in New York, but I wasn’t getting out of town much unless it was with somebody else’s band. By 1968, the jazz scene was dying down, and although I was busy-busy-busy, it was mostly jingles. Most of the work was television, selling Coca-Cola and Buick cars, and I wasn’t playing any music. I decided to move to Europe.”

Within six months, Woods noted with some irony, he was invited to play the Newport Jazz Festival with the European Rhythm Machine, his first-ever working group, comprising either Gordon Beck or George Gruntz on piano, Henri Texier on bass and Daniel Humair on drums. Based in the farming village of Champotteux for the next three years, he spent much time in Paris, shed his blue gig suit, grew his hair long and sprouted a moustache, experimented with electronic sax and piano, and took his music to a Woodsian version of the outer partials. In the process, he finally became an international jazz star.

“I sounded like I was let out of jail,” Woods said of his European tonal personality, which incorporated, among other things, intervallic ideas postulated earlier in the ’60s by Eric Dolphy, who Woods got to know well in the John Lewis-led Orchestra, USA. “We were a hot band. We weren’t playing what I’d call free jazz, but it wasn’t your father’s jazz either. You were expected to be an artist and to experiment in Europe. In America they want to put you in a box, but Europe didn’t play that game so much. They take their jazz very seriously, and I thrived on it.”

During these years, Woods commingled with such radical Paris-based musicians as Steve Lacy, Archie Shepp, Anthony Braxton and the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. “Strangely enough, Braxton told me that listening to my records with Oliver Nelson kept him sane when he was in the military,” said Woods, whose tune ‘HUK2E’ is a put-on of Braxton’s ’70s titles. “As with Cage, I like Braxton’s philosophy more than his music. I like the idea of tearing down the walls, and I appreciate an artist who affects the world. Braxton has affected the world. Still, I find that approach rather limiting. How many ways mathematically are you going to divide things? If you’re such a great artist, why do you need a system? Why don’t you just make the melodies?”

[BREAK]

A man as many-sided as Woods may never find inner peace and harmony, but he has, in his seventies, brought the “maudlin horseshit” under control. “I had joneses, and I’ve had to deal with them,” he said bluntly. As an example, he recalled an early morning 50 years ago when, after dropping a couple of sleeping pills on top of the wine over the course of a night of “Harlem Nocturne” at the Nut Club, he raced down the platform of the West 4th Street subway station to catch the Brighton Beach train, tripped, fell on the tracks, and landed a few feet short of the front car.

“Dumb high, but you got loaded,” he said. “After coming so close to biting the bullet, I said, ‘I don’t think I should do that any more’—and I never did. Another time, the early quartet, with Mike Melillo, was working Hoppers, and I got so juiced that I had to give the money back. It was $700. The next day I said to myself, ‘You wanted to be a jazz musician all your life, you’ve got a good band, you’re working—you can’t play and you have to give the money back? You dummy!’ Music first. Not drugs first. Not booze first. So I developed a discipline—play the gig and then drink. I thought I was cool, but then I would drink too much; eventually, that didn’t work either. I never woke up with the shakes or anything. I just drank too much. I stopped. I’ve tried AA and that doesn’t work for me. I’ve been an independent motherfucker doing it my way for as long as I can remember, so I couldn’t adjust to that. Now it’s only the music and my family. And coffee. The last jones. I have a big espresso machine.”

Sober and sage in his golden years, Woods commands as loyal and intense a fan base as any musician in the business. Even so, he still seems to consider himself ever so slightly misunderstood and underappreciated.

“Sometimes I think my artist credentials are suspect,” he said. “Somebody in the band ran across a young saxophone player who mentioned my name, and the cat said, ‘Oh, the technical guy’.” He shook his head disbelievingly. “The technical guy. Yeah, right.

“And there are still people in France who think you can’t possibly play if you’re white. A black writer once rapped the Phil Woods Quartet, saying, ‘Phil Woods used to work with Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones and Oliver Nelson, and took all our music, and now he doesn’t hire any black people.’ Now, you’ve got to realize that the band began when I was staying at Bill Goodwin’s house in the Poconos, which is a lily-white part of the world, and Steve Gilmore and Mike Melillo lived there. There were no black cats. I would prefer to have a salt-and-pepper band, but I’m not going to go out of my way to find one.”

These things being said, Woods has no apologies.“I’m not an innovator,” he said. “I just play songs, man. I play bebop. I’m influenced by Harold Arlen and Charlie Parker and Jerome Kern and Thelonious Monk. I don’t consider myself in those ranks creatively, though. I keep the flame going. I’m very happy to be a good player. A pro. I’ve sometimes referred to myself as ‘a soldier for jazz.’ Sometimes I’d like to change persona and make up a whole new self. But it doesn’t seem to work. It’s too late to change.”

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Filed under Alto Saxophone, Article, DownBeat, Phil Woods

A 2001 DownBeat Profile of Lee Konitz, Who Turns 84 Today.

Back in June, while Lee Konitz was playing Manhattan’s Blue Note, I posted an uncut Blindfold Test that he did with me in 2004. A few years before, DownBeat gave me the opportunity to write a feature piece on the maestro, who turns 84 today.

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Behold Lee Konitz, 74, the patriarch of “cool jazz,” perched atop a barstool center-stage at Manhattan’s Blue Note. Trim, bespectacled, with a mossy white beard, Konitz is resplendent in a custom-tailored blue pinstripe with wide lapels and burgundy shirt open at the neck. Ears cocked, eyes darting, he’s ready to embark on a round of spontaneous composition with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Marc Johnson, each capable, as Bley puts it, “of playing the gig solo if the others didn’t arrive on time.”

Konitz bends, envelops the alto saxophone mouthpiece in a brief, graceful motion, and blows a stream of notes, gradually forming a melody, articulating the flow with his signature wood-grained sound, smooth and round at the edges, with a touch more vibrato than he used to deploy. Finally he unveils the refrain of Frank Loesser’s “I’ve Never Been In Love Before.”  Bley, the mischievous Katzenjammer Kid, sets up sudden detours; Konitz, unfazed, cool as his rep, falls silent for one rest, another, intuits the note, and plunges into a new set of variations. The trio sustains the speculative mood for an hour, improvising continuously through the melodies of “I’ll Remember April” and “Stella By Starlight” with the attitude of adventurers working through virgin terrain.

“I start every day playing into a song that I know,” Konitz had said six months before, a few days after “being paid exorbitantly” for three nights of improvised duliloquy with drummer Paul Motian at the Kaplan Penthouse at Lincoln Center. We sat in the living room of the well-appointed Upper West Side apartment that now serves as his New York pied a terre, the novels of Proust and Dostoevsky holding pride of place with a healthy collection of classical and jazz CDs. “I hear so many talented people who are obliged to learn many different kinds of musics to function as professionals. Which I was never really obliged to do. Don’t bug me! I just want to play ‘All The Things You Are’ in all the keys. I’ve been through the keys!”

At that moment, Konitz was pondering weighty matters. Having survived post-operative complications from a May 2000 angioplasty and subsequent open-heart surgery, his doctors had informed him that another angioplasty would be required, forcing him to cancel at least a month of engagements. He reflected analytically on the impact of the aging process on his sound.

“My breath control is a little shorter, and I tend to play shorter phrases,” Konitz commented. “But I’ve worked at it every day; all these little adjustments have been systematic in some way, and I’ve accepted them. Whatever change in my sound or in the way I play a line, I’m told that people can recognize me still from the first note I play. Which I consider a great compliment, since I’ve made a real effort not to keep doing the same solo over and over again, so to speak. Whether I played better in 1951 than I do now is a matter of taste, but now I am doing what I think is closer to my real musicality. I’ve studied over the years to try to eliminate the so-called intellectual imbalance in the playing — to play real notes. It’s been a process of editing, finding how to listen better, play in time better, relax better, and to stay inventive. I feel much stronger rhythmically. I hear much clearer and relate much more definitely to what I hear, and all of those coordinating factors are slowly developing. Being 74 doesn’t necessarily stop that process. It seems to be stimulating it in some way, because I know I don’t have that much time. And I have the good fortune of being able to play in public and get money! That completes the cycle.”

The doctors had given Konitz a false alarm, and he resumed his 60-year career with scarcely a glitch. From his Rhenish base in Cologne, where he lives with his wife of several years, Konitz executes the lone-wolf saxman function at festivals, concert halls and clubs throughout Europe, working with whichever musicians cross his path. A week before the Blue Note engagement, for example, he and Bley had performed three nights of duos in Culley, Switzerland, preceded by a Genoa encounter with the excellent Italian tenorist Pietro Tonolo. That followed a Paris recital on which Konitz improvised to four-horn arrangements of his tunes by the Canadian arranger Francois Tabersch, and a recording session for Owl on which he earned his one thousand dollar fee (“Not Euros, bucks!”) with five minutes of variations on “My Funny Valentine” as accompaniment to a reading by French essayist Alain Gilbert on Chet Baker.

Since 1996, Konitz has recorded some of the strongest albums of his distinguished corpus. He blends his sound with a string quartet, improvising on 10 songs by French Impressionist composers over Ohad Talmor arrangements; interprets 12 ballads associated with Billie Holiday over Daniel Schnyder arrangements for string sextet and drums [Enja]; and channels Johnny Hodges on a luscious recital with the 40-piece Metropole Orchestra of Holland [Koch], making “the vibrato really schmaltzy.” There are two volumes of impromptu triologues with bassist Charlie Haden and pianist Brad Mehldau [Blue Note], and one apiece with Motian and bassist Steve Swallow [Enja], with bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron [DIW], and with pianist Don Friedman and the late guitarist Attila Zoller [Hat Art]. For the Danish label Steeplechase, which has documented Konitz since the ’70s, there are several excellent sax-bass-drums trios and a contrapuntal flight of fancy with tenor saxophonist Ted Brown, a friend since 1948. He meets Brown and guitarist John Abercrombie on the RCA album SOUNDS OF SURPRISE, and dialogues with rising tenor star Mark Turner for PARALLELS, on Chesky.

“Beginning before I met Lennie Tristano, and learned more about this music, I thought I would be a professional journeyman musician doing whatever gigs were offered to me,” Konitz reflected in March, a few days after arriving in New York for the first time since his October troubles. “So I am very happy to be able to be a creative journeyman. The sideman mentality, I think, is part of that. Last night I went to the Vanguard and heard Mark Turner’s band, which is a real band; they played nice tunes, nice arrangements, nice solos. Bravo. I don’t seem to need that in my life. For some strange reason, I like to just go in and play with different guys.”

Consider how Konitz approached his 1998 encounter with Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins in Perugia.  “We rehearsed three days at his studio at 125th Street,” Konitz relates. As introspective in conversation as he is in music, Konitz analyzes the emotions that bedrock his improvisations with the same intensity he imparts to the practice by which he prepares to create them.

“On the first day, Ornette brought about 13 tunes, including a ballad for me. I saw quickly that the tunes were 8 or 12 bars long. Then I discovered that the pitches were correct, but he wasn’t playing them that way. Very typically bright Ornette themes. He gave me a tape after the first rehearsal, and I transcribed his playing so that I could it play it rhythmically more correct. I told Ornette I didn’t feel comfortable, and asked him to let me play the first solo after the theme, though I asked myself, ‘How could that possibly work?’ But it seemed to help a bit, and although I told Ornette I didn’t really fit, he and Charlie and Billy told me I was doing fine. So I accepted the good feelings they gave me and had my doubts about fitting in. After the set in Perugia, Ornette said backstage, ‘Do you want to play ‘All The Things You Are’?’  I said, ‘Yeah!’ We went out…and you never heard a version of ‘All The Things You Are’ like that!”

“I remember going with Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh to hear him at the Five Spot one night, and not really knowing what to make of it. Ornette came up and asked me if I wanted to sit in. I said, ‘What do we play?’ or something like that, and somehow I guess I didn’t sound like I really wanted to sit in, so he didn’t pursue it. Sorry I didn’t. At that time, like a lot of people, I was resenting somehow this fact that he was eliminating everything that I’d spent my years trying to hone. But I gradually got over resenting it. Ornette’s concept is extraordinarily inventive and original, and of course had a great influence on a lot of the music’s development. He tried to explain some of the harmolodic theory on an airplane flight when we were sitting together. I said, ‘Wait til we get down on the ground, please.’ I really said that, because it’s so subjective that I didn’t want to face it up in the air. I never really learned his tunes. I’m too busy playing ‘All the Things You Are.’ By Jerome Kern. That guy must be turning over!”

Konitz is Coleman’s senior by three years, and by the fall of 1959, the date of their first encounter, he was a minor legend. An avatar in improvising without a preconceived harmonic, melodic or rhythmic framework, he was the only alto saxophonist of his generation to develop a tonal personality that addressed the innovations of Charlie Parker without mimicking his style.

Both accomplishments trace to Konitz’ intense two-decade disciple-master relationship with Tristano. The lessons began in Chicago around 1944, not long after Konitz — who grew up in Rogers Park — had begun to play professionally as a lead alto saxophonist in several white dance bands and in a black orchestra led by Harold Fox (the tailor for Jimmie Lunceford and Earl Hines, who performed under the pseudonym Jimmy Dale), who assigned the pimply neophyte to sing the blues before curious audiences at the South Side’s Pershing Ballroom. Tristano had Konitz — then an acolyte of swing era alto heroes Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges — duplicate solos by Lester Young (Konitz cites “Dickie’s Dream” and “Pound Cake” as two of many favorites) and Charlie Parker (“Don’t Blame Me”), laying the groundwork for the twisty legato patterns and behind the beat phrasing that remains his trademark.

In 1948, a month shy of his 21st birthday, Konitz arrived in New York for a fortnight’s residence at the Pennsylvania Hotel with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra. He never left. “52nd Street was the first place I went after I checked in,” Konitz says. “I heard Charlie Parker, I heard Art Tatum, I heard Roy Eldridge — one after another. Incredible. This was the big time, and I was totally impressed with the funky clubs, with the whole scene.”

Konitz quickly made his mark. Whitney Balliett’s 1982 essay, “Ten Levels” contains the best account of the manner in which he did it. There Konitz discusses how Gil Evans, an arranger with Thornhill, led him to the rehearsal nonet that became Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool band; his pioneering “free jazz” recordings on Capitol and Prestige with Tristano’s sextet, and the bizarre course of their relationship; and his 16-month tenure with Stan Kenton’s brass-heavy aggregation. Konitz left Kenton in 1954, and embarked on the nomadic free-lance life he continues to lead, hewing to on-the-highwire imperatives through the tides of Hardbop, Soul Jazz, Coltrane, Avant Garde, Fusion and Neoclassicism.

“I had the model in Tristano and Warne Marsh especially, and before that with Lester Young and Charlie Parker, and I rejected a lot of what I heard around me on that basis,” Konitz says. “Which is kind of a traditional trap we can get into; there I was, in the ’60s, out of step with what’s hip, with what almost all of the younger people were studying.

“To this day I feel that Warne Marsh was one of the most real players in jazz. When he played, it was all substance and no attitude to speak of. I heard attitude in Charlie Parker, except that he was a genius so he could compensate for that — or cover it. ‘Attitude’ meaning that there was something extra-musical involved in this. Over-dramatic emotionality. Okay?  Coming from the ‘cool’ system, you can take that with a grain of salt. I love passionate expression as well as the next man, but sometimes it felt that all the emphasis was on trying to emote on the sleeve, so to speak. What really gets to me is hearing a really straight reading with great notes. great sound and great rhythm feeling. Warne was capable of doing that more than anybody I know.”

During the latter ’50s, as Konitz came to grips with Parker’s rhythmic language, he began to prove, as Paul Bley notes, “that he could be a muscular time player. Time was an Achilles heel of Lennie’s groups, and Lee went past that to incorporate a swinging approach, plus the intellectual. That’s the whole thing to match off — to be creative harmonically and melodically and at the same time have a mastery of rhythm sections.”

“Lee has a jarring rhythmic sense,” Mark Turner says. “Phrases are never in groups of 2 or 4 or 8 beats or notes, but in 7’s or 9’s or 5’s or 6’s. His lines are also very involved, long, connected, extremely lyrical. Until the ’70s, his playing was pretty complex, always lyrical and logical, always a strong rhythmic sense, with a unique sense of swing. Over the last five years, it’s a much simpler, more pared-down version of what was going on then. He’s very open minded and so free — and rooted as well.”

“I think what Lee needs from a drummer is strong, confident, concentrated time,” says Joey Baron, Konitz’ drummer of choice in recent years. “He plays on the REAL back side of the beat, and it’s important not to try to match where he’s placing the time. I think he expects some fire, some expression without impeding his aesthetic of music. It’s not about energy and texture. It’s more about his mastery of melody and continuity. He really appreciates when you listen, and he starts from scratch with whomever he’s playing with, which is unbelievable.”

Whatever distaste Konitz professes for proselytizing, his search for musical truth has the feeling of a monastic pursuit. “I came into a situation with Tristano that was a number of steps beyond what I was prepared to absorb,” Konitz says. “That meant weeding out things that I felt were extraneous and trying to play what I really felt and heard.” To exist so self-consciously must take a psychic toll, and Konitz, who “was never part of a religious group too much and left the Jewish thing early on,” found himself looking to outside sources for inspiration.

One crutch was marijuana, which Konitz used heavily during the ’50s and ’60s. “That had its effect one way and another,” Konitz says. “As Louis Armstrong said, ‘Where do you get your ideas from if you’re not smoking?’ I can see that sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t all come together yet. I still think about it, because those were very special moments. Now I can get a different kind of satisfaction, but very complete, without having to do anything, and that has been a big lesson for me. I didn’t like the feeling of having a door open on something and then having it close up the next morning.”

Konitz began to wean himself from marijuana during a lengthy association with Scientology, which he became involved with around 1973. “It seemed to me that I would have a chance, step-by-step, to look at my life and things around me, and try to make some sense out of it,” Konitz says. “It provided me with the opportunity to continue studying, a discipline that I had stopped when I left high school. I left the Jewish thing early on, and had never been part of a religious group — or any group — too much. Besides the business part, which I objected to very strongly, it was clean, in a way. And whatever was hokey about it, I just accepted the part that felt it was to our benefit, to somehow clean up our acts.”

Free and clear of marijuana, Tristano and L. Ron Hubbard since 1990, Konitz relies on his ears and intuition “to communicate with the people I’m playing with, not just somehow register what they’re doing and continue to do what I do.”

“I understood early on that you’re supposed to study and then go off and think and make your own sense of it,” Konitz continues. “I think that’s what I was able to do. I wasn’t trying to be ‘original’ at any point. I’m quoting Ned Rorem, who said one of the most original things that I did was not to try to be original. That rings a bell for me. I was just trying to absorb what was hip at the time as best I could, and when I got alone, try and reinterpret it or interpret it the way I heard it.”

“Lee is a master,” Bley says. “The master is not looking for anything. The master already has found everything. It’s just a question of revealing it to you. It’s the same on the bandstand. The master passing wind through the horn, without a note, is already art. The master is the art.”

Konitz the patriarch will have none of this. He continues to work through his process, moving around the world as a gigging troubadour. He offers some parting speculations. “I think all jazz comes from the Baroque music, basically. Bach is always swinging, and it’s got the long line, the great counterpoint and all the ingredients. Someone even said Bach had the progression of ‘All The Things You Are’ in one of his pieces!  But I haven’t come across that one yet.”

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Filed under Alto Saxophone, Article, DownBeat, Lee Konitz

Two WKCR Interviews With Greg Osby, Who Turned 51 Three Days Ago

A heavy workload and some traveling have kept me away from the blog for several days. Hence I missed the shared August 3rd birthday of saxophonists Greg Osby (51) and Roscoe Mitchell (71).

One of the pleasures of tracking jazz as long as I’ve done is the opportunity to watch careers unfold in real time. This is certainly the case with Osby, whom I first interviewed in 1989 for WKCR, and for whom I’ve had the opportunity to write several liner notes and album bios. Our most recent encounter was a public conversation last December at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.

I’ve posted below our third WKCR conversation (a Musician Show from November 1995, on which Osby—then 35, he was beginning to transition out of a long plugged-in, neo-populist phase of his musical production—played and spoke about music that had influenced him) and our final WKCR conversation (which originally ran on the now-dormant webzine, http://www.jazz.com), which took place in August 2008. It originally ran on the now-dormant webzine, http://www.jazz.com.

* * *

Greg Osby Musician Show (WKCR, 11-8-95):

[MUSIC: Osby, “Black Book” (1995)]

Greg is appearing at Sweet Basil next week with a very strong quartet, featuring James Williams, piano, Kenny Davis, bass, and Jeff Watts on drums.  Have you played with this band before, with this rhythm section, or each of the different rhythm sections in different contexts and situations?

I’ve played with all of them individually in various groupings.  That’s the way it is in New York.  You play with a lot of people, and you just hook up for certain occasions — tours, record dates and things like that.  You cross paths.  You see a lot of people more in the airports than you do on the bandstand.

Apart from availability, what is it about these musicians that you see as a fit for the week?

OSBY:  James Williams is a stylist, and we need more of those.  He has a very individualistic approach and touch to the instrument.  He was the first professional guy that I played with when I moved to New York, so I have a really sweet spot in my heart for him.  Jeff Watts and I have a long-standing relationship.  We played together in college; I’ve been knowing him forever.  Kenny Davis is just, you know, a warm soul, and he’ll bring the swing to the whole foray.  So I’m looking forward to playing with all of them in the grouping.

The records that you brought along look extremely well taken care of, but also that you’ve had them for a while and listened to them a lot.  Before we get into the music, I’d like to talk in a general way about your development as a musician.  You’re from the St. Louis area.

Exactly.  I’m from St. Louis.

Have you been playing since a very young age?

I don’t know if you’d call 12 very young.  I’ve been playing since 1972.  And I took to it rather rapidly.  I was, you know, I guess destined to do this…

Alto saxophone?

Clarinet, actually.  Clarinet, then flute, and then alto saxophone.  Saxophone stuck.  It got the little girls going, and it also brought dividends quickly, you know.  So I stuck with that…

If you’re talking about monetary dividends, does that mean that you were playing in little groups, earning some money playing?

Exactly.

What sort of music?

These were R&B bands, Funk groups and Blues bands — because St. Louis was really heavy on the Blues.  And throughout high school, in the mid-Seventies, I was playing in organ trios, really groove trios, Grant Green and the like — that kind of stuff.

Older musicians?

Older musicians.  I was always the youngest.

Name some names.  Which musicians, what kind of music were you playing, what songs did you learn?

Kenny Gooch, Terry Williams and the Soul Merchants, things like that.  Charles Drayne(?) and the Players.  Soul groove bands.  We played in a lot of atmospheres that actually I was too young to even be there, to be a participant, a legal participant, but I was welcome, because they really… They accepted me as a young funky guy.

Now, in the 1970’s, the Black Artists Group was very active in the St. Louis area.  Were you in contact with them, in touch with them?

I was only in contact as an absentee kind of situation.  I couldn’t get into the places, so I listened in the alley and outside.  You know, they used to play with the windows open.  It was kind of an upstairs situation.  So I was aware of all of them, and I followed their movement and their progress, but I couldn’t participate.

Now, did that aesthetic of, I don’t know what to call it, but I guess merging many different elements of the arts… Well, obviously in some way, whether directly from that or not, it certainly seeped into what you wanted to do, because that’s what you’ve been very much involved with over the last number of years.

Yeah, but the key element was, during that whole period my mother worked at a record distribution place in St. Louis.  They distributed all the records to the local stores.  So she would bring home daily armloads of D.J. copies, promotional copies and cutouts and things.  I mean, we had a record collection like you wouldn’t believe.

And you listened to all of them?

I listened to all of it, you know, with no discretion. I’m talking about the Doors, Janis Joplin, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, the Jackson Five.  It was whatever she brought.  So as a result, I just gravitated toward the sound.

Was it more sound for you, like you’d hear a sound and then you’d try to get it out, rather than analysis at that point?  Or when did the analysis part begin for you?

The analysis part didn’t happen until college.  Because I really wasn’t pursuing music as a career until then.  I had a hankering to be an architect actually.  But you know, the music bug bit, and it stuck, and it became analytical.  It became a search for more possibilities more varied forms and environments in music.  That’s kind of my little catch-phrase.  I call myself a musical environmentalist.  I like to immerse myself in different environments and see what happens.  I like to cross the line and straddle the fence, if you will.

College was where?

College was Howard University in Washington, D.C.

That was a very fertile environment at the time you were there for a young musician.

Yeah, that was 1978.  At that time, Wallace Roney was there, Geri Allen, Clarence Seay, Gary Thomas, and a handful of others.  Then I migrated north to Boston, where I went to Berklee College of Music for three years.

What were some of the things happening in Washington at the time you were there.  John Malachi seems to have been a mentor for a lot of the young musicians in the D.C. area.

Right.  John Malachi, Keeter Betts, Kirk Stuart, people like that.  Local teachers.  They had an adjunct situation at the school, so you got kind of a hands-on application.  I was still a bit green, though, because the environment wasn’t thriving enough to give me what I needed.  When you’re impressionable, or as impressionable as I was at that age, and as eager to learn, you need to be bombarded with information.  So I sought a healthier situation, which is why I moved to Boston and went to Berklee.  Well, I didn’t move.  I got a scholarship and went there.  And it was a who’s-who of what’s happening on the scene.  Everybody that’s happening now pretty much was there at the time, from Branford Marsalis, Wallace Roney was there again, Cindy Blackman, Jeff Watts, Kevin Eubanks, Victor Bailey, Smitty Smith and on and on and on.  It was a great environment.

Let’s commence Greg’s programming portion of the Musician Show, beginning with the great master who is doing his annual New York concert with Jackie McLean in a couple of weeks at the Beacon Theater.  We’ll start with a track from Tenor Madness.  When were you first exposed to Sonny Rollins?  Say a few words about him and your feelings about his music.  Put on the professor’s hat here for a minute.

I really love him because of his explorative spirit, the way he twists certain tunes, and reshapes them, reworks them, rethinks them.  I find that to be most inspiring.  Even to this day he’s still searching.  And that’s what I look for in music.  I mean, people who don’t rest on their laurels and who don’t sound the same way they sounded forty years ago, and stopped and allowed themselves to get stuck in a time warp.  That’s why I really dig him.

And also because he took a lot of tunes that were popular tunes of the day, show tunes and the like, and he made them environments for improvisation, just like the song we’re going to check out.  That’s kind of the theme of the show today.  What is commercial music?  What is commercial?

[MUSIC: S. Rollins, “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World” (1956); Don Byas/Slam Stewart, “I Got Rhythm” (1945); Bird, “Just Friends” (1950)]

One thing that I as a ‘civilian’ could say about that set, just to start a conversation, is that all three of those incredible, seminal saxophonists are total masters of time.  All of them float over the rhythm, and bar lines really mean nothing.  They’re just totally relaxed with it at all times.

I guess that’s what everyone strives to achieve in music, is musical mastery of the time, and the ability to shape and mold the time to fit certain phrases.  Because naturally, things aren’t even and metric as they lay claims that everything should be in academia.  Things should be elastic and they should stretch, and there should be that type of appeal in everyone’s playing, I think.

Greg, you in your work are dealing with very complex and interlocking rhythmic structures, and I guess try to achieve that same quality of floating or being very relaxed with those rhythms.

Exactly.  I have made that a concentration in and about my playing for some time.  I made a concerted effort to study that and to try to dissect the particulars of rhythm and time so that I would be comfortable in those types of environments.  I’ve made it a point to I guess endear myself to drummers who are known for twisting time around.  I have a real strong rapport with a lot of the drummers on the scene.

A couple who I can think that you’ve worked with are Jeff Watts next week, Marvin Smitty Smith, you worked in Jack De Johnette’s group for a few years…

Six years.

Since you’re an alto saxophonist, I’m particularly interested in your comments about Charlie Parker.

Oddly enough, of the three here that we’ve just checked out, Sonny Rollins had the most influence on me, because his sense of time and rhythm appealed to me more so than the harmonic explorations of Don Byas and Charlie Parker, until later, until I recognized the value and the wealth of information that their playing contained.

Don Byas is an unsung hero, as far as I’m concerned, a technician of the saxophone who experimented with various sophisticated cycles and substitutions and change-running.  He was known for running a cat out on his ears at many a jam session.  Also he had a heavy emphasis on his tone and shading of his tone, and muting, and a real strong vibrato, reminiscent of that real muscular tenor school.

For my money, Charlie Parker still isn’t completely recognized for his contributions to music.  I mean, people aren’t really dealing with some of the more prominent stylistic characteristics of his playing.  When people say, “Yeah, he plays just like Bird,” they’re just playing, you know, the Acme, do-it-yourself, just-add-water licks, not really dealing deep into his concept and to the meat.

Talk about what they’re missing.

To me, they’re missing a highly, a highly developed and sophisticated sense of rhythm and time, and the ability to shape that time.  The harmonic sense speaks for itself.  Listening to Art Tatum and people like that, and being aware of Stravinsky and Bartok and those type of people, you’re going to… And this is the 1940’s we’re talking about.  So he was way ahead of his time, and people still haven’t checked that out.  Also, the ability to take popular tunes of the day, which I guess were Pop tunes, you know, and to make those environments and transform them into vehicles for melodic exploration and development. That took a lot of forethought.

Sometimes I gather he’d just hear something on the radio and start playing it that night, and would start a whole process of exploration for him.

The ability to recall those variables in those songs and make them into something listenable requires a highly developed ear.  And the ability to recollect that kind of stuff is… A lot of people do it, and it’s very corny and it’s very patronizing.  I don’t want to name names, but it’s… I mean, he would take it and make it something that was very valid and very profound.

Talk about Charlie Parker’s sound.  I know that as an alto saxophone player, you probably have a very particular ear for the distinctions in the sound of alto saxophonists.

Well, I was turned on to him right about at the same time… It was about 1974, and I was listening to cats like Maceo and Ronnie Laws and Cannonball Adderley and Junior Walker, more the R&B kind of guys.  Then when I heard him, what appealed to me more so than his sound was the way he played.  I just recognized… I didn’t have the slightest idea of what he was doing and how to get to that level, but it was something that I aspired to.  The sound sounded very bright and very brittle and very hard, and it sounded very forced.  It was as if he was over-exerting himself.  So the sound didn’t appeal to me at first, until I heard the stories from the people who were there, until I had a chance to meet and talk to Art Blakey and Dizzy Gillespie and people like that, who told me that he could fill up a room and he could be heard from the outside and that kind of stuff.

Without a microphone!

Yeah!  And you got a better appreciation of his sound.  There’s really no way of telling.  It’s really the same way that people talk about John Coltrane.  You listen to the records, and you would think that his sound was really loud, and they say it really wasn’t.  You would think that Elvin Jones was playing so loud that he would have to be very loud to accommodate, and they say he wasn’t really loud.  So you just have to get the stories, and you have to embrace the truth before it’s too late.

The next set of music begins with an early effort by Wynton Marsalis, the Hot House Flowers release, which was a very popular recording for him in the early ’80s.

Well, despite the media wars that would have various factions of music pitted against one another, I have a great deal of appreciation and respect for Wynton.  I love his sound, I love his spirit and his enthusiasm.  Sometimes, you know, his perspectives…

Are not maybe what you would…

Yeah, we differ, but that’s natural and that’s healthy, I think, to have that type of debate.

Embracing diversity.

You’ve got to have it, or else, where are you going to… But anyway, I really like this record.  I really love strings, I like to see to see people in various environments, and I like the way he rose to the occasion, the way him and his band dealt with it.  And this is in keeping with the theme of the lecture here, which is:  What is Commercial?  Because these are popular songs, and this effort is highly commercial, and I think it was highly successful.

Now, one point we can make here is that we’ll hear a track of Marsalis playing “Stardust”, which in 1984 is not necessarily a popular song of the day.

Not necessarily.  But I guess it was stylized…

But does that give the music a different context when it’s reflecting back thirty or forty years, as opposed to the music being right there, or does it have the same connotation?

Well, not necessarily.  I mean, we have versions of these songs that were made popular by various artists.  We recall those versions whenever we hear those songs being performed.  Now, that they were or weren’t popular in their day when they were written is not really important.  The key here is to take something and to rethink it, and to make it an environment for exploration.

I think that’s a very important point.

Yeah.  But some people say, well, you can’t do that with commercial music, because then you’re being commercial. And everybody wants to sell their music.  We’re not doing this for fun.  So everybody is commercial in a sense.  But the issue really is quality.  Because some people can be commercial, and they can be of very low quality.

[MUSIC: Wynton Marsalis, “Stardust” (1984); Prez, “Two To Tango” (1953); Lou Donaldson, “Alligator Boogaloo” (1967)]

I’m not quite sure how to link everybody up in that last set, but it sure sounded good.  A few words about Lou Donaldson, one of the master alto saxophonists, and playing a consistent level of music for forty years.

Yeah, but there was a departure in this period.  They were embracing the boogaloo beat, him and many others, and it was a commercial venture.  However, it didn’t detract from what he could do.  It was just a choice.  It was what he wanted to do.

There Lou Donaldson was using a drummer who was partly responsible for a lot of the beats that we were hearing in black popular music of the 1960’s, Idris Muhammad.

Oh, yeah.  Idris, Bernard Purdie, Clyde Stubblefield, some of the funkiest drummers who ever walked the planet — but also some swinging individuals as well.  Further examples of how people can straddle the fence.

Now, Lou Donaldson is about as much of a disciple of Charlie Parker as there is. I take it you’ve been checking him out for some time now in your music.

Sure.  Him, Sonny Stitt, Jackie McLean.  I mean, it’s necessary.  That’s part of studying the lineage of the instrument and the music.  You want to know who did what, and how they interpreted it, and how they filtered Bird’s means through their music.  Sometimes it’s easier to get to some of the more difficult players by listening to their descendants and disciples.

Lou Donaldson is your journeyman jazzman.  As a student, if you have a particular difficulty in a certain area in music, he and players like him, Sonny Stitt, people like that, they lay it out for you.  They lay it out for you on the table, also maintaining the stylistic characteristics that made them who they are.  I wouldn’t call Lou necessarily an innovator, but a great contributor to the language of the music.

Lester Young speaks for itself.  Also I think he did that recording as a goof, but he’s still swinging.  So swing is bone-deep.  Also just his sense of time and how he approaches the beat.  It’s a very lazy approach.  And he influenced generations of musicians, too; I mean, too lengthy to go into right now.

What do you mean exactly by that word, “a lazy approach”?

Well, you have different ways of approaching time in Jazz.  Some people are very agitated and they’re very ahead of the beat.  It’s a very classical and legit approach to the beat, and it sounds skittish and augmented, as opposed to what’s been widely accepted as the Jazz feel, which is a more laid-back feel.  I don’t know what brought on the acceptance of that feel, if it was a lot of people that were, you know, inebriated or intoxicated or high or whatever.  But it feels better.  It just feels better.  I can’t even explain it.  I mean, if that’s synonymous with swing, so be it, but I don’t know.  And we haven’t really come up with a concrete explanation for that, anyway.

One other thing I’d like to raise as a more general point in talking about Lester Young, is that a lot of the younger musicians who do these Musician Shows, don’t play the music of a lot of the musicians who came before Charlie Parker, even the direct antecedents to Charlie Parker.  Of course, there are exceptions, but as a general rule it doesn’t seem to be necessarily central to their vocabulary.  Talk about how a contemporary musician can draw inspiration and information from the earlier musicians.

As a saxophone player, it’s necessary for me to study the greats of the instrument, naturally, and also to study who they studied, to see how they arrived at their conception.  Apart from Charlie Parker, I’ve also checked out, I’m also checking out Earl Bostic, Louis Jordan, Buster Smith, Willie Smith, Johnny Hodges of course, Sidney Bechet, people like that.

Interestingly enough, the saxophones were made differently in those days mechanically.  It’s an articulated G-sharp and a side F-sharp and B-Flats and things like that.  They were just mechanically different.  So the players played differently to get around those horns.  In the mid-Forties, the way the saxophone was constructed changed, so it also changed the way people could finger and get in and around the horn.

We know that Parker was playing in his style pretty much in 1942, ’43 and ’44.  Do you speculate that that might have had an effect on the way he could get around the horn and the development of his conception?

Some people believe it was the change from what they call vertical playing to horizontal playing.  Vertical is a more arpeggiated, up-and-down motion, outlining chords and things like that, where horizontal is a more melodious, in-and-out, peaks and valleys approach to the music.  I tend to think that Charlie Parker was solely responsible for freeing up that type of thinking, and I think he was ostracized for it initially, because he dared break the norm!

It’s time to hear a duo between our host, Greg Osby, and pianist-composer Andrew Hill.  You appear on two of his Blue Note releases.  I know he’s someone you listened to also before actually encountering him in the flesh.

Definitely.  And it was such an honor to be part of his world.  He’s been more or less an absentee mentor, and we stay in touch constantly.  I mean, I did some work for him this summer, teaching at the Portland State University, where he is an artist-in-residence.  I went out there and hung out with him for a few weeks, and I was able to immerse myself in his wealth of information.  I mean, amidst all the great pianists that were his contemporaries, that he emerged so strong a player with so much personality and with so much integrity is a monumental achievement.  There are but a handful of people who are my contemporaries whom I could recognize in a few notes, in just a phrase.  That’s what we all strive to achieve, and I long for the day when people are playing and the way they interpret things is as individualistic as their vocal pattern, or the way they talk, the tone of voice.  I mean, things should be that personal, as opposed to emulating someone for the rest of your life.

[MUSIC: Osby/A. Hill, “Friends” (1990); Hill-Joe Henderson-Richard Davis-Roy Haynes, “Pumpkin” (1963); Herbie Hancock, “Speak Like A Child” (1968)]

What comes to mind most for me in listening to that set is what some people might think of as an abstract connection, but it doesn’t seem that way to me.  Both Andrew Hill and Herbie Hancock are from Chicago, and kind of developed the groundwork of their musical aesthetic coming up in the Chicago area.  You’re from St. Louis, and it’s often been said that there’s a shared Midwest aesthetic to the music.

Oh, yes.  Places like Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City are located, of course, in the middle of the country, the heartland.

The Mississippi River…,

Exactly.

…the Illinois Central Railroad.

The Bible Belt, all that.  And a lot of these places were stopping points to get from East to West or vice-versa.

Or North to South.

Yes.  And a lot of people stayed, and a lot of people left remnants of their visit behind.  So it was kind of a melting pot, if you will, even more so than in the coastal areas, because it was the center.  Whereas New York and L.A. would kind of be the final destination for a lot of people.  So being in that area, you benefit from all of those regional differences, regional particulars.

Well, not only that, but each of these cities—and certainly St. Louis, which was known for producing high-level brass players—had a self-contained, distinctive musical scene.  Anything to say about that?

Well, St. Louis being on the Mississippi River, it was part of that whole riverboat trek.  And also it’s in the direct path of the Great Migration, you know, in the second decade of this century.  A lot of people sought a better life in the North, so they migrated from New Orleans, which is where my people are originally from, and parts of Mississippi, and migrated on up, and stopped off in Arkansas and St. Louis, up to Chicago, to Cleveland or Detroit or whatever.  So you get the benefits of that whole experience as well, that whole way of expression, and it’s reflected in the trumpet stylings of Clark Terry, Miles Davis, people like that coming out of St. Louis.

Anything to say about Herbie Hancock’s beautifully orchestrated  Speak Like A Child, which has impacted so many musicians?

I’m a big student of orchestration and arranging, although a lot of my current projects wouldn’t reflect such; but a lot of people that know me, know that, and my big band writing and score writing and chamber writing past and history.  But I studied it, I dissected that whole album and took it apart, that as well as a lot of Mingus’ works. I love his choices of  instrumental couplings.  Alto flute, trombones, French horns, things like that.  It’s very unusual.  Flugelhorns… And he made them real popular.  Him and people like him, Thad Jones… Some of the more obscure woodwinds, bass clarinets, bassoons and oboes in a jazz setting make for some really nice sounds, juxtaposed with the more traditional rhythm section elements.

Were you a student of the Miles Davis band in the Sixties, and the types of abstractions with which they treated standard material?  Did that have an impact on your conception of music?

Not so much.  I was more into the players themselves than how they sounded together, you know, being placed with one another in Miles’ band.  Because it was kind of a collaborative vision.  It wasn’t one person’s vision.  I’m really into… I mean, it evolved, and you know, it just happened that way.  But I’m really a big fan of Herbie’s.  I had the pleasure of touring with him for a couple of months, and that was one of my greatest experiences, one of the greatest triumphs in my short history.  I learned a tremendous amount.

The next set will focus on the alto saxophone,beginning with Louis Jordan, who shared with Lester Young roots and antecedents in a family band that did the carnival circuit in the 1920’s and 1930’s.  A trumpeter, Leonard Philips, who lived in Washington, who toured with the Young Family Band in his youth, mentioned an encounter between the two family bands that he said sparked quite a few fireworks, at some point in the Twenties.

Is that so.

You could say Louis Jordan might be the father of Rhythm-and-Blues.

Well, there you go.  He’s the father of Rhythm-and-Blues and Rock-and-Roll, and that whole thing, but was largely overlooked when other elements came into play. Since he was a predecessor of Charlie Parker and one of his contemporaries, it’s notable to marvel at how he remained pretty much unaffected by the “wrath of Bird,” as I call it, and his musical onslaught and his stylings.  Also, his sound and the way he approached the instrument is reflective of the way those saxophones were constructed in the day.  I mean, he was a more vertical player, and he had a really rich and deep tone, and very wide.  I just implore my fellow saxophonists to really check this out, because it’s food.

[MUSIC: Louis Jordan, “The Dripper” (1954), “Whiskey Do Your Stuff” (1954); Earl Bostic, “Harlem Nocturne” (1954); Sonny Stitt, “Every Tub” (1954); Earl Bostic, “Moonglow” (1952); Coltrane-Hartman, “They Say It’s Wonderful” (1963); Osby, “We’ll Be Together Again” (1989)]

Listeners who have only heard Greg Osby’s recent releases may be wondering about the relevance of the music he programmed for that set to his musical production.  But indeed, there are some very personal connections involved in just about all the music we heard.  For instance, you were mentioning to me an experience you share with many young saxophonists who came up in the Seventies and Eighties, a first-hand encounter with Sonny Stitt.

Sonny Stitt was notorious for altering the keys in standard compositions on jam sessions.  And a lot of younger players, arrogant as they are, will practice and play those songs in one key, as I did.  I had the audacity to ask him to sit in, this was about 1977, at a club called B.B.’s in St. Louis on the riverfront.  I sat in with him.  He did the whole gig sitting on a stool, had his fifth of gin in his back pocket — he was chillin’, as they say.  And he did “Rhythm” changes in A-flat.  Now, it’s commonly played in B-flat, so that’s all I was dealing with.  So of course, I was thrown.  Then they also played an alternate bridge, a bridge that I hadn’t practiced.  So by the end of the first chorus, I was already underwater.  Heh-heh.  A most humbling experience.

As far as Louis Jordan, “Caledonia” was still on the jukeboxes when you were a young guy. It was the break song for the organ trios you worked in.

Right, that was the break tune, “Caledonia.”  We played that and, you know, “Rusty-Dusty Woman,” things like that.  I mean, it was way above my head.  It’s things that I was involved in and introduced to that I had to research and find the value and the validity of.  But it was a great experience to play in those organ trios then.

We heard your interpretation of “We’ll Be Together Again.”  So it’s quite evident that this music is a deep part of your musical experience, and really back to the very beginning.  You made a point that around the time you recorded “We’ll Be Together Again” you were listening deeply to singers.  Now, many of the great saxophonists have been very much aware of the lyrics of the songs they play.

My exploration into vocal stylings was inspired by a lot of my contemporaries.  They were only concerned with velocity, playing really fast and loud and honking, and just being very bullish and arrogant on the instrument.  I wanted to explore the possibility of subtlety, which has been exploited by people like Miles Davis and softer players like Joe Henderson.  So I was really interested in how Dinah Washington or Sarah Vaughn, Abbey Lincoln, Johnny Mathis, Johnny Hartman, Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, people like that, how they would interpret the song and how they would break up the lyric.  Billie Holiday, how she would interpret a lyric so personally, it was as if she was the composer.

I’d gone through the rigors of the velocity school, and didn’t get much of a rise out of people.  Laypersons, they don’t really react to that.  They react to heart-wrenching feeling.  Not that I want to just be a soul player either.  I mean, there has to be some kind of cerebral content, or else it’s not Jazz as far as I’m concerned; there has to be something intellectual about it.  So I spent about two years really shedding on my sound and my tone and interpreting lyrics.  Not that it was really necessary for me to know every word, because the songs themselves had a totally different meaning.  But I must say, it does help.

One of the saxophonists who really combined the cerebral and the gutbucket, we could say, was Earl Bostic, and we heard those two tracks.  A few words about his alto playing.  On “Moonglow” he sounded like a tenor saxophone, he was playing so low in the register.

I’ve always strived to try to emulate that sound.  I always wanted to give the illusion that I was some big fat guy playing, you know, with a lot of girth, with a gutbucket belly or whatever.  And it’s an ongoing pursuit.  I’m not a large cat…

You want to keep the belly down but the sound up.

Yeah.  I want to give the illusion.  I really miss that sound.  And there’s a handful of young players that sound that way, but a lot of people are, I won’t say victims, but they’re coming from the throat school of alto playing as opposed to the diaphragm.  There’s two ways of producing the sound, the throat and the diaphragm; there’s two types of vibrato.  A lot of the older, more gruff and smoky tenor players play from the diaphragm.  Von Freeman gave me and Steve Coleman a lengthy discussion on that. It’s slower and more deliberate, and it’s less natural than playing from the throat.  Playing from the throat if you’re playing in big bands or rock-and-roll groups where you have to cut and project the sound.  The sound is a lot more strident, it’s a lot more pointed.  The diaphragm vibrato is actually a flute technique, because flutists don’t have reeds or mouthpieces, so they have to vibrate from the diaphragm.  So it’s more a Classical derivative.  And it gives a wider sound up, with more breadth and the illusion of girth.  And that’s what I like to hear.

Next up is Cannonball Adderley.

Cannonball is the result of all of these musicians having been his predecessors.  He also helped define, or redefine or lay down the law for what’s known as contemporary popular saxophone playing, people like him and Junior Walker and people like that and Maceo and them cats in that day.  I can’t even begin to talk about Cannonball.  For several years, I was a Cannonball fanatic, a fiend, and when I emerged on the New York scene I took great strides to kind of exorcize the shades of Cannonball out of my playing, because it was at the point where it was debilitating.  Hammiet Bluiett gave me a lecture one time, talking about how some musicians don’t recognize the cut-off point, the natural cut-off point when you should stop emulating somebody and try to emerge with your own voice.  And that’s…you know…

A valuable lesson.

Exactly.  And it leads to the early demise of many a talented musician, because they’re knee-deep in somebody else’s concept.

[MUSIC: Cannonball Adderley, “Love For Sale” (1958); “Miss Jackie’s Delight” (1957); w/S. Mendes, “Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars (Corvocado)” (1965)]

Before a final set of Greg’s music, we must mention Wayne Shorter, whose way of through-composing and general style has had a huge impact on you.

Exactly.  And he’s always been a very kind gentleman to me.  He’s always been very informative, and he’s embraced me and showered upon me oodles of knowledge.  Not so much in a literal sense, but the way he describes music is kind of cryptic, you know, in this panorama.  So you kind of have to decipher it. He is definitely a genius, and I don’t use that word loosely.  Without being too descriptive and breaking down, he’s played an impacting role on my development.

TP:    There are many connections between the Greg Osby recording we’ll hear to conclude the show, which date back to 1989. Can you give a general description of how your music has evolved from Season of Renewal, which we’ll be hearing, to Black Book, your latest release?

In order for me to remain inspired, it’s necessary for me (and this is on a personal tip) to put myself in varied, highly varied environments, to see if I sink or swim.  That’s the true challenge.  Since I don’t have the luxury of playing with a whole bunch of different musicians and different rhythm sections, in a thriving scene with a lot of clubs where you can interact with a lot of people, you have to create your own environments.  Also that I don’t have the opportunity to do more than one record every year or two days, much to my dismay; it’s not like the Blue Note days or Prestige where they could do four or five sessions a year, and they could fully document their musical meanings and aspirations.  I have to kind of get it all in one effort.  So all the recordings reflect my experiences, trials, tribulations, so to speak, in between projects.  And hopefully, they show some type of growth and, you know, just experience.

* * * *

http://www.jazz.com Interview with Greg Osby, August 2008:

“When you look the music’s lineage, the people that stand out have something that’s their own, as unique as their vocal patterns,” Greg Osby told me a decade ago. “Hopefully I’ll reach the point where people say, ‘I can recognize Greg Osby in two notes because nobody else approaches a song that way.’”

Now 48, Osby can reflect on an iconoclastic oeuvre, much of it documented on 13 recordings for Blue Note, with which he signed in 1991. It includes, as I wrote in an Osby bio several years back, several pioneering attempts at mixing jazz and hip-hop aesthetics, a project framing his tart alto saxophone sound with strings, a two-sax pairing with tenor titan Joe Lovano, various acoustic quartet investigations of his structurally rigorous, off-kilter compositions, a burnout club performance, and several deconstructions of the jazz tradition. He’s also brought his tonal personality to numerous encounters—duos with drum-master Andrew Cyrille and impressionistic pianists Marc Copland and Masabumi “Poo” Kikuchi; ensembles with guitar harmony-master Jim Hall, rhythmically complex Turkish guitarist Timucin Sahin; jams with the Grateful Dead, an Ali Jackson-led quintet with Wynton Marsalis. His bands have launched some of the next generation’s best and brightest, employing such present stars as Edward Simon, Jason Moran, Stefon Harris, Matt Brewer, Eric Harland, and Nasheet Waits early in their careers.

Now unattached to a mothership label, Osby, like many 21st century musician- entrepreneurs, has established his own imprint, Inner Circle, which he recently launched with 9 Levels, featuring a new sextet. In October he’ll follow-up with releases led by younger talent, including several by members from his group. In August, Osby debuted the sextet at the Village Vanguard; to publicize the occasion, he joined me at WKCR for a far-ranging conversation.

Let’s talk about your new group.

It’s yet another installment of young upstarts. I’m loath to use the term “up-and-coming,” because they’ve already arrived as far as I’m concerned. That’s actually what appealed to me, that they sounded so resolved in their musicality. They were the missing pieces to the puzzle. Interestingly, I don’t have to search for people any more. They find me. Every day, I’m getting solicitations from young players who either want me to evaluate what they do, or want to play with the group, or want some kind of commentary. Every day, so many great talents come across my desk. I wish I could employ them all, because the cup runneth over with talent out there. I do what I can.

You haven’t worked with a vocalist in about 20 years, since Cassandra Wilson sang on some of your records, then there’s piano and guitar, plus bass and drums. So it must be a nice prod to get into your mad scientist thing, working out tunes and sonic combinations for this ensemble.

It’s been a while since I heard a vocalist who had the dexterity, the attack, and just the complete musicianship of a Cassandra Wilson. Right now, we’re in an era where they’re embracing a lot of female vocalists. But it’s dangerously teetering on the precipice of the “chick singer,” the flame-siren-vixen sitting on the piano kind of thing, as opposed to women who really can sing instrumentally, like Sarah Vaughan or Carmen McRae or Betty Carter or Abbey Lincoln—singers that are instrumental as well as vocal. My current singer, Sara Serpa, is from Portugal—Lisbon. I met her on MySpace. We had mutual friends, then I saw her, then I clicked, I listened, and I was floored. I contacted her, and she responded immediately. She’s more or less the second horn. It’s not so much words and lyrics, but really she gets inside the music. She learns all of the intricate melodies. Harmonically, she can negotiate chord changes and progressions just like an instrumentalist.

You were using guitar in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with Kevin Bruce Harris, but not so much in about a decade. Given your past proclivities, I imagine they’d negotiate different roles within the ensemble from piece to piece.

Well, a lot of guitarists don’t like to play with pianists, because they navigate the same territory, and there’s a lot of conflict in terms of chords and comping and role playing. Here I’ve assigned  people to stay within certain ranges, and they have very specific material that they adhere to and certain particulars that they work within, so they won’t violate territory or turf, musically speaking.

Adam Birnbaum is a Boston native. He plays in and around New York. I think he has a regular daily hotel gig. He’s an amazing stylist. On guitar I have Nir Felder, who’s from upstate New York. He’s also a Berklee College of Music graduate, and he’s an amazing talent on guitar. I can’t even describe it, and I don’t want to use the same terminology that irks me, so I’ll just say he’s one for the years.

Our young drummer, Hamir Atwal. is a Bay Area native. He’s also a Berklee College of Music student that I heard last year when I was doing a residency there for one week, and I said, “I’m going to use him immediately.” The bassist, Joseph Lepore, is from Italy. He’s been living in New York over ten years, and has a big, rich, reverberant sound. I need that bottom to support the structures. I don’t need a notey bass player or someone who plays all the time and just bombards the music with those

What’s the median age of this group, the leader excluded?

I would say around 28.

It’s an ethnically and probably socially diverse group as well.

Oh, yeah. An Italian, a Portuguese, one of Israeli descent, another of American-Jewish descent, Hamir is half-Filipino and half-Indian. So yeah, we are the world. It’s like United Colors of Benetton!

In the Times review of your Tuesday performance, Nate Chinen used the word “postmodern” to describe the group. What I’d read into that is that these are players who are familiar with a very broad range of vocabulary, and can access any dialect in an almost modular way to suit the dictates of the moment. That’s been a component of your compositional and musical thinking since you emerged as a composer in the mid ‘80s with your recordings on JMT.

It’s a hybrid of sorts. The compositions comprise a host of particulars that I have embraced, and hopefully developed some of them through my travels and through my needs as a composer and a musician. I had to put myself in an environment that I think is provocative for me, that prods me, and also makes the musicians think. You have to analyze the music, make deductions, and figure out what you can do within a certain sonic set. That prevents people from playing the same thing twice, playing stock phrases, being too comfortable. I like that phrase Milt Jackson used when he said, “It’s like walking on an oil slick on a sheet of black ice on a bed of marbles.” With that kind of thinking, you stay on your toes. It works for me.

You said that a lot of young musicians want to play with you. What qualities in your music appeal to them?

The first thing that appeals to them is that they know I’ll let them play. It’s not a one-man show. It’s not about me and they are the support system. It’s a group effort. It’s a collaborative. I allow their voices to be heard and allow them to develop, too. I don’t admonish people and browbeat them for making mistakes or doing the wrong things. They have to find their way, just as I found my way. I would safely say that I cut my teeth in Jack DeJohnette’s band. He was the archetype leader in that he nurtured by staying out of your way. He was very hands-off, but he led and he conducted. There was no intervention in terms of, “well, do this and don’t do that” or “your gig is in jeopardy” and so on.

They know that a lot of people have come through my band and are doing very well now, and they know that I’ll allow them to do things that may be unorthodox or outside of what’s common to these types of presentations, that if it works, we’ll incorporate it, and make it part of the repertoire and part of that expression. I’m not trying to approach this in an educational fashion, like, “Okay, this is the University of the Streets and we’re going to play…” I’m learning just as much as they are. I’m enjoying it, and I still have the enthusiasm. Some of these players have so much to offer. They’re so learned and so accomplished in what they say as musicians. I’m all ears as well. I’m soaking it in, too.

This new recording also signifies an economic transition for you. After 17 years as a Blue Note artist, that relationship is severed. A lot of the records are out of print. You’re starting a new label, bringing you into the ranks of musician entrepreneurs, an ever more common job description. How’s it working out?

These seeds have been sown for a while. It’s only recently that they’ve actually germinated and blossomed. But it’s something that I’ve always planned to do. It’s just the natural order of things, especially today. Blue Note They gave me a clean slate to express myself, and I have nothing but good things to say about them. But at the end, record sales weren’t what they could or should have been, and I guess my commentary or suggestions weren’t heeded or recognized as valid, because I’m the artist. That’s when the end comes. The records aren’t moving and you’re dissatisfied. Then also, the tide is turning. The whole climate is…

Internet, downloading, and you’ve been at the top of that curve. You’ve been offering downloads for the last several years.

Well, that, too. I mean, aesthetically, here I am at Blue Note Records, and it represents…the things that are being produced… It was just time.

So is there an overall aesthetic to your label?

Absolutely. It’s called Inner Circle Music, named after my favorite Blue Note recording, called Inner Circle. The Inner Circle was a band with Jason Moran and Tarus Mateen, and either Nasheet Watts or Eric Harland, and Stefon Harris. We were on the road constantly in all our various groups, and it was interchangeable. The only thing that would change would be whoever was leading the group. I decided to document it with a series of compositions that celebrated that union. So here I am now, with Inner Circle Music. All music in an era is dictated either by a sound or a variety of integers and compounds that give it a sound, that mark it or date it. Then some writer gives that sound a name, be it “swing,” “dixieland,” “post-bop,” “hard bop,” “avant-garde,” “M-Base,” or “postmodern” you said…

Did a writer give “M-BASE” the name?

No-no. We were in control of that.

Thank you. Don’t blame everything on us.

I wanted to have a record company that mirrored both the Strata-East umbrella structure as well as United Artists, where the artists were in control of their own destiny. Here the artists make contributions financially, business-wise, promotionally—they really get in the trenches. To keep the overhead low, everyone has to have roles and you have to delegate duties and responsibilities to everybody. That way you can keep things moving. It also gives them more incentive if they have a financial stake.

Have you toured with this group?

We haven’t toured. This week is our first hit as an ensemble since the recording. We’re on to Chicago after this, and some other things. But it’s deep, keeping the band together, keeping them working, keeping them occupied and stimulated. What did Dizzy say? The best way to keep a working band is to keep the band working. Or vice-versa. Kind of like keeping the landlady happy. They will bounce on you. They will go to other places. I have had other band members either stolen or just yanked out from underneath me…

Evolved to the next phase might be a way of putting it.

Yeah. Financial needs prevail, and people need to pay the bills. My band is considered an art band. You can work and you can express yourself, but you won’t make a windfall of money at the beginning. But as soon as the momentum starts to happen, people defect. It’s just the way it goes.

You were born in 1960. So you’re the same age as Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Wallace Roney, Jeff Watts, Marvin Smitty Smith, people who got tagged in the ‘80s as the “young lions,” that ill-fated term, and have gone on to do many different things and transcend those labels. When you yourself were in your twenties, you played with Jon Faddis and Jack DeJohnette and Andrew Hill, and gigged with Herbie Hancock and Muhal Richard Abrams, and were affiliating in collectives with Steve Coleman and Robin Eubanks and Geri Allen. How were people in your generation different in sensibility and attitude than musicians coming up now? Or were you? Can you pinpoint ways in which your ideas about music were shaped by the environment in which you came up? Some of those dynamics don’t exist for musicians today.

That’s exactly the point. The situation in New York was a lot more vibrant when we arrived in town. There were a number of jam sessions on any night. You could bounce around and hear the new cat off the bus, so to speak, to see if they would do the make it or break it thing. You’d hear about someone blowing everyone away at a previous night’s jam session, and you would go out to hear for yourself. Then after all the sets at the major clubs, people would either go to Bradley’s or to these various jam sessions. A lot of veteran players would come to these sessions unannounced, and you would sit and get an earful. Then also, during the day, it was very common to have jam sessions at our respective apartments. So there was always something happening in a progressive sense. Now the musicians are a little more desperate. They’re a lot more proficient, mind you, because there’s a lot more intellectual access, so they learn more rapidly. But they don’t have the vehicles and venues for expression. Now it’s a scramble: “What shall I do now? Now I have a degree. Now I have these professional particulars and variables, and I’m ready to do it, but where shall I do it? Where shall I find employment? How shall I get the break? How shall I get people to become interested in what I’m doing?” This is their dilemma.

What did you think New York would be like?

GREG:   Of course, you have this ideal of the utopian metropolis—bustling with ideas and support and progressive minds and that type of thinking. You’re going to descend upon the scene with what you do, and take the whole thing by storm. This is what everybody thinks. It’s the big-fish-in-the-small-pond thing. You’re the best cat in whatever university or conservatory or hometown situation, then you come to New York and you find that whole dream immediately shattered. You find that there are a lot of people who not only are as good or better than you and have more experience, but also have better connections, for whatever reason, be it where they’re from, or who they know, or whatever. So now you have to start at the bottom, and you have to establish a reputation. You have to meet people and network and find some other like-minded folks who will help you to see your vision through.

Who was your first clique when you got here?

When I first got to town, I was playing with Jon Faddis at the Village Vanguard, and I guess someone had told Steve Coleman, there’s some guy who plays alto and he…

Had Faddis met you in college?

I was studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. I think he played up there, and then I sat in. That was a Friday. That Monday, his manager called and said, “We’re going on the road, let’s do it.” I didn’t need a second invitation. That’s how that happened. Immediately, the first week I came, and we were at the Village Vanguard, right out of school. This was a dream come true. Fortunately, I was ready. I was a good reader, played various saxophones, and knew the bebop repertoire. I think he wanted somebody who wasn’t really knee-deep in the scene, who was better known than he was, or would compete for attention.

Anyway, someone told Steve Coleman, “Yeah, there’s a cat who sounds like you.” So when you hear that, you think, “Let me go see for myself.” Both he and Cassandra Wilson came to the Vanguard, and we struck up an immediate friendship. We talked outside the club until sunup, and found out we had a lot of common ground. I went home and slept a couple of hours, and then he called, and we talked again for another five hours about, “What do you aspire to do? What is your vision? What are your long term goals?” Things like this. We mutually agreed that we needed to engage in some kind of musicians’ collective where people could freely talk about music, bring new compositions, talk about approaches to improvisation as well as composition, and also to school each other on business. We also agreed that business was the main reason why many of our predecessors had led lives as paupers, even though they were amazing contributors to the music. They always had to have a benefit to pay for hospital bills or whatever, they had no insurance, no holdings, no real estate, nothing. So we needed to school each other on that, as well as the particulars of music business law, negotiating, recording techniques—all the things that a musician should know. Unfortunately, many musicians stopped short. They say, “Ok, I can write, I can improvise,” but they don’t learn everybody else’s role. So therefore, they are led around and they just sign on the dotted line, they say yes to everything, without really knowing the fundamentals of survival and business.

So these were ideas you were thinking about as a student.

Absolutely. I was always like that.

Is that innate? Were there things happening in St. Louis, where you grew up, that influenced you that way? People you encountered in college?

Actually, fear of failure made me think about these things. I would look around the environment where I was from, and you saw so much depravity and so much blight. As a youth, I said, “I’m not going to be about this. I’m from here, and I can recognize it, but I have to step above it. Otherwise, I can’t help anyone else and I certainly can’t help myself.” I don’t understand why a lot of young people say, “Yeah, I’m from the streets. I’m the ‘hood.” That’s really nothing to be proud of. So fear of not being able to leave or do better for myself, made me go to the library on my own, without any prodding from anybody else. I have to learn about these things, and I have to learn about the world and learn how to relate to people. I talked about that way back.

It’s tempting to think of this loosely formed consortium of musicians that convened together under the name M-Base as a 1980s descendant of Chicago’s AACM and St. Louis’ Black Artists Group, but in reality, as young artists, neither you nor Steve Coleman had that much contact with either the AACM, in his case, or with the Black Artists Group, in your case. Or am I wrong?

Not at that time. I mean, I certainly heard the Black Artists Group as a youth in St. Louis. But I didn’t know what was going on. I would climb this building and hang onto the bars of the window, and I would look in, and I saw Hamiet Bluiett and I saw Floyd LeFlore… I saw those cats, wearing, like, big straw hats and dashikis and real tie-dye kind of stuff. It was loft scene stuff, the REAL stuff, in warehouses. I would ride my bike down there. So maybe that…

It rubbed off.

Yeah, maybe it did. Because now Bluiett is one of my best friends, and Murray, all those cats. So I guess it did plant some kind of seed back then. But we also fashioned that collective off George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, the big umbrella structure where there would be one mass group and a lot of mini-groups that resided up under it. So you would have interchangeable personnel on each other’s projects that would give it a sound and be a glue that held everything together. So there were other models.

Mentioning George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic as a model segues to another question. When you think about the enduring legacy of M-Base in the ‘80s, on a superficial level the most obvious component would be the rhythmic innovations of that period, bringing hip-hop and funk rhythms into jazz flow, working kind of in parallel with musicians familiar with Afro-Caribbean rhythms doing the same thing. Then in the ‘90s, people started intermixing and intermingling all those rhythmic structures, Steve Coleman not least among them. Can you speak to the process by which you worked out and conceptualized those ideas within your own musical production?

It’s important for me that the musical environments I place myself in be inclusive and encompass the values that I consider essential for thinking and progress. I would never want to be involved in something so predictable and rote that people can anticipate what’s going to happen, anticipate the moves or decisions you’re going to make. So it’s important to set up a host of variables and parameters that disallow the same choices, with each cycle, with each generation. This strategy is very deliberate. Each composition has a point—either rhythmic, harmonic, or structural—that I’m trying to make. We deal with different structures that aren’t necessarily chords—voicings that are derived from purely rhythmic means, mathematical means; different weights and depths; different balances. But you’re always trying to mold these theorems into something that sounds musical, because otherwise it sounds solely technical, left brain, and analytical.

Well, that was a criticism at certain points.

Right. Well, that’s going to happen, and that’s inevitable when you’re experimenting. These sounds tend to be foreign, they’re not very familiar to people, and they are works in progress, so they may not be fully resolved. In the process, there will be hurdles, there will be mistakes, and there will be complete failures. But even those failures will eventually yield triumphs if you stick to it. Also, a lot of the things you work on, you realize you have to abandon, because nothing fruitful is going to come from it. You can’t put a square peg in a round hole.

But you can’t figure this out unless you take to its conclusion. There’s beta-testing to know you can’t use something.

Of course. The admonishment of the critics, and the thumbs-down, and the negative stars in the polls, and the dark reviews and all… Anybody who I champion, certainly, turned a deaf ear to that.

You’ve been playing two nights with this band. Did the music change from Tuesday to Wednesday? Do you want your music to be mutable? Are you looking for that?

Most definitely. Each night it ascends to a higher rung on the ladder. It’s great to witness the growth and development of a new band, to see these young personalities blossom, as they climb the stairs towards realizing themselves and who they are as artists. Again, my personal frustration is that I don’t see it often enough. I wish the scene was as bountiful as it was when I got to town, so I could go out to see what the new arrivals have to say, then see some of them run home with their tail between their legs, and then emerge again and redevelop. Sometimes people need that kind of shaming to get the lesson. Or you need the scolding of a Betty Carter or an Art Blakey or an Elvin Jones or a Max Roach, as elders, to put you in your place and let you know that either you’re not ready, or you have things to work on.

Did anybody fill that role for you?

Not in New York. But before I got to New York, in St. Louis as a teen. The elders were very intolerant and unyielding in their position as caretakers of the scene, and they didn’t let things go by.

Who were some of those people?

Willie Akins. Freddie Washington. Both are tenor players. Other players. They said, “Look, man, you’ve got to get out of there.” I’ve had the band stopped on me. “Stop. Get outta here. You don’t know what you’re doing?” I’ve had bombs dropped on the drums, they hit the snare really hard or hit a cymbal really hard, or they’ll just like lay out, or start playing really soft, and then you’re just out there. You’re young, you’re arrogant, you don’t know what you’re doing. Then you don’t come back until you’ve learned THAT. Then there are other lessons to learn.

I actually sat in with Sonny Stitt when I was 17. I could play blues. He said, “Well, young man, what would you like to play?” I said, “I’d like to play a blues.” But I only knew blues in a couple of keys. So of course, Sonny Stitt being who he was, he played it in a very, very difficult and obscure key…

Then he probably transitioned to another one.

Man! So that let me know. You just can’t coast. You have to learn how to access everything on your instrument, and be able to adjust in a variety of contexts. It was tough love. We don’t have enough of that, because right now, younger players are being embraced right out of school, with no training, no apprenticeship, they don’t go on the road. They get record deals…

Your generation was accused of those sins as well.

Yeah, but the thing was, we still had the benefit of being apprenticed. I started out with Faddis and Dizzy and all these people, and Steve Coleman at the time was playing with Abbey Lincoln and Thad Jones. Cassandra Wilson was playing with Henry Threadgill, and Geri Allen was playing with Oliver Lake as well as James Newton. So it still was happening. They still would allow us to sit in. George Coleman, Cedar Walton, Lou Donaldson, other people, would let you sit in until you were too disruptive or proved you weren’t ready. But fortunately, a lot of us were conservatory-trained. We had gone to Berklee or Oberlin or Manhattan School of Music or North Texas State or various places. A lot of people were prepared.

Which is a dynamic that may differentiate you from previous generations—that conservatory background.

Well, by the time I got in school, they did have jazz programs. Prior to that, you could get kicked out of school playing jazz—even a music school.

There were some in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, but the real burgeoning began with the class you entered school with.

Right. It was a great time to be in school, and everyone was New York-minded. This was the ultimate destination. So everyone played and carried on and had the profile of somebody who was en route to New York. We did our jam sessions on a very competitive and furious level. We practiced all day and all night, every moment. All the drummers would walk around playing air drums. All the trumpet players and trombone players would walk around buzzing on their mouthpieces. All the saxophone players always had a neckstrap on. All the piano players were stretching their arms and doing finger exercises and things. People knew there was a slim chance, but possibly a chance that you could land a gig with somebody and go on the road and see how it was done. By and by, that dried up, and Bradley’s closed, which was the end of everything, as far as I’m concerned. That was the end.

October 1996. That was the end.

GREG:   That was the end. That was the all-night hangout spot where you could go hear amazing music being played, up-close and personal, and then you turn around and there’s George Benson sitting next to you, then Freddie Hubbard will come in, Horace Silver is over there… It was amazing. I like to talk about the many nights that I saw the piano roundtable go down, where the John Hicks Trio might be playing, then Kenny Barron would come in, and he might play “Round Midnight”—he’d play a few choruses, then Roland Hanna may play a few choruses, then Cedar Walton may play a few choruses, then Mulgrew Miller and James Williams and Donald Brown. You might hear 5 or 6 pianists play the same song, and it might go on for like an hour or two. You’re sitting there with your mouth open. It’s like a university education in the night. You’ll sit there and talk to various people. Stanley Crouch is holding court. So you get an earful of stories and anecdotes.

Many levels of humanity in that place.

GREG:   Absolutely. But it was great. That was jazz to me. That’s why I came to New York. “Mr. Coleman, can you tell me…”—and George Coleman would indulge you. You could sit and talk to anybody. Can you imagine? John Hicks. Just the stories.

That was the end. Then a lot of the jam sessions closed up, too. Unfortunately, musicians during Reaganomics, they weren’t making a lot of money, so a guy would buy a beer and be at the jam session for five or six hours, and he’d still have that same beer—it would be still two-thirds full. He couldn’t afford to buy anything else. Those places couldn’t afford to stay open, when people were holding up the wall, so to speak. I really miss it. I miss seeing people get embarrassed. I miss seeing people just get smoked on the bandstand. They need to know that they’re not ready, that they need to practice, that they don’t have the particulars to make it on the competitive New York stage. Without that, you have whole legions of people who aren’t ready but don’t know that they’re not ready. You’d go to the Jazz Cultural Theater, and Barry Harris would be there, or Jaki Byard. Anybody would walk in. Clifford Barbaro. Betty Carter would come and say, “Honey, you need to go back to Cleveland or Arkansas or wherever you’re from; you need to work.” You NEED this. We don’t have it. You don’t have Art Blakey playing two weeks in a row at Sweet Basil or Mikell’s or wherever. You can go every night, and he may let you sit in, and you get to hear some amazing jazz with people your age. Or you go to the Blue Note and play at Ted Curson’s jam session. This is before you had to sign your name and wait all night, and get to play one solo. Or you’d go to the Star Café on 23rd Street. Or you’d go to the 7th Avenue South, when the Brecker Brothers had that club, and you could hear that kind of jazz. David Sanborn might be there, Hiram Bullock, Steve Gadd, Steve Jordan, Michael and Randy or whatever. Or Grand Street. Greene Street. There were so many places.

Hangs.

GREG:   Yeah, hangs. Not only there, but you would see so much great music on the street. Arthur Rhames. Vincent Herring was 17 years old, playing out in Times Square. George Braith, with his dual saxophones welded together, the Braithophone, would be in front of the public library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. This was before policemen started confiscating musicians’ instruments. They would take cats’ stuff, then demand that they get a laminate and a peddler’s license, just like a hot-dog cart guy. You could hear music all the time everywhere.

I don’t want to reminisce like it was the glory days, and I think it can happen again. I just think younger players need to get back into the idea of having jam sessions at their houses, and really twisting each other’s arms, and getting out, and just being more enthusiastic about it, more creative, and take more chances, more risks, and stop playing it safe. Otherwise, we won’t get anywhere.

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Filed under Alto Saxophone, Greg Osby, Interview, WKCR

Lou Donaldson: Blindfold Test, 2006, Uncut

In a thread that arose last week in response to a  Facebook recounting by Russell Malone of hearing Lou Donaldson play the alto saxophone at Birdland  (I didn’t get to go, but, by several accounts, he was in magisterial form), several folks cited choice “insult humor” bon mots of the type that Donaldson is famous for  — “Jazz is not recommended for fusion and confusion musicians!”  “If you want to play outside, then play outside the club.” And so on.

Donaldson displayed a certain restraint in his remarks on the 12 selections I played for him in a Blindfold  Test in 2006, not long before his 80th birthday.  But he pulled no punches. What follows is the verbatim, uncut transcript of an interesting session.

* * *

1.  Thelonious Monk-John Coltrane, “Sweet and Lovely” (from Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, Blue Note, 1957/2005) (Monk, piano; Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Ahmed Abdul-Malik, bass; Shadow Wilson, drums)

That sounded like John Coltrane. It’s a concert somewhere. Piano player really didn’t sound like Monk, but I guess he was copying Monk. If it was Monk, he was in good shape that night. Heh-heh-heh. The drums and bass, I couldn’t tell you anything about that. Probably Frankie Dunlop or somebody. The performance was great. That’s a great rendition of “Sweet and Lovely.” Really top-shelf. This type of music was kind of advanced at that period of time, and they had been working together a long time at the Five Spot, so they had whatever they were playing really together. It sounded like an organized group; it didn’t sound like a session or anything like that. [When you recorded with Monk, had you been playing with him for any amount of time?] No, I never played with him. I just did the record. I worked a couple of weeks with him at the Famous Door in the late ‘50s. That was a great band. Max Roach, Kenny Dorham , and Oscar Pettiford was supposed to be the bass player, but he broke his leg and they brought Mingus in. Monk didn’t like to play with Mingus too well, and he didn’t really play that well that week. I met him at Blue Note, at the company. It was kind of interesting to play with him, because he never wrote anything out. He would sketch a little stuff out now and then, but you were kind of on your own for playing. It was pretty interesting. Kenny Dorham was a good friend of mine, so we had a good time. And Max. Wilbur Ware came and sat in. He played much better with Wilbur, because he liked Wilbur. [Anything to say about Monk’s playing or Coltrane’s playing?] Well, at that period of time, Coltrane was just beginning to start playing the way he eventually ended up playing. He’d been playing more swing-type saxophone up until then. But once he got with Monk, that was a different thing altogether. He would go down and rehearse during the break. You’d hear him in the basement rehearsing, getting stuff together. Because actually, the stuff with Monk was kind of hard to play. Unless you’re used to playing that way, it’s kind of difficult to play that kind of music. I was a young guy, and it was very interesting to me. I liked it. That’s a great record there. I’d give it 4 stars at least. Great record. Great performance. [AFTER] Even now it’s very interesting. At first I thought the drummer was Frankie Dunlop, but it was Shadow Wilson. Shadow was actually the most reliable drummer during that time period. I’m not going to tell you why other guys weren’t too reliable. But guys play and live like they want to live. It’s not my business; it’s their business. But he was the most reliable drummer and the steadiest drummer, especially for a guy like Monk. Or even Trane. He was great.

2.  Vincent Herring, “You Leave Me Breathless” (from Mr. Wizard, High Note, 2004) (Herring, alto saxophone; Danny Grissett, piano; Reuben Rogers, bass; Greg Hutchinson, drums)

I don’t think you got me on that one. That’s Vincent Herring. He’s great. He did his homework. He’s got his stuff together. Tremendous. That’s a nice song, too – “You Leave Me Breathless.” Bass player I’m not familiar with. Is that a recent record? He sounds a lot like Cannonball. We’ve got a lot of young saxophonists playing real good. But it seems that the only people getting recognition are Kenny G and Najee, people like that. 4 stars. That’s nice. Vincent’s a great player. I hope he continues on. Actually, somebody has to continue this type of music, or otherwise we’re in trouble, because it’s a concerted effort by the media and a lot of other people to sneak that other kind of music in. It’s what they call cool jazz. It’s all right. It’s good music, too, but it’s not what we would say authentic jazz music. Whereas this music is more like a jazz musician would play it. He’s improvising. But he’s got a lot of stuff together, too. You can add and take away, add and take away. That’s what makes the music so viable. It lasts so long, because you can add and take away. Sometimes you’ll catch a cat, he’s not playing exactly that way. Still playing the same song. He’s upholding the tradition, especially for the alto saxophone.

3.  Donald Harrison, “Third Plane” (from New York Cool: Live At the Blue Note, Half Note, 2005) (Harrison, alto sax; Ron Carter, bass, composer; Billy Cobham, drums)

That’s one of the younger players. I’m trying to listen to it and digest and see who it might be. It’s one of the younger guys who I haven’t heard that much. Maybe Donald Harrison or Kenny Garrett, somebody like that. They’re playing progressive but they’re playing with a bluesy type feeling. You know how that goes. You want to play up-to-date contemporary, but you still want to retain the essence of the jazz soul. You can play interesting and play a lot of stuff, but you still want to maintain that. It could be somebody else. But the younger players I haven’t heard that much. The older guys I would know a little better. The performance is good. Nice groove. It’s at a concert, so I guess the guys have got into a nice groove. It’s a little adventurous for public consumption. They didn’t have a defining melody, something that would actually stick to the people, make the people be humming and singing it. But it’s creative jazz. What can I tell you? The drummer sounds interesting. Pretty good concert there. 3 stars. It’s a groove tune. A tricky little melody there. [AFTER] Ron Carter’s tune? I don’t know it. Billy Cobham? Oh, that’s an old record, then. It was Donald? Good, I guessed that! I told you anybody that I’ve ever heard over a period of time, I’ll know. Some of the newer guys I don’t know. You couldn’t trick me if you played somebody old. I research all the saxophone players. That’s my business. I have to understand what they’re playing so I know what to play. You stay a little bit ahead of them! That’s a nice groove to that record, but it’s not 100% like the type of stuff we play. All the musicians play a little different style.

4.  David Sanborn, “Tin Tin Deo” (from Closer, Verve, 2005) (Sanborn, alto saxophone; Gil Goldstein, piano; Russell Malone, guitar; Mike Mainieri, vibraphone; Christian McBride, bass; Steve Gadd, drums; Luis Quintero, percussion)

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s David Sanborn. I can tell by his sound. I’ve researched all of the older guys. Even the funk guys, I can tell some of them. Some of them sound the same. But this guy has got a wonderful feeling. Jazz, I don’t know about that, but he’s got the feeling, and he knows how to make records. There’s a trick to making records. I mean, records that will sell. A lot of people can play a lot of stuff, but when you try to make records to sell, it’s a different situation. It’s a good treatment of the song. But see, the way they have it set up, they have a good presence in the studio where they played. They sound beautiful. What they do that other more up to date jazz cats don’t do… They don’t have this kind of rhythm. They don’t play against a background like this. There’s more going on. But actually, I know why they do it this way – because they’re trying to sell the record. Which makes a lot of sense. You don’t play for nothing. You can play the greatest solo in the world, but if you don’t sell it, you’re just wasting time. The background is perfect for what he’s playing. He’s a very interesting guy. You can tell at one time he must have tried to play a lot of jazz music. He told me himself that he always liked Hank Crawford. In fact, he came to see me one time, and we talked a long time. I didn’t know he was from St. Louis, but he’s from St. Louis, Missouri, and I was working out there and he came by. It’s hard to make stars for a commercial record that you’re trying to sell it. But give them 3 stars.

5.  Lee Konitz-Ted Brown, (“317 E. 32nd”) (from Dig-It, Steeplechase, 1999) (Konitz, alto saxophone; Brown, tenor saxophone; Ron McClure, bass; Jeff Williams, drums)

Lee Konitz, without a doubt. Sounds like two saxophones on there. Has he got an echo chamber? Lee kind of lays back on the rhythm when he plays. He made a good record called Relaxin’ With Lee. That’s not it, but that’s the way he plays – relaxing while he plays. A lot of guys force the rhythm. They’re right on the rhythm and they force it. But he doesn’t do that. I don’t know exactly who the tenor player is, but I’d say Warne Marsh? No? I know Lee and Warne used to play a lot. Oh, it’s a late record? It’s not my cup of tea. But they did some different stuff with the kind of style that originally was played during the ‘50s. Lennie Tristano and all of them had a little bit different approach. That’s what makes jazz creative, is a little different approach to what is being played. Actually, I wouldn’t play that way. I always have to have a piano to begin with. When I think of playing without a piano, it’s suspect. Piano always plays a certain sequence of chords and changes, and if you don’t play on those changes, you’re doing something else. BS’ing. Most of the time. Not this, though. This is actually the way he conceives what he wants to play. But I’ve heard many records where we have one sequence going on with the piano, but the horns are not playing the same thing. They’re not following that sequence. It doesn’t make any sense, because if you’re not going to follow the sequence, there’s no need to have a piano or bass or whatever you’ve got underneath. What we call background. But he’s got his own identity, I’m telling you. You strive for that the whole time you play music, for that I.D., because that’s what determines that people know what it is and who it is. Actually now, the way they have these jazz schools and colleges, a lot of musicians come out playing just about the same way. It’s hard to determine who’s who. When I was coming up, everybody had an I.D. Two or three notes, I could tell you exactly who it is. You can’t do that today, because a lot of musicians are trained in just about the same way. It seems like they’ve got the same instructors. See, in the old days, when you came from California, you sounded a different way; if you came from Texas or came from Chicago… You could tell from the way guys played what section of the country they were from. Can’t do that any more. That’s gone. That’s “Out of Nowhere.” I can hear it. That’s what I’m saying, there’s a certain chord pattern you can hear most of the time. Lee’s got a lot of stuff he does on weird songs. But that’s his concept; that’s how he plays. We’ll give it 3 stars.

6.  Phil Woods, “I’m So Scared of Girls When They’re Good-Looking” (from The Rev and I, Blue Note, 1998) (Woods, alto saxophone; Cedar Walton, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Ben Riley, drums)

That must be a new record. Sounds like Phil Woods to me. I haven’t heard this record, but it sounds like Phil. A very consistent player and always a good performer. He’s got it together, what can I tell you? It’s a nice arrangement, too, whatever that is. It’s hard to maintain that consistency over a long period of time. He’s got pulmonary problems. I’m getting it now. It’s just a matter of time before I’ll probably have to stop playing a lot. I never smoked or did anything, but just working in clubs… I’m asthmatic, so it’s a little different. I was always careful. I didn’t get myself exposed to a lot of stuff, which he did. He had some other things going for a while. But it didn’t really slow him down. Bird was impossible. I’ve been asthmatic all my life, but I avoid certain things. I never thought I’d be able to play a saxophone as long as I have. [Did you start to play saxophone as a way of dealing with asthma?] That’s right. The clarinet. I started using the clarinet, and the diaphragm breathing helped me a lot. But now it’s catching up with me. It took a long time. I’m almost 80. In few months, I’ll be 80. Music is a funny thing, man. It will keep you alive. Because while you’re doing that, you don’t think about anything else, so you ignore a lot of other problems. It’s hard to tell who the rhythm section because they’re just playing background. Playing well, though. I’ll give that a 4, man. That’s nice.

7.  Charles McPherson, “Blue and Boogie” (from Manhattan Nocturne, Arabesque, 1998) (McPherson, alto sax; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Victor Lewis, drums)

I’ll make a guess on this one. It sounds like Charles McPherson, but I’m not sure. [Good guess.] The rhythm section, I couldn’t tell you. Piano player sounds a bit like Mulgrew. Oh, I guessed that, too? [LAUGHS]     The drummer I wouldn’t know, nor the bass player, but they’re really cooking. I’ve got to give a 5 for this one. See, I’m a bebop player myself, and that’s what this is. I like this kind of groove and I like this kind of tempo. I like Charles, too, but I couldn’t recognize him then. His phrasing made me guess it was him, though. His resolutions keep going in and out, in and out, and he’s a bebop player, and that’s the way we play. If you listen to Charles or Sonny Stitt or Cannonball, they play that way. They play right on the beat, right on the meter, don’t lay back – right on it. It’s a great record. Carrying on the tradition. Great.

8.  Kenny Garrett, “I Only Have Eyes For You” (from Bobby Hutcherson, Skyline, Verve, 2001) (Hutcherson, vibraphone; Garrett, alto saxophone; Geri Allen, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Al Foster, drums)

It sounds like Kenny Garrett. But he hasn’t played anything yet. I have to wait until he plays something. He kind of lays back on it when he plays. A lot of the younger guys I haven’t heard that much, but I’ve heard a little bit of them. I’ll listen to see who it is. Yeah, that’s him. I got it. The vibes I don’t know. I never saw him playing with no vibes. Bass and drums I couldn’t tell you; they’re probably some younger guys who I don’t know. The performance is interesting. He’s doing a little searching, but it’s interesting. See, the younger musicians have a tendency to do that. I guess they’re taught that they have to go a little outside when they improvise. But actually, you don’t have to do it. You can stay right in the chord structure and still improvise a lot. But a lot of the younger guys like to try to go out a little, play a little what we call different kind of changes. Not exactly the original. Substitute is all right if it’s compatible with the way the sequence is going. But the only problem with the substitute, if you don’t substitute something that’s compatible with the sequence, you’re not really playing the song any more. You’re playing something else. Which is possible to do, because you can practice and study a lot of stuff, and play almost opposite to where the chord changes are going. The vibraphonist sounds like Milt. But I don’t know. You’ve got me there. See, it went way outside there! It’s coming in the door backwards. But most of the young players have a tendency to do that. I guess when they teach them, they tell them they have to play that way – they’ll be creating something. But you don’t necessarily have to do that. 3 stars. Nice little arrangement.

9.  Ornette Coleman, “Latin Genetics” (from In All Languages, Verve/Harmolodic, 1987) (Coleman, alto saxophone, composer; Don Cherry, pocket trumpet; Charlie Haden, bass; Billy Higgins, drums)

You can take that off right away. [LAUGHS] That’s not jazz, that’s Yazz!! [LAUGHS] Any similarity between that and jazz music is purely accidental. [Why is that?] That’s not what jazz is all about. You’ve got to play with a blues feeling on a groove, and a melodic line – none of that is there. It’s music. It’s probably great music. But it’s not jazz music. [Any idea who the drummer is?] Is this a recent record? I don’t know. It would be hard for me to tell you. Billy Higgins was the original drummer with that group. I used to see the group every night at the Five Spot. [What was that like?] It was interesting. But I have to go along with Redd Foxx. Redd Foxx came down and when he came out they asked him “What about that music?” He said, “They tell me that’s the music of tomorrow. That’s what I hear tomorrow. Tonight I want to hear some music of today!” [LAUGHS] No, it’s interesting music. I’m just joking around with you. It’s interesting music, but it’s not what we’d call real jazz music. [What anything it is interesting to you?] Well, it’s different. What can I tell you? It’s different. Everything that’s different interests me. I listen to it, to see what it is. A lot of those little things he plays, I like! But I wouldn’t consider that jazz music. See, you got to realize, I came up listening to Charlie Parker, Johnny Hodges, Earl Bostic, Tab Smith, people like that. There’s a certain way a saxophone is a supposed to sound. If it doesn’t sound that way, then I… [Ornette Coleman came up playing in those type of bands…] No, he never did. I went to his home in Fort Worth, and they told me they never let him play around because he was always too weird. Of course, that’s his prerogative. If he wants to play that way, good! [David Fathead Newman said that when they were teenager, Ornette played the Charlie Parker tunes, and then he veered off into other areas. As teenagers they’d learn the tunes, play them in their own sessions, and then he went in his own direction.] I don’t  want to disagree with Fathead, who’s a good friend of mine, but I talked with a lot of guys who were down there who said that wasn’t the case. They said he never could play the bebop stuff. I asked a lot of people. But that’s neither here nor there. That’s the way he plays and that’s the way he wants to play. Good for him. Stars? [LAUGHS] Stars fell on Alabama. Look, you can’t beat around the bush with music. You either play it or you don’t. You try to do too much sometimes, it ends up doing nothing. It’s like everything else. You got to be careful of what you do. Jazz had a certain tempo or certain groove that was there, and that’s what made it sound different from other music. Now, offhand, listening to that, if you want me to categorize it, I would say it’s Folk music. Which is good, too. That’s good music, too. But jazz? Unh-uh. Nada. I like Ornette. Ornette’s a good friend of mine. He’s a nice guy. But that’s the way he wants to play. So be it.

10.  Jim Snidero, “Prisoner Of Love” (from Close-Up, Milestone, 2004) (Snidero, alto saxophone; David Hazeltine, piano; Paul Gill, bass; Billy Drummond, drums)

Nice. Very beautiful. Beautiful tone and everything, but I don’t know who it is. “Prisoner of Love.” At first I thought it was Vincent Herring, but you already played him for me. You’re trying to trick me, see? But you couldn’t do it, could you. [LAUGHS] That sounds like him, but what can I tell you. The only person I know who even plays that way is George Coleman. He plays sort of like that. But whoever it is is somebody I don’t know. I like it, but I don’t know who that is. 4 stars. See, that’s the way I play ballads. I can’t say it’s me, because it’s not. [Did this person listen to you?] Of course. If he’s not as old as I am, he had to: That’s the way I play them.

11.  Gary Bartz-Sphere, “Hornin’ In” (from Sphere, Verve, 1998) (Bartz, alto saxophone; Kenny Barron, piano; Buster Williams, bass; Ben Riley, drums)

You might think I’m crazy, but that sounds like Clifford Jordan. I used to play this tune with Monk, but I didn’t record it with him. See, that’s a Chicago-type player. Charles Davis… Who would play that way? [He’s not from Chicago and he’s not from Philadelphia?] He’s from New York? [Wasn’t born in New York, but been here a long time.] That sounds like an old record. Late ‘90s? That’s a good Monk tune. It’s a recreation of a good Monk tune. What can I tell you? They played it well, whoever it was. The saxophonist sounded all right. What can I tell you? Sounded like they were reading music to me. 2 stars. [AFTER] It didn’t sound like them at all. I heard that group many times. Sorry about that, Gary.

12.   Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie, “Salt Peanuts” (from Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945, Uptown, 2005) (Parker, alto saxophone; Gillespie, trumpet, composer; Al Haig, piano; Curley Russell, bass; Max Roach, drums)

Syphilis Sid. That’s Joe Harris on drums. Well, let me listen a little more. Sounds like Al Haig on piano. I can tell you that. That kind of stuff you won’t hear any more. That’s gone. It’s amazing music. For that time period, that was amazing music. It’s still amazing, but that time period it was earthshaking! [Do you know this recording?] No, I don’t know it. It sounds like it was recorded at probably Carnegie Hall. Town Hall? The recording sounds very good. That’s a great record there. That’s a 5 there. No doubt about it.

The best records that Dizzy and Charlie Parker made, Sidney Catlett played the drums. The best records they ever made. Sidney Catlett, Slam Stewart on bass, and the piano player was… Oh God, I’m getting senile. But that’s the best record they ever made. This piano player, I never heard him on another record, but he played on that one. Great record. Sid Catlett was a great drummer, because he never got in the way. A lot of drummers can get in the way and disrupt what’s being played. But he never did. Listen to him. You don’t know a drum is being played; all you do is feel the rhythm. And they loved him, too. When I first came, I was all about all these musicians, and I used to study them. Everywhere they played, I would go. I would be right there. I came to New York in 1948,  but I came to stay in 1950. I used to go everywhere. I’d go down to 52nd Street, all the places, and check them out. I made a study of them, and made a study of all the guys who were kind of inhibited by some substance, and I found out that a lot of them, if they didn’t have great musical talent, it didn’t help the performance. You know what I’m saying? Actually, what happened to me, I went to see Dizzy one night… I can’t remember the club. But anyway, Charlie Parker didn’t come, so they used Don Byas. I kept going for three nights because I wanted to see Charlie Parker, and actually, when Charlie Parker came back, the band sounded better to me with Don Byas. Don Byas was a tremendous saxophonist. He never really got the credit he deserved. Same with Lucky Thompson. But as history goes, they write about who they want to write and they build up who they want to build up. Don Byas did leave early, but he came back a couple of times on special occasions. But music is a funny thing.

Like I said, that music has got the feeling, the rhythm and everything right in it, whereas in later forms of that same music, musicians kind of overdid it. They learned what they were doing, then they tried to supplement it and put other stuff in there, and kind of overdid it. Consequently, they ran a lot of people away from the music, because they were trying to overdo it a little bit. [Were you able to play bebop on gigs in New York?] Yeah. I played anything I wanted to play, because I always played something that I knew the people would understand and like at the beginning of the set. Then the last tune, if I played “Cherokee” or something, they wouldn’t mind. They’re satisfied. But a lot of cats make a bad mistake by trying to play too intricate at the beginning of the set. See, back then, people had a tendency to want to dance to the music, too, so you had to be careful, especially if you were working on a steady job. [You were working a lot uptown, not so much midtown or downtown in the early ‘50s, right?] No, wasn’t nothing in Midtown but Birdland. When I came they had other clubs, but they were closed.

It’s been a pleasure. And I’d like to thank all my fans for many years of support, and I hope I haven’t offended anybody with this interview!

[—30—]

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Filed under Alto Saxophone, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Lou Donaldson

Donald Harrison Turns 51 Today

This evening, alto saxophonist  Donald Harrison, “Duck” to his friends, observes his 51st birthday with opening night of a three-night run at the Jazz Standard linked to his participation in the acclaimed HBO series Treme, for which his personal biography is the source of two characters. Joining Harrison for the engagement is his working quintet, a trio of Mardi Gras Indian musicians, and, on percussion and voice, Cyril Neville of the Neville Brothers.  He’s one of the masters, and ought not to be missed.

Ten years ago, I had an opportunity to write a DownBeat profile on Harrison, which appears below.

* * * * *

The alto saxophonist Donald Harrison is particular — make that very particular — about his gumbo. After two decades in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene-Clinton Hill district, the 41-year-old son of New Orleans had never found a decent local version of his hometown delicacy, and a new spot on Fulton Street called Restaurant New Orleans has piqued his curiosity. There we sit on a crisp December afternoon, and as we wait for our bowls, he discusses Congo Nation, a smallish Mardi Gras Indian krewe of musicians that he founded a year ago and represents as Big Chief. Adorned in elaborately detailed, brilliantly colored regalia, this year’s edition — including iconic Crescent City drummer Idris Muhammad, masking for the first time at 60 — will parade, sing and dance through the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras festivities on February 12th. Harrison has been shopping for Muhammad’s costume, and will begin to sew it when he returns home to New Orleans a few weeks hence.

Black New Orleanians began to mask as American Indians in the 19th century, and the ritual chants and steps of this tradition descend in a more or less uninterrupted line to Congo Square, where African slaves were allowed to congregate and play the drums on Sundays. Harrison learned both the moves of the game and its cultural context from his father, Donald Harrison, Sr., himself a widely respected Big Chief of several tribes, including Creole Wild West, the Wild Eagles and the Guardians of the Flame. Mr. Harrison passed away in 1998, carrying with him a comprehensive knowledge of Mardi Gras Indian folklore, a keen sense of its African origins, and a clear vision of what it might contribute to contemporary culture. Erudite and charismatic, he not only walked the walk but talked the talk, able to communicate his message as effectively to the man on the street as in the halls of academe.

He imprinted the message on his son, for whom the spectacle of Mardi Gras Indian ceremonial is part and parcel of earliest memory. “I see it in the back of my head,” Harrison says as the gumbo arrives. “I was in my outfit, and I could see the other Indians  running and their feathers moving up and down fast; I remember hearing the music and the singing. I grew up in it, and I know the inside stuff — how to sew, how to dance, how to sing, how to meet another chief, what to say, what to do. For me it’s the same sort of mindset as a jazz band, because you’re supposed to take the whole thing and sow your own fruit, tell your story within the context of your tribe. I’ve been in what we call a circle, and that takes you to another level. You’re in touch with all those elements — spiritual, warrior, the music, the art, the dancing, the fear, the courage. Every emotion is right there, and they’re all present at the same time. It ties together what you know now with things that were happening at the inception of everything.”

Donald digs into his gumbo, a savory roux infused with crab and shrimp. “I can relate to this,” he smiles. As we eat, let’s bring the Harrison story up to date.

Mr. Harrison bought Donald his first saxophone in elementary school. The aspirant tried it, liked it, put it away, then became serious for keeps at 14, learning second-line and traditional repertoire in Doc Paulin’s brass band and finding work in local funk bands. “Donald had a good feel for music from being around the Indians,” recalls outcat saxophonist-educator Kidd Jordan, his primary instructor during those years. “When he was playing by ear, before his technique was straight and he learned about changes, I thought he was going to come up with something in the style of Ornette Coleman. He was hearing some real creative things. I could hear a rawness that knocked me out.”

A few years later, Mr. Harrison put Charlie Parker’s “Relaxin’ At Camarillo” and “Kind of Blue” on the turntable, and converted his son to hardcore jazz religion. He enrolled at the New Orleans Center of Contemporary Arts (NOCCA), where such faculty as Jordan, Ellis Marsalis and Alvin Batiste taught such students as Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Kent Jordan, and the slightly younger Terence Blanchard.

“The first time I heard Donald, I was amazed at his level of maturity,” recalls Blanchard, a 15-year-old sophomore when Harrison was a senior. “He never had a problem getting around his instrument or with chord changes. You didn’t hear any young guys in the city playing like that on the alto.”

Several distinctive characteristics marked the Harrison sound when he arrived at Berklee School of Music — by way of Batiste’s program at Southern University — in 1979. His technique featured a seamless five-octave range and fluid fingering, as though the saxophone were an extension of his arm, while his style blended the grand harmonic partials of John Coltrane, the soulful oomph and precise articulation of Cannonball Adderley, and phrasing that recalled the fleet rhythmic displacements of Charlie Parker. “Donald had a freeness to his playing that was beyond the bebop thing,” says Blanchard. “He had so much ability to go in different directions that you could hear him changing his mind in the middle of his solo.”

Spending as much time in New York as Boston, Harrison sat in at every opportunity, landing a gig with Roy Haynes and — at Miles Davis’ instigation — buffaloing a Fat Tuesday’s bandstand occupied by Freddie Hubbard, George Benson, Kenny Barron, Ron Carter and Al Foster. Elders and peers took notice; in 1982, Branford Marsalis recommended his homie to Art Blakey for the Jazz Messengers sax chair. Until 1986, Harrison and Blanchard — who in 1982 released “New York Second Line” [Concord], debuting Harrison’s penchant for framing modern jazz with second line and Mardi Gras Indian rhythms — played alongside each other in a dynamic Messengers unit. When it was time to cut the cord, the tandem combined their surnames and signed a three-album contract with Columbia.

“Unless you’ve done something, you won’t think of it,” Harrison remarks, gently daubing hot sauce over a second course of lightly fried catfish. “I can tell a story from being an Indian. I hear guys doing second-line music who were totally against it initially, so I know our music influenced them or turned them around to think differently.”

“‘New York Second Line’ sounded delightfully strange to me when I was in high school,’ says pianist Eric Reed, 31, who produced and performed on much of “Real Life Stories” [Nagel-Heyer], one of three Harrison-led recordings due for 2002 release. “It became apparent to me that a new sound was taking place. The way Donald and Terence were interpreting their New Orleans influence was profound and amazing; on ‘Nascence’ [Columbia] the way they had Ralph Peterson incorporate the second line into an updated backbeat, syncopated-offbeat feeling was nothing short of genius. They did everything that Wynton’s group was doing with Branford and Tain, except, again, they made the New Orleans core of it so hip! — and they were doing it before Wynton had decided it was hip to do.  The music was accessible and felt great because the groove was so strong. There was nothing pretentious about it, just two young guys who were playing their experience, saying whatever it was they needed to say through their instruments, and they didn’t feel a need to intellectualize or over-explain the process.”

“Donald functioned wonderfully in Art Blakey’s band, but you could hear he wanted to do his own thing,” Blanchard says. “Our band seemed to be more of a perfect fit for him, because it was truly a workshop, and he could work on his concepts. He was always trying to mix things, compounding different rhythms on top of each other or playing in different registers simultaneously in a pianistic manner, with a melody in one register and an accompaniment in another. He had a big influence on my sound.”

In 1989 Blanchard — then developing a new embouchure and finding opportunities to write film music — left the partnership, a circumstance Harrison describes as “messy, but no hard feelings.” Partly for financial reasons, the altoist retreated to New Orleans, and soon was masking with his father’s tribe. Fortified by experiences garnered from a decade traveling the world and invigorated from immersion in the ’80s Brooklyn scene, where Reggae, Soca, Calypso, Haitian, Salsa, Go-Go, Hip-Hop and various African musical and dance styles coexisted and intermingled, Harrison reconnected with his roots from a mature perspective.

“I went out with my father and the Indians at Mardi Gras, and a light switch went on inside my brain,” Harrison says. “I started hearing the swing ride cymbal pattern that Art Blakey and Papa Jo Jones played inside of the African rhythms that the tambourines and drums were playing.  Mixing the Indian rhythms with the swing beat led me to put funk and reggae rhythms with the swing beat, which I call Nouveau Swing.”

Joined by his father, Dr. John, Indian percussionist Howard “Smiley” Ricks, and jazz youngbloods Carl Allen and Cyrus Chestnut from the second iteration of Harrison-Blanchard, Harrison presented his hybrid concept on “Indian Blues” [Candid], a 1991 classic that links “Two Way Pocky Way” to “Cherokee.” The following year, trumpeter Brian Lynch, a close friend and fellow Messenger alumnus, recruited Harrison into Eddie Palmieri’s Salsa-Jazz ensemble.

“Eddie plays from a dance perspective, he knows how to write rhythms so everything is in place, and listening to that music every night deepened my understanding,” Harrison states. “I had to develop techniques to make slides and smears on the saxophone, and learn to play the rhythms in the right clave. The rhythms were natural for me; I always knew how to dip and dive into them even if I didn’t know the specifics. But Eddie helped me to be able to speak in that music, and it carries over to what I write and play now.

“If I’m writing, say, a second line song, I know the dance, what my feet and shoulders are doing to lock up to the different rhythms of the drums. If you listen to the drummers of the Samba and look at the feet, you know it’s matching up. Certain things interlock in Classical music, too. Miles Davis told me, ‘You hear something; to make it yours, just change it up a little bit.’ It is a language, and you can change the language and add different words. I hear the kids in Brooklyn adding new words to the English language all the time! ‘Whattup, Ma?’  They’re saying hello to a woman. They keep changing, and always know what they’re saying. You can change the music, too; the traditional part is making sure everything matches up. When you write from that perspective, it’s always locked in.”

Harrison demonstrates his point on “Real Life Stories,” his fourth melody-rich document of Nouveau Swing since 1996. He’s worked with bassist Vicente Archer and drummer John Lampkin —  both “young guys who understand the modern texture and can play it in the context either of a jazz band or a dance band” — for several years, and each is intimate with Harrison’s fine-tuned, elegantly worked-out grooves. The altoist plays with relaxed abandon and perfect time, soaring soulfully through the attractive, gospelized “Confirmation” changes of “Keep The Faith,” spinning a sinewy statement over a funky Latin feel on “Night In Tunisia,” playing with the harmonic contours of “Oleo” as though engaging in advanced mathematics. There’s a tinge of barely restrained wildness in his tone, evoking memories of ’80s flights that distinguished Harrison’s tonal personality from his peer group.

“I used to get dogged by the critics and some musicians,” Harrison recollects. “I wasn’t inside enough for the mainstream players and I wasn’t out enough for people who liked avant-garde. But I know my peer group listened to the records with Buhaina and Terence; a lot of young saxophonists then were quoting my solos without even realizing it. I’m comfortable with what I’m doing now; I’m getting back to the way I thought when I was 19, before I began to listen to people and worry about what they said. Once I started listening to Bird, I took the approach that this music is evolutionary, which means that in order to understand it and be a master, you have to study the whole history.”

Harrison spears a final forkful of catfish. “Each person is unique,” he concludes. “The beauty of jazz is to find the things that are truly you, tell a story, and touch people. That’s why I say it’s all about love. I enjoy going out in this world, watching people, being around people, seeing the joy that what we do can bring to them. Besides all the intellect and high thinking that we put in the music, when it’s all said and done, what do you feel?

“I was never trying to be the greatest. I always felt that if you could be one of the cats, you did a great job, because the cats were so great. We do the best we can and keep moving on. Like Art Blakey used to say, ‘Light your candle and hope that somebody will see it.'”

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