Category Archives: DownBeat

For Wayne Shorter’s 81st Birthday, A Brief Conversation About Blue Note Records and a Link to a 2002 Feature In Jazziz

A bit of grandmaster Wayne Shorter’s flavor comes through in this brief conversation we had in 2008 for a DownBeat piece in which several dozen musicians talked about their favorite Blue Note recording. I’ve appended it below in recognition of his 81st birthday, and linked as well to a post from three years containing a feature piece I wrote about Mr. Shorter for Jazziz in 2002.

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Wayne Shorter on Favorite Blue Note Recording (Nov. 12, 2008):

WS:   You know like Duke Ellington said what was his favorite composition? The next one. Everything that happened is a work in progress, and that makes it great in itself. But favorites? That’s a controlled selling-marketing thing. It’s time to change just even the way life is perceived, so I’m starting right here. You can put that in. Downbeat can be one of the forerunners in changing how music and everything is perceived.

TP:   I wouldn’t disagree. But I’m wondering if , as a teenager, in your formative years, you were into Monk’s records on Blue Note as they were coming out, or Bud Powell’s records, or Miles Davis’ records.

WS:   I’ll just put it this way. More than…actually, not more than the records… Two guys, Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, started Blue Note, and they had the perception and the kind of vision to stick to their guns—as Monk would say, stick to your guns. They stuck with something that was almost doomed to be like the low man on the totem pole or the marketplace, or even some people wishing it would fail. But I would say that you don’t have that kind of dedication… I don’t think they set out to be billionaires. But who is like that now? This is the 70th anniversary of Blue Note, and to capture that, who is like Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, the creators of that record label, and the musicians who created all that stuff then… It doesn’t have to sound like it did then, but who has… I think Downbeat would be well-advised to have their searchlight on who’s the Lone Ranger? Who’s sticking their neck way out there, in the middle of a falling economy and everything like that? The 75th anniversary in this falling economy is the time to create. That’s what I would celebrate for 75 years.

Whatever the music that was done on the Blue Note label expressed the challenge of doing this, the challenge of change. The only constant is change, so to speak. Without naming them all, all those artists that they had…I mean, they weren’t doing “Sunny Side of the Street.” They were not doing the hit stuff, the comfort zone stuff.

TP:   No, they were doing original music.

WS:   Yes. I think Blue Note probably had their finger on something, that you need that kind of resistance in the marketplace, that overwhelming resistance to commercial stuff to be used as fuel. It takes resistance for an airplane to take off. So we can thank the Madison Avenue marketing machine for all of the fights that they put up against originality.

TP:   Did you listen to, say, the Monk records on Blue Notes or the Bud Powell records when you were a teenager?

WS:   I listened to Monk before he was on Blue Note. I didn’t get into music until I was about 15, and I heard mostly on the radio… Some of that music was probably on Dial or Savoy, Charlie Parker and all that. I was listening to a show called New Ideas in Music… I know you want to pinpoint this to Blue Note.

TP:   Well, that’s what the article is about. But I’m all ears.

WS:   Not even being in music, I was listening to Art Tatum. I was listening to Shostakovich, all the classical people—New Ideas In Music, every Sunday it came on. I heard Toscanini do his last performance, where he put the baton down and said “goodbye” to the audience on the radio. Later on, I was checking out the music that was on Blue Note, what inspired the musicians, like, when they went to the movies—some of them talked about it. John Coltrane was on Blue Note for a minute. I know he went to the movies.  Charlie Parker wasn’t on Blue Note. But Blue Note or not, these musicians saw things in life that really escape us now, and I think Blue Note managed to capture a lot of the things that they saw in life. I think that Blue Note was a way of providing not just a musical voice, but a voice of what these guys wrote about, like Horace Silver. He wrote about things. Some song called “Room 608,” someplace, somewhere he had to stay, where he couldn’t pay the rent—stayed in a hoity-toity place. The wrote about and played about those things. If you just look at a lot of the song titles, and shuffled them, like put them in a puzzle, you’d probably get a sentence-tized story. You’d get a paragraph from a lot of the titles. You could spend all day doing that. [LAUGHS] All those titles, it becomes its own lyric. For me, it’s like gathering all of the things that have gone hither and thither and pulling them into a place where you can see what the celebration means of 75 years.

TP: It’s 70 years of Blue Note and 75 of Downbeat, which is a long time.

WS:   Yeah, I guess Downbeat was a voice for things people talk about that you couldn’t get. You won’t get this in the Enquirer. Pre-Internet, you could put Downbeat in that category. If you look up Downbeat on the Internet, you can say… It makes sense.

My job still, in jazz or what we call the creative process, is to break through the very mandates that they want in celebrating the 75 years of this and that, Downbeat and Blue Note. Someone has to break through that, too. That still has to be a creative process, even if you have to come out legless! Send me to the hospital with the veterans. I’m not being facetious. I’m just saying at this point, a lot of us are, symbolically…we can’t run around and jump around like a lot of the young guys do. So we take it like this. We have nothing to lose. Let’s have some fun, man! I’m taking the solemness out of it…the anniversary!

TP:   I hope this will not have been a waste of your time.

WS:   No! Hey, man, communication is important. Even the most difficult areas of communication is a challenge. Life is so complex, and life should be complex.

I’ll see you in the movies. The movie of your life, where you’re the producer, director and actor, describing your own destiny. We need you guys to write more novels…

TS:   We need more everything.

WS:   Yeah, we need it, man. Won’t you join?

[END OF CONVERSATION]

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For Brad Mehldau’s 44th Birthday, A 2006 WKCR Conversation and a 2000 DownBeat Blindfold Test

No pianist of his generation has had a greater impact on the sound of jazz circa 2014 than Brad Mehldau, who turns 44 today. For the occasion, I’m appending the transcript of a conversation we had on WKCR in 2006, which was originally web-published a few years ago on http://www.jazz.com. Some may also be interested in this uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test, which I posted on this blog in 2011.

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IN CONVERSATION WITH BRAD MEHLDAU


Below is the first part of Ted Panken’s extensive interview with pianist Brad Mehldau. Click here, for part two of this article. Also check out jazz.com’s Dozens feature on twelve essential Brad Mehldau tracks, and the essay“Assessing Brad Mehldau at Mid-Career.”


 

by Ted Panken

 Brad Mehldau, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

You met Jorge Rossy, the drummer in your working trio between 1995 to 2003, in the early ’90s, perhaps when he arrived in New York from Boston.

Yes. Jorge already had a lot of musical relationships with people that I met after him—for instance, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier as well, Joshua Redman, Chris Cheek, Bill McHenry. A lot of people who you hear about now as fully developed, with their own voices, at that time were also growing up together. As a lot of people still do, they went to Boston first, and then came to New York. I met them all when they came here.

You, on the other hand, decided to jump into the sharkpit right away.

I came straight here.

I recall someone saying that they asked you what it was like at the New School, and you responded that it was a good reason to be in New York!

Yes. [laughs]

Reflecting back, how would you evaluate that early experience, newly-arrived at 18? You’re from Connecticut, so presumably you knew something about New York at the time.

A little bit. I knew that I wanted to come here because it was everything that the suburbs wasn’t. I was a white, upper-middle-class kid who lived in a pretty homogenized environment. Yet, I was with a couple of other people, like Joel Frahm, the tenor saxophonist, who went to the same high school as me. A group of us were trying to expose ourselves to jazz. So New York for us was something that was sort of the Other, yet it wasn’t too far away—a 2-hour-and-15-minute car or bus ride. What really cemented me wanting to go to New York was when I came here with my folks during my senior year of high school, and we went one night to Bradley’s, and heard the Hank Jones-Red Mitchell duo. That blew me away, seeing someone play jazz piano like that, about six feet from you.

A couple of blocks away from where you’d be going to school.

That’s right. The next night I heard Cedar Walton’s…well, the collective Timeless All-Stars formation, which was with Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, Ron Carter, and Harold Land, small ensemble jazz. The immediacy of hearing Billy Higgins’ ride cymbal and seeing Cedar Walton comping, after hearing it for three years on all those great Blue Note records I had. That was it. I knew I had to come here, just from an actual visceral need to get more of THAT as a listener.

When you arrived at the New School, how did things progress? How fully formed were your ideas at the time?

I was pretty formed. Not to sound pompous, but I was more developed as a musician than maybe half of the students there,. But a few students there were a little ahead of me, and also two or three years older, which was perfect, because in addition to the teachers who were there, they acted as mentors and also friends. One was Peter Bernstein, the guitarist, another was Jesse Davis, the alto saxophonist. Larry Goldings was there, playing piano mostly—he was just starting to play an organ setup. Those guys were immediately very strong influences on me. I have a little gripe in the way we tell the narrative of jazz history, or the history of influence. People often are influenced by their peers, because they’re so close to them, and that was certainly the case for me. Peter and Larry had a huge influence on everything I did playing in bands at that time. That’s pretty much what I was doing. I wasn’t trying to develop my own band. I was just being a sideman and soaking everything up.

If I’m not mistaken, your first record was in 1990, with Peter Bernstein and Jimmy Cobb. Jimmy Cobb had a little group at the Village Gate maybe at the time?

Yes, Jimmy Cobb had a group that was loosely called Cobb’s Mob with Peter and [bassist] John Webber. He still has it in different incarnations. It’s a quartet, most of the time with Pete playing guitar. Jimmy Cobb taught at the New School, and his class was basically play with Jimmy Cobb for 2-1/2 hours once a week. For me, that was worth the price of the whole thing.

I think Larry Goldings said that during the first year, when the curriculum was pretty seat-of-the-pants. . .

Very loose!

 Brad Mehldau, by Jos L. Knaepen

Arnie Lawrence would interrupt the harmony class, and say, “Okay, Art Blakey is here for the next three hours,” and that would become what the class did.

But getting back to this notion of influences from your contemporaries, how did their interests augment the things that you already knew? I’d assume that by this time, you were already pretty well-informed about all the modernist piano food groups, as it were.

A fair amount. I came here at 18 completely in a Wynton Kelly thing. Then it was early McCoy, then Red Garland thing, and then late ’50s Bill Evans. I was jumping around stylistically and still absorbing stuff I hadn’t heard maybe until four years in New York, and then I slowed down. It’s that whole notion of input and output, where you get just so much, and then slow down to digest.

But in New York, I suppose you’d have to find ways to apply these ideas in real time.

Right.

I’m interested in the way that process happened, to allow you to start forming the ideas that people now associate with your tonal personality.

Definitely. When I came to New York I had sort of a vocabulary, but not much practical knowledge of how to apply that in a group setting, which to me is indispensable if you’re a jazz musician. Part of my definition is playing with other people, and, if you’re a piano player, comping. Comping in jazz is very difficult to teach in a lesson, because it’s a social thing, an intuitive thing, something that you gain from experience—the seat of the pants. It also happens through osmosis—I watched players like Larry Goldings, Kevin Hays (who I was checking out a lot), and of course, people like Cedar Walton and Kenny Barron. Nothing can replace the experience of watching a piano player comp behind a soloist. If you watch closely and to see what works and what doesn’t, that will rub off very quickly. I’d say doing that helped me become a more social musician, versus friends of mine who came to the city at the same time I did but stayed in their practice room the whole time. You don’t develop in that same social way, which to me is indispensable as a jazz musician.

Did you have direct mentoring from any of the older pianists?

I had some very good lessons at the New School with Kenny Werner and Fred Hersch, and Junior Mance was my first teacher there. He was a little different than Fred and Kenny. Fred concentrated on getting a good sound out of the piano and playing solo piano a lot, which was great, because I hadn’t gotten there yet. Perfect timing. Kenny showed me ways to construct lines and develop my solo vocabulary—specific harmonic stuff. With Junior, it was more that thing I described of soaking it up by being around him. We would play on one piano, or, if we had a room with two pianos, we”d play on two. I said, “I want to learn how to comp better. I listened to you on these Dizzy Gillespie records, and your comping is perfect. How do you do that?” He said, “Well, let’s do it.” So we sat down, and he would comp for me, and then I would comp for him and try to mimic him. Yeah, soak up what he was doing. Junior is a beautiful person. A lot of those guys to me still are models as people, for their generosity as human beings, and Junior is certainly one in that sense.

Did you graduate from the New School?

I did. It took me five years. I took a little break, because I already started touring a little with Christopher Holliday, an alto sax player. That was my first gig. But I did actually get some sort of degree from there.

But as you continued at the New School, the Boston crew starts to hit New York, and a lot of them are focused on some different rhythmic ideas than were applied in mainstream jazz of the time.

For sure.

I’m bringing this up because once you formed the trio, one thing you did that a lot of people paid attention to was play very comfortably in odd meters, 7/4 and so forth, and it’s now become a mainstream thing, whereas in 1991 this was a pretty exotic thing to do. How did you begin the process of developing the sound that we have come to associate with you?

I’m not sure. A lot of it certainly had to do with Jorge Rossy. To give credit where credit is due, those ideas were in the air with people like Jeff Watts, who was playing in different meters on the drums. But Jorge at that time was very studious, checking out a lot of different rhythms, not just odd-meter stuff. He was grabbing the gig with Paquito D’Rivera and playing a lot with Danilo Perez, absorbing South American and Afro-Cuban rhythms. I never studied those specifically, but by virtue of the fact that Jorge was playing those rhythms a lot and finding his own thing to do with them in the sessions we had, it found its way into my sound.

We’d take a well-known standard like “Stella by Starlight,” and try to play it in 7 and in 5 as a kind of exercise. Some of them actually led to arrangements, like “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” in 5, which is one of the first things we recorded in an odd meter. Then we moved on to 7, and got more comfortable with it. It was fun and exciting, and it seemed to happen naturally. But Jorge was ahead of me in terms of the comfort level. There was a lot of him playing in 7, holding it down while I’d get lost and then come around again.

How long did it take?

It took maybe six months or a year where I felt as comfortable in those meters as I was in 4. Then also, I started to crystallize this idea about phrasing. If you listen to Charlie Parker or to someone really authentic playing bebop, like Barry Harris, you notice that they are completely free with their rhythmic phrasing. It’s swinging and it’s free on this profound level, because it’s very open. But when you hear people who take a little piece of bebop and condense it into something (they can also have a very strong style), it gets less interesting. One thing I’ve always loved about jazz phrasing, is the way, when someone is inflecting a phrase rhythmically, it’s really advanced and deep and beautiful, and also makes you want to dance. One thing I heard that perhaps we were trying to do was get that same freedom of floating over the barline in a 7/4 or 5/4 meter as you could find in 4/4, versus maybe… Not to dis fusion or whatever, but some of the things that people did with odd meters in the ’70s had a more metronomic rhythmic feeling, more literal—“Hey, look, we’re playing 7, and this is what it is.”

Another influence that filtered into the sound of your early trio was classical music, which seems as much a part of your tonal personality as the jazz influences. Were you playing classical music before jazz?

Yes. I started playing classical music as a kid, but I wasn’t getting the profundity of a lot of what I was playing. I didn’t like Bach, and I liked flashy Chopin stuff. I did already have an affinity for Brahms, though; he became sort of a mainstay. Then jazz took over.

Fast forward. I was around 22, maybe four years in New York, and for whatever reason, I started rediscovering classical music with deep pleasure. What I did, what I’m still doing now, as I did with jazz for a long time—I absorbed-absorbed-absorbed. I went on a buying frenzy to absorb a lot of music. A lot of chamber music…

Records or scores?

Records and scores. A lot of records. A lot of listening. A lot of going to concerts here in New York. I guess it rubbed off a little. For one thing, it got me focusing more on my left hand. Around that time, I had been playing in a certain style of jazz, where your left hand accompanies the right hand playing melodies when you’re soloing. That’s great, but I had lost some of the facility in my left hand to the point where I was thinking, “Wow, I probably had more dexterity in my left hand when I was 12 than I do now.” So it was sort of an ego or vanity thing that bugged me a little, and it got me into playing some of this classical literature where the left hand is more proactive.

Were you composing music in the early ’90s? After your first record, most of your dates feature original music. Around when did that start to become important to you? Was it an inner necessity? Did it have anything to do with having a record contract and having to find material to put on the records?

I’ve never actually thought of when I began writing tunes until you asked the question. I guess there were a few sporadic tunes from the time I arrived in New York until 1993, or 1994 even. I guess I was comparatively late as a writer in that I was an improviser and a player and a sideman before I was trying to write jazz tunes. Two of my early originals appeared appeared on my first trio record with Jorge Rossy and his brother, Mario Rossy. On my next record, when I got signed to Warner Brothers, Introducing Brad Mehldau, there were a few more.

A lot of your titles at the time reflect a certain amount of Germanophilia.

At the time, for sure.

 Brad Mehldau, by Jos L. Knaepen

You wrote liner notes that referenced 19th century German philosophy, but applied the ideas to the moment in interesting ways. Can you speak to how this aesthetic inflected your notions of music and your own sense of mission?

What I was trying to do was bridge the gap between everything I loved musically, and there was this disparity for me between Brahms in 1865 and Wynton Kelly in 1958—all these things I loved. Looking back, at that age, I was very concerned with creating an identity that would somehow, if it was at all possible, mesh together this more European, particularly Germanic Romantic 19th Century sensibility (in some ways) with jazz, which is a more American, 20th century thing (in some ways).

One connection that still remains between them is the song—the art songs of Schubert or Schumann, these miniature, perfect 3- or 4-minute creations. To me, there is a real corollary between them and a great jazz performance that can tell a story—Lester Young or Billie Holiday telling a story in a beautiful song. Also pop. Really nice Beatles tunes. All those song-oriented things are miniature, and inhabit a small portion of your life. You don’t have to commit an hour-and-a-half to get through it. But really good songs leave you with a feeling of possibility and endlessness.

Not too long after your first record for Warner Brothers in 1995, which featured both your working trio and a trio with Christian McBride and Brian Blade, you began to break through to an international audience. You had a nice reputation in New York, but then overnight to receive this acclaim, where people pasted different attitudes onto what you were doing, whether it was relevant to your thoughts or not. . . . Trying to develop your music and stay focused while your career is burgeoning in this way could have been a complicated proposition. Was it? Or were you somewhat blinkered?

It was complicated. I think I was sort of in the moment, so I don’t know if I viewed it as such, but retrospectively, if you’re addressing the attention factor from other people, I developed a sense of self-importance that maybe didn’t have a really good self-check mechanism in it. If I could go back and do it all over again, some of the liner notes would be maybe a little shorter! Not completely gone…

You did write long liner notes.

Long liner notes. And I still do.

Using the language of German philosophy.

I still do, so I shouldn’t even say it. But I suffered a bit from a lack of self-irony (for lack of a better word). I think I’ve pretty much grown out of it now—an old geezer at 36.

People became accustomed to the sound of the first trio with Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy, and when you formed the new one, as an editor put it to me at the time, his friends in Europe were saying that they were afraid that now you wouldn’t play as well, that the things that made you interesting would be subsumed by a more groove-oriented approach, or something like that. Speak a bit to the way the trio evolved into the one you currently use.

What you’re alluding to is certainly true. A lot of people approached me directly and said, “What are you doing, changing this thing you have that’s so special?” That was interesting. One way I can mark the progression is that at first Larry and Jorge and I had a lot more to say to each other about the music. As I mentioned, Jorge and I would have these sessions, and work specific things like playing in odd meters. All three of us would talk about whether or not something was working on a given night, what it was about, what we could do to make it better. Over the years, as it became easier to play together intuitively, we reached a point where we had less and less to say. It was either working or it wasn’t. I don’t want to say that we were resting on our laurels, but there was a slight sense that almost it was too easy. That even was Jorge’s phrase. I think he was feeling that as a drummer, personally—just as a drummer, independent of playing with us—and wanted a new challenge playing a different instrument.

Then I heard Jeff Ballard in the trio Fly [editor's note: with Mark Turner and Larry Grenadier], and felt a sense of possibility in the way Larry was playing with him. Larry plays differently with different drummers—he plays one way with, say Bill Stewart, and a different way with Jorge and me. In Fly, he plays in a way I’d describe as more organic and intuitive, and it surprised me. I almost felt sort of a jealousy. I thought, “Wow, I never heard Larry play like this, and I’m playing with him all the time.” It made me almost want to grab Jeff!

What was it about what he was doing? Was it a more groove-oriented approach?

I would say yes. A certain groove, and also, though it may sound strange, my trio has become more precise since Jeff joined. The way Jeff and Larry state the rhythm is very open-ended, but precise in the sense that I can play more precise rhythmic phrases, which adds a bit more detail to the whole canvas. You can see the details more clearly, let’s say. Jorge was always very giving; he usually followed my lead in terms of how I’d build the shape of a tune. One thing that Jeff does that’s different, which is sort of a classic drummer move (if you think of Tony Williams or Elvin or someone like that), is putting something unexpected in the music at a certain point. Say we’re on the road, we’ve been playing one of my originals or arrangements for a month, and we do a big concert somewhere in front of two thousand people—and he starts playing a completely different groove. At first, I had to get used to that—if I don’t change what I’m doing, it won’t make sense. So I have to find something new. Then we’re actually improvising again, developing a new form or canvas for the tune.

Talk about the balance between intuition and preparation, how it plays out on the bandstand.

I don’t write really difficult road maps, as they call it. Maybe some of my stuff is a little hard, but most of it is not too difficult where you’re going to have your face in the music. I like that, because then you start forgetting about the music, and it becomes more intuitive, which hopefully is the ideal. That’s how it feels with the three of us. A lot of times with a band, you start playing a tune, an arrangement or your own original. You find certain things that work formally within the entire shape of the tune, places along the way, roughly, where you build to a climax, or a certain thing that one of you gives to the other person, like a diving board that you spring from to go somewhere else formally. In that sense, the process becomes less improvised, because you get this structure that works, and it helps you generate excitement and interest.

A few years ago, maybe around 1999-2000, you began to look for new canvases by incorporating contemporary pop music into your repertoire, and on Day Is Done it comprises the preponderance of the recital.

Right.

That development coincided with your move to Los Angeles and associating with the producer Jon Brian, who it seems showed you creative ways to deal with pop aesthetics.

Mmm-hmm. What I loved about him when I first heard him at this Los Angeles club, Largo, was that I felt like I was going to see a really creative jazz musician—in a sense even more brazen than a lot of jazz musicians. Really completely improvising his material, the material itself, taking songs that maybe he had never played from requests from the audience, and then developing a completely unorthodox, strange arrangement in the heat of the moment, right there, for those kinds of songs, which were more contemporary Pop songs. Also Cole Porter and whatever. All over the map. Completely not constrained by anything stylistically. That was definitely an inspiration for me at that point.

As somone who’s played a good chunk of the Songbook and as a one-time jazz snob, can you discern any generalities about the newer pop music of that time vis-a-vis older forms? You’ve said that you see the limitations of a form as a way of finding freedom, rather than the other way around.

 Brad Mehldau, by Jos L. Knaepen

Right. For me personally, not a judgment on other stuff. I need to have some sort of frame. I need to have a narrative flow. That’s what makes it cool for me, if I’m taking a solo or whatever. With more contemporary pop tunes, pop tunes past the sort of golden era that some people call the American Songbook, all of a sudden there are no rules any more. That’s the main thing. With people like Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, you can often hear similar structures, with verse, chorus, that kind of stuff. But in a lot of pop music and rock-and-roll, it’s not that the forms are complicated, they aren’t at all, but there is not a fixed orthodoxy. In the songs of Cole Porter songs and Rodgers and Hammerstein and or Jerome Kern, there’s a verse and then the song itself, which is often in an AABA form, something within the bridge, and then that something again with the coda. These forms often keep you thinking in a certain way about what you’re going to do when you’re blowing on the music. When you get out of that, it becomes sort of a wide-open book, with often the possibility for a lack of form to take place. I try to take some of these more contemporary songs and somehow impose my own form on them in the improvisation. That’s the challenge. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn.t.

Given that you’ve been a leader and highly visible for more than a decade, it seems to me you’ve tried hard to sustain relationships with the people you came up with and to keep yourself in the fray, as it were—being a sideman on Criss-Cross dates and so on. Is it important for you to do that?

Someone like Keith Jarrett comes to mind as someone who is really in his own realm, who hasn’t been a sideman. But I value the experience of connecting with other musicians who are outside of my band, and not being a leader. Not to sound self-righteous or whatever, but it does teach a certain humility when you go into a record date and you have to submit your own ego, to a certain extent, to someone else’s music, and go with the musical decisions they want to make. The challenge is to negotiate a balance between your own identity, which the person who called wants to hear, and the identity of their music, what they’ve written. To try to do justice to that is always fun and exciting, and I like that challenge.

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For Bassist John Clayton’s 62nd Birthday, a DownBeat Feature From 2010

John Clayton, who continues to make his mark as top-tier bassist, composer and bandleader, turns 62 today. I had the pleasure of several conversations with him in late 2009-early 2010 when researching and composing a feature piece for DownBeat, which I append below.

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One of John Clayton’s favorite sayings is that he doesn’t do stress. “I’d rather roll up my sleeves and get the job done,” Clayton said. “I might have to go without sleeping, deal with difficult people, maybe have people scream at me—but it rolls off my back.”

It was the second Tuesday of January, and the bassist, 57, was anticipating the final installment of an eight-night run at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola with the Clayton Brothers Band, which he co-leads with his brother, Jeff Clayton, to be directly followed by two days in the studio to record The New Song and Dance, a follow-up to Brother to Brother [Artist Share], a 2010 Grammy nominee. He had arrived in New York directly from a week at Umbria Jazz Winter in Orvieto, Italy, where he performed four duos with bassist John Patitucci and another four with pianist Gerald Clayton, his son.

On the previous evening at Dizzy’s, the only screaming came from a packed house of NEA Jazz Masters, who ate salmon, drank wine and mineral water, and rose up and hollered in response to a surging, well-paced set. “That band is great,” 2010 awardee Kenny Barron said later, summing up the prevailing opinion. “It reminds me of why I wanted to start playing jazz in the first place.”

Such approbation made sense: Since 1977, when the Claytons co-founded the unit, they’ve connected to the hip populism and presentational values that defined the musical production of such predecessors as the Adderley Brothers, Benny Golson’s Jazztet, Horace Silver, the Ray Brown-Gene Harris Trio, and Count Basie. Now they’re a pan-generational ensemble, with forty-something trumpeter Terrell Stafford sharing the front line with Jeff Clayton on alto sax and flute, and twenty-somethings Gerald Clayton and Obed Calvaire on piano and drums. At Dizzy’s, CBB articulated old-school aesthetics in a non-formulaic manner, addressing sophisticated harmonic and rhythmic raw materials with a sell-the-song attitude and acute attention to detail. John Clayton radiated the cool, composed affect of which he spoke—alert to all the nuances, he smiled encouragement at his band-mates, goosing the flow with consistently melodic basslines and ebullient, surging-yet-relaxed grooves.

“When I was 16, I studied with Ray Brown,” Clayton explained. “Milt Jackson was like an uncle to me at 17. Their music was extremely deep and serious, yet they had no problem allowing the joy that they were deriving from it to be expressed on their faces and in their body language.”

Known as Ray Brown’s protégé since those years, Clayton holds an undisputed position in the upper echelons of bass expression—in addition to his considerable jazz bona fides as both an ensemble player and soloist, his peer group gives him deep respect for having held the principal bass chair with the Amsterdam Philharmonic for five years during the 1980s.

“One of John’s talents is picking things up quickly—understanding concepts,” said Jeff Clayton. “I practice long and hard. John practices smart—always has. In preparing to audition for the Amsterdam Philharmonic, he just added another hour or so to his practice.

“ I was practicing a lot anyway, so I just added the orchestra audition material to what I was practicing,” Clayton said matter-of-factly. “Classical is just another kind of music. You’ve still got to push the string down to the fingerboard. You have to play detached notes or legato notes, forte or piano. Now, the instrumentation or the groove or some other aesthetic might be different—you learn those things.”

“I’ve always been analytical,” he added. “I’m more comfortable if I try to figure out why the characters in a situation say what they do or act as they do. Rather than play something from my lesson 300 times, I’ll play it 50 times, and each time analyze, say, what my elbow or wrist is doing.”

Clayton has applied his penchant for compartmentalization and mono-focus towards mastering various non-performative aspects of the music business—indeed, he does so many things so well that it is possible to overlook how distinctive a niche he occupies. “John is a visionary, who says, ‘Five years from now, I’ll be here,’ and then gets there,’” said Monty Alexander, with whom Clayton spent the better part of three years on the road during the middle ‘70s. “When John says he’s going to do something and then it transpires, it’s not by chance,” his brother adds. “We would write down goal sheets and follow them; once we’ve made it to ALL of our goals, then we set new ones.”

One platform is the area of composition and arrangement for small groups, big bands, and orchestras, a craft that Clayton learned in the crucible of the late ‘70s Count Basie Orchestra. While in Amsterdam, he continued to refine his aesthetic, creating charts for a radio big band. Upon returning to Los Angeles in 1986, he found steady work in the studios, and set to work establishing himself as a film writer.

“I was involved in a lot of film sessions as the only African-American musician in a 75-piece orchestra, and I thought as a writer I could help change that situation,” Clayton said. “But when it looked like the doors were starting to open, it became less interesting to me. I realized I was getting into it for the wrong reason; I’d be focusing on a lot of music and an environment that doesn’t define me. If you’re lucky enough to work with the great directors or producers, then fantastic. But to work with unqualified shlocks who are telling you what to do, and have no taste in music… I always say that jazz saved my life. I don’t make the kind of money that a successful film writer makes. But I smile a lot.”

Instead, Clayton focused on establishing the Clayton-Hamilton Big Band as a primary locus for his musical production, transmuting vocabulary from various Count Basie “New Testament” and Woody Herman arrangers, Duke Ellington, and Thad Jones into his own argot in the process of creating a book. As the ‘90s progressed, he served as arranger-for-hire, producer, and conductor on numerous recordings and high-visibility concerts, adding to his duties administrative responsibilities as Artistic Director of Jazz for the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1999 to 2001. While multi-tasking amongst these activities, he also taught at the University of Southern California (he retired at the end of the 2008-09 academic year), developing a comprehensive bass pedagogy.

In discussing his first principles as a bassist, Clayton referenced his initial encounter with Ray Brown at a weekly “Workshop in Jazz Bass” course at UCLA in 1969, which he rode four buses to get to.

“Ray came through the door, took out the bass, and showed the whole class what we had to learn,” Clayton recalled. “He played every major scale, every minor scale, all the arpeggios in every key. Later, he brought in recordings of Charles Mingus, Richard Davis, Ron Carter, Israel Crosby, George Duvivier, Sam Jones, and Scott LaFaro, none of whom I’d ever heard of. He saw how hungry I was, so in love with the whole thing, so he’d invite me to his recording sessions or club gigs in the area. I can pick out Ray in the middle of a 150-piece string orchestra. But he still has lessons for me, whether about tone, how to handle a groove from one tune to the next, and on and on.”

Mentorship evolved to friendship and ultimately productive partnership in Super Bass, the three-contrabass ensemble that united Brown, Clayton and Christian McBride from 1996 until Brown’s death in 2002. Most tellingly, Brown bequeathed to Clayton his primary bass—Clayton played it at Dizzy’s and in Orvieto. “It’s like a talisman,” Clayton said. “It’s as though by touching this instrument, I am infused with confidence, not egotistical, but as if to say, ‘You’re touching this bass, the music needs this, you can supply this.’ I tell my students that creativity begins from nothing and silence. When you touch the instrument, before you play a note, allow some silent moments so that you are immediately cool and chill and calm—and THEN give the music whatever it demands.”

[BREAK]

“I’m playing the piano, and standing next to me is this patriarch guy, caressing everything and making what you’re playing better,” Monty Alexander said, recalling Clayton’s comportment as a 22-year-old in his trio. “Sometimes I got mad because I wanted to say, ‘Hey, respect seniority here!’ He had a way about him that just made you happy to play.”

“My dad finds a way to translate his approach in life better than a lot of people,” Gerald Clayton remarked. “He’s got such a big heart, he’s thankful for the situation, and he brings that energy and love and honesty into the music. Even if he’s telling you to do something, it’s more like an invitation—sort of intimidating but loving, like a big bear.”

Asked to comment on this patriarchal trope, Jeff Clayton said: “Our mother raised seven kids as a single mom, worked ten hours a day at the Post Office, went to choir rehearsal, taught the junior and senior choir Tuesdays and Fridays and went to church all day Sunday, and took one class per semester, one night a week for 12 years, and got her degree in theology. As the oldest brother with that many kids, John had to be responsible.”

“Billy Higgins used to say, ‘You don’t choose the instrument; the instrument chooses you,’” John Clayton said, “I think that surely applies to me. People look to bass players as glue. We’re the go-between for the egos of the drums, or the piano, or the vocalist, or the trumpet—we understand where everyone is coming from. That molds your personality, and you move more towards what the bass represents.”

Clayton’s personal rectitude and groundedness, his impeccable craft, his insistence on privileging ensemble imperatives above solo flight, his staunch identification with the bedrock codes of jazz tradition, can impart the superficial impression of aesthetic conservativism. But his comments on  what he considers distinctive about his voice reveal an incremental sensibility.

“The changes and contributions I make to the structures we work with are inside, subtle, upper-level things,” Clayton said. “I was inspired by the way Israel Crosby, with Ahmad Jamal’s trio, superimposed within his bassline a tune on the tune he was playing. Or when Monty played a solo, the way he would anticipate my bassline and harmonize it before I created it. Now I’m listening to Terrell, and create my bassline based on a melody fragment he’s just played in his solo.

“Our ultimate goal as musicians is to become one with our instrument, and singing is the barometer that tells us this is happening. In fact, any time that my playing starts to go south, all I have to do is remind myself, ‘Oh yeah, I’m not singing,’ and it automatically clicks back into place.”

Prefacing his first Orvieto duo concert with Patitucci, Clayton introduced his partner as “a faucet that turns on and turns off and plays melody.” It could have been self-description. Performing such iconic bass repertoire as “Tricotism,” “Whims of Chambers” and “Ray’s Idea,” songbook chestnuts like “Squeeze Me,” “Body and Soul,” and “Tea For Two,” and baroque music, they engaged in open dialog, intuiting each other’s moves, playing as authoritatively with the bow as pizzicato, taking care to stay in complementary registers, switching from support to lead on a dime.

“It was the best musical experience I’ve ever had playing duos with a bass player,” Patitucci said. “He’s a consummate musician. The pitches lined up, which made the sonorities much richer; he’s so well-rounded that you could throw up anything and read through it, and it worked.”

The father-son duos at Orvieto proceeded along similarly open paths, the protagonists addressing blues, spirituals, standards, and originals by Clayton fils with abundant reharmonizations, and polytonal episodes, with a stylistically heterogeneous stance. Pere Clayton kept things grounded with a relentless pocket and elevated the mood with a succession of transcendent arco solos, including an introduction to John Lewis’ to “Django” that channeled Bach in grand Koussevitzkyian fashion.

“Each situation is about passion,” Clayton said of his unitary interests. “You immerse yourself in that language, and try to make it part of what you do, because you’re so crazy about it. I love classical and jazz styles 50-50, and I think that’s what you hear.”

On The New Song and Dance, the Clayton Brothers place tango, New Orleans streetbeat, and complex time signatures into the mix towards the notion, as Jeff Clayton put it, “that swing is part of a large cauldron of many ideas that we are allowed to visit in each song.” “It shows the wide span of creativity that the group represents,” John Clayton said. “The project is pushing me in ways I haven’t been pushed before; my brother’s songs don’t sound anything like songs he wrote four years ago. Gerald stretches us, too. If people thought they knew what we sounded like, they’re going to be surprised with different sounds.

“The things I write for the Clayton Brothers that I’m less happy with lean too close to being over-arranged. I always look for that balance to have it organized yet allow for a lot of freedom. With the big band it’s a little different. I want it to be a blowing band, but then other times I’ll write a chorus with no improvisation at all.”

Clayton anticipated a light touring schedule over the summer, the better to focus on expanding “Red Man, Black Man”—a programmatic 2006 opus commissioned  by the Monterey Jazz Festival as a collaboration between the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra and Kurt Elling, that year’s artist-in-residence—from a 25-minute investigation of the affinities between Native American and African American music into a concert-length performance. To frame Elling’s reading of original lyrics and poems apropos to the subject, Clayton orchestrates a Shawnee tribal stomp (“the singers were using call-and-response, the notes were primarily the blues scale, and the shaker pattern was CHING, CHING-A-CHING, CHING-A-CHING, CHING”) with radical techniques—the musicians blow silence, the saxophone section plays the transcribed stomp with wood flutes, chains and anvils strike the ground at measured intervals to represent a chain gang.

“I’m interested in different cultures and their music, and always tried, somehow, to incorporate them in what I do,” Clayton said, citing an unaccompanied bass feature that combines “Lift Every Voice And Sing” with “Danny Boy,” and, on a meta-level, the fall 2009 release, Charles Aznavour and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra [Capitol Jazz-EMI], on which  Clayton’s subtle arrangements—the guests include pianist Jacky Terrason and Rachelle Farrell—reimagine the iconic chanteur’s hits, and some choice new repertoire, in a swing context.

However his milieu evolves, Clayton does not intend to be left behind. “In the big band era, there were way fewer choices,” he said. “Now we can listen to so many categories of music. Many young musicians say, ‘There’s too much for me to absorb and learn and be held responsible for.’ I think, ‘That’s great—get busy.”

[—30—]

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Filed under Bass, DownBeat, John Clayton

For Mal Waldron’s 89th birthday, A Director’s Cut of a DownBeat Piece from 2002

In recognition of the 89th birth anniversary of the late pianist-composer Mal Waldron, I’m posting a “directors’ cut” of an article that ran in DownBeat in 2002, with a link to the two interviews that I conducted with Mr. Waldron — one on WKCR, another on the phone — that contributed to the bulk of the piece. It was an honor to meet and interact with him.

* * *

An expatriate for roughly half his life, 77-year-old pianist Mal Waldron, New York born, finds it increasingly difficult to come home. “I don’t plan to return to the States for a while,” he noted in New York last August, two nights into a week at the Blue Note with bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Andrew Cyrille. “I like to smoke cigarettes, and I can’t smoke on the bandstand. Having the smoke around me when I play the piano helps me to feel the mood, and feel relaxed and jazzy. That’s my ‘snoozedecker,’ like they say; my blanket of security, like the little kid in ‘Peanuts.'”
The image of a security blanket is a recurrent trope when Waldron discusses his musical personality, established over a career that spans half a century. “It’s support,” Waldron said, addressing the art of accompanying singers, a function he mastered on numerous gigs with Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln, Jeanne Lee and Sheila Jordan. “I lay down a blanket for them to walk on, the blanket is me, and they walk on me!” As his long-time collaborator Steve Lacy once put it, “All the thousands of people he’s played with love Mal because he makes them sound good. And he sounds good himself. He gets a wonderful sound out of the piano, and he’s got his own style, his own angle, a vast knowledge of structure, of harmony, of rhythm, time and space. He’s an ideal partner.”
Waldron knows how to articulate essences, projecting his voice with an understated, introspective style, building powerful statements through the incremental repetition of cogent rhythmic and melodic cells. “My technique was always nil and still is nil,” Waldron says. “I only play what I hear, and usually I have enough technique to be able to play whatever I hear. But other musicians hear things that I can’t play because my technique isn’t up to it.”
Be that as it may, it’s a good bet those other musicians appreciate Waldron’s memorable compositions, informed by sources as diverse as Eric Satie, Johannes Brahms, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and the blues. Structurally complex, deploying unusual time signatures and relentlessly logical chord changes, they have a dark, astringent feel, with spare melodies that penetrate your bones and stay there. Close to a thousand in number, they include repertoire classics like “Soul Eyes,” “Left Alone” and “Fire Waltz,” and more recent improvisational fodder like “Snake Out,” “The Git-Go” and “Hurray For Herbie.”
Waldron conceived the former set of pieces between 1955 and 1963, when he recorded with the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop, the Teddy Charles Tentet, Jackie McLean, Billie Holiday and Max Roach. He was also house pianist, arranger and composer for Prestige Records, where he imparted an organizing, cohesive quality to in-and-out-of-the-studio blowing dates led by the likes of Gene Ammons, Jackie McLean and John Coltrane.
“Composing went along with improvising, which is instant composition,” Waldron says. “I’d make my changes first, nice blowable changes that you could solo on beautifully, and then write a tune over them. My life consisted of thinking about the melodies in the daytime, writing them at night, and recording them the next day.”
By 1956, when McLean recruited Waldron to play on 1…2…3, the first of his several dozen Prestige sessions, the pianist had ample experience to draw upon. Raised in Jamaica, Queens, he had piano lessons from an early age, developing proficiency with classical repertoire. “I was forced to take piano lessons,” Waldron recalls. “I didn’t like playing classics, because I had to do it the same way every time, otherwise I got my knuckles rapped. But if I didn’t do it, my father would pound me in the face or something like that. Fear is a great motivator.”
Waldron’s “mind started moving toward jazz” when he heard Coleman Hawkins play “Body And Soul.” “My first jazz experiences were on saxophone,” he says. “I bought an alto, since I couldn’t afford a tenor. I got a big, hard reed and an open lay on the mouthpiece so it would sound like a tenor, and I got the music for ‘Body And Soul’ from Down Beat, and for 5 minutes I was Coleman Hawkins.”
Drafted into the Army in 1943, Waldron, stationed at West Point, spent some of his free time playing saxophone in an off-base swing band. More often, he rode the Hudson Line south to Manhattan, where he heard Art Tatum at the Cafe Society downtown, Bud Powell on 52nd Street and Thelonious Monk at Minton’s in Harlem, finally catching the early morning train to return for duty. “52nd Street was an energizing experience,” he recalls. “Minton’s had a front bar and a back room where the rhythm section would be pumping away on one tune, and the horns would solo chorus after chorus, getting more furious, then the pianist would get tired and another would take over. It kept going like that all night long. I heard Monk there even before I heard his records. He was a big man, austere and imposing. He looked like he had his whole world around him, and you couldn’t penetrate that world. His sound wasn’t immediately attractive to me; the way he hit the piano was so strange. But later it grew on me. It’s an acquired taste.”
After his discharge, Waldron matriculated at Queens College on the G.I. Bill. He pursued studies in composition and theory with Karel Radhaus, while continuing to chase the music, most frequently at a jam session run by saxman Big Nick Nicholas at the Paradiso. “I was trying to emulate Charlie Parker,” Waldron states. “But I couldn’t arrive, so I hocked the horn and went back to piano. I found my basis was strong enough at least to enable me to play the changes right.”
Others agreed; after graduating in 1949, Waldron became a professional, doing uptown rhythm-and-blues jobs with Ike Quebec, Lucky Millinder and Tiny Grimes, simultaneously nurturing friendships with a homegrown pianist peer group that included Randy Weston, Walter Bishop, Cecil Taylor, and Herbie Nichols, to whom Waldron dedicated “Hooray For Herbie.”
“Herbie was a fantastic musician in that he had his own sound, which I didn’t have at that moment,” Waldron says. “His themes were beautiful, intricate and tricky, but subtle and basic, too. His sound fit his personality. Observing him helped me decide that if you just played the way you spoke or moved in the streets, you would be closer to your own sound. Cecil was really out. But he was working on it, and I could see some form, a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. Randy was more like me, more into formal music; he didn’t step outside and play free. We were both interested in waltzes, so we had a contest to see who could play the best ones.”
Mingus recruited Waldron in 1954, beginning a decade-long relationship. “Mingus was like my older brother,” Waldron says. “He gave me a lot of advice and helped me develop into a mature musician. I was into imitating Bud Powell from things like ‘Bud’s Bubble,’ making Bud’s runs and so on. Mingus said, ‘Don’t copy anyone. That’s not the way. An ordinary musician can play everybody, but a jazz musician can only play himself.’ That stuck, and I started working on my own style. Which entailed not thinking of changes as changes, but as sounds, so that a cluster would do for a change; just a group of notes could be an impetus for soloing. I learned that the piano is a percussive instrument; you beat on it. We realized that jazz is the music of people who were not satisfied with the status quo. You’d punch the piano as though you were striking somebody in your way.”
Through the ’50s, Waldron juggled Prestige sessions with demo dates for singers and gigs uptown, downtown and in the boroughs with hardcore jazzmen McLean, Art and Addison Farmer, Arthur Taylor, Doug Watkins and Paul Chambers. He even did jazz-and-poetry happenings at the Five Spot with Lacy, Larry Rivers, Kenneth Rexroth and Allen Ginsberg.
“We were on the outer edges of the status quo,” Waldron states of his association with ’50s Bohemia. “We were the outlaws, really, so we ganged together. There was sawdust on the floor of the Five Spot! But this is in retrospect. They were just people I worked with on a gig, I got money for it and went home and fed the family.”

“It was an accident” is Waldron’s simple explanation of how he became Billie Holiday’s pianoman in April 1957. He held that job until her death, penning the melody to her iconic swan song “Left Alone” on a plane en route to a job in San Francisco. “She was working in Philadelphia, and her pianist conked out, couldn’t function any more,” Waldron relates. “She asked Bill Duffy, who wrote Lady Sings The Blues with her, Bill asked his wife Millie if she knew any musicians, Millie asked [bassist] Julian Euell, and Julian asked me. I said, ‘The buck stops here,’ and got on the train. I was a fan of her music, but had never played it. I got a crash course.
“Words were very important to me, and I discovered that words are important to music, too. You can improvise on the words; not on the melody, not on the harmony, but on the words. This gave me a bigger area to expand into.”
After Holiday died, Waldron and Euell joined Abbey Lincoln, whose then-husband, Max Roach, “came down to the club to see us work, to make sure nobody was hitting on his old lady. He liked me and took me in his band. He was a real teacher for me, and he taught me about different tempos and accents.”
Waldron appeared on several memorable Roach records during these socially turbulent times, including the 1960 Candid classic Straight Ahead, on which Lincoln sang “Left Alone” in dialogue with a soaring Coleman Hawkins, and Percussion Bitter Suite (Impulse!), a dynamic date propelled by Eric Dolphy and Booker Little. Waldron convened Dolphy, saxophonist Booker Ervin, Ron Carter and Charli Persip on his own 1961 breakthrough album, The Quest (New Jazz), on which for the first time he wove the various strands of his experience—Ellingtonia (“Duqility” and “Warm Canto”), modality (“Status Seeking”), quasi-serial music (“Thirteen”) and uneven time signatures (“Warp And Woof” and “Fire Waltz”)—into a distinctly Waldronesque quilt.
During a 1963 Chicago engagement with Roach, Waldron suffered a nervous breakdown on the bandstand as the result of a heroin overdose. “I couldn’t remember where I was,” he says. “I couldn’t remember anything—about the piano or anything else. I lost my coordination, and my hands were shaking all the time. I spent six-seven months in East Elmhurst Hospital, where they gave me shock treatments and spinal taps and all kinds of things to relieve the pressure on my mind.”
Waldron had begun dabbling during a 1955 run at the Cafe Bohemia with Mingus. “At that time every jazz musician was called a junkie automatically, and after a while it got to the point where if you had the name you just had to have the game, too. So I started using drugs, and it built and built. I thought I had control of this horse! I would bring him out and put him away; I thought I had him covered. All of a sudden he snuck up on me and knocked me down.”
Waldron recuperated, buckled down and began the arduous process of relearning his instrument. In 1965, director Marcel Carne asked Waldron if he wanted to write the music for the film Three Bedrooms In Manhattan in New York or in Paris. “What a choice!” Waldron laughs. “I said, ‘Paris, of course,’ and he paid my ticket. When I got to Europe, it was like the other side of the coin. In America if you were black and a musician, it was two strikes against you. In Europe if you were black and a musician, it was two strikes for you. So I decided to go for that.”
And in Europe he remained and flourished. “The main thing that affected me in Europe is their respect for the music,” he says. “They came out and made an effort to understand your music if they didn’t understand it. When they were done, they showed respect and appreciation that you were an artist. Which was not true in America.”
In Paris Waldron worked with Ben Webster and gigged at a chic expat soul food restaurant called the Chicken Shack. In 1966 he landed a steady radio gig in Rome (“lots of ‘giorna da festa’ holidays with pay; I loved it!”), then spent consequential time in Bologna and Cologne before settling in Munich, his home base for the next two decades.
During this adjustment period, Waldron resumed his association with Lacy on an impromptu duo in Italy. Thirty-five years later—a couple of dozen recordings, and hundreds of duo, quintet and sextet concerts behind them—they are one of the magical partnerships in jazz, spinning fresh variations on stories postulated by Ellington, Strayhorn, Monk, Powell, Nichols and Mingus. “We just improvised, and it worked,” is Waldron’s pithy description of their initial European encounter. “As time went on, we each brought out our tunes and began to work out tunes by all the people we liked. Music is a language, and if you have a large enough vocabulary, you can communicate with anybody else. If the vocabulary is the same, then you can communicate even better. Steve and I had pretty much the same vocabulary.”
Waldron quickly found a cadre of first-class Europe-based improvisers – expats and natives—with a good feel for that vocabulary, including trumpeters Art Farmer, Dusko Goykovich and Manfred Schoof, bassists Jimmy Woode and George Mraz, and drummers Pierre Favre and Makaya Ntshoko. “Things have advanced since I came in,” Waldron says. “Then the European musicians were at Level A, while now they’re on Level U or W, toward the end of the scale. But you can’t make generalizations. Some drummers had no concept of swing, but others could swing. There were saxophonists who had no concept of harmony, who’d thumb it all over the place, but others had a conception and played their horns well. It was a question of finding the right musicians, and they were everywhere.”
For the past decade, Waldron has lived in Brussels, Belgium, where the beer, chocolate and mussels are good, and he can smoke as many cigarettes as he likes. Having recorded close to 100 albums as a leader or co-collaborator for a variety of European and Japanese labels since 1969, his performing and recording career continues unabated.
“I hate monotony,” he declares. “To stay young, you have to change all the time and be like a newborn baby, always adapting to new situations. I want the people opposite me to be adventurous and take risks.”
A cursory scan of his winter schedule substantiates his point. As of late February, Waldron had performed several trio recitals with Lacy and bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel, after returning to home base from 10 days at two Japan Blue Note clubs with Avenel and drummer John Betsch. This happened a month after he recorded an album with Lacy and Avenel for Sketch, a French label, following up on a Billie Holiday oriented duo CD with tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp (enja), far-flung musical conversations with David Murray (Justin Time) and vocalist Judi Silvano (Soul Note), and a never-released ’70s encounter with bassist Johnny Dyani.
Proficient in German, French and Italian, and working on his Japanese, Waldron’s musical voice speaks to cultures around the globe, and he continues to “keep all the burners going” as he did in ’50s New York. “That’s the prerequisite of staying alive,” he says. “If you can communicate to people in their own language and not struggle for words, they love you more! You can’t communicate to anybody without a vocabulary, in music or speech or anything else. You have to have a repertoire.” DB

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Filed under Andrew Cyrille, DownBeat, Mal Waldron, Piano, Reggie Workman, WKCR

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.”
_____________
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.”
______________
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.”

[POSSIBLE FOR INSERT]

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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