Category Archives: DownBeat

For Dr. Billy Taylor’s 93rd Birthday Anniversary (1921-2010), An Uncut Blindfold Test from 2005

I got to know Dr. Billy Taylor a bit towards the end of the ’90s, after Bret Primack asked to write the liner notes for a live recording by his trio—unfortunately, it was never released. (I posted it on this website three years ago to the day.) Five years later, he consented to have me come to his Bronx apartment to sit for a DownBeat Blindfold Test, of which I post the uncut version below. His responses show how open-minded he was, how oriented to the here-and-now. A great artist and ambassador for the music, much missed.

 

Billy Taylor BT (Raw):
1. Geri Allen, “Dance of the Infidels” (from THE LIFE OF A SONG, Telarc, 2004) (Allen, piano; Dave Holland, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums, Bud Powell, composer)

I have no idea who that is. I haven’t been listening to other people for a long time now, since I had my stroke. So I’ve been listening mostly to things that I did. So now I’m not as aware as I used to be. Because I had to listen to a lot of people to present them in the different things that I was doing.

This is very interesting. It’s someone who’s harmonically oriented, and really is handling the piano like a horn in some respects, because he’s playing that kind of horn-like improvisations. I find that very interesting, because it goes off into some very different spaces that I wouldn’t think to do. I liked it. [Do you recall the tune?] No, I don’t. [Someone you knew pretty well composed it.] Really? I’m embarrassed. [The original version was at a much hotter tempo.] This was very relaxed. I liked where it was going. It helped me… I’m listening. Oh yeah? Really? That kind of stuff! I also liked the rhythm section very much. It seems like a group that’s played together a lot, and they know each other. Everybody seemed comfortable. 4 stars. A very fine performance. [AFTER] I’ll be darned! Geri is one of my favorite people, and one of the people’s whose work… I’m embarrassed now. Because she is so special to me. She’s one of the few people I’ve asked to play my work. I was ill, and she substituted for me on a thing that I was doing for David Parsons Dance Company, and did a brilliant job. Oh, she’s wonderful. Oh, it’s really embarrassing. Because I have this. But I didn’t… Man, I like this picture, too.

2. Bebo & Chucho Valdes, “Peanut Vendor” (from PAQUITO D’RIVERA PRESENTS CUBA JAZZ, RMM, 1996) (Bebo Valdes & Chucho Valdes, piano; Moises Simon, composer)

That’s two players that really are comfortable playing in Latin Jazz. I really love that. I have no idea who they are. But they are so comfortable with that style, man. My first job playing Latin music was with Machito, and I remember the first time Mario Bauzá threw something like that at me. I didn’t know what to do with those two chords, man! So the best I could do was to play some jazz over it, and in that band it worked, until he could get back to the piano and show me what to do with the montuno. That whole idea of giving you all the information you need harmonically, melodically and rhythmically, it just amazes me how they can do that in that context. You’re talking basically a very simple harmony. I fell out when I heard the pianist playing some Art Tatum, that thing that he does. It was pretty exciting. It sounds like Chucho, who I’ve played with. 4 stars for sure.

3. Ron Carter, “The Golden Striker” (from THE GOLDEN STRIKER, Blue Note, 2003) (Carter, bass; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Russell Malone, bass)

It sure sounds like Percy Heath and John Lewis doing some interesting things. The tune is by John Lewis, but I don’t recall the name, although I’ve played it. I certainly like the kind of interplay that people who know one another have in a combination like this. It’s not just the fact that you’re playing a familiar jazz work, but they are so comfortable with it. I hear something that I haven’ t heard. They are adding something very personal to it. Everything you’ve played for me, I’m giving at least four stars. Because what you’ve played for me so far, these are masters. They’re people who are playing something that is part of the repertoire, and it’s not something I’ve heard someone else play and come close to this kind of feeling and projecting the kind of thing that John Lewis meant when he wrote the song. [AFTER] I love it! Like I said, it’s jazz masters.

4. John Stetch, “Bright Mississippi” (from EXPONENTIALLY MONK, Justin Time, 2004) (Stetch, piano; Thelonious Monk, composer)

I think Monk would have enjoyed that. It was different! There are a lot of things you can do with the changes of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” but that sure was different than anything I’ve heard done. He carried the whole idea of keeping everything within almost an octave. He barely got out of the octave that he was doing the bass line in. To maintain that and to sustain it, that really held my interest. I expected it to lose me. But he stuck right in there, and it made it right from beginning to end. Very nice. It’s odd when someone decides to go out on a limb and say, “Well, I’m going to do all of these awkward intervals, then I’m going to make a bass line and put something on it.” It’s very inventive. 4 stars. This got 4 stars because of the fact that the pianist heard it, said, “Now, here’s something I can do with these kinds of intervals; I’m going to do these on well-known changes, but I’m going to take somebody’s melody that’s off the wall, and I’m going off the wall with that.” It was very inventive, I thought.

5. David Hazeltine, “Sweet and Lovely” (from ALICE IN WONDERLAND, Venus, 2004) (Hazeltine, piano; George Mraz, bass; Billy Drummond, drums)

“Sweet and Lovely.” I love the way the pianist sets something up harmonically, and follows it through both with the voicing of the chord that he’s improvising on, and the manner in which he structures the improvisation. It shows a continuity that I really like. You don’t hear enough of that. You hear it in Hank Jones and some of the guys of my generation, but this sounded like a younger pianist who was doing that. [Why does it sound like a younger pianist?] I don’t know. There were things that were very much older in terms of what he was playing. But if this is an older guy, he’s young in spirit, because I get the same rhythmic thing. There’s a difference in rhythm that not all of us retain when we get older. I loved the rhythm section. It was perfect. It laid it right down. It enhanced the piano sound, because he’s got a good touch, a lovely touch, and the bass was right under it, laying with him. I’ve played that tune many times, and they were doing some slightly different changes… That’s why I was thinking this was someone younger, or he was listening to younger guys. This is a whole tune, it’s been done a zillion ways, and he put some stuff in there that was really beautiful. 4 stars.

6. Jean-Michel Pilc, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (from FOLLOW ME, Dreyfus, 2004) (Pilc, piano; Fats Waller, composer)

This is the first one that didn’t hold my interest as much as I would like. That’s one of my favorite Fats Waller tunes, and you can take it outside and do a lot of things with it. It’s interesting, but this didn’t interest me that much. It didn’t swing enough or long enough, it didn’t hold me harmonically enough. It was cute. I mean, it was different, it had nice things. But for me, if I were playing, it would be an experiment that was interesting, but I’d have to go back and try to find something else. It didn’t make it as an experiment. Something was missing. 2-1/2 stars [AFTER] I know Jean-Michel’s work, and I didn’t recognize him. I enjoy his work very much. But this didn’t work for me. He’s a very fine pianist. I have several things he’s done, and I like them. Because he’s adventurous, as you can hear. In more cases than not, it works.

7. Marcus Roberts, “Rickitick Tick” (from IN HONOR OF DUKE, Columbia, 1999) (Roberts, piano, comp.; Roland Guerin, bass; Jason Marsalis, drums)

Another experiment that’s interesting, but doesn’t hold my interest very long. It’s nice, and many of the things that the drummer was doing remind me of Winard Harper, who plays drums with me. Winard does some things that are so rhythmic; they have a form that I like. So it’s kind of hard for me to hear someone else do that concept which I associate with him, and do it a little different. It’s not appealing to me in that regard. I’d give it 2 stars. [AFTER] When I’m accustomed to a specific thing in a style, it’s hard for me to accept something that doesn’t please me as much. I like Jason’s work. He’s a very imaginative drummer. I’ve watched him grow over the years from a young guy… He’s very mature in what he’s doing now. Generally speaking, I like what he does.

8. Randy Weston, “Portrait of Dizzy” (from MARRAKECH: IN THE COOL OF THE EVENING, Verve, 1994) (Weston, piano)

Those were three of Dizzy’s most interesting melodies to me, and an abstraction of those melodies is less interesting to me than to play the melodies themselves. Because they are some of the best melodies, to me, that came out of the bebop context. I was playing something for Tatum one time, and he said, “If you can’t make it better, don’t change it.” 1 star. [AFTER] He’s a good friend of mine, but that’s what I think. I’m surprised, though, because I love Randy’s work when he’s playing most things like that. What threw me is that I’m so used to hearing him play rhythm, and he’s so rhythmic and he plays so beautifully with rhythms. I guess that’s what I missed there. I’m embarrassed.

9. Hiromi, “Desert On the Moon” (from BRAIN, Telarc, 2004) (Hiromi, piano; Anthony Jackson, bass; Martin Valihora, drums)

Chick Corea? No? It sounded very much like him. Boy! The touch and some of the harmonies, I thought. That fooled me. Very nice, whoever it was. The kinds of things that he was doing there… I liked the touch, and I liked the way he balanced his playing. It was organized beautifully, arranged very nicely, I thought. Chick was the first one who comes to mind playing rhythmically like that and harmonically like that. Or maybe Keith Jarrett or someone like that. I liked the harmonic flow. I liked the general musicality of it. This style I think is one of the styles that seems to stick around, and there are many guys who can do something like that. But as I said, the thing that appeals to me is the combination of harmony, melody and rhythm, how that’s put together in an organizational way… It’s arranged beautifully, even though it’s not an arrangement per se. It has a nice flow. 4 stars. [AFTER] I don’t know her work. As a matter of fact, I used her at the Kennedy Center. I should have remembered. I used her for the Women’s Jazz Festival. She’s one of the people I’ve been thinking about in that context. We haven’t done as much as I hope I will do with her. Because she really comes across. She’s very interesting to watch when she plays—as well as she sounds. She’s a very interesting player. It’s nice to run into young players that have a personality when they play.

10. Michel Camilo, “The Frim-Fram Sauce” (from SOLO, Telarc, 2005) (Camilo, piano)

“Save the bones for Henry Jones.” It’s very interesting that someone would take Nat Cole’s vocal and make that kind of an instrumental out of it. It’s very well done. He captured the spirit of it. It’s fascinating, though, because everybody I’ve heard so far, I haven’t heard the kind of left hand that I grew up with. I am interested in what many of these other younger players are doing to compensate for that. They’re not playing stride piano or any style of it, but they are doing something that’s a combination of walking and other things like that. Which is very good. It’s very up-to-date and makes it… I’m spoiled, because I came up with Fats Waller and Nat Cole and people who did that. But a lot of pianists who can stretch a tenth don’t choose to do that. They’ll do other things. 4 stars. It was very well done. [AFTER] I’ll be damned! I was just reading something about him. That’s funny. We’ve played together a lot, and I know he can stretch a tenth. But for some reason, he didn’t. But he didn’t have to. He did what he did, and it was very personal.

11. Onaje Allan Gumbs, “Dreamsville” (from RETURN TO FORM, Half Note, 2003) (Gumbs, piano; Marcus McLaurine, bass; Payton Crossley, drums; Henry Mancini, comp.)

That was beautiful. A nice way of starting a ballad and building it up into a nice flowing feeling there. I liked that. The tune is by Henry Mancini, and that’s one of his lovely melodies. I really like it. 4 stars. The guy has a nice touch, and used it in a lot of… I like it when it’s musical. One thing that I generally find missing in younger pianists is the rhythmic feeling. I’m not hearing as much of the rhythm as I’m accustomed to. I want melody, harmony, and rhythm, all three of them, in a different way. Sometimes I just lose the feeling of the rhythm. It’s melodic, it’s beautiful, it’s rhapsodic, or whatever the player intends for it to be. But for me, it doesn’t satisfy something I like to hear. That’s a personal bias, I suppose, but I like all three of the elements. I don’t mean that as an overall critique. I’m just saying that many of the things I hear younger players do doesn’t swing enough for me. And by their terms. I don’t mean swing like I would swing, but swing whatever their style, and really swing, make that rhythm happen. [AFTER] Onaje! Wonderful.

12. Dave McKenna, “C-Jam Blues” (from LIVE AT MAYBECK RECITAL HALL, VOL. 2, Concord, 1990) (McKenna, piano; Duke Ellington, composer)

I know who it is, but I can’t remember his name. He used to live in the Poconos, and did a lot of stuff for Concord Records… Dave McKenna. I love his playing. He does this better than anybody I know. Those are some interesting lines he’s playing, man. They’re fascinating. Now, that’s a left hand! One of the things I pride myself in is what I do with the left hand, because it’s what I grew up with and I like to use it. But I love the way he used it, because that’s very personal. I remember years ago, when I first met Dave, I did a radio piece on him, and I was pointing out the fact that this was the most unique left hand I’d heard since Fats Waller. It was so personal and the way he did it was so effective as a contemporary way of doing basslines. 5 stars.

[—30—]

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Dr. Billy Taylor, New York

A DownBeat Feature From 2009 and an Uncut Blindfold Test With Christian McBride

A few weeks ago, I missed a chance to observe bassist-composer Christian McBride’s birthday with a post of a DownBeat cover piece that ran in late 2008 and a slightly earlier Blindfold Test that I conducted with him not long before that. I’ve decided to rectify the omission, as I think both pieces are worth reading. I’ve posted my “director’s cut” of the feature (it runs about 900 words longer than what appeared in the magazine), and the original, unedited transcript of the Blindfold Test.

 

 Christian McBride, DownBeat Cover Article:

Late in the afternoon on Friday, May 8th, Christian McBride stood in the foyer of David Gage’s Tribeca bass atelier, poised to sound-test the latest addition to his arsenal. There was little time to spare—McBride had fifteen minutes to retrieve his car from the parking lot, a short walk away, and it was a mere 90 minutes til gig time at the Blue Note with James Carter’s new band with John Medeski, Adam Rogers, and Joey Baron. Still, McBride couldn’t restrain himself. Beaming at his new possession like a father cradling a newborn, he  put forth an elegant, funky one-chorus blues that the prior owner, the late Ray Brown, might well have cosigned for his own. Then McBride packed with a single efficient motion, enfolded Gage and his wife with a hug, and exited the premises, grabbing the car keys with two minutes to spare.

McBride was elated for reasons that had less to do with the excellence of the bass, which he declared superior to the one he had traded in to ameliorate the price, than with the pass-the-torch symbolism of the occasion. His new instrument had not come cheap, but he seemed to regard his possession of it to be more in the nature of an inheritance than the result of a transaction.

“It means the world to me, but I don’t think I’ll get that sentimental about it,” said McBride, who performed with Brown and John Clayton throughout the ‘90s in the singular unit, Super-Bass. “In my heart I’ll know it’s Ray’s bass, but I’m going to play what I need to. We had a very fatherly relationship. I don’t want to sound selfish, but I feel I SHOULD have it, since John has one of Ray’s other ones.”

Barely out of his teens when he joined Super Bass, McBride, now 36, was anything but a neophyte. Out of Philadelphia, he moved to New York in 1989 to matriculate at Juilliard, and quickly attained first-call status. By the fall of 1993, when McBride made his first extended tour with Joshua Redman’s highly publicized quartet with Pat Metheny and Billy Higgins, many considered him a major figure in the jazz bass continuum.

Perhaps this explains the vigorous blastback that certain elders launched McBride’s way in the latter ‘90s, when he began to revisit the electric bass, his first instrument, as a vehicle to investigate more contemporary modes of musical expression.

He recalled a backstage visit from Milt Jackson after his band, opening for Maceo Parker, played “a little tune I’d recorded that wasn’t a swing tune.” “Milt asked, ‘Was it necessary?’” McBride laughed heartily. “I said, ‘What do you mean, ‘necessary?’ ‘That ain’t the kind of stuff you’re supposed to be doing.’”

“I stood there and took it, because I loved Milt. But I had to ask: At what point am I allowed to get away from bebop? Is there some graduation process where Ray Brown or Hank Jones or Tommy Flanagan comes to Bradley’s and gives me my diploma? Why do I feel that I’m going to get in trouble if I decide to get a little funky? I knew stretching out wouldn’t affect my bebop playing or make me alter my sound.”

In point of fact, Brown, a fixture on L.A.’s commercial scene, who, as McBride notes, “played pretty good electric bass” himself, was anything but judgmental about his protege’s populist proclivities. “Ray never said a negative thing to me,” McBride said. “His whole thing was about pocket; as long as it had a toe-tapping quality, he was into it. He loved that I brought my own thing to Super Bass as opposed to ‘trying to play like a bebop guy.’”

Over the past decade, McBride’s penchant for adapting his “own thing” to any musical situation, however tightly formatted or open-ended, brought him copious sideman work with a crew of auditorium-fillers, among them Sting, Bruce Hornsby, David Sanborn, Herbie Hancock, and Pat Metheny, with whom he toured extensively during the first third of 2008. It was the final year of his four-year run as Creative Chair for Jazz at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for which, since 2005, he had booked 12 concerts a year. Among the highlights were projects with Queen Latifah and James Brown, his idol, on which he both music-directed and played bass, and also such high-concept jazz fare as Charles Mingus’ Epitaph and a ninetieth birthday celebration for Hank Jones. McBride had not neglected his jazz education commitments—per his annual custom since 2000, he spent a fortnight as Artistic Director at Jazz Aspen Snowmass, and he maintained his co-director post at National Jazz Museum in Harlem, an employer since 2005. If this weren’t enough, McBride also assumed artistic director responsibilities at the Monterrey and Detroit Jazz Festivals, producing new music for the various special projects and groups presented therein.

The impact of all this activity on McBride’s Q-rating was apparent when the three Metheny devotees sharing my table at the Blue Note stated that his name, and not Carter’s, was their prime incentive for shelling out the $35 cover.

McBride did not disappoint: Playing primarily acoustic bass, he constructed pungent basslines that established both harmonic signposts and a heartbeat-steady pulse around which the band could form consensus. He also brought down the house with a pair of astonishing solos. On the set-opener, “Mad Lad,” a stomping Rhythm variant by Leo Parker, McBride bowed a fleet-as-a-fiddle, thematically unified stomp, executing horn-like lines with impeccable articulation, intonation, and stand-on-its-own time feel. To open the set-concluding “Lullaby For Real Deal,” by Sun Ra, he declaimed a wild Mingusian holler, then counterstated Carter’s balls-out baritone sax solo, chock-a-block with extended techniques, with a to-the-spaceways theme-and-variation statement that ascended to the mountaintop, danced down again, and concluded with an emphatic FLAVOOSH on the E-string.

At the Rose Theater a fortnight earlier, McBride performed equivalent feats of derring-do with Five Peace Band, the Chick Corea-John McLaughlin homage to the fortieth anniversary of their participation on Bitches Brew with alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, and drummers Vinnie Colaiuta and Brian Blade. Halfway through the final leg of a seven-month world tour, with Blade on drums, FPB addressed the repertoire in an open, collective manner, and McBride switched-off between acoustic and electric feels with equal authority. On one McLaughlin-penned piece, he laid down crunching funk grooves on the porkchop, at one point mirroring a staggeringly fast declamation by the leader so precisely as to give the illusion that the tones were merged into one hybrid voice.

“Technically, I could have done that ten years ago, but I don’t think my confidence would have been there to try it,” McBride remarked. “From playing electric so much more on sessions and gigs, now I have that confidence on both.”

He elaborated on the sonic personality that each instrument embodies.

“The acoustic bass is the mother, and the electric bass will always be the restless child,” he said. “Sometimes the energy of a restless child is cool to have around. It gets everybody up, and it keeps you on your toes. But the mother is always there, watching over everything—a wholesome feeling. The acoustic bass isn’t as loud, but it’s so big—it grabs all the music with a big, long arm. It encircles it. The electric bass is clearer, more in your face, but it doesn’t have that wisdom. Even with Jaco at his creative peak—and he was easily to the electric bass what Bird was to the alto saxophone—you never got that feeling. But you would go, ‘Man, this cat’s from another planet; who IS this?’”

[BREAK]

“I don’t know what made me think I would be able to do Detroit and Monterrey back-to-back, though I managed to pull it off,” McBride said. “I’ve always prided myself on being able to take on multiple projects at the same time. But in 2008 I bit off way more than I could chew. By October, I was ready to collapse. Then I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go to Europe for five weeks; I can’t collapse.’ Everybody was like, ‘You’re in town for three weeks? Let’s book some record dates.’ My brain was saying yes. But my body was like, ‘If you don’t go somewhere right now and sit in the dark for about three weeks, I’m unplugging on you.’ I’m trying to edit ‘09 a little bit.

“I’m ready to sink my teeth into my own music and see what I can finally develop on my own. Maybe one day I can be the guy leading an all-star tour or calling some other cats to come on the road with me.”

Towards that end, McBride was ready to tour with a new unit called Inside Straight, with saxophonist Steve Wilson, pianist Eric Reed, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, and drummer Carl Allen, whom he had assembled for a one-week gig at the Village Vanguard during summer of 2007 and reconvened to play Detroit. “I hadn’t played at the Vanguard since 1997, and thought it was time to go back,” McBride related. “‘Lorraine Gordon said, “Of course you’re always welcome at the Vanguard. But don’t bring that rock band you usually play with!’”

Said “rock band” was a plugged-in quartet with Geoff Keezer, Ron Blake, and Terreon Gully, which McBride first brought on the road in 2000 to support Science Fiction, the last of his four dates for Verve, to bring forth McBride’s “all-encompassing view of what jazz means to me.” The week before Christmas, during FPB’s December layover, they entered Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola for a “farewell-for-now” engagement. On the first set opening night, without rehearsal, they stretched out and hit hard, detailing a sonic template that spanned the soundpainting-beatsculpting feel of such ‘70s art fusion as Weather Report and Mwandishi and the inflamed ebullience that mutual heroes like Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, and McCoy Tyner evoked in their live performances of that same period.

Indeed, the group’s extreme talent far exceeded their recorded documentation or gig opportunities. “We got defaulted as a fusion band, which I thought was inaccurate,” McBride continued. “It seemed our gigs always got stuck in when I had two nights off with Pat or Five Peace Band, and it was hard to change hats quickly and think things all the way through. But we all like music that has a lot of energy. It could be funky or free, it could be bebop or Dixieland swing, or it could rock. As long as that jazz feel is underneath, what’s on top doesn’t really matter.”

Funk, freedom and rock are absent from Kind of Brown [Mack Avenue], McBride’s debut date with Inside Straight, and his first all-acoustic presentation since Gettin’ To It, his 1995 opening salvo on Verve. “I call it one of those ‘just in case you forgot’ recordings,” said McBride, whose twentieth-anniversary-as-a-New Yorker plans also include weekly hits over the summer with a big band, and Conversations With Christian, a still-in-process project comprising 20 duet interview-duo performances with select “friends and mentors.”

“I came to New York to play with all the great modern jazz musicians I could, and I became known doing that in the Paul Chambers-Ray Brown spirit,” McBride said. “In a lot of recent musical situations, I’ve found myself being a little louder than I really like, and I got the itch to come back to some good foot-stomping straight-ahead.”

It was observed that McBride had traversed a conceptual arc not dissimilar to the path of such generational contemporaries as Hargrove and Redman, whose respective careers launched on their ability to hang with elders on equal terms. While in their twenties, they embraced on their own ground the tropes of contemporary dance and popular music, but recently, perhaps no longer feeling a need to prove anything, have returned to more acoustic, swing-based investigations.

“I see everybody turning the corner again to the acoustic-based, swinging thing,” McBride said. “We were the generation that was able to assimilate all that had happened before us, and at some point decided to use with their jazz vocabulary hip-hop or certain types of indy rock, great music that not too many jazz people were keeping their ear on. It’s no different than what any other generation of jazz musicians did.”

[BREAK]

Regardless of the context in which he plays, McBride appears—has always appeared—to be grounded in a place not quite of his time. “My own mother told me once, ‘You really are an old soul,’ he said. “Coming from her, that almost scared me. I’ve never consciously thought we’ve got to bring back the vibe from the old days, but I probably do have a certain thread with an earlier generation. I’m an only child. My mom had me young, and she raised me as a single mom, so as much as we’re mother-and-son, we’ve always thought of each other as best friends. My childhood was hanging around my mother’s friends, listening to their stories, to their music.”

Referencing his fast learning curve, McBride added, “Having two working bassists in the family didn’t hurt.” One was his great uncle, bassist Howard Cooper, whose outcat gig resume includes Sun Ra and Khan Jamal. The other was his father, Lee Smith, a fixture in ‘70s Philly soul and R&B circles who began playing with Mongo Santamaria later in the decade. “He was a consistent figure in my formative years, in that I’d see him a few times a month,” McBride said. “We always practiced together, but after the initial ‘lessons’ when he showed me how to hold the bass and where to place my hands, it became just jamming. By high school, I spent all my time practicing classical etudes on the acoustic, which my dad didn’t play then.”

From the jump, McBride conceptualized the acoustic “as an oversized electric bass.” “Clarity was always the center of my concept of bass playing,” he said. “The  instrument’s range and frequency means you can feel the pulse that makes you move, but it’s hard to hear the notes. Much as I hate to admit it, I mostly hated bass solos, because I could never understand what they were playing. Notes ran into each other, and some cats would be out of tune—outside of first or second position, it gets dicey. I found that cats who play very clear and have good melodic ideas tended to be from the low-action, high-amplified school. When they’d start walking, all the pulse would go. Then, bass players with a really good sound and feel, who make you want to dance, when they soloed it was, ‘Ummm…go back to walking.’

“So my whole style was based on balancing the two—to play with a serious clarity of tone and still have the guts and power of the true acoustic bass. When I walk or am accompanying somebody, I wanted that soloist to feel they have the best tonal, rhythmic, and harmonic support possible, but I also didn’t want to bore the hell out of people when I soloed.  I was young enough when I started not to think that I had to get ideas only from other bass players. I thought, if I can play it, why not try to transcribe a McCoy Tyner or Joe Henderson line for the bass, and see how it comes out. Dumb 11-year-old idea.”

The notion of balance—triangulating a space between deference and self-interest, between pragmatic and creative imperatives, between acoustic and electric self-expression—is perhaps McBride’s defining characteristic.

“I’ve always tried to live in the middle,” McBride said. “I’d be a good U.N. diplomat! I’ve always found it interesting that I could talk about the same subject to two people who have violently different outlooks.” He recalled an early-‘90s encounter in San Sebastian with Lester Bowie—himself no diplomat—and Julius Hemphill when “they just started ripping into Wynton. ‘Man, Wynton’s ruining all you young cats. It’s a SHAME what he’s doing to you cats. But see, you got some different stuff happening, McBride! See, you got the opportunity to not be fazed by any of that stuff!’ I’m not really disagreeing or agreeing with them, just listening, ‘Mmm…mmm-hmm.’”

It’s unclear whether Bowie knew that McBride considered Marsalis “very much like a big brother or a mentor.” Old soul or not, he’s a child of the ‘80s, “one of the most fruitful periods for great jazz,” and, like many in his peer group, considered Marsalis’ recordings—along with those of the Tony Williams Quintet, Harrison-Blanchard, the various members of M-BASE, Art Blakey, Bass Desires, and Ralph Moore—“as important to my development as Miles and Freddie’s.” So when Marsalis came to Philadelphia in 1987 to conduct a high school workshop, McBride learned “as many of his tunes as I could.” Intrigued, Marsalis invited the 15-year-old prodigy to see him play the Academy Theater three days later, and invited him to sit in on “J Mood.”

Marsalis kept in close touch, conducting a regional Duke Ellington Youth Ensemble in which McBride participated, and “calling to check on me, telling me to keep my academics together” as McBride became a presence on the Philly scene. During these years, at Marsalis’ urging, McBride focused on the unamplified, raise-the-strings approach to bass expression  which, as he puts it, “seemed to be the new religious experience for young bass players coming to New York.” As his reputation grew (“people seemed to like what they were hearing”) he staunchly adhered to this aesthetic even through several bouts of tendinitis—although, upon Watson’s insistence (“Bobby, you don’t understand; the bass was not made to be played this way; maybe Victor can come down a bit…”), he did relent and purchase an amp for a Village Vanguard engagement.

Not too long thereafter, early in a duo week with Benny Green, Ray Brown heard McBride for the first time. “Ray said, ‘Why are you young cats playing so hard? You don’t need your strings up that high.’ I thought, ‘Shut up, and listen to Ray Brown.’ I saw him a few nights later, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Ray seemed to be playing the bass like it was a toy. He was having fun. Playing jazz, he had that locomotion I heard in the great soul bass players, like James Jamerson and Bootsy Collins and Larry Graham.  He wasn’t yanking the strings that hard, he had the biggest, fattest, woodiest sound I’d ever heard, and most of it was coming from the bass, not the amp. At that point, I slowly started coming around. I was able to find a middle ground where, yes, it’s perfectly fine to use an amplifier. It’s not the ‘40s any more.”

[BREAK]

A member of the last generation to receive a full dose of the heroes of the golden age of jazz, McBride is now well-positioned, through his educational activities and increasing visibility as a public spokesman, to facilitate the torch-passing process. His present views, informed by deep roots in black urban working-class culture and the attitude towards musical production that he absorbed during formative years, are not so very far removed from those of his mentors.

“Everybody’s nice now, but a lot of hard love came from those legends,” he said. “At Bradley’s, if you played a wrong change, you’d hear some musician at the bar going, ‘Unh-unh, nope, that’s not it.” They’d ream you on the break. After they finished, they’d buy you a drink. All of us wear those moments as badges of honor. When you see young cats doing the wrong thing, it’s not a matter of actually being mean or being nice when you  pull them aside and tell them what’s happening.”

Often he tells them not to bridle at the notion of marinating “in situations you’re not used to or that make you uncomfortable—situations where you’re playing bebop.”

“The people behind the scenes who pull the strings play on this idea of faction-race-gender-class, groove-versus-no-groove, intellectual-versus-street,” he said. “We’re in a period where the less groove or African-American influence, the more lauded the music is for being intellectual, or ‘this is cutting edge,’ ‘this is what you need to go see,’ ‘this is pure genius,’ whereas the guys who are grooving—‘that’s old; we’ve been hearing that for over half a century; we need to come further from that.’ The more European influence—or, shall we say, the more ECM—you put in your music, you can be considered a genius.

“At first, I thought it was racial. Maybe it is to a certain extent. But the white musicians I know who like to sink their teeth into the groove can’t get any dap either. Part of it might be backlash from when the record labels were dishing out the cash to advertise and market some straight-ahead ‘young lions’ who frankly didn’t deserve it. The recording industry did real damage to the credibility of young jazz musicians who were really serious about building on the tradition. It almost took an American Idol twist—some new hot person every six months. When it happened to me in New York, I remember thinking, ‘That could change tomorrow.’”

From the musicians in his family, McBride learned early that music is as much a business as an art form, and that to sustain a career requires labor as well as talent.  “My focus was always on being good,” he said. “If I’m the best musician I can be, I won’t have to worry whether someone thinks I’m hot or not; I’ll just be working with all the musicians that I can. I think that’s where I got my outlook to always try to find the middle ground.”

He intends to retain this attitude. “You see musicians reach a point where they no longer have to take certain gigs—and they don’t,” he said. “Some of us think, ‘They’ve lost that edge; they don’t have that passion like they used to.’ I never wanted to become one of those guys. My chops start getting weird. The pockets start getting funny. There’s a reason Ron Carter is still as active as he is. He’s playing all the time. Ray Brown was like that. They keep that thing going.”

[—30—]

 

Christian McBride Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.   Hans Glawischnig, “Oceanography” (PANORAMA, Sunnyside, 2007) (Glawischnig, bass, composer; Chick Corea, piano; Marcus Gilmore, drums)

I feel like I’m pretty sure on at least who two of three of those guys are. It certainly felt and sounded like Chick on piano. I’m going to guess that was Eddie Gomez. [No.] Really! Mmm! In that case, I’m a bit stumped. Whoever it was, I certainly feel like they come from the school of playing of Eddie Gomez, a lot of very pianistic, melodic lines way up on top of the bass, a wonderful melodic sense all over the bass but particularly in the upper register, and it didn’t sound like a very overtly powerful, kind of meaty, woody, kind of Ray Brownish school. The sound came more from the Gomez-Peacock-LaFaro kind of school. That’s why I might have thought it was Gomez. But if it’s not Gomez, it’s certainly someone I like a lot. I can’t guess who. I didn’t know who the drummer was at first. At first, I thought it might have been Jack. I thought it might have been Jeff Ballard. Knowing it was Chick, it thought it might have been Airto playing traps for a minute. So I’m a little stumped on who the bass player and drummer are, but I liked it a lot. Any professional musician playing changes that good and playing that good time, 5 stars. Hans! Very-very-very-VERY hip. Beautiful, Hans. Sounded great. Good job.

2.   Victor Wooten, “The Lesson” (PALMYSTERY, Heads Up, 2008) (Wooten, bass, hand claps, composer; Roy Wooten, cajon, shakers, hand claps)

I’m glad I heard that last minute. Got to be Victor Wooten. Only one man sounds like that on the electric bass. Victor has become the new bar, the new standard for a lot of electric bass players today. There has now been a legion born of Wooten-ites, as we call them, who try to play like that. I guess it’s very similar to what happened when Jaco came on the scene; now, every electric bass player had to sound like Jaco to be considered hip. So Victor Wooten is very much in that position these days. I love what Victor does. Is this a recent recording? [It’s coming out.] Well, one thing I’ve heard in Victor’s playing recently more than what I’ve heard in the past is that I could tell his level of harmony has completely blown way past the stratosphere at this point. When I first heard Victor, he was more or less a straight-up kind of R&B-funk guy, but his technique on the electric bass was so incredible you couldn’t help but be affected by that. But now I know he’s been working with a lot of guys like Mike Stern and Chick, so he’s been in situations where the musicality now is almost at the level with his technique. So it’s really great to hear what Victor’s done with this new thing. I love it. 5 stars.

3.   Omer Avital, “Third World Love Story” (ARRIVAL, Fresh Sound, 2007) (Avital, bass, composer; Jason Lindner, piano; Jonathan Blake, drums; Joel Frahm, tenor saxophone; Avishai Cohen, trumpet; Avi Lebovich, trombone)

Is it the bass player’s album? Is it his composition? If it’s his composition, I give him or her a few extra stars. I like the composition a whole lot. It was very soulful, interesting but not too complicated, as I know is a tendency to happen among a lot of jazz musicians in my generation and younger. We get so involved into the “hip” aspect of writing, sometimes we lose the simplicity of it all. This song had a nice, simple feeling to it. The only thing that I would have liked to hear a little different didn’t have anything to do with the bass player, but had to do with the comping behind the solo. I kind of wish the entire rhythm section would have come down a little more behind the solo, or maybe they could have raised the bass up in the mix a little more. But that was the only little minor thing that I heard that I might have thought I’d have done a little different. I could tell that whoever this is, is someone I know. The guys in the band, I could tell I probably I know them. But for the life of me, from that particular track, I can’t tell who it was. I’m not good at giving stars. Because any professional musician doing a helluva job like that, they’ve always got to get 5 stars. [AFTER] Johnathan Blake? I knew it! I should have said it. The last time Johnathan and I played together, I remember getting that same feeling. Listening to the drumming on this… When I did some gigs with the Mingus band, and Jonathan played drums, I remembered that same kind of feeling, like there’s someone behind chomping away! Not in a bad way, obviously. But I had a feeling it was Jonathan. Very nice, Omer. He’s such a jolly guy anyway. I love the cat. Omer! The big teddy bear.

4.   Eberhard Weber-Jan Garbarek, “Seven Movements” (STAGES OF A LONG JOURNEY, ECM, 2007) (Weber, electric upright bass, composer; Garbarek, soprano saxophone)

Stanley Clarke. No? Is this person American? [Why would you ask a question like that?] I think it’s a perfectly legitimate question. [Go through your thought process.] My thought process is that most bass players I know with this kind of sound and that kind of facility, if it’s not Stanley Clarke, it’s always been someone from Europe. [The bassist is European.] Thank you! That part there has got to be overdubbed. That’s humanly impossible to play on the bass. You can’t go from a high E on the G string down a low G on the E string. Now, that can be played on the bass. [MIMICS FINGERING WITH LEFT HAND] Is this Eberhard Weber and Jan Garbarek. He’s done a lot of stuff with Kate Bush, hasn’t he? [This is 65th birthday concert.] So he’s really playing that live? I’d love to see that. Well, I dig that a lot also. For that particular thing, I don’t think two guys have that sound more together than Eberhard and Jan. Even the American cats who have recorded for ECM who have tried to kind of get that sound, that’s… We have our own explicit sound… When certain cats get that sound, we have a certain American way that it sounds. But that particular thing there, that’s entirely theirs, and they have their own definite fingerprint on that particular sound—which is, frankly, European. That’s not said to be an insult or a compliment. That’s just what it is. I liked it a lot. [Any speculations on what’s European about it?] It was much more based on harmony and melody than rhythm. I’ve found that most European music tends to rely less on rhythm than melodic and harmonic content, which is cool if that’s what you’re in the mood for at that particular time. I think what we just heard is the preeminent way to capture that one thousand percent Euro sound. And it should be! 5 stars.

5.   Peter Washington, “Desafinado” (Steve Nelson, SOUND EFFECT, High Note, 2007) (Washington, bass; Nelson, vibraphone; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Lewis Nash, drums)

Is that my dear friend, Lewis Nash? [On bass solo.] Is that Peter? Anything Peter Washington plays on gets 5 stars. Peter Washington has always been one of my favorite bass players of all time. He has such a big, big sound and such great time. He picks such great notes. Hearing him on record is almost misleading, because when you hear him live, his sound is so much bigger. It still sounds great on record, but hearing him live is even a bigger treat. Of course, the way he and Lewis have played together through the years, they’ve established a chemistry that’s pretty special. The way Lewis always plays behind everybody, particularly bass solos, is why he’s the hardest working man in the drum business, and he rightfully deserves to be, the way he plays behind everyone, particularly bass players. That’s why Ron Carter loves him so, that’s why I love him so, that’s why Peter loves him so. But getting back to Peter, he sounds great all the time. I’ve never heard him have a bad night, never heard him sound a little bit off—he’s always right in the pocket. Since I got Peter and Lewis, I don’t know if I want to put an egg on my face and guess the other two. I don’t know who the vibe player is. I was thinking he didn’t sound quite as eagle-like as Bobby Hutcherson or Steve Nelson. They’re both so much in the stratosphere, unless it was one of them purposely holding back. I certainly don’t think it was one of those two. It was Steve? Okay, Steve was trying to hold back. We’ve all seen Steve Nelson just take off on a spaceship and go above the clouds. And I respect him! He was trying to be cool on this one! But he still sounded great. Just by an educated guess, was it Renee playing piano? No? Kenny Barron maybe? You got me. Mulgrew. Ah, of course. Well, that’s the A-band.

6.   Reginald Veal, “Ghost In the House” (UNFORGIVABLE BLACKNESS, Blue Note, 2004) (Wynton Marsalis, trumpet, composer; Veal, bass; Victor Goines, tenor saxophone; Wessell Anderson, alto saxophone; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Herlin Riley, drums)

Just from the sound of the bass, it only leaves a handful of people. It’s got to be like Ben Wolfe or Carlos Enriquez. It’s not Reginald Veal. These are gut strings on this bass. I’d be very shocked if this is not Wynton’s group or the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. So is this Carlos playing bass? Is it Ben? Reginald?! Really! This must not be new, then. What is this from? Ah, the Jack Johnson film. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Reginald play with gut strings before. It certainly sounds like gut strings. I’ll tell you a little secret about Reginald Veal. I’ve always been very happy he never decided to be part of the New York scene—to kind of hit the Bradley’s scene, the Vanguard scene, and work around with the New York cats. Because if that were the case, a lot of us wouldn’t be working! I’ve loved Reginald Veal for a very long time, and I’ve heard him in many different situations with a lot of people. I think he’s most known in the jazz world for his association with Wynton. Also with Diane Reeves, but with I don’t think he was able to really stand out in that particular group like he did in Wynton’s group. But this particular thing here I don’t think would be the best representation of Reginald’s great ability. This was obviously a wonderful track. He played great, he sounded great, as he always does. But those of us who have seen Reginald through the years know he’s a sleeping giant, as they say. He’s a bad dude. 5 stars.

7.   Scott Colley, “Architect of the Silent Moment” (ARCHITECT OF THE SILENT MOMENT, CamJazz, 2007) (Colley, bass, composer; Ralph Alessi, trumpet; David Binney, alto saxophone; Craig Taborn, piano; Antonio Sanchez, drums)

Is this Dave Holland? It’s killin’, whoever it is. I liked it a lot. I’m still trying to guess who the bass player was. Like I say, whoever it is, is really killin’. Maybe Patitucci. No? Good sound, good facility. Is that the bass player’s composition? There was a lot in there. I was trying to analyze it, but it’s hard to catch a lot of that stuff the first go-around. Obviously, it’s someone I could hearken back to when I talked about the…it has some very tricky parts in there. Compositionally, it’s built very well. For the first time around, it was a little bit of a challenge to find something to hang my hat on. I could tell it was definitely a really, really good composition, but from the very beginning I remember those slick dissonances between the bass part and the melody, and then how it kind of built into that section where it kind of explodes, where the drummer was kind of cutting loose at the end, and then the middle section where the solos were. So a lot of happening. Some good stuff going on. A couple of different drummers came to mind. Billy Drummond actually came to mind, but I know that’s not quite his sound. I’m a little stumped on who it might be, so I beg you to relieve me. 5 stars. Scott Colley? Dammit! Rooney, my good friend! Sure. I didn’t recognize Antonio’s sound, quite honestly. I’ve always known his drum sound to be a little different. But as I said before you told me who it was, whoever it was, was killing. Scott is definitely another one of my favorite musicians. I had no idea he was such a killing composer. I wouldn’t have guessed Craig.

8.   Francois Moutin, “Trane’s Medley” (Moutin Reunion Quartet, SHARP TURNS, Bluejazz, 2007) (Francois Moutin, bass, arranger; Louis Moutin, drums)

Is this Brian Bromberg? Well, that certainly would have gotten a lot of house in a big theater. It was certainly imaginative. Nice Coltrane tribute. My knee-jerk reaction is to say it might have been a little too choppy for me, and I don’t mean choppy in the sense that it didn’t flow. I mean choppy in the sense that whoever this person is has absolutely amazing chops, and it was used to the effect of garnish as opposed to meat on the plate. I say that with the utmost respect, because I know that people have said that about me from time to time. But with it being just bass and percussion, maybe that person felt a need to compensate for the lack of the piano and the guitar and whatever else was not there with some cute chop runs every now and then. But it was definitely imaginative, and it would have gotten plenty of house in a big theater. I don’t know too many acoustic bass players with those kinds of chops. After Bromberg, I’m a little stumped. 4 stars.

9.   Miroslav Vitous, “The Prayer” (UNIVERSAL SYNCOPATIONS II, ECM, 2007) (Vitous, bass, composer, samples; Gary Campbell, tenor saxophone; Gerald Cleaver, drums)

Is the bass player also the composer? Really! Is this from a movie? I feel like I’m watching a movie. [What do you see in the movie?] Like a war scene or something like that. The after effects, or something like that. I’m so into the composition that my knee jerk reaction is that it almost doesn’t need a bass solo in it. Whoever the composer is, I’ll give a bunch of stars, more than 5, just for the feel and the arc of the composition. I think the bass solo, whoever it was, with all due respect, I don’t think it was needed. The composition stands alone very well by itself without the soloing in between. The saxophone, too; not just the bass. I could have stood for even a little silence in those holes there. But definitely a bunch of stars for the composition. I couldn’t tell who the bass player was. Miroslav! I actually got to play with Gary Campbell once. But wow, Miroslav, a huge amount of applause for that piece of music. That was awesome. It was also my first time really getting to hear his orchestral samples kind of up-close like that. I’ve heard them kind of on their own, just as a demonstration once.

10.  Buster Williams, “The Triumphant Dance of the Butterfly” (GRIOT LIBERTE, High Note, 2004) (Williams, bass, composer; Stefon Harris, vibraphone; George Colligan, piano; Lenny White, drums)

[AFTER 8 BARS OF OPENING BASS SOLO] Buster Williams. I know that album pretty well. That’s a great, great record, with George Colligan and Stefon Harris. Buster Williams has created such a legacy. He’s such an influential musician and such a really, really great composer. I’m not quite sure why more bass players don’t give it up to him, because he’s certainly right on that level where you would mention a Ray Brown or a Ron Carter or an Oscar Pettiford. I have always felt you had to mention Buster along with those guys. He’s also been able to develop a pretty identifiable sound. Even before he was using an amplifier, if you listen to him on, like, Sassy Swings The Tivoli, he still sounds a lot different from a lot of bass players from that period, and it just developed and developed. He has a sound like no other. When he’s playing quarter notes, man, when he starts swinging, it’s treacherous!—in a great way. Five million stars for anything he does.

11.  Hank Jones, “Prelude To A Kiss” (FOR MY FATHER, Justin Time, 2004) (Jones, piano; George Mraz, bass; Dennis Mackrell, drums)

This sounds like an elder statesman. Is that Doctor Taylor? [What makes it sound like an elder statesman to you?] Just the way they’re playing the time. It’s nice and relaxed. The language. The style of chords. Just the approach. It sounds like guys who never got stung by the Herbie-McCoy ‘60s bug. Interesting to give it to the drummer on the bridge, because it’s such a pretty bridge. I’m not saying drummers can’t play pretty. I still think it’s one of our elder statesmen. Was the bassist Earl May, or someone like that? It’s got to be Hank or Billy or someone like that. Georege Mraz? Aggh! There we go. 5 stars.

12. Ornette Coleman, “Sleep Talking” (SOUND GRAMMAR, 2006, Sound Grammar) (Coleman, alto saxophone, composer; Greg Cohen, Tony Falanga, bass; Denardo Coleman, drums)

Is this Ornette with the two basses? Greg Cohen and I forget the other one. I’ve only seen this group in person, not on the record. I dig it. It’s kind of hard not to dig Ornette—for me. I remember when Melissa saw Ornette’s group at Carnegie Hall with Abbey Lincoln, and she said it was amazing because so many of these so-called “culture experts” who so-called know that Ornette is a genius, they couldn’t hang past the first tune. But I give props to Melissa. She hung in there the whole night. She said, “I dug it.” I was out with Metheny, and we saw them somewhere in Eastern Europe. But I dug it, man. I like the basses. Ornette might be the only person who would be able to get away with putting together something this loose. But knowing that it’s… Put it this way. If someone other than Ornette had to put this together, I’m not sure I would have understood it as much. He’s reached a point where he can put together almost anything and it will work as long as he is in the middle of it some kind of way. First of all, it was always my own personal opinion that Ornette was never really that out. I know he gets called the genius of the avant-garde, but I’ve always thought Ornette was pretty funky. I still hear plenty Texas in his playing, even when he’s really, really way out there. So I like that. That kind of ties it all together for me. So no matter how out it is, there’s still some hint of brisket underneath. [Meat is a frequent metaphor for you.] Yeah, man! 5 stars.

[END OF SOUND FILE]

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Filed under Article, Bass, Blindfold Test, Christian McBride, DownBeat, Ray Brown

Two DownBeat Feature Articles On Paquito D’Rivera from 2005 and 2009

I recently allowed the 68th birthday of Paquito D’Rivera, the singularly talented woodwindist (alto saxophone and clarinet) and composer, to pass without posting the texts of these two articles that I wrote about him for DownBeat in 2005 and 2009, respectively. The first one covers a spectacular 50th anniversary as a musician concert in 2005 at which Bebo Valdes, Cachao, Candido, Yo Yo Ma, Rosa Passos, Portinho, Dave Samuels, the New York Voices, and Bill Cosby, among others, performed; the second, generated by DownBeat award for “Best Clarinetist of 2009,” contains a long interview and a prefatory essay.

* * *

Paquito D’Rivera Article from 2005:

At the mid-point of a Sunday afternoon rehearsal in January, Paquito D’Rivera held his clarinet to the side, exhaled, and exclaimed, “I have never played so much shit in one day!” Ensconced in a small room at Carroll Studios on Manhattan’s Far West Side, D’Rivera, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Alon Yavnai had spent the previous half-hour working out the nuances of the fourth movement of Brahms’ Concerto for Clarinet, Cello and Piano before  a crowd of photographers, videographers, a Spanish film crew, various publicists, and select lookers-on. This followed a runthrough of D’Rivera’s elegant chamber piece, “Afro” and “No More Blues,” on which guitarist-singer Rosa Passos whispered Antonio Carlos Jobim’s undulating melody.

“I have heard that so many times, that I think I know your solo better than you do,” D’Rivera, dead-pan, declared to Yo-Yo Ma. “I think I can play it on the cello, too.”

“I think you should,” Ma shot back. His shirt-back was dark with perspiration, and he seemed ill at ease with the motley crowd.

D’Rivera persisted. “How do you write that passage for the string instrument?” he asked, referring to the cellist’s soulful, kaleidoscopic intro to “Afro.” “You play the same passage, but it sounds totally different.” “I play one on the first string and the other on the second string,” Ma responded. “Rock-and-Roll cellists do that,” D’Rivera said. He laughed lightly, and took his first break of the afternoon.

D’Rivera, who first worked professionally as a 6-year-old soprano saxophonist, was preparing for a next-evening “this is your life” Carnegie Hall concert billed as “Fifty Years and Ten Nights of Show Business” to acknowledge his golden anniversary on stage. More than 20 friends and colleagues from 15 countries convened in New York to celebrate the milestone.

He was fresh, alert, and in fine humor, despite a low-sleep week that included morning-to-night promotional appearances around New York and a 48-hour cross-country jaunt to International Jazz Educators’ Convention in Long Beach, California, where he accepted the NEA’s 2004 Jazz Masters Award. In another 48 hours, D’Rivera would fly to Uruguay to perform at a festival he booked, followed by a duo concert in Chile. A week later, he’d alight in New York, lay off a day, and embark on a three-week U.S. tour with the Assad Brothers.

“When I finish all these things, then I am going to be tired,” D’Rivera  said. He recalled a Carnegie Hall concert by Celia Cruz a few years before. “She was sick already,” he continued. “But when she went out to the stage, it was like a 25-year-old Baryshnikov. She did that show with so much energy, and when she finished and went to the dressing room, she became the old lady that she was. Maybe this profession does that to you.”

When emphasizing a point in conversation, D’Rivera likes to interpolate references to food and its byproducts, just as he frequently signifies on his alto saxophone solos by quoting choice licks from the lexicon of Charlie Parker.

“It’s like having sushi and black beans and rice and Indian food at the same time,” he responded, as if on cue, to a question about the challenge of performing tangos, chorinhos, sambas, various Cuban idioms, hardcore jazz, and classical music over a single event. “But you have to be very sure of what you’re doing in all the styles. It’s like a cook trying to mix Chinese food with Cuban food. If you know both styles, that can taste really good. But if not, it’s like Ray Brown said once—‘chopped onions with chocolate ice cream.”

Relaxed in a brand-new black Jazz Masters t-shirt, jeans and tan loafers, D’Rivera had launched his Sunday marathon with ‘90s Caribbean Jazz Project partners Andy Narrell and Dave Samuels, tackling an intricate Samuels arrangement of “Night In Tunisia” and fine-tuning the details of “Andalucia,” a D’Rivera homage to iconic Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona. The Americans exited and a trio of Brazilians—drummer Portinho, who had worked with D’Rivera throughout the ‘80s, guitarist Romero Lubambo, and Ms. Passos, who sang “So Dança Samba.”

“Caribbean music is pure happiness,” said D’Rivera. “But Brazilians are the only people in the world who get the feeling of being happy and sad at the same time. Saudade. I tried to translate that word once, and I said, ‘Well, that’s nostalgia.’ There was a Brazilian musician who told me, ‘no, it’s not nostalgia. Nostalgia is something else. This is saudade.’

“The Brahms Trio is hard to play, but that doesn’t matter. I have worked like a slave on some hard pieces, and nothing happened at the end. But this piece is so well written, so profound, so logical and original. It’s very jazzy, too. The polyrhythms of Brahms have a lot to do with jazz music.”

Across the room, D’Rivera spotted trumpeter Claudio Roditi, his frequent partner in the ‘80s. “When I came to New York, I surrounded myself with Brazilian musicians like Portinho and Claudio,” he stated. “I mentioned several famous names I’d been listening to, and they told me, ‘I think you have to do your homework again; that is not the real thing,’ and they illustrated. Then I became a new-born Brazilian!”

In strolled the members of the New York Voices, who collaborated last year with D’Rivera and Roditi on Brazilian Dreams [Manchester Guild].

D’Rivera rose for greetings and salutations. “Two of three people who made me forget to play are here,” he said. “Toots Thielemans was the first one. Then the New York Voices and Yo-Yo Ma. When they play, I forget to play sometimes.”
__________
“Paquito reminds me of the musicians I played with in Cuba,” said conguero Candido Camero, who left the island in 1955, and met D’Rivera for the first time in 1987. “Especially the ones who play saxophone, clarinet and flute. His style, his phrasing, his sound, the feeling, the touch. The new generation always have different ideas. But the root stays.”

D’Rivera concurred. “I grew up listening to this music,” he remarked as Candido, bassist Cachao and pianist Bebo Valdes, 255 years between them, settled in for their leg of the rehearsal.  “It’s like playing marbles with my father, or baseball.”

The camera-folk jockeyed for position, and Joseluis Ruperez, the producer of the Spanish TV crew, firmly pushed them back. The elders and D’Rivera spoke in Spanish as someone fetched tape for Candido’s hands and timbalero Ralph Irizarry found the right position. Then D’Rivera and Cachao—holding his bow as he plucked the refrain—began to play a danzon. They applied themselves to “Priquitin Pin Pon,” which appears on the 2001 recording El Arte De Sabor [Blue Note]. Over three takes, Bebo Valdes soloed effervescently, uncorking fluid, ascendant chromatic lines that reversed direction like dancers spinning and twirling. On his solo, Cachao transitioned seamlessly from pizzicato to bow; positioned behind the piano, Yo-Yo Ma observed intently. After working out the appropriate clave structure, they stretched out over several similarly dynamic explorations of “Lagrimas Negras,” which D’Rivera recently had recorded with Valdes and flamenco singer El Cigala on a CD of that name.

Applause erupted when they were done. The photographers broke down equipment, the musicians dispersed, and D’Rivera packed up, ready for a short dinner break and a Carnegie Hall evening rehearsal for the orchestral portion of “Fifty Years and Ten Nights In Show Business.”
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Earlier, at 10-sharp, D’Rivera, wearing a crisply pressed cranberry guayabera and blue flowered bowtie, briskly entered the Patrons’ Room at the Buckingham Hotel, a block down 57th Street from Carnegie Hall, for a photo session.  Soon, Bebo Valdes strolled in, fortified against the chill  in a down jacket from and plaid flannel shirt from Sweden, where he eventually settled after leaving Cuba in 1960. At 86, he sustained an endless smile, carrying his six-and-a-half foot frame with only a slight stoop. As Bebo and co-producer Ettore Strata mock-conducted to a photographed score of Paderewski’s “Minuet,” Cachao, on a cane, slipped in like a shadow, a wry smile on his face.

After a succession of hugs and poses, the room emptied. With saxophonist Enrique Fernandez translating, the legends, born a month apart in 1918, sat on a couch and reminisced about D’Rivera’s  father, Tito, a skilled saxophonist who sold instruments, musical accessories and records at his Havana music store. When Paquito was 5, Tito bought him a Selmer soprano saxophone,  taught him to play it, and played him records by Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie with Lester Young, Tito’s favorite saxophonist. He even introduced him to bebop.

“One day he came home with a 10-inch LP, and said, ‘I want you to hear something,’” D’Rivera recalls. “It was Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker!” He sings the refrain of “Thriving On a Riff” from 1945. “We heard the whole thing in total silence, and after the last note he asked me, ‘Did you like it?’ I said, ‘No. What about you?’ He said, ‘Me either. But they are good musicians, huh?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what is so confusing. I can’t understand anything, but I can feel that this is something special.’ So we kept listening. My father had played in a military band, and although he hated the military, he kept that discipline. But in some ways, he was very open-minded.”

Cachao worked with Tito D’Rivera as early as 1934 in a singing group called the Martinez Brothers, and later purchased bass strings from his store. “My first experience with Paquito was performing a clarinet and orchestra piece by Weber with the Havana Philharmonic when he was 12,” he said. “Even then he was more dedicated to jazz than anything else, but Tito imposed a lot of discipline. Paquito was complete.”

Bebo Valdes interjected an anecdote. “Way before Paquito was born, Tito was a boyfriend of a beautiful mulata named Silvia,” he said with a laugh. “I was a boyfriend of her sister, so the four of us always went out together. I played with him a lot at the Rivoli, which was a place for blacks and whites. He was a very good musician and a great person. When I started working at the Tropicana, the famous Havana nightclub, he sold instruments to the musicians who worked there. If somebody couldn’t pay the weekly fee for the instruments, he’d say, ‘Another week will come; don’t worry about it.’”

Then he became serious. “Paquito plays the saxophone divinely, with a really high range,” he said firmly. “But the clarinet is a thousand times more difficult than the saxophone, and I consider Paquito’s execution as good as any I’ve seen in my life. He’s a great soloist on both instruments in any genre or style, and he knows the very old traditional music from Cuba. His range is formidable. Now he’s focusing a lot on the music of South America, particularly things that are happening in Brazil and Argentina.”

Cachao emphasized that D’Rivera, in his insistence on addressing all styles of music with idiomatic thoroughness, follows the aesthetic imperatives that molded music in pre-revolutionary Cuba.

“In our day,” Cachao said, “the CMQ radio station and clubs like the Tropicana brought in artists from all over the world. You had to be ready to play with them all. Paquito follows that tradition. It’s his opinion as well as ours that the musician has no borders. Nationalities are not important.”
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Surprisingly, D’Rivera states that he had no interest in a pan-American aesthetic when he lived in Cuba, perhaps because, during his teens, the regime propounded a cultural nationalist line that frowned on jazz as a counter-revolutionary Yanqui diversion. Official opprobrium seemed to strengthen the youngster’s resolve to use jazz and improvisation as a vehicle for free expression. Informed by a samizdat of bootleg cassettes and Willis Conover’s Voice of America broadcasts, D’Rivera soaked up vocabulary from Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Thad Jones, Joe Henderson, Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. The learning curve accelerated after 1967, when the authorities, switching gears, authorized the creation of an orchestra devoted to jazz. Within several years, Irakere, the Cuban super-group, took shape.

In 1980, when D’Rivera was 32, he landed in Madrid for a tour with Irakere, ran up a down escalator to escape his handlers, and famously defected. “I was stranded in Madrid, and a group of musicians from Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay got me a gig in a place called Dallas Jazz Club,” he recalls. “It was the first time I mixed jazz standards and some originals with Brazilian and Cuban music, and tango.

“The environment in New York enabled me to explore further. I always prefer to have around me people who want to analyze all types of music and try to play them correctly. It’s like being in a school, but a mutual investigation. I am just the director.”

During a pizza break at Carroll Studios, some of D’Rivera’s colleagues commented on the qualities that distinguish his tonal personality. All spoke of his instrumental virtuosity and aesthetic scope. But they also referred to his voracious curiosity and energy, his insistence on mastering the details—in short, the attitude that enables an exile to create a room of one’s own in a foreign land.

“Paquito plays Brazilian music with the feeling of Brazilian people—the same heart, almost the same culture,” Romero Lubambo stated. “He doesn’t just play popular music, like the samba,” Portinho added. “He is able to play chorinhos, the classical Brazilian music which is very difficult to play right.”

“It’s been a real trial by fire education,” said Chicago-born Mark Walker, D’Rivera’s drummer of choice since 1989. “We go to all these South American and Caribbean countries, get the CDs, hang out with the cats. Sometimes, Paquito wants to play a rhythm from that place the night we arrive.”

“He understands the rhythmic cell of each musical style, which is why when he mixes them, one doesn’t sound like the other,” said Alon Yavnai, an Israeli of Argentine descent. “He’s a lizard. Not cold-blooded, of course, but he can change the colors, and still you know it’s Paquito D’Rivera after a couple of notes. I also love how quickly he thinks on stage. He gives a lot of freedom, and he’s unpredictable. Tunes don’t sound the same; today he plays one solo he will never play again. But again, his personality is always there.”
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“Now I have to forget everything,” D’Rivera said.

An hour before the concert, he betrayed no tension at the prospect of performing polyglot repertoire with constantly shifting personnel configurations—and also serving as his own emcee—before a sold-out house at the world’s most prestigious venue.   Still in soundcheck gear of t-shirt and jeans, he stood in the common area that centers Carnegie Hall’s third floor dressing rooms, examining a table laden with depleted trays of fried pork, meatballs, fried peppers, rice in squid ink, humus, and an enormous cold salmon flown in that day from Alaska by a friend, the proprietress of a restaurant called Ludwig.

“I didn’t recognize her,” D’Rivera remarked. “I could not believe that somebody flew from Alaska with a salmon to come to this concert! Really it’s the whole world!”

D’Rivera greeted the indifferent 3-year-old daughter of New York Voices singer Lauren Kinhan, talked numbers with producer Pat Philips, and laughed uproariously at the antics of concert host Bill Cosby, who made a beeline for the room in which Cachao and Bebo sat. With twenty minutes to spare, he finally made his way upstairs to change.

On stage at 8:05 sharp, Cosby stated, “The gentleman who is honoring…himself has done a brilliant job.” He concluded the roast with the observation that D’Rivera’s “shoes, when you see them, will be out of season.” Wearing white boots to complement his black suit, D’Rivera riposted. “I have not enough words in my limited English language,” he said, as Cosby departed for the wings, “to thank Mr. Bing Crosby…”

For the next three hours, D’Rivera—sustaining a steady stream of jokes and patter, moving traffic, playing immaculate ensembles, soloing with inspiration, and eying an 11 o’clock witching hour at which union overtime began—might have been presiding over a party in his living room. There were many highlights. A polyrhythmic, overtone-rich solo on “Andalucia” by Columbian harp prodigy Edmar Castaneda with the Caribbean Jazz Project. An abstract D’Rivera clarinet variation on “Why Not?” counterstating pianist Michel Camilo’s  florid declamation; a leaping solo on “Adagio,” framed by the Youth Orchestra of the Americas, conducted by Tania Leon, his conservatory classmate; a delicate duet with the harmonized a capella voices of Kinhan and Kim Nazarian on “Modinha.”

The chamber trios with Yo-Yo Ma and Alon Yavnai matched the intensity of the rehearsals. Cosby emerged to introduce the Cuban elders, remarking, “I think we should do this at the Museum of Natural History.” Striking the drum with his shaved head to punctuate the beats, Candido uncorked a showmanship solo, but Bebo and Cachao, perhaps fatigued after a three-hour wait in the dressing room, played with far less vigor than the previous day.

Fifteen minutes remained for the four orchestral pieces—a set of Gershwin variations showcasing D’Rivera’s wife, soprano Brenda Feliciano—and things got sloppy. At the closing vamp of the finale, “To Brenda With Love,” performed by D’Rivera’s sextet and the orchestra, Spanish flamenco dancer Raphael Tamargo, in a white-on-white suit-shirt ensemble, twirled, gesticulated, and stomped, resolving into a pirouette and a hand-clasp with the leader.

At the after-party, D’Rivera, momentarily anonymous at the bar, briefly bemoaned the union’s inflexible overtime policy. “Even in Germany, they’re more reasonable,” he said with some asperity. He sipped from a glass of red wine.

“My father was very strict about making sure that I kept a level head and didn’t let my ego get too inflated,” he said, shaking his head at the audacity of having made himself the centerpiece of such an expansive evening. “Confidence is a completely different thing, but there is a very thin line between them.”

* * *

Paquito D’Rivera Piece From 2009:

“There was a great Cuban folklorist-writer called Lydia Cabrera, who went to study in Paris in the 1920s, and started missing her land,” said Paquito D’Rivera, relaxing in his dressing room at Manhattan’s Blue Note, a few hours before hitting the bandstand with his quintet. “She said, ‘I discovered Cuba from the bank of the Seine River.’ I discovered Latin America on the banks of the Hudson River.”

This process began in 1980, when D’Rivera, then 32, while on tour with the Cuban super-group Irakere, ran up a down escalator in the Madrid airport to escape his Cuban handlers, and famously defected. “Spain was my first Latin Jazz gig,” he stated. “Irakere was just a dance band that played some concerts—Cuban music mixed with classical and rock. But in Spain, I met up with a group of Argentineans, Brazilians, and Uruguayan musicians—they played Samba, tango some candomble from Uruguay. I started learning all those styles. Then here in New York, I had the opportunity to work with the Brazilians, who are people not from another country but another planet. I have dedicated a big part of my career, to Brazilian music. But I also like Venezuela, and Argentinean tango and Mexican guapango, too.”

D’Rivera wore a red guayabana shirt, crisply pressed black pants and well-shined black shoes. His face revealed deeply chiseled embouchure lines from a lifetime spent blowing on his array of wind instruments—he made his public debut as a six-year-old curved soprano saxophonist, graduated to clarinet a few years later, and launched his alto saxophone investigations at 11.

Deploying excellent English, he continued his account of becoming a polylingual musician. “In fact, this started in Cuba,” he said. “I composed one of my most popular pieces, ‘Wapango,’  in 1970 for the Carlos Azerhoff Saxophone Quartet. Later, I arranged it for strings and jazz groups and all that. For Irakere, I wrote ‘Molto Adagio,’ which is the second movement of the Mozart Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, arranged in a bluesy way. I like doing all those hybrids. Now I prefer to have around me people who want to analyze all types of music and try to play them correctly. It’s like being in a school, but a mutual investigation. I am just the director.”

In his predisposition to present repertoire drawn from a pan-American stew of musical flavors, addressed with attention to a full complement of idiomatic detail,  D’Rivera—who spent his first decade in the U.S. working extensively with ur-one-worlder Dizzy Gillespie, and employed such avatars of hybridity as Danilo Perez and Edward Simon in the piano chair in various ‘90s iterations of his quintet—has had an enormous impact on the development of jazz thinking over the past two decades. In truth, his musical production hews to the aesthetic imperatives that guided Cuba’s incomparable musicians before the revolution terminated the casino-fueled economy that had provided them gainful employment and offered them first-hand contact with musicians from around the world.

This reality came forth in a conversation several years ago with the late bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez, who was playing bass when D’Rivera, then 12, performed Weber’s clarinet concerto with the Havana Symphony. “In our day,” Cachao said, “the CMQ radio station and clubs like the Tropicana brought in artists from all over the world. You had to be ready to play with them all. Paquito follows that tradition. It’s his opinion as well as ours that the musician has no borders. Nationalities are not important.”

Another continuity that links D’Rivera to his Cuban antecedents is his formidable command of all his instruments, not least the clarinet, as evidenced by his 2009 “Best” award in Downbeat’s Readers Poll. Sitting with Cachao in that same conversation, pianist Bebo Valdes, like Cachao a friend of D’Rivera’s saxophonist father Tito from the 1930s, stated: “Paquito is  a great soloist on both instruments in any genre or style. He plays the saxophone divinely, with a really high range. But the clarinet is a thousand times more difficult than the saxophone, and I consider Paquito’s execution as good as any I’ve seen in my life.”

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You like to quote a Frank Wess quip that the clarinet, which is made of five pieces, was invented by five men who never met. However, by your account in your memoir, My Sax Life, you’ve had two extremely good instruments. In 1959, your father got you a Selmer, and then in 1997, you ordered a custom-made clarinet.

I used Selmers all my life, because my father was the representative of the company in Havana. He had a very small office, about as big as this room! He even had contrabasses and tubas in it. He ordered for me a covered-hole, center-tone Selmer. Covered hole because I was very skinny, my fingers were thin, and he was concerned that I would not be able to cover the holes. That instrument is now in the Smithsonian Institute. Together with that, he ordered the open hole model, which he gave me when I knew the fingering of the instrument. That’s the clarinet I played until 1997, when Luis Rossi, from Santiago, Chile, made for me this wonderful instrument that I play now, which is made not out of black wood, but rosewood.

The great Al Gallodoro, who passed away a couple of years ago, when he was 95 years old, called what I play the “smart man clarinet.” It’s an instrument with 7 rings and an articulated g-sharp on the left hand, like a saxophone. It’s very comfortable. Benny Goodman used it for a little while, and also Artie Shaw, but the instrument never had success. For some reason. I’ve gotten so used to it that for me it’s very hard to play a regular, 17-key clarinet. When I showed my old Selmer to Buddy DeFranco, he told me, “Wow! Too many keys in the way!”

You played your first public concert at six in Havana, on curved soprano saxophone. Which jazz clarinetists did you hear and assimilate when you were young?

Benny was the first American musician who impressed me—that concert he recorded in Carnegie Hall in 1938, with Lionel Hampton and Ziggy Elman, Harry James, and the wonderful Teddy Wilson. Then Artie Shaw, and of course, Jimmy Hamilton from the Ellington band. But Benny playing swing—my father never used the word jazz, only “swing,” even if it was Ornette Coleman—but also Benny’s rendition of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. It was very illuminating at that tender age, that Ellington concept that there are only two kinds of music—good and the other stuff.

I tried to assimilate the different styles by copying them. I copied Benny with the soprano. Later on, my father came home with a 78 recording of Buddy DeFranco playing “Out of Nowhere.” [SINGS SOLO] When Buddy started improvising, I said, “Wow! What is that? A clarinet playing bebop?”—I’d already heard Dizzy and Bird. But a clarinet was not supposed to do that. What I heard in my ears was Jimmy Hamilton and Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. So this guy is going [SINGS FAST BEBOP LINE] [DO-PE-DO-DE-DIDDLE-PLA...] with a clarinet! Wow, what a surprise! So  I started trying to copy Buddy DeFranco. It’s normal to try to copy your idols when you are a kid. But my first idol was Benny, and he still is today. Sound is the main thing in music, and he had that characteristic clarinet sound. I used to transcribe not only Benny’s solo, but Toots Mondello and Harry James, and even Gene Krupa’s playing, and tried to copy some Lionel Hampton solos. [SINGS LIONEL HAMPTON LICK VERBATIM]

You wrote that your progression was from soprano to clarinet to alto saxophone, and that your father taught you alto saxophone with the Marcel Mulé method, the French school.

Yes. The French School was very strong in my formation. My dad had the Conjunto Sinfonico de Saxophones—Symphonic Group of Saxophones—in 1943, I believe. That was the year after Marcel Mulé was appointed professor of saxophone at the Paris Conservatory, and founded his saxophone quartet. He started bringing all those books, and the pieces that were written for Marcel Mule by Jacques Ibert, Eugene Bozza, and many others. I grew up listening to and playing that music with a pianist friend of my father. It’s hard to explain why French music is so influential on my style, but I feel it. Maybe in using the staccato a lot when blowing the saxophone. Most jazz players play legato lines. Very few use the staccato—Wynton Marsalis, Claudio Roditi, I can’t think of anyone else. It comes from classical training.

You’ve said that it was your father’s ambition for you to be a clarinetist in the symphony orchestra.

Yes, I did it for a while. But I like improvised music, and didn’t feel happy in the orchestra as a main gig. So I did it for a while, and I did some chamber music, which  I enjoy even more than the symphony. I went with my father to play in stage bands, with the second or first clarinet. Even in cabarets. When I started playing the alto, at 11 or 12, I’d go to a cabaret that had a variety show, and my father would say, “please let the kid play the show.” And the guy was happy. “Ok!” He’d go to the bar and I’d play the show for nothing. I had my uniform and everything. I was very tall. It was important to my father that I learn how to play in a section, not only by myself. He’d bring home the third alto book for me to learn the notes. I did different types of things, as did many Cuban musicians, who had to do any type of music for surviving. I still maintain that tendency. Of course, improvised music, jazz, is my favorite, but I love playing other things. I love the complexity of Igor Stravinsky’s music. Bartok. Certain composers are more appealing to some jazz people because they are hippest. But how do you explain what is more hip? There is something hip about Stravinsky. Brahms is a hip composer. Milhaud. Ravel. Debussy. They have more affinity with the jazz language.

When you played jazz early on, was it on clarinet or saxophone?

Mostly on the saxophone. I was into Charlie Parker then, and later on Paul Desmond. Jackie McLean I liked also—it’s amazing how he could swing playing one note, even if he played it out of tune!

In a New York Times performance review, Ben Ratliff wrote: “No performer should be at full voltage all the time, and the clarinet subdues Mr. D’Rivera’s super-abundant energy.” Is that a remark you can relate to?

I  think that’s right. When you maintain the same energy all the time, it can be boring. The alto and clarinet have totally different personalities. It’s two instruments that are cousins, like Palestinians and Israelis. They don’t get along! Clarinet players that try to play the saxophone with the same concept, it’s not going to work.

My father was a saxophone player, and didn’t know how to play clarinet. Later on, he bought one, and learned to play it. I’m not sure who taught him. But suddenly, he showed up at home playing the clarinet, then he showed me how to play. My father was a self-taught person. He went to school only to the sixth grade, because he had to work in a printing press. He told me it was so hard, and when he was 15-16 years old, he decided to buy a saxophone. He learned how to play with friends.

Was there a clarinet tradition in Cuban music? There’s a flute tradition in Cuban charanga music.

It’s a different type of flute, what you call the 5-key flute. But yes, there was a clarinet tradition that was lost. The clarinet was never a soloist. So it’s a tradition, but not a strong tradition of clarinet playing there.

So for you as a young person, the clarinet was more a window into classical music.

Classical and some swing also, because of Benny Goodman.

Can we say that the alto saxophone was more your improvising instrument?

Yes, especially because of Parker.

How did your sensibility on the clarinet evolve over the years? Now you use it…

More and more. Mario Bauza gave me a clarinet and a mouthpiece when I came here; after my ex-wife sent me my old center-tone Selmer from Cuba, I gave it back to him. Mario and Dizzy said, “You should play the clarinet more; there’s not too many clarinet players around.” The scene for the clarinet was not very encouraging. It still is not. It’s improving, but it’s there’s still very few of us. It’s too much sacrifice for something that people really don’t feel. It’s easier to feel the sound of the flute.

Do you mean feel physically?

Both physically and musically. To make the clarinet sound hip into the world of modern jazz, it takes double or triple or quadruple the effort than with the saxophone. For that, you have to love the instrument. You buy a flute and go [SINGS ‘FHWOOOO’]—it’s hip already. Only the sound of the wind. FHWOOOO. It swings already, like a trombone. The trombonist goes, BWOOH, and it swings, like a baritone saxophone. But to make a sopranino swing, it’s a pain in the ass!

An LP that inspired me to play the clarinet again was Breaking Through by Eddie Daniels, with arrangements by the great Argentinean composer-arranger Jorge Calandrelli, who arranged for Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett and so many others. Jorge told me about it. I hadn’t heard of Eddie Daniels in years, just from playing tenor with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. I didn’t know that he played the clarinet. I felt so inspired. Wow! Clarinet again! Mario and Dizzy were right. So I started playing it more and more. Eddie gave me the encouragement that I needed. He started getting big after that. He revolutionized the clarinet world.

I enjoyed your autobiography, My Sax Life. You write the way you talk, which is no small accomplishment.

I sent the manuscript to a friend who grew up with me in the neighborhood. When I called her, she started crying and said, “That book is like talking to you.” I said, “Is that good or bad?” “It’s great!”

A common theme from your musical partners is that, for all your extreme technique, you’re also a very spontaneous player who doesn’t repeat solos, plays fresh things, remains in the moment.

I agree. Many young players—and among them many Cuban young players—have a tendency to overuse technique. Weapons are to use when you need them. You use technique if you need it to play a certain thing. If not, it sounds like an imposition. It’s supposed to sound effortless. Some people use it and try to make it look harder than it really is.

In the book you convey a conversation with Maraca Valles, the Cuban flutist, where he offers an opinion that the quality of aggressiveness you just mentioned amongst younger Cuban musicians reflects the tension and generalized anxiety in their lives. of the musicians. At the end of last year, you debuted your first all-Cuban band since moving to the States.

That was a fantastic thing, to work with people like Charles Flores, the wonderful bass player, who has worked with Michel Camilo. I heard talk about him all the time, Manuel Valera played  piano—his father is an old friend of mine. We have a very good guitar player and singer (a tenor) who came from Canada, Mario Luis Ochoa.  Ernesto Simpson, a great drummer. Pedrito Martinez was singing and playing percussion. Pedrito is one of the most talented Cuban musicians around. He plays the percussion instruments beautifully, and he is one of the few Cuban percussionists who understand Brazilian music. That is another groove that they don’t mix. Like the Palestinians and the Israelis! They are cousins, but I remember a Cuban entertainer in Spain who told me, “Cubans don’t understand Samba and Brazilians will never understand clave.”

Why?

Nobody can explain that to me. I don’t see any reason. We are cousins. Even the same African religions and all that. But Pedrito can play the bandera very well. Pedrito understands any type of music very easily, and especially Brazilian music.

It’s hard to maintain that band, though. If you live in Miami or in Cuba, you have Cuban musicians all over the place, but here you don’t have ten Cuban trumpet players and four bassists. You only have one or two. So I only do it once in a while. My goal is to do a Cuban big band one day. Mostly we played modern Cuban music. It was an experiment. I wanted to feel it, and it was very nice. One day I will organize it again. I want to record. But I have to work with my regular quintet. I am in love with that band, too.

Did you play percussion instruments when you were younger?

I think most Cuban musicians know how to play a little bit. I know how to play a conga, for example. Or a bongo. For five minutes. After that, I look for someone else.  Folkloric rhythms were part of the decor. It was on the radio, with my mother sewing and cooking and listening to Celia Cruz, and danzones and so on.

How is your relationship with the younger musicians, who grew up under Castro? For example, at the beginning of the ‘90s there was sniping between you and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. I know that’s long in the past…

Yes, it’s in the past. Now I understand them. They are sick and tired of listening to talk about politics and all that. They want to keep that behind them. It’s a totally different way of thinking. They grew up with that thing there, and they have ties with it. In my opinion, they see Cuba like a total disaster, but it’s like home. Then they come here, and this is different. They don’t have—and this is an assumption—the intention to change that for a better life. They want to help their family, send some money, send some medicine. They have no intention to protest, to denounce the atrocities—and I understand it. These new kids ignore the government. I cannot do it!.

With the transitions have occurred in Cuba over the past few years, what would you like to see transpire?

A normal country. That’s all we want.

By what process? What’s a realistic scenario?

With these people, there are no realistic ways. They don’t want to recognize the reality. So the realistic thing, no. I think the ideal thing is what happened in South Africa, what happened in Czechoslovakia, and what happened in Spain. Forget what happened, let’s start something new, blah-blah-blah. Czechoslovakia had the Velvet Revolution, and the country is working perfectly. The same thing with Spain and in South Africa. At least they didn’t kill each other or anything. But in Cuba they don’t want to change anything. People love to put words in their mouth. “No, they are going to change.” “No-no, I’ve been telling you for fifty years, we are not going to change nothing. We are going to PERFECT this piece of shit.”

So predicting what is going to happen, nobody knows. It’s too complicated. So like Americans say, let’s hurry up and wait.

Romero Lubambo once remarked, “Paquito always brings you to your limit, and then past it.” I suppose the corollary is that you’re as demanding of yourself.

Musicians sometimes don’t know how good they are. I force myself also to do things, and they force me to do things because they are high quality. When you are over 50 years in a profession, and you look back and see that your work has been fruitful, and you have conquered the love and respect of your peers, it’s an accomplishment. Those are my friends, part of my family, my musical family, the people who work with me. I learned a lot from Claudio Roditi, for example, and also from Fareed Haque, the guitarist, and from Michel Camilo, who knows Venezuelan music so well. Also Oscar Stagnaro, my bass player, who is my scout.

You launched your imprint, Paquito Records, last year with Funk Tango, which won the Latin Grammy. Will there be a followup in the catalogue?

My second project will be Benny at One Hundred. Actually, “Benny At One Hundred” is the name of the first movement of a sonata that was commissioned by the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival. The first movement is dedicated to Benny Goodman, and it’s dedicated to his centenary, which is this year. I’m planning to go to the studio at the end of November and record  that movement and other pieces.

When my father, who was a classical saxophone player, played me that LP, Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall, that changed my life until today. Jazz is still my favorite activity in my life. For me, it used to have a political connotation—I wanted to play only jazz in Cuba to contradict what the Establishment said. But I love improvising. It’s the result of a multinational country. The result is a multinational style of music, and you can add anything, and if you keep the spirit of this music, it still is called jazz. I love what Herbie Hancock said many years ago when he was asked what is jazz, and he said, “something impossible to define and very easy to recognize.”

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Gunther Schuller a few years ago wanted to do a music school  for professional musicians, not to play like Jascha Heifetz, but to play the violin so you can do a jingle in the morning, and then the opera, and learn to improvise a little bit. But now, the art of improvisation is a mystery for classical musicians. I remember the face of terror on a very fine young trombonist I wanted him to play not in a jazz style, but on top of a montuno that I was playing with the rhythm section—WHAAP-WHAAP, PING-PING-PING, WHAAP from A-flat to B-flat. That’s it. He looked at me so terrorized, like he saw Adolf Hitler or something! WHAAP-WHAAP, That is something that is missing in the music schools, on both sides. Of course, nobody paid attention to Gunther Schuller. But that was a great idea, to open a music school where people learn how to play Brahms and how to play Monk.

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Filed under Clarinet, Cuba, DownBeat, Interview, Paquito D'Rivera

For Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s 51st Birthday, A DownBeat Feature From 2006

Master pianist-composer Gonzalo Rubalcaba turns 51 today. Three years ago, I posted a couple of interviews and a review of his brilliant self-produced solo piano album, Faith. They might provide an interesting context for the DownBeat feature, posted below, that I was given the opportunity to write in 2006.

 

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Since he emigrated from Cuba in 1992, Gonzalo Rubalcaba has embodied the adage  that discretion is the better part of valor, communicating to his public primarily through the medium of notes and tones.

“If you talk about things far away from your main function, it gives people an opportunity to be confused,” the pianist  said. “It’s frustrated me that people refer to me in two directions—politically or about virtuosity. I am not a political man, but like everyone I have a right to express my feelings about my country, its history, the government. But people have interpreted my words as though I were a politician speaking, and the repercussions are heavy.”

One such repercussion was a picket line whose members spat, threw bottles and waved Cuban flags to greet Rubalcaba on the occasion of his Miami debut in 1996. But during a week in New York last June in support of his current release, Solo [Blue Note], Rubalcaba, who is now a U.S. citizen, spoke at length on the aforementioned subjects, on aesthetics, and on his own personal history.

“I try to be balanced; nothing in this life is black or white,” Rubalcaba said. “To make the more radical people in the Cuban community feel happy about you, you have to adopt a certain a way of speaking, and apparently I never did it. The other part of the community says, ‘You are a Communist; you should say that everything is bad.’ I had serious health problems from the time I was born, and I never went outside Cuba for treatment. It wasn’t only because of that—we have our faith, our hope, things we really believe. But I was treated by wonderful doctors and a great hospital. Why not say that? It’s my truth. Now that’s destroyed. I have to support my mom in Cuba, send her medicine, money, everything to keep her alive.”

From the distance of exile, Rubalcaba notes, he is “in a stronger position to discover what happened in Cuban history.” On the other hand, despite the large Cuban emigre population and strong Latino culture in Miami, an hour south of Rubalcaba’s home, he is no longer directly connected to the Cuban street, and therefore is cut off from the raw materials that fed his imagination in formative years.

How has he sustained his muse? “One thing is to be updated about what happens in your country,” he responded. “Another is to have that sense of nationality inside you. You can’t explain it, but you feel that way, and that’s enough. That makes you different, because since birth you put together what you saw and heard, what they told you, the spectrum of colors and sounds, how you understand light, your sense of rhythm, the way you walk and speak and communicate. How to live.”

In the process of putting together Solo, a lyric meditation on the classical and folkloric canons of Cuba and the points at which they intersect with jazz, Rubalcaba, 43, thought long and hard about issues of identity.

“I’ve always looked for music as a space where I can throw everything I know and feel,” he said. “The ability to get into different styles and languages is typical in Latin-American musicians. They move around the world, assimilating everything possible to make them powerful artists. And the way they think they are powerful is working in different areas. For example, a lot of writers work in musicology, in novels, in social studies. In music, we see the same. It’s not just Cubans. Astor Piazzolla left Argentina looking to develop his career. He established himself in Paris, and when he returned to Argentina he was criticized because nobody understood exactly what he was doing with the tango. But the tango we hear today is 100 percent Piazzolla.”

On Solo, Rubalcaba applies that paradigm, interpreting 20th century Cuban composers—“serious” music by Almadeo Roldan, Sergio Fernando Barroso, and Rolando Bueno, boleros by Rafael Hernandez (“Silencio”) and Conseulo Velazquez (“Besame Mucho”)—and signifying upon them with his own syncretic pieces.

“European culture had a strong presence in Cuba in the ’30s and ’40s,” Rubalcaba said. “Composers like Roldan and Alejandro Garcia Cartula, for example, used tools from the European school to tell their own stories, their own roots and traditions, on the level that we know as classical music.”

As an example, he analyzed Roldan’s “Cancion de Cuna del Niño Negro (Lullaby For A Black Child),” which appears on Solo. “The melody is not exactly a folk melody, but Roldan’s vision of how a folk melody sounds, and he placed it in a form that mirrors Europe,” he said. “There is the ambiance of the Impressionist composers. But the score shows us that the left hand, the ostinato, does not work as a French or Russian composer would do it. It’s against the beat, as in popular Cuban music—as we dance, as we accent and phrase our speech. My challenge was to combine the worlds of interpretation—my vision of that music—and improvisation.”

Asked if the experience of living in another culture has illuminated the raw materials of his formative years and made them resonate in different ways, he responded affirmatively.

“This depends on each person,” he added. “For example, people in Cuba refused to use cowbell or congas or maracas or timbales; they said that the real music was straight ahead and bebop. They moved. A few years later, after you’re supposed to see them work with the top representatives of the hardest music in the world, they start to include bongos and congas. Are we talking about feelings or a pose? Many people adopt things because they believe it’s a way to call attention to themselves and to appear in front of people as the most pure, 100 percent national from Cuba or wherever.”

Rubalcaba carries the Cuban vernacular in his DNA. His grandfather, Jacobo, who lived in Pinar del Rio, Cuba’s westernmost province, was a conductor, a brass player, and a noted composer of danzons, such as “El Cadete Constitucional,” which Rubalcaba performed on Super Nova, a 2002 trio project. His father, pianist Guillermo, still active at 78, spent the ’50s with the charanga orchestra of Enrique Jorrin, inventor of the cha-cha-cha; he now directs Charanga Rubalcaba, a traditioncentric unit, and has toured over the past decade with such nostalgia ensembles as the Afro-Cuban All Stars and Buena Vista Social Club.

At 6, Rubalcaba asked his parents for a drum. “It was not easy to find an instrument at that time in Cuba, but they found a very rustic drum,” he said. “I played it and the timbales, congas, bongos, and maracas in our family band. So I went into music through percussion. When I was of age to apply to the classical school, they rejected me. I had no rhythm sense, they said. My father and one brother refused the test result. They repeated the test in front of them, and I passed. I wanted to be in the percussion department, and they said I wasn’t the right age; I had to choose between piano or violin, and my mom persuaded me to choose piano. In my second year I got lucky with a teacher, and I developed. A few years later, the principal asked if I still wanted to be part of the percussion department, and I said, ’Yes, but I don’t want to leave the piano.’”

He grew up in Centro Havana, a neighborhood he describes as not unlike a U.S. inner city district. “Simple people, full of folklore. Street people. Tough people. You’d see a wonderful party, religious or not religious, and at the same time a big fight and a knife. That was a tremendously strange picture, because I was living in that reality but getting Mozart and Beethoven and Impressionism at school.

“The classical school in Cuba talks too much about European music and not about Cuban traditions or folklore,” Rubalcaba continued. “One of our mistakes, as with all revolutions in history, was trying to eliminate our past. When my generation were kids, the revolution was trying to create a society where everything was new, so we had problems being able to listen to Arsenio Rodriguez or Celia Cruz or Cachao or Beny More or Peruchin or Bebo Valdes or Frank Emilio. We heard Spanish pop music and music from Eastern Europe. Jazz was prohibited; it was the music of the enemy. They prohibited rock musicians because they did not want the new revolutionary young people to be dressed like them with long hair—this was synonymous with capitalism.”

While immersing himself in the European legacy by day, Rubalcaba spent evenings in various Havana venues playing with the giants of Cuban pop—Orquesta Aragon and Los Van Van, singers Omara Portuendo and Elena Bourque, salsero Isaac Delgado. He crystallized those influences into the funky timba style that would become Cuba’s lingua franca in the ‘90s, and also into a distinctive jazz vision, one deploying unstoppable technique towards articulating a sensibility that drew on the harmonic lexicon of Bill Evans and the follow-the-line imagination of Herbie Hancock.

Rubalcaba learned the codes of older Cuban styles first hand from his father and his cronies, a veritable who’s-who of Cuban pop. “I saw them discuss how to do this and that, telling the story of how the music was played 30 or 40 years before,” he said. “But I found a sound that matched the time I lived in. Timba is the bolero, cha-cha-cha, rumba, conga, danzon, proposed in a very contemporary way. It extended the tradition. Timba represents the dynamic of Cuban society, the way people think, look at things, make love. It’s also the way they criticize, which is ambiguous, because it’s their only outlet. They use that context to say what they usually cannot say.”

With the government’s permission, Rubalcaba emigrated from Cuba to the Dominican Republic in 1992, and moved to Florida in 1996. “I said that I would never choose the dramatic way—like taking a boat or swimming—to emigrate anywhere,” he said. “I knew the United States was the country where I should live. But I wanted to make that move with my family. To leave them and not know when I could see them again would have destroyed me mentally. So if we can do it together, that’s fine. If not…”

Rubalcaba departed at the onset of Cuba’s “special period,” when the regime, adjusting to the endemic economic and social problems spurred by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the concurrent loss of Russian subsidy, began to treat its musicians as exportable commodities. The repercussions to which he refers began full-force on the occasion of his American debut at Jazz at Lincoln Center in December 1993, four years after the U.S. State Department denied him a visa and forced the cancellation of a concert. In a New York Times profile before the event, Paquito D’Rivera, who had defected 13 years earlier under arduous circumstances, stated that the Cuban government was using Rubalcaba, saying, “they want to avoid his escaping, so they give him more freedom than anybody in Cuba has.”

“A few months earlier, I joined a double-bill concert in Valencia with my Cuban Quartet and Paquito’s group,” Rubalcaba recalled. “We saw each other at the soundcheck, and he was very gentle and sweet. I played first and he closed the show. He made a wonderful speech about me in front of the audience. Everything was fine.”

A few days before the concert, Blue Note President Bruce Lundvall invited D’Rivera to an informal welcoming party for Rubalcaba at the label’s offices. “I said, ‘Why not?’” Rubalcaba said. “I saw Paquito arrive. But when the party started, some people asked for pictures. Everybody came together—and Paquito disappeared without a word. It was a strange move. A mystery. I was in the middle of an intense schedule of interviews, and one guy gave me a letter Paquito had written for the New York Times. The minimum thing he said was nasty. I couldn’t respond. I had nothing to respond to.”

“I was among the first invited guests to arrive at the reception,” D’Rivera recalled by email. “Mr. Rubalcaba apparently wasn’t aware that when the press photographers asked for pictures, Don Lucoff, who was doing public relations for the company, discreetly called me to a corner and asked me to please stay away from the cameras, because Gonzalo was nervous that taking his picture with me on it could make it to the newspapers. Humiliated and deeply hurt, I quietly ran out, only to find out that Gonzalo had declared to the media that ‘Life in Cuba is not that bad.’ It was not that bad for him,  authorized by the Cuban dictatorship to reside abroad with his family, while most honorable Cuban families — mine included — were divided by that same government he was representing. I replied throughout the New York Times and other publications.”

Through the ensuing years, Rubalcaba developed and sustained an international career while absorbing slings and arrows from various factions of the Cuban diaspora. “It wasn’t just people involved in politics, but musicians, not only Paquito, but Arturo Sandoval, Manuel Valera, and many others, including people from my generation, people who played with me in Cuba, who know me personally,” he said. “They invented arguments, distorted my life, my essence as a human being. The motivation cannot be personal, because I never had a problem with any of them. I don’t know if it was politics or professional jealousy.

“The people who were forced to leave Cuba in the ’60s and ’70s lost everything, and we should respect their pain. They were separated from their families. They didn’t want to leave. They were forced to do it; they had a different point of view in terms of ideology and politics. I don’t feel able to criticize their position. I just want to know more about them. But this is not their position about the new generation. They attack and criticize. Not only that, they don’t give you space to be part of the society. I think they lost time talking about me, writing little letters. I know what I’m saying is kind of hard, but this is the way that I think.”

“At the beginning, I was a bit rushed, and pushed by the record company,” said Rubalcaba, contextualizing the bravura soloist-over-rhythm section quality of his numerous early ’90s all-star trio albums. “I was still in the process of feeling comfortable and safe. It took time to be part of the musical reality of the States, and meanwhile I was supposed to do something.”

As is evident on the trio disks Inner Voyage (1998) and Super Nova, Rubalcaba worked hard to assimilate the nuances of jazz syntax into his presentation. “Gonzalo just now is getting a real feel for playing trio piano,” said Ron Carter, who is responsible for the more conversational quality of Diz, Rubalcaba’s 1994 trio homage to the music of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. “He’s learned not to feel so responsible for all the ideas—all the good nights and bad nights—and to let the chips fall where they may. He understands some things are out of his control, which frees him to be even more creative.”

“I don’t pretend to be the best jazz player in the world,” Rubalcaba said. “A lot of reference and influence comes from jazz, but I am looking for something beyond that. When I heard my father’s records of Art Tatum and Charlie Parker, what put me in orbit was the importance of improvisation within the jazz form, how musicians interact and create another story in relation to the main thing, like composing another piece. Everybody was able at the same time to say their speech and their voice, and collaborate as a group. Then the question was to figure out what sign gave them the green light to develop this speech—how they came to play those harmonies and chords, how the bass player decided what line to do behind the saxophone player. With time, I understood that it wasn’t only about musical knowledge, but about spirituality, instinct, conversation.”

Rubalcaba referred to a family friend who taught him to read music. “At the beginning he told me: ‘Read music as you read the newspaper. You don’t know exactly what the newspaper will say tomorrow. But you get it and start to read.’ The music is an idiom, a language you have to control. Later I had composition lessons with Roberto Valera, a great contemporary Cuban composer. He said, ‘I will give you the tools to get a good balance, instrumentation, a good sound. But you have to feel the need to say things your own way, and I cannot teach you to do that.”

Not one to take his creative process for granted, Rubalcaba sustains freshness with a regimen reminiscent of a chess grandmaster.

“I have been touring for many years literally around the world—different contexts, different audiences, different weather,” he said. “But offstage is the time to look inside, to create a platform for developing my thoughts. I have a strict discipline, which I enjoy. At home, I wake up, and spend a minimum of 4-5-6 hours working with the instrument. Sometimes the work is technical. Sometimes I make time to read music that I am not going to play, which helps you think and interpret fluidly. How did composers in a certain period work? What harmonic ideas and harmonic statements did they develop? Why did Bill Evans or Monk or Peterson or Jelly Roll Morton play in the way they did? What historical moment made possible a figure like Duke Ellington? You don’t leave that in the room where you studied. You bring your knowledge with you. It helps you preserve the attitude to try to invent when you’re on stage.

“Talent and imagination is good, but not enough. I believe 100 percent in the history and culture of jazz. But there’s also a lot to learn about our music that nobody knows yet—especially the folkloric, religious music, which is so rich. There is also still a lot to hear from Europe. You find points in common. Roldan and Garcia Cartula were focused on developing their own heritage, but were also open to an interchange of opinions, of tools to do their music. They were fresh until the end of their lives. Everything they did contained something new, some risk, which to me is the most important thing in music.”

It is unclear when Rubalcaba will next have an opportunity to share his explorations with audiences in his homeland, where he has performed only once—at the 2002 Havana Jazz Festival—since he emigrated. “During those years, people around the world asked me, ’Why don’t you play in Cuba?’” he recalled. “I always said, ’Because they don’t want me to play there. When they extend an invitation, we’ll discuss conditions.’ Finally the invitation came, and I said, ’Why not?’ Against many people. But I was not thinking about those people. I was thinking that I had that responsibility. Many people came to see the show. But my feeling about the trip was split. On the one side, I had the joy to see my family, that people who really love me had the opportunity to see me play after many years. I hate to say it, but I also found mediocrity and jealousy, terrible actions from professionals, from musicians. Very sad.

“When the airplane started to fly over the island, when I saw the color of the earth and everything down there, automatically I said to myself, ’That’s Cuba; that’s my country; I feel that I am from here.’ Hours after, I still believed that, but I add something. I know I’m from here. I can feel it and smell it. But I am not any more part of that. It’s a big contradiction.”

At risk of amateur psychoanalysis, one might speculate that Rubalcaba’s Oedipal break from the fatherland has liberated his spoken voice. “I’m very happy saying what I’m thinking now,” he said. “I am not going too far. I think that to speak in this way now gives you the opportunity to speak that way tomorrow.”

 

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For Producer Creed Taylor’s 85th Birthday, A 2005 Downbeat Article and A Pair of Interviews Conducted For It

Today is the 85th birthday of Creed Taylor, who put his imprimatur on CTI Records in the early ’70s, after distinguished tenures at Bethlehem, Impulse (which he launched) and Verve. Downbeat gave me the opportunity to write a feature about Mr. Taylor in 2005, when he was launching a new online retail venture. I’m posting the final cut, plus a pair of interviews that I conducted for the piece.

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Known for his implacable self-confidence and laid-back urbanity through a  half-century in the jazz business, Creed Taylor grew up on a farm, a fact made apparent by the wrench-force handshake he offered after lunch on the Friday before July 4th. “I milked cows,” he explained, pointing to his forearm. New Yorkers streamed past towards holiday R&R. Taylor smiled. “I like it better here,” he added. Then he returned to his downtown office to tweak a software glitch that was wreaking havoc on the shopping cart field of his on-line retail business, http://www.ctijazz.com.

During the ‘50s, Taylor learned the ropes at Bethlehem, and built his reputation as a marketing-savvy, high concept producer for ABC-Paramount. In 1960, he convinced his ABC bosses to fund Impulse!, and signed John Coltrane, who would remain at the label until his death in 1967. During four years at the helm of Verve, he launched the Bossa Nova movement with Stan Getz and produced lushly orchestrated best-sellers with Wes Montgomery that remain a template for commercial jazz production. He continued to hone the pop jazz formula during a three-year partnership with Herb Alpert at A&M, and in 1969 launched a successful signature label, CTI (Creed Taylor, Incorporated), whose output of the ‘70s set the template for “smooth jazz.”

Taylor, 76, last produced a record in the mid-‘90s. Now he hires an outfit called Fulfillment House to buy, pack and ship reissues of his classic titles, all branded with his signature and the logo “Creed Taylor Presents.” Owned primarily by Universal and Sony-BMG, the albums reflect Taylor’s singular, detail-oriented aesthetic, built on meticulous ears, marketing savvy, keen design sense, and an intuitive feeling for the zeitgeist.

“The fundamental thing always, whatever idiom of music we recorded, was to go for a groove,” says Taylor, whose sides still resonate with dance-oriented deejays and remixers around the world. “With CTI we might keep the rhythm section playing for an hour on the same 12 bars—when it begins to sound like it’s just about to lock in, then you start to record. Of course, you have to start off with a good song. Now, Jobim was a genius beyond generations, who created melodies and harmonies that made the whole thing so appealing. Still, he would sit at the piano, or guitar, and work a samba groove over and over until it clicked. On Gil Evans’ Out of The Cool, we went four days without recording anything, because Gil couldn’t get it down on paper. Finally, Gil worked up a little groove with Tony Studd on bass trombone and the drummer. He wrote the chord changes on a four-bar riff on a matchbox, and handed it to Tony, who formed a bass pattern, and did the same with the lead trumpet and reed players. That became ‘La Nevada.’ On Blues and the Abstract Truth, Oliver Nelson knew exactly what he wanted, but it still took time to get the drum patterns down.

“You need a swinging foundation on which to put the improvisation. It’s like batting practice and pitching warm-ups before a baseball game. Then you come out and perform. I don’t see any difference.”

The son of a mill owner, Taylor, who worked comfortably with black artists throughout his career, grew up in Jim Crow times in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the western, Appalachian section of the state. “There was one black family, and their kids were my playmates,” he recalls. “It was like the racial thing didn’t happen, except for seeing  ‘whites’ and ‘colored’ drinking fountains at the Greyhound station, which shocked me.”

Situated “two mountain ridges over” from the Carter family, bluegrass—“hillbilly music, the real folk stuff”—was everywhere, and Taylor didn’t like it. By 10 he was listening to big bands on radio. Soon thereafter, he taught himself to play trumpet, and by16 was hitchhiking to hear every traveling dance band within striking distance. His most frequent destination was Roanoke, Virginia, 75 miles down the road, where such heroes as Woody Herman, Jimmy Dorsey, Sammy Kaye, and Benny Goodman played the all-white auditorium, counterpointing chitlin’ circuit one-nighters by Louis Jordan, Erskine Hawkins, Sister Rosetta Thorpe, Earl Bostic, and Billy Eckstine at a warehouse over the Norfolk & Western railroad tracks.

“The dynamics of my marketing thoughts might have begun then, with the perception that black audiences like one thing and white audiences like another,” says Taylor, who in the ‘70s created Kudu—named for an African antelope and bearing the colors of the Jamaican flag—as an R&B crossover label to coexist with CTI. “Keep the genre clear and easy to find.”

In 1947 Taylor matriculated at Duke. He graduated four years later with a degree in psychology, played in the school band, and moonlighted on local club and dance gigs. He describes as life-altering a night when pianist Claude Thornhill brought to campus his short-lived band with Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, Tony Scott, two french horns, and a book that included Gil Evans’ arrangements. Stan Kenton’s trombone-heavy arrangement of September Song, and Stan Getz’s recorded solos on “Early Autumn,” with Woody Herman, and “Autumn in Vermont,” with Johnny Smith, were other taste markers. So were Symphony Sid’s late night broadcasts from the Royal Roost and Birdland, which Taylor monitored; thus inspired, he periodically came to New York to get the sound of bebop first-hand, staying at a hotel near Bryant Park and frequenting the clubs of 52nd Street.

After two years in the Marines, including ten months of combat in Korea, Taylor settled in New York. He hung out, jammed, listened, observed, and formed as a first principle the notion that a recording and a live performance are different entities. Dates on Prestige or Blue Note or Verve might faithfully depict the heat-of-the-moment sound of a band in a Harlem or 52nd Street nightclub, but for Taylor they lacked nuance.

“I listened to a lot of Jazz at the Philharmonic records, and those extended solos didn’t make it for me,” he says. “The attention span can’t handle it. Obviously, I wasn’t thinking about audience participation and the excitement and the show business. The Prestige stuff was so rough. I immediately saw other things that could have been done with great soloists like Zoot Sims and Al Cohn by changing the drummer or something. Most records had no bass presence, and I liked the way Rudy Van Gelder could record it.”

Taylor would soon actualize his preference, booking Van Gelder to record a date for Bethlehem, a struggling independent owned by Gus Wildi, a Swiss businessman.“I told Gus I thought I could produce a record very economically,” Taylor recalls. He’d met singer Chris Connor while “hanging out at some recording sessions,” and matched her with pianist Ellis Larkins. “Chris dug up these great songs, and I packaged a ten-inch LP,” Taylor continues. “I got an announcer to introduce her on the record, and did little merchandising things. When she was booked into Birdland I put a life-sized statue out front. Things like that weren’t happening then, so it was a good idea.”

The record took off to the tune of 20,000 units, and Taylor was off and running. Over the next 18 months, he supervised some two dozen Bethlehem sessions by Oscar Pettiford, Carmen McRae, J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding, Charles Mingus, and Herbie Mann, often under  the marketing slogan “East Coast Jazz.” He moved to the newly formed ABC-Paramount label as a staff producer, and built a jazz catalog with musicians he’d worked with at Bethlehem, adding artists like Quincy Jones, Lucky Thompson, Don Elliott, and Kenny Dorham. He also oversaw strong-selling concept-driven projects—drinking ditties, World War I songs, flamenco, Montoya & Sabicas, Italian pop singer Nicola Paone, and “Creed Taylor Orchestra” theme albums—that earned him trust from his old-school bosses. This translated into budgetary freedom, and Taylor spent liberally on A-list photographers and classy graphic design to give his product a striking visual identity that augmented Van Gelder’s trademark sound.

At Impulse Taylor parlayed his assets, releasing albums by Jay & Kai, Ray Charles, Gil Evans, Oliver Nelson, and John Coltrane, branding them with gatefold jackets, orange-and-black spines, and the logo “The New Wave of Jazz is On Impulse.” He bet that “by identifying all the records with quality sound and packaging, radio stations that normally wouldn’t play, say, Gil Evans or Oliver Nelson, might go along for the ride”—and won.

In the summer of 1961, Norman Granz, whose laissez-faire blowing dates had alienated Taylor a decade before, sold Verve to MGM. Taylor took the reins. Within a year, Jazz Samba, the Charlie Byrd-Stan Getz collaboration that internationalized  Bossa Nova, was in the can.

“Charlie went to Brazil on a State Department tour, and met Jobim, who gave him these songs,” Taylor recalls. “Charlie recorded sketches, brought them home to Washington, D.C., got on the phone with myself and with Stan, and asked if we were interested in recording them. I said, ‘Stan, let’s go,’ and we hopped on a plane to D.C.

Taylor carefully cultivated relations with Getz, his famously  truculent early idol. “When I came to Verve, I talked with Stan until he got to the point where he said, ‘I’d really like to do something with Bill Finnegan.’ That was Focus, which couldn’t have been more esoteric—no rhythm, no chords. It was a 10 o’clock date at Webster Hall, and Stan walked in on time with a quart of Dewar’s. He put it on the stool in front of him, put alka-seltzer next to that, got ready, and played. I knew the critics would like it, Stan’s fans would like it, and Stan would appreciate my having gone along with it— Norman Granz wouldn’t have stood still for something like that. Doing that made it possible for me to say, ‘Let’s do this thing.’”

Asked to compare himself to fellow Van Gelder devotee Alfred Lion, the auteur of Blue Note, Taylor offers a window into his thinking. “Alfred was interested in the pure ensemble, then blowing, and no nonsense,” Taylor says. “I was interested in that, plus an entertaining record that might appeal a little more to the general public. Beyond knowing what was good and what was swinging, Alfred didn’t look into conceptual kinds of album production, and I don’t think he ever had marketing or packaging per se in mind, although his partner Francis Woolf was a great black-and-white photographer, which gave the package an identity. But I don’t think they looked at how we’re going to sell more albums.

“Alfred also didn’t bring in what would have been for him foreign elements, like the concert-master for the New York Philharmonic, who became my key guy with Don Sebesky and Claus Ogerman. With the strings, it’s not just the arrangement. It’s who was the A-row and B-row of the violins, and who you don’t hire because between takes he plays cards or reads the paper or doesn’t pay much attention, and also, his intonation is not that hot, and the only reason he”s sitting there is because he gets a lot of jingle dates and hires his friends, and dah-da-dah. At A&M and CTI, we had the cream-of-the-crop string guys, the violins, violas or celli, performing at their zenith.”

Framing jazz individualists with well-wrought arrangements and danceable grooves on poppish material would become Taylor’s trademark. Still, the legacy of these lucrative years seems somewhat at odds with his personal listening, which spans the piano music of Ravel and Debussy, Focus, Thornhill, Oliver Nelson, Chet Baker, and “anything by Bill Evans or Wynton Kelly.”

“Something that backfired on me is being responsible in a very odd way for smooth jazz, that kind of nonentity of floating backgrounds,” he says. “When CD-101 started off, they loved Grover Washington, Jr. and those early CTI things in that vein, but I had no intention whatsoever to produce background music for beautiful people purposes.”

Among active producers, Taylor admires Manfred Eicher. “The discretion—he knows what to leave out and what not to push,” he says. “Everything I’ve heard that he put out has integrity. That doesn’t necessarily mean I liked it. And Quincy always knew the right thing to do, whether I was producing him or he was producing another record. We see music from different angles; I think I’m better positioned to look at it objectively from the outside.”

All in all, Taylor acknowledges, there are there many ways to make a jazz record. Does he think his way was best? “Don’t we all?” he retorts. “Sometimes I wished I’d done it another way, and I sure didn’t make that mistake again. But those mistakes are long gone into my deep subconscious.”

[---30---]

* * *

Creed Taylor (July 1, 2005):

TP:   What occurs to me in thinking about the projects you’ve been involved with is that your aesthetic has been consistent through 51 years in the record business. You seem to have operated on the same core principles, but with very different-sounding music in recordings made under different circumstances. Your consistency is remarkable. I’d like to explore how you came to your principles, how you came to hear the music the way that you hear it. That’s my overriding thought. That quality has stood you in good stead, and it seems that your instincts, which also were tempered by hard work, were quite accurate in each period you operated in. Any reflections on why you heard music the way you did.

CREED:   This is a roundabout…an opinion, as I look back on my early experiences. I grew up in the mountainous part of Virginia, close to West Virginia, and I was inundated with bluegrass. Bluegrass was all around me. This was before Nashville even…the big County movement hadn’t happened. It was the Carter family. The Carter family lived two mountain ridges over from where I grew up, so this was really hillbilly music, the real folk stuff. And I didn’t like it. I remember as a 10-11 year-old, I started listening to the radio, and I heard the big bands, obviously. Records weren’t that available at that point. It was still the 78 era anyway. But time went on, and I was able to start getting broadcasts from Birdland from Symphony Sid…

TP:   You’d have been 19 or 20. Birdland opened in ‘49, and the Royal Roost was in ‘48.

CREED:   Anyway, either I heard it broadcast from the Royal Roost, or… WMCA had a very clear, strong signal in the late hours, when I went to bed. I was listening until 12 or 1 in the morning, and getting up at 6 o‘clock to go to school, of course. But I was hearing those sounds. Then I began to buy records, and I was buying Les Brown, who had a great band, and I would listen to anything I could on the radio, including Sammy Kaye. I lived 75 miles from Roanoke. At that point I was 16-17 years old, and I hitchhiked to Roanoke any time a big band came through and played at the Roanoke Auditorium. That was the closest I could get live to anything remotely connected to jazz. Obviously, where I was, as I said before, there was nothing but bluegrass music.

TP:   Bluegrass was such a popular music. Do you remember what steered you away from it?

CREED:   Actually, it was the nasal, bluesy kind of sound that as an adult I understood, not that I… Later in life, I almost began to like a lot of that stuff. But when I was growing up, it was a very unappealing, rough kind of sound to me. Can’t tell you why. Maybe it was because I couldn’t hear anything else, and as soon as I heard something was not bluegrass, it was like, “Wow, this is the music.” So I was able to hear… Virginia Tech is pretty close by. I went to VPI to hear Boyd Raeburn’s big band, which was fantastic. I couldn’t believe it! Then I heard the Elliott Lawrence Band, which was also a marvelous band, at Virginia Tech. I remember coming out of the armory at Virginia Tech, and there was the big bus sitting there for the band, and as they got on the bus… I’m telling a lot of stuff out of school. I jumped on the bus and told Elliott Lawrence, “I’d like to get an audition on the band.” He gave me a card, and said, “Next time you’re in New York, come by. Call my manager.” I was in no condition to play trumpet on that band, but it didn’t bother me. I understood it. So I figured that I could do it.

TP:   You understood it from listening very closely to the bands on records and taking it apart in a kind of home-grown way? Did you have any theory…

CREED:   No, not at all. I didn’t have any music lessons even. I taught myself trumpet, and then harmony, I could play the chord changes, whatever. When it came time to go to college, I picked Duke University because of the background it had with the big bands. Les Brown came out of there, Johnny Long, and I believe Billy May might have gone there… It was okay with my family because they thought I was going to be a doctor.

TP:   You studied psychology, no?

CREED:   Well, I started out with pre-med to satisfy them, and then I switched to psychology because I couldn’t handle organic chemistry, etc. So at Duke I got on the band, which was really quite a professional band, and I learned a lot there. Then I had my own small group, with alto, bass, drums and piano. We played summers at Virginia Beach…

TP:   Society things?

CREED:   No, we were a bebop band. But then something happened with that band, and we lost that job at Bop City, but I hung around and got a job with a society band, a tenor band as they were called—two tenors, trumpet, trombone. I played the rest of the summer there, and I did that a few times. I was playing with dance bands essentially in Virginia.

TP:   So you came to the record business as someone who knew what it was to be a working musician, a professional musician.

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   And by the time you got out of Duke, it sounds like you had a firmly established aesthetic as to what you wanted to hear and present.

CREED:   Oh, absolutely.

TP:   You go into the Armed Forces…

CREED:   I was in the Marine Corps for two years, and then I came back to Duke. I was in Korea.

TP:   In combat?

CREED:   Yes. I had a record player with me, and a 10-inch Mulligan-Baker, the original quartet, and then some Zoot Sims records—actually stuff that was recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s. Early on, I listened to Jazz at the Philharmonic, and I loved the solos, and it was at that point… I don’t recall the year…

TP:   He started Jazz at the Philharmonic in 1949.

CREED:   Well, it was something like ‘49 and ‘50. Anyway, before I entered the Service, I listened to a lot of Jazz at the Philharmonic, and I thought these extended solos and these interminable bass solos or drum solos or whatever, just don’t make it. The span of attention can’t handle it. Obviously, I wasn’t thinking anything about the audience participation and the excitement and all that show business.. But that’s when I seriously thought about recording, not knowing anything about recording, but I… This is reflecting. I didn’t know what I was really learning by doing what I was doing at that time, but I could see that it brought me to the point where I was saying, “This is the way I would like to listen to this record, and I think it should sound this way, and there’s no presence on the bass, and if you’re going to use a bass, it might as well be recorded like Rudy Van Gelder can record it.” Things like that were…

TP:   Were beginning to percolate. You certainly didn’t lack self-confidence. The story you’ve told is that you approached Bethlehem and ABC-Paramount and stepped in and did it…

I don’t think anyone lasts 50 years in the record business without a good sense of detail. You do seem to be an advocate of “God is in the details” as an operative…

CREED:   It happened that way.

TP:   Mr. Taylor was telling me about a problem on the website that he has to attend to later. But I was asking about your initial forays into the business. So for several years you’d be fantasizing about what you’d so if given the opportunity to record the people you were listening to.

CREED:   There are many ways to describe that phase of my mentality, personality, whatever. But I would say naive. It never occurred to me to be bothered about being able to do any of that sort of stuff. I wasn’t feeling competitive, and it wasn’t like I had self-confidence or didn’t have self-confidence; that was not the issue. The issue was to go do it. Apparently, just by not being bothered with “is he going to like me; will he hire me”… All of that never entered my mind.

TP:   That’s not unlike your experience as a musician, learning to play trumpet…

CREED:   That’s right.

TP:   Everything but organic chemistry.

CREED:   There was no doubt on that! It wasn’t a lack of self-confidence. No motivation.

TP:   People who grow up in the mountains are pretty resilient. I’ve spent some time in West Virginia.

CREED:   Well, you know that mentality of the culture.

TP:   I gather that when you came to New York, you spent a lot of time hanging out as well.

CREED:   Oh, yes, constantly.

TP:   Do you recall your first day in New York? Did you know someone? Why did you know where to go and what to do?

CREED:   It was easy. I had a first cousin whose mother came from Virginia, and they lived in New York, and he was an architectural engineer… Anyway, they put me up in a hotel on Bryant Park, and every night I would go to 52nd Street, the clubs that you’ve seen photographs of, and I went from one club to another, the brownstone…

TP:   This was before you entered the Marines.

CREED:   Before. Then I’d go back to Virginia and listen to Birdland. Anyway, I heard Oscar Pettiford, Count Basie, Erroll Garner, Billie Holiday, you name it. I spent my entire time… As soon as it got dark and the clubs started working, that’s where I’d be, hopping from place to place. Obviously, I had to go up and spend time with my cousins, but that didn’t take much time. Then I got on the train and went back to Virginia…

TP:   And enlisted in the Marine Corps?

CREED:   Was drafted in the Marine Corps.

TP:   Got out in 1952?

CREED:   I believe so. I was in the Pahmunjong area next to an Army unit. But we were constantly being picked on by the Chinese and the North Koreans, and there was a lot of mortar and stuff going on. It was really very combative. But it didn’t bother me too much. Then I came back into Reserve; we had a month off and two months back in Reserve. Lo and behold, they sent me to Yokohama to baseball umpiring school. I was not even a baseball fan, but I had a special services number.

TP:   What rank did you reach?

CREED:   Corporal. That was it. Any longer, and you became a Second Lieutenant, and you’re dead. That’s just about the pattern. So I umpired ballgames and got out of that alive. It was more frightening than the Chinese mortars. Meanwhile, I had my horn with me, and there were other guys who were also players. We had little jam groups. I tried to get the Marine band, but since I had a Special Service number, because of my psychology background, they wouldn’t take me in the band.

Jumping around a bit, I came back to San Francisco to be discharged. I had a whole month, I believe, on Treasure Island, and every night I would go into San Francisco to hear the likes of Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond and Chet Baker, Cal Tjader and all those guys. I also heard the Stan Getz-Jimmy Raney group at that time. It was a very pleasing way to get out of the Marine Corps, I’ll tell you.

TP:   So you eventually settled in New York in ‘52 or’53?

CREED:   I think it was ‘53.

TP:   And you were continuing to pursue a career as a psychologist?

CREED:   Actually, when I got here, the first thing I did was to go out to American Airlines and apply for a job as a personnel tester. During that period, I also ran into this guy who went to Duke who was a drummer (he wasn’t a very good drummer) who had… Don’t quote me on this. This guy conned a Swiss stock market investor into starting Bethlehem. The way he did this was, his girlfriend was a dancing teacher at Arthur Murray, and she was looking out for some guy with some money so the Duke guy could start a record company. So he started a record company, the guy put his money in, and that was Bethlehem Records. They did a few 78 records that were just before LPs were a reality, and they were just about to go broke. I was hanging around…

TP:   Was this a guy named Joseph Muranyi?

CREED:   Out of the past! No, that isn’t the guy. It was Gus Wildi, Swiss. One day, I don’t remember exactly how, but I said, “Hey, Gus, you’re not getting anywhere with these 78s; why don’t you let me produce a record. I can do one very economically.” It turned out to be Ellis Larkins on piano with Chris Connor, and I think some guitar…

TP:   Not unlike what Ellis Larkins had done with Ella Fitzgerald not long before.

CREED:   Exactly. So Chris Connor had the idea to get Ellis to do this.

TP:   How did you know Chris Connor?

CREED:   From hanging out at a couple of recording sessions. Sy Oliver was doing these elaborate big band arrangements, and I met Chris, and talked to her about doing… She has a great sense of song. She dug up all of these…”it’s the wrong time, it’s the…” “It’s All Right With Me.” She found that song, and she found “Cottage For Sale” and… Anyway, we got along very well. We did that, and I packaged the 10″ LP, Lullaby of Birdland, and got an announcer who was on WNEW at the time to introduce her on the record, so that every time the record was played, it was, “This is Bob McGarrity, and you’re listening to Chris Connor sing ‘Lullaby of Birdland.’” So that record took off. I did little merchandising things. Like, when she was booked into Birdland I had a life-sized statue put out front… At that time, things like that weren’t happening, so it was a good idea.

TP:   How did you know about these things? You were 25 years old. Now, you’d seen combat, you were self-sufficient… But how did you know these things about the business?

CREED:   It’s intuitive. Strictly intuitive. It’s reading, looking around, and just being alive. What are you going to do? These people march into Birdland, she’s there. What a great way to promote the album. If they’re on their way in, they say, “Ah, Chris Connor has an LP.”

[PAUSE]

CREED:   …Verve Remix Volume 3 came out. No comment on that.

TP:   What do you think of those remixes. A lot of it comes from your time.

CREED:   Well, on Remix #3, the voice is filtered to the point where it’s not only unobtrusive, but almost unidentifiable. Obviously, I’ve got a bone to pick. It destroyed the essence of it.

TP:   Well, that’s the essence of what deejays do. But I’d like to get back to this question of your aesthetic. You’ve taken me from your formative years to your first producing efforts. And it seems that in your hierarchy of things, arrangement and presentation is primary. A recording is a different entity than a live performance. That’s something you seem to have firmly established early on. As opposed to a lot of Prestige or Blue Notes dates, which show you how someone might have sounded in Harlem or a 52nd Street club.

CREED:   The Prestige stuff is part of what drove me. I probably wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but it was so rough! You had these great soloists, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, and then with all the other stuff that could have been done, on the same day, on the same tune, by maybe changing the drummer or changing… I immediately saw what I could do.

TP:   How did you know which arrangers or personnel you wanted to use? Was it from hanging out at the clubs? By ‘52-‘53, 52nd Stret was pretty much gone. The brownstones were going down. You had Birdland and the Broadway strip…

CREED:   The Copper Rail.

TP:   You start to form relationships with musicians. You mentioned that you met Oscar Pettiford and got along…

CREED:   Oscar and I became very good friends.

TP:   Before you were a record producer?

CREED:   No. That’s how I met him, at Bethlehem. But he was such a jolly fellow. He loved life, and… We were just on the same wavelength. Anyway, I should mention that Bethlehem I think was at 1560 Broadway, maybe at 52nd Street, and I only had to go down to the street and walk a half-block into Charlie’s Tavern. This was the place. In Charlie’s Tavern, I met an oldster like Gene Krupa, Tommy Dorsey, Charlie Parker, Oscar Pettiford, and on and on like that. Phil Woods. Once I remember I went into Charlie’s Tavern… Charlie was a jovial fellow sometimes, but other times he was more like George Steinbrenner. Once Charlie Parker was in a booth, and I don’t know what he’d been doing, but he went to sleep on a table. Charlie came over and picked him up and threw him out on the street. I went up to Charlie and said, “Charlie, how could you do that?! That’s Bird!” “Nobody sleeps in my place.” But everybody loved Charlie… Anyway, that’s how I got…

TP:   An equal opportunity abuser.

CREED:   Right! But you’d go out of Charlie’s Tavern, and there was an alleyway back into Birdland. The guys on their break would come into Charlie’s Tavern and have a couple of drinks or whatever. So it was all a very knit community. I found out things like why does Pee-Wee mispronounce guys’ names all the time. Kai Winding told me, “because if you don’t tip him, he will mispronounce your name.” They eventually realized that if they were going to get up there… He could come up with some of the most outlandish versions of a musician’s name just because he didn’t get tipped.

TP:   Also, in a situation like that, you get a sense of who has chemistry with each other, and how to put people together on dates…

CREED:    Sure. Being in the environment on an active basis. Look, I could walk into Birdland, and you went down steps and there was a glass booth over the steps, and there was Symphony Sid broadcasting the music that I’d been listening to in Virginia. When he was playing the records he’d talk about, “Oh, I see down at the bar, there’s Zoot and there’s Kai Winding, and I think Dizzy’s over there…” Ah, this guy! I’ve got to get up to New York and see what’s going on, because that sounds like the place to be.

TP:   Were you meeting people before you were a record producer? Were you already one of these guys who comes to New York and becomes part of the scene? Or did that happen through your professional capacity?

CREED:   That happened after I was in a position to hire people. What am I going to say? “Give me your autograph.”

TP:   So among the first people you worked with were Oscar Pettiford, J.J.  Johnson and Kai Winding… Did Mingus work with you on Bethlehem by the time you left…
CREED:   He did one thing.

TP:   There must be 20-25 recordings you did with them.

CREED:   I would guess so. I can’t remember what they are now.

TP:   I suppose that would teach you every element of the business. Invaluable. There are so many personalities that we could take a whole afternoon. I wrote down a partial list: Chris Connor, Oscar Pettiford, Mingus, Kai Winding, J.J. Johnson, Oliver Nelson, Coltrane, Ray Charles, Gil Evans, Stan Getz, Jobim, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, Gil Evans, Jimmy Smith, Freddie Hubbard, Milt Jackson, Stanley Turrentine, Quincy Jones, Don Sebesky, George Benson, Grover Washington. A lot of people, and that’s just the half of it. But you seem to have developed good relationships with all these people. Alfred Lion did it. I don’t know if Bob Weinstock developed relationships…

CREED:   I never knew him.

TP:   When you were preparing an Oscar Pettiford date, how much of the input would be Oscar Pettiford’s and how much would be yours?

CREED:   That’s a long time ago to really remember the specifics…

TP:   I’m trying to get at when you started to put your own producer imprint on records, and how it began. How it went from supervising a session to putting your personality on all aspects of it, which became your trademark.

CREED:   Well, I liked Chris Connor and enjoyed working with her. She was also a success. I happened to be doing Kai and J.J. at the same time, so I got them together. I would make suggestions at times. Maybe some of the mute changes that Kai and J.J. did… They did a lot of changes in the club. It was a very visual group. I would tell them, “You’ve got such a beautiful sound or blend on this, I don’t think you should use the solo tone mutes.” Being a brass player, I knew  very clearly what the solo tone… I also would have various comments about where they should be in the studio itself. Of course, I also had the good fortune of having a great engineer, Tommy Dowd. Of course, there was Rudy. Rudy has always been a big part of my recording life. He was a trumpet player, too, you know.

TP:   I didn’t know that.

CREED:   Yes. And he had a compelling sensibility about the musicality of the various players. He could put up with any kind of idiosyncratic behavior if he respected the talent. If he got some guy who was acting pretty nuts, then he didn’t work out very well. Anyhow, I formed kind of a buffer between the guys I knew and Rudy. I would not infrequently have conversations with the artist about the date we’re going to do, and there are certain little things that you shouldn’t be doing. So if you know up front, then there’s not going to be any problem. Well, smoking, of course, but back then it was a problem, you don’t smoke in the studio or whatever… The only time I can remember… Quincy and his new wife were living in California, and Quincy came in to do Walking In Space, I think it was, or one of those dates, and his wife came into the control room with a big bag of potato chips and started crunching potato chips. Rudy just was… Never mind the manners or whatever. OUT with the potato chips. She could have been the Queen of England. Out with the potato chips. Rudy appreciated that. And I knew the ground rules…

TP:   How did you meet Rudy van Gelder?

CREED:   I called him up and booked a date in his studio in Hackensack. He used his family living room for a studio. We started talking… He was interested in photography, and so was I and so am I. He liked Mercedes, and so did I and so do I. We became very good friends.

TP:   Both men with an eye for detail.

CREED:   I would say. Definitely.

TP:   Would you before you went into the studio have a very good idea in your mind how the record would sound once the project was complete?

CREED:   I had to say very little. But when I had something to say, Rudy would listen. I stayed very much in the background. That was his department, generally speaking. And it’s continued that way all these years.

TP:   When did the notion of putting your imprint on the entire package start to take form? Was that at ABC-Paramount?

CREED:   Mmm-hmm.

TP:   Was that because you had more resources and you could do it?

CREED:   A combination of factors. ABC-Paramount was recording Paul Anka, Eydie Gorme, all of those Philadelphia rock-and-roll guys, and I didn’t want to be identified with that genre of music. I think that’s what sort of started it. But then I started looking at how the packages looked and sounded, and I thought, “Well, I’m going to put my name on as a signature, as a guarantee to the listener that he’s going to get generally what he expects in quality from this recording.” It was as simple as that.

TP:   But that wound up encompassing the cover design, the whole package…

CREED:   Oh, yes.

TP:   Did a Rudy Van Gelder for Creed Taylor have the same sound as a Rudy Van Gelder record for Alfred Lion?

CREED:   No.

TP:   What’s the nature of the difference?

CREED:   Well, Alfred Lion, for one thing, would take a different rhythm section. He would approach it in a different way. He wasn’t interested in… I certainly respect that. He was interested in the pure ensemble, then blowing, and no nonsense.

TP:   What were you interested in?

CREED:   I was interested in that, plus an entertaining record that might have an appeal that might get a little further out to the general public.

TP:   Did that start with Bethlehem, or was that a function of your job at ABC-Paramount? Or were you always thinking about that?

CREED:   I was always thinking about that. But I got to thinking about it more because of radio as being the prime exposure for selling records. It got so that I had to remind myself that you’re not making this record for a radio. You’re using radio, and they will play your record, but be careful that you’re not just going in a direction that you know is going to get it on the radio at the expense of what it should be musically for the audience you’re going for.

TP:   Also at ABC-Paramount, you had to convince your higher-ups that projects were worth taking on. As Ashley describes, they were pretty tough, self-made guys who grew up in the Depression. They describe you as being very quiet. You’d sit back from the table somewhat to force people to pay attention to you, and you would always have a business plan for each record. “I can do this for this,” you’d give them a price, and then if it went over budget, they wouldn’t argue. Sometimes it did and sometimes it didn’t.

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   How did you have the confidence to know that you’d be able to back up your words by that point?

CREED:   I’d feel like I was doing the right thing. If I didn’t think I was doing the right thing, I probably wouldn’t have had any confidence.

TP:   How did you know your audience? Through fieldwork? Hanging out…

CREED:   Fieldwork. Radio. Talking to record distributors and all those people. I had this little test store right across the street from the Paramount building, and they sold everything from belly dance to Chinese rock-and-roll or whatever was going on at the time. I’d talk to the owner and go look through the records and see what genre of music might be selling, if it were available. That’s sort of the way I found Nicola Paone. Nicola Paone had a song called “The Telephone Song.” It was a hit. I think it might have been on Columbia. But the owner of the store said, “You know, if you did a record with Nicola Paone, I think it might work.” So I got Harry Levine, my mentor, and suggested he get in touch with Nicola Paone’s manager and tell him to come and make a record. So I put a barbership quartet together with Nicola Paone, and he sang “The Telephone Song,” and we put it in the package. We shipped the 45 up to Buffalo or Rochester. I knew these radio stations up there that played…I wouldn’t call it ‘ethnic,” but Pop, Italian style. It took off in one place. Nicola Paone built his restaurant on 34th Street with the royalties from that record.

TP:   Is that the one on 34th and Madison?

CREED:   Yeah. He used to come down to my apartment. He and Harry Levine and myself would go in, and Nicola would take us back to the kitchen and show us how he prepared chicken cacciatore or whatever. A very friendly atmosphere.

TP:   Are you more proud of any two or three particular records from your Bethlehem years over others? Chris Connor you always come back to in your conversations.

CREED:   Yes. That’s probably because it was the first. But Kai and J.J., of course, and… [END OF SIDE A]…

We had sort of an interesting date that I did with Eddie Condon, a real Dixieland thing. He had a restaurant just off Washington Square, a bar…

TP:   On 3rd Street, right?

CREED:   Yes. I think it was 3rd Street. I enjoyed that because… I’m not saying that because I like to sit around and listen to Eddie Condon now. Well, I might if I had a record. That was Pee Wee Russell, Wild Bill Davidson, George Wettling and Pops Foster, and it was really an eye-opener for me, because I’d never been interested in that kind of stone Dixie kind of… To sit up in the control booth with Tom Dowd and watch those guys go through two quarts of vodka and still be able to sit up and play, I couldn’t believe it.

You talked about merchandising. What sort of started this off was, there was a priest in Chicago named Brother Matthew, and my wife at the time was a reporter for Life magazine, and she said she thought she could get us a story in Life magazine if we could record Brother Matthew on alto sax. So sure enough, we flew him in, and he sat in with this great all-star Dixieland group, and we got a great story. He couldn’t play very well; Brother Matthew was kind of weak. But that was a merchandising approach without thinking about a lot about is he sustainable as an artist.

TP:   Did you have a philosophy, such as Blue Note, where Bruce Lundvall says he pays for more purist albums through sales by Norah Jones or Cassandra Wilson or Diane Reeves? Did you follow the notion of having bigger sellers subsidize more art music?

CREED:   It didn’t work like Bruce Lundvall and his Norah Jones. I can’t go along with that statement. Here he’s got Norah Jones popped out of the blue…

TP:   Well, Cassandra Wilson and Diane Reeves were the people he used to refer to.

CREED:   Well, they didn’t sell enough to make you feel comfortable with the pursestrings until Norah Jones broke loose, and then he could do no wrong. I’m sure there were various stages in my producing life that affected me about whether I could take a chance with some less potential sales, because I liked the way the guy played. Joe Farrell [CTI] was maybe an example, because he was an enormous talent, but he didn’t have any particular idiosyncracies that I thought a whole lot of people would grab onto. But they are great records, I still think.

TP:   By idiosyncracies you mean?

CREED:   Some sound or stylistic… I instantly can listen to a demo and hear or not hear a sound, I think. By now, I’d better be able to.

TP:   Sounds to me like you could do that fifty years ago as well. Anything you’re particularly proud of during your time at ABC-Paramount? Relationships that springboarded into the next decade?

CREED:   Well, I continued with Quincy, for instance, on the Impulse Ray Charles. Quincy did the first arrangement for me in a recording session at Bethlehem with Oscar Pettiford. He hit New York at the same time I did. We were about the same age. I had a house on Waverly Place, and had parties there with Oscar Pettiford, Quincy Jones, Jackie and Roy, all the players and singers and whomever that would come by. It was just a big social thing. It didn’t just happen in the studio and in the office. It was like a  way of life. We all liked the same things.

TP:   The latter part of the ‘50s. That’s when modern jazz moved into the Village. ‘55-‘56, when the Bohemia opened, the Vanguard started being more of a jazz club…

CREED:   I heard Oscar Pettiford at the Bohemia. I used to go to the Bohemia and stay for the last set, then Oscar  would come by my place on Waverly Place, which was two blocks away. They hired Cannonball and Nat Adderley there when they first came to town around that time.

TP:   I’m trying to elicit ways in which your approach was distinct from the other comparable labels of the time. Which is why I’m asking why a Rudy Van Gelder-engineered date with Alfred Lion would differ from you…

CREED:   Well, I don’t think Alfred ever had marketing per se… I never met him. But I don’t think he had marketing per se or packaging in mind. Well, Francis Woolf was a great black-and-white photographer. That really gave the package some identity. But I don’t think they looked at how we’re going to sell more albums.
TP:   How about you vis-a-vis the Savoy label, which had a very different culture…

CREED:   With Herman Lubinsky?!

TP:   But he had intelligent producers, like Ozzie Cadena.

CREED:   Ozzie Cadena was intelligent.

TP:   The way you said Herman Lubinsky’s name…

CREED:   He sold used radio tubes during the war. At least Rudy told me that.

TP:   In a broader sense, between ‘54, when you started, and ‘61 when you start Impulse, did the social milieu in which jazz existed change greatly? They were certainly years of great change in the country.

CREED:   At ABC-Paramount, prior to Impulse. That’s when I was doing that research across the street. I noticed that there were no drinking songs LPs, so I don’t remember exactly how I got together with this vocal contractor… I think he went to Duke. A professional jingle singer. So we formed a group which I called The Four Sergeants, and I actually started out… I took a tape recorder to Yale University. I was going to record live from the tables down at…you know, “The Whiffenpoof Song,” that kind of stuff. It didn’t  work out, but it led to hiring professional singers to sing the same stuff. So I had a college drinking song, more college drinking songs, drinking songs sang under the table, and then that drifted into bawdy barrack songs, risque barbershop…

Oddly, one of the most successful… This came from my father, actually, who was in World War One. He gave me a photograph or two of where he was in the trenches. Then I started thinking about George M. Cohan and the great patriotic sentimental stuff. I found some sheet music in the attic in my home in Virginia, really old sheet music, and  we had a photographer do the cover for World War I songs. In World War I songs, aside from all the warhorses, I had a great radio voice recite In Flanders Fields. Do you know that poem? “In Flanders fields, where poppies grow amongst the corpses…” Anyway, I put a lot of reverb on it, and we had a bugle-playing Captain, and I kind of dubbed… It became a good-seller for ABC.

So with a few of these things sort of in my back pocket, Harry Levine was easily able to say to Sam Clark, “Look, why don’t we leave him alone, because look at what he’s doing; he’s building up the LP catalog.” Harry and I became great friends. He was a very quiet, nice old fellow. But he was #2 at ABC-Paramount, and he was the real brain-trust. He was the original booker of the Paramount Theater. He dealt directly with Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, whoever the band or the entertainers happened to be, because he had this quiet kind of… He wasn’t a rough Broadway kind of guy as they are portrayed in the movies or on Broadway. So he was able to talk with the artist and/or the artist’s manager, and arrive at an equitable, fair contract. So we built that sort of thing up to the point where I decided now is a good time to do this thing. Because I had Pete Turner and his great photography talents, and I had Rudy, and I had myself, and the relationship with the top jazz players out there—and it was as simple as that. Let’s put together some sort of an umbrella concept and start putting the stuff out.

TP:   What’s interesting to me and to other people who love the Impulse label… The five first albums were Kai & J.J., Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth, Gil Evans, Out Of The Cool, Coltrane, and Ray Charles. From my perspective, apart from Ray Charles, the only one who would appeal to a wider audience would be Kai & J.J.  Coltrane had done the Atlantic records, but he was just becoming a leader. Gil Evans was a kind of esoteric arranger…

CREED:   But he had all that Sketches of Spain behind him. He had a bubbling, and he hadn’t done anything like this, Out of The Cool, with a package like that. So some of the music in that original release was absolutely directed at the broader base and at the radio stations which never played stuff like that, and with the display going along, the Out of The Cool or Oliver Nelson or whatever, which was not thrust up in the kind of pop-jazz crossover thing, would go along for the ride. And sure enough, they did. So by identifying all of these records that had quality sound, quality packaging, the people who normally probably wouldn’t go for something like that, would go for all of the Impulse records at that point.

TP:   Also, by 1960 hi-fi was becoming more popular, and stereo was getting into the marketplace. So good sound actually meant something. I gather that your designer actually shared your office at ABC-Paramount.

CREED:   Fran Scott. She was married to Tony Scott, who was really Tony Sciacca. I met tony Scott at Duke University at a Claude Thornhill dance. In the band, there was Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, Tony Scott, and Bernie Glow, and that was the most gorgeous sound I can ever remember hearing. First hearing something like that just made me feel goosebumps.

TP:   Is that an idealized sound in your mind?

CREED:   Oh, I play a Claude Thornhill CD (The Best Of, believe it or not) at home, because it makes me feel good. Fran Warren’s “Sunday Kind of Love.” Just to get away from Debussy or Ravel or something like that.

TP:   What else do you listen to at home?

CREED:   Classical piano stuff. I can’t listen to it all the time when I want to, because I have a daughter and a wife who would like to listen to the blues or whatever the pop stuff is that’s going on. So I’ll go back certainly to Oliver Nelson, and anything by Bill Evans, and anything by Wynton Kelly. That’s the top of my list. Chet Baker and Miles Davis.

TP:   Do you listen to a lot of new releases. Do you hear a fair sampling of what people are putting out?
CREED:   I’m on Universal’s mailing list. Now Universal has the bulk of whatever is jazz or near jazz coming out. So I listen to it, mostly once, unless something comes along. I go back and listen to Focus, Stan Getz. It’s right up there. It could have been recorded yesterday.

TP: Do you feel that you have had an impact on the way today’s producers think about presentation?

CREED:   I’ll tell you something that backfired on me. Being responsible in a very odd way for CD 101.9, that kind of nonentity of floating backgrounds, smooth jazz… Who’s the sax player they used to really love on CD-101.9?

TP:  David Sanborn.

CREED:   David Sanborn said about a year ago, “they stopped playing my records because I’m too close to jazz.” The fact is, that as they got smoother and smoother… He has an identity and it’s something… When he plays, you listen to it, and that’s not the purpose at that radio station. But when they started off, they loved Grover Washington, Jr. I know they listened to those early CTI things that were like that, but I had no intention whatsoever to produce music for background for beautiful people purposes. Then I came along, thinking, “What am I going to do, Emulate the stuff that I really started there?” I did a few records that I’m not at all happy with because I was trying to… Why shouldn’t I be able to do… I couldn’t do it. I won’t even records what the records were.

TP:   CTI began as a division of A&M, and then you evolved it into your own imprint?

CREED:   It began as a partnership that lasted two years. It was going great guns. Wes Montgomery was selling up a storm, and then there were good records by Paul Desmond. Again, this is off the record. Herb Alpert had his niche in the music world, in his style, the way he thinks about music, and it became a problem with me because he wanted to talk about musical details about records, and Gerry Moss, his partner, obviously was listening to him, and I found myself listening to him. “I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be influenced by Tijuana Brass. Enough already.” So it was no big breakup. It was just that  thought that this was something that was hovering…well, that was no good for what I could do. Music when spoken, or spoken about. takes on strange directions.

TP:   CTI was the first time you actually capitalized a label by yourself?

CREED:   Well, in the beginning with A&M, and then it went in…

TP:   But did you buy out A&M?

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   Your budgets kept getting bigger and bigger as…
CREED:   It started out like this. Wes died in ‘68, and what’s going to be next? They’re looking for billing, and they’ve got Peter Frampton and it’s evolving into a big label. The bigger they got, the more demanding it was to meet the sales quotas. I wasn’t in that party, and it was very comfortable for Gerry Moss to pay me a modest sum to say, “It was fun, but it’s over now.” So I took that and paid for the recording of Red Clay with Freddie Hubbard. It was that simple. I did another record by Kathy McCord, but that wasn’t…

TP:   What did you tell Freddie when you did Red Clay?

CREED:   Freddie had been recording for me, like on Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth, and he was on Quincy’s albums frequently.

TP:   But how did you put your stamp on that sound?

CREED:   “Let’s go in with these players and see what we can get going.” He played that little sketch on “Red Clay,” that funky thing that became so popular, and that was it. Anyway, that was a relatively casual thing, and don’t forget it had Stanley [sic] on it.

TP:   Did you give the drummers instructions on those records?

CREED:   Oh, no. Neither did Freddie. We just knew what he played like. If you hire Idris Muhammad, you know you’re going to get a New Orleans authenticity. You hire a drummer for what he does, not for what you can tell him to do.

TP:   You’re also well-known for having musicians record popular songs of the day, like “A Day In The Life” or  “Let It Be” or “White Rabbit.” Was that organic, just responding to the dictates of the market…

CREED:   I know what you’re talking about. “Let It Be” came to me from Paul McCartney. He sent me the tape before they recorded it, because he liked what Wes did on “A Day In The Life” so much that he said, “Help yourself.” I took it to Memphis, where I’d hired a rhythm section at American Studios, which is where Elvis Presley did all of his stuff, and also Otis Redding. Now, that kind of R&B or blues studio band could just take a sketch and give you a record. Stanley Turrentine didn’t make it the following morning; 10 o’clock wasn’t good, there was something in the contract or whatever. So I called Hubert, and Hubert came down, and we recorded “Let It Be,” and we did the rest of the LP at Rudy’s. But here we had Hubert with the Beatles song, with Elvis Presley’s rhythm section in a Memphis recording studio that is conditioned to have that kind of a dry funk element, including the engineer who did all of the great Otis Redding dates.

“Day In The Life” was a lot of Don Sebesky. Don did these arrangements. Wes came in with a whole studio orchestra, and Don put the part up in front of him… He didn’t know that Wes couldn’t read music, and even if he sort of was suspicious, he thought it would be kind to Wes to make it look like he was reading. The date went on maybe for two hours, and Wes kept getting more and more unhappy. Don talked to him and I talked to him, and he said, “I can’t play this, with all these cats around who can read all this music. I can’t do it.” So he called that, and then we had a meeting with Wes. Don said, “I’ll make a tape before we do the next date of all this stuff.” He made a tape on fender rhodes, mapped out where he plays, and Wes listens to it when he’s on the road or whatever, and when he’s ready to come in, we book a rhythm section only. No strings. That’s the way we proceeded from that point on.

Don worked with me very well. He would bring a complete conductor’s score into the recording booth, give it to me, and when we got to the fourth bar down on letter-B or whatever it was, I would know exactly what to communicate to Don, to say, “Let’s cut it out now so we don’t do it in an editing session.” We communicated over the phone in the studio, so I could talk directly to him and none of the players could hear what I was saying. It wasn’t like I was chopping up Don’s arrangement. But we had a very comfortable relationship like that. Don, aside from being a very talented musician, is a very reasonable, intelligent fellow.

TP:   I’m remiss in not speaking with you up to now about Brazil. For one thing, you had an instinct that it would strike a chord, and didn’t you put in a number of trips to Brazil… Not true?

CREED: No way. Charlie Byrd went down on a State Department tour. He met Jobim. Jobim gave him these songs, and Charlie Byrd recorded sketches of the songs and brought them back up to Washington, and he got on the phone with myself and with Stan, and said, “This is what I’ve got; are you interested in recording?” I said, “Stan, let’s go.” So we hopped on a plane to D.C.  Then the parade of the bossa novas started happening.

TP:   So “Desafinado” is something Stan Getz wanted to do, and you’re his producer, and he trusted you implicitly, and you just went and did it.

CREED:   Here’s why he trusted me implicitly. When I came from across the street at ABC to Verve, here I arrive with a talent like Stan Getz. I’m not going to march in and say, “Stan, why don’t you do buh-ba-buh-ba.” So I talked with Stan until he got to the point where he said, “What I’d really like to do is something with Bill Finnegan.” Focus couldn’t have been more esoteric. No rhythm, no chords, or anything. Just strings. Well, one cut is Roy Haynes on snare, brushes. But I knew that the critics would like it, Stan’s fans will like it, and Stan will appreciate my having gone along with it, because he couldn’t do something like that with anybody else. I mean, Norman Granz wouldn’t have stood still for something like that, I know. So that made it possible for me to say, “Let’s do this thing, Stan.” From that point on, everything was cool. We had a couple of little altercations.

TP:   His behavior was still erratic during those years.

CREED:   Yeah. But the way it worked for me was, “Stan, if you keep behaving that way, I’m leaving. I’m just going home. I’ll go home, and if you feel like it, call me. But I’m not going to sit here and listen to this garbage.” So he calmed down. “Stan, look…” We’re at Webster Hall. It’s a 10 o’clock date, and he walks in on time, but he walked in with a quart of Dewar’s, puts it on the stool in front of him, and then he puts next to that alka-seltzer, and then he gets ready to play, and he plays. He made the Focus album like that.

TP:   It was a different time.

CREED:   Quite different.

TP:   People had different tolerances. I recall guys like Art Blakey going three or four days in a row and how they did it. You and Coltrane got along quite well, I gather.

CREED:   Coltrane was so quiet. If anybody walked in and said, “Do something this way,” I’m sure he would have quietly said no. He had a lot of spine.

TP:   You did only the Africa Brass date.

CREED:   Yes. I think Coltrane always wanted Dolphy. Dolphy was amazing. I just attended to the comfort of the musicians and the comfort of Rudy, and let it happen. I wouldn’t have walked into that at all. That’s a very involved, totally artistic kind of idiom. I’m not going to produce Coltrane or anybody else. I wouldn’t try to make a whole concept or anything. Whatever he’s doing at that moment in time is what he does, and that’s how that happened.

TP:   If you had stayed at Impulse, would you have been able to work with what Coltrane eventually evolved into?

CREED:   Of course. Bill Evans was another kind of artist, though. He was totally malleable. I didn’t tell him to do “Washington Square Jump.” It’s based on “Frankie and Johnny.” He also did Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” But he would play anything I asked him to play, within reason, of course.  But the only problem was that Bill had this enormous habit. When we recorded, I’d pick Bill up on the West 98th Street, and we’d drive to Rudy’s, and he’d tell me about the latest book he read, what do you think about who’s running for office, and all this stuff. He was brilliant. We’d go to the studio, and he would record, and everything was beautiful! Then maybe 3-4 weeks later he comes into my office at Verve, and I’m not there, but he sees Margot, my secretary. She gives him any promotion copy that we had around, and he takes it. Once I went up to Harlem, on 125th Street, to a club where they had a glass broadcast booth in the middle, and I’m standing up at the bar, and along comes Bill with his box of records. He’s selling the promo copies to the customers, putting it in his pockets, and then he’d go get his fix or whatever. That’s a strange world.

TP:   I don’t think producers these days have to deal with the same level of eccentricity as back then. What’s it been like for you to work with the younger players? Donald Harrison. Charles Fambrough.

CREED: It’s no different. What’s different is the marketplace and the hardware and the technical downloading, the MP3s. It’s taken part of the packaging of recorded music out of the picture. That’s what I find difficult to deal with. Not the changing styles of music or recording. It’s when you can’t count on being able to make a good-looking package to go with a great-sounding record, and getting it to a normal distribution route. What do you do? That is the real problem. You can’t put your finger on the marketplace.

TP:   You’re saying that you can’t put your finger on the marketplace since the Internet and digital distribution.

CREED:   Yes. And predicting what’s going to happen, or at least betting that this is the way it’s going to be. You don’t know. Because one minute, Sony is Sony; the next minute it’s Sony-BMG. Whatever happened to Impulse? That’s Universal. And where is Verve now, or Motown… It’s just so all over the place from a distribution standpoint. I can tell this from being on a mailing list, that there doesn’t seem to be any plan of what kind of artist, how they’re going to be packaged, the individuality of some kind of series. Nothing that’s going to reach the marketplace, other than that it’s another CD.

Well, I think there’s some hope that a dual disk, a DVD plus the CD. That puts it at another level for the pricing, so the record companies are more interested in dual disks, because they can charge… Also, the coming of the high-definition DVD. Everybody is going to have a high-definition DVD disk for sale.

TP:   Is that what you’re thinking about for your next project?

CREED:   That’s what I’m doing for a project that I’m having converted from the old high-definition format, which is a Japanese 1125-line. It’s being converted to 10-8 (?). Then I’ll remix the surround sound at Rudy’s, and we will then have a truly HD-DVD. When it originally came out in 1992, it was called Rhythm Stick.

TP:   Just about Dizzy’s last date.

CREED:   It was his last date. And Teo. And Bob Berg, who was killed a few years ago. Art Farmer.

TP:   Since 2000 or 1997, how many new projects have you done?

CREED:   None.

TP:   When was the last time you recorded a project?

CREED:   I try not to think about that. [LAUGHS]

TP:   So what you’re doing now is repackaging your old catalog.

CREED:   I haven’t even started that. I’m just working on this high-definition DVD project as a leader. Because there’s other stuff in the can. But this is also an hour of film program that’s really good. Brilliant color. Certainly, one that came out of Brazil, I have a whole hour of filming from Salvador with the northern Brazilan percussion players and Larry Coryell.

TP:   Do you own the CTI catalog?

CREED:   The thing Sony has? Sony owns it.

TP:   Do you own any of the work you produced between 1954 and 1992, from Bethlehem to Rhythm-Stick?

CREED:   No.

TP:   So are you licensing it from…

CREED:   Well, licensing… I use the Fulfillment House. The Fulfillment House buys it from Sony Distribution, and they pack it and ship it. I’m a retailer. On-line retail.

TP:   So CTI is now an on-line retailing service.

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   Do you find that in any way rewarding? Would you like to get back into producing?

CREED:   Yes. I don’t find it rewarding because I’m not a technical person. I’ve been telling you about the shopping cart going wacko on me.

TP:   Looking at the current landscape, what sort of projects would you like to be doing?

CREED:   Oh, I know exactly what I’d like to be doing.

TP:   But you won’t say, because it would…

CREED:   Well, of course.

TP:   If the opportunity arose, you would come in with your feet on the ground…

[END OF TAPE 1]

TP:   When I asked you about the enduring appeal of Creed Taylor, Inc., you said, ‘Look at the artists.” Obviously, there’s truth to that. You worked with the top-shelf artists of the day, and their work was popular. But the situations in which you put Wes Montgomery have a broader appeal than the things he did for Riverside. The situations you put Stan Getz in have a somewhat broader appeal. They penetrated popular consciousness in some ways others didn’t. We could say this for George Benson’s work. So again, we get back to this question of your aesthetic, and how that aesthetic played out in the 1950s, in the 1960s, in the 1970s, three very different cultural eras,. Yet your aesthetic is consistent. You’re dealing with different markets, and your persona, your own tonal personality somehow continues to resonate. I’m wondering if you can in any way summarize that Creed Taylor tonal personality.

CREED:   Look, I don’t know what other producers do, because I only occasionally attended other… But the fundamental thing that goes on, whether it’s the Brazilian stuff, or Bob James doing arrangements for another artist, is we go for a groove. Like, Blue Note went for a groove always, but a different type. We might sit there for an hour on the same 12 bars or whatever, with the rhythm section going… I’m thinking specifically about Bob James, Eric Gale, Ron Carter or Gary King on electric bass, and Steve Gadd. You let them keep playing, and then, when it begins to sound like it’s just about to happen—okay. Then you start to record.

I have an idea that most records are not made with a groove being foremost. Of course, you have to start off with a good song. With the Brazilians, everything was made… Jobim was a genius beyond generations. He singlehandedly put the melody there and the harmonies that made that whole time so appealing. But we would still sit there… He would sit at the piano or on the guitar, and he would work at a samba groove over and over until it finally clicked. Then we would start to record.

Jimmy and Wes were just a natural. I mean, they only did that one record, The Dynamic Duo. That was the thing, that Wes and Jimmy would work a little bit before the drummer started doing anything, and then the drummer would start, and then the bassline would come up. But any record date went for the groove, no matter what idiom of music you’re recording.

TP:   Whereas Blue Note with be thinking about an interactive drummer and soloist, and more shifts…

CREED:   Generally speaking, what Alfred was recording was a group that had been performing in the clubs. They’d do that how many nights in the club. So when they’d walk into Rudy’s, Rudy has to get a balance, but they know what the groove is. They have to play it a little bit. But it was like a band. You walk in with Benny Goodman or whomever. It’s all rehearsed, and you don’t have to do this thing that we did, that I was just talking about—getting great players to finally lock in.

A big factor, I’ve got to say… I really miss Eric Gale. He was an absolute genius for groovemaking, whether it was reggae or R&B or whatever. On “Mr. Magic,” Eric, Bob James and the bass player and drummer, had just done a record with Roberta Flack, and they recorded that song the previous day. So the same rhythm section comes in… I’d asked Eric to look out for a song at one of these sessions that… So he brought in a cassette of “Mr. Magic” that the rhythm group had formed. It didn’t happen for them. He handed it to me, and he said, “Creed, here’s the song. It ain’t shit.” “Well, let’s try it anyway.” So they tried it, and they got a groove going, and that became Grover Washington’s mantle. Huge.

TP:   Were those mostly one- or two-day days in the studio dates at CTI?

CREED:   Oh, no.

TP:   Did you use more studio time than the average jazz date?

CREED:   Yes, definitely.

TP:   So that’s another factor in why all the details are so precise on CTI.

CREED:   Yes. But another atypical session  would be Gil Evans’ Out of The Cool. We went four days without recording anything, because Gil couldn’t get it down on paper. Finally, Gil was at the piano, and he’s got Tony Studd on bass trombone and he’s got the drummer and… So they finally worked up a little groove, and then Gil took a matchbox, literally, and wrote down the chord changes on a four-bar riff, handed it to Tony Studd, who formed a bass pattern for the thing, and then he did the same thing with the lead trumpet and then the reed players. That became “La Nevada.” I’ve never seen Duke Ellington record, but I understand he recorded in a similar fashion. Strayhorn didn’t come in with big sheets of arrangements, I don’t think. At least he didn’t… When I recorded Strayhorn and Hodges, everything was formal. He came in with complete arrangements. It wasn’t like the Ellington band recording, even though it was the Ellington band.

TP:   But when you were at Impulse and ABC-Paramount, you weren’t spending an hour with the rhythm section looking for a groove. Or  were you?

CREED:   Gil Evans was one of them. Out of The Cool.

TP:   Probably not Blues and the Abstract Truth.

CREED:   Yes, it was. Oliver knew exactly what he wanted, but still took time to get it down. It wasn’t just a matter of reading and telling the drummer to listen to the patterns.

TP:   Probably because it’s Roy Haynes, he makes it sound so spontaneous and organic.

CREED:   Spontaneous, yeah. It’s like practicing the… You’ve got this guy, all the pitchers warming up to come out and win the game. You have to do all the batting practice and everything. Then you come out and perform. I don’t see any difference.

TP:   Except that the game doesn’t go according to a script. You have to use your talent to adapt to the situation at hand. If a lefty comes in to face a lefty… So there’s both, isn’t there. There’s preparation, and then responding…

CREED:   True.

TP:   For a successful Creed Taylor recording, what percentage does improvisation play and what role does the preparation and pre-organization play?

CREED:   Well, you’ve got a foundation to put the improvisation on. Once the improvisation is there and swinging, then you’ve got the…

TP:   But the bedrock is always the groove.

CREED:   Yeah.

TP:   It’s not the changes, it’s not the voicings…

CREED:   Oh, everything. But if you don’t have the groove and you don’t have the right song to start with, forget it.

Little things just popped into mind about this. The Brazilian rhythm. When I was in high school playing these dances and things, I was always a clave player. That gave me a foundation to rise above the bluegrass or whatever.

TP:   Did you record the Eddie Palmieri-Cal Tjader collaboration? It’s a seminal date in Latin music.

CREED:   Yes. Cal Tjader was one of my favorite artists to begin with. I loved Cal Tjader. That’s the only time I’d ever met Eddie Palmieri, and it was a little bit of… Eddie wanted to go his way, and Cal would go either way. That’s just my general impression.

TP:   You did Willie Bobo also.

CREED:   Oh, yes. I got along very well with Willie Bobo.

TP:   Your groove philosophy really fit in with those guys. Tell me more about the Latin market in New York in the ‘60s. I still think the contribution of Latin players to what jazz sounds like today is very underrated.

CREED:   Oh, sure. All of these great bands would come in… I did a lot of recording at Belltone Studios at 31st Street and Fifth Avenue. On my way out, the Latin band would be on its way in, and I used to listen to those bands, and they were just fantastic! Machito… Oh, we had a Latino hit with Wynton Kelly, called “Little…” What was the name of it… It was a real hit. That came out of a groove, and on the spot, Ernie Royal, the trumpet player, put the lick  together.

TP:   Well, the boogaloo beat became very popular in the ‘60s…

CREED:   Yes, the Afro-Cuban rhythm. Chico O’Farrill did a lot of arrangements for me. In fact, there was one lost in the stacks, a Candido album that he did. It was a Stan Kenton type of thing for Candido. He’s still around.
TP:   He’s 84 now. I interviewed him in January about Paquito. He speaks really good English, he’s in great shape, and he played a solo where he’d emphasize the beats with his head on the conga.

CREED:   I was also into the Flamenco idiom for a while. Montoya and Sabicas. That was great. We’d bring a wooden platform into Bell Sound Studios, and the dancer would come in, and Sabicas would sit there filing his fingernails in between takes. They drink brandy, 10 o’clock in the morning. These things would really get heated up. I mean, that music is intense. And to produce it in a cold studio on early in the morning…

TP:   Was a challenge to your motivational powers. Please don’t take offense at this question. You’re from the Jim Crow South. You worked with black musicians, formed relationships with black musicians immediately upon coming to New York. I don’t want to talk like a northerner stereotyping…

CREED:   You mean  where the guilt factor comes in?

TP:   You seem not to have any guilt factor at all. You seem to relate to people in a natural way, and your rapport seems unusual to me among producers who operated in that environment in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Alfred Lion seems not to have had that issue…

CREED:   He was German.

TP:   How did that work for you? Was your community not particularly racist…

CREED:   When I was growing up, it was race-less. There was one black family. And the black family’s kids were my playmates. I didn’t have any white playmates.

TP:   So it was never a factor for you for that reason…

CREED:   I don’t know if for that reason. The only time anything ever occurred to me about the racial thing when I was growing up was going to the Greyhound bus station and seeing “whites” and “colored” drinking fountains. That kind of shocked me a little bit. But it’s almost like it was in the movies, like it didn’t happen, the racial thing. It only really got bad, I think, in South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, down…

That’s how the “Red Clay” title came, from Mississippi. Freddie wanted to call it “Slap Your Feet On The Mississippi Mud.” I said, “Come on, that title has no dignity at all, Freddie!” And Red Clay, you know what just happened with Meredith…

The only time I observed anything was at Belltone, when Mingus was on a date…it might have been a Quincy date, and Billy Taylor was playing piano. Mingus was leaving after the date was over, and Billy Taylor said, “See you later, Charlie.” He turned around and said, “If you ever call me Charlie again, you duh-da-duh-da…” Billy was like, “What’s wrong?” “Charles. Charles Mingus.” I figure it comes out of  “Uncle Charlie…” Mingus was a combative person anyway.
TP:   He was also manic, I think. Deep mood swings. Chemical…

CREED:   Like Nina Simone.

TP:   What was it like working with her?

CREED:   That was serious. She had tax problems, IRS problems… Once she played here at the Village Gate, and they took her entire payroll. So she moved to Europe, and the only way for me to make this record was for me to come there. So I brought Eric Gale and Gary King and Dave Matthews, the arranger, to Brussels, put them up in the Brussels Hilton, and every day we would go out to this studio that had been converted to an old barn in Waterloo, and record. She had mood swings you wouldn’t believe! What is that medication that’s supposed to even out the ups and downs…

TP:   I don’t remember. But you were a psychologist. Perfect training to be a record producer.

CREED:   Yeah. She tried to throw a television set out of the window at the Brussels Hilton.

[—30—]

* * *

Creed Taylor (#2) – (July 8, 2005):

CREED:   I started thinking about some of the things you asked about, especially the black and white thing, and the background which produced absolutely no prejudices. I hadn’t thought about this actually… I’d been going to Roanoke, which was absolutely racial…

TP:   You mean it was Jim Crow.

CREED:   Yeah, Jim Crow. That’s a kinder way of putting it. So I went to one auditorium for the big bands, which were all white—by necessity, I guess. I guess Benny Goodman had started having any black guys in the band…

TP:   When you saw him. A little after ‘48 he had Wardell Gray, but not then.

CREED:   Also, I don’t think he would have taken Wardell to the south. Rooming accommodations were one thing. What hotel was going to take a black guy who showed up? Anyway, I started thinking about this. Very nearby… I don’t remember the name of the hall, but it booked all the… That’s why I listed all the guys. I went up there, and it didn’t faze me at all that there were no white people around.

TP:   You were the only white kid?

CREED:   I was the only white kid.

TP:   You could go there.

CREED:   I could go there, sure. It was a one-way prejudice. If anybody looked at me like, “What are you doing; you’re a white kid,” I was not aware of it at all. So at that point, I basically… I hadn’t thought about it until you asked me, actually, that… I thought all of the black people liked this kind of music and all the white people liked the other kind of music, and that’s why they were white down there and they were black up here. Nothing to do with any prejudice floating around.

TP:   This dance hall was on top of the Norfolk & Western railway tracks?

CREED:   Yeah.

TP:   Was it a tobacco warehouse?

CREED:   It might have been. It certainly wasn’t an auditorium like the Roanoke Auditorium, which had all kinds of event. Roanoke didn’t have that much tobacco, but it was a warehouse.

TP:   Did you hear that music on the radio, or were you just hearing the bands?

CREED:   A combination. But the most exciting part, of course, was going down and seeing these guys. I heard Louis Jordan on the radio, because he had a couple of big hits, Saturday Night Fish Fry and so forth. I liked the record so much that (I had just got my driver’s license) I got in the car, and went to West Virginia to look for Salt Pork. Actually, there is a Salt Pork, West Virginia. It’s in the corner of Virginia that butts into West Virginia, not far from Morgantown. Up in the mountains.

TP:   What did your father do? Was he musical at all?

CREED:   No, he was not musical at all. He was a businessman. He had a woodworking hobby. He didn’t understand what I was listening to.

TP:   Was he from that area? Did you have several generations back in Lynchburg or that part of Virginia?

CREED:  Oh yes. Several generations back down into Little Rock, Arkansas.

TP:   And your father settled there.

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   You’d gone to Duke, so I was wondering what your background was. Later you told me you had a farm. So I suppose it was a hard-working youth.

CREED:   Well, I didn’t like some of it. We had a farm and there was a dam with a mill on it.

TP:   Did he own the mill?

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   So your dad owned the mill in town.

CREED:   Yeah. It wasn’t a town.

TP:   He owned the mill. So the mill was the town.

CREED:   Virtually, yes. People used to come up with their bags of wheat, and take them in to the mill and have it made into flour.

TP:   So this was during the Depression. So you were doing, or not terrible.

CREED:   Well, I was doing well enough not to be aware that there was a Depression, let’s say.

TP:   You say you heard Gene Krupa at a warehouse in Princeton, W.V. What else did you want to elaborate on?

CREED:   I was thinking that when I got to Duke, I heard those specific records I listed, and they stuck with me as a stylistic kind of musical taste at the time. Certainly Summer Suite/Early Autumn, the Getz solo on it, and the Stan Getz-Johnny Smith, Autumn In Vermont. Also an atypical Stan Kenton, his September Song was a hit, and it was a band with some kind of studio singers and a huge trombone choir playing unison on September Song. I also heard the band in Raleigh, N.C., which is the next town from Durham, where Duke is. That’s where I also heard the Dizzy Gillespie Band, which was a high point of my musical experience. Chano Pozo, Ray Brown and all those guys.

TP:   It had to have been ‘48. That’s when Chano Pozo died.

CREED:   Must have been. Wonder where they stayed?

TP:   They must have stayed in people’s houses.

CREED:   I don’t think they slept on the bus.

TP:   Well, they were doing a tour of one-nighters. But some of the other notes you wrote: When you were in California in 1950, training to go to Korea, you heard Red Norvo, Tal Farlow, Mingus, Mulligan, Shorty Rogers. You heard them live, I guess.

CREED:   Oh, sure. And I talked to them. Shorty Rogers was so nice. I brought a manuscript in with Half Nelson, that Miles Davis tune, and he went through it and analyzed it, and said, “This is what you do when you get here.” I thought, “Wow, here I am talking to Shorty Rogers about this…”

TP:   Did you talk to people when they played at Duke or in West Virginia.

CREED:   Sure. I talked to Thornhill. I met Tony Scott there on the band, because he was playing lead clarinet on the very famous, short-lived edition of the Claude Thornhill band that had two french horns and Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz.

I also made a note here, jumping back to Duke, at #8: I actually went to the Durham Armory to see Lionel Hampton. The whole audience was black, and the dance floor was a gym floor—the gym in the armory. Wes Montgomery and Quincy Jones were on that band. I took a photograph of the band. I just looked at the personnel… I did some research, and I remember seeing the guitar player and the trumpet section. I didn’t know his name. I’m just saying it’s a strange world that I sat there and listened to that big band, and then lo and behold, a few years later, I’m recording Wes.

TP:   You were coming up to New York periodically in high school and while you were at Duke, and seeing these cousins and staying at hotels around midtown. When you settled here, where did you live initially?

CREED:   I got my own apartment at 86th Street and Riverside Drive.

TP:   Did you immediately start going out to clubs?

CREED:   Oh, yeah, I sat in with little… There were places to jam in the Village then.
TP:   Do you remember any of them?

CREED:   I can tell you exactly where it was. One was on West Fourth Street off Seventh Avenue. I think it’s still there. I can’t remember the name of the club.

TP:   Was it Arthur’s Tavern?

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   Randy Weston told me he did his first gig there in 1943 with Lucky Millinder’s guitar player.

CREED:   What do you know?

TP:   Oh, I forgot about the Randy Weston record you did.

CREED:   Right, that was with Freddie.

TP:   Did you keep playing trumpet all the way through?

CREED:   No. After I got connected with Bethlehem, I kind of stopped that.

TP:   So were you getting into the scene as a striving trumpet player? Is that how you started making contacts amongst musicians?

CREED:   Not quite. I got into the thing, and realized just how precocious or presumptuous I was. Thinking I could play with these guys? My God. By then I had a totally different maturity, let’s say. I told you when I jumped on the Elliott Lawrence bus… Nothing would stop me.

TP:   You sound like someone who when you’re determined to do something, you’re not shy.

CREED:   Oh, no.

TP:   The guy at Bethlehem was named Gus Wildi, and there was a  guy named Red Clyde. Was that the guy whose stripper girlfriend was hustling…

CREED:   No, he was the West Coast guy. I barely knew him. He came in as I was on my way out to ABC.

TP:   So you were there first.

CREED:   Yes. The guy I told you about who got Gus Wildi to come in and put up the money to start the record company was… He came out of Duke, too. He was a drummer. He was a very sad drummer.

TP:   But a good hustler.

CREED:   A good hustler. But the hustler only went so far, and then that’s how I came into the picture.

TP:   But Gus Wildi stayed with the label until the early ‘60s.

CREED:   I guess he did. I lost touch with Gus. I think he sold it in the early ‘60s.

TP:   You also wrote that “the dynamics of marketing thoughts might have begun with the perception that black audiences like one thing and white audiences like another, and keep the genre clear and easy to find.”

CREED:   Yes. I was just kind of free associating. I never thought about… The CTI-Kudi labels were coexisting. I don’t know if you know about the Kudi side.

TP:   Explain it a bit.

CREED:   In the first place, for Kudu I had black colors, orange, black and… The same colors as the Jamaican flag. So that was deliberate. And the kudu, as you probably know, is an African antelope. There are whole varieties of kudus. So anyway, I thought it would be appropriate to call it Kudu, because it had a nice ring to it and it was African. Anyway, that music was geared to R&B crossover… The R&B stations at that time, by midnight they’d turn to jazz. Fundamentally. So any of the strong-signal R&B stations did have their jazz slot, and the jazz slot kind of went into the… Actually, I thought that the Louis Jordan Tympany Five thing was… Even though he didn’t have extended solos, it was jazz. It was real swinging R&B stuff.

TP:   Then it was certainly jazz? Because what was jazz then? Jazz was swing music. It was dance music.

CREED:   That’s true. And Earl Bostic, certainly… I loved that stuff.

TP:   Earl Bostic was a huge influence on so many musicians. Even a guy like Greg Osby would cite Earl Bostic as an influence.

CREED:   Really.

TP:   His technique. His chops. His ability to play the horn.

CREED:   I never thought about that. I know I walked up the hill and went to the black venue and heard these great guys.

TP:   So Kudu and CTI in the ‘70s… You were talking about keeping the genres clear and easy to find, and you wrote down the names. “East Coast Jazz.” Impulse…

CREED:   At the time, the cool jazz out of California was popular. That was the Chet Baker era, and the Mulligan-Baker Quartet, and the Lighthouse… Anyway, I thought here we are in New York and we’re recording all this stuff; why don’t we start a series and put them in the category of East Coast Jazz? That was just a marketing thing.

TP:   We talked a little about this, but I’m interested in what you think of the music scene today. Is there stuff out there that you like?

CREED:   Sure. I like Bill Charlap. I knew his father. I think his nickname was Moose. He wrote a lot of Broadway musicals. A real nice guy. Kind of a joker. Not as conservative, I think, as a son.

TP:   Why Charlap? What about him do you like?

CREED:   I like the songs he picks. I like the way he plays piano. I just think he’s such a sincere… Great taste. Who else do I like? I don’t know… Name a few people.

TP:   Jason Moran.

CREED:   I like him. I’m not ecstatic.

TP:   Is he someone you could record?

CREED:   Sure.

TP:   Could you record Charlap?

CREED:   Oh, easily.

TP:   John Scofield.

CREED:   I recorded Scofield a couple of times. Actually, he’s on that thing called RhythmStick with Dizzy, but that hardly gave him room to be John Scofield. I don’t like the Ray Charles record he did. I don’t think he needs to go that way. Why warm up Ray Charles, when he is Ray Charles… I just don’t see trying to do something that Ray Charles would have done sort of the same way. It doesn’t ring true to me.

TP:   He’s trying to exploit the movie.

CREED:   Sure. I can’t fault him for that, but I don’t think he did it well.

TP:   How about Greg Osby?

CREED:   I think he’s great.

TP:   Could you work with him?

CREED:   Yeah… I’m hesitating because I’m trying to think of some of the people I don’t like so much. Pharaoh Sanders. I did not like him. Can’t put my finger on why.

TP:   Then or now?

CREED:   I don’t know what he’s playing like now?

TP:   A lot of ballads.

CREED:   He’s mellowed.

TP:   His stuff is very mellow. He would have been great on a CTI record, the way he plays now. He plays a lot of the Coltrane ballad book. All melody and tone and groove.

I suppose what interests me here is that your aesthetic seems to have been very consistent from the time you entered the business, and yet it produced very different-sounding records, according to the times they were done in. You’re still active, and I’m interested in how you see the scene. If you can tell me what sorts of things interest you without giving up anything proprietary, it would be of interest.

CREED: My brain doesn’t start turning until I get into a project. I go, “This drummer would be good with that bass player,” or, “What about the whole rhythm section with this horn player?” Unless I’m focused on some kind of purposeful project, it’s hard for me to generalize on it.

TP:   It seems you were out three-four nights a week, and really in the scene. Someone told Ashley that you always seemed to be out.

CREED:   That was Fran Scott, the designer.

TP:   But I’m assuming you were doing that in the ‘60s and ‘70s as well.

CREED:    I constantly listened, and there were a lot of things to listen to on the radio, for that matter. Unlike today. This age we’re living in is so formatted. I listen to WKCR. Sometimes it’s great.

TP:   But would not being on the scene as much make it more difficult for you to produce records? It seems you’re matching what Joe Lovano calls tonal personalities?

CREED:   That’s a great phrase. If you had a choice between a Stan Getz or Stanley Turrentine and a Mike Brecker or a Joe Lovano, or now you tell me about Pharaoh Sanders… I don’t know. I know if Steve Gadd would leave wherever he’s living now, and come down and record, I would probably build something from there up.

TP:   Steve Gadd is your man.

CREED:   Yes. He’s the greatest. All you have to do is listen to “Candy” on the She Was Too Good To Me album by Chet Baker. Anything in that album that Steve Gadd is playing on is just amazing. But if I had a Kudu project, my first choice would be Idris to this day. I know there must be other drummers out there. But I haven’t listened in an active way about who I would corral to do… What kind of a record? Is there a song to base the whole theme of the CD on? What?

TP:   The criteria have changed somewhat, haven’t they, in the last 25 years.

CREED:   Absolutely.

TP:   Would you have to have your imprint on a record today as much as before? Would you have to exercise the same level of control?

CREED:   That’s a very relative value. The same amount of control in what situation?

TP:   In packaging. CTI is your name, your design, the grooves are set up, there’s an aura that you’re looking to project. I’d say the same thing is true on the A&M records and maybe some of the Verve things. Blue Note wasn’t “Alfred Lion presents.” Blue Note was Blue Note. You were Creed Taylor Inc. I wonder if you still would want that level of control over the entire product today.

CREED:   It really would depend on the project, or proposed project. I couldn’t answer that. I think that I have a great degree of flexibility within a framework. But do I need that framework to work in? Probably.

TP:  Was there anyone you learned from among the other producers of the ‘50s and ‘60s?

CREED:   No.

TP:   Was there anyone you admired?

CREED:   I guess the discretion of ECM. Manfred Eicher. He certainly knew what to leave out and what not to push. Everything I’ve ever heard that he put out has a great deal of integrity to it. That doesn’t mean I liked it necessarily. But as a producer, I thought he was, and I guess he continues to be the real thing—if you like that genre of music.  Quincy.

TP:   Quincy.

CREED:   Certainly Quincy. Although I can appreciate why… I won’t call it going off the deep end, and why should I with Michael Jackson still around with us… Quincy always knew the right thing to do. Whether I was producing him or he  was producing another record… I think I produced better records than he did, but I admired him as a producer.

TP:   Why do you think your records were better?
CREED:   Because I think that he… Well, don’t quote me on this, because Quincy is my friend. But being in the midst of this stuff… We see music from a different angle. He looks at it from the inside and outside, but I think I’m in a position to look at it from the outside.

TP:   Do you think you have a more objective take on what you’re putting out? Is that what that is?

CREED:   I think so.

TP:   Without putting words in your mouth. I can say that?

CREED:   I guess. But don’t compare.

TP:   I won’t say you make better records. Is that okay?

CREED:   That’s okay.

TP:   What did you think of Alfred Lion as a producer? You did record a number of the same people. Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine…

CREED:   Well, look at our backgrounds. Rudy used to tell me… I never met Alfred Lion. He was always in there when I wasn’t, and vice versa, with Rudy. Rudy said Alfred would come out of the control booth and into the studio with no hesitation and say, “It ain’t swingin’,” without any specifics. Obviously, he was a jazz fan from the beginning of his life, and he knew what was good and what was not, what was swinging and what was not swinging. But beyond that, he didn’t look into conceptual kinds of album production. Either the band had it, or he would have a soloist with the band and let them as extended as they wanted to me. If it’s 16 minutes, that’s fine; if it’s 5 minutes, that’s fine, too.

TP:   In the ‘60s, he did some things that were not unlike what you did at CTI, with Duke Pearson as the arranger.

CREED:   Duke Pearson was participating not only as an arranger but as a producer.

TP:   I think what you’re saying is that your training as a musician enabled you to give specific inputs into the music that would leave no doubt as to what you wanted and what the sound was supposed to be. Whereas with Alfred Lion, he wasn’t coming at it from quite as informed a perspective.

CREED:   Well, that, and also he didn’t bring in what would have been for him foreign elements, like the concert-master for the New York Philharmonic, who became my key guy with Don Sebesky and Claus Ogermann, for that matter. With the strings, it’s not just the arrangement. It’s who was the A-row of the violins, who was in the B-row, and who you don’t hire because in between takes he plays cards or he reads the paper or he doesn’t pay much attention, and also, his intonation is not that hot, and the only reason he’s sitting there is because he gets a lot of jingle dates and he hires his friends, and dah-da-dah. I had a talk with the concert-master, and he said, “No problem, I know what you’re talking about.” So we had a pure…the cream-of-the-crop string guys, the violins, violas or celli, performing at their zenith.

Did you ever go to a session that involved a lot of orchestral people? If you put elements together that are disparate, like string sections or even woodwinds or whatever, the personality of the players and their interest…even if not as a jazz soloist, their interest in jazz brings to the recording an entirely different kind of approach. All you need is one guy who is not very attentive, whether a string player or wind player, and it’s… It’s like the Yankees. If they’ve got one guy who’s not performing, the whole thing goes to hell.

TP:   Do you feel that this kind of production is one way to get great jazz, or are there many ways to get a great jazz  record?

CREED:   Oh, sure. There are many ways. Absolutely.

TP:   Your way being one of many. Do you think your way was the best?

CREED:   Well, don’t we all? Sometimes I wish I’d done it another way, and I sure won’t make that mistake again.

TP:   What are some things you wish you’d done another way, if I may ask?

CREED:   I think they’re long gone into my deep subconscious.

I just got one of those records I talked about. I’ll take a look at it. Def Jazz with Roy Hargrove.

TP:   Sounds like a remix.

CREED:   Well, a remix or it started out that way. Anyway, the first cut is Roy Hargrove. He sounds good. He sounds like Hargrove. The rest of it sounds not unlike that Verve Remix #3. But this is a better record.

TP:   For instance, M’Shell Ndegeocello has a new record with a bunch of venturesome jazz soloists, and she put down all these grooves. Works really well.

CREED:   I know. I’ve heard it, and I love it. The singer that I like is Luciana Souza. She plays with Romero Lubambo, who’s one of my favorite guitar players. I recorded him… He went down to Salvador to do that thing with the Salvadorian percussionist, and Donald Harrison…

TP:    You worked with Donald, too.

CREED:   Yes. Donald’s such a pleasant fellow. He’ll do anything, within reason.
I’d like to plug my family. Plug it in however…

TP:    All three of your sons are graphic artists?

CREED:   Yes. They used to draw all the time together, and it rubbed off, I think.

TP:   Did they grow up in the Village?

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   Did they go to P.S. 41?

CREED:   No, they went to City and Country. Blake went to St. Ann’s, John went to Brooklyn Friends, and Creed went to Elizabeth Irwin. Blake was the art director of Fortune magazine. John was art director of This Old House.

TP:   Did you have anything to do with Cecil’s three tunes on Into the Hot?

CREED:   Gil Evans was always a very slow writer. About that time I was getting ready to go to Verve, and he owed Impulse! an album, and he wanted to go to Verve. The only way he could get out of his contract was by giving them another album. So we decided to get Cecil Taylor in on it.

[—30—]

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Filed under Article, Creed Taylor, DownBeat, Interview

For Keith Jarrett’s 69th Birthday, Full Interviews From 2000, 2001, and 2008, plus an 2008 Interview with Manfred Eicher

For Keith Jarrett’s 69th birthday, I’m posting a series of interviews I’ve conducted with him for various articles over the last 14 years. The 2000 interview was for a bn.com interview (it seems to be no longer on the Internet) on the occasion of the release of the trio release, Whisper Not. I coalesced this and a fall 2001 interview for a DownBeat piece generated by Jarrett’s earning “Best Acoustic Pianist” Award for 2001. The 2008 interview was generated by Jarrett’s election to the DownBeat Hall of Fame. I also previously interviewed Mr. Jarrett in 2002 for a long DB piece about the late Paul Motian (you can find it at the very bottom of that post). By the way, you’ll notice that the links to the DownBeat articles are contained with a DownBeat “micro-site” that contains DB’s Jarrett archive, beginning with a 1974 interview with the late Bob Palmer, and concluding with a 2013 interview with Ethan Iverson, whose 2009 interview with Jarrett  can be found here. Happy hunting.

* * *

Keith Jarrett (10-10-00):

TP:    The first thing that occurs to me in looking at this CD in relation to the other “standards” CDs is the preponderance of tunes associated with Bebop and the vocabulary of Bebop.  It’s an incredible selection of material.  Can you talk about why you were focusing on this particular repertoire at this particular time when the record was done?

JARRETT:  Well, it’s kind of a long story.  I don’t know how long a story you want.

TP:    I did read a clip on the Internet from an interview you gave an English paper in which you said that this was partly due to your illness, and you don’t have to exert as heavy a touch playing this music — it’s lighter, more dancing, a different quality of effort for you.

JARRETT:  Yeah.  The funny thing is, when I had that theory, I wasn’t prepared to run into the piano in Paris that is on this particular recording! [LAUGHS] It was the least… In general, German Steinways are bad for Bebop anyway, but this particular piano was like a Mack truck, very heavy and thick action.  So I had to throw all that out the window for this concert.  Luckily, it was the last of four concerts in Europe, and I just decided, “Well, I’ll just have to use whatever energy I’ve got, and if I make it through the concert, that’s good; if I don’t, at least it’s the last one.

TP:    Were you playing this repertoire throughout those four engagements?

JARRETT:  Yes.  Actually, you might know that the trio doesn’t normally rehearse.  I’ve said that many times.  The very first time we actually rehearsed was while I was still sick, trying to determine whether I could actually handle playing with them, maybe just the dynamics, you know.  I could play alone a little, but that’s not the same.  Since I had such a long space where I wasn’t playing, it just naturally occurred to me that… Actually, if you think about what we recorded in sequence just before this release, you’ll notice that it was starting to happen anyway.  I mean, we were starting to go in this direction a little more than we had before.

TP:    You played “John’s Abbey.”

JARRETT:  Yes, and even the way of playing.  We’re in time more, we’re not playing around the time as much.  So in one way it was natural, and in another way it had to do with getting back into concerts with a fresh outlook that also fit my energy level at the time.  But then, of course, meeting pianos that I had to work like amazingly hard to get anything out of, that made it beside the point.  Because I think that Bebop players that we’ve heard on record, or if we’re old enough in person… I think probably, without exception, the pianos those guys were playing had been pounded to death, and were probably all fairly light action and, if they were lucky, they were in tune.  But I would guess that the pianos the bebop players used, since they were all club date pianos, had their stuffing knocked out of them before Bebop came along, and those guys might not have been able to play that way at all if they weren’t playing on rather used instruments.

TP:    That’s fascinating.  I’ve never heard it stated like that before, but it certainly does make sense.

JARRETT:  I think it would have to follow also that the sound that we like in their playing has a lot to do with the pianos not being perfect.  If you listen to the way the horn players play in any jazz really, but in Bebop because we’re talking about it, their intonation is dependent on their phrasing.  A piano is a real structured thing, and it’s basically a percussion instrument, and when a piano is in perfect operating condition, let’s say ready for a Chopin recital, it doesn’t have much personality, because it’s so even.  In a funny way, I’m not sure how Jazz would have come about if everything had been perfect from the beginning.

TP:    So it’s a music whose strengths derive from imperfections or even mistakes.

JARRETT:  I would just say that there’s a character that comes about… Well, if you think of human beings and you look at somebody’s face, if they don’t have any lines on their face, you’ll say that their face is sort of characterless.  Well, those lines would be imperfections to a plastic surgeon.  But to you, you’re getting some information about them.  And I think Bebop, because of how fleet-footed it is, if a piano has a… Well, I released this “Deer Head Inn” recording you might be familiar with.

TP:    With Paul Motian on drums instead of Jack DeJohnette.

JARRETT:  Yes.  Well, that piano was absolutely… I shouldn’t say absolutely terrible, because that wouldn’t be fair.  I mean, it was a club piano.  And I couldn’t have played it louder if… Some people have reviewed it as though I was playing sort of not at the highest dynamic possible.  But I was.  So the problem you encounter with, like, the instruments that are not perfect kind of create a character that is contagious sometimes, and in improvising, an improvisor kind of works with that.

TP:    That said, is there a different aesthetic to performing jazz, to improvising within this vocabulary vis-a-vis dealing with the Classical vocabulary?

JARRETT:  Oh yeah.

TP:    How does the aesthetic diverge?  You’re saying that a lot of the character of jazz comes out of the peculiarities of the situation, whether it’s the particular way in which a particular piano has been pounded…

JARRETT:  Let me interrupt you for a minute.  You’ve probably heard a lot of jazz.  So if you think of some Wynton Kelly solos… If you were listening to them and you knew a lot about how pianos sound and what condition it might have been in, you’d probably realize that almost all the time, when things were really cooking, there was a particular quality of the piano that would never be able to be considered a good quality for anything but Jazz, I guess.  That’s what I was trying to get at.

TP:    How did that operate in these concert halls, then, when you have superb pianos articulating this music?

JARRETT:  Well, this is my special problem and this is my special expertise, I guess.  I’m coming from both places at the same time.  I’m coming from… Maybe if we play a ballad, I need the piano to do things that only an optimally adjusted piano can do.  But when we’re playing a bebop head, I wish the piano could change, like, radically.  And I am probably one of the few players that can move between those two places on the same instrument.  In other words, instead of one of those things not being effective, I’m finding a way more often than not to make the piano do what it actually doesn’t want to do, and sound appropriate for the situation.  It’s almost impossible to talk about it.  I wouldn’t even know how to talk about it to a pianist.

TP:    I actually think I do understand in pretty much of a layman’s way what you said.

JARRETT:  Let’s say you take a stiff thing, a fairly new, perfectly conditioned Steinway, the bushings are all new, therefore the keys are all evenly adjusted.   But when the bushings are new, the keys are tight.  That’s the way it’s supposed to be.  Except that isn’t really great when you want to play like a horn.

TP:    You can’t get that vocal inflection.

JARRETT:  That’s right.  And if you listen to the new CD, if you knew how hard that piano made it for me… Some of these things for me are personal triumphs for me [LAUGHS], just from what I already knew about the instrument.  I was forcing it to start to speak.  Every now and then, I just would be able to get it to speak.

TP:     I’d like to talk to you about the content.  Is this material that you learned and knew and internalized during your early years of playing, during your apprenticeship years?  Are these all tunes that are almost vernacular to you from your beginnings in music?

JARRETT:  No, actually not at all.  One of my sons is studying at NEC, and I think they are more vernacular to him.  For me, I just started to think about going to…for varying reasons, to eliminate the long introductions that I’ve often played before standards, and for the other reasons we spoke about… Moving towards a bebop thing was also good because I wasn’t all that… I hadn’t played these tunes very much at all.  So I knew the tunes from hearing them, but I hadn’t spent any time playing them.

TP:    Ah, so there goes my theory.

JARRETT:  Yes.

TP:    I was thinking that in your Boston days playing in the bar, you had done the various standards and bebop material.

JARRETT:  No.  Actually, I came along around the time when that wasn’t the thing to do any more.  I mean, I don’t know what we were playing.  I’m trying to remember.  Most of the jam sessions I was involved in in the beginning, they didn’t even have pianos, so I was playing marimba a lot. [LAUGHS] But I don’t think we played bebop tunes.

TP:    As a kid, did you listen to a lot of Bud Powell or George Shearing or Ahmad Jamal or Monk?  Was that part of your listening diet when you were first discovering jazz?  Because they were coming out at that time.

JARRETT:  Of those players… I once did a blindfold test in Paris for the Paris jazz magazine when I was with Charles Lloyd, in the ’60s.  And I wrote a list,, before I went in, of people that I was sure he was going to play for me, just to see if it was going to work out that way — just a little projection thing.  One of the names was Bud Powell, but I had never really heard Bud.  But I figured he was going to play them for me because, you know, it’s a legend.  And as soon as he played whatever he played, after the first couple of bars I knew it had to be Bud Powell because it was too good to be anybody else.  So I wasn’t steeped in these guys.  The only one of the people you mentioned, the white album of Ahmad Jamal, the “Portrait” album was something that accidentally came into my hands when I was fairly young, and that remains to me one of the milestones of trio recording — just what the trio can do.

TP:    Is that the one that has the famous version of “Poinciana” on it?

JARRETT:  Yes.  Well, maybe not.  Maybe that’s on a different release.  But it’s the same series.

TP:    So Ahmad Jamal was an inspiration for you as a younger player.

JARRETT:  Well, it wasn’t so much him as how he used the trio.  I think if there are trios that have created potentials for what that combination can do,, I would say it was his trio, at least in modern jazz, and Bill Evans.

TP:    Well, on “Poinciana,” Jack DeJohnette shows that he paid a lot of attention to Vernell Fournier when he was a young guy in Chicago.

JARRETT:  Well, Jack and Gary and I were together in a van going to a Berkeley, California concert.  This might have been ten years ago or something.  We had already been playing together quite a long time.  And we just were talking about everything, and the past and musicians, and we all ended up talking suddenly about Ahmad.  I mentioned the White album, and they both looked at me, stunned, because all three of us had had the same momentous experience when we heard that particular album.  I mean, we didn’t know each other until years and years later.  But that album meant the same thing to all three of us when we first heard it.

TP:    Well, it’s interesting, because you and Jack DeJohnette both had such significant experiences with Miles Davis, who was also inspired by Ahmad Jamal.

JARRETT:  Well, Miles would say the same thing.  I think Miles would say it was his use of space that he was influenced by, and I would have said more or less the same thing — that what they weren’t playing was very important, too.  The grooves they got with almost no ornamentation was pretty amazing.

TP:    So in dealing with tunes like “Hallucinations” or “Conception” or “Round Midnight” or “Groovin’ High” it’s a very fresh experience for you.

JARRETT:  Yes, that’s true.

TP:    One would assume that someone of your generation and period and what one might assume would be your orientation, would have the iconic versions of these tunes in your head.  But indeed, the tabula rasa approach can actually work for you with this repertoire.

JARRETT:  Yes, it can and it did.  And actually, we’re out of that phase now, and I’m glad we documented it when we did.  I mean, we do some of these things.  But at this moment in time, the summer of ’99, that was the first tour we did since I got ill, and this was the fourth concert.  So I wasn’t steeped in it at all.  I was fresh about it.

TP:    Can you talk a little generally about what the bebop period means to you, either musically or socially or aesthetically?

JARRETT:  Okay.  Well…let’s see…

TP:    Not to give you too specific a question there.

JARRETT:  Well, that makes it harder to answer.

TP:    Well, take any one of those that you care to.  I’m asking you the question because it seems pertinent to the content of this album.

JARRETT:  Well, here’s one thing that no one has mentioned yet in print that I’ve seen, about any of my playing.  Maybe they’re not going to mention it about this either.  But I am much more influenced by horn players than by pianists.  When I feel that I’ve been successful and with the trio in a jazz context, unless it’s maybe one of those long vamps where I am more like a string instrument, but a more primitive one… That happened occasionally on “Blue Note” or some of other releases.  When we’re playing tunes, it occurred to me (I think it was really around the tour this recording comes from, and then it’s continued through to this last summer, where we did another tour) that I was basically hearing Charlie Parker when I tried to play.  I mean it wasn’t like I was hearing what a piano would do.  I was hearing what a horn would do.  And the phrasing from that period has a character that I can’t quite figure out how to describe, but I would say that it’s both soft and hard.  In other words, it seems to have all the elements of jazz.  The Bebop era to me has the elements that all other periods of jazz have used, one way or another.  And it just focuses on the line.  I mean, if you listen to Ornette, there is… If you listen to anybody play jazz who is a good player, somewhere in there, Bebop has the qualities they’re using.  Whereas if you go back to the very earliest playing that we know on recordings, you know, they hadn’t flatted the fifth much yet… There are just these little differences.  But to me, Bebop is somehow center stage to what modern jazz has done even since then.  I don’t think you can really include Albert Ayler in that necessarily [LAUGHS] or a few other guys.  But you know, we’re using the same instruments, we’re using the same configurations.

TP:    I think it’s certainly the case with your quartet with Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden and Motian; your point is very operative with that whole body of work.

JARRETT:  Yes.

TP:    In forming your sensibility… I know you’ve been playing since you were unimaginably young.  But did listening to records, did listening to styles, to tonal personalities have a big influence on how your sensibility developed when you were younger, or did it come more from the functional imperatives of performance, applying your fundamentals to any given situation?

JARRETT:  I think you’re asking a bigger question than you intend to.  I was doing a tour once with J.F. Jenny-Clark [bassist] and Aldo Romano [drummer] in the ’60s, sometime like, say, ’67…I can’t really be sure.  Up to that time, I thought that what a jazz player is supposed to do is work on his voice and find out what he actually… Let’s see how to say this.   Up to that time, I was working on who I was musically.  If I’d played something that sounded like somebody else or something else, I think what I used to do would be to say, “No-no, that’s really not me.”  Then next time I’d hope that I could find where I was in that particular piece.  But one evening we were playing, and we took a break, and came back on stage, and when I came back on stage, I realized that what I thought was the last stage in a jazz player’s…what’s the word…in the things you work on… That to find your voice was probably way down the list.  Because once you find your voice, then the imperative is to play, and not think about that.  And so, I’m answering more than your question, but… Maybe I’m not even answering your question.

TP:    Tell me if this is an accurate paraphrase.  Are you saying that you decided to play, and whatever you played would be your voice?

JARRETT:  I think I determined by the time we finished the first set, and by the time I had played that much of my life (which wasn’t that much, but luckily, I started early, as I said), that it was possible to drop that other shit, and just say, “Well, I’m who I am when I’m playing.  I don’t have to be who I am and then make sure I am who I am by playing what I think I am.”  So that freed me to do really whatever I heard.  And it seems to me that if it’s… I don’t know whether it’s a forgotten thing, or whether it’s never been thought of. [LAUGHS] But I think it’s the way it works.  If a player doesn’t do that, if they get stuck in their own voice, then where do they go from there?

TP:    Is that a pitfall that you’ve observed?

JARRETT:  Sure.  You can, too, if you think about all the stylists we’ve had who started out being valuable contributors and then ended up being stylists.

TP:    Or prisoners of their own cliches.

JARRETT:  Yes.  Nature doesn’t follow that rule.  Nature doesn’t say, “I’ve got these materials; I’m only going to use them for one thing.  Make sure it’s me.”  Nature says, “I’m going to do as many things with this as I can, and let’s see how much there is.”

TP:    Let me ask you about this trio.  It’s one of the longest-standing entities in improvised music.  Obviously, each one is a master of their instrument and incredibly resourceful and imaginative.  But what is it about each of them, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, that makes them so suited to interact with you?

JARRETT:  I don’t know!  I guess if you interviewed each one of them, it would be interesting to get their take on this.  Not just mine.  You know the story about when we first recorded and…

TP:    Not really.  Would you care to tell it?

JARRETT:  Well, I guess I did a recording with Gary and Jack of Gary’s music, which was previous to the “Standards” thing.  Then I sort of forgot that happened somehow, and I was thinking I wanted to do… Probably Manfred and I were talking about “what about doing some kind of trio recording?”  He might have suggested Gary.  I don’t even remember who suggested who, or how it came about.  But once it came together… Now, I played with Jack since ’65.

TP:    I didn’t know it went back that far.

JARRETT:  Oh yes, with Charles Lloyd.  The first time I played with Charles Lloyd was in that band.  Jack heard me with Blakey before I met him, and Jack recommended me to Charles Lloyd when Steve…I don’t know, they needed a pianist for some reason.  I heard Gary play with Bill at the Jazz Workshop in Boston with Paul Motian.  I was impressed with Gary, not to mention also the recording “Trio ’64.”  And I don’t know, for some reason, I think we all… So you don’t know the dinner-before-the-first-recording story.

TP:    No, I don’t.  Would you prefer I look it up and not have to retell it?

JARRETT:  Oh, no.  I asked them to have dinner before we started recording, because I wanted to explain to them… You have to remember this was ’83, and it was not hip to play standard tunes in ’83.  It was not at all the thing to do.  Gary had been through the avant-garde quite soundly, and involved in a lot of different music.  Jack was with Sun Ra, and had done a lot of other crazy things.  And I had done a lot of things also.  We were sitting at dinner, and I said, “Okay, this is what it’s about.  We’ve all been bandleaders and we’ve all played our own music, and we’ve all played the music of the other bandleaders we work with.  But when I say you know how freeing it is to be just playing, you guys know what I mean.”  And of course, they knew what I meant.  In other words, not to rehearse your own material, not to say “use brushes here, we’ll go into time here,” the whole kit and kaboodle of that stuff.  I said, “Well, that’s why what I want to do is play standards.”

I think up until that moment Gary thought I was insane, and he couldn’t figure out why I’d want to do that.  I was a young pianist and I was a composer.  Why would I want to do that?  Then we did it, and I think it started to sink in that this was such a special situation that we could actually… Every time we play it’s like a reunion, instead of a program-producing, rehearsing mode thing.  And then I think over the years… There were times in the early years in the trio… First of all, I didn’t think we should play concerts at all.  I thought, “Okay, this is the recording, and that’s it.  Because I don’t want to go into big rooms; I don’t think the music will be happy there.”  So we did a club date at the Vanguard, then I think we noticed how great the music was again.  Then I decided we should do a tour of Japan because the halls in Japan are smaller and much better sounding than any other…well, certainly than our country! [LAUGHS] They are very similar to each other, and they are generally not bigger than about 1500 seats.  Then that worked, and I guess everybody was hooked on this working.  Every now and then, Gary or Jack would say, “You know, maybe we should play some new material.”  And then we’d try some new material, and they’d have the experience of knowing what I was talking about again, at that first dinner, like, “Yeah, here we are working on material.”  Well, playing jazz doesn’t depend on the material.  So what we’re doing, I think, is much more the core of what jazz is.  It’s not like we’re at a jam session, but we’re close.

TP:    Is it like the famous Miles Davis quote that he was… I think you may have expressed this.  That he was paying the people in the band to rehearse.

JARRETT:  You mean every time we played.

TP:    Yes.

JARRETT:  I’m not sure if I said that…

TP:    I don’t know if it was you or someone else who said it.  But I noticed the comment somewhere or another a day or two ago.  But it sounds very much like that same aesthetic or that same imperative.

JARRETT:  Well, I think Miles would have wanted it to be… Yeah, he never wanted to impress material on the band.  He wanted the band to find the material.  It’s only different in the sense that… My thought was, “What if we used material that was so impressed on us already, whether it’s in our head or in our fingers, that we don’t have to worry about it.”  Also, I knew that neither Jack nor Gary had played this stuff for a long time, and neither had I.  So I had the feeling this would be such a short-lived…a good idea but short-lived.  Well, it’s anything but short-lived.  And it got to be a better idea the more we played, and every time we play we find out more about it.

Now, what happened on the last tour is, I talked to Gary and Jack about maybe not playing material of any kind at some of these concerts, just as a theory for the future.  They said, “Yeah, right.”  And I didn’t know what I was talking about either.  We ended up in Montreux, Switzerland, in a hall that had funny sound; not that it was terrible, it was just kind of funny.  The tunes didn’t sound right.  No matter what we did, it just didn’t sound like the right thing for the room.  So I thought this is the time; just pull the carpet out from under ourselves completely.

TP:    That’s something you made a career out of doing as a solo pianist, but I guess not in a group setting.

JARRETT:  Well, in a group it’s a bitch, because I mean, the group has to be like wired together.  You know? [LAUGHS] There’s no format.  We have to be superconductors for each other or something.  And mistakes aren’t the same thing.  I mean, there are no mistakes.  Everything is etched there.  You have to use whatever you play.

TP:    It seems you did something like that on the “Bye Bye Blackbird” record, on that long piece called “For Miles.”

JARRETT:  Yeah, sort of.  But we stayed tonal, and we stayed within a sort of Miles vibe.  At least that’s what we were trying to do.

TP:    I haven’t heard this yet.  Of course, maybe that will be part of your next document.  But are you saying that you’re going back to the full range of all your experiences, that Gary can touch on the things he did with Albert Ayler and you can touch on your… Again, is it encompassing everything from very consonant melody to the most dissonant of timbre-making or something?

JARRETT:  Yeah.  It can be like chamber music for a minute, and then it can just find its way to some other zone, and it can be sounding like we’re playing the blues, but there’s no bar lines.  So yeah.  And that happened a couple of times.  Then in the best tradition of keeping things alive, we didn’t try to do it again.  If it happens again, it will happen again.

TP:    This makes what you’re doing with the songbook and jazz standard material sound as though it’s very consonant with everything you’ve stood for over the years in your approach to music.  It’s the sort of all-material-is-grist-for-the-mill type of principle, and you seem to embody it to the max.

JARRETT:  Well, plus change is the eternal thing.  I mean, the trio has a style in that we can’t play what we don’t hear, and we have limitations because we are human beings, and we only hear what we hear when we’re playing.  So Gary has things his fingers end up playing, and I have things my fingers end up playing, and Jack has ways of playing that are his.  But I think that’s where it ends.  And that’s where it’s supposed to end.  That was what the principle of the thing was.  So whether with material that we’re ultra-familiar with or with no material at all, I did have to say to them, like, “You remember this; you did this; don’t be worried about it. [LAUGHS] We all did this before.”  Because it was like a new thing all of a sudden.  And to me, that’s what’s consonant about it in terms of what I’ve done up to now.  It’s like a menu.  If somebody said, “how do you know you want to order steak?”…you don’t have an answer for that, but you do know.

I think in music, for players one great difficulty is that they get locked into their own food sources.  It’s like a biofeedback.  If you’re stuck in a tape loop, you’re stuck in a tape loop.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a small one or a big one.  It’s the fact of being stuck that makes what you do ineffectual to the listener.  Say somebody is a fan of somebody else.  Well, you can go only so far with that.  That fan can be stupid enough to accept the person they’re listening to doing the exact same thing the exact same way forever.  But what we’re talking about is the creative act, and when you’re trying to let that… The creative act continues to demand different things of you as a player.  It’s like the act asks you.  You don’t say, “I think it would be very creative of me to do this.” [LAUGHS] That’s not how it works.

To get back to the question you asked about why these guys, I think the reason is that it’s been working this long.  If you reverse how these questions are answered, it’s the future that proves the past.  We’re still doing things that knock us out together, and therefore we’re together!

TP:    Is practice and performance very different for you?

JARRETT:  Yeah, practice is… I don’t practice improvising.

TP:    You practice very specific tasks, as it were?

JARRETT:  No, actually I should change that.  I had to practice everything after I was sick.  But I can’t practice much, because it usually gets in the way of my performing.  It’s like it sets up patterns or my ears aren’t as open any more.  When I was a hundred percent fine, health-wise, I wouldn’t listen to piano music at all before solo concerts for months, including my own sometimes.  I would not have played the piano for months before playing Avery Fisher Hall or something.  And in the trio, it’s good to just not develop patterns.  I mean, the whole thing is to… I’ve often said the art of the improvisor is the art of forgetting.  Our brains can probably forget better than our fingers.

TP:    There are a lot of musicians, improvisors, who don’t listen back to their work.  That’s what they tell you anyway.

JARRETT:  Yes.  I am not one of those people.

TP:    You seem to listen voraciously to your output.

JARRETT:  Yes.  I listen more now than I did… When I got ill, I really had no choice but to listen to a lot of things I had done, because I wasn’t sure I’d ever do anything else again.  I was sort of leery of a lot of my choices musically and the ways that I had played.  So that’s another part of the answer to why we changed repertoire, to get out of the… It’s not just that we went to bebop.  It’s also that we went away from something else.  So I didn’t have the option of falling into things that I… I had enough time to erase those patterns, because I hadn’t played piano for a couple of years after I got sick.

TP:    That was ’96 to ’98?

JARRETT:  Yes.

TP:    So no piano for two years.

JARRETT:  That’s right.  I would say I touched the instrument.  Actually, “The Melody At Night With You” was done during those two years.  But I would never have been able to practice or anything like that.

[-30-]

* * *

Keith Jarrett (9-20-01):

TP:    When I spoke with you last year you spoke about moving into the area you’re addressing on Inside Out.  First of all, have your performances during the last 8-9 months basically been a mixture of the free playing and the standards playing, or has it been a mixture?  Is it dependent on the hall and the piano?  How does it play out in live performance which way you go?

JARRETT:  I hesitate to even guess the reasons sometimes, but it’s an improvisational call, just as everything else would be.  In London, when we did that recording… Usually, when we do a soundcheck, we try not to… I mean, we don’t want to play the concert for the soundcheck.  So we might choose some tune to just see how it feels, the way most people probably do soundchecks.  Nothing seemed to feel right.  There are some halls that, for whatever reason, whether they’re too dry or too lively or very… I wouldn’t be able to describe the reasons.  But we then might say to ourselves…I mean, I say to myself this may be one of those times when we can’t trust our usual choices.  That’s how it last began.  When did I speak to you?

TP:    On October 10th, to be precise.

JARRETT:  That was after this tour.

TP:    In this case, the article is going to be about you and the piano and what you’ve been doing in recent years.  Because you won the Readers Poll as Best Pianist, so the people voted for you, and we’re talking about recent activity.

JARRETT:  Well, for one thing, I’ve put all my marbles for the moment into the trio.  So my pianistic… I’m not spreading myself… Although I never was really spreading myself thin, because I’d turn off one thing when I did the other thing.  But I feel that there is much more possibility of focusing on what I do with the piano in this trio context. So that’s one of the things.

TP:    A possibility of focusing on what you do with the piano in the trio context.

JARRETT:  Right.  In other words, if a player decides what he’s doing is the whole… I mean, this is where he has to put his universe.  I’m doing more of that now than I was when I was doing many things within the year, like solo concerts or classical concerts, and then trio concerts too.  In other words, I guess I want to get out of this one context, and that has led to the trio starting… Well, when we went into the Bebop era, and we hadn’t done that.  I changed the way my left hand was behaving a lot of the time.

TP:    You changed the way it was behaving.

JARRETT:  Yes.  In order to feel more appropriate for the different material.

TP:    Did you make it more of a comping function and less of an orchestral function?

JARRETT:   I think I was using… I mean, it’s just a guess because I don’t listen to my old stuff that much.

TP:    Oh, you don’t.

JARRETT:  Not often.  It’s all old.

TP:    I asked you this before: “You seem to listen voraciously to your output,” and you said, “Yes, I listen more now than I did.”  When you got ill, you had  no choice but to listen to a lot of things you’d done because you weren’t sure you’d ever get to do it again.

JARRETT:  Yeah, that’s right.  But since we talked, I probably haven’t listened at all.  But when I started to try to play again with the trio, I think I must have told you that gave me an opportunity to rethink, for example, what my left hand’s function would be under certain circumstances.  So in a bebop situation, when I want to feel more of the era that the bop tune might have come from, there are various things that pianists might have been tending to do back in that time.  They might have been using more… Instead of Bill Evans impressionistic middle-of-the-keyboard sound in their left hand, they might have been down lower doing some 7ths or that kind of thing.  So when I would be practicing to try to remember how to play again, since I hadn’t played for so long, I could get rid of a lot of habit patterns, and that was one that I was happy to broaden.  I was broadening the palette of my left hand.  When you’re improvising, you often are only thinking of the line, and with a pianist that would be the right hand — most of the time.  I always thought like a horn player anyway, so I really don’t like thick textures in a rhythm section context.  I don’t like solos that… I mean, I’m not Brubeckian in that sense.  I don’t often feel that way when the trio is all playing together.  But there are other ways of getting a linear thing going without thickening the sauce.  I didn’t want to get in Gary’s way either, so I didn’t want to play obviously loud roots and things in my left hand.  That’s just one of the things that changed.

But then after we started to get into the bebop thing, which felt fresh to us because we hadn’t been thinking about that material for so long, it started to become… Every now and then, at a hall, there was that experience of “Oh shit, there’s nothing really that we can do with this.  I mean, we can give the audience the best we can do, but isn’t there something else we can try?”  I guess none of us had thought about it.  One day on an airplane I just said to Gary and Jack, “Sometime we might just scrap the material.”  That’s how it started.  It wasn’t quite successful the first time.  It was a very cautious thing.

It’s funny, because now when I listen to Inside Out it seems like a prelude to what we’re doing now.  It’s very weird.  I was asked to write an article for the New York Times about free improvisation, and I did, and I just kind of decided I’m temporarily not wanting them to run this.  I was writing it from the point of view of someone who already had gone much further than this recording!  So I was writing about what we were doing instead of what we had done a year ago.

TP:    Further in what sense?

JARRETT:  Further into the head space of free playing.  In other words, I would put it this way.  The uniqueness of Inside Out is that it seems like a suite of pieces.  But that leads to the feeling that there are structures, even though we didn’t have those structures ahead of time.

TP:    It certainly does feel structured.  It seems to me that it’s from the innate musicality of you all working together.  I think the term you used was “as superconductors” for each other.

JARRETT:  Yes, and because of how long we’ve worked together.  If someone were to say, “Why are you still playing with the same two guys?” I could point to this kind of thing and say, “How would anybody do this with people they didn’t trust?”  We’ve learned to trust each other in a very specific and 100% way.  The difference between what we’re doing now and what we have occasionally done since this recording… One of the concerts will be released next probably, the tapes from Tokyo, is that it’s become less and less like a suite and more like… If it’s a suite of anything, it’s a suite of impromptu less structured things.  So in a way it’s freer and in a way it’s not as easy to listen to.

TP:    It’s one long  piece, more or less?

JARRETT:  Often, yes.  Often that’s true.

TP:    When I think of people who are pioneers in playing free, one things of you, because you did this in the ’60s.  One thinks of Paul Bley, who was doing it — and Gary Peacock, for the matter.  One thinks of Cecil Taylor, although he’d say he’s proceeding off of composed structures and these are meta-compositions in a certain way.  One thinks of Sam Rivers, who did the tabula rasa concept with Dave Holland and others.  One difference is that, at least on this record, what you’re doing is quite lyric and consonant and not, for lack of a better word, as “Out” as the others, which gives a somewhat different impression, and is quite logical considering your absorption of a wide template of Western and non-Western musics.

JARRETT:  Yes.   I think it’s accessible also for that reason.  I think what’s interesting is that it will be a direct… It’s as though I’d written a two-volume saga so far, but the next volume isn’t released yet.  When Inside-Out comes out it will be the first volume of a two or three volume meditation on free music.

TP:    Do you see Whisper Not, the process of playing it, as free music, as the tabula rasa concept?  You said a year ago that that concept and aspiration of playing music was operative for that music?

JARRETT:  Maybe you can rephrase?

TP:    To my ears, Inside Out sounds very much like Part 2 of something you began in Whisper Not.  The approach the pieces sounds so unencumbered by anything but pure listening and finding the material in the moment.

JARRETT:  Oh, certainly.  It’s only in the abstract region of analysis that these things are not related.  That’s what’s so funny about the nouveau conservative alienation of free playing from their whole vocabulary.  It’s possible to look at it that way, but it’s also possible to look at it as, you know, just another step.  Or not even that.  The same thing, but without an object.  Long ago I read a book called Consciousness Without An Object.  Just the title describes what free playing can be.  But on Inside Out, as I said in the liner notes, the objects sort of appear before our eyes, and it’s mostly the piano that invokes them.  So I sort of invoke something, in the way I might invoke it in a solo concert.  And they see right away what I am hearing, or very shortly thereafter they see what they are hearing, and we all find the center of that thing.  Whereas in Tokyo and in the recent things, we just go into the ozone immediately.

TP:    May I step back with you for a second?  Can you tell me the circumstances under which free playing became appealing to you in your own development and your own career?

JARRETT:  I think it was when my youngest brother, Christopher, used to play the piano.  I was a middle teenager.  he knew nothing about the instrument.  He was probably 7 or something.  He didn’t know anything about the piano, but I had been playing for…well, quite a long time.  And what he did on it, knowing nothing, was, to me, something that someone who knew a lot about it might not be able to do.  He would just throw his body into it, and something would happen.  It wasn’t all good, but there was stuff there that no one I knew could have had access to if they already knew the piano.  So I guess that was my first experience.

TP:    When did you start incorporating that way of thinking into your approach to the piano?

JARRETT:  Oh, it took a long time.  I had a bass player who asked me once, “do you really want to play that clean all the time?”  I said, “That’s a very good question.  And no, I don’t.”  I was at Berklee, I guess or I had just left Berklee, and I had to work for a long time to get some…I wouldn’t call it dirt, but some imperfections in the technique.  Because that’s where the soul lay, actually.  Now, if you asked a wonderful classical guitarist to transcribe a B.B. King solo and play it, it wouldn’t be convincing, and it wouldn’t be convincing because there would be one thing he’d be doing too correctly.

TP:    So for you there’s been a lot of fighting against technique over time.

JARRETT:  Yeah, that’s right.

TP:    It’s as though the technique sometimes is a burden for you.

JARRETT:  That’s true.  It is a burden.  It wouldn’t just be for me.  It would be for anyone who had been trained to be a virtuoso.

TP:    But putting that into your career, trace for me how that became part of the sequence of documents that becomes the oeuvre of Keith Jarrett.

JARRETT:  Ives made a big impression on me.  I heard him supposedly playing studies for some of his pieces, and I knew the pieces on the page… I had studied classically, so I had looked at this music and I knew it pretty well.  And his supposed studies for these written pieces didn’t seem at all even related to the pieces that he wrote!  I just loved the fact that he could disregard entirely what he thought he was trying to do, and there was so much grittiness and passion in it… I think it’s the passion part that you lose if you perfect something.  If there’s too much control, you’re going to lose something.  I mean, that was the great contribution of the ’60s…even those players who couldn’t play anything.  The contribution was that this could actually happen, that drummers could drown out bass players and that bass players didn’t necessarily mid, that there wasn’t a tuxedoed Modern Jazz Quartet mentality of what the possibilities of the music are.  I mean, I love the MJQ; it’s not that (?).

TP:    But was there any mentor figure or leader figure who gave you license to do that?  Was it Charles Lloyd maybe, or did Art Blakey have anything to say about that, or other people who aren’t prominent in your discography?

JARRETT:  Well, before I met Charles and before I was even with Blakey, I remember playing with a vocalist in Boston (I used to like to accompany vocalists; it’s another art, actually), and I was playing on the strings, and I guess Henry Cowell and Ives, and seeing Paul Bley with Jimmy Giuffre….those were important things.

TP:    Those showed you ways to elicit the qualities that you were seeking to elicit.

JARRETT:  Yes, I heard something.  Put it this way.  I heard a lack of something.  That bass player’s question to me started those balls rolling to try to find out what that lack, at least in my case, might be.  What did I really hear?

TP:    I’d like to take you back in another sense, and talking about stylistic influences within jazz.  You’re so much written about, and I know this information is out there.  But in this piece, in the context of Whisper Not, which the readers would have paid attention to in their voting… I asked you this last year, and you said that between Bud Powell, George Shearing, Monk, Ellington and Ahmad Jamal, all of whose music you’re performing, Jamal had a particularly visceral impact with the record that had “Poinciana.”  But were you paying attention to these people in terms of trying to assimilate vocabulary?

JARRETT:  No.  That wasn’t what I was doing, I would think.  Each story was different.  But with Ahmad, for example, it was what the trio wasn’t doing that was important to me.  Up to that point, I probably had heard Oscar Peterson and some Andre Previn with Red Mitchell and Shelley Manne, and Brubeck.  Then I heard Ahmad’s White Album, and I thought: “This is swinging more than any of the things I’ve been listening to, but they’re doing less.  So what’s the secret here?”  I used to practice drums to that album all the time, because there was so much space in it..

TP:    So you and Jack are both influenced by Vernell Fournier.

JARRETT:  All three of us.  In a van going to a Berkeley, California, concert… I might have told you this.

TP:    You did tell me, and Gary Peacock reaffirmed Ahmad Jamal’s impact.  You seem in several records to be delving into the compositions of Bud Powell.  Can you address his impact on you?

JARRETT:  Well, Bud is the passion master.  That’s a terrible word.  I’ve never heard of that word before, so I wish I could think of something better.  I probably told you this, too that I did a blindfold test once…

TP:    I’m going to patch some of those things in.

JARRETT:  Yes.  Probably when it came down to it, if I heard an intensity in the playing, if you think of Ives… With Ahmad, the intensity was in the spaces actually.  It was the way they played simply that made the swing work the way it did.  There are times when this trio with Gary and Jack gets into a place where we’re swinging, and we know that you can’t get there by willing yourself and deciding you’re going to do it.  We all have to just be familiar with what it feels like when it was going on.  But in general, there was a thing that I got from passion and then there was a thing that I got from intelligence.  So I could say that to me Paul Bley was giving me a message that you could use intelligence in a certain way, back when I heard him with Jimmy Giuffre, and that it didn’t HAVE to swing — because that band did not really swing much! [LAUGHS]

TP:    It was pretty rubato.

JARRETT:  Yes.  But still, if you put all these things together, it does come up with something.  When I listen to Bud, what I hear is this commitment in his playing that is not just fingers coming down on the keys.  It’s coming from more of his body.  So that’s one I got from Bud.

TP:    You did title one of these pieces, after the fact, “From the Body.”

JARRETT:  Oh, I wasn’t thinking of that at all.  I was thinking of the fact that we have to bring this from the body, and not just from our head.

TP:    For you, as a classically trained musician, what was the biggest adjustment you had to make mentally in playing jazz?

JARRETT:  The technique.

TP:    Talk about how the technique is different.

JARRETT:  It’s almost… Mmm. [LAUGHS] Okay, there is a technique to playing Classical music.  The way they differ is that there is no technique that is THE thing to do in jazz.  It is a personal quest to find that.  They are so opposite in that respect that you can’t even compare it.  You can’t compare the techniques.  One is a technique; one isn’t a technique.  So when you’re looking for yourself, which is what the jazz audience would hope you’re doing (I hope they would hope that), you’ve got to throw away all the other rules.  That’s what was really a bitch, because I had already been given all these rules.

TP:    Right.  At the most formative period of your life.

JARRETT:  Yes.  And I was pretty fast… I picked these things up fast, so I went inside and I digested them fast, so I had to regurgitate them over a period of time!

There’s a body language in jazz that you would be avoiding at all costs in classical playing.  And I’m surely not the best representative of that on piano at the moment.

TP:    Of body language?  It’s part of your reputation, I must say.

JARRETT:  I mean, it’s correct that I move like that.  It’s just not correct that it’s a show.  It’s the last thing I’d want to move like; you know, if I was going to decide how to move.  But because you’re dredging stuff up from nowhere most of the time, or seemingly nowhere, you don’t have any chance to be poised and have a good etiquette at the keyboard.  So the technique of getting it out as a pianist in jazz is basically… First of all, you have to not care at all about your own health.  You have to not care about anything but getting out what you hear.  If techniques can differ more than that, I can’t imagine.  In Classical, when you’re rehearsing with an orchestra, you’re not even supposed to listen to the music.

TP:    Say that again.

JARRETT:  I have often been told, “You’re listening too much.”

TP:    When you play Classical music?

JARRETT:  Yes.  And I know what they mean.  I know what the conductor has meant at times.  It’s a bad thing to do, because you get engrossed in the entire affair.

TP:    Then you want to improvise.

JARRETT:  No.  No, but you might not come in on time.  Or you might just be off somewhere in the music.

TP:    Do you practice jazz?

JARRETT:  Well, since I was sick, yes; but before that, no.

TP:    But you practiced Classical music.

JARRETT:  Yes.

TP:    How is practicing jazz different than practicing classical music?

JARRETT:  It feels kind of stupid to practice jazz.

TP:    Is practicing jazz the same as playing?  Barry Harris said that Monk said that.  He said that once he and Monk played “My Ideal” for six or seven hours,  hundreds of variations on it, and that it was the same as playing.  And I’ve heard a similar story from maybe Walter Davis, Jr. on Bud Powell.  They went to his house, Bud was playing something, then they returned much later and Bud was still playing the same thing.

JARRETT:  It is the same, in a way.  I’ve never thought about it at all, but now that you’re telling me this… The thing that makes it the same is that you have to go to the same place to get it happening.  But with Classical, you don’t have to put everything together for sure until you’re performing.  So it is the same thing.  So now, when I go to the studio, I just make sure that I have the strength to do what I might have coming up… If I start playing tunes, if I don’t like what I’m playing, I’m either going to stop or I’m going to make it better.  And then it becomes a performance — for myself.

TP:    Why is jazz for you a trio endeavor vis-a-vis… Well, I guess that’s true on Melody… Let’s erase that question.

JARRETT:  [LAUGHS] Okay.

TP:    I guess you know where I was going on that one.

JARRETT:  I don’t really know where you were going.

TP:    Where I was going was that jazz to you seems to be a collective endeavor, specifically with this trio, whereas as a soloist it seems peripheral to the totality of your knowledge that’s coming out or that you’re accessing or drawing upon at any given time.  I mean, you hadn’t done standards as a solo pianist until The Melody…

JARRETT:  No, I actually I did a Japanese video that’s released, and I’ve also done it in performance.

TP:    So please allow me to erase that question.  I asked Gary Peacock if he noticed in you or felt any change in your sound in the aftermath of your illness.

JARRETT:  I’m sure he said yes.

TP:    He did.  He said a couple of things.

JARRETT:  He probably said, “Yes, and then it changed again.”

TP:    I’ll tell you what he said.  First he said that on the trio’s first outing after you resumed playing “we consciously tried to tone down the whole volume level of all of us.  His playing was lighter.  He was paying attention to not exerting himself so much physically.  And by quieting it down and getting softer, basically, instead of playing loud or having the volume levels high, what it did was allow his fingers to move in more of a horn-like fashion,” and that your playing sounded like a horn, which is possible to a certain extent when the volume level comes down.  He said that was something which the hall in San Francisco demanded.  Then I asked, “Stylistically is his playing  more compressed or more spare in any ways?” and he said, “No, I think it’s freer.  Less self.  More just the music.”  Do you have any speculations on this, vis-a-vis the tonal personality of Keith Jarrett?

JARRETT:  Well, I probably have speculations.  But  I remember on this last tour, which was in Europe only a couple of months ago: After the first or second concert, Gary said to me, “Your playing….I don’t know what to say about this, but it sparkles in a way that I don’t remember.”  Then later he said, “That wasn’t the right word,” and I can’t remember what he said the better word was.  But I knew what he meant.  There was a kind of… Wow, I wish I could think of adjectives.

TP:    Could it be something to do with cherishing every note?

JARRETT:  Well, it could be.  But I think it’s more of the joy of playing and  not knowing how long that joy will last.  And we all know that, but we don’t know it very well.  But after my illness, I knew it really-really-really well, that it’s always a privilege to be able to play at all.

TP:    And you might have taken it for granted before.

JARRETT:  Well, we all do.  Especially if you’ve played for 50 years!  53 out of 56.  I would say — although this isn’t really on anything that’s out there yet — that my playing has changed even since the time we did Inside Out.

TP:    From my perspective in listening to Whisper Not, it sounded very idiomatic and free as idiomatic music.  The way you put it a year ago was that you were playing more on the time.  I have an affinity for bebop, and it impressed me tremendously, as much as anything I’ve heard from you.  I feel similarly about Inside Out.  I’ve been personally moved by both records.  The words that occurred to me were “compressed,” “honed-in,” or… Well, I don’t know what the words are either.

JARRETT:  There’s a quality that I would call letting-go involved here, too.  When you play a phrase, you might want to… If I studied my own physical moves on a keyboard, I’d probably be making much different ones now if I were to compare them to before I got sick.  Then after I got more well, which still was happening even… This last tour was the first regular-sized tour I think we’ve done, meaning like eight concerts instead of five or three.  I would guess  that I am doing a lot of things differently that I don’t know I’m doing, and the result is that there’s a flow and a… I’m not trying so hard to… Yeah, there’s something about trying in here, too, and I don’t know what it is.

If I see a tennis player or a baseball player and see the way swing… You  know how some of the guys who can’t hit very far look like they’re putting immense energy into their swing, and some guys who do hit well look like they’re not doing that much.  I am still jumping around much more than my doctors would ever recommend.  In fact, probably more.  But where the energy goes is different than before.  So that’s one answer.  I just don’t know how to describe it.

TP:    Do you feel more connected to the tradition and lineage of jazz than you used to?  Or was there a hiatus when you put it aside and maybe came back to it more in dealing with bebop?

JARRETT:  I think a hiatus maybe, yeah.  When I was forced to try to reestablish my playing at home, I was then forced to practice playing tunes, and I never was doing that before.  Since I was alone, I had to make it sound right to myself.  So some of the things I changed because of that.  In other words, the trio wasn’t here every day, so I still had to feel good about what I was doing.  That allowed me to get more connected again to the history of the music and the performance practices of the past that I had already been playing long ago, like stride or… Well, I can’t really do that because my hands are too small, but I do something similar.

TP:    You did it just fine on “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams.”

JARRETT:  That’s why that tune was done that way, because I had actually been practicing at home, and when I practiced that at home, that’s how I felt it should sound — the way it starts.  Then we go into a more modern way of playing it.  But at Montreux on this last tour… You asked me before what do we do in concert now; do we do it free or is it a mixture?  I can just give you this example.  Because we never know what it’s going to be.  Most of this tour was almost all tunes, and there was not that much so-called free stuff.  Then there was Montreux, when we started playing tunes, noticed that the sound and the piano was a certain way, and it was okay, but then I thought “I’m going to something else,” and we started to play “Ain’t Misbehaving” or something like that in that same stride manner, and then we played three tunes in a row in that style.  Now, this wasn’t the usual fooling around at the soundcheck thing where we often just kid around with that, but it got serious, and we were really playing that way.  After that, we played “Straight No Chaser” and took that  out and we were playing very free off the blues completely.  Then we played more ballads and tunes.  So it was like everything! [LAUGHS]

TP:    So it’s almost as though you’re accessing the full jazz tradition in an idiomatic way as you used to do with classical music.

JARRETT:  Possibly.  I know what you mean.

TP:    A broader question.  Has the experience of the last couple of years, of practicing and relearning, given you a different appreciation as a form unto itself?

JARRETT:  No, I don’t think so.

TP:    Can you address your feeling of what jazz is as a cultural inheritance for us, as a people?

JARRETT:  My writer’s self comes up when you ask me a question like that.  The writer is saying, “Now, you don’t dare answer this with a casual answer.”

TP:    It doesn’t sound to me like you answer anything that casually.

JARRETT:  But when I write I get even worse.  But I don’t know.  All I know is we need it.

TP:    Why do we need it?

JARRETT:  Because I think it may be the only art form at this point in time that asks the player…not the conductor, not any detached entities from the actual playing…that asks the player to find  out who he is and then decide if it’s good enough to speak from that self, and then that player has to live with who he said he was until the next time he plays.  It’s an incredibly rigorous and merciless thing, unless you’re doused with some drugs or something.  And strangely enough, that rigorous thing is the representation in musical form of freedom.  So it is a metaphor for important things.

In life, if you think you’re in control, you usually aren’t.  You’re usually just thinking you are.  If you think you don’t have any control, you usually relinquish all control and let everything happen and therefore have no effect.  To play jazz and make something valuable out of it, takes such a perfect balance of those two things — mastery and the relinquishing of control.

TP:    Many of your generation, yourself included, served consequential apprenticeships with masters.  The oral tradition held.  For you, perhaps that was operative in your brief time with Art Blakey, or maybe not.  You could tell me if it was that way for you with Charles Lloyd.  Were there any other figures like that for you?

JARRETT:  Paul was like younger than I was!

TP:    Well, how about Art Blakey.  A lot of people who passed through the Jazz Messengers say that once a Jazz Messenger, always a Jazz Messenger.  Did he have an effect on the way you think about music or life or…

JARRETT:  Not really.  But he was a sweet guy.  I loved working with him.  But no, I wouldn’t say…

TP:    How about the years with Charles Lloyd?

JARRETT:  Well, Charles gave me carte blanche to do whatever I felt to do.  At the time he wasn’t paying me enough for anybody to do what I was doing, but I didn’t care — I was a young guy.  But that was an important thing, to have no restrictions on what I did.  Very few players get in a situation like that,  that early, and I think it was a fortunate combination for me.

TP:    A combination of the zeitgeist and the personalities in the band.

JARRETT:  Yes.  Jack had just joined, and that’s been a long relationship.  Philosophically, Charles was an astute… This sounds bad, but he was an astute businessman, so he kind of like…if you didn’t have to do it and his band was doing it for him, he probably would let it happen! [LAUGHS]

TP:    When I spoke with you last year, I asked you to pinpoint the qualities in Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock that make you so suited, and you addressed the question by telling me that I should interview them and get their perspective. I asked Peacock, who said that it was ineffable, but that you all share a set of common experiences — Jamal, Miles Davis, etc.  I don’t know if I’m going to get to speak with Jack or not.  Is this a question you can address for me now?

JARRETT:  Well, I had an answer for this years ago, but I’m not as lucid as I was.

TP:    Good.  Then we can create a new one.

JARRETT:  But I’m not as lucid as I was a couple of years ago.  Well, when I think about us as a unit and then as separate personalities, to me it’s as though if we didn’t play together, we would have been making a big mistake.  Each of us would have made a mistake.  Whatever that mistake would be, I don’t know.  But not having played together would have been a mistake.  I don’t sit around and think cosmic things all the time.  But I think we were intended to be playing together.

Jack is an inclusionist.  He is the kind of guy who would not want to say anything bad about another player — or anything.  He would want to give credit to everybody.  Gary is a thinker and a very specific… I had a word for this, but I don’t know what it is any more.  Gary lives in his head a lot.  Jack is a heart guy.  And I am a skeptic. [LAUGHS]

TP:    You’re the Skeptic, Peacock is the Thinker, DeJohnette is the Heart, the Passion.

JARRETT:  I am skeptical even as far as being skeptical of my own thinking, yes.

TP:    How do you put that aside when you play?

JARRETT:  See, that’s wrong with doing this.  I’m not sure these words are accurate for what I’m thinking.  I’m not thinking of the right adjectives or the right…

TP:    Is the quality of thought different from when you play than when you talk?

JARRETT:  No.  In some funny way we are all so confident… I don’t know what to say about that.  You know how you repealed that one question?   I can’t answer this.  It’s too hard.  It’s like we’re a family, and I can’t come up with the right…

What I’m skeptical about is all belief systems.  Gary has found one for him.  He’s a Zen guy.  And he would say it’s not a belief system.  Jack has found things he believes to help him, the way Gary found something he believes helps him.  And I actually have seen that Zen has helped Gary a lot anyway.  So it’s not a question of whether it’s effective or not.  It’s just that I believe that because there is a practice involved, it is a system.  That’s maybe why I chose the word “skeptic.”  What I mean by “skeptical” in this case is I never want to close a door on something I didn’t include  because my feeling is that it’s not part of my practice or my belief system.  So I am skeptical of all of those, including my own when they come up.

TP:    You have in the past had certainly strongly held belief systems, yes?  Gurdjieff.

JARRETT:  But the funny thing is that if anyone ever looks deeply enough into Gurdjieff, the one thing he was saying is that it isn’t a system.  It’s just that what we’ve gotten, just like with a lot of things… The flak you get back from it is not the real thing.  The rep it has is not what it is.

TP:    In the process of the trio, you said that you invoke and Gary and Keith pick up, and then  it becomes an equilateral triologue.

JARRETT:  In this one recording.

TP:    On the one hand, your sound and predispositions define what the trio does.  On the other hand, there is this constant three-way interplay going on all the time.  To what extent are you the leader and how does that operate?  I know it’s naive question…

JARRETT:  No, that question is not naive.  It would be naive to not have that question! [LAUGHS] I hope that I am the leader in the way I would guess a good leader would be.  I consider Miles to have been an incredible bandleader, in the sense that he never told anybody what to play, but he gave them the feeling that they could find it out for themselves, and when they did, he didn’t say a word to them except, “Let’s play it.”

I am like a guide.  I am a programmatic guide.  I think if I weren’t there, you’d hear some great music, but it might not connect the way it does.  I mean, if I put somebody in my place, a great player… I have instincts about form, even over large periods of time…not architectural form, but what you sense on Inside Out.  It’s kind of a miniature version of what I’m talking about.  I think without my little pushes and pulls, it just wouldn’t cohere.

I can give you a great example.  In Montreux two years ago, that was the first place where we tried to play no tunes.  That was the same tour as this London release, the Inside Out record, and we hadn’t tried it before, and whenever I got soft, so did Jack and Gary.  When I sounded like I was finishing, they went down.  So it was threatening to stop.  The music would keep threatening to be over unless I did something.  So I had to talk to them about it in  London, and I said, “Just remember that you’re not obliged to follow anything.  None of us have to follow each other anywhere.”  That’s when it started to open up more, and that’s one of the reasons we chose this to release rather than Montreux.  So I am leading the band without trying to.

TP:    How much are you feeding off of them in the in-the-momentness of the thing?

JARRETT:  More now than… Do you mean in the free playing?

TP:    I mean in any playing.

JARRETT:  Well, I hope I’m feeding off of them as much as I can!

TP:    It’s another naive question, but I was curious what you’d say.

JARRETT:  Obviously, if I had to have a substitute player for either of them, I would be cancelling the concert.  So I guess I would prefer to be playing with them.

TP:    Jack does magical things.  The sounds he gets out of that drumset… It’s so quick.

JARRETT:  Oh, definitely.  Well, when you hear the Tokyo tapes, we all sound like we disappeared.  But me less than them, because unfortunately it’s pretty hard to make the piano elastic.  It keeps popping back into being a lever system.  But Jack becomes not the “Jack deJohnette, drummer” that everybody knows.  Gary has done a lot of different things, so… But I have the feeling that our identities become erased in the quality of energy we’re working with.  In our situation, though, I still think that because my instrument is the chordal one, if there are any guidelines… I mean, if there’s any moment when there’s a slump coming up or we feel something is not there, the only person who can suggest tonality, or a lack of it, or direction, or motion, or dynamics in any quick and coherent way that could be grasped by the other two is the piano.

TP:    On Inside Out how did you decide on how you sequenced the document?

JARRETT:  It’s in sequence, except that the fadeout then leads to the end of the next night’s set.  The encore was one of the few encores we did.  There wasn’t any more room on the CD.

TP:    On “Riot” are you fading into something or coming out of something?

JARRETT:  We’re fading in on this thing that was already about 25 minutes long.  That was just crazy.

TP:    Were the concerts on the 26th and 28th completely different in pacing, content, etc.?

JARRETT:  Yes.  But the first two tracks are absolutely the way it went down the first night.  So that’s the first set, I think.

TP:    The third piece?

JARRETT:  I think that’s the beginning of the second set the same night.  “Riot” was the second night.

TP:    On Saturday I took my first trip to Manhattan since the bombing.  The only subway line I can now use goes through the Chambers Street station which abutted the World Trade Center.  The first track was on my headphones as I was going through this now ghost station, and it had a quality that made me very happy I was listening to it at that particular moment.  It’s a spooky thing; everyone was dropping their New York attitude and peering out the windows into the station as they’re going through.

JARRETT:  It’s actually a funny album title to be coming out at this exact moment.  Everything has sort of turned that way, hasn’t it.

I don’t think I can do justice to covering these guys’ personalities!  We’ve been together for so long.  I don’t know if I even think of them as…  I had this cutesy way of describing them.  It was in the Downbeat article.  Whatever I said about it then, I guess I must have thought about it ahead of time, and was more correct, at least in a semi-humorous kind of way.  But these are deep players.  Personality is what we’re trying to get away from when we play.  And we’re of course limited by being who we are, but that’s a tough one.  they’re just too beautiful to use an adjective for them.

TP:    There must be some innate characteristic of that personality, because it’s obviously you and it’s obviously Gary Peacock and it’s obviously Jack DeJohnette.

JARRETT:  Yes.  But the hardest to describe for any of us would be ourselves.  So I could say that Gary tends to be on the scientific, he-doesn’t-like-belief-systems side of things, which is good for him, and it works for him, and I need that.  Jack is in some ways the… In Gurdjieff there was a thing about Third Force.  There was a positive, negative and harmonizing force.  In some ways, Jack is a harmonizing force, and a…I don’t know what to… An inclusionary… He’s inclusionary.  But nothing is great on its  own.  No one word makes that person as great as I feel they are.  You know what I mean?

But it’s a challenging thing for me to think of.  Because when we play together, there’s an alchemy going on, and that alchemy comes from — to some extent, of course — the chemical and psychological natures of all three of us..  As you said, we are different people.  But it’s that chemical combination that I see more than I see our separateness.  So when I think of us as separate people, yeah, I know what my tendencies are in conversation, and what Gary’s are and what Jack’s are.  If Gary and I are having an intense debate about whether there’s one Truth or many, Jack might be the guy who says, “Okay, let’s go have some coffee somewhere.”  But the thing is that it all drops away when we play.  But on the other hand, those intense conversations don’t happen any more.  We’ve been together for so long and we’ve all learned so much during that time, that we’re now not who we were back at the other Downbeat article.  We’ve grown since then.  When Gary and I talk now, we get to some incredibly beautiful, deep places, and we understand each other’s language.  Sometimes it takes 18 years to understand somebody’s language.

TP:    It can take a lifetime.

JARRETT:  Yeah, and you keep interpreting it wrong.  Gary used to interpret several words wrong, and I think it’s because of his upbringing and religion; he doesn’t have a good feeling about the word “God” or anything like that.  Jack doesn’t mind those words.  I kind of do.  So it’s a nice combination where it all ends up being neutral, and it’s time to play…

TP:    I suppose that process is a metaphor for what happens in the musical language as well over 18 years — the conversation and the dialogue and the understanding evolve to that kind of collective simplicity.

JARRETT:  Yeah.  And trust.

TP:    You cut through a lot of the verbosity or whatever, not that the trio was verbose… That’s an interesting coda you’re giving me.

JARRETT:  I’m trying to.  Because I don’t think that one-word thing is really cool at all.

TP:    Oh, I wasn’t asking for one word at all.

JARRETT:  That was my choice.  I was trying to think of the words I had thought of before.  We’ve been watching each other grow all that time.  So it’s sort of like we’re friends and we’ve been together this long, but it’s also like we were watching kids grow up — and we’re one of the kids.  When we play, we’re morphing into more and more of what we could have been before, but we didn’t know it yet.

TP:    How much more in this year and the early part of next year is the trio scheduled to tour?

JARRETT:  We have five concerts in the States, and that’s it for the rest of this year, and nothing planned for 2002.  I have an ongoing physical monitoring system, and I have to take time off to make sure everything is…

TP:    Can you comment a bit on your physical well-being these days?

JARRETT:  Well, except for these disk problems, which I’ve had for years, which is really on my case, and I’m trying to avoid surgery…

TP:    Was that exacerbated by the CFS?

JARRETT:  No.  That was exacerbated by music.  Better not to put this in the article in case I want to get insurance.  But I am still on the medications for the bacterial parasite that I was being treated for…

TP:    Are those allopathic or homeopathic.

JARRETT:  They’re major medical, like antibiotics and stuff..

TP:    So you’re on a constant diet of antibiotics and stuff.

JARRETT:  All I can tell you is that I believe if I hadn’t gone on this protocol, you wouldn’t have heard any more from me.

[PAUSE]

JARRETT:  Are you aware of the anagram of “Riot”?  It’s easy but I bet no one is going to think of it.  “Trio.” [LAUGHS] How do you like that?  It’s one of those that’s just too simple.

TP:    Can you tell me what your daily regimen is?

JARRETT:  Besides the 79 charcoal pills?  Now, sometimes because of my shoulder and my back, I have to not have this regimen at all.  But here’s the day.  I get up (I won’t tell you what time, because that’s not fair).  I have breakfast, and then I almost every day take a very brisk treadmill or outdoor walk, depending on the weather, for 2-1/2 miles or so.  Then I do some stretches and exercises for my upper body, which I really can’t… I usually have  to see the chiropractor every day, and I usually practice in the evenings, 45 minutes to whatever amount of time.

TP:    What have you been working on lately?

JARRETT:  Just moving my fingers.  I’ve been just playing tunes in the studio.  Sometimes the Goldberg Variations.  That’s it.  I’m going to get my studio worked on, and I’ll try to get that practicing in before it all goes down.

So it’s a very boring day.  Then I always read at night.  That’s a must.  What am I reading now?  If you saw the house, there are so many books around that people often ask, “Did you read all of these?”  And I have to say, “Not all of them, but more than you think.”  I got involved with a writer named Gene Wolfe, and I am surprised about this guy.  I’m trying to give him as much space and as much time as possible.  If you saw the book in a bookstore… If you were me, you would never buy a book with a cover like these.  They look like these…what do you call them…these Quest novels, like Ursula Leguin type… But the guy is into some stuff that I feel is very good for the mind, and I actually recommend him, but you have to meet him halfway.  So let him do what he’s doing and be patient.  But I think anybody who’s read good writing eventually realizes how great this guy’s writing is.

TP:    Have you tended over the years to be more involved in fiction or non-fiction or both?

JARRETT:  Both.  If I had to say which I’ve read more of, I’d say fiction.

TP:    Any favorite writers?

JARRETT:  A lot of them.

TP:    Tell me a couple.

JARRETT:  Robert Musil.  Calvino.

TP:    A true skeptic, Robert Musil was.

JARRETT:  Yes.  He was also interested in Sufism, which I didn’t realize until I read his book twice.  I read Antonio Demassio, who writes about the brain and how we perceive things  That’s a mindblower in itself.  That’s neuroscience, not fiction.  But one of the books is titled “The Feeling Of What Happens.”

I have two kids.  One of them is 30 already.

[-30-]

* * *

Keith Jarrett (Sept. 9, 2008):

TP:   How does it feel to be inducted into Downbeat’s Hall of Fame?

KJ:   I was getting Downbeat when I was a teenager, and I’m aware of the magazine’s deep roots and history, and of the people who are there. So yes, it’s meaningful, as far as people thinking my work is important. But if I think of what fame means right now, it’s not so meaningful! Years ago, in Vienna, when I was about to do a solo concert, the press was interested in talking to me and I did an interview with Der Spiegel. One of their first questions was, “What is it like to be a star?” I said, “Man, that is out of somebody else’s book, not mine.” Then also, I remember, at the only class reunion I ever went to, the question was, “So, are you successful?” I said, “Yes.” They said, “So are you making a lot of money?” So these words like “fame” and “star” have relative meaning. If you were asking, “What’s it like to get a Grammy?”, I’d think, “No.” It would be the beginning of the descent from the mountain.

TP:    In his biography of you, Ian Carr places the beginnings of your obsession with jazz to your late adolescence in Allentown, Pennsylvania, when your parents divorced, and you began doing little gigs in town.

KJ:   When I was around 14, which is when my parents were having trouble, I had a remarkably good classical teacher, but once a week I had to take a little time off from the end of the school day and to drive to Philadelphia for the lesson. She was a firm believer in my not spreading the peanut butter thin. In other words, she didn’t like that I was interested in anything else but the Debussy or the Beethoven that I was studying with her. Strangely, in about a week-and-a-half in Philadelphia, I’ll be playing again in what turns out to be where she used to live, and it will be jazz.

Allentown was a cultural vacuum. There was one record store, I think, called Speedy’s Record Shop. As a kid, I had an allowance maybe, but we didn’t have much money. Occasionally, I would play classical concerts for the local women’s club, and I’d save as much as I could to look for new things that I knew nothing about. Every now and then my brother and I would try to sneak records out of the stores, because we couldn’t afford them. It’s not easy to steal a record! We got caught once, which wasn’t fun. Of course, the selection for pianists was between Oscar Peterson and Andre Previn, and also Errol Garner and Brubeck. One pivotal moment came when I found the Ahmad Jamal white album. I didn’t know who Ahmad was, but it looked interesting. Years after the trio was already a working band, Gary, Jack and I started talking about the album, and found we’d all had the same experience with it. I was playing drums at the time, and I got my drumming together through emulating Vernell Fournier’s great brush playing in the sparse spaces of Ahmad’s music. It was my introduction to actual jazz versus popular jazz.

After high school, when I was in Boston, trying to go to Berklee, I got a job with a vocalist in the upstairs lounge of the Jazz Workshop. Herb Pomeroy, who was my big band instructor, was playing downstairs, and one night when Ray Santisi, who was one of my piano teachers, hadn’t shown up, Herb asked me if I wanted to play. Pete LaRoca was playing drums, He was my favorite drummer at the time, and this was just too much to conceive of. If Ray hadn’t shown up, I would never have gone back upstairs. It was the most beautiful way to go through the gate, to the nirvana place that one would want to be.  That was my first world-class connection as far as actually playing jazz.

TP:   By then, you were probably up on what Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner were doing…

KJ:   No, I wasn’t. In the beginning, I was pretty conservative. I hadn’t heard Coltrane yet—or at least I hadn’t liked Coltrane yet. People would say, “You must be listening to Bill a lot.” “Bill who?” “Bill Evans.” I had heard him, but wasn’t feeling like I was in that direction. Actually, I’d heard Bill when I came through Boston on a summer bus tour with Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. I won’t make any derogatory statements about that experience, except that it was, in all ways, terrible—except that some of the people were nice. They realized that I was talented. They also respected that I was resisting the urge to do something inappropriate for the musical format, restraining myself from being a crazy person in this situation. That made it worthwhile to do those things for a certain amount of time. I think it’s a mistake for people always to be able do what they want. I think my sons see my career as always having my way. But that’s because they were born after all this other stuff.

TP:   Early on, did you know that music would be your life?

KJ:   Yes. I had a very normal childhood, because that’s the way I wanted it most of the time, and when I did classical lessons, since I wanted to go out and play sports with my friends, I’d turn forward the timer on the kitchen stove, as my grandmother wasn’t paying much attention. But when my mother or father would discover I’d done 2 or 2½ hours instead of the mandatory three, they’d say, “Then we’ll have to sell the piano.” For all I knew, they were serious—my father was a real estate man and probably had enough, but he had five kids, and if the piano wasn’t being used… That stopped me in my tracks. I would think, “No, that’s not an option.” When I was 8, I got my first grand piano, after actually paying for it myself from concerts in Allentown. I slept under it in order to be able to play it immediately upon waking up.

Q: You seem to have been quite focused and mature about how to proceed—resisting the temptation to rebel when playing with Fred Waring, rejecting an opportunity to study with Nadia Boulanger, waiting a couple of years before you matriculated at Berklee.

KJ:  I didn’t know what the future would bring, but I had really good instincts about who I was. I couldn’t have explained why I said no to Nadia—I was looking to study with her! To me, I was not negating an education. But I didn’t want to learn the names of things. I wanted to be involved in a process that was pure, and I didn’t want to get analytical about that process, or have anyone tell me that something wasn’t possible because it wasn’t musical. My ears were going to guide me. I don’t fit that well into any particular category. Whatever musical story I tell is not all jazz; at times, it’s something uncategorizable. If someone started to tell me, ‘Okay, this sound goes with this sound,’ I might believe it, and I might never have experimented putting different sounds next to each other.

When I heard Brubeck’s quartet live the first time, I remember thinking, almost verbatim, “There’s more than this.” There’s always more, and if you get it all down, maybe there isn’t any more. If you make a map of something, and that map isn’t changeable, you’re stuck with the map. For driving, that’s good, but for music, I’m not sure. Inclusion has been what it’s about for me.

TP:   You’ve said that saxophone players influenced you, not pianists.

KJ:   Let’s broaden the statement to include horn players. There’s a fluidity in an instrument that uses air. I’ve always wanted to get as close as possible to subtracting the mechanism of the piano from the whole affair. Now, that may no longer be true. Every little period of time I go through, I reinvent what I do, and will let the piano be a piano. You can see that in my recent solo things.

Early on, my favorite bands were usually pianoless—for instance, the Gerry Mulligan small big band. Strangely enough, I would call Monk’s bands often pianoless—he wasn’t always comping, and when he was, it was more orchestral. Even his solos were not pianistic, because he wasn’t a virtuosic player; he sort of played like a composer. For Ornette, no piano. People whose ears were open always attracted me, and I liked what Paul Bley was doing with the piano, especially when it was a funky instrument. When I heard him on a Bosendorfer on something that was recorded maybe 6 or 7 years ago, I would never have recognized him.

Pianists in jazz do not work on touch. I was lucky that I started with classical hearing. I was also lucky—or smart—to play Mozart around the time that the trio was playing ballads, because Mozart demands a certain refinement of touch that I had not developed until I started to play Mozart. Only since then has my ballad playing been closer to what I hear.

TP:   Can you talk about your conception of the trio with Haden and Motian vis-a-vis the present group?

KJ:   The early trio represented three free spirits, and I chose them because of that. We were in the midst of that revolution period. and I felt that we were defying the norms of the time. That means in all ways. Free playing wasn’t the same as free players thought it was. Most free players couldn’t play time. Most might not even be able to play their own instruments, but they could be extremely influential because they did things that no one was willing to try. If we wanted to swing, we could. If we didn’t, we didn’t. If the overall context demanded both, we could do that. At the Village Vanguard one night, Max Gordon said to me, “Keith, you know, you could get a lot more people here. You guys can really swing; you should do that.” I said, “Max, it’s going to take a while, but the people will come, because we’re doing exactly what we know we should be doing.” Now, how did I know that? I was a young upstart talking to an old club-owner who knew what he was talking about. But my instincts were good. Words come out of your mouth and you don’t remember, “Gee, I’m not sure when I’m going to eat my next meal.”

TP:   That’s how it was during the ‘60s, wasn’t it.

KJ:   That’s right. We were trying to build a tradition. I would say I wanted to be free of everyone’s bullshit, and that included my own. I was never trying to be a stylist. So I wasn’t going to be sparing. I was going to be merciless on myself. If I could write something that could find its way to a different place than everything else, and it was still something I felt very close to, then that would be successful.

Now, how does that pertain to the present trio in 2008? I would say we’re trying to preserve those precious values. As opposed to the ‘60s, now it’s like, if we don’t do it, who’s doing it? If I think of one thing that it is, it’s how Miles attacked the beat on his trumpet. When we went into the studio to do our so-called Miles tribute, Bye Bye Blackbird, a couple of weeks after he died, I talked to Jack and Gary, and I said, ‘We’re not doing a tribute album. Maybe we’re going to play some material that Miles played. But my idea is to play as though I were Miles, not play like a pianist who would play Miles.” If you extrapolate from that to what we do when we play standard material, we’re trying to find this place that we don’t hear many people coming from. We don’t hear people swinging that often, if I can speak for Gary (and maybe Jack, too). What young players know about the music is so stilted somehow. They do their best, and they might be great players, but there’s a lot of wasted energy going on.

TP:   In light of that remark, it’s interesting that so many younger players mention both your American and European quartets as extremely influential. Do you have any speculations on the impact of those explorations on the way jazz sounds today?

KJ:   I don’t. But possibly one reason why I don’t sense it is because it was so personal. One of the reasons why the American quartet was so interesting is because none of us knew what the hell we really were doing. With both quartets, I took into account everything about these guys while writing the pieces. As an example, I did this for Jan Garbarek with strings, on Arbor Zena and Luminescence, where I got inside what I thought was Jan’s way of playing. When he came over to rehearse for Luminescence and look at the sketch, I played it on the piano and did his part. He asked, “Do I play like this pattern?” I said, “Yeah, you do it all the time.” He said, “I had no idea.” There was something like a minor second, and then a third down, and then a second, and then another third, so it was completely out of a key. I heard him do that many times. Another example is that Dewey Redman did not like to play on chords.

TP:   Now, you went from working incessantly with two different groups, after always having worked in groups beforehand, to making solo concerts the focus of your activity. How did the idea of creating form from a tabula rasa begin to gestate for you?

KJ:   I was just curious about the process. So far as I know, no one was investigating it. It happened by accident. After Facing You,  I came on stage after Friedrich Gulda at a festival in Heidelberg. I started playing a song, which I don’t remember, then I attached that, without stopping, to another song. Then there was some kind of transitional material, and it ended up being whatever amount of minutes of that. That led to me to wonder whether those transitions themselves were something, which led me to investigate that. It’s such a different universe. I wasn’t really even ready for this discovery, because only recently did I become a good enough player to use both hands properly under those circumstances! So whatever amount of years I spent doing it, it was as an inferior player to who I am now when I play now.

TP:   By “recently” you mean what?

KJ:   Five or six or seven years ago.

TP:   So not until after you had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

KJ:   Correct. And I worked my ass off in a new way. I realized jazz pianists don’t do their left hand. It gets to be just like an appendage. When they do solo albums, typically what you hear is, “Where’s the bass? I’m waiting for the rhythm section.”

I have to credit the disease with giving me a tremendous amount of creative information—it was a great opportunity to sum up my work. I had no idea if I’d ever play again, so all I had to do was think about what happened to me. When I’d listen to my solo stuff, I’d think, “What the fuck am I doing? There’s too many notes here. If I did this again, no, I’d never play this, I’d never play that.” Over that period of time, I realized that, if I ever returned to playing solo, I’d never do it that way. When I started to practice and was able to play at all, I found myself stopping, because I’d be playing something I didn’t really hear in my head. I didn’t like it any more.

TP:   You went through a similar crisis during the ‘80s, when you made Spirits, and transitioned from one set of habits into a new realm of investigation.

KJ:   That’s correct. Although when you’re sitting at the same 88-key instrument and you’ve got the same two hands to undo the architecture you’ve built up over two decades of doing this thing you thought you understood, it’s a freaky experience to go through. However, the freakiness only lasts a second, and then you realize, “if I have the energy to do it ever again, I at least know where to start.”

TP:   You’ve remarked that you discovered Gurdjieff while you were on the road with Charles Lloyd, and later became involved in Sufism. Did the solo playing have anything to do with constructing some kind of aesthetic philosophy from those investigations?

KJ:   All through my entire history, there’s a mixture of philosophy, spirituality, and just plain musical desire—desire for the instrument. I never took drugs, for example. I didn’t need that. I would see people…I would roll cigarettes for them. I was with the Animals in London. Jimi Hendrix was interested in doing a project, and I was working on ideas of how to work with him. I wanted to do a project with Janis Joplin. There was a rough mix of ingredients in the ‘60s and ‘70s that we really don’t  have now. We might call this the “information age,” but I consider that complete bullshit. What IS the information? Of what value is it if it doesn’t attach itself to something? In the future, I can see that there might be an audience that literally thinks all music is equal, and there’s no such thing as good or bad. So I’m happy to be as old as I am, and I’m happy particularly to get this award while I’m alive, because in that sense it does mean something. Somebody is saying that something is better than something else, and that’s a relief.

TP:   What are your criteria for documentation? It’s different than the actual process of music-making.

KJ:   It’s not all that different, in my life. At this point, I record all solo concerts, and if it’s good enough I might send it to Manfred Eicher—although on a different day of the week, listening to the same music, I might have an absolutely different take on it. I don’t really like to do that. When you’re aware you’re recording, it’s completely different than when you’re not being documented. It changes both the trio and solo music. It’s possible to forget it for a while, but unfortunately, coughs mean something if they happen when you’re recording. They might mean you can’t use this track, and you know that you’ve just played this the best that you’ll ever play it. There’s no second takes.

In 2006 I played a solo concert at La Fenice, which is the opera house in Venice that was totally destroyed by fire, and wasn’t rebuilt for several decades. That concert might never come out, but at the moment it’s at the top of the list. Since 2006, it’s been up there a couple of times, but then I decided, “No, there’s something newer that’s more interesting.” For whatever reason, it did not manage to be the right thing. I am not using that as the Bush version of “the right thing,” that I know what’s right. Just the instincts weren’t there for this to come out, because other things were more timely.

TP:   Although you are always the “decider.” Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

KJ:   Yes.

TP:   Why don’t you do studio recordings, by the way?

KJ:   Well (a) I hate studios, and (b) more of the time I feel that what I do is for a public that’s actually in the space. Manfred and I talked about me doing another solo thing in the studio, and I’m open to it, but in general, that vibe is wrong for me. There’s too many wires around. Too many lightstands, too much metal around. The control room and the speakers are usually worse than the ones I have in my house. I don’t know if I could engage that.

TP:   Is there something about performing for an audience that facilitates your focus?

KJ:   No. It’s actually the opposite. It’s harder to be focused. However, given that, I have the valid feeling that there are people there who are ready for whatever happens. That facilitates something, but I can’t call it focus. Focus is easier alone probably.

TP:   Do you have inklings to return to performing classical music?

KJ:   Possibly. I don’t really know. I’ve been thinking about the possibility of recording the Goldberg Variations again, for one example. But I haven’t taken myself seriously enough to undertake it. That would be done in, oh, a hall like the Salle Pleyel, with no audience.

TP:   You’ve been quoted that it’s insane to do both jazz and classical music.

KJ:   Yes.

TP:   What in your personality or character allows you to do it?

KJ:   It’s insanity.

TP:   You certainly don’t sound insane.

KJ:   No, that’s one of the great things about insanity! The thing is, you can do it, but you have to do it with scrupulous concern for both your mental focus and the needs of the music you’re about to do. When I was working on Mozart’s concertos before I got sick, I was doing as little of anything that was not Mozart as I could. Many people wouldn’t have that possibility, and if they don’t, then I wouldn’t recommend it. Like, back-to-back, “Okay, this is the classical stuff, then I’ll do improvisation after.” In that sense, even I am not that insane. [LAUGHS] That would be total insanity. Unless you want to strip them both of their innate qualities.

I did a bunch of harpsichord recordings, and you cannot seriously conceive of playing piano when you’re working with the harpsichord. Now, a few days after you’ve finished a harpsichord project, you might want to play a solo piano concert because you’re curious what will come out. The fact that it’s new, that it feels somehow different again, are positives. But I would have to set the stuff up with immense care to be able to do it without going more insane.

TP:   Because of the retrospective nature of this piece, I have to ask about your experience with Miles Davis. It does seem that your time with Miles was crucial.

KJ:   I believe I can call it camaraderie. From the moment I started to play with him, we had an understanding that it was temporary, that I had this other direction that had nothing to do with electronic keyboards, and that I wasn’t at all into that. Around 1967, Miles brought his whole band to a little basement club in Paris where I was playing with Aldo Romano and J.F. Jenny-Clark, who is not alive any more, and later, every now and then, he would show up to hear the trio with Charlie and Paul. I’d walk past the table, and he’d say, “When are you going to play with my band?” I’d say, “Well, I have a lot of work coming up, but I really appreciate that you like the music,” blah-blah-blah. Once I came off the stage from set with Paul and Charlie, and he said, “Keith! You play the wrong instrument.” What could I say? “I know!” So my comments about horns and voice and so on, he was hearing that already, even though we were playing this strange music. A couple of times, he asked me how I could play from no music. I said, “I don’t know. I just do it.”

Once, after we’d spoken, I heard the band with Wayne, Herbie, Ron and Tony at the Village Gate, and Miles played a beautiful short solo—he played all short solos—and then the rest of the band played long solos. He walked off the stage, went to the bar, had some water, stood there for a long time, and then finally went back on stage and played a tune, and then went out. I heard that happen each tune, and I thought, “You know, I’d like to help out somehow, but I’m not sure what that means yet.” When I joined him, the band started turning electric, and I wasn’t sure what my role could possibly be. He asked me which instrument I wanted to play, and I said, “You know, Miles, I hate them equally, so I want both.” “Okay.”

When I say “camaraderie,” I mean that I was meant to be a part of this, and I could tell Miles felt that. What he really needed at the time I joined him was someone on keyboard who could be both challenging and funky, and I think that’s what I contributed. Once the band with Jack and I and Mtume started to play, Miles was staying on the stage the entire time, and going into his crouch—obviously, I made him happy for a while, He didn’t have any question about who should be in that band then.

TP:   Back to your position on the jazz timeline, it’s hard to find anyone under 50 who doesn’t mention you and your fellow sons of Miles as key to the way they think about things. How do you see it?

KJ:   I think they’re right. [LAUGHS] But I think many of us got waylaid. Keyboard players got enamored of electric instruments, and never could go back, and they never have been able to go back since. These are artistic decisions, and you can’t make them lightly. It’s like a painter throwing away their paint, saying, “Well, I want to get these,” but they’re all monotone, and then, “Well, no, I want my old paints back.” Sorry. They went out in the garbage.

My generation’s impact should have been greater, because there were a lot more great players. But Fusion somehow ate them up. I don’t include Miles exactly in that, because Miles got away with being able to play his stuff. I mean, he always wanted to do something different, something new, and if that’s your M.O., it won’t always be correct. Actually, a Japanese producer friend of mine asked Miles if he would sit in with the trio—as Jack and Gary and I all had played with him already—at the Antibes Festival for one or two tunes. I was hoping he’d say, “Sure, that’s a great idea.” I was sure he probably wouldn’t. But I think his answer is very important. He said (of course, through this third party), “No, I already played with Keith.” I wrote him a note back through the same guy, saying, “You played with me, but not on my instrument.”

TP:   Did he respond?

KJ:   No. But he knew what I was talking about.

TP:   It seems like your M.O., rather than that straight line, is more of a circle.

KJ:   Could be.

TP:   Circling back and picking up on things you’d done before in a different context.

KJ:   Yes. I think if I were a different kind of artist, I’d use found objects. I wouldn’t go looking for new technology. I remember seeing Herbie backstage somewhere when he’d just started getting seriously into electronics. Instead of having a conversation, he was saying, “Wow, have you heard this wire, this thing, connected to this and this over here?” I said, “Herbie…no. I don’t want to talk about wires. I really hate seeing them on the stage.”

[END OF CONVERSATION]

* * *

Manfred Eicher on Keith Jarrett (Sept. 24, 2008):

 

TP:   To start, can you tell me how he came to join the label, how you became attracted to his music, and the process by which he began his contractual relationship with ECM?

EICHER:   I first heard Keith live in a festival in Norway with Charles Lloyd, and I heard him again with Charles Lloyd at   the Montreux Jazz Festival. I was very curious about his playing, and I was very moved by the trio as well that played with Jack DeJohnette and Ron McClure. That was before I even had a record label. I was just a student and playing in an orchestra in Berlin. So I moved around and heard people in jazz festivals. I heard Keith Jarrett also in Bologna in ‘68. Then when I had the label, I wrote to Keith, and sent him some test pressings—of a Chick Corea solo record as well as a Jan Garbarek record, Afric Pepperbird, which was my first recording, that I made in Oslo. Keith wrote back and said he liked this music and the sound, and he would be interested in talking to me. So he came to Munich with Miles Davis, and we met in the park in the afternoon after the concert, and talked about a lot of things, and decided to make a recording together. In my first letter to Keith actually, I introduced to him also a trio record. In fact, Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock was the idea. But Gary at that time didn’t play the bass; he came back from Japan and the West Coast, and was not sure whether he should continue or not. I suggested another thing, but he called me back and said he would like to do a solo record first. So he did a solo record in Oslo in ‘70, and Facing You was the first.

TP:   Then he continued for a while under contract to you and to Impulse…

EICHER:   While we talked, this was, so to speak, between the contracts. He left Atlantic, went to Columbia, and then started something for Impulse as well with the American Quartet. But the solo things and the trio, and all those kinds of things, he started to record for ECM.

TP:   It seems with ECM, he was able to do almost anything he wanted, to document almost anything that was preoccupying him at a given time…

EICHER:   I wonder whether it was so easy. It had also to do with what was my aesthetic idea was with the label, how I wanted to introduce music. Keith was the ideal partner. I liked very much his piano playing. I liked his aesthetics. I liked his ideas. The first recording we made was a solo record in the studio, then the next recording was a live recording of a concert in Bremen and Lausanne, which resulted in a trio record set. At that time, it was unusual to have an entire solo concert, live recordings and so on, put in a 3-record box. It was quite new for that time. Then Keith showed me his string quartet writing and he showed me other things, so I became very interested to introduce that kind of work from Keith, which was not the work of a jazz musician per se, but of a wonderful musician and talent who had other talents than playing the piano. So we introduced these things, and they resulted in orchestral recordings with soloists like Jan Garbarek or Charlie Haden, Arbor Zena, for instance, or Luminiscence, and the records with string quartets and quintets with a flute player. So we have a nice oeuvre from the very beginning that introduced the musician Keith Jarrett.

TP:   Can you speak more concretely about how the qualities of his aesthetics merged with your sense of what you wanted to produce?

EICHER:   First of all, I thought his way of phrasing, his touch, his quality of suspension, his way of (?) and rubato playing was very close to me as a European. So I heard many influences of the great American kind of jazz book, and I heard many influences from Chopin, Debussy, and all those kinds of things that I liked and I grew up with. To me, it was an idea of a symbiotic thing, because also his touch had reached me right away and touched me quite a lot from the beginning. So from then on, it was clear that whenever I could work with Keith, I would like to work with him.

I’d also like not to forget his great compositions. His way of writing was very idiosyncratic and special. One could identify a composition immediately when hearing Keith’s work.

TP:   It also seems that the influence of both the American and European quartets has been immense on an international level.

EICHER:   Absolutely. The American quartet consisted of Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian and Keith. It was a very individual group with a wonderful individual sound. But Keith also had another side which probably was a bit more virtuosic, more light rhythmically, weighted for the dialogue and interaction with players like Garbarek and Jon Christensen and Palle Daniellsen. When I suggested this group to Keith, he was very open, because he’d heard Jan Garbarek a long time ago, and he heard him again in the Molde Festival in Norway, playing trio with Arild Anderson and Edvard Vesala in a club. Keith and I were together, and he was convinced that this was the sound he would like to write for. So the Belonging group was Keith’s group that he was writing for. All the material that you hear there was around, and played by a lot of young jazz musicians—here, at least, in Europe. Pieces like “Belonging” and so on became classic.

TP:   The American Quartet’s influence has also been immense, maybe more on American musicians…

EICHER:   Not just American musicians. European musicians, too.

TP:   Everyone talks about that group.

EICHER:   A wonderful group. But it was so different. Keith could write for the idiosyncratic personalities in these groups very well. So these groups differ very much. Of course, it was entirely Keith’s introduction of the music, but the individuality of the players couldn’t be more different.

TP:    I was curious why, after years and years of playing in groups (and he seemed to like playing in groups and being in bands), he spent so much time absorbed in the tabula rasa solo concerts. Between 1977 and 1981, almost everything in his sessionography is a solo concerts. Can you discuss your experience of this?

EICHER:   That’s right. He started in the early ‘70s with solos, like Lausanne in 1972 or 1973, then followed by Cologne, the Japanese box, the Sun Bear concerts… There was always a lot of solo between the other groups. But then it became a very solitary thing for him to do solo only for a while, before he formed the trio with Jack and Gary. But I think none of us could have expected such a successful resonance to the first solo concert. These concerts became something different, became something else, because no improviser had played entire concerts before not interrupted by pieces, but entirely concerts that took sometimes 45 to 50 minutes, and maybe then a second set. That was something really new at the time, and it was very successful in Japan and in Europe, and Keith seemed to enjoy very much being on stage alone.

TP:    Do you have any speculations on why it seemed to suit the zeitgeist then?

EICHER:   I don’t know the zeitgeist…it’s still going on.

TP:   I mean, at the time, the late ‘70s…

EICHER:   Well, it’s speculative, because very different people… Like, Peter Stein used the music in Death, Distraction and Detroit, a production with Robert Wilson in Berlin, in the Schaub(?), which was a very advanced and important theater group in Berlin that went for this. Not many people would have used the Köln concert at that time. Marguerite Duras, in her diaries which were introduced in Liberacion, has written about Keith Jarrett’s Köln concert that she hears in France in the summer in different situations. Henry Miller. Many people have written… It was more than the zeitgeist. It was something that was coming out of the time, and blossomed out, and influenced a lot of people from very different genres, different kinds of music. All the art field was checking out what Keith was doing.

TP:   Most of his musical production since he was ill…well, a couple of solo concerts, and the trio is now in its 25th year. Can you speak of your first experience hearing this trio playing standard material?

EICHER:   Before they came together to play standards, we had already a recording under Gary Peacock’s leadership and with his pieces. That was the wished-for combination, the combination that I always wanted to have together in the studio to make this record, and it was something really remarkable, I guess. When I listen back to this record, it has such wonderful pieces, like “Vignette.” The way they played together was like they’d played always together.

So later on, Keith wanted to do a standard trio from the American Songbook, and we decided to do that. The evening before recording in Power Station in New York, we went to an Indian restaurant and talked about a lot of things, and made some plans, and went in the studio with the idea to make one record, but we had studio time for three days, and in those three days, when we came out of the studio, we had made three records, including the mixage. We had recorded and mixed. This process was unbelievable. The interaction between these three people was wonderful. You can hear it in the record which just came out again how close they were already in their understanding of each other, and how beautifully their exposition of each piece came out.

TP:   It’s certainly and developed, and they seem to take as much joy in it now as they did then. He’s also recorded a fair amount of European classical repertoire for you, and recorded as a classical musician. How did that transpire from your perspective?

EICHER:   We did a very special and remarkable recording on the piece of Arvo Pärt, “Fratres,” played together by Gideon Kramer and Keith Jarrett. It was their first meeting and recording, and the last recording. It’s still a classic, I would say, which you can hear on Arvo Pärt’s record Tabula Rasa. It’s an electrifying performance between Gideon and Keith. I would never miss that day and how it happened. It was wonderful.

Then we recorded all the Shostakovich, which still is in the catalog and very successful, and recorded Mozart, and he’s recorded Bach, The Well-Tempered Piano, Book 1 and 2—the second one was recorded on harpsichord. Then we did the wonderful recording with Kim Kashkashian and Keith on the Gamba sonata of Bach, and there are other plans eventually.

TP:   Can you speak to the qualities he brings to classical repertoire?

EICHER:   He plays it very truthfully as a musician without any outside musical ideas about showing his ability to do different phrasings and whatever. He has prepared himself very seriously for all these recordings. Some people thought Keith should maybe include more risky elements such as phrasing, and maybe even some cadenzas improvised, like in the concerts of Mozart. But he didn’t. In all the years after, many musicians, classical musicians talked to me about these recordings and how musical they feel they are. Keith’s approach was very pure and down-to-the-text, so to speak, not more, not less. I tend to listen to his Bach quite often. And to the Mozart…and if you wish, you can go into the whole scale what I listen to. But it’s very truthful, artistically done music, and without speculation for any kind of fashion or trend.

TP:   He said that immersing himself in Mozart was of great value to his jazz playing when he returned to performing after recuperating from CFS, that it developed his musicality, his touch, and also his left hand.

EICHER:   Definitely his touch and his left hand. He had a good partner in developing these things, with Dennis Russell Davis, the great American conductor who always was around when Keith played orchestra music, performing this music in America and Europe together.,

TP:   He said that he feels that his solo performances since the illness are far superior to what he was doing before, partly for the reasons that I mentioned. Can you speak about his personal evolution as a musician, both pianistically and conceptually?

EICHER:   Many things. I’ll relate it to the musical ideas and to the program of a musician. What Keith played in the ‘70s and ‘80s were quite different in musical approach than what he’s doing now, especially in the solo concerts. For me, his technical abilities playing the piano was always on a high level, and I would say that his touch has changed in all these years, and it’s remarkable how it did change this way, small nuances first and more and more into a fine-tuning. But it has also to do with his affinity for certain pianos that speak to him. All this together, I think, in the way he wants to be recorded today and how he was recorded in earlier times, digital, non-digital, piano tuning—all those kinds of things have a certain effect on what is documented, of course. But Keith’s playing these days is on the highest level as a pianist.

TP:   I spoke to him about documentation, and why concerts are successful, why he chooses to document one vis-a-vis another. He said that he records everything, that when he thinks something is good he then sends it to you, and what he decides to release pertains to his state of mind at the time. As an example, a solo concert from the opera house in Venice was at the top of his list, then something struck him as more interesting. How do you interact in determining what gets releases, the sequence of recordings, and the content. You’ve had a professional relationship for so long.

EICHER:   We’ve known each other 40 years or so. It has changed, his approach. In the early days, I was at every recording, and we were very close in deciding every little thing, in the studio and outside the studio, in how we approached it. Now it is not possible for us to be always in the same place. Sometimes we are just in different places, and then he trusts his engineer and manager, who are very important for decision-making. But when the music is done, Keith sends it, and then we start to talk and discuss and sometimes fine-tune on the thing, and then we decide together what to release. But we can always have a good agreement on what to be done. The sequence of releases is also discussed, and since they are concerts that go from A to the end, we don’t have to talk about the sequence inside a recording any more because we take the music as it is. If Keith feels it’s appropriate to do so, we release the music as it is.

TP:   That brings up the point that ECM is so known for the sound of the recordings, the way you address the sound in the studio, and it’s been a long time since he did a studio recording, and he doesn’t like being in the studio so much…

EICHER:   Any more. He used to like the studio very much, and he also has a studio at home. But in recent years…or for many years… It started with the trio. All these recordings are done outside the studio, in concert halls. That’s right. And he likes this approach. I think he needs also the interaction with the audience, and probably the risk of going to the edge there is more appropriate than being in an intimate studio where conditions are always very different. I think it’s not a question of better or worse. It’s a question also of interacting with the public.

Recordings like Belonging and the earlier recordings that we made in studios couldn’t have been made that easily in concert live. We have done wonderful recordings with great balance and sound that would only have been possible to make in a good studio situation. Later on, it did fly into other directions, and that’s also fine. It’s important to assist a musician in his needs and his ideas, and then get the best out of it.

TP:   Most of the Keith Jarrett Trio recordings of this century were made in 2001 and 2002. It seems that 2001 was a very interesting year for him, both as a trio and solo player.

EICHER:    That’s right. I don’t particularly look so much into the recording year. For me, time is flying so quickly that I forget sometimes that all these years have passed already. We are listening at the moment to a tape that we will release in January called Yesterdays, which is a Japanese recording from 2001. It sounds incredibly fresh and good. After he recovered from his illness, new life and new ideas were coming into the trio and the solo playing, so since then we have remarkable recordings already released, and we have still some very good recordings that wait to be released in our archive.

TP:   The Tokyo recording is also a trio date?

EICHER:   It’s a trio.

TP:   Will a solo recording come out in 2009?

EICHER:   I guess so. There will be a solo recording. Since we have not finally decided, Keith and I, I cannot talk about which one it will be, but it looks like there will be another solo record coming out.

TP:   Can you describe your overview of where Keith Jarrett fits into the timeline, both on the jazz stage and on the world stage?

EICHER:   When you think about how long Keith Jarrett already is an influential musician. It started when he played with Charles Lloyd, then later on got a lot of attention in Europe and with Miles and all, and he has written such wonderful songs, and is such a great listener when he plays with other musicians—and for the music always. He is one of the most influential and best musicians that I know. “Best” is always a strange term, but his musicianship and his personality, and also his influence to music-making means a lot to me.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

 

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Filed under DownBeat, ECM, Gary Peacock, Interview, Jack DeJohnette, Keith Jarrett, Manfred Eicher, Paul Motian, Uncategorized

For Ron Carter’s 77th Birthday, a DownBeat Feature From Two Years Ago

Bass maestro Ron Carter turns 77 today. For the occasion, I’m posting a feature piece that DownBeat assigned me to write two years ago in response to his entry into the DB Hall of Fame.

* * * *

Near twilight on the first Sunday of September at the south corner of 27th Street and Park Avenue, a tall, eagle-necked African-American gentleman with perfect posture and a salt-and-pepper beard,  a pressed white dress shirt, black tie, black pants, and mirror-shined black shoes, stood at the curb by a late-model black Audi, tapping his right index finger on the bowl of his pipe as he spoke quietly into a cell phone. A passerby’s first instinct was to look for a photographer and klieg lights, but both the location and the hour seemed odd for a fashion shoot. Then it clicked that this elegant figure was Ron Carter, the 2012 inductee into the DownBeat Hall of Fame, taking care of business before descending into the Jazz Standard, halfway down the block, for the fourth and final night of his big band’s inaugural engagement.

About an hour later, after a crisp reading of “Caravan,” highlighted by Jerry Dodgion’s soaring soprano saxophone solo, Carter introduced his own “Loose Change” as “my personal commentary on the Republican Medicare plan.” He made his point with a long rubato meditation, teasing “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” out of the harmonies, interpolating the motif of “All Blues,” transitioning to an orotund passage from Bach, then introducing the melody and stating an insistent 6/4 vamp that propelled the funky theme. On “Con Alma,” in lock-step with drummer Kenny Washington, he smoothly propelled his breathe-as-one ensemble through stop-on-a-dime shifts of meter and tempo; soloing on “St. Louis Blues,” which moved from march to swing to stride sections, he signified with various Charlie Parker quotes; in duet with pianist Donald Vega on “My Funny Valentine,” he played the verse unembellished, caressed the melody, then complemented Vega’s inventions—which included a lengthy interpolation of Ellington’s “Single Petal Of A Rose”—with the customized attention of a Savile Row tailor.

On each tune save the latter, Carter fleshed out the versions that appear on the Robert Freedman-arranged 2011 CD Ron Carter’s Great Big Band [Sunnyside] with extra choruses and backgrounds, changing the bass part at will. This is one reason why, after just six sets over three nights, the new ensemble embodied the leader’s tonal personality—no-nonsense and expansive; informed by the notion that virtuoso execution, spot-on intonation, and exacting attention to the minutest details are merely a starting point; telling stories of his own or complementing those of his bandmates with vocabulary and syntax drawn from an encyclopedic database of the jazz and classical canons, with the blues as a default basis of operations.

A few days later, in the public area of his massive Upper West Side apartment, which spans almost half a city block, Carter recalled that he was initially reluctant to embrace the project, due in part to the logistical complexities involved in maintaining and adequately paying a large ensemble. Also, he stated, “I haven’t been interested in playing in the rhythm section of a big band—though I had great times subbing with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis when Richard Davis got busy. You get ignored all the time, and you’re at the mercy of the arranger.” In contrast, he said, “the studio is fun—you’ve got very little time and they don’t fool around; you just play the best you can.”

Therefore, Carter added, he decided to treat this orchestra “as a very large trio,” built around Vega and guitarist Russell Malone, his bandmates in the Golden Striker Trio. He does the preponderance of his touring with this group and in a quartet comprising pianist Renee Rosnes, drummer Peyton Crossley, and percussionist Rolando Morales-Matos.

“In a lot of big band arrangements, the bass parts aren’t so critical to the survival of the piece,” Carter said. “At one rehearsal, I told them, ‘All that changed when you walked in the door. I’m going to make sure the bass part sounds interesting every night. But for you to work from it, I have to have your utter focus.’ That’s my role with this 16-piece band. By Sunday, I thought I’d found enough things to hold their interest—16 points of view, 16 different concepts, 16 different events. My feature is to be playing every chorus of every song. It’s about my desire to let the soloists play something different every night, making the backgrounds feel different every night by my notes and rhythms. I’d much rather be known as the bass player who made the band sound great, but different, every night.”

[BREAK]

In a Blindfold Test several years ago, bassist Stanley Clarke commented on Carter’s duo performance of “Stardust” with pianist Roland Hanna (the title track of a well-wrought 2001 homage to Oscar Pettiford):  “Ron is an innovator and, as this solo bore out, a great storyteller. Probably 99.9% of the bass players out here play stuff from Ron. There’s Paul Chambers, and you can go back to Pettiford, Blanton and Israel Crosby, and a few people after Chambers—but a lot of it culminated in Ron, and then after Ron it’s all of us. Ron to me is the most important bass player of the last fifty years. He defined the role of the bass player.”

This remark summarizes the general consensus among Clarke’s instrumental brothers and sisters. For example, on other Blindfold Tests, John Patitucci praised the “the architecture of his lines,” “blended sound,” and “great sense of humor when he plays”; William Parker mentioned Carter’s penchant for “not playing a lot of notes” and “keeping a bass sound on his bass”; Andy Gonzalez noted his “shameless quotes of tiny pieces of melody from all kinds of obscure songs, which you have to know a lot of music to do”; and Eric Revis stated, “He’s gotten to the place where there’s Ronisms that you expect, and only he can do them.”

Per Clarke’s remark, these bassists and their cohort—indeed, several generations of musicians—have closely analyzed Carter’s ingenious walking basslines on the studio albums and live recordings he made between 1963 and 1968 with Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Tony Williams, who considered it their mandate to relax the rules of the 32-bar song form as far as possible while still maintaining the integrity of the tune in question. They’ve paid equivalent attention to the several dozen iconic Blue Note and CTI dates on which Carter sidemanned for the likes of Shorter, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Milt Jackson, and Antonio Carlos Jobim. They’re on intimate terms with Carter’s creative, definitive playing with a host of trios—grounding Bobby Timmons’ soul unit in the early ‘60s; performing the equilateral triangle function with Williams and Hancock or Hank Jones, and with Billy Higgins and Cedar Walton; or navigating the wide-open spaces with Bill Frisell and Paul Motian—on which he incorporates a host of extended techniques into the flow with a tone that has been described as “glowing in the dark.” They’re cognizant of Carter’s ability to shape-shift between soloistic and complementary functions with such rarefied duo partners as Walton and Jim Hall, and, more recently, Richard Galliano, Rosa Passos, and Houston Person. They respect his extraordinarily focused contributions to hundreds of commercial studio dates on which, as Carter puts it, “I maintain my musical curiosity about the best notes while being able to deliver up the product for this music as they expected to hear it in the 30 seconds I have to make this part work.”

Not least, Carter’s admirers know his work as a leader, with a corpus of more than 30 recordings in a host of configurations, including a half-dozen between 1975 and 1990 by a two-bass quartet in which either Buster Williams or Leon Maleson executed the double bass function, allowing Carter to function as a front line horn with the piccolo bass, which is tuned in the cello register.

Carter first deployed this concept on his debut recording in 1961, entitled Where, with a quintet including Eric Dolphy, Mal Waldron and Charlie Persip on which he played cello next to bassist George Duvivier, A son of Detroit, he played cello exclusively from 10 to 17, exhibiting sufficient talent to be “the first black kid” in the orchestra at Interlochen Music Camp, then burnishing his skills at Cass Tech, the elite arts-oriented high school that produced so many of the Motor City’s most distinguished musicians.

“Jazz was always in the air at school, but it wasn’t my primary listening,” Carter said. “I had other responsibilities—the concert band, the marching band, the orchestra, my chores at home, and maintaining a straight-A average. We were playing huge orchestrations of Strauss and Beethoven and Brahms, and the Bach Cantatas with all these voices moving in and out.”  Midway through Carter’s senior year, it became clear to him that more employment would accrue if he learned to play the bass, a decision reinforced when he heard “Blue Haze,” a blues in F on which Miles Davis’ solo unfolds over a suave Percy Heath bassline and Art Blakey’s elemental beat on the hi-hat, ride cymbal, and bass drum. “I was fascinated to hear them making their choices sound superb with the bare essentials,” Carter said. “These three people were generating as much musical logic in six to eight choruses as a 25-minute symphony with 102 players.”

During the summer after high school, Carter became a gigging bassist in Detroit, where he states, the local players were so highly accomplished that, “if they had all come to New York, New York would have sunk.” That fall, he matriculated at Rochester’s Eastman Conservatory on scholarship, where, for the next four years, he fulfilled academic responsibilities during the day, worked as a waiter, and attended “jazz school from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.” in local clubs, where he had the opportunity to back artists like Sonny Stitt and Slim Gaillard, and to be heard, he recalls, by “Dizzy Gillespie’s band with Sam Jones, or Carmen McRae’s band with Ike Isaacs, or Horace Silver’s band with Teddy Kotick and Art Farmer.” He also earned a position with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra (“I was again the only African-American in this group”), which, towards the end of his senior year performed in New York City for Leopold Stokowki, who, after rehearsal, told him, “I’d like to have you in my orchestra in Houston, but I’m afraid that the Board of Directors are not prepared to accept an African-American musician.”

“I thought, ‘Shit, man, when are you going to be ready?’” Carter recalls. “The jazz community who came through Rochester said, ‘Look, in New York everyone likes a good bass player.’ They had no idea about my classical background, that I’d been turned away. They thought here’s this tall kid from Detroit who has the potential to be a good bass player and he could only do that if he comes to New York.”

A few days after arriving in August 1959, Carter went to Birdland, where he encountered Chico Hamilton, who had auditioned him the previous fall in Rochester, and needed a new cellist who could play his difficult book. After a three-month tour, he settled into a Harlem apartment and enrolled at Manhattan School of Music for a masters degree. Before long, he’d earned respect from a community of bassists whose focus was less on “soloing or playing unaccompanied—although they could do it” and more on “can we make the band swing?” He admired Gene Taylor’s commitment to play Horace Silver’s written basslines, Doug Watkins’ “fabulous tonal quality,” the versatility of Milt Hinton and Joe Benjamin. He reveled in the challenge of analyzing “why Sam Jones’ sound was physically different than George Duvivier’s, or Scott LaFaro’s, or Richard Davis’.” Part of the craft was to use any bandstand performance—most consequentially during his half-decade with Miles Davis—as a laboratory in which to experiment and research alternate changes, “to think through the possibilities,” in his ongoing quest “to find the right notes” for any situation he might encounter.

“I tried to find changes—not from the original chord progression—that would fit if the bandleader or the soloist decided to put the melody over what I was playing,” Carter said. “If the changes worked, that meant there must be another sub-set that would make the melody sound the same, but feel different because of the harmonic underpinnings. When I play these notes that seem pretty far removed from the melody, they aren’t random choices. I’m still playing the melody in my head.  They don’t always work, but I’m OK with that. That’s one choice I don’t worry about tomorrow night. That’s off my list. We’ve got five more tunes; maybe we’ll work with them.”

[BREAK]

Asked to express his feelings about the Hall of Fame honorific, Carter replied with characteristic briskness. “To get this award means that there are enough readers of the magazine who have done some homework and some history, and know I’ve been playing this music for a very long time,” he said. “And, as they’ve listened, over time, they’ve found a level of consistency that appeals to them, not just in my performance, but my integrity and my sound. I’d like to thank them for deeming me worthy of a lifetime achievement, but to know that my lifetime is still here. If they have a Part Two, maybe I’ll be up for that.”

His manner was somewhat less composed as he formulated a response to Stanley Clarke’s aforementioned comments on his impact on bass lineage. “I’m embarrassed, actually,” Carter said. He bent his head, contemplating his cupped hands in silence for several seconds before resuming. “I’m from a time when one of the effects of society on African-Americans, especially African-American males, was to not acknowledge your success. Not that you couldn’t be successful, but when you were, you were kind of told not to ‘groove,’ so to speak, on that level of achievement. It’s taken me a while to get past that. African-Americans in my age group will tell you about someone telling them, ‘you can’t do this or that.’ For example, I remember my math teacher in junior high school told the class, ‘Don’t worry about studying Latin, because you’ll never need it—you’ll be digging a ditch.’ I told my mom, and she wigged out. All of us got that kind of response in these situations sixty years ago.

“So when I hear comments like Stanley’s, it floors me that I’ve had that kind of impact on an industry. I say, ‘Wow, I did that? All these guys do this because of my presence?’ It throws me a curve. There’s a list of what they call ten records that are milestones of the music, all different, and I’m on eight of them. When I hear people talk about that, I have to tiptoe out of the room, because it embarrasses me to hear that my impact has been rated as such. I had my hopes crushed at a very early age. I had peeks of what it’s like to play in a great orchestra, and to not be allowed to do that for the simple reason that I’m black … to this day I don’t understand that fuckin’ mindset, man. I don’t know what that’s got to do with playing a B-flat blues, man, or playing the Bach Chorale, or Beethoven, or playing an Oliver Nelson arrangement. But my family went to church every Sunday. We understood that there is somebody upstairs who is really in charge of the ballgame, so to speak. I’ve always thought that I was directed to do this because the Creator thought that I could be important in this industry. And I have to trust that he allows me to go out every night and try to find the best notes I can find. When he tells me, ‘Ok, you’ve had enough,’ then I’ll stop.”

That time hardly seems imminent. Carter has done stretching and free weights with a trainer three mornings a week for the last thirty years, seems not to have lost an inch from his six-and-a-half foot frame, can still palm a basketball, and looks more like a youthful 60 than 75. “Because I’ve found other ways to play the notes I’ve been finding and learned the science of how the bass works even more specifically, it’s less physically demanding to cover the bass than it was ten years ago,” he says. “One of my lessons is to assign students a blues and have them build a bassline out of the changes I give them.  I’ve been playing the blues a very long time, and these guys come up with lines that stun me—not because they’re so great, but that I hadn’t thought about those lines! Seeing this kind of awareness makes 75 feel like 15, when you’re just discovering what the world is like. It makes me feel that I’m just starting to learn the instrument.

“I try not to do stuff just because I can do it—because it doesn’t impact anybody. It doesn’t make a flower that opens. If I can make that flower open, that’s my night. I will go home and watch CNN and  have my yogurt.”

[—30—]

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Filed under Article, Bass, DownBeat, Miles Davis, Ron Carter

For Toots’ Thielemans’ 92nd Birthday, a DownBeat Feature—and Interview—From 2006

Earlier this year, Jean “Toots” Thielemans, perhaps the foremost practitioner of the harmonica in jazz music for more than four decades, and an equally expressive guitar player, decided to retire from public performance. Thielemans turned 92 on April 29th, a milestone I’m observing by posting a feature article that DownBeat assigned me to write in 2006, and the verbatim interview that I conducted with Toots for the piece.

* * * *

Several  hours into an afternoon conversation at his Upper East Side pied a terre midway through a week-long booking at New York’s Blue Note last November, Jean “Toots” Thielemans, halfway through his 83rd year, might easily have opted for a restorative pre-gig nap over continued interrogation.

Instead, using his dining room table as a prop, Thielemans launched into an impromptu demonstration on blues aesthetics.

“During the ‘60s nobody made a great living playing straight jazz,” Thielemans said, beginning the back story. “I got a call: ‘Mr. Thielemans, we’d like you to do a jingle. We know you’re a great jazz player, but can you play like Bob Dylan?’ I said, ‘No, sir, I can’t.’ ‘Do you know anyone who does?’ There was maybe one, but my defense mechanism turned on. I said, ‘No, I don’t. Sorry, sir.’ I was living in Yonkers then, and once a week or so I’d go to the Lighthouse for the Blind in White Plains. There were two black gentlemen there who played the blues like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, those wolf calls and all that. ‘Mr. Thielemans, we want to play like you.’ But I said, ‘Can I hear what you do?’ I thought it was so easy to do what they did! Mechanically, that is; not the voicings and the sound. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s the Bob Dylan guy.’ I went right to Manny’s Music Store on 48th Street and bought 12 diatonic harmonicas. I called that jingle promoter. ‘Sir, I am ready for you.’”

Thielemans picked up his chromatic harmonica and blew a pair of nasty 12-bar phrases. “That’s very close, but it’s not funky enough,” he said. Meanwhile, Thielemans’ wife, anticipating his next step, emerged from their bedroom with a black leather bag, which she placed on the table. “Those are my diatonic harmonicas,” Thielemans noted. “I even took that bag to Hollywood for Quincy Jones, in case he needed that sound.” I was just an all-over handyman, so to speak.”

Thielemans peeled off the wrapping from the harp. “Have you heard of Howard Levy?” he asked. “He overblows and creates harmonics, and he can play ‘Giant Steps’ on the diatonic. I can’t do it like he does, but I can show what can be done.”

He blew. “That’s too high-pitched,” Thielemans said. He quickly unwrapped another harp, and uncorked a variation, tapping his foot. “If you want to change keys…” Then he unwrapped another, and blew some more. “These guys have tone,” he remarked. He repeated the phrase, bending notes with soulful abandon. “Here you can attack the note,” he said, and offered another passage. “That’s very moody,” he said, before resuming.   “When I overblow like this, you hear some sort of Ben Webster distortion.” He elaborated on the sonics. “That’s funky,” he said happily. “Stevie Wonder gets those sounds. I learned a lot from Stevie. ‘Before we say goodbye.’” He stated an emphatic line, put down the harmonica and laughed heartily. “When I woke up this mornin’, baby!”

[BREAK]
“Not everybody likes my sound,” Thielemans had remarked early in our chat. “But I can’t help it. A critic in Belgium described me once in Flemish, ‘shameless sentimentality.’ And I admit that I may be shameless. I laugh easily, and I am very close to tears sometimes when I hear those minor-7 chords. Now, if you analyze a minor 7, the three bottom notes are minor, so moody, close to melancholy. The top three notes are major. So minor 7 mixes minor and major, and that’s my little self-description, ‘between a smile and a tear.’ It’s a pastel sound. Not black, not white—in-between. At one film session with Michel Legrand in Paris, he said, ‘Okay, Toots, donne moi tes tonnes pastels,’ ‘give me your pastel tones.’ That’s my nature.”

Forty-eight hours earlier, on the opening set of his opening night, Thielemans and his superb quartet demonstrated this proposition on a program comprising  bebop, chanson, show tunes, and a tasting course of Brazilian musical cuisines. If he served up no small amount of kitsch and schmaltz, he compensated with many creative moments.  On “How High The Moon,” propelled by Airto Moreira’s effervescent hi-hat samba beat, Thielemans danced through the melody, interacting closely on the improv with guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves. After a brief turn by pianist Kenny Werner, he reentered with a vengeance, weaving substitute changes into the flow, leaping through the intervals and swinging hard. On Castro-Neves’ “Felicia and Bianca” and Chico Buarque’s “Futbol,” Moreira orchestrated samba school beats on different components of his arsenal, which included a 22-inch bass drum; his opening declamation that provoked Thielemans to respond with train whistle onomatopoeia. After a long Thielemans melody-to-abstraction improv on Sammy Cahn’s “All The Way,” Moreira ingeniously limned the melodic design on caixa, shaker and tom-tom, setting up  an abstract Werner solo.

There was much shameless melody-milking, too, as Thielemans sculpted the phrases of such ballads as Luiz Eca’s luxuriantly melancholic “The Dolphin”—but also on Jobim’s “Chega De Saudade” and “The Waters of March,” Buarque’s “Joanna Frances,” Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” Michel Legrand’s “You Must Remember Spring,” and the set-closer, “God Bless America,” which Thielemans described as “my idea of what would have happened if Irving Berlin had met Milton Nascimento”—to animate the soulful emotions within.

“To me, Brazil is minor-7 country,” Thielemans said at his apartment. Rio-based harmonica player Mauricio Einhorn “sent me records when the Bossa Nova exploded in the late ‘50s-early ‘60s, and I got interested in the harmony,” he continued. After he collaborated on Aquarella do Brasil with Elis Regina in 1969, Brazilian musicians began to regard Thielemans as an iconic figure, as was evident in 1990, when he broke bread with Nascimento, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Buarque, Djavan, Joao Bosco, Dami Caymmi, Ivan Lins and Eliane Elias on a two-volume collection called Brazil Project.

“His heart is Brazilian,” said Castro-Neves. “He understands the idiom with the ease of someone who speaks fluent Portuguese. But also, he is a bottomless well of ideas. After a take with Ivan Lins, you’d say, ‘Great, Toots, let’s do a second take for the sake of it.’ The second take was totally different from the first. If he’d come from the right, he came from the left; if he’d started on the third, he started on the fifth; he’d have a rhythm figure here, he’d start another rhythm figure there. He is incredible.”

[BREAK]

“You may have noticed that little change I made to ‘How High The Moon,’” Thielemans informed the Blue Note audience. “The third chord, instead of G-minor-VII, C-VII going to F, I go first to A-flat-minor-VII, B-flat-VII, and then G. It makes a Brazilian song out of it.”

Thielemans in his teens aspired to be a math teacher; he has the kind of mind that hears harmonic equations as sonic poetry. A native of Antwerp, a bustling North Sea port city, he bought a harmonica not long after Germany invaded Belgium in 1940, and “fooled around by instinct” to Benny Goodman Trio records. He continues: “Then the musicians in Belgium started to say ‘jette se joué,’ ‘throw that toy away and get a real instrument.’” Recuperating from pneumonia with extended bedrest, he taught himself to play guitar—a Macaferri—by ear, copying Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian records. By 1944 Belgium was liberated, and soon thereafter merchant sailors were bringing such early bebop classics as “Groovin’ High” and “One Bass Hit” across the Atlantic. While playing guitar at a local boite with the likes of Edith Piaf, Charles Trenet and Stephane Grappelli, Thielemans began to analyze the musical language of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

“We made acetate copies, although the needles eroded them quickly,” he recalls. “’Groovin’ High’ is ‘Whispering’ in E-flat, and I remember the phrasing Dizzy used to go from A-minor-7 to D-7. I tried to play that phrase – from D-7 to D-minor-7 to G – in every key on harmonica. I continue to find new things. For instance, for sixty years, like everybody else, I played ‘Confirmation’ in F, but recently, I played it in B. That’s like shuffling the keys in the piano around, if you have cliches built up in F.”

He played the “Confirmation” theme in both keys. The version in B embodied the trademark Thielemans sound.

“I first visited the States in ‘47,” he continued. “I was with my uncle in Miami, and we were having a drink at a restaurant where they were playing Nat Cole trio music. I was still self-conscious about my harmonica, but I bought the guitar player a drink and sat in.” By happy coincidence, photographer William Gottlieb was at the bar. “He said, ‘Oh, you’re good.’ I looked him up in New York, and he took me to 52nd Street – the Three Deuces. It was the Howard McGhee All Stars. Hank Jones, Bags, Percy Heath, the drummer was Joe Harris, maybe Jimmy Heath, too. Bill took me to meet the band. ‘Who? Belgium?’ The two question marks. ‘What do you want to play?’ In those days, the key to the bebop door was the third and the fourth bar of ‘I Can’t Get Started.’”

Thielemans demonstrated. “I played it almost like that! The whole band fell on the floor. I was in after two measures. I sat in the chair next to Hank. The alternating group was Lennie Tristano. Imagine! With Billy Bauer and Arnold Fishkin. Billy Shaw was there, the agent, the big salesman of bebop. The big cigar.  ‘Shaw Nuff.’ ‘Where you from? You’re good!’ ‘I’m from Belgium.’ ‘Oh, I know. That’s in Copenhagen.’ Typical  Hollywood. ‘Send me some records. I’m going to make you the Belgian King of Bebop.’

While sailing back to Europe—a festival in Nice, where he and saxophonist Bobby Jaspar accompanied Lucky Thompson—Thielemans wrote a progression on Stardust, and recorded it with a string quartet. He played the acetate for Ray Nance, whom he befriended when the Duke Ellington Orchestra visited Belgium in 1948; Nance took it to an agent, who played it for Benny Goodman, then beginning his brief love affair with bebop. In 1949, Goodman summoned Thielemans to London for a gig at the Palladium.

“I played the Charlie Christian chair,” Thielemans says. “After six weeks of touring I said, ‘Benny, I’d like to play another number.’ ‘Play Stardust.’ Benny loved that progression, which went up the chromatic scale instead of down. It worked out well for me. It was shortly enough after the war that it was sensational for a European to be hired by a top name in America, and I had newspaper attention. But I didn’t play the rhythm with the strength Benny wanted, so he didn’t use me after that tour.”

Sponsored by Goodman’s secretary, Thielemans emigrated to New York in 1952 with $2000 in his pocket and  and a burgeoning reputation. While waiting to establish his residence and join the union, he worked for Sabina Airlines, networked at musician bars like the Metropole and Charlie’s Tavern, and played three nights a week at the Downbeat, where he met such fellow progressives as Charles Mingus, Lee Konitz, Billy Taylor, George Wallington and Tony Scott.

“Tony heard that Dick Garcia, who was George Shearing’s guitar player, was  going into the Army, and he brought me to George’s dressing room when he was doing a double bill with Billy Eckstine at Carnegie Hall,” Thielemans recalls. “He said, ‘I’ve got the man for you.’ We played Body and Soul together, and George said, ‘If you cut the guitar book, you’ve got the job.’ I knew it by ear. Over the years I developed my guitar chops and got some visibility. On the road we both read the Percy Goetschius book,  Materials Used in Musical Composition—he had it in Braille and I normal. Elementary stuff. Now I can explain every note I play—to which altered scale it belongs, which chord it should go to. When I improvise, I respect the ten commandments of harmony—no parallel fifths, the leading note should go to the tonic, that sort of thing. After a while, George was ready to change faces, and I decided I hadn’t come to the States to be a sideman all my life.”

Instead, Thielemans began to divide his time between New York and Europe, primarily Sweden, where he wrote Bluesette, the breakthrough tune that opened theretofore closed doors in the New York studios. “Talk about lucky breaks that fall far from the jazz tree,” Thielemans laughed. “I’d been scuffling, playing bar-mitzvahs, Jewish weddings and everything so I could stay home. But Madison Avenue was looking for different sounds. I’d done some ads where I played guitar and whistled; for the guitar I’d make $37 for 12 weeks, which was scale for an instrumental jingle, but for the whistling I made $50 each time it was heard. Then I got a call for Old Spice. ‘Mr. Thielemans, we know you’re a great whistler. But can you whistle like the man in the street who cannot whistle?’ That was Class A, coast to coast. Staying home, I made $15,000. That was also the time when Johnny Cash made Ring of Fire, with two trumpets, and I decided to do a melody with two voices. I gave it to the publisher who’d just handled Bluesette, he sent it to Los Angeles, and Herb Alpert heard it. It’s called Ladyfingers, and it went on a record—the one with the chick on the cover wrapped in whipped cream—that sold domestically 6 million. 6 million cents is $60,000. Between Old Spice and Herb Alpert, we bought a house in Montauk.”

By 1979, Thielemans’ c.v. included the soundtracks for Midnight Cowboy and Sugarland Express, the harmonica solo on the Sesame Street theme, a slew of Quincy Jones  big band recordings, and one-offs with pop-folk as diverse as Paul Simon, the Brothers Johnson, Ray Charles, and John Denver. “The phone rang—I said, ‘Okay,’” Thielemans recalled. He wasn’t playing much hardcore jazz, though, and when Bill Evans’ manager, Helen Keane, called to ask Thielemans to play on Affinity, Evans’ first album for Warner Brothers, Thielemans hesitated.

“From a pianist, I can almost say that I need Bill Evans as my ground floor,” Thielemans said. “When Bill was a soldier in the early ‘50s, he came, in uniform and a crewcut, to listen to George Shearing rehearse at the Blue Note in Chicago. Afterwards, he said, ‘I hope we play together’—one of those polite goodbyes. Later on the road, I heard him and remembered him, After I left Shearing, I heard Bill playing with Miles, Trane and Cannon at the Showboat, and during a break Miles saw me talking to Bill. ‘What are you talking about?’ We were talking about background solos, the approach to accompaniment. Miles said, ‘You two should play together,’ quick, and he went on by.

“When Helen called, I was playing with good group – Phil Markowitz, Chip Jackson and Joe LaBarbera – and told her to have Bill come to hear us before he made up his mind to have me.  I played the Paul Simon song I Do It For Your Love, and like a piranha Bill jumped on the lead sheet and said, ‘Come Monday.’ After three or four days in the studio, it appeared that I was going to play on every song with Bill instead of just two. I said, ‘Bill, this is your record; don’t you think I play too much. It could be Toots Thielemans featuring…’ Bill said in my ear: ‘I want people to know you can play straight-ahead like that.” No fancy vamps, arrangements, nothing. Song, chorus, song out. He said, ‘Give me a minute.’ He goes to talk to Helen Keane. He comes back. ‘We will double your fee.’ I never heard that one before!”

[BREAK]

On a Wednesday afternoon early in 1962, after a gig-hunting expedition to the Local 802 headquarters on West 52nd Street, Thielemans heard music from a trumpet store next door, and entered. “It was Donald Byrd, and I saw a piano player from the back,” Thielemans recalled. “It was Herbie Hancock, who had recently come to town. I needed a piano player for the weekend in an Italian restaurant in Long Island, and I asked him if he wanted to do it. Donald said,’Take him! He needs the job.’ We rehearsed, and I found right away that he knew all the standards. Very professional. It wasn’t a jazz job. After ten minutes he said, ‘Hmm, I think I’m going to have to dig a little deeper into my Bill Evans bag for you.’”

Reminded of the comment last March, Hancock laughed loudly. “It was fun to play with Toots because he would always stimulate ideas and inspire me to pull out more things. Now he works off a much broader palette, from familiar things to the cutting edge. He has his own harmonic stuff, and his sound is so haunting and arresting and warm. On one hand, it’s as sharp as a razor, but on the other hand, as warm as a fireplace.”

It was the end of an all-afternoon rehearsal at Carroll Studios for a tribute concert the following evening at Carnegie Hall at which Thielemans interacted with a rotating cast of characters comprising Hancock, Joe Lovano, Paquito D’Rivera, Ivan Lins, and Eliane Elias. After her opening remarks, co-producer Pat Philips brought out an upholstered chair on which Thielemans sat, smiling broadly, as Hancock improvised a richly harmonic solo meditation. Then the maestro moved to the  center stage stool on which he would perch for the remainder of the evening.

After heady duets with Hancock on “I Do It For Your Love” and “Dolphin Dance,” Thielemans played “Body and Soul” and his own “For My Lady” with Lovano, joined Paquito D’Rivera for a pastel-shaded version of D’Rivera’s “Brussels in the Rain,” and illuminated the weltschmertz melody of Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” in soaring dialogue with Werner. The Brazilians came out for the second half, on which Elias sang a Jobim tune and an original ballad in a whispery, sensual alto, and Ivan Lins, fighting off a cold, sang two songs, including his early hit Madalena. As always, the house was filled with an international mix; standing ovations were the rule.

“I like to believe that my strong point is projecting emotion,” Thielemans said, offering a self-description of his magic. “I am very impressed with the hot guys today, but they don’t move me all the time. It’s a lot of fingers, a lot of range, a lot of fast scales, and it doesn’t always give me a goosebump. Of course, I try to incorporate much of what I hear. I do feel closer to the loose phrasing of today’s rhythms – on Dapp Theory, for instance, which Gregoire Maret gave me – than on the pop records of 10 or 15 years ago.  I play my songs differently each time. That’s what keeps me interested.”

[---30---]

* * *

Toots Thielemans (Nov. 18, 2005):

TP:   We’re in Toots Thielemans’ apartment, and there’s a wood fire going on in a Manhattan apartment building, and he’s talking about the contents of his I-Pod. Chris Potter is on it? Herbie Hancock.

TOOTS:   Yes, I can show you. Messiaen. In Belgium, they ask what Charlie Haden is reading? The writings of Claude Debussy. Claude Debussy was French-educated, and he writes such elegant French. He was a music critic under the name of Monsieur Croche. “Croche” is eighth note in French. Monsieur Croche. And he writes such beautiful French. Literary French. They are famous letter-writers from Louis XIV time. Madame DeSegueur, La Comptesse de Segueur. The letter exchanges between him and Stravinsky, his first encounter with Stravinsky’s music. He died only in 1917, and I was influenced by Debussy.

TP: Were you listening to Debussy and Messaien when you were young?

TOOTS:   No, not so much. But clearly (?).

TP:   He’s looking at his I-Pod. Is it 40-gig?

TOOTS:   I don’t know. I have… This Englishman, Django Bates. I have him here, too. Steve Coleman. I have it here. [5 records] My managers puts it on. I don’t have a computer. But he puts it… I’ll roll it, and you’ll see what you like to talk about. That’s Django Bates. Teri Lyne Carrington. When she came with Cassandra to Brussels, she gave me that CD. It’s great, with some guys… Definitely George Shearing, from my… I spent six years with George. The live takes was fairly recent.

I’m nervous, of course. I appreciate very much your command of jazz, call it that. I read in one of the Downbeats the word Ouillette used, “the jazz police,” talking about Norah Jones. Would she be accepted by the jazz police? That sort of thing. For instance, in Brussels there’s a lot happening. One evening I went to listen to Norah Jones, and the next was Archie Shepp and the pianist who plays the organ, Amina Meyers… A duo. A lady from Chicago.

TP:   How long have you been playing with this band that you’re with this week. Kenny Werner has been your pianist and you’ve done projects with Oscar Castro-Neves.

TOOTS:   Oscar is the one who had the idea to get the Brazilians together. He was a film producer who did some film producing with Miles Goodman in Los Angeles. Miles passed away… They came to Brussels, and the session was produced for a film, Nothing About Love or something. After the (?), Oscar said, “You should make a record with the Brazilians. They all love you.” He mentioned Chico Buarque, Nascimento, Gilberto Gil. “Are they going to do it?” “Yes.” So Oscar set it up. He did all the calling or the fax. “I don’t believe what you say.” “Yeah, they’d all like to play with you.” So we did one session in Los Angeles, which is fantastic…

TP:   You’re talking now about the two Brazil Project records from ten years ago.

TOOTS:   Yes. Then there was Ron Goldstein who had Private Records. We went to Rio, and we did two songs a day with Chico Buarque and the other guys. Vol. 2 is the same as Vol. 1.

TP:  You used Eliane Elias, Oscar, with tunes by Dori Caymmi, Gilberto Gil…

TOOTS:   Recently Gilberto Gil, if you know his story, he was very (how you say) against the regime, and even went to jail. He and Caetano Veloso…

TP:   He gave you the award.

TOOTS:   Yes. Commandadore Orde de Rio Branco.

TP:   Was Brazilian music part of your repertoire at that time? When did you start getting interested in Brazilian music?

TOOTS:   I must say, I have a friend, a harmonica player in Rio, Mauricio Einhorn, and he sent me records when the Bossa Nova exploded in the late ‘50s-early ‘60s, and I got interested. In the harmony. I always to say, “to me, Brazil is minor-VII country.” If you analyze a minor VII, the three bottom notes are minor, so moody, close to melancholy, and you have a third… The top three notes are major. So minor VII mixes minor and major, and that’s my little self-description, “between a smile and a tear.” It’s a pastel sound. Not black, not white—in-between. At one film session with Michel Legrand in Paris, he said, “Okay, Toots, donne moi tes tones pastels,” “give me your pastel tones.” That’s my nature. A critic in Belgium, Rob Leurentop, described me once in Flemish, “shameless sentimentality.”

TP: What did you think of that?

TOOTS:   I may be shameless. I am very close to the tears sometimes when I hear some of those minor VII chords. Kenny plays them so well. On my Johnny Mandel left hand!

TP:   So you’ve been hearing and playing Brazilian music…

TOOTS:   Since it came out. Maybe slightly before Stan Getz. I had the records, and then it exploded.

TP:   When did you start playing with Brazilian musicians?

TOOTS:   Oh, Elis Regina.  I made a record for George Avakian in 1955.

TP: This is my collection. They’re all recent. I have 20 selections with George Shearing. With Bill Evans. With Ella.

TOOTS:   Oh, that was pathetic. Norman Granz wanted her to do mostly Jobim, and she had the start of that glaucoma, and of course she didn’t speak Portuguese. So it was like the old TV cue cards with letters like that, and from the booth. She read and sang.

TP:   But Elis Regina got you started. How did that happen?

TOOTS:   That happened in 1969. I was in Belgium, commuting already then, but I didn’t have this apartment that we have. I lived in Yonkers with my first wife. We already had the place in Montauk. I love Montauk. So I went to Sweden. Sweden was the first country… In 1950, I did that tour with Benny Goodman with Roy Eldridge, Zoot Sims, Dick Hyman, Ed Shaughnessy, and a bassist from England. So I was in Europe, and a TV producer… That was the first time Elis came to the MIDEM, that big thing in the south of France, the record…like your NARAS, a big thing. I speak Swedish fluently. He said, “Toots, would you like to make a record? We want to do a show with Elis Regina and you.” They brought Elis’  band. Fantastic. Antonio Adolfo, [(?)Nilson Das Neiras(?)], a drummer. Roberto Scalero(?). He played fantastic guitar. He still does. Then while we were there for the show, the show was presented at the International TV competition in Montreux, “La Rose of Montreux,” ‘the rose of Montreux.” He won the prize with that. While we were doing that TV show, the guy from Philips Records… It was winter, snow, like that. Imagine those Brazilians, used to that heat, in the winter! He said, “You should go in the studio and make a record.” And we did. That was my first.

TP:   Did you take very naturally to the phrasing of Brazilian music?

TOOTS:   Yes. You didn’t hear yesterday… Oscar Castro-Neves… I call him Freddie. Because to Brazilian rhythm, he is what Freddie Greene! [LAUGHS] I sat in the bus so many times next to Freddie on Birdland tours. Across the aisle from Billie Holiday with the chihuahua! Oh, there are so many… But you pick out what you need.

TP: But let’s speak about now.

TOOTS:   Yes, the Brazilians. That is where my first contact with Brazilian lies—Elis Regina. Then I went a few times.

TP:   Have you played with this band a fair amount? Is it a recently formed band? A band you formed a while ago?

TOOTS:   Kenny and I have been touring basically with a duo. Like, in St. Louis a few weeks ago, we did a duo. We have that repertoire. Then I asked Oscar… We had a little budget, and we played Yoshi’s. “Hey, that’s great. Can you come back next year?” That was the suggestion of Yoshi’s, the jazz club there, to add Airto. I never had played with him. [A couple of years ago.] Now we did San Francisco Festival with Airto, we did the Blue Note, and we did the Belgium (?) Festival with Airto…

TP:   So this is basically a new group. Airto makes it a new group.

TOOTS:   Yes. But Kenny is the quarterback, and Oscar can play in that direction. We really never rehearsed. It might not be pure(?) Brazilian music, but you cannot go much… To me, my ears, Jobim, Ivan Lins, and then Chico Buarque. That’s when the record was made, but I haven’t… I played with Maria Schneider. She is my friend. She was very sad. She is going to try to come to the last show Sunday because they are flying in from Europe.

TP: They play next week at the Jazz Standard.

TOOTS:   Yes. But they start Tuesday. We’ll be going back home to Belgium on Monday.
TP:   Ah, you live in Belgium.

TOOTS:   Yes.

TP:   You live in Belgium, you live here, and you live in Montauk.

TOOTS:   No more. We sold Montauk. We were there ten days a year. That’s not enough… With the few pennies we got from Montauk…

TP: It’s not a few pennies in Montauk.

TOOTS:   I love it. And the lobster. Since we were there, Paul Simon, Billy Joel… No, Billy Joel is East Hampton. Did you hear Paul Simon with Herbie on the new record? I think Paul Simon is underrated as a vocalist. He’ll compose and produce or whatever. But with Herbie, he sounds so beautiful. And it’s not his groove. I have a beautiful email from Herbie. I’m very proud…

TP:   Pat told me that he might be in this concert in March.

TOOTS:   Yes.

TP:   With Airto, what does he do for your presentation? What does having a dynamic, creative drummer like that…

TOOTS:   [Huguette speaks] Yes. Quincy says sometimes, “Oh, you don’t need anything, with Oscar, Kenny and you,” and she feels the same. But it’s very exciting.

TP: So your wife feels you don’t need Airto.

TOOTS:   No.

TP:   But that being said, how does having a creative drummer impact your band?

TOOTS:   Oh, he is a creative drummer. You should have heard the second show! Many groups you go to hear and they loosen up. Besides that, I was saying, “Hey, Panken’s here.” [ETC.] I have much respect for Ouillette and you. I watch the signatures on the articles. I do. I don’t mean to rub… “brute(?) la matte(?)” means you flatter.” “Rub the sleeve,” that means flatter. [RUBBING MYSLEEVE]

TP:   For instance, when you’re doing a week at a club, do you do the same set every night?

TOOTS:   Many times we have strong numbers. One of our strong numbers is What A Wonderful World. Yesterday, there were Belgians… When I play in Montreal, when I play Ne Me Quitte Pas, Brel, we’re French territory… A 10-minute standing ovation! It was nice. It was Kenny and I, and we had Fresu and Pat Metheny.

TP: Do you approach the tunes the same way every night?

TOOTS:   According… We had Belgian friends, so I play Brel. I don’t like to tell the joke the same way as I did… You know? [Huguette: didn’t like The Dolphin as on the record. Pas ne meme chose.”] I play once in a while… Not every year. But Quincy and I play sometimes a year apart, two years apart. Quincy said… He was in Hollywood at the Capitol Studio, the tower, and I was in Holland, overdubbing one of his things for one of his projects. At the end, he says, “Toots, each time I hear you, you’ve got some new shit.” That’s a good thing. He knows me; I know Quincy.

TP:   How do you know each other?

TOOTS:   That happened when I was already playing on the Street, on 52nd Street, with Shearing in the early ‘50s, and they started to talk about this cat from Seattle who wrote… I remember I was rehearsing something, and Quincy passed through whatever we were doing, and he told me, “You have the most beautiful humming voice.” But I never sang or anything! But we have a great relationship. A beautiful… One of those things I wish I could have kept. A couple of months before Ray Charles passed away, he was still one-nighting, you know, tours. I got a call on the answering machine in Belgium. We’d come back from a restaurant or whatever. The message was Quincy’s voice. “Hey, Stink!” That’s what he calls me. Or suspenders. He gives me suspenders. Because when you inhale a long note on the harmonica, my pants fall down! We exchange once in a while New Year’s presents. So: “Stink, I’m here with Ray Charles” (in Indianapolis or something) “and we’re talking about your black ass.” Now, Quincy, he don’t call so many guys “black ass” who are not black. He said, “Okay, you may be Belgian, but I’m sure yo mama spoke to a brother.” So these are precious… I feel like wearing that!

TP:   When you started playing harmonica… I don’t know who the predecessors… I think you said you heard Larry Adler in a film.

TOOTS:   Yes.

TP: But stylistically, did you emulate anybody? Or did you learn how to play and adapt the vocabulary?

TOOTS:   No. I first bought a harmonica during the Occupation… I was trying to become a math teacher.

TP:   Good for harmony.

TOOTS:   Yeah, they say so. I can explain every note I play, to what altered scale it belongs to, and what chord it should go to and whatever. I read the same book as George Shearing. He had it in Braille and I normal. Percy Goetschius, Materials Used in Musical Composition. Elementary. We didn’t go very far. But that’s 50 years ago. Call it conservative; I need an explanation for whatever I do. When they say no parallel fifths, or the leading note should go to the tonic—that sort of thing. The big commandments. The ten commandments of harmony. I respect that, even when I improvise.

TP:   When were you studying that book?

TOOTS:   While I was on the road with George Shearing. We both wanted to know what we were playing, George and I.

TP: Before that, you were playing by ear, more or less?

TOOTS:   Self-taught. Oh, yes. So, chronologically: I bought a harmonica. Then I started, no jazz. Then I heard one record, Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers, “carry me back…” A 78 with the wind-up phonography. Over sixty years ago! Then I bought other records. People don’t realize that during the German Occupation, Belgium was invaded in 1940. But anything that happened before, we had the records… We had a dear friend, Leon de Mock(?)… He died, but he was a good friend of Clark Terry. And he called to make …(?)… Clark Terry and I somehow project something similar, and Leon, he said, “Clark a ton negatif,” the negative of the photograph. But he had a lot of records. We already had some Benny Goodman Trio, I think. Benny played with Teddy Wilson in the ‘30s. Teddy Wilson, Krupa, Where Or When and things like that.

TP:   Did you know about Benny Carter or Hawkins?

TOOTS:   Yes. Hawkins stayed in Europe.
TP:   Yes, that’s why I asked.

TOOTS:   He stayed in Brussels. He played there for a while. But I didn’t meet him.

TP: Or Bill Coleman or any of those people.

TOOTS:   Yes, the expatriates.  But I had those records, and I started to fool around, not knowing jazz, what to do on blues and so on. But I followed by instinct. Then the musicians in Belgium started to say “jette se joué,” “throw that toy away and get a real instrument.”

TP:   That’s an oft-told story. So you got a guitar.

TOOTS:   Yes. Then, on a bet, I had a friend who wanted to try… He had a lot of money because his uncle sold liquor on the black market during the war, and he wanted to try to play Fats Waller. …(?)… exactly, “want some seafood, mama.” That phrase, if you think, it’s the typical blues phrase. [SINGS IT] I was in bed with pneumonia, and he comes… He had just bought it; this was his day. Wednesday is my day for guitar. I’m in bed, and I play. I said, “Gilbert, je sais joué salon moi dix minutes; je sais joué…” On one string I can play [SINGS REFRAIN], “For the …(?)…, I want some seafood.” Then he gave me the guitar.

TP:   And you taught yourself the guitar.

TOOTS:   Yes.

TP: You listened to Django records, and you bought a picture of him to see the way he held the guitar, or something… Or did you see Django play?

TOOTS:   Yes, when he played during the war. He just had written Nuages, and he played with Hubert Rostaing on clarinet. Stephane was in England at the time. That was in ‘43 or ‘44.

TP:   So you played accordion as a kid, and when did you start playing harmonica? Before guitar or after guitar?

TOOTS:   Before guitar. Then it was sure that I wasn’t good enough to become a math teacher, and then my parents… My father was very… They spoiled me, allowed me to do what I… And I was practicing the guitar.
TP:   So you played for fun. You played accordion for fun, you played harmonica for fun, you played guitar…

TOOTS:   Yes. Still now. [LAUGHS] I wish that for everybody. First to get to 83. My birthdate is the same as Duke. Stevie Wonder is also Taurus. He told me after one of his shows in Brussels… You know, the blind guys go like that. His firm, his Black Bull publishing firm. He said, “Toots, maybe I’m Black Bull, but you sure are white bull.” [LAUGHS] Isn’t that beautiful?

TP: When did you start playing professionally?

TOOTS:   After liberation. It might have been… No, not during the Occupation. Then I played guitar. Nobody wanted to hear that toy. I had still like a Macaferri guitar, the Django type. It was an acoustic guitar. I saw Django’s concert, one night with the quintet, and he broke strings. Then he gave his guitar to… He had one of his cousins or something that plays rhythm guitar [MIMES boom-chick, boom-chick, boom-chick, boom...] then he gives it to the cousin, and the song didn’t stop, just that the guy tuned up, and he came back. Django was fantastic.

TP:   When did you start hearing bebop vocabulary? Because Django started to get into…

TOOTS:   No, he wasn’t. Many musicians couldn’t jump… They called it a hurdle for a minute, an obstacle you have to… Charlie Parker. My first bebop records were… We had the French (?)s from Antwerp who knew the sailors, and they brought back Groovin’ High, the historic Guild record, with the yellow; One Bass Hit, both sides, small group and the big band. Then we made acetate copy of that. They didn’t last long, because we used those needles, you know; they erode quickly with it. One historic thing I remember is Dizzy… First of all, Groovin’ High, the phrasing those guys used to go from A-minor-VII to D-VII… Groovin’ High is Whispering in E-flat, and the second time in… I tried to play that phrase in every key. So I went from D-VII to D-minor-VII to G, the VI-V in every key…
TP:   You did it in every key on the harmonica and practiced it.

TOOTS:   Yes. You may have noticed (or maybe you didn’t) that little change I put instead of the normal How High The Moon. The third chord, instead of G-minor-VII, C-VII going to F, I go first to A-flat-minor-VII, B-flat-VII, and then G. It makes a Brazilian song out of it.

TP: You said that on stage.

TOOTS:   Yes. Once in a while, I find things like that. Or practice… For instance, I play Confirmation, which was another first hurdle through. [sings refrain] I played that for sixty years in F, like everybody. But recently, I played it in B. That’s like shuffling the keys in the piano around, if you have cliches built up in F. I tried to play, and I got… But I am basically a tonal musician. Kenny wants to push me outside of it. [plays theme of Confirmation on harmonica in F.] Now I play it in B. [Plays it in B.]

TP:   That sounds like your sound. It transformed into something I could recognize as you.

TOOTS:   [Continues] Well, these are the things. Also, the release of Cherokee. Even Bud Powell, I think, made the release on the chords of Cherokee.

TP:   So those are the things you practiced.

TOOTS:   Yes. Chico Buarque is fantastic, this song. [PLAYS IT] And here is pure Monk. [plays refrain] That’s so deep, you know. And I did that in every key, too.

TP: Sounds like you keep yourself sharp and alert by doing these mental exercises. It helps you keep your mental agility.

TOOTS:   My strongest (?) is Jaco Pastorius. [Points to ipod] He has those records, Live In New York, and when I had my stroke in 1981, and I was recuperating here in Lenox Hill Hospital… I had played with him on the word of mouth. Herbie was there. The Breckers. How is Michael?

TP:   He just went to Minneapolis for an experimental treatment…

TOOTS:   Anyway, where were we? On Jaco. We had this session. The way I met Jaco, he had just broke up with Weather Report. They’d gone each their own way. And in ‘79, he was alone in Berlin, solo concert. A journalist asked him, “You see here a list of the performers at the festival, Mr. Pastorius. If you were going to do a duo with someone…” He said, “Get me Toots.” That’s how it happened. And I never called Dizzy and said, “Dizzy, hey…” Everybody I played with…

TP:   Why do you think? Being objective about yourself, thinking about the type of musician you are, why do so many people want to play with you?

TOOTS:   I don’t know. Still now. Maybe you should ask some of the people. Maria Schneider… I call Maria very often, or she calls us. I was the first one to ask for Maria. She was in the north of Sweden. They have this bands on salary, this jazz orchestra. Luleå. Anyway, there’s a lady up there who’s booking, and she has a band, but they need soloists. “Mr. Thielemans, would you like to work with Ms. Maria Schneider?” I had heard her on the corner there, where she played every Monday. [Visiones] “Yes, I’d like to!” And we started a correspondence, and that’s where I played with Maria. We have some live tapes here. [points to Ipod]

TP: That’s a virtual mind in that Ipod.

TOOTS:   That’s 60 years. I knew you were coming! So I got a little, just in case something…

TP:   But let’s step back. What you said was fascinating about studying Groovin’ High and Confirmation and the release of Cherokee, and playing them in all the keys. But when Benny Goodman heard your acetates and asked for you, and you wound up playing with him, you’d been doing it…

TOOTS:   I was a full-fledged bebopper then, and that’s already 1950.

TP:   Were there people to play with in Europe at the time?

TOOTS:   In Belgium there were a few. Bobby Jaspar, Rene Thomas, but not many more. I saw Bobby with Miles just before Coltrane!

TP: Rene Thomas was a helluva guitar player.

TOOTS:   Yes. Sonny Rollins liked him. My first visit to the States was in ‘47. I was with my father’s brother in Miami, and there was this “Straighten up And Fly Right” by Nat Cole in the restaurant. Trio music with “Route 66.” That was the era. I was still self-conscious about my harmonica, that people don’t want to hear that. Then I buy a drink to a guitar player, and we talk a little bit, “Yeah, I play the guitar and also the harmonica,” and I sat in. But who was there? None other than Bill Gottlieb. So hears me, and he buys me a drink. “Oh, you’re good.” Whatever. Then Bill Gottlieb took me to the Street.

TP:   He heard you in Miami, and then you looked him up when you came to New York.

TOOTS:   I was just having a drink and sitting in. Then he took me to the Street, the Three Deuces.  I think it was the Howard McGhee All Stars. Hank Jones, Percy Heath, the drummer was Joe Harris, and Bags, and Jimmy Heath, too, I think. If you ask Bill Gottlieb, he’ll probably remember. He took me to meet the band. “Hey, guys, I’ve got this guy who plays the harmonica.” “Who? Belgium?” The two question marks. “What do you want to play?” In those days, the big identity, the key to the bebop door was the third and the fourth bar of I Can’t Get Started. [PLAYS IT] I played it almost like that! The whole band fell on the floor. I was in after two measures. That was enough. And I sat next to the piano; I sat in the chair next to Hank. The alternating group was Lennie Tristano. Imagine? With Billy Bauer and Arnold Fishkin. Then the agent, the big salesman of bebop then was Billy Shaw. Shaw Nuff. That’s one of the traffic lights! “Where you from? You’re good!” “I’m from Belgium.” “Oh, I know. That’s in Copenhagen.” [LAUGHS] Typical  Hollywood. And the big cigar with it! “Oh, send me some records. I’m going to make you the Belgian King of Bebop.” I swear to you.

TP:   After I Can’t Get Started like that, I can see why.

TOOTS:   No, I was close to that. But the fundamentals were there. Now I’ve got some alternate scales into this, heh-heh. Then I wound up… I had to go back to the south of France with the boat. New York-Genoa, and then go to Nice, where there was a jazz festival, and where I was playing with Bobby Jaspar, representing Belgium. We were also accompanying Lucky Thimpson at that festival. Louis Armstrong was the top. On the boat, I wrote… I will play for you the progression I wrote on Stardust. I did it with Benny Goodman. I can play what Benny heard me play on the acetate there, you know….

TP: 50 years ago.

TOOTS:   55! [PAUSE] For instance, on the day of my birthday, the 29th of April, in a stadium in Norway, a football stadium – soccer. It was cold! I think I had gloves to play the guitar. And Zoot… Roy was there, Zoot was here, and Benny in the middle. Benny would play, and he would turn to the next soloist at the end of his chorus, one way or the other. But in that stadium, I never forgot, Zoot was waiting his time to solo, and he hadn’t played a note. It was freezing. For 15 minutes easy. If you remember Zoot, his horn is hanging and… [TP: Looking blank [HEAD DOWN, STOCK STILL] Then Benny… He didn’t expect to play. Benny turned to his side, and instantly, like a transistor – DOODLE,DA-DA-DA, DE-DE. Typical Zoot. Fantastic. That was my first contact with… I wasn’t in the States really. My first live contact with that kind of spontaneity like Zoot. He was so great. Then, of course. We didn’t play often enough together after that..

TP:   What was Benny Goodman’s demeanor like when you touring with him? You were his guitar player and…

TOOTS:   He wasn’t bad. I played the Charlie Christian chair.

TP:   So you had nothing but good experiences with him.

TOOTS:  Yeah.  And after six weeks touring: “Benny, I’d like to play another number.” Play Stardust. He loved that progression, where the guys went down and chromatically… I went up… That was revolutionary almost. [PLAYS UPWARD CHROMATIC SCALE] That I wrote, so to speak, it was in ‘47. Because I only played it in ‘50 with Benny. I had time to make the record, send it… And Ray Nance…we were buddies. They came to Brussels with Ellington, and I played that… I don’t have that record any more with the strings. I was able to take Duke into a record store, [(?)La Deux Des Midi(?)] in Brussels, and to make him listen to that acetate which wound up on Benny Goodman’s phonograph. Those are great memories.

TP: When was that experience with Duke?

TOOTS:   Oh, I never played with him. In ‘47, I came back…

TP:   Maybe it was ‘49 or so?

TOOTS:   In ‘48. The beginning. So that wound up, and in Europe after that I didn’t play with him. I didn’t play the right rhythm he wanted to hear. Not enough strength. Guys like Bucky Pizzarelli did that much better for him.

TP:   As far as rhythm guitar. So what decided you to come to the States? Did you make a decision to move here?

TOOTS:   Oh, yes. Because I had already applied for the immigration. The secretary, Muriel Zuckerman, who died… [HUGUETTE: She came to our wedding.] She was Benny Goodman’s secretary. She volunteered to be my affidavit…
TP: Your sponsor.

TOOTS:   Sponsor. Made it possible for me… She would be responsible if I did something wrong to the United States life. She would pay… So that was a great responsibility. She became good friends with my wife, Nettie.

TP:   So you came here with your wife…

TOOTS:   Yes, with $2000 in my pocket and a suitcase.

TP:   That wasn’t bad in 1952. That was a lot of money in 1952!

TOOTS:   Then my father… Of course, the regulations of the union were very strict. The Local 802, even if you came from the Chicago local, you had to establish residence in the Local 802 area, and wait for… I made $40 a week sending posters for the Belgian airline, Sabina. But we lived very…it was not…

TP: Not like this.

TOOTS:   No. We paid $20 a week in a hotel that’s a welfare hotel now, the Marquis, at 31st and Madison. The lady at the Belgian Embassy found us a place. Nothing. No cooking, just a hot plate.

TP:   But when you got here, you’d go around to the clubs and hang out.

TOOTS:   Oh, yes. I could work three days… No steady job. Or a record date, but nobody asked me. Also, Monte Kay, who became Diahann Carroll’s manager, and also the Modern Jazz Quartet, he had a club, the Downbeat, where everybody played. I got $15 a night for three nights, and that was a big week. 45 plus 40 is $85! You could eat at least. Some nights there was Mingus. Everybody. Lee Konitz.

TP:   Were you playing guitar or harmonica?

TOOTS:   Both. But mostly guitar. Billy Taylor was there and George Wallington, and Charlie Smith, the left-hand drummer. Billy Taylor, who wasn’t Doctor yet. Slim Gaillard playing piano! [LAUGHS] You know who came hanging around, and we started a friendship which we never developed any further? Paul Bley. He came from Canada. “Bon chez, bon ja(?),” they say, like Papa’s son comes to the big city. We talked a lot. Never technical; “okay, let’s play.” Nothing like that. Then…

TP: So you come to New York and start hanging out with your peer group, or people a bit younger than you…

TOOTS:   I was 30 years old.

TP:   Well, Billy Taylor and George Wallington… But you’re hanging out with the most progressive musicians…

TOOTS:   Yes. Lee Konitz, too.

TP:   They’re hearing you play the harmonica. Were you playing bebop on guitar as well?

TOOTS:   Yes. The next step was George Shearing. Tony Scott was hanging around all the time also, and helping. For instance, they had a party, and Bird was at the party, and get, you know, PUFFS, whatever…the hospitality… And Tony introduced me to some black ladies. [LAUGHS] He said he’d heard that George Shearing was going to lose his guitar player, and Dick Garcia had to go into the Army. George was doing those double-bill things with Billy Eckstine – Billy Eckstine-George Shearing at Carnegie Hall, and touring. This was 1952. Then across at the Metropole or Charlie’s Tavern or one of those bars where musicians hang out between sessions… There were a lot of recording sessions going on then. I went there to try to meet the guys, and Tony said: “Come with me.” He took me to meet George Shearing, and he pushed…at the stage door at Carnegie Hall, all he had to do was say, “Yes, I know so-and-so”… “I am a good friend of Mr. Shearing.” And he pushed me into George’s dressing room. George was relaxing. “George, I’ve got the man for you.” “Ah,” George says. “He plays the guitar, too.” So I played “Body and Soul” together with George in George’s dressing room. Then George says, “If you cut the guitar book…” Those were the words in those days. “If you cut the guitar book, you’ve got the job.”

TP: So you studied the guitar book.

TOOTS:   Well, I knew it by ear. Then there were those big hits by George. Then in the meantime, I had that offer to go with Charlie Parker to Philadelphia, on the Dinah Washington show. George came, too, to double-check on me backstage at the Earle in Philadelphia. We were going to rehearse. There was a Rendezvous Jazz Club in Philadelphia. Ava Gardner used to come listen to George Shearing all the time. Not all the time, but once or twice. Maybe she had relatives in Philadelphia. Then I went to my guitar audition with George, and that started six years.

TP:   Talk about the six years with George Shearing, and how you developed musically. It sounds like that was your first steady gig playing the function in a working band.

TOOTS:   Yes. My only! It was always interesting, because some of those jobs you’d get into, you’d leave one town and drive at night, with no day to rest or anything, and sometimes you arrive in a town at 5 o’clock and you’ve got to play at 7:30. We all were tired, but George always interested me very much. I never was bored.

TP:   You were studying the same harmony book, too.

TOOTS:   That was interesting. And I developed some great chops on the guitar. I mean, my kind of chops.

TP: Did that gig have any impact on the way you conceived the sound of the harmonica?

TOOTS:   I was playing it once or twice a night. I was there mainly for the guitar book. That’s why I’m happy I could play both then. I wouldn’t have a job with harmonica alone. So I learned a lot. It was always interesting. In those days, it was Brubeck, Mulligan and Shearing. Right? And the rest were big bands. I was a major league player.

TP:   Top of the heap.

TOOTS:   I had visibility, call it that, for a minute.

TP:   I don’t know how much you were in direct contact with Charlie Parker…

TOOTS:   Oh, he liked me. I had met him in Paris. Because in Billy Shaw’s office he had heard me. And Al Haig, too, was in Paris.

TP: Was that in ‘49, when he came to the Festival?

TOOTS:   Yes, when they all first came to Paris. Al Haig was there. Miles Davis. Kenny Clarke. James Moody. With Bird, there was Kenny Dorham. They had a thing called “Prince Albert,” a variation on “All The Things You Are.” After the Benny Goodman tour, I had to work. I didn’t have my papers yet to come to the States. I worked in Sweden. They were very responsive. I had newspaper attention. It’s the first time that a European… It was shortly enough after the war that it was sensational for a European to be hired by a top name in America, which Benny was still…

TP:   He had Stan Hasselgard.

TOOTS:   Yes, that was before. Benny tried everything before he found out that Waiting For the Sunrise was what he wanted to play. But he tried everything. But Charlie Parker played in Stockholm while I was playing in Sweden with that Swedish organ player, a Swedish Shearing type, blind – Reinhold Svensson. We were very popular, and I played the guitar, not whistling yet. He heard. “Hey!” And he came to listen to me. I saw him. Of course, our organ player didn’t see him. He was blind. I said, “Reinhold, stop. Bird is in the house.” I went into Lover Man. Those were the days of Camarillo. Bird said, “Hey, how you doin’?” He wanted to give me money.

TP:   He was in a grand mood. Probably drinking schnapps.

TOOTS:   I said, “No, Bird, I’m working.” I have a book, To Bird With Love that Chan did. There’s a letter that I wrote from Belgium to Bird, and thank you, and he kept it, or somebody kept it.

TP: When you played in Philadelphia with Bird, did he call you on it?

TOOTS:   That was just one gig.

TP:   In the ‘60s, you moved back to Europe?

TOOTS:   I didn’t move back. Now we live more there than here. We have a big house and a pool and three dogs.

TP:   Any children?

TOOTS:   No. But then I started to make a living in the States. But still going back a lot to Europe, because it wasn’t so hot in the late ‘50s. A lot of guys like Clark Terry, Dexter Gordon, Art Farmer, they didn’t do so well in the States. I was doing a movie score. That was in the ‘60s somewhere, and at the session, there was Red Mitchell. He said, “I’m tired politically and I’m disgusted with this country – where should I go?” I said, “Go to Sweden.” I told him! He drove me back to the hotel after the film session, and he moved. The same with Kenny Drew. He also wanted to go. I said, “The two places you could go are either Paris or Copenhagen.” He went to Copenhagen.

TP: How many languages do you speak?

TOOTS:   In Belgium, if you want to be a serious student, you can… I speak French and Flemish. But I’m French-speaking, doing his best in Flemish. But then in English and German, and then, by being so often in Sweden, I can speak Swedish fluently.

TP:   One thing that’s immediately apparent from your repertoire is how many different cultures you draw music from. You deal with chansons and musette, with bebop, with blues, with Brazilian music, with the songbook, with this very harmonic film music…

TOOTS:   Yeah, Midnight Cowboy and Sesame Street!

TP:   Did you write something for Sesame Street?

TOOTS:   No. I didn’t write that. Joe Raposa(?).

TP: But you’ve been addressing this repertoire for a while, and 25-30 years ago it wasn’t so common to hear that sound, but now it seems more…

TOOTS:   The variety.

TP:   The variety of things you play and the many strategies you take to play them.

TOOTS:   I like to believe that my strong point is projecting emotion. People cry when I play Smile, the Charlie Chaplin thing, or Ne Me Quitte Moi or What a Wonderful World. I am very impressed with the hot guys today, but they don’t move me all the time. It’s a lot of fingers, a lot of range, a lot of fast scales, and it doesn’t always make my heart…give me a goosebump. Of course, much of what I hear I’d like to incorporate, because… I hear some guys. I don’t want to name names. They’re very famous. But they haven’t changed a note in their language. They use the same… And I know. That’s what I spend time on, to listen to my old records. Even my famous…my big traffic light with Bill Evans, if I played with him today, or played the same songs today, I will play them differently. I like to believe I evolved. Like Quincy said, “Each time I hear you…” It’s not much maybe after fifty years… You can maybe ask a painter what he did fifty years before. But that’s what keeps me interested very much.

TP:   Finding new ways to approach old friends.

TOOTS:   Yes. I’m still trying to capture the Nefertiti album, Miles…

TP: Wayne Shorter you like.

TOOTS:   Wayne! For me, there’s many musicians, and then there’s guys like Hancock and Shorter. I feel I can learn from them. Herbie can play, man! He played with me before he joined Miles. That happened in 1962 in New York. I did everything in ‘62 – Jewish weddings, jingles, everything. Every Wednesday afternoon I went to the union, 252 West 52nd Street. There was the Roseland Ballroom, and there were meetings there, you could find gigs if you wanted to. Then on the way back, there was a trumpet store, Giardelli(?), 10 yards from that union. I passed by, and I hear music. This trumpet store, a repair… They had little rooms where they had a piano, and they’d rent them for rehearsal. I go upstairs. It was Donald Byrd. I see a piano player from the back. It was Herbie. I didn’t know. He’d just got in town then. I needed a piano player for the weekend in an Italian restaurant in Long Island. I said, “Herbie, do you need this piano job on the weekend?” I didn’t know. I hadn’t met him. “No, take him! He needs it.” He needs the work, the job. That’s how I met Herbie. So we played and we did the little rehearsal. You’d better check with him if he wants that to be known. After a few checks, you know, on what songs we were going to play… It was not a jazz job. I found right away that he knew all the standards. Very professional. You accept the job, you’re going to do the job, do what is requested. We checked. And after ten minutes he said, “Hmm, I think I’m…” This is Herbie in ‘62. “I think I’m going to have to dig a little deeper into my Bill Evans bag for you.” In my ear. He sent a nice email about that thing with Stevie Wonder. “I want to do this, but I’m going to…”

TP:   Is Stevie Wonder going to be part of your concert at Carnegie Hall?

TOOTS:   I am not sure. We are afraid to ask that. Now, we could ask Pat Metheny, too. He might like it. I played on his record, too.

TP:   How did you meet Bill Evans? How did that relationship…

TOOTS:   Bill when he was a soldier in the early ‘50s, he came, in uniform… Imagine. A crewcut. A Jack Armstrong crewcut. He came to listen to George Shearing at the Blue Note in Chicago. He admired George. He had respect for George. There was the Blue Note later, but in the basement, in the lower level. We were rehearsing there, like that… Afterwards, he said, “I hope we play together.” One of those polite goodbyes. Then I’m on the road, and I hear this guy. I didn’t know the name. “Hey, that’s my guy.” Then after I left Shearing, Bill was playing with Miles, I think with Trane and Cannon at the Showboat. During a break, I say hello, “Hi, Miles…” Miles sees me talking to Bill. “What are you talking about?” We were talking about background solos, the approach to accompaniment and… Miles said, “You two should play together,” quick, and he went by to the men’s room or whatever. But I remember that. And we wound up doing it in ‘79. Then Helen Keane calls me, and he had just signed the contract with Warner Brothers. It was his first album. Helen calls me and said, “Toots, we’d like you to play a couple of albums on Bill’s upcoming session.” I said, “Helen, I’m not sure if I’m up to date to play with a giant like Bill today.” In ‘79, I was freelancing all over, just playing with Paul Simon and all those movies, all the jingles, like Old Spice and stuff.

TP: So you were on the New York studio scene in the ‘70s.

TOOTS:   Yes. I had a group. There was a club, Trotter’s, very close to the Village Vanguard, the other sidewalk. Slam Stewart played there with Bucky, Stan Getz, and I played there. I’d been teaching for one week, I think, a workshop at Eastman School of Music as a media application, what you can learn to be in the media – jingles, movies and stuff. Phil Markowitz was there. I remembered him from Eastman, so I hired him. My group was Phil Markowitz, Joe LaBarbera and Chip Jackson. That was a good group. I was playing, and I tell Helen, “Before you make up your mind to have me at the session, tomorrow he can come to listen to me.” I played the Paul Simon song I Do It For Your Love, and Bill said… Like a piranha he jumped on the lead sheet by that song of Paul Simon, and he said, “Come Monday.” That’s a great song.

Then in the studio, the only time… I don’t know if it’s to be printed. I played for so many people. But after three or four days in the studio it appeared that I’d play on every song with Bill instead of just two – with Larry Schneider. Then there was Marc Johnson and Elliot Zigmund, I think. Not yet LaBarbera. Bill heard LaBarbera with me. Then I go on a break and I say, “Bill, this is your record; don’t you think I play too much.” It could be Toots Thielemans featuring… Bill said to my ear: “I want people to know you can play straight-ahead like that, meaning song… No fancy vamps, arrangements, nothing. Song, chorus, song out.” He said, “give me a minute.” He goes to talk to Helen Keane. He comes back. “We will double your fee.” I never heard that one before!

TP:   That took care of your strictures.

TOOTS:   Of course, that record really gave me a lot of credibility, I guess. Some of your colleagues said, “What the hell did they get Toots Thielemans for?” I read that. This guy Lee Jeske wrote, “The next thing I need is to buy earmuffs so I won’t hear the harmonica.” He was reviewing my Brazil Project in the New York Post.
TP:   You need a thick skin in this business.

TOOTS:   But not everybody likes my sound or whatever. But I feel… I don’t know. I can’t help it. This guy who said, “shameless sentimentality.” I admit it. That’s me. I cry easy and I smile easy. A smile and a tear. I am a minor-VII person. You do what I have to do.

[END OF TAPE 1]

TP: We’re talking about the concert. Stevie Wonder is being approached, Quincy Jones will be in it, Paul Simon wanted to make it, but couldn’t… You told me this anecdote about Stevie Wonder. Did you record with him?

TOOTS:   Never. We’re on the…

TP:   But you’re both harmonica players.

TOOTS:   I learned a lot from Stevie. I play maybe more notes. When he came out, it was more than forty years ago. I am always impressed… First of all, I am very responsive to the black sound, the African-American… Sometimes I say I respond to “What are you thinking,” blah-blah. I would not be the same person or the same musician if it had not for the blue note that came from Africa via America. I feel that way, and I respond that way, and that’s the way people like Quincy responds to me so much, too, apparently. But you’ll have to ask them. “I am so proud of your black ass.” Ray Charles, he called me “Mr. T.”

TP:   Did Quincy Jones get you into soloing on film scores?

TOOTS:   Yes. I have a photograph. It was his first engagement in Los Angeles, the last film that Cary Grant ever made, Walk, Don’t Run. I have been on most of his recordings during the Creed Taylor era, and also in Los Angeles.

TP: He likes to paint pictures with sound, and no one gets that sound but you.

TOOTS:   The harmonica can underline a scene in a movie where not much happens. The last thing, I was very disappointed… They called me. The best movie score financially was in London. I won’t say the name. There was only gunshots. The composer told me, “Play there a little bit something nice” – with gunshots and explosions. But then a guy, one of the composers, he used to be Barbra Streisand’s boyfriends…

TP:   Jon Peters.

TOOTS:   No. He wrote the The Fugitive. Anyway, he said, “Toots, don’t worry. When I make you play, they’re just holding hands and taking a walk in the country” or something like that.

TP:   When you improvise, what are you thinking about? The notes?

TOOTS:   Yes, the notes.

TP: Anything more abstract in your mind?

TOOTS:   It’s an abstract process. But I try to play in a linear way. Make drawings, sound drawings sometimes. Okay, I’m working out… [PLAYS] That’s the introduction to Round Midnight. I try to sing also. When I play Brel, I try to play the words. There’s words like, “I want to be in the shadow of your hand, the shadow of your door. Do not leave me.” [SAYS THEM IN FRENCH]

TP:   Do you think of singers? Is the harmonica sort of a voice?

TOOTS:   Maybe. I like some songs to stay close, like The Nearness of You… If it’s a ballad, to try to make sense according to the lyrics a little bit. But maybe I should play more loose with Kenny. He had take wild chances.

TP:   Did anybody, apart from maybe Larry Adler, influence you on the harmonica?

TOOTS:   No. I am very impressed with Gregoire Maret. He came to the opening night. He gave me that record, Dapp Theory. Are you hip to him?

TP: He plays with Steve Coleman, too, and Cassandra…

TOOTS:   But Andy Milne. I’d like to get…

TP:   That would be a different sound

TOOTS:   I feel, if I may say.. .I feel closer… I can play more myself and closer to the loose phrasing of the rhythm that happens, for instance, on Dapp than on the pop records of 10 or 15 years ago. The rhythm of today is closer to what I feel.

TP:   A lot of those are odd meters, 7/4, 11/4…

TOOTS:   I’m not so hot with that

TP: You have Steve Coleman on your Ipod. Do you like his music?

TOOTS:   I want to hear it. As I don’t have that much time to play a lot, what… But I bombard  myself with new music, or if not new, at least something I can learn from. Gregoire makes me think, if I make a comparison… 55 years ago, I came to this country, and pretty soon I played with Charlie Parker and then with Shearing. Now he comes, and he’s great. I’d like to hear him in two-three years.

TP:   This brings up a point I touched on before, that the music now is such an international hybrid. Fifty years ago, jazz was coming from blues and the American songbook and so on. But now, things that were exotic many years ago are no longer exotic. In some way, the music has caught up with what you’re doing. It’s a very international proposition now, and there’s something in your tonal personality that embodies that meldjng of cultures.

TOOTS:   The responses I get, if you ask some people around… If you read the liner notes that Kenny wrote about me on our album, “Everybody likes Toots…” I get compliments from David Murray, the saxophone player! “Hey!” I don’t know. It’s not for me to say.

TP:   One thing I’d like you to try to talk about is what you see as your accomplishment. You’ve been a professional musician for almost sixty years – six years in Europe, 53 years in the States. Your sound is a very recognizable signpost on the jazz landscape, and you’ve played with enough people that there will be a Carnegie Hall concert filled with musical celebrities who want to pay homage…

TOOTS:   I don’t know. I was trying to get an answer for myself before you came. I don’t know. Accomplishment? I don’t know. When my wife and I received the title from the Belgian King, Baron… I am a Baron. You need a credo. Like arms.  A coat of arms, whatever. I had met… In Chicago about fifty years ago, somebody said to me, “Oh, man, I just want to be myself.” And then there is a Council of the Arts in Belgium. It can be done in Flemish, in French, or in Latin, one of the three. Then I asked the man, “Can I do it in English? Can I have a full English phrase defining what I…” Then I said, “Be myself, no more, no less.” “Connaitre toi-meme.” Know yourself. Then the man on the panel… They had a discussion, and they told me a few days after they thought that “myself” was too egotistical, too me-me-me. They said, “Mr. Thielemans, would you be satisfied with ‘be yourself, no more, no less’?” That’s what I like to be, and be accepted as.

I don’t know what I accomplished. Judging this, there’s two sides of the coin. Much of the public likes me. They cry when I play… We were in Seattle. Some people drove 500 miles to come and listen to me! Things like that. Oyster Bay, from Oregon or something.  In St. Louis, some guy came from Little Rock, Arkansas. They have my records, my old LPs! In Europe, the same thing. I don’t know what I accomplished. I did my best. Somebody asked Jim Hall, “Did you make concessions?” He said, “Nobody asked me.” Oh, no. “Did you ever sell out?” Jim said, “nobody ever asked me.” So I don’t know what I might have done…

TP: But there’s something about you that’s very individualistic and very selfless at the same time. With Elis Regina, you play yourself and also your own sound. Same thing with Bill Evans.

TOOTS:   My sound. The session started with two numbers. When we’re getting in the studio, he jumps on that Paul Simon song, which Paul redid with Herbie. But for three days I played all through the record, and Bill says, “I want people to know you can play like that.” That’s 1979. So I’m still doing my best.

TP:   Did you do a number of records with Paul Simon?

TOOTS:   I played one solo, and I didn’t think he liked it. It was at the old studio, 48th Street, where the union is now – A&R, West 48th Street.  Phil Ramone calls me. “Toots, can you come and play for Paul Simon?” “Yeah, Phil, but I have to take a plane to go to the Monterrey Festival, but I can be there at 1 o’clock.” If you listen, that was the first record that Paul Simon made on his own, after Garfunkel. There was a late game… Paul is a great baseball fan, and there was a melody…a song about a pitcher who dies on the mound. He makes me fill all the tracks. Paul has a blank face. He is not very demonstrative. There may be an explosion here, and he goes, “Hmm…’ “Can you play a little there,” I play, then “Bye, Toots.” I had to take my plane. I thought, “Jesus, I laid an egg here.” I flunked. I laid an egg. I get to my room in Monterrey. “Please call Mr. Phil Ramone,” they said. Paul had played with all the tracks. “Paul loves you!” Oh, yeah!? That was a great experience. Sanborn. Steve Gadd. Michael… No, I’m not sure if Michael was on it. Hugh McCracken on guitar. I think Ralph McDonald was playing percussion. Anyway, that was fantastic, and we played in England and in Holland and Israel also.

TP:   Oh, you toured with Paul Simon.

TOOTS:   Yes, about 15 days altogether. I learned a lot from him.

TP: What did you learn from Pop music as opposed to jazz? Do you think about a situation like that differently?

TOOTS:   No. The few people I’ve played with, like Paul or Billy Joel, they like what they hear when I play, and they say, “Hey, I want some of that.” I like hillbilly music, too. I have one little trio picking that you won’t believe. I was on that Jimmy Dean Show in the early ‘60s. I was trying to stay home, and Peter Max, the conductor, and Jimmy Dean… It was ABC network. All the guys from Nashville came up. They knew me. “How you’all doin’, Toots? You’all gotta come down and pick with us.”

TP:   You were playing guitar on the JimmyDean Show?

TOOTS:   No.

TP:   You were playing harmonica.

TOOTS:   Things like that. That was in the time when Johnny Cash made records with two trumpets, the Ring of Fire. I said, “Hey, I’m going to write something like that, a melody with two voices,” and then I give that to the publisher, who’d just handled Bluesette, and he sends it to Los Angeles, and Herb Alpert hears it, and that went on a record that sold domestically 6 million. 6 million cents is $60,000.
TP: Bluesette?

TOOTS:   No, not so much. That tune is called Ladyfingers, on Herb Alpert, with the chick on the cover wrapped into whipped cream or whatever. You know? That enabled me… That and some… You talk about lucky breaks that fall far from the jazz tree. Whistling for jingles. Bluesette comes out and gets a lot of play in ‘63, and Madison Avenue, they look for new sounds, different sounds. John Glenn went into orbit, and the music writer, Jimmy Fagas, he was a fan. I’d been scuffling, playing bar-mitzvahs and everything – to stay home! Bluesette comes out. “Toots, you’re going to make money.” I never had money outside of working – you work for the money. I sign a piece of paper, and John Glenn goes into orbit – that’s a Class A spot, Screen Actors Guild. If you talk and sing you become a… If you whistle for a commercial, you become a Screen Actor, and that’s another union.  I did some things where I played the guitar and whistled. For the guitar, I received $37 for 12 weeks.
TP:   Scale.

TOOTS:   Yes, scale of the instrumental jingle. For the whistling, I received $50 each time it’s heard! Then when I whistled for Old Spice, in one hour… They asked me, “Mr. Thielemans, we know you’re a great whistler. But can you whistle like the man in the street who cannot whistle?” [LAUGHS] I already have made a little money, so I knew the rates. “This is for Old Spce, but we look for a sound like the man who gets off the boat and throws the bottle of Old Spice. [WHISTLES REFRAIN] Now I can’t do it any more. When I do that sometimes, in a concert… That followed by [BLOWS ON HARMONICA] “going to Sesame Street.”

TP:   It’s good to get some laughs.

TOOTS:   But for Sesame Street, that’s instrumental and educational. They use it for 15 years. No residuals. But lately they’ve said, “Yeah, we’re going to give a little extra anyway.” So for 15 years of use on TV, maybe I made $500. But for Old Spice, in one hour in the studio… And then at football games, that’s Class A, coast-to-coast. Some of those jingles are only seen in Chicago, but Old Spice is all over. So I made, staying home, $15,000, in the ‘60s. So the combination of that and Herb Alpert, we could buy the house in Montauk.

TP: I guess once you got in the studios, it was hard to get out.

TOOTS:   I had two years where they said, because I don’t read fast enough and all that, and there were better guys for the guitar work… But between the three, the whistle, the guitar and the harmonica, there was a saying, “Call Toots, he’ll find something to do.”

TP:   Guitar players are a dime a dozen, but harmonica players and whistlers are not.

TOOTS:   Yes. So that was the making a living value.

TP:   You’re talking about listening to country pickers and these Nashville guys liking you. Did you ever play the blues? Did you listen to blues harmonica players?

TOOTS:   I listened to them, yeah. Have you heard Howard Levy? He plays chromatic or diatonic. I have him in the IPOD. He’s a great musician. He plays the piano. He composes. He’s amazing. But Gregoire, I’d like to…

TP: But the Chicago blues type of thing.

TOOTS:   No. But these guys do that well, you know.

TP:   How about Bob Dylan?

TOOTS:   Are you ready? Again, I wanted to stay home, not travel. I was mostly in Europe and playing not jazz much in the ‘60s. Nobody made a great living playing straight jazz. So I got a call: “Mr. Thielemans, we’d like you to come and do a jingle. Can you play like Bob Dylan? We know you’re a great jazz player, but can you play like Bob Dylan?” He had the diatonic. I said, “No, sir, I don’t.” “Do you know anyone who does?” My defense mechanism. There was maybe one. I said, “No, I don’t. Sorry, sir.” Then they called me… I was living in Yonkers then, on North Broadway. I did go once a week or so to the Lighthouse for the Blind in White Plains. Blind people enjoyed hearing me, and as a good gesture. There were two black gentlemen, blind of course, both of them, and: “Mr. Thielemans, I want to play like you.” They played the blues like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, those wolf calls and all that. “Oh, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Brown…” “We want to play like you.” But that’s another world. “Can I hear what you do?” And I thought it was so easy to do what they did! Not like them. The voicings and the sound, no. But mechanically! I thought, “Oh, that’s the Bob Dylan guy.” [LAUGHS] I rwent right into Manny’s on 48th Street and bought 12 diatonic harmonicas. I called that jingle promoter. “Sir, I am ready for you.” I got a box… I have a whole bag of the diatonic harmonics. I even took a bag to Hollywood for Quincy, in case he needed that. I was just an all-over handyman, so to speak.

TP:   You have to do all that to play in the studios. But in the first few tunes the other night, you take a lot of tonal liberties on the harmonica…

TOOTS:   You bet. Howard Levy, for instance, he overblows, and he can change on the diatonic. When my wife comes, I can show you… Not like he does, but I can show what can be done.

TP: But where I’m going with the question, if you’ll bear with me for one second…

TOOTS:   [BLOWS THE BLUES ON A CHROMATIC]  That’s very close, but it’s not as funky as… Listen. The blues player calls the chromatic “the chrome.” “I don’t play the chrome, but I play the harp.” That’s my Quincy Jones bag. I got them all in the wrong keys.

TP:   A big leather bag of diatonic harmonicas.

TOOTS:   Yes!

TP:   But did this become part of your vocabulary after the ‘60s, or the way you embellish your voice…

TOOTS:   No. [BLOWS] That’s too high-pitched. [UNWRAPS ANOTHER ONE AND BLOWS SOME BLUES, TAPPING HIS FOOT] If you want to change keys… [BLOWS ON ANOTHER ONE]

[BLOWS] He can play Giant Steps on that. But these guys have tone. And here you can attack the note. [BLOWS: BENDS THE NOTES] That’s very moody. [BLOWS] But this guy Levy, he overblows, and then he creates some harmonics I don’t know. I can’t do it. [BLOWS] See, you can blow, but you hear some sort of Ben Webster distortion. [BLOWS] [BLOWS] That’s funky, but that’s where… Stevie Wonder gets those sounds. I learned a lot from Stevie. Before we say goodbye. Come on, girls. [BLOWS A BLUES LINE] “When I woke up this mornin’, baby!” [LAUGHS]

TP:   How did the relationship with Ken Werner start? Earlier you played with Fred Hersch and Joey Baron for a long time.

TOOTS:   Yes, when they were available, that was my… Fred, Marc Johnson and Joey. We made a nice record. Where I play Ne Me Quitte Pas for the first time, and where I played with Fred Stardust. We had played in Fort Lauderdale here, and the plane stopped in Washington, and from Washington to Fort Lauderdale. On the stretch between New York and Washington, there was Benny Goodman. He said, “Hey, Gene (he called me Gene), how you doing?” “I’m okay, Benny.” Blah-blah-blah. He was in first class, of course. “Come and sit next to me.” I said, “I am only in economy back there…” “Ah, fuck them. Sit next to me.” He spoke that way in the plane. The hostess comes, and he says, “Oh, this is my dear friend; this gentleman must sit next to me.” I sat there, and I started to talk. Benny was legendary for not paying a cent more than he had to. I said, “I started to make a bit of money, Benny.” He said, “I’m tired.” He had to go to an award thing in Washington at the White House or something. “Yeah, I’m starting to make…” “Oh, really?” he said. “Really?!” One of those. “I’ve got to go to Fort Lauderdale. Bye, Benny.” Then I hear on the media that Benny Goodman died. I have the chorus of Stardust always with me, and in Brussels at the Ballets du Beaux Art, the Carnegie Hall of Brussels, I told the people… I had played the same Stardust, the same chorus that you heard with Benny in ‘50. I told the people, “this is very touching for me; I am sitting here, playing what I played with Benny Goodman forty years ago, and we will play it the same.” You’ve got to hear that.

TP: I want to ask again what you’re looking for in the people who play with you. Ken Werner and Oscar Castro-Neves are very important to the sound you’re looking for.

TOOTS:   From a pianist, I can almost say I need that Bill Evans ground floor.

TP:   Just like Herbie Hancock said.

TOOTS:   Yes. The ground floor. Then it’s like this, but you need your own decoration. But Fred Hersch, the first time I heard him was in Tokyo. He was playing with Red Mitchell and Elliot Zigmund. Then I asked for his phone number. We met here, and I heard this touch. But I’ve played with other guys that get a lot of fame, even win polls, and I don’t hear that ground floor, so I’m not attracted to that so much. Don’t write it, but Kenny Barron doesn’t give me that ground floor. That was my band, Kenny, Ray Drummond and Billy Hart – at Greene Street. But don’t write that. Hank Jones does… Joe Lovano is a great fan of mine. Scofield, too, about my guitar. Last New Year… We were eating New Year’s Day in Brussels, the phone rings, and it was Scofield calling from here to wish me greetings. With Shearing, I had done a great solo, I thought, on Little Niles, Randy Weston’s song. “Hey, Toots! This is Sco.” “Thanks for calling.” “I am listening to what you did fifty years ago with Shearing on the guitar.” So I know where the good stuff is, but my fingers won’t follow.

TP:   I’m impressed with how up to date you are.

TOOTS:   I listen to everything. I have the latest Chris Potter record. [POINTS TO IPOD] I don’t want a computer. Then I get email, and I have to answer. But my manager…

TP: I should give you some rest.

TOOTS:   This is stimulating for me. But I am still very close to Wayne Shorter. All those guys send greetings. And the guys who play with Wayne want to play with me. Patitucci, Danilo and Brian Blade. Bill Frisell. Sco. I played a few times… He was my guest in Montreal.

TP:   Did you do a week…

TOOTS:   No, I just played each time… This time I did a duo with Kenny, and we had Paolo Fresu. He plays good. Pat Metheny. As they say in French, “ne pas frotte(?) la mange,” “I don’t want to rub your sleeve.” One of my first tastes of American humor, with Benny Goodman, at the Palladium: There was a Jewish comedian, Herky Stiles. You never heard of him? “Oh, you should meet my girlfriend. She has only one tooth, but it’s a nice brown one.” You still laugh at that today! Fifty years ago. “Oh, she has the hottest kisses. Why, she never takes her cigar out of her mouth.” “Last year I had a great year. I sold wedding rings to Artie Shaw.” He had one about Les Brown, too. “I used to work for Les Brown, but now I work for less money,” sometimes with Benny Goodman. [LOUD LAUGH] These are my… I know that since ‘49! Things I don’t forget.

In Sweden, I became a matinee idol in a revue, and when I played Brazil, therefore, the first time on the harmonica… I speak Swedish, and they gave me a monologue to say from slang, 300 years ago, the way they spoke in the north of Sweden. How can you compare that? You ask a Frenchman to speak in America with a Nashville accent. A famous Frenchman. It’s called a thing about Napoleon. Napoleon is Bonaparte in Swedish. The guys goes… It was a big triumph, doing that monologue. And in the summer later, after, I went into the parks. I’ve got to play you some of the stuff with whistling and guitar in Sweden. A guy in the back of the hall yelled, “Hey, do your monologue, man!” That was the time, the period… Look, in ‘63, I was trying to hold on to the Coltrane wagon. Giant Steps. [BLOWS Giant Steps] With Kenny we do that on the duo thing, and we make a tribute with Naima. [BLOWS Naima]

Again, I don’t try, but I am very happy… This is no more, no less. You seem to respond to me and the music, but you don’t change your pen for me. Write what you really feel.

[—30—]

 

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Filed under Article, DownBeat, Harmonica, Interview, Toots Thielemans

For Denny Zeitlin’s 76th Birthday, An Uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test From 2005, My Liner Notes for the 2000 Release “As Long As There’s Music,” and Our Interview for that Liner Note

The magnificent pianist Denny Zeitlin turns 76 today. I first had an opportunity to encounter him whenwas asked to write the liner notes for his 2000 release (1997 recording) titled As Long As There’s Music, a trio date with Buster Williams and Carl Allen. Five years later, he agreed to sit with me for a DownBeat Blindfold Test. I’m posting Blindfold Test first, then the liner note, then our complete interview, in which Dr. Zeitlin offered a lot of interesting information about the Chicago scene in the ’50s, among other things.

* * * *

Denny Zeitlin Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.   Ben Waltzer, “The More I See You” (from ONE HUNDRED DREAMS AGO, Fresh Sounds, 2004) (Waltzer, piano; Matt Penman, bass; Gerald Cleaver, drums)

Immediately when that track starts, I get the feeling I’m in the hands of a really good bebop player. Really sinuous lines, great time feel, the group is very much together. Then it goes into a very interesting statement of the head. I’m trying to remember the name of that standard. Is it “The More I See You”? Really a very charming treatment of that. Then some very good, solid blowing with single lines, right hand lines that are always crackling and popping along, and the rhythm section is very much together. This pianist, at least on this cut, is using his left hand primarily as a comping instrument, and some very interesting ostinato figures begin to emerge towards the end of the piano solo, which get repeated at the very end, and it sort of transmutes into an Afro-Cuban vamp at the end, which is a very nice way to end this tune, with a kind of surprise chord at the end. Overall, it was really nice to listen this really crackling trio. It seems to me this pianist is somebody who has listened a lot to Bud Powell, and is probably in the next generation. This could be somebody like Kenny Barron or someone else of that ilk. I liked it a lot. 4 stars. [AFTER] I don’t know these cats, but they sound very good. Very solid. Very much out of that tradition.

2.   Eddie Higgins, “Someone To Watch Over Me” (from HAUNTED HEART, Venus, 1997) (Higgins, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Ben Riley, drums)

That was the old standard, “Someone To Watch Over Me.” It begins with a quite dramatic rubato introduction. The pianist obviously has a very nice touch. He chooses to play this piece with a minimum amount of reharmonization, at least at the beginning of the cut, moves into a stride-like treatment, sort of more old style treatment of this tune, with bass and drums staying very much in the background but certainly supportive, and several choruses of working with the changes of the tune. Overall, there’s an elegant, relaxed feel about it. I enjoyed the nice, Tatumesque series of changes coming out of the final bridge before the last statement of the melody. I could tell as the piece was developing, particularly the improvisation, that this was a pianist who was holding himself back a little bit, which makes me think about the context of a recording or perhaps some restrictions placed by the record label.  I would give it 3½ stars. I’ll probably be embarrassed to find out who it is, but I don’t recognize the player. You don’t know sometimes how much a producer, for instance, really gets into a recording session, or how an overall thematic approach to an album concept does. What I remind myself, and I wish listeners would keep in mind is that when they hear a cut from an artist’s CD, they’re getting a snapshot of what that artist was thinking, feeling and doing at that time. It’s not necessarily a statement about who he or she is musically in some global way at all. It’s merely a snapshot. [AFTER] Well, I’ve always enjoyed Eddie’s playing very much, and I’ll give myself credit for recognizing the touch. That’s something I’ve always been most drawn to in Eddie’s playing, is the touch. [Any recollections of him from Chicago days?] Yes. Eddie was one of the players who was established on the scene when I first started to play back in the ‘50s. He was very encouraging to me and opened some doors in introducing me to people, and has always been a fan of my playing, and I’ve always really admired his playing very much. He’s wonderful behind singers, too. A marvelous accompanist.

3.  Robert Glasper, “Rise and Shine” (from CANVAS, Blue Note, 2005) (Glasper, piano, composer; Vicente Archer, bass; Damien Reid, drums)

Wow, I really loved that cut. It was quite a journey. A wonderful piano player with great command of the instrument, and time and shapes. I loved the tune and the arrangement and the overall feel of this trio. You get the sense that this is a trio that’s worked together a lot. Very integrated and very interactive, and I love the different time signatures and their way of working with it. The solo consistently built and was intriguing and swinging throughout. Initially, I felt quite confident it was Brad Mehldau, and then towards the end some of the developments and figures were things I’ve never heard Brad do. Which doesn’t mean that he doesn’t do them. Just the cuts I heard didn’t have some of those things, and the recorded bass sound was a little different to the way his trio usually sounds. But I thought this was a terrific cut. 5 stars. My best guess would be Brad Mehldau, but I have a hunch it’s somebody who’s listened to Brad a lot, maybe some younger cat or someone contemporaneous with him. [AFTER] I’ve heard his name, and I know he’s done an album for Blue Note. People are talking about it. I have not heard him play. Terrific, I think.

4.   Andrew Hill, “Malachi” (from TIME LINES, Blue Note, 2005) (Hill, piano, composer)

That’s a very atmospheric mood piece, with a very unusual use of the sustain pedal, creating clouds and then abrupt disappearance of them, and new sounds appearing. It was almost entirely in one mode, which certainly sustains the atmospheric mood, punctuated by unusual use of dynamics with adjacent notes sometimes quite different in intensity, and occasionally punctuated by this little three-note motif, and then at the very end finally shifting the mode into a minor ending. Interesting atmosphere. 3 stars. I have no idea who it is. It’s someone seemingly coming out of a rubato classical tradition. [Any sense of it coming out of someone’s sustained body of work over the years? An older player? A younger player?] I would say that this is an older player. This does not strike me as a younger player’s work. It sounds to me like somebody who is steeped in the classical tradition, certainly has an understanding of how modes and atmospheres work, and… I don’t know much more to say about that. [AFTER] I always enjoyed Andrew very much. He’s one of the players who was playing actively at the time I started playing in Chicago. He always had a very original, unusual concept. Now knowing that it’s Andrew, and I could rewind the tape in my head and understand how it would be him. But I’ve never heard him play a piece like that. I’ve always heard him play much more angular kinds of things, either with a trio or with larger groups. But he’s certainly one of the original players, a real force in the music.

5.   Chris Anderson-Charlie Haden, “Body and Soul” (from NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART, Naim, 1997) (Anderson, piano; Haden, bass)

That’s one of my favorite tunes on this planet. I seem to never get tired of playing it or hearing it. This was a very relaxed, languid reading of this piece with a pianist whom I certainly don’t recognize off the bat, accompanied by I believe Charlie Haden. If I’m correct about Charlie, I know he also loves “Body and Soul.” I think he even did a project once with a whole bunch of piano players or maybe other instrumentalists playing “Body and Soul.” I never heard the project, but he was always talking about doing it, and I’ll bet this well could be a cut from that project. I don’t recognize the pianist. I’d say it’s a pianist who was probably actively playing back in the ‘50s. It was very relaxed, and I enjoyed it. Clearly, they just got together and just played it. It was like they jammed on this tune, and it had a very relaxed feel. 4 stars. [AFTER] Is that right? Wow. It didn’t sound like Chris. Knowing now that it was Chris, I’d say a little bit of the halting aspect to the right hand lines reminds me of some of the searching way that Chris would go at it. But what doesn’t tip me off to Chris on this particular cut is that he usually had such unusual harmonic progressions and voicings that he would bring to a tune. This piece doesn’t strike me as what’s the hallmark of Chris Anderson’s really quite innovative approach to jazz voicing. [What was the nature of his influence on you, or someone like Herbie Hancock, people who came under his spell during the late ‘50s in Chicago?] He was a legend in Chicago. Bobby Cranshaw first told me that I had to hear this cat play. When I first heard him, it was wonderful to hear the unusual ways he would put voicings together. That’s really what I think his contribution was. He himself was profoundly influenced by Nelson Riddle. He was very interested in the effects of doubling notes and not doubling notes. He was often very careful not to double certain notes. I remember grabbing this guy and saying, “Chris, you’ve got to show me how you voice that chord,” and I’d be sitting there writing down stuff and trying to figure it out. A lot of players in Chicago were doing exactly the same thing, because he really had a lot to offer.

6.   Fred Hersch, “Bemsha Swing” (from THELONIOUS: FRED HERSCH PLAYS MONK, Nonesuch, 1997) (Hersch, piano; Thelonious Monk, composer)

That was an interesting approach to “Bemsha Swing.”  I feel an affinity for that tune, having just recorded it myself as a solo pianist, and it’s always so interesting to hear what other people do with it. This pianist took it in a very different direction, dealing with a lot of the fragments of the melody, and it was played in a very spare way. It sounded to me like someone who has quite a bit of a classical background. I liked the originality of some of the figurations and way of approaching the tune, which I thought breathed some freshness into this. 3½ stars. No idea who it might be offhand. [AFTER] I love Fred’s playing, and I wouldn’t have picked this one out. Monk is so marvelous, because not only was he unique in the universe, but his compositions are springboards for so many players and improvisers to take things into their own realm. I don’t think the idea is to be “faithful” to Monk (I don’t think he would have wanted that), but rather than you could use these pieces as wonderful launching pads. So I’m always interested to see what other players do with Monk, and I’ve always found his compositions to be really inspirational. I think I started playing some of his stuff in high school. I heard some of the Blue Note things that I liked. Another album that really appealed to me was called Nica’s Tempo, a Gigi Gryce album on Signal. Half the album was Monk, Gigi Gryce, Percy Heath and Art Blakey, and they had things like “Gallop’s Gallop” and “Brake’s Sake.” I loved those pieces, man. And I loved the early Blue Note stuff, which I heard in high school. [Did you have to figure out fingerings and ways to play them? Was that part of the pleasure, too?] Sure. You had to figure out how to negotiate them. But I guess in some ways, more even than physically playing his tunes was the inspiration his compositions and improvisations gave to me to be able to take my own work into different spaces. I think that’s generally been true of how I’ve assimilated music. It hasn’t been so much that I’ve wanted to play a lot of the pieces of other jazz musicians, although I do and I’ve recorded, but even more, their gift to me is what I can do, and then take it in terms of my own compositions and improvisations. The same thing is true with the influence of the classical composers on me when I was growing up. I was always drawn much more to the modern people. Initially I made a big leap all the way from Bach to the impressionists and beyond. In more recent years, I’ve sort of been drinking in the period in between with a great love for Rachmaninoff and Chopin and lots of other people. But I was tremendously drawn to Ravel and Bartok and Berg and people like that, and then, of course, George Russell, when I heard him in high school, knocked the top of my head off. [Were these things in the air in Chicago at all? Do you think that you and generational contemporaries were listening to similar music and affected by similar strains?] I don’t know. I don’t remember talking to people a lot about, for instance, what classical composers they were listening to. We would talk a lot about records that had come out or players we liked in the jazz genre. But I had come up studying classical music throughout grade school, and had always loved these more modern people. But again, I didn’t have a tremendous interest in keeping up a classical repertoire and performing classical pieces. I wanted to use that material in my own music. That’s always been the way I’ve been built. [I’m also interested in the common strains? A Chicago school of piano playing?] I’m trying to think. I don’t remember having conversations with Chicago pianists about classical music very much. I remember talking to Chris Anderson a bit when he was talking about Nelson Riddle. He certainly loved the Impressionists and the voicings of those players. But I don’t remember talking about Classical music with the Chicago cats.

7.   Craig Taborn, “Bodies We Came Out Of” (from LIGHT MADE LIGHTER, Thirsty Ear, 2001) (Taborn, piano; Chris Lightcap, bass; Gerald Cleaver, drums)

That was another piece that really takes you on a journey. I thought it had tremendous hypnotic drive to it, a very skilled pianist. I enjoy very much overlaying different time signatures against each other and asymmetric figures that crash through and drape over barlines, and this pianist enjoys doing that kind of thing, too, so I feel a kindred spirit with that. There was just a wonderful roiling feeling to it all the way through. The drummer was just terrific. Very enjoyable. 5 stars. Don’t know who that is, though. [AFTER] Don’t know him. Terrific pianist.

8.  Herbie Hancock, “Embraceable You” (from GERSHWIN’S WORLD, Verve, 2000) (Hancock, piano)

Boy, what a beautiful journey through “Embraceable You” that was. Gorgeous recording in terms of sound. The pianist has a beautiful touch. Now, these are the voicings that I would have expected from the Chris Anderson cut. If Chris were physically in better shape, I’d say this could be Chris, but he rarely was feeling physically well enough to be able to play at this technical level. As you know, he had ostogenesis imperfecta, and was always nursing injuries. It was amazing that he could play at all, given what he was dealing with. This was just a beautiful rendition, I thought. The rubato treatment. Beautiful and unusual reharmonizations throughout. Lovely surprises. You feel the pianist searching, taking his or her time with this piece. Going for not the easy answer. Some of the modulations I thought were heartbreakingly beautiful, and the improvisation using fragments of the melody rather than feeling that they had to be worked through in terms of the actual structure of the tune per se. Beautiful playing. 5 stars. I have no idea who it is. [AFTER] Herbie? Wow. Beautiful. It’s gorgeous, and I’ve been a big fan of Herbie’s playing over the years. We had only a nodding acquaintance in Chicago. We got to know each other better when I was out on the West Coast and he would come through with Miles. We used to get together and do four-handed duets on my piano, and we’ve enjoyed each other’s  work a lot through the years. I am hoping, if Columbia ever releases a CD of this concert that was done in honor of Conrad Silvert back in the ‘80s… Herbie and I did a two-piano duet on “Round Midnight” which I would love to see included. I thought it was something really special.

9.  The Bad Plus, “Flim” (from BLUNT OBJECT: LIVE IN TOKYO, Sony, 2004) (Ethan Iverson, piano; Reid Anderson, bass; Dave King, drums)

Certainly very different from anything you’ve played for me so far today. This is a melding of Pop and Rock and perhaps even Folk elements. Aspects of it remind me of the Bad Plus, but it doesn’t have the fire and the drive that I typically associate with their playing – at least that I’ve heard. It makes me wonder about a group that I haven’t yet heard, but I’ve heard about – whether this could be E.S.T.  Certainly the group was using these very simple motifs, and just laying them down very repetitive, I think trying to establish a hypnotic groove on those terms. It certainly seemed like it’s played by people who know how to play their instruments, and it’s just a question if one is drawn to this kind of thing. For my own personal taste, 3 stars. [AFTER] I thought it could have been screaming Europeans! I haven’t heard E.S.T. Do they sound like this at all? [They sound very Nordic – folk music, club beats, classical harmony] I heard them last year at IAJE, and I loved them. I thought what they did that night was terrific. But this didn’t have the balls.

10.  Edward Simon, “You’re My Everything, #1” (from SIMPLICITAS, Criss-Cross, 2004) (Simon, piano, composer; Avishai Cohen, bass; Adam Cruz, drums)

Nice treatment of an old standard, “You’re My Everything.” A pianist who obviously has a realized style, a very sumptuous, relaxed sound. Nice voicings. The whole group sounded very relaxed. There were some nice reharmonizations on the head. The bass player is terrific; took a couple of excellent choruses. Then the piano solo was interesting, had a great relaxed feel to it, some moments of nice right hand-left hand interaction. When they finally got into walking on this piece, there was a really good groove, and a very nice feel to it. I liked the way the head was approached at the end in a kind of loose way, and then they moved into this eighth-note vamp at the end which was very relaxed and had some interesting piano figures on it. Overall, a very satisfying cut. 4½ stars. [AFTER] Don’t know him. Never heard him. Nice player.

11.  Renee Rosnes, “Miyako” (from The Drummonds, PAS DE TROIS, TLE, 2002) (Rosnes, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Billy Drummond drums; Wayne Shorter, composer)

That was “Miyako” from my favorite living composer, Wayne Shorter. A very nice treatment, verging into the more dramatic ways of approaching the piece. The pianist had very, very nice voicings and command of the instrument. A very graceful style. It sounded more like Herbie to me than anybody. I doubt you’d play two tracks from the same pianist in the same Blindfold Test, but it’s somebody who has certainly been very influenced by Herbie. The bass player sounded like he was influenced by Charlie Haden, but also played very well. I thought the whole feel of the piece was very satisfying. 4½ stars.

12.  Eldar Djangirov, “Maiden Voyage” (from ELDAR, Sony, 2004) (Djangirov, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Todd Strait, drums)

A furious, tumultuous version of “Maiden Voyage,”  played by a pianist who I think must be Eldar Djangirov. I’ve never heard his recordings, but I did hear him live last year at the IAJE Convention. He’s a young man with obviously prodigious talent and technique, and hopefully he’ll stay healthy and have all the exposure he needs that will nurture his talent, and that more and more what will emerge will be his true voice, his true center. Right now, I think he’s facing the problem that almost all young jazz players face, particularly if they’re as gifted as he is, of becoming an editor of one’s own materials. There’s a tendency to want to put everything into every piece that one can do and that one knows. There’s a gravitational pull to do that. It can be very seductive. I think time will tell, and with this kind of talent he’s got a brilliant future. 3 stars.

13.  Ahmad Jamal, “I’m Old Fashioned” (from AFTER FAJR, Dreyfuss, 2004) (Jamal, piano; James Cammack, bass; Idris Muhammad, drums)

That was Ahmad Jamal playing “I’m Old Fashioned,” or somebody who clones himself after Ahmad. I enjoyed it tremendously. I will assume it’s Ahmad, and so make comments about him and what I think his music has meant particularly to the whole trio tradition. Coming up in the ‘50s in Chicago I had a chance to hear him, and his use of space and the way of floating over the time and getting that kind of groove. The groove on that piece was very typical of the kind of groove that Vernell Fournier and Israel Crosby would get with him back in the ‘50s when he was playing these kinds of pieces. There was always this wonderful sense of drama and surprise in his playing. He, too, had been influenced by Chris Anderson and had gotten some very unusual ways of reharmonizing and voicing chords I think at least partly from Chris. He certainly is an original and has his own thing. It’s a pleasure to hear this. I’ll be embarrassed if it’s somebody cloning himself after Ahmad, but that I think is worth 5 stars.

* * *

Liner Notes, Denny Zeitlin, As Long As There’s Music:

On As Long As There’s Music, pianist Denny Zeitlin, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Al Foster, who boast more than one hundred years of combined professional experience, embody the principle of the trio as an equilateral triangle.  Addressing a varied program of interesting Songbook and Jazz standards plus a few pungent originals, Zeitlin, guided by unerring melodic radar, ingeniously reimagines his material, reharmonizing and orchestrating with spontaneous elan, maintaining peak focus and flow throughout the recital, deploying towards unfailingly musical ends a prodigious technique that Marion McPartland, referring to a duet they played last year on her NPR “Piano Jazz” show, described as akin “to a tidal wave washing over me.”  Williams and Foster anticipate Zeitlin’s postulations, responding with laser quick precision, nuanced musicality and relentless swing; if you didn’t know that this was their first-ever encounter, you’d swear they’d shared bandstands for years.

Zeitlin is a psychiatrist with a large private practice in the Bay Area.  He also teaches at the University of California and lecture-demonstrates on the psychology of improvising.  So he can speak with some authority on the interpersonal dynamics of trio playing, of which this session might serve as a textbook.  “You always hope for a merger experience with your partners, which can be complicated in a trio,” he remarks.  “If things go extremely well, three people can feel that the music is just emanating from the stage — it’s hard even to know for sure who is playing what.  When my own personal creative forces are at their height, I have this feeling of merger.  I also have it when I’m doing my best work as a psychiatrist, a sense of inhabiting the world that my patients are talking about.

“If I had been a surgeon, I can’t imagine how I would infuse my three-thousandth appendectomy with new excitement.  As you do psychotherapy, as much as it’s true that you hear common themes in the human life cycle that endlessly repeat, every person’s experience and presentation of this is unique, so that it really never gets old.  In my psychiatric office, I am the accompanist.  I am trying to help the patient tell their story.  My function is to help them feel it’s safe to go into areas of their life they might not otherwise be able to investigate.  The role of accompanying another soloist on the bandstand is parallel.  The biggest difference is that I often solo for long periods of time on a stage, which I’m not doing in my office with patients.”

Now 62, Zeitlin is no stranger to jazz connoisseurs.  His five mid-’60s trio albums for Columbia won widespread acclaim, resulting in two first place finishes in the Downbeat Critics Poll.  He spent the ’70s focusing on a pioneering integration of jazz, electronics, classical and rock, culminating in the 1978 electronic-acoustic score for Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. He concertizes internationally, working with bass giants like David Friesen, Charlie Haden, and John Patitucci, appearing at one point or another with John Abercrombie, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, the Kronos Quartet, Pat Metheny, Tony Williams, and Paul Winter.

That said, most Zeitlin devotees probably don’t know much about his formative years, when he encountered the blend of cultural influences that shaped his sensibility.  It started at home, in Highland Park, a suburb north of Chicago. His mother, Rosalyn, was a speech pathologist and “fairly decent classical pianist,” while his father, Nathaniel, was a radiologist “who couldn’t read a note but could play the piano by ear.”  As he puts it, “I bilaterally had both fields — medicine and music — from day one, and always an atmosphere in the home that seemed to say people can follow their muse, that it doesn’t have to be either-or; from very early on I had a sense that I was going to be involved in some way in the two fields.”

Zeitlin remembers traversing the keyboard at 2 or 3; soon after he began “picking out little melodies and improvising.”  Formal instruction began at 7 or 8.  He recalls: “I always had a hunger for unusual sounds and combinations and dissonance.  I loved the Impressionists, particularly Ravel, and was tremendously excited by composers like Prokofiev, Bartok, Stravinsky and Berg.  I started to listen to jazz around eighth grade.  One night my music teacher brought to a lesson a recording of George Shearing playing ‘Summertime’ and I was knocked out.  Here was this guy who obviously had a Classical background and technique to burn, and what was this music he was playing?  I wanted to learn about this genre!  She began bringing Art Tatum albums over, and that was it.”

As a high school freshman Zeitlin formed a piano-guitar-drums trio called the Cool Tones for which he composed original music informed by the cutting edge of the zeitgeist.  He cites as early influences Bud Powell (“his power and angularity and originality spoke to me”), Billy Taylor (“he had consummate taste and such a beautiful touch; I was particularly drawn to the power of his ballad playing”), Lennie Tristano (“his harmonic conception and rhythmic subtleties with the line of a solo”), Dave Brubeck (“I thought he had his own thing and followed it with tremendous conviction”), and Thelonious Monk (“an utterly quirky genius full of endless surprise”).

Zeitlin began to partake of Chicago’s raucous jazz scene as soon as he could drive, hearing headliners and “resident greatness” at North Side institutions like Mr. Kelly’s and the French Poodle, hanging out in South Side rooms like the Beehive and the Stage Lounge until 4 or 5 in the morning.  By his senior year he was jamming with hardcore Windy City progressives, forming relationships that deepened as he pursued pre-med studies at the University of Illinois, in downstate Champaign, where Joe Farrell, Jack McDuff and Roger Kellaway were among the local talent.

“My parents knew I was utterly galvanized by this, that it was so deeply embedded in my psyche that it was important to encourage and allow this to happen,” Zeitlin explains.  “They had a tremendous amount of trust in me; that I wasn’t, for example, using drugs or having problems with alcohol, that I could be around that subculture without being involved in it.  And indeed, their trust was not misplaced.  I was able to take this opportunity of a priceless many-year informal apprenticeship in the music.  In those days there were no formal jazz schools.  This was the way one had to learn it.  I would collar somebody like Chris Anderson after the gig and say, ‘Man, sit down with me for a minute here; how did you voice such-and-such?’  By osmosis I tried to absorb as much of this art form as I could, and generally, I found musicians were gracious and willing to show me stuff and to give me a chance to play.”

By 1954, Zeitlin’s influences, as he puts it, “rapidly became non-pianistic.”  He honed in on Miles Davis’ “incredible sense of pulse and melodic elegance, never a wasted note, never a cliche, always pushing the edge.”  He was fascinated with the roles of drums and bass, particularly Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Percy Heath and Paul Chambers — he took up the instruments enough to do some gigging both in high school and college.  He analyzed the harmonic system John Coltrane was developing circa 1959-60, and analogizes the experience of hearing Coltrane as “like being shot out of a cannon, being at the center of a cyclone; I was tremendously drawn towards what some people have called his vertical chromaticism.”  He fell in love with the free improvisation aesthetic of the Ornette Coleman quartet; “I’d enjoyed free improvisation since I was 2 or 3 years, and here were guys making a whole life out of doing it in jazz.”

While Zeitlin attended medical school at Johns Hopkins, in Baltimore, he “had carte blanche, whenever I could sneak away, to come and sit in at the North End Lounge,” owned by the father of saxophonist Gary Bartz, where he played with musicians like the younger Bartz, trombonist Grachan Moncur and drummer Billy Hart.  In 1963, while attending Columbia University on a fellowship, he met composer-theorist George Russell — “We hung out, talked about music, played with each other; he was tremendously encouraging to me.”  During that time, Paul Winter, a Chicago acquaintance, “dragged me kicking and screaming to meet his producer, John Hammond.  I played a few tunes for John solo piano, and he startled me by saying, ‘Hey, I’d love for you to record; you can play whatever you want and use whomever you want.'”

Consider this complex matrix of experience as you listen to the assorted treasures — they’re primarily first takes — on As Long As There’s Music.  The title could serve as Zeitlin’s raison d’etre.  “I try to get to the piano every day,” he states, “not so much out of a sense of duty to the instrument, but that I am called to it.  Because I have played for so long, I have a certain technical base that endures even during periods where I’m not able to play as much as I would like.  I was never drawn to technical exercises.  I garnered new technical skills by pushing myself to play classical pieces somewhat beyond my current technical capability.  Now when I practice, I usually just improvise, sometimes with an ear towards possible composition.  Doing that keeps my fingers lubricated, and it nourishes my soul to be with music.  Every time I sit down at the keyboard I remind myself of how profoundly grateful I am to be able to play.”

The title track, which Zeitlin first heard on an early ’50s George Shearing quintet side, is a favorite of the bassist Charlie Haden, who Zeitlin met when the pianist arrived in the Bay Area in 1964 as an intern at San Francisco General Hospital.  Haden was on two of Zeitlin’s early Columbia LPs, and they recorded a duo version of the song on a 1983 ECM album.  On this version Zeitlin shifts the piece into waltz time, employs a bit of organic reharmonization, Foster articulates barely perceptible shifts in tempo and dynamics, Williams nudges the pulse along with subtle accents, and the trio rides out with a polyrhythmic dialogue on a sweet vamp.

Zeitlin notes: “The challenge of a standard is to be faithful to the original spirit of the piece, but find an approach that might breathe fresh life into it.  You can reshape it structurally, but most often you may want to reharmonize it, which can seduce you with its possibilities.  At its worst it becomes an exercise in how clever the musician can be.  Often, the tune gets lost, or becomes so cluttered that it becomes a logjam of material.  I try to keep those pitfalls in mind, but allow myself to see what new directions the tune might take.”

Zeitlin conceptualized “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “The Man I Love” for a Gershwin concert celebration a few months before the session.  On the former, after the trio serenely states the head, Zeitlin plays solo piano with a bit of stride and a nod to Art Tatum, which cues an increasingly intense piano-drum duet, which leads to a double-time trio section that evokes the essence of Bud Powell.  After Buster Williams’ spot-on solo, they transition to the original medium-tempo head statement.

The latter tune, which concludes the album, opens with a brief free piano improvisation which sets a mood, before a rubato melody statement that brings in the trio, which springboards off a vivid vamp into ever-escalating improvisational adventures.

Is the consummately lyrical Zeitlin a lyrics man or is he inspired by a song’s musical content?   “It’s more of the latter,” Zeitlin responds.  “I know many musicians feel it’s crucial to know the lyric — almost ‘How could you not know it and play the tune?’  But in fact, most of these tunes are written music first, lyrics second, and my allegiance is to the composer.  Now, the lyrics of some tunes end up embedded in my psyche, and I find myself hearing fragments of them.  Certainly I hear a lot of Sinatra in my head when I hear any tune that he’s recorded because I’m so totally taken with him.  Favorite female vocalists whose lyrics stay with me over the years have been Sarah Vaughan, Jackie Cain and Elis Regina.”

Add to that list Billie Holiday, the inspiration for “For Heaven’s Sake,” which Zeitlin played for years in solo, duo and trio contexts, but never recorded.  His reharmonized interpretation, framing a delicate Buster Williams solo, evokes the inherent tenderness and yearning in the melody.

“There and Back,” the first of two Zeitlin originals, moves back and forth between walking jazz time and a straight-eighth, funky feel, while “Canyon” is a clever “minor blues-oid construction.”  “I’ve always perceived improvisation as being spontaneous composition,” says Zeitlin, whose best-known piece is “Quiet Now,” which Bill Evans recorded numerous times.  “I hope my improvising imparts a sense of a journey, a feeling of inevitability about how it proceeds, that it isn’t just a hodge-podge of possibilities or a pastiche of colors or novelty for its own sake.  I often think of my pieces as roadmaps that we can loosely follow to get from one destination to the other, with some interesting roadblocks and detour signs along the way that challenge me and the musicians.”

Zeitlin heard Barbra Streisand sing “I’m All Smiles” on her ’60s People album; the trio plays it straight in a relaxed version that brings out all the beauty of the melody.

“Cousin Mary” continues a long line of Zeitlin interpretations of John Coltrane’s “Atlantic period.”  Zeitlin reharmonizes the head and drives hard-edged right into the blues; he sounds like a playful dancer, deconstructing the harmonic structure with wit and imagination.

There’s an elegant reading of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Triste,” and a heart-on-the-sleeve version of “I Fall In Love Too Easily” that Zeitlin describes as “a real organic journey.”

The same could be said for the entirety of As Long As There’s Music.  “I organized the arrangements to explore different things we could do as a trio,” Zeitlin concludes.  “I was hoping to see how deep and how broad we could go in this weekend we were going to play together.  I felt there was some special chemistry here.”

* * * *

Denny Zeitlin (For As Long As There’s Music) – (9-16-00):

TP:    Let’s talk about the circumstances of this record.  You haven’t recorded with a trio for 10-11-12 years.  What’s the most common configuration in performance, solo, duo, trio?  Are they all equally…

ZEITLIN:  In some ways they are yes.  Over time they’ve been pretty balanced.  Rarely I’ll play in a larger context, maybe a quartet, but it’s typically more of a solo, duo or trio setting for me.

TP:    Perhaps you could state in a succinct way the different experience of performing in each media, how each creates a different space for you.

ZEITLIN:  The solo playing offers the unique challenge of having to create all the music oneself.  I’ve always thought of the piano as a symphonic instrument, so it gives me an opportunity and a challenge of trying to paint with all the colors of the orchestra as best I can, using the piano.  It also offers me complete freedom as to where I might take the form from moment to moment.  I don’t have to really be concerned by the forces that might be mobilized by the other musicians on the stage.  In some ways that’s a plus as a soloist.  Out there all by myself, I can take it wherever I would like.  On the other hand, you can argue that I miss out on all of the input that another or other musicians would give me.  So there’s always positives and negatives to these situations when you compare them to other possibilities.  But just in and of itself, the solo situation is a marvelous one for me in that I do get a chance to take the music wherever it might want to go from moment to moment, and that I have this kind of unique possibility for producing all of it myself.  In that setting, on a psychological level, the kind of emotional connection I’m making is to the music and to the spirit of the music, and then to the audience in the sense of reaching out with this music to I guess what Stravinsky used to talk about as “the hypothetical Other” — the perfect audience person.  And I’m hoping there’s at least a few of them out there in the actual audience.  I’m sending the music out there in the hopes that the people will try to reach out and meet the music halfway.  When that happens, it’s a very palpable experience for me, and at its very best I end up feeling like I’m just a conduit for the music, and that we’re all in the audience listening to what’s going on.

TP:    Now, the duo situation I would presume has a somewhat different dialoguing quality.

ZEITLIN:  It does.  And it still contains the complement of sending the music out and hoping for a merger experience with the audience.  But in the duo setting, I’m hoping for a merger experience with whomever is my musical partner up there.  Since typically it’s been bass, although I do duets with David  Grisman, and I’ve played duets in the past with Herbie Hancock, with John Abercrombie, with Marion McPartland… It’s the most transparent kind of group playing, as far as I can see.  With just two people up there, there is a tremendous kind of interpersonal nakedness, which at its best can lead to some very special music.  It doesn’t have the complexity, in some ways, of a trio, but in some ways it has more freedom in that there is maybe more opportunity to take the form in different directions from moment to moment, because there could be a greater possibility that two people will be in synch than three.  And particularly with bass and piano, with no drums, there is a lot of opportunity for a certain kind of subtlety and nuance to be heard that might otherwise be covered sometimes, at least, by drums, no matter how sensitive a drummer might be, and very subtle shifts in timbre can be heard and perceived.  So I think of the duo situation more like a kind of group chamber music of a sort. And it’s a very exciting form, and I’ve enjoyed that.  I’ve done a lot of duo playing over the last 15 years with David Friesen; we’ve recorded a number of albums together, and that’s been a very special experience.

In the trio it gets more complicated.  I think we still have the opportunity and obligation to attempt the merger with the audience, but now we’ve got three people…if things are going extremely well, three people who could somehow have a kind of merger experience where we all feel that the music is just emanating from the stage, but it’s hard to even know for sure who is playing what.  I think when my own personal creative forces are at their height, I have this feeling of merger.  I think it’s also true when I’m doing my best work as a psychiatrist.

TP:    That you have a sense of merger with the patient.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, with the patient and with the material, a sense of really inhabiting the world that they are talking about.  I am hoping to achieve some measure of that in the musical setting as well.

TP:    Hopefully what a writer would wish to achieve with his subject.  Empathy.

ZEITLIN:  It’s empathy and also the flow experience, that Mihalyihas Csikszent has written about.  He’s written about a dozen books, starting in 1976, about the flow experience.  What’s the essential fun in Fun, and what is it that particularly will call people to do activities that don’t seem to have tremendous external rewards.  He over a period of time delineated the characteristics of the flow experience, which are things like utter concentration without being aware that one is particularly concentrating, an altered sense of time, a sense of tremendous internal rightness about what’s going on, a process orientation rather than a content orientation, the merger experience with the activity and often ecstatic feelings about it.  Those are parts of the flow experience, maybe not an exhaustive list of the components of it.

TP:    Had you ever worked with this particular configuration before?

ZEITLIN:  This was a first time experience.  One rehearsal the day before.

TP:    You sound like to me like you’d been playing together for ten years.

ZEITLIN:  I thought there was a special rapport that immediately generated with these guys.  I had loved their music for years.  I first heard Al with Miles years ago, and I heard Buster even earlier when he was with Herbie, and I had always hoped that someday I might get a chance to do a project with them.  In fact, Todd asked me to do a little personal liner for the album, and I mention that.  I’ll send you those few paragraphs.  I go into it, that I’d always hoped to do a project with them.  So when this came along, when Todd called me about doing this trio album, I thought immediately of them, and I was delighted that they were available and it turned out that they were both familiar with my music and had liked it, so that we approached it all of us having a good vibe about what we’d heard earlier in each other’s music, and I think considerable excitement about what we might do together.  Sometimes studio sessions can sound fairly mundane or just workmanlike, or people get together and the music is good and whatever.  But I felt there was some special chemistry here.

TP:    You’ve done a lot of live recordings.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, and I generally prefer the live setting for a recording, because I think it helps get people into that flow experience, that the presence and challenge of an audience can pull more for that sort of merger experience and a higher level of excitement.  So a studio poses a challenge of can you tap into this somehow.  I thought all the ingredients were present in this setting.  This was Clinton Studio A.  I’d never played there before.  I thought the room had great feel.  It was one of the best Steinway Grands I’d ever performed on.  It was impeccably maintained.  It was as if I had sat down at the piano and played a few notes, and the piano said to me, “We can do anything you want.”  Sometimes one gets a personal sense of connection to an instrument.  It’s interesting that almost everyone else carries their instrument with them wherever they go, so they develop I’m sure a much more intense personal attachment and connection to the actual instrument.  I am at the mercy of what’s at every venue.  So there’s always some anxiety, despite reassurances, as to what I am going to run into, whether it’s a performance or a recording.  This just happened to be an almost miraculous Steinway, one of the top 3 or 4 pianos I’ve ever played in my life.  The studio had a whole cupboard full of almost antique treasures, of tube and Neumann microphones, which are just gorgeous.  They gave that wonderful warm sound to the piano.  It’s I think a really extraordinarily excellent piano-sonic recording.  And the way it was set up, the earphone mixes were excellent, so I could hear everybody.  And Todd is a wonderful guy to work with.  He was sensitive, he was helpful, but totally non-intrusive.

TP:    Here’s the way I want to approach the note.  It’s a program that refers to a very wide span of material, and it’s consistent with… I’m afraid I really don’t know your ’60s music or the electronic things you did in the ’70s, but it seems that in the last 15-20 years a lot of your performance has been about including the dynamics of your whole range of experience.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I think that’s very true.

TP:    I would like to take you back a little bit into your influences in conceptualizing the sound of a piano trio.  I’d like you to talk about each of the tunes and the associations those tunes had for you, and a bit formally about how you approached those tunes.  And I would like to go into a little biographical detail about your formative years, which I haven’t read in any of these notes.  So let’s go back to the boilerplate things, and take it into something specific and informative about how it inflects on this record.  You started playing at an incredibly early age.

ZEITLIN:  I started when I was maybe 2 or 3 years old.  I do have memories of sitting on the lap of whichever parent was playing the piano, and putting my little hands on their hands and going along for the ride kinesthetically before I could even play a note.  I had a sense of what it was like to traverse a keyboard.  Then I started just picking out little melodies and improvising, and I think very wisely, my parents held off formal instruction, so that I think I was 7 or 8 before I really had a hunger to start studying music and learning how to read notes.  I was composing and improvising for some years by then.  They sensed that I just needed space and time to explore that.  It was I think a very important decision on their part.  My mother turned out to be my first music teacher.  She was a fairly decent classical pianist and also a speech pathologist, so she brought both medicine and music from her side.  And my father had a very good ear, couldn’t read a note but could play the piano by ear, and he was a radiologist.  So bilaterally I had both fields from day one, and always an atmosphere in the home that seemed to say that people can follow their muse, and it doesn’t have to be either-or.  I think from very early on I had a sense I was going to be involved in some way in the two fields.

TP:    Your first influences were classical, obviously.  When did you start to become aware of jazz?  And more specifically, when did you start to become aware of the notion that there were improvisers who articulated specific voices.  Improvisational personalities.  Let’s say the difference between Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and George Shearing, presuming those are people who are part of your matrix.

ZEITLIN:  I think it was really in eighth grade that I started to listen to jazz and really notice jazz.  Certainly I had heard the music.  But prior to that I was studying Classical music, always drawn much more to 20th Century music and the Impressionist.  It’s as though I took a leap from Bach, whom I always loved, all the way to the Impressionists and beyond.  I always had a hunger for unusual sounds and combinations and dissonance, and tremendous excitedly by composers like Prokofiev and Bartok and Stravinsky and Berg.  I loved the Impressionists, particularly Ravel.  This music just really always touched my soul.

In eighth grade I remember my music teacher brought a little 10″ MGM LP to a music lesson one night, and the title of the album was You’re Hearing George Shearing.  I remember hearing that; the first piece I ever heard him play was “Summertime,” and I remember being just absolutely knocked out, that wow, here was this guy who obviously had a Classical background and technique to burn, and what was this music he was playing?  The rhythmic drive on that album with other instruments… Boy, I just wanted to learn about this genre.  So she began bringing other albums over, listening to Art Tatum, and then I was in…

TP:    You had a hip piano teacher.

ZEITLIN:  Oh, she was great.  She couldn’t play jazz, but she was absolutely wide-open to anything I wanted to do.  It was a great-great blessing.  When I got into my high school, in my freshman year there were a number of other fledgling jazz musicians, and I formed a trio with drums and guitar… I still remember.  We called ourselves the Cool-Tones!

TP:    This was around 1952 or so.

ZEITLIN:  This would be ’52.  I started listening to Bud Powell.  The first trio I ever heard live, in terms of a touring band, was the Billy Taylor Trio, and I remember being tremendously excited by what he was doing and touched by his music.  I felt he had consummate taste and such a beautiful touch.  I was particularly drawn to the beauty of his ballad playing, and I loved everything he did.  Bud Powell’s power and angularity and originality spoke to me.  Lennie Tristano’s harmonic conception and the subtleties of what he would do rhythmically with the line of a solo.  I really was drawn to that.  I liked Dave Brubeck a lot.  I thought he had his own thing, and really followed it with tremendous conviction.  I continued to listen to George Shearing.  Certainly Thelonious Monk I liked a lot.  Those were the very early pianistic influences.

TP:    So you were very much in tune with your zeitgeist of your time, in many ways.  This is what the cutting edge was in 1955-6-7.  And you grew up in the north suburbs?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I grew up in Highland Park.

TP:    And when did you start partaking of music as beyond your immediate milieu.  You mentioned it briefly before, that at a certain point you started going into Chicago quite a bit, and specifically the South Side scene.

ZEITLIN:  I started going into the city to hear music when I was a freshman in high school, because I was tall and in a dark room I could pass.  But I didn’t actually start sitting in until I was a senior in high school or something like that.

TP:    So there’s the Beehive, the 63rd Street strip…

ZEITLIN:  Yes, the Stage Lounge I remember.  Then there were places like Mr. Kelly’s, the French Poodle…

TP:    How much hanging out did you do?  You did get into medical school eventually!

ZEITLIN:  I did, I did.  But in my spare time, I would just carve it out.  I was immersed in this music, listening to it, rehearsing, going to jam sessions, listening to great musicians.  And there was fortunately a tremendous amount of resident greatness in the Chicago area, as well as people who would come through, traveling headliners that I would get to see.  It was marvelous…

TP:    Were you paying attention to Ahmad Jamal during this time?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I liked Ahmad very much.  I wouldn’t say he was as much of an early influence as these other people I mentioned.

TP:    There are a lot of orchestrative things you do within the dynamics of this record… Well, I guess his impact was so pervasive on the sound of contemporary piano trios…

ZEITLIN:  It’s sometimes hard to… You get immersed in a form, and you listen to dozens and dozens of players, and you get… To some degree, we’re influenced by everything we hear.  What you hope is that you integrate it in a way and that you have something personal to offer, that you develop a personal voice.

I had a chance fairly early on to play with some really fine players, like Bobby Cranshaw, the bassist, and Wilbur Ware, Walter Perkins, a great drummer, Ira Sullivan, a marvelous trumpeter and tenor player, Nicky Hill, Johnny Griffin.  Really excellent players.  So all through college I would come up, frequently on weekends, and go to jam sessions and play with these guys, play gigs… Also, there were very good players at the University of Illinois, where I was an undergrad.  Joe Farrell, whose real name was Firantello, was there, and we used to play together a lot.  Jack McDuff was living down there at the time, playing bass as well as organ, and Roger Kellaway was around.  He also played very good bass, as well as piano.  I feel everywhere I’ve gone since high school I’ve been fortunate to find excellent musical opportunities to keep the juices flowing while I was studying either premed or medicine.

The same thing happened when I went to Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1960.  Gary Bartz’s father had a jazz club called the North End Lounge in Baltimore.  I used to go sit in with Gary and some other great cats who… I remember a couple of times Grachan Moncur was down there, and Billy Hart was a resident drummer.  I had a carte blanche invitation, whenever I could sneak away from medical school, to come and sit in.  It was just great fun.

Then in 1963, I stumbled really into recording.  I’d had some inquiries and nibbles early on, and really had some resistance to the whole idea of making a record.  I’d heard so many stories from musicians about how record companies ripped them off, subverted their musical identities, etcetera, etc.  And I figured, “Look, I’m going to be a doctor; I love this music; I can keep it pure; I’ll just play; I don’t really care about particularly a public career.”  Then I was in New York on a fellowship at Columbia in 1963, and Paul Winter, who had been at Northwestern for a number of years and had heard me play and had always liked my playing, he had been recording for Columbia for a year or so, and he dragged me literally kicking and screaming to meet his producer, John Hammond.  I played a few tunes for John solo piano, and he just loved what I was doing, and startled me by saying, “Hey, I’d love for you to record; you can record whatever you want, you can use whomever you want” — carte blanche.

TP:    Was what you played within the tradition or in the framework of stretching out?

ZEITLIN:  Both.  John was a marvelous guy with tremendously broad tastes, and he was as good as his word.  He wanted me to get my feet wet with recording by being the featured pianist with Jeremy Steig on Jeremy’s first outing for the label, which was in 1963.  That was a lot of fun.  I remember that session as being a ball.  Ben Riley was on drums and Ben Tucker was on bass.  I thought the chemistry was great among the four of us.  Then what followed were four trio projects for Columbia over the next handful of years.  Out here in California I was able to hook up with Charlie Haden and Jerry Granelli, and we were a working trio for 2-1/2 years and did an album and a half together.  Then I played with some other cats in a trio, and we recorded most of the last album I did for Columbia, which was called Zeitgeist, actually my favorite of the whole series.  That came out in 1967.

By that time, I’d been listening to quite a bit of Rock-and-Roll and some of the avant-garde electronic music, and I was interested in a lot of what was happening in modern Classical music, and I was getting restless with what felt like the limitations of the acoustic piano sound.  I wanted to be able to bend notes, I wanted to be able to sustain notes like horns and guitar players could.  So I really withdrew from public performance for over a year or so, and tried to do some R&D as to what was available, and I hired engineers to build me sound modules…

TP:    Boy, were you in the right spot in 1968.

ZEITLIN:  Well, a lot was starting.  But this was before you could walk to your corner grocery and come back with a Moog synthesizer under your arm.  This was the era where you take wires and you patch together a sound, and it probably takes you five minutes to do the whole cascade, and then you get one note.  You don’t get two notes.

TP:    It’s fascinating because you’re in on it from the beginning.  It’s as though someone presents something to you, you work with it, then they present something else, you can work with that, and it’s all fresh and new and un-cliched.

ZEITLIN:  I’ve always been drawn to new ways of trying to express myself.  I am attracted to the idea of stretching.  I have never been an either-or type of person.  I’ve always been a both-and type of person.  I think you were quite correct when you talked about the breadth of what I try to do.  For me, there’s no reason why there have to be artificial boundaries between Classical music, Rock, Funk, Jazz, Folk music, Electronic music.  There’s no reason why one has to, in some a priori way, say that some are off-base for others.  There is material in all of those forms that called to me.  Why not try to have a musical palette to paint with that can use all those colors?  That’s what I’m drawn to.  So I was just excited at the prospect of what I could do with electronics.  So I got people to build the various things for me, and sound-altering devices and foot switches and pedals.  A lot of it was totally customized at that point.  Gradually I developed what looked like a 747 cockpit of six or seven keyboard instruments, along with the acoustic piano and miles of cords and banks of flip switches that were more complicated than a B-3 pedal box.  It would take 6 hours to tear this down from my studio at home, take it to a local gig and set it up, play the gig, and then another 6 hours to undo it.  And for several years I did this.  There was a ten-year period, from ’68 to ’78, when I really was involved in this electronic-acoustic integration of all of these forms.  I found musicians who were willing to go on that exploration with me.  People I played with predominantly during that period were George Marsh on drums and Mel Graves on bass.  That’s when I did Szyzgy and the album Expansion, which was the first album of this kind of music.  When I wanted to make a record of it and queried some record labels at the time, I got a lot of responses back saying, “Gee, Denny, honestly we love this music, but we don’t know how in the world we would market it.  We wouldn’t know what conduit to put it through marketing-wise.”  So I ended up starting my own label, called Double-Helix records, to even put this out, and I sold out the first pressing.  Then there was a local, very avant-garde label called 1750 Arch Records which expressed an interest in taking it over, and I was delighted.  Because being an administrator and packing up LPs is not my idea of a good time.  So they took over Expansion, and then I did Szyzgy for them and also a solo piano album of totally free improvisations called Soundings which was released in ’78.

’78 really marked a turning point for me again.  I had an opportunity, again just by luck, to score a major motion picture film…

TP:    The remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

ZEITLIN:  That’s right.  Philip Kaufman was a Chicago guy, and he had heard me play and had it in his head that some day he wanted me to do a jazz score for him.  So he called me in in ’78, I guess, or maybe it was late ’77, when he was in the process of getting ready to shoot this film, and asked me whether I would be interested in doing it.  It sounded great to me.  I love science fiction, and I’d always hoped some day I would get a chance to score a major film but figured it was really unlikely.  Because to get that, typically, you live in L.A., you pound on doors for ten years, then you’re given maybe a dozen first projects where the budget is for a kazoo and a harmonica, and maybe if you’re lucky and play enough political games, about five years later you’ll get to score a major film.  So all of a sudden this back door seemed to be opening, and I was very excited about it.  But then it looked like it wouldn’t happen, because Philip’s idea about the film shifted, and it looked like he was going to need an 20th century avant-garde symphonic score.  I had no established credentials for this.  So I had to convince him and his producer that I could do it, and I sold them on it.  And it took some selling.  It was one of the more exciting and challenging experiences I’ve ever had, to be able to write for a symphony orchestra, plus do all of this electronic stuff.  I had the prototype of the Prophet-10 voice synthesizer.  It hadn’t even been released for sale, I believe, at that point.  I remember it wouldn’t even stay in tune for more than about 10 or 15 minutes.  I had to turn it off, let it cool off, and then reboot it.  But for studio work I could use it.  And it had some marvelous capabilities.  I did small group stuff.  I had Eddie Henderson come in, and Mel Martin recorded some things with me.  So I had a chance to do virtually everything I loved to do, plus this whole new experience of writing for a symphony orchestra, and going down to L.A. and having this orchestra play, taking the 24-track tapes back to San Francisco and overdubbing on that, and going back to L.A.  It was an exhausting 10-week project.

TP:    At this point you’re 40 years old and you’re always a practicing psychiatrist.

ZEITLIN:  Yeah.  I started my psychiatric practice in 1968, after finishing a three-year residency at the Langley-Porter Psychiatric Institute, which is part of the U.C. Medical Center in San Francisco.  I’ve been on the clinical faculty since ’68, teaching residents how to do various kinds of psychotherapy, and had a private practice.  So at this point, in ’78, I’m ten years out into practice, still teaching at the university, and having this marvelous opportunity to score this film.

TP:    Are you one of these people who needs 5 hours of sleep?

ZEITLIN:  Actually, if I can get 8, I’m delighted to get 8.  But I can get along, at least in short bursts, on less.  This was a particularly challenging period.  I remember I cut back on my practice 50% for five weeks, had a lot of advance planning so nobody got into any trouble, and I had coverage and everything.  But I do remember after this project was over, it had been very exciting, but so arduous.  I was working 18-19 hour days.  My wife would come down and literally peel me off the piano stool and deposit me in the hot tub to stretch out, put me to bed for a few hours, and I’d get up and do the thing again.  As exciting as it was, after all that, and then having to deal with the politics of Hollywood, which almost involved me having to sue the studio in order to get paid my money, I said to myself, “I’ve had my one experience, I’m very lucky, I’m going to quit while I’m ahead.”  I had some other offers, and I just shined them on.  I never wanted to do it again.

I was very grateful for the opportunity and very pleased that I was able to have a soundtrack album from it, but it did represent a turning point to me in that I wanted to get back to the purity of acoustic music, and I really haven’t done any major projects with electronics since.  I’ve just been focusing on the acoustic piano and acoustic situations.  What I found, to my pleasant surprise, was that all the years of playing other keyboards and dealing with electronic instruments and synthesizers had opened my ears in some way that I was able to get a lot more nuance out of the acoustic piano than ever before.  So that was an unexpected dividend.  A lot of people have had just the opposite experience, that playing multiple keyboards with different degrees of heaviness of touch, messes up their acoustic piano playing.  But I didn’t have this experience.  So since 1978, I’ve been focusing primarily on solo, duo and trio playing, with an occasional quartet of acoustic music basically.

TP:    It sounds that at a certain point you got very much into John Coltrane’s harmonic system circa 1959-60-61, and you also deal quite a bit with Ornette Coleman’s music.  Could you talk about the impact of that hypermodernism, if we can call it that, on you at the point when it was coming out?  Non-pianistic influences obviously.

ZEITLIN:  That’s a good question, because very rapidly, the major influences for me became non-pianistic.  I think most players start off with their major influences being on their own instrument, but they may then branch out.  Not inevitably, but I think it’s a natural tendency to broaden one’s horizons.  For me it really ended up that the major influences, if I had to look back, were non-pianistic influences.  Miles, Trane, Ornette, George Russell.  Those would be absolutely tops on my list.

Miles’ incredible sense of pulse and melodic elegance, never a wasted note, never a cliche, always pushing the edge.  I was tremendously drawn to him.

Coltrane, it was like being shot out of a cannon, listening to him.  He was totally ripping the fabric of jazz apart.  Sometimes I’d listen to him and feel like I was watching a terrier shake a rat.  It was incredibly exciting music.  It was like being at the center of a cyclone, listening to Trane in his exploratory earlier period, his harmonic period when he was developing what some people have called a kind of vertical chromaticism.  I was tremendously drawn to that.

George Russell’s writing and ways of thinking about music were tremendously important to me.  I never formally studied the Lydian chromatic concept of tonal organization.  But in 1963, when I was a resident at Columbia University for this fellowship (that’s when I met John Hammond), I also hung out with George, studied with him, and it was more a kind of mentorship.  We would hang out, talk about music, play with each other.  He was tremendously encouraging to me, and I think I could make a remark…

I think it’s often notable when people talk about their careers, that there are nodal points where the encouragement of a valued mentor or authority is extraordinarily helpful.  I remember three points in my career where this happened.  The first was Billy Taylor.  He came out to the house with his trio when I was probably a sophomore or freshman in high school, invited by my parents.  We had dinner, and my little fledgling trio played for them. [END OF SIDE] …[he said] there was no reason why I couldn’t do both of them, and talking about the hard life of a full-time working jazz musician.  So his encouragement was priceless.

Then I remember George’s encouragement in 1963, before I even began to record.  Then after I made my first trio album for Columbia, called Cathexis, I had read a Blindfold Test that Bill Evans had done for Downbeat where they played a track from Flute Fever, the first album I did with Jeremy Steig, and he was very complimentary about my playing.  So I figured, well, I’ll give Bill a call and I’ll see if he’s willing to listen to this record and give me a critique and see if he has any suggestions.  I went over and met him for the first time, found him utterly gracious, a gentle man, totally noncompetitive.  He was very secure in his music and didn’t have any trouble being generous to somebody else.  Basically what he told me was, “Look, I don’t have any suggestions other than just keep doing your thing — follow your music.”  That was extraordinarily helpful and encouraging to me at that point, too.

I think of those three guys at those points in my life as being very important moments.

TP:    Finally, the impact Ornette Coleman had on you at the time.

ZEITLIN:  When I first heard Ornette, I just loved that music.  I was in college at the time.  I think the first thing of his I heard was The Shape of Jazz To Come, and I just thought that was marvelous stuff.  I’d always enjoyed since I was 2 or 3 years old free improvisation!  So here were guys doing it in jazz and making a whole form, a whole life out of it.  I thought it was terrific. TP:    Is there anything within what I was talking about that you felt I neglected?

ZEITLIN:  I think we covered a lot of ground.  Just thinking in terms of all the parameters of what would be useful selfishly to me in a liner note, I would hope, though it’s always nice for an artist to imagine that everybody who will buy the album knows who he is, there hopefully will be some people who may hear me for the first time on the air, and say, “Gee, I’d like pick up that CD” and they get it… So if you would be willing to establish some of my credentials in context of the liner notes, the stuff that’s highlighted in the third paragraph of the bio.

TP:    Last night I did a search on you, and two things popped out.  One thing was a blindfold test that Leonard Feather did with Thelonious Monk.  Monk wasn’t listening to anything anyone was playing unless it was an interpretation of Monk, and at the end of the Blindfold Test he played him “Carole’s Garden.”  This was after Monk had pointedly gone to the toilet while Leonard Feather played an Oscar Peterson trio thing.  Monk was listening and said, “Yeah, that piano player knows what’s happening!  He’s a player!  He’s on a Bobby Timmons kick, and that can’t be bad.”  Then I noticed a Marion McPartland interview where she said your technique in playing was so fantastic when you duetted that she felt like a tidal wave was washing over her.  She’s a very gracious person, but not prone to compliments such as that.

How much time do you have now and how much need do you have now to practice?  Is technique something that’s innate in you from having played the piano for so long?  Do you have to practice a great deal to keep up your technique?  If so, how do you find the time to do that?

ZEITLIN:  I do try to get to the piano every day, not so much out of a sense of duty to the instrument, but I am just called to it.  I want to get my hands on the keyboard and I want to get into music.  Because I have played for so long, I have a certain technical base that endures even during periods where I’m not able to play as much as I would like.  I’ve never been drawn to the playing of technical exercises.  I think the way I build whatever technique I had initially was from always pushing myself to play classical pieces that were somewhat beyond my current technical capability, and the act of trying to get those pieces together helped me garner new technical skills.  Now when I go to play, usually I’m just going to improvise, or with an ear towards possible composition.  Very often when I play I just have a tape recorder rolling in case something comes up that I’ll want to refer to later.  I want to be free from the tyranny of having to remember everything I play in case I want to notate it later, and so the tape recorder takes care of that and I can let the music flow as best I can and just sort of get out of the way.  Doing that certainly keeps my fingers lubricated, and it really nourishes my soul just to be with music.  Every time I sit down at the keyboard I remind myself of how profoundly grateful I am to be able to play.  And I think that kind of attitude has also helped me at moments where I am in danger of being derailed by intrusive thoughts of some kind.  Let’s say getting ready to play a concert, and I’m on the road and begin to think about, “Gee, did I really make that plane reservation” or “Did I pack such-and-such?” or “What about my passport?”  I start getting bothered by this things.  I just gentle myself out of that by reminding myself of, in fact, how grateful I am to be able to play.  So it becomes kind of an internal mantra that I will invoke at times when I could be distracted.  This could even happen at a millisecond of playing, in the moment of improvisation.

I think it’s a challenge all improvisers face, is how do you stay in the zone?  It’s certainly a challenge that athletes face and write about.  I’ve played tennis for many years and follow the sport, so a lot of my observations of the parallels of sports and improvisation came from playing tennis and watching tennis and listening to tennis players in interviews talk about their game.  The challenge of staying in that flow experience, or, as Arthur Ashe put it, “being in the zone,” is a tremendous one.  And how do you wipe away your memory of the stupid shot you just dumped into the net at an important point in the match?  How do you make this next point absolutely new?  The same thing is in the line of improvisation.  If I stumble for a moment, if I find myself playing an alternate idea rather than what I was reaching for, am I going to get involved in some self-castigation or a burst of embarrassment, or will I allow myself simply to let it go and be in the moment for this next millisecond of play?  I have found at times just that gentle reminder of the gratitude of being with music has a tremendously therapeutic effect for me.  And I have found actually in my work with patients who are involved in the creative arts, particularly creative performance arts, that talking with them about that has been extremely helpful for the.  In my role as a psychiatrist, using that concept has turned out to be extremely helpful for them, because they end up actually thinking about that and using that, and it centers them in their work.

TP:    Tell me a bit about your practice.  You mentioned that a couple was cancelling… Do you do many different areas of therapy?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I do.  I can tell you a little bit about what I don’t do.  I don’t do hospital psychiatry.  I don’t actively engage in psychological or psychiatric research.  I don’t have time for that, so I am engaged in a research group for the last 25 years that studies psychotherapy research.  I don’t work with very young children, and I don’t do any administrative psychiatry.  Long ago, I realized that if I wanted to be involved in a really organic, passionate way in two fields, I had to be realistic with myself about what aspects of those two careers I could involve myself in with the necessary dedication and intensity to get back and to be able to give what I wanted.  So I pared away these areas I just mentioned in psychiatry, and decided what I wanted to focus on was doing psychotherapy and teaching psychotherapy — that that’s where my heart really lies in the psychiatry field.  So what I do is focus on intensive outpatient psychotherapy, and work with individuals, couples, and people in groups.  On occasion in past years, I’ve worked with whole families, but I don’t do that any more.  I tend to work with people for more than a year at a time, some people for many years, if they’re really involved in in-depth explorations of their lives.  And I find it endlessly fascinating.  If I had been a surgeon, I can’t imagine what it would be like to do my three-thousandth appendectomy and to infuse it with new excitement.  But as much as it’s true that there are common themes that endlessly repeat in the human life cycle that one hears as you do this work, every person’s experience and presentation of this is unique, so that it really never gets old.  So every opportunity to sit down with a patient in my office again is a parallel opportunity for me to be grateful for the trust that this person is placing in me, grateful for the opportunity to try to understand another human being and to be helpful.

TP:    So it’s not so dissimilar from improvising.  There’s a set of forms that repeat in certain ways, but the context is infinitely different, as is the context and vibration… Not to stretch the theme too far.

ZEITLIN:  Well, I think that there are tremendous parallels.  We were talking yesterday about this merger experience and empathy, and that that and the whole idea of communication is a tremendous parallel between the two fields.  The idea of improvisation holds.  The main difference is that in my psychiatric office, I am the accompanist.  I am trying to help the patient solo in the best possible way they can, to tell their story.  At times it requires a little added embellishment, the addition of a semicolon or a couple of hyphens or placement of a period or a clarification or a sidebar.  That’s my function, is to help them feel that it’s as safe as possible to go into areas of their life that they might not otherwise be able to investigate.  When I’m accompanying another soloist on the bandstand, the role is really quite parallel.  The biggest difference is that there are times when I am soloing for long periods of time on a stage, and I’m not doing that in my office with patients.

TP:    Let’s run down the tunes one to ten.

ZEITLIN:  All right.  I haven’t given this any advance thought; this is right off the top of my head.

TP:    The title track would seem to be emblematic of your philosophy that music is a blessing.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I thought it was an awfully nice tune to use for the title.  The first time I ever heard that tune was from George Shearing very early in my experience of beginning to learn how to play jazz.  I don’t remember what album it was that he played it with his quintet, but it was one of his early MGM albums.  I always loved the piece.  I’d never played it, except for a duo recording with Charlie haden for ECM in the early ’80s.  It was a piece that Charlie always loved, and we approached it as a vehicle for him to solo on. Then when I was getting material ready for this date, I said, gee, it really would be nice to revisit this piece in a trio context and really play on it.  It’s interesting, as many tunes as Buster Williams has played over the years (you can imagine, there’s virtually nothing he’s not heard), for some reason he had never heard this piece.  He was very intrigued getting into it, and then of course he played his ass off on it.

We had agreed there would be a little vamp at the end of this piece on a particular chord that we would use to just ride out the piece.  I remember this was just a first take, and we did it, and we got into I think this delicious end vamp where there’s all kinds of time being played simultaneously, and just being overlaid and going in and out of phase with each other, and I found it so delicious to play on.  When it was over, we looked at each other and said, “Well, we sure don’t need to play another take on this one.”

TP:    Was most of this record like that?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, that was very much the flavor of the project.

TP:    “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” has been done by numerous people, but what’s your association?

ZEITLIN:  Actually the pull to do that piece was really suggested a few months earlier, when I was asked to participate in a Gershwin concert celebration.  I sat down and thought about, well, if I’m going to do some Gershwin pieces, what would I really like to do.  So I began to approach that tune and “The Man I Love” at that point.  I always like, when I approach a standard, to accept it as a challenge to be faithful to the original spirit of the piece, but to allow myself to approach it in a way that might breathe some fresh life into it.  That often involves not only reshaping it a little bit structurally, but most often reharmonizing it.  I have felt often when musicians approach reharmonization, they can get seduced by possibilities, and at its worst it becomes an exercise in how clever the musician can be.  And often, the tune gets lost, or it becomes so cluttered with reharmonized material that it becomes almost a logjam of material.  So for myself, I try to keep those pitfalls in mind, but allow myself to just see where the tune might go in a new way.

In the case of this tune, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” I didn’t do an awful lot of reharmonization, and actually there’s relatively little.  What I did is really, in terms of the arrangement, move us through a lot of different approaches to the material.  We state the head, then I play some solo piano on it and allowed myself to cast a nod in Art Tatum’s direction, then at the end of the solo piano which involves a little bit of stride influenced material, to bring Al in for a piano-drum duet, which I’ve always loved to do with drummers, and which he got into just beautifully.  Then we bring in the whole trio.  When the bass comes in, another level of excitement is added, then we’re burning on the tune for a while, and Buster takes a great solo.  The arrangement has a kind of arch form, because as the more double-time part ends, we move back into the original approach of the head of the tune from the beginning.  So in a way, it does form a lot of arch.

TP:    I think I was thinking of that particular performance when I asked you about your experience with Ahmad Jamal’s music.

ZEITLIN:  I don’t really count Ahmad as one of my influences.

TP:    And I’m not going to try to make him one!

ZEITLIN:  But I would certainly underline the comment I made yesterday.  I’ve heard so many people, and I’ve tried to be as porous as I can, and take stuff in.  It’s one of the things I worry about when I write a new composition.  After I write it and start playing it, and it becomes familiar to me, then I start to say, “Unh-oh, where might I have inadvertently taken this from?”  I’ve talked to a lot of jazz composers who go through pangs of that and say, “Unh-oh!”  In a sense, nothing is totally original.  How could it be?  But you hope that you’ve had enough of an aesthetic filter and enough of your own voice has developed over the years that it really emerges as your own.

TP:    In your professional experience, you haven’t done very much playing for singers, have you?

ZEITLIN:  No, not an awful lot.  I don’t think I’ve ever recorded an album with a singer.  I did one album with a singer that hasn’t been released, a wonderful singer named Susie Stern who wrote the lyrics to “Quiet Now,” which is probably my most well-known composition, courtesy of Bill Evans, who just kept recording it and recording it!  It was so flattering that he never seemed to get tired of it.  He kept it in his repertoire for about 25 years.  So Susie finally wrote a lyric that I could accept for that tune, and I did an album with her where she sings, and it’s just beautiful.

TP:    I ask the question because so many pianists paid the rent by accompanying singers for long periods.  But you always seem to have had a trio thing going on for yourself and sustained it.

ZEITLIN:  Yes.  If I had been a full-time musician having to put bread on the table with it, I might have had to do a number of projects like that.  Maybe some of them I might not have liked.  But that is one of the privileges I’ve experienced because of having two careers, is that I’ve really never had to do anything musical that didn’t really call to me.  I’ve been very lucky that way.

TP:    You’ve been blessed in that way, too.  Another point in addressing the American Songbook.  Are you a lyrics man?  Are you thinking of lyrics, internalizing them, or is it more the abstract sound of the song?

ZEITLIN:  It’s more of the latter.  I’ve read a number of musicians who feel it’s somehow crucial to know the lyric, and almost “How could not and play the tune?”  But in fact, most of these tunes are written music first, lyrics second, and my allegiance is to the composer, really, not the lyricist, although certainly the lyrics of some tunes end up embedded in my psyche, and I do find myself hearing fragments of them.  Certainly I hear a lot of Sinatra in my head when I hear any of these tunes that he’s recorded because I’m so totally taken with him.

TP:    You’re a Sinatra man.

ZEITLIN:  I am a Sinatra man in terms of male vocalists.  I would say my favorite female vocalists over the years have been Sarah Vaughan, Jackie Cain and Elis Regina.  Those names pop into my head.  Probably an unusual trio of names to list together.

TP:    Billy Taylor said the same thing vis-a-vis lyrics.  Now let’s discuss “For Heaven’s Sake.”

ZEITLIN:  That’s a tune that I first heard Billie Holiday do, and I have to list her with those other three.  Of course, she’s in the top echelon for me.  That was my first experience with the piece.  I couldn’t right now tell you the lyric to that piece, but that’s where I first heard it.  That’s another tune that I reharmonized a bit, and I love to play it.  I’ve been playing it for years, played it as a solo, in duo situations, and in trios, but I don’t think I ever had a chance to record it before.  There were a number of occasions when it was on the roster of possibilities but somehow it didn’t get done.  So I was happy to get this take done with Buster and Al, and it had just the feeling I wanted.  The tenderness and yearning that’s somehow inherent in that melody and in the structure really comes through.

TP:    “There and Back” is your first of two compositions here.  It seems your two most famous compositions were recorded by the time you were 26 or 27, which would be “Quiet Now” and “Carole’s Garden.”  Is composition intertwined with the notion of improvising for you?  You mentioned that you composed some tunes back when you had the Cool Tones as a kid.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I was composing literally at age 2 or 3.  It’s always been a part of my music, and I’ve always seen improvisation as spontaneous composition.  My hope, as part of my own personal aesthetic when I play, is that when I’m improvising there is a sense of a journey, that there is something organic about how it develops.  Ideally there would be almost a retrospective feeling of inevitability about how it had proceeded.  I don’t claim to reach that all the time, but that’s what I’m aiming at, I think, that it isn’t just a hodge-podge of possibilities or just a pastiche of colors or novelty for its own sake, but that there is something organic and a feeling of intentionality about it.

TP:    Is composing a systematic process for you, or is it more of the moment?

ZEITLIN:  Of the moment.  What happens usually is a few fragments or motifs will develop, and I’ll start working with them, and they’ll start building like crystals build in a solution.  There are rare occasions when something has just burst forth totally complete in some Mozartian fashion, but that’s rare for me.  I remember one tune that happened like that called “One Time Once,” which wrote itself as I was walking to a surgery lecture in medical school.  And there was a tune called “Brazilian Street Dance” which appeared all at once when I was working on a project for Paul Winter’s label, Living Music.  But what happens generally is that a section of a piece appears, or even a thematic idea that is like the beginning of crystallization or a seed from which a composition grows.

There’s basically two sections to “There and Now.”  The way we approach it once we’re improvising on it is that the A-section has more of a feeling of walking jazz time or more that kind of approach to it; the B-section has various kinds of funk or eighth-note/double-note feel on it.  I like the movement back and forth between those two feelings.  Harmonically the way it’s organized just happens to be a roadmap that appeals to me.  In many ways, I think of when I’m setting up pieces to be played by a group… I’m sort of setting up a roadmap that we can loosely follow to get from one destination to the other.  But there’s all kinds of possibilities for alternate routes, and I hope that they will be taken and I hope that I’ve set up some interesting roadblocks and detour signs along the way that will be challenging to myself and to my fellow musicians who are approaching the piece.  This piece has a number of opportunities like that, which I think brought out some interesting music.

TP:    I’m not familiar with “I’m All Smiles.”  Who wrote it?

ZEITLIN:  A guy named Leonard.  I think it was from a show.  I think the first time I seriously listened to that piece was on Barbra Streisand’s People album years ago for Columbia, which is my favorite album she’s ever done.  It had some fabulous arranging by Peter Mats(?).  It’s Streisand at her best.  It’s most free of the over-emotionality and stuff that she can fall prey to.  The purity of her voice and the feeling..it’s glorious.  And she sings this piece on it, and I’ve always loved it, and again, I was thinking about, “Well, what might I do for this album?”  I realized, “Well, I’ve never actually played that piece; why not get into it?”  So I did, and reharmonized it just a bit because the piece is so beautiful it doesn’t need much help.  We just approached it as a piece we could play and improvise on.  I think it unfolds in a very relaxed way.

TP:    Your “Cousin Mary” continues a line of Coltrane interpretations from that ’59-’60-’61 period of Coltrane.  I was listening to your solos on “Lazy Bird” and of “Fifth House,” which were real virtuoso turns, and I guess this one is very virtuosic, but a restrained, playful virtuosity, dancing through it and deconstructing it.  I was impressed with the ambiance of that interpretation.  Perhaps we can reprise some of your comments yesterday about your response to Coltrane.

ZEITLIN:  Well, I remember my response to the whole Giant Steps album when it first appeared; it was a pivotal album for me.  I was going away on a fishing trip where I wasn’t going to be near much of civilization for a while, and I actually went into a little record store that was near this fishing town.  I rebought the album and made a deal with the record store owner that I could park it with him, and that probably a couple of times in the next two or three weeks, while I was on this fishing trip, I would be needing to come in and hear it.  So that album was precious to me.  I’d played “Cousin Mary” before as a duo.  What I wanted to do again is certainly be respectful to Coltrane, but allow myself to experiment with the tune and its possibilities, so I did reharmonize the head, as you can hear.  Then we really approached it as a blues that you can do anything you want with, and this is what happened on that day.  There is quite a bit of deconstructing of the harmonic structure of the blues at various points in the improvisation.  I felt that Al and Buster were totally up for it.  We took it into some I thought rather unusual spaces that were very exciting and intriguing, and I thought that the overall rhythmic drive of the piece was never lost.  I liked trading sixes with Al; it just kind of happened, and worked out, I thought, very nicely.

“Triste” is a Jobim tune, a tune I first heard Elis Regina do in an album called Elis and Tom with Jobim playing and his arrangements.  I just love that album (it’s one of my all-time favorite Brazilian albums), and I love that piece.  I wanted a bossa-nova, and I’d never played this tune nor recorded it, and so we did it.  That tune I felt required no reharmonization from me.  We play it basically just as Jobim wrote it.

“Canyon” is a minor-bluesoid construction.  It has an unusual little melody the way it’s placed.  It’s a lot of fun to play.  I thought we just got into it and went on a journey with it.

“I Fall In Love Too Easily” is a ballad I’ve loved for many years.  I can’t remember who I first heard do it; I remember hearing Miles do it in the early ’60s.  But I had only started to play it in the last decade or so, in duo or trio formats.  I don’t believe I’d ever recorded it.  This is a ballad that’s full of all kinds of feelings, and I think we really took our time with it, and it unfolds and has this kind of organic feel in terms of how the improvisation developed which I am looking and striving for.  It also happened on the ballad “For Heaven’s Sake,” that there is a real organic journey.

TP:    Finally, “The Man I Love” which is iconic Gershwin.

ZEITLIN:  Again, I tried to organize this in terms of the arrangement in ways to explore different kinds of things we could do as a trio.  I was hoping to see how deep and how broad we could go in this weekend we were going to play together.  It starts with a brief free improvisation on the piano which sets up a mood, then the melody gets stated and the trio comes in and organizes around it.  There’s a big of reharmonization in the structure of the piece, and then there is a vamp figures quite prominently in this piece that serves as I think a very exciting springboard into improvisational overlays.  I get involved in doing this, and then eventually at the end of the piece a kind of climatic session where Al starts soloing over the vamp while Buster and I state it.  Then we ride out the piece on that vamp.

TP:    Is the program in the sequence you recorded it in?

ZEITLIN:  No.  I’d say that would be an extraordinarily rare event.  You  play the pieces, you see what you’ve been able to harvest, then you figure how it would be most listenable when put together.

TP:    And this is the path you’ve followed from your beginnings, a mix of interesting standards, some originals, and some of what are called jazz standards as well.

ZEITLIN:  That’s absolutely true.  I’ve always tended on these projects to program for maximum variety, to sort of reflect what I would do in a concert.

TP:    You came up in Chicago at the same time as Andrew Hill, Herbie Hancock, [Eddie Harris], many of the people you mentioned.  I’m wondering if you see any particular Chicagoistic qualities in your approach to music.  People who came up then in Chicago talk about the ethos of Chicago musicians being individuality, that stamping your own sound and making your own statement was of paramount importance if you were going to be a respected musician in Chicago.  Apparently you were up 1960.  Your bio says you played professionally there, and the people you played with were individualists of the first order.  So the impact of Chicago on who you are as a musician.

ZEITLIN:  Not having grown up anywhere else, I can’t compare it!  As you say this, I flash back to remembering that there was a lot of value placed on somebody having their own thing.  There was a lot of respect; people would say, “Yeah, he’s got his own thing; he’s really doing something different; listen too that.”  That certainly is something I can recall.

TP:    But as far as forming your ideas, this sort of just happened.

ZEITLIN:  Yes.

TP:    As a teenager, once you started being able to drive is when you started going to clubs in Chicago?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, starting at age 15.

TP:    You’d go down Lake Shore Drive to 63rd Street and hit those clubs?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, and stay there til 4 or 5 in the morning and come home.

TP:    And go to school.

ZEITLIN:  Well, that was mostly on the weekends.

TP:    And your parents were fine with this?

ZEITLIN:  Well, they knew I was so utterly galvanized by this and that it was so deeply embedded in my psyche that it was important to just encourage and allow this to happen.  They had a tremendous amount of trust in me, that I wasn’t for example using drugs of any kind or having problems with alcohol,  and that I could be around a subculture like that without being involved in it.  And indeed, their trust was not misplaced, and I was trustworthy, and I was able to take this opportunity for this many-year informal apprenticeship in the music that was just priceless.  Because in those days there were no formal jazz schools.  This was the one had to learn it.  I spent hours and hours listening  to records and rehearsing with people in high school and with other people in Chicago, and then going and listening, and trying to get chances to sit in and get pointers from people, and collaring somebody after the gig and say, “Man, sit down with me for a minute here; how did you voice such-and-such?”  By osmosis trying to absorb as much of this art form as I could.

TP:    Did you check out Chris Anderson at all during this time?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, indeed.  That’s interesting.  Very few people even know about Chris.  But when I said I would collar somebody to show me a voicing, I was exactly thinking of a couple of experience I had with Chris where I said, “Chris, I’m not letting you go home.  You’ve got to sit down.  How did you voice this thing, man?”  He showed me some stuff.  I remember just a few remarks he made to me way-way back then that were very-very helpful.  He is an unsung hero, a wonderful musical mind, and everyone who was around in Chicago then knows of Chris and speaks of Chris.  Herbie Hancock talks of Chris, and Bobby Cranshaw remembers Chris fondly.  Chris is prototypic of the kind of musician I would try to collar.

TP:    So we could call him an influence.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, he was an early harmonic influence.

TP:    And perhaps a link between you and Herbie Hancock in some ways, as the two of you are roughly contemporaries.

ZEITLIN:  I never heard Herbie play until I heard him on record with Miles.  I never met him or heard him.  But we certainly grew up around the same period.

TP:    It’s fascinating to me.  You were very young and probably one of the few white kids who would be on that scene, and hanging with some people who had serious addiction problems, like Nicky Hill or Wilbur Ware or Wilbur Campbell.  I don’t know that most people who know you know much about Chicago, or how heavy the musical scene was in Chicago at that time.

ZEITLIN:  Again, having nothing to compare, all I can say is that I felt fortunate that there was so much going on and so much excitement that generally I found musicians so gracious and so willing to show me stuff and to give me a chance to play… I can’t say that it was always that way; there are instances where you try to talk your way into getting a chance to play at a jam session and it doesn’t happen because they don’t know you.  I certainly had experiences like that.  But overall, it was a very generous spirit in Chicago.  And also, I didn’t experience much Crow Jim flavor at all — only very rarely.  I got some of that in New York when I was sitting in at some places in 1963, when I was on a fellowship.  Got a little feeling of that and a little feeling of the ethnocentricity of New York.  But I didn’t feel that in Chicago growing up at all.  I didn’t feel racial tension at all!  I very often was the only white person in some of these clubs late at night, and I had no cause to feel like I was an intruder, that there was hostility coming my way or that I was in any kind of danger.  It just wasn’t happening.

The genesis of my two careers is the tremendous support I got from my parents, Nathaniel and Roslyn Zeitlin.  One anecdote I think will give you an idea of how supportive they were to me in both ways.  When I began to really get involved in eighth grade in high school and starting to play jazz, they would go to New York, where they typically would go every year because they loved theater, and they would go to all their shows, all their plays, and afterwards, even though neither had been a jazz fan at all prior to my interest, they would go to all the jazz clubs where all my heroes were playing, they would listen to their music, and they would get these players to jot down little notes to me on cocktail napkins!  I remember one from Marion McPartland, and one from George Shearing, and one from Billy Taylor on one occasion.

TP:    Bird?

ZEITLIN:  No, not Bird.  I only got to hear Bird play live once in my life, in a very unlikely context — playing in front of Stan Kenton’s orchestra.  He was looking very dissipated.  But it was a thrill just to hear him play.

[-30-]

 

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Chicago, Chris Anderson, Denny Zeitlin, DownBeat, Liner Notes

For Evan Parker’s 70th Birthday, a 2010 DownBeat Feature

The sui generis master soprano and tenor saxophonist Evan Parker turns 70 today. I’ve been enthralled with his music for several decades now, and have had several opportunities to interact with him, initially in 1990 through the auspices of Ben Young, who organized what I believe was a ten-day festival of his music, and allowed me to participate in an on-air interview. In the early aughts, on assignment from Jazziz, I interviewed Evan and photographer Thomas Struth (it wasn’t published). Then, in the winter of 2009-10, I wrote a long profile for DownBeat framed around  a long residency at the Stone. The piece ran a little shorter than I would have preferred, and for the occasion, I’ve offered a director’s cut, a bit more lugubrious than the final copy, but more thorough.

* * * *

 Evan Parker Article, Downbeat, 2010 (Early Draft):

“I believe that when you’re playing freely with other people, it helps if you know what they’re about, that there’s a life in that relationship or set of relationships that underlines the group, that there is an ongoing discussion, as it were, or dialogue. The notion of the ideal group improvisation being something that happens once, and then you say goodbye, doesn’t make any sense at all.  You have nothing to judge it by; there’s no point of reference. It can be acceptable in a context, which has not to do with the specifics of any of those people’s work, but simply the background of the context. Of course, every relationship has to start with the first hello. But I’ve found it necessary to terminate some relationships fairly soon after they were started.  I’m trying to be wiser about all of those kind of things, and not to initiate new projects simply for the sake of working or keeping busy, but to have a reason behind it.” – Evan Parker, 2003

Forty-five years into his career as a professional improviser, saxophonist Evan Shaw Parker remains a  perpetual road warrior, pursuing a lifestyle—on the move at least six months a year, long rides in cars or trains or airplanes from one destination to another, irregular sleep and meals, less than stellar accommodations—that could wear down most artists half his age. Yet Parker, who turns 66 this year, embraces the sacrifice of itinerancy with the enthusiastic attitude of a circuit-riding preacher or union organizer of days gone by whose imperative it was to deliver the message in person.

Parker travels not to praise the Lord or organize the masses, but to find as many contexts as possible in which to present his sui generis conception of the saxophone. He drew first principles from the innovations of the ‘60s avant-garde—John Coltrane and Albert Ayler were Parker’s window into the use of multiphonics, overtones, and circular breathing—and grafted onto this aesthetic bedrock the harmonic extremities of European post-12-tone modernism, a global array of scales and intervals drawn from Herman Helmholtz’s authoritative lexicon, and independent fingering and projection techniques associated with playing the Scottish bagpipes and the launeddas, an ancient three-pipe Sardinian reed instrument. He’s refined his language with micronic precision, developing his ability to articulate and develop two or three simultaneous lines in a sort of musique concrete counterpoint.

“A lot of material is completely in the muscles and in the nervous system—there’s no effort to control it, no effort to think,” Parker told me a few years back of the way his imagination functions as he plays solo. He describes a process analogous to ars memoria, the medieval system of memorizing large systems—and also the oral traditions of preliterature cultures—by placing objects in familiar places. “I enter that room where the music is,” he said. “I can do almost anything to open the door, then I look around until my attention lights on some particular place and I know roughly where I am. I look again. What is this place about?  What is new?  What didn’t I find out the last time I was here? I stay until something happens, and takes me somewhere else.  Not really leading the music, but following it where it seems to be going.”

Even by his standards, Parker took on, as he put it, “an exceptional schedule” over the last three months of 2009, bringing his tenor and soprano saxophones to an extraordinary array of encounters. There was an October duo in Barcelona with Catalan pianist Agusti Fernandez and workshops and concerts with Barry Guy and Paul Lytton in Cannes and Paris. A two-week tour with the Schlippenbach-Lovens trio included engagements in Berlin, Ulrichsberg, Prague and Brataslava, where Parker also found time to play a recital with Alvin Lucier, a concert with the Globe Unity Orchestra, and a gig with the electronic unit Groovetronic. He guested with the out-trio Marteau Rouge in Tours, Paris, and Brussels; navigated composer-cellist-electronicist Walter Prati’s processed structures with a medium-sized ensemble in Milan; triologued  with regular mates John Edwards and Tony Marsh at London’s Vortex, where he has a monthly hit, and with keyboardist Stephen Gruen and drummer Philip Marks in Liverpool.

Prior to all of these events (directly following a 3,000-mile, 7-gigs-in-7-nights tour with extended techniques sax master Ned Rothenberg that had begun on the West Coast and ended in Montreal), Parker presided over an audacious first-two-weeks-of-October residence at the Stone, John Zorn’s Lower East Side venue,where it was evident that he listens as attentively to others as to the voices deep within him. Directly after a seven-hour drive from Montreal to New York, he launched the event with a solo recital executed with characteristic derring-do, followed an hour later by an avuncular duo with synthesist Richard Teitelbaum in which Parker, playing soprano saxophone, created instantaneous acoustic responses to Teitelbaum’s assorted burbles, birdcalls, critter onomatopoeia, virtual percussion, swoopy waves, Bachian cello, celestial harmonics, and prepared piano pings—they ended spontaneously on the same pitch.

Such energy and acuity belied whatever exhaustion Parker may have felt, and he delineated the harmonics with such precision that only the most educated ear could discern that he was playing with a stock mouthpiece, having recently left his three painstakingly customized ones on a train. But to wallow in self-pity was not an option, and Parker would carry on. Hunkered down three blocks away in a small flat on Avenue D, he took on all comers, two shows a night of one-shots with partners representing vastly different predispositions and ways of thinking about music.

In the opening section of his meeting with Fred Frith, Parker projected droll tenor responses to Frith’s Dadaesque antics on lap guitar (he brushed it as though polishing a shoe and prepared the bowed strings with a tin can and chain metal); then unleashed a jaw-dropping unaccompanied interlude on soprano before rejoining the dialogue with with vertiginous intervals and audacious unisons; then uttered a long tenor drone which Frith somehow complemented with more prepared bowed strings.

Earlier in the run, before a house so jammed that the fire marshals cleared it before they were done, Parker and Milford Graves played a five-part suite marked by incessant rhythmic modulation and dynamic ebb-and-flow. After Parker unleashed Coltranesque torrents in the tenor’s lower register in the second movement, he switched to a balladic seven-note theme that received intense theme-and-variation treatment. Graves’ slow rolling tom-toms that crescendoed to jet-force, propelling Parker into a multiphonic whirlwind. An hour later, with George Lewis on trombone, laptop, and interactive electronics with which to modify and manipulate the pitch qualities of Parker’s soprano saxophone lines, Parker—his face beet-red, his embouchure visible as a dimple-line running 45 degrees from nose to jaw—went with the flow, circular-breathing to create a feedback loop of chirps and crackles and waves.

To honor Thelonious Monk’s birthday came a few nights later,  Parker, Matthew Shipp and William Parker played an informed 55-minute abstraction of “Shuffle Boil,” interpolating other Monk fragments at various points. “If they’d jumped on the tune at the very outset, well, it would have gone another way,” Parker said two days later over a lunch of roast chicken, tostones, and rice-and-beans on Avenue C.  Salt-bearded and bespectacled, with a barrel chest and thick soccer legs, he wore a charcoal shirt, black jeans and black loafers, and carried a just-purchased copy of Robin Kelley’s new Monk biography. “But they played ambiguously in relation to it,” he continued. “The point is to do it in such a way that it’s there if you want to hear it, and not there if you don’t want to hear it. It’s raw material. It’s a free choice. When you say you’re playing freely, it also means you are free to play things that you absolutely know and things that are rather predictable.”

Parker related that for his sixtieth birthday, outcat pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, a constant associate since the latter ‘60s on such Eurocentric projects as the Globe Unity Orchestra and a long-standing trio with drummer Paul Lovens, most recently documented on Gold Is Where You Find It [Intakt], had presented him with a handwritten folio of Monk tunes, transposed for saxophone, that also contained a drawing of Parker (Schlippenbach refers to his mild-mannered partner as “The Bishop of Faversham”) topped with a Bishop’s mitre,

“I’ve since got the official book, which Steve Lacy told me was accurate, and I’ve been trying to memorize them all as an homage to Steve,” Parker continued. “When I was here as a teenager I heard his School Days band at a Bleecker Street coffee shop called Phase 2. At the end of the first set, Steve said to the audience, which must have been five of us, ‘We’d like to remind you, ladies and gentlemen, that we play requests; the band will play any tune by Thelonious Monk.’ On his way back to the bandstand, I said, ‘Mr. Lacy, I’d love to hear “Four In One.”’ He said, “Uh-HUH”—and they played ‘Four In One’!

“Since then, it’s become almost a rite of passage to get to grips with those things, to play on the structures or just use them as study material. Monk had a very rigorous approach to constructing a line, a melody, which Steve distilled in his own work—systematic combinatorics of limited interval types in order to bring out their inherent characters. There are a thousand ways to define what we mean by a fourth, a major third, a minor third. The material goes beyond scales and arpeggios—the idea is to get it to fall under your fingers in a way that you’re not simply playing from the riff book. You have to hear your way through, know what is the underlying cliche and how to disguise it. I make the analogy with the armature in a sculpture. A sculptor might use a steel frame underneath to hold the clay in certain positions which otherwise it wouldn’t hold. But it’s not the armature that’s interesting. It’s the form of the clay. Without those things it’s just…formless might not be the word, but lacking in structural integrity.”

[BREAK]

The weekend after Parker left town, in an odd quirk of scheduling, the Abrons Center on Grand Street, a half-mile south of the Stone, hosted a two-day festival dedicated to the legacy of Incus Records, the label that Parker, Bailey and Tony Oxley co-founded in 1970. After Oxley departed a few years later, Parker and Bailey—who died in 2005—served as co-directors. They ran an efficient operation, producing some of the seminal documents of European free improvisation. They split on acrimonious terms in 1985, with Parker keeping possession of his own copyrights and master tapes. Since 2001, he has been bringing back into print—along with new material by himself and various associates—on Psi, his imprint, which now boasts a catalog of over 60 items.

“It functioned quite well for a while,” Parker said. “But it’s very hard for two people to agree about everything, and we didn’t agree about everything. In fact, towards the end, we didn’t agree about anything. I wasn’t happy being treated as though I was number-two in a situation where we should be equal. So I just thought the best thing to do would be to take my ball and go home.”

This was all Parker had to say about the rift. “Derek is no longer here to speak up for himself,” he said. However, George Lewis, who was close to both, offered some observations.

“Derek was a very forceful personality,” Lewis said. “He was a little curmudgeonly, very determined and single-minded. That attracted a lot of people. At the same time, uncompromising people like that tend to have very few friends, because people can’t handle it for long periods of time. But Evan seemed to be a person who could handle that, and was able to mold things that Derek did to his own requirements. Derek was very private; part of him would be very suspicious if he thought people liked it too much. Whereas I think Evan is more comfortable with being liked. Being loved, really—people love both these guys. They were together so much that when they finally stopped being together, it was wounding not only to them, but to the larger community.”

Parker was willing to discuss the ways in which his and Bailey’s respective personalities played out in their musical production, “Maybe the most crucial difference between Derek’s approach and mine is that I’m interested in a much more adaptive language, a much more flexible sense of musical persona,” he said. “The main job is to select the relevant material, much more of the material that I use to represent myself, the music masks that I use to play behind, or through, varies with the context than Derek’s. ‘Mask’ is a much more complicated idea than simply a disguise, something to hide behind.  Think of the way masks are used in African music ritual. The mask is a particular chosen projection of identity.”

Unlike Bailey and most of his contemporaries from the first generation of European experimental improvisers, Parker chose to embrace American jazz as a lineal, if often hidden influence. “It’s just where I come from,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I don’t know about Boulez and Stockhausen and Xenakis and all those other things. But in shaping the idea of personal direction, the point that Coltrane got to, especially in Interstellar Space, is a kind of defined place. Even the idea of kind of multi-linear approach to soprano is derived from thinking about certain things Coltrane was doing on the longer solos on “My Favorite Things,” where he’s sort of hinting at two lines and keeping two lines going. There’s an enormous lack of modesty involved in thinking you can do anything past that, and you have to be aware of this. But through practice and effort and concentration on what makes your direction YOUR direction, there are some corners left to work in.”

Told that Rothenberg had remarked on his “whirling” time feel, “with a pulse that tends to breathe in a kind of ebb-and-flow,” Parker described it as his “default mode,” citing not only “the work I had to do to play with John Stevens,” the British drummer with whom he made much music in the ‘60s and ‘70s (“it was a baptism of fire”), but also “the constellation” of the New York Art Quartet with John Tchicai and Milford Graves, Milford’s duo with Don Pullen, the Coltrane-Rashied Ali duos, the Jimmy Giuffre Trio. “These were the very last bits of concerted influence, where you feel, ‘Ok, these are the materials that I must learn to deal with,’” he said. “After that, it became essential to deal with what John Stevens was doing, what Derek, Paul Rutherford, Paul Lytton, Barry Guy, and all the people associated with that first generation of London-based free improvisers were doing.”

Parker’s simpatico for the American—or, more accurately, New York—context stems from the summers of 1962 and 1963 when, by dint of a free flight enabled by his father’s position with BOAC, the predecessor of British Airlines, he was able to see his musical heroes on their home turf. Ensconced in a YMCA on 34th Street, he bought records by day and haunted clubs and coffee houses at night. In addition to the aforementioned encounter with Lacy, he heard Eric Dolphy with Herbie Hancock at Birdland, Cecil Taylor’s trio with Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray at Phase 2 on Bleecker Street, Carla Bley in duo with Gary Peacock.

“Coltrane was always out of town, so I didn’t hear him here, though I’d heard him in England in 1961,” Parker recalled. “But to hear Cecil Taylor before he came to Europe for the first time, to hear Dolphy and Herbie Hancock before Herbie went with Miles—I’m not going to forget those things. From that point, New York was the center of the world as far as the music I was interested in.”

[BREAK]

“I’m ready for a break,” Parker said at the beginning of February from his home in Kent, referencing his recent travels. Over a month or so of down time, he would work on “thinking about how to practice, practicing, organizing for the label and for events coming up.” Most important among the latter, he said, were several concerts with his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, a project that he has documented since 1997 on five ECM CDs, increasing the number of participants from six to 14 on the most recent iteration,  The Moment’s Energy, which includes Rothenberg on clarinets and shakuhachi, Peter Evans on trumpets, and Ko Ishikawa on sho, a reed-based Japanese mouth organ, an orchestra’s worth of real-time electronic processing vehicles. In distinction to the prior ECM dates, Parker used the studio as another instrument, remixing and realigning the  materials of the real-time version to construct a final document. It’s the latest development in Parker’s ongoing investigation of digital media as a tool to transcend the limits of what he can do with the saxophone.

“What works for a concert is not necessarily what works for a record to be played in people’s homes,” Parker said. “It’s partly to do with dynamic range, partly with what Manfred Eicher  calls dramaturgie. You don’t quite know the circumstances under which the record will be played. So the idea of modifying something in response to that is no longer a kind of heresy for me. It’s just part of the work, and if people want to discuss it and take positions for or against, well, that’s fine.”

For all the audaciousness and fire that he projects through his horn, Parker’s extraordinary chops have brought him trouble with members of the “avant-garde police,”  who have accused him of being a sort of overly technical, non-interactive Johnny-one-note more concerned with attaining individual transcendence than dialogic interaction. Bailey’s biographer Ben Watson, a doctrinaire Trotskyite, most memorably expressed this critique with the shit-sling, “the totalitarian afflatus of [Parker’s] technique steamrollers specific ambiance, turning his music into the kind of dependable commodity required by promoters and applauded by the general public.”

Lewis addressed this issue in a more nuanced way. “Derek liked to smash genres together, people from different traditions and practices,” he said. “Evan was starting to do this as well, but then he broke away from it. Now it’s reached a new level where he is content to be at the center of his own world than ever before; he’s found ways to make music that bears his stamp, music that’s him,  through the medium of improvisation. It’s not being an improviser that’s important. It’s what Evan’s music is.”

For Parker, who developed Anarcho-Socialist leanings during university days, philosophical materialism coexists in pragmatic equipoise with his investigations into the mysteries of shamanism, as he denotes with his label’s name.

“I juggle those things every day,” he said. “I’m very encouraged by current developments which are more related to finding consensus on the solution to specific problems, and less concerned with building an overarching ideology that purports to solve all problems at a stroke. Shamanism, by the way, is one of the ways that you can solve some of those small problems. It’s metaphysics, but it’s also practical. Spiritual is material, too. If you define materialism as to recognize the way things work, then we have to include psi phenomena, the things which physicists can’t explain.”

Parker himself found it difficult to explain the criteria he uses to decide what constitutes a successful performance, and what to release and not-release, either on his label or others. He had not yet found time to evaluate his massive output at the Stone, which was professionally recorded and line-mixed. “It would be crazy not to release some of it, but I want to make sure I do it properly.”

“It’s a total response,” he added. “It can be a good idea sometimes to wait a year or more before you listen, otherwise you just reinforce the memories of the struggle that was involved, which may affect your objectivity and not be at all important in the bigger picture. It’s easier to be positive about some solo thing that you feel came out well. Everything else is complicated about expectations about what other people may or may not do. All I can say is that if I think that the thing is a failure, I have no problem leaving it on the shelf.”

He remarked that he had worked for a decade on Time Lapse [Tzadik],  a critically acclaimed high-concept unaccompanied suite in which he juxtaposes unaccompanied and overdubbed solos, an endeavor he launched in 1991 with Process and Reality [FMP]. “I wanted to give John something special,” he said.  “I had to think and plan something that wouldn’t disappoint John, who I think of as a man with very high standards, both ethically and aesthetically,” Parker said. “It’s not that I would set out to disappoint anybody. But in John’s case, it’s a case of ‘Among roses, be a rose.’”

He added that he had taken similar care with House Full Of Floors,  his 2009 Tzadik release, on which Aleks Kolkowski, playing Stroh viola, cylinders, and musical saw, joins Parker, guitarist John Russell and bassist John Edwards on a pair of quartet  improvs—on the final track, the trio responds to a Kolkowski-generated wax cylinder of their playing.

“John proposed the New York event, and we negotiated the programming,” Parker said. They met in 1978, the year Parker first came to the U.S. professionally, doing 29 solo concerts in 33 days, and remained in touch ever since.

“It was a highly memorable two weeks,” he retrospected. “New York was always a special city for me, from its mythic origins to my first experiences there as a young man. Every time I come back, I get a feeling that I don’t get anywhere else in the world. There’s an incredible community of players to draw on. And John’s support for the venture allowed me to be among friends. The Stone is absolutely my kind of space, like a non-denominational chapel of music. There’s no frills. It’s a room where you can play some music and some people can come and listen.”

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