Category Archives: WKCR

For Eddie Harris’ 80th Birth Anniversary, a 1994 WKCR Interview

In 1994, I had an opportunity to host the sui generis saxophonist Eddie Harris (October 20, 1934-November 5, 1996), who was performing in town, on my afternoon program on WKCR. Among other things, he spoke at length about his early years in Chicago. The transcript, posted below, has been available on the internet for more than a decade on the Jazz Journalists Association website.

Eddie Harris
June 29, 1994, WKCR-FM New York

[Music: “Freedom Jazz Dance” (1964)]

Q: “Freedom Jazz Dance”  became famous after Miles Davis reworked it for his own uses and recorded it. How did Miles get hold of the tune?

EH: Ron Carter came over to him. He came by and offered Ron more money while I was working at the Five Spot for a month. And I said, “Ron, you should take it. It’s more money.” And he took the tune over there, because we were playing it at the Five-Spot, and the rest is history. Miles recorded it, and all of a sudden I was hip. [Chuckles]

Q: So it was a working band that recorded your first Atlantic dates.

EH: Yes.

Q: You go and Cedar Walton go back to an Army band from the 1950s.

EH: Yes. Cedar and I were outside of Stuttgart, at Vahingen(?), and we had a Jazz band out of the orchestra that had formed. It was quite a jazz band. Leo Wright was head of the jazz band, people like Lanny Morgan, Don Menza was in the band . . . It was a very good band.

Q: Was this a band that was set up for the recording, or had you been working?

EH: No. These days it’s very seldom that you get quintets, quartets, sextets, octets as working bands. You generally get duos or trios as working bands. That’s where the business has gone. So I came in and recorded with this trio, and they had been working together. That made it easier for me.

Q: Were your originals composed for the date?

EH: I wrote two tunes for the date. Other than that, there’s a situation going on in Japan where they have some kind of deals with standard tunes in which they want you to play standard tunes. So I don’t mind. As long as they raise the ante financially, I’ll play all the standards they want.

[Music: There Was A Time: Echoes of Harlem, “Lover Come Back To Me”]

Q: I’d like to talk to you about your background in Chicago, Illinois, where you spent a good chunk of your life and developed as a musician. Your beginnings in the music are what? On piano? Saxophone?

EH: I started on piano first. Then I was singing.

Q: Where? In the church? Home?

EH: Yeah, in the church. The church. I mean, they used to stand me up on a table, because I could sing right in tune, in time, and I was only like five years old. But when I was four, my cousin was teaching me piano. She played for the church.

Q: What church was it?

EH: Shiloh Baptist Church. Later on, I was singing at Ebeneezer Baptist Church.

Q: Which I think was the largest church on the South Side . . .

EH: Well, they were very large churches. And my mother was a big wig there at that church, until she died; and she lived until 1991, and she was 91 when she passed on.

Q: Were your parents born in Chicago or did they come there?

EH: My mother was from down south in New Orleans, and my father was from Cuba.

Q: And when did they come to Chicago?

EH: I don’t know. They met in Chicago. I imagine they came in the teens, or maybe . . . I think they came in like 1913. He worked in the stockyards, and my mother worked in the laundry. And they weren’t particular about me playing music. Of course, my father didn’t really care. He died when I was a young guy.

Q: So your mother raised you.

EH: Yeah, my mother. I really took care of my mother and three aunts.

Q: How did the music develop for you? You obviously had an immediate facility for it.

EH: Well, really, Ted, I wanted to play sports. I was quite a sports advocate.

Q: All sports?

EH: All sports. And I could really play — football, basketball, baseball. To be honestly frank with you, because I was taught at such a young age, as I got older I didn’t particularly care for a lot of the people that played music. Because a lot of musicians were, like, too timid: “Oh, I hurt my hands, I can’t do this . . . ” I ran with the gangs, and used to even box at Nichols’ Gym, and I didn’t think about my hands or my embouchure or mouth. Musicians, I couldn’t really take ‘em. I didn’t dig it.

Q: When did you start finding people you could relate to on a musical level?

EH: Well, after I got up in the teens. When you get in the teens, you start meeting guys, like the late Charles Stepney . . . There became a group of us. Muhal Richard Abrams, Raphael Garrett, James Slaughter, Walter Perkins, Bill Lee. There was a small group of us who were on the same wavelength in trying things. And that was interesting to me, to try things, not just sit down and play an Ellis Larkins run or a Duke Ellington run — which could easily be done, because we’d deal with music all day. But these guys, we all wanted to try some different things. You see, most guys didn’t want to try different things. They just wanted to sound like whoever was happening at the time. Now, as young guys, we were listening to the guys that were coming off the JATP, the Jazz At the Philharmonic, which was Charlie Parker and Bud Powell and that group of guys, who was a little older than we were, that was playing some strange type music!

Q: So when did music become a thing that you were doing all day? Because you can’t be playing sports all day and be playing music all day?

EH: Why not?

Q: Well, maybe you can.

EH: [Laughs] When I say playing sports all day . . . What do you do as a young guy? In those days you had clubs on every corner. I mean, you could play somewhere in the evenings. So then you could rehearse, and when you’re not playing with guys, you can play ball. See, it’s not like it is today, where most young guys are trying to lobby for a recording. Well, all we wanted to do was play! Heh-heh. That was a vast difference.

Q: When you were coming up in Chicago, there was also a community of older musicians on a world-class level. Who were some of the people who really impressed you and that you modeled yourself after?

EH: Well, I was quite a pool shooter. I would go into different cities on a bus, go in and collect up some money until they’d get hip to me. And I found, from going over to Detroit, down to St. Louis, over to Cleveland, that Chicago (you don’t realize it when you’re coming up in an environment) had more individualism than anywhere else. Anywhere else. See, in other cities you had great musicians, but the group of guys, they generally played in one vernacular. Whatever that city held, it was like that group of guys produced that type of music.

In Chicago, you could go from one club, and you could hear a Gene Ammons, you had Budd Johnson, and you had Tom Archia, Dick Davis — just dealing with saxophone. Then you had all sorts of piano players that were really. . .really different. You’d go to one club, and the guy sounds like he totally comes from somewhere else. He didn’t sound like a little different from the guy down the street. It was totally different.

You can imagine a guy coming up from Birmingham, like Sun Ra, playing there. People said, “Hey, they got Monk in New York.” We said, “Yeah, but wait until you come to Chicago and hear Sun Ra!” You know what I mean? Chicago had everybody coming . . . They said, “There’s a guy who can really play drums, man, Max Roach, man — he’s bad!” “Yeah. Wait til you hear Ike Day.” “This guy can play all kind of bass man, this guy is terrific playing bass, Raymond Brown.” And I said, “Wait til you hear Wilbur Ware.” See, we had guys like that in Chicago. Like you’re finally hearing Von Freeman, which was outside years ago. And people said, “John Coltrane.” We said, “Well, you should hear Von Freeman.” That’s the way I thought coming up.

Q: What do you think it is about Chicago that produced that type of individualism? Is it just an accident that all these people were there, or is it something about the culture of the city?

EH: I think it’s the latter. Because people came up primarily from the middle south; that’s Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana. The train came, and Chicago was the train center, so they’d get off there. You had the stockyards and people could get work, primarily the African-American people of that time.

And the people in general were just regular people. In other words, that’s why it was considered the blues capital. They were regular people there. In other words, when you were playing on the stand, guys would just come up and tell you: “Hey, man, I really liked that. I didn’t know what that was, but it’s all right.” If you’re playing something else, a guy says, “Hey, I don’t like that, man. Why don’t you stop playing that.”

See, they were just straight out. They weren’t like the West Coast or the East Coast. On the East Coast they said, “Let me analyze what this guy is doing.” The guy maybe had just been playing two years, but they’re trying to analyze something — the guy’s trying to put something over on them. The West Coast is just write it out, have it all organized. In the Midwest they said, “Hey, man, I spent my money. Come on, play something for me. That’s nice, you experimented now . . . ” It’s like I’d play with no neck on the horn. “Okay, enough of that. Let me feel something.” And will go upside your head if you didn’t!

So therefore, guys that come out of this particular area were more rounded out musicians. Because you would experiment, then you would stop and learn a song in its entirety, knowing the correct melody or the lyrics. Because other than that, you might wind up getting beat up or have to fight some people.

Q: In Chicago at that time almost every major cross-street had several different clubs, and some, like 63rd Street, were almost wall-to-wall with clubs.

EH: Well, this was true in other cities. It was true in Philly, it was true in Detroit. But the only thing I can be repetitive on, Ted, is to say they had different sounding groups in different venues. That was the shocking part about it. And when you come up in that environment, you don’t realize it until you go elsewhere. You’d walk out of one club, and you just heard the blues, jumpin’ up and down, then go down the street, there’s a swinging jazz group, then go down the street to the next club and say, “What is that?” It’s just like you went to another space or another time. Which I didn’t see in other cities.

Q: You also experienced the very intense teaching methods of Walter Dyett at DuSable High School. Can you say a few words about him, and the DuSable situation?

EH: Well, it was a time in which it was segregated times, and therefore African-Americans primarily only were able to go to, like, five schools. And you could imagine that many people in one area . . . Before they had (what is it called?) the high rises or these lower-income homes, they had kitchenettes. That’s a big apartment with one family in the front, one family in the middle apartment, and another family in the rear apartment. So you were like crammed.

Dyett was an instructor at DuSable High School. He had been a captain in the service. And he had to be rough. Because the guys who came to that school were extremely rough. In other words, say you hit that part wrong. Some guys would just tell you, “So what? Go on and play the music.” And he didn’t tolerate that. He would either go upside your head, have you bring your parents up to school. I remember one time I fell asleep. He kicked the chair out from under me, and I got up off the floor with my clarinet all sprawled everywhere! It was really strange.

John Gilmore was in class with me, Pat Patrick — the whole Sun Ra band, as a matter of fact. He had moved into the neighborhood when he came from Birmingham, and he took us out of Dyett’s band, because we could just read tremendously. Because Dyett taught us like that.

Q: Dyett also had bands that would allow his students to work out in the community, too, didn’t he?

EH: Well, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton — I got a chance to hear all these guys. They’d come by because they just couldn’t believe the Booster Band was that hip. That was the jazz band. And when you miss a note, you’re out the band. He’d pop his fingers: “You’re out the band. Bring your mother up to school.” And a guy in the back would take out his instrument, he’d come and sit down, and he was just as good if not better. I mean, it was that kind of competition you came up under, which really helped you. And he taught you other things about self-discipline, like do not have on polkadot socks when you have on a black suit. Heh-heh. Little things like that. Being on time, knowing the music, looking at the music to first see if it’s the correct tune you’re playing, then see what key signature it is. Understand where your repeats are. Little things that you should know in music.

[Music: E. Harris: “K.C. Blues,” “Salute to Bird,” “Hey Wado!”]

Q: The first thing Eddie Harris said to me on the phone when we were arranging this was that you had been a professional musician in Chicago for 14 years, I think you said, before “Exodus” was recorded and you were “discovered.” One of these liner notes says that your first actual gig was subbing piano with the Gene Ammons band.

EH: Yeah, that was my first what you’d call paying job!

Q: Do you remember what the club was?

EH: Well, it wasn’t a club. I played at the Pershing Ballroom. The next time I played it was another place, Baker’s Casino. I didn’t play clubs more or less with him. They had a lot of ballrooms around there, the Trianon, the Aragon on the North Side, and like that. I subbed for a guy named James Craig, who later became a policeman.

Q: He’s on the very early Gene Ammons recordings, if I recollect properly.

EH: Mmm-hmm.

Q: The Pershing Ballroom was part of a hotel on 64th and Cottage that was a real center of musical life on the South Side.

EH: I played there a long time opposite Ahmad Jamal. I played there Monday and Tuesday nights, and opposite him on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Q: As a pianist or saxophonist?

EH: Well, I really wanted to play the saxophone, but I had Charles Stepney working with me, and Walter Perkins and Bill Lee. Then Bill Lee left to go downtown, and Walter Perkins hired a guy from Evanston to play with us — you know him as Bob Cranshaw. So when we worked there, I played piano and Stepney played the vibes, then he doubled to go to piano and I would go to saxophone.

Q: I’d like to ask you about a few of the people that you mentioned, and some that you didn’t. You talked about Sun Ra being active in Chicago He got there in the late 1940s, and did dual duty as an arranger for the Club De Lisa, which included the Fletcher Henderson band, and having his own band of young musicians out of DuSable High School, who as you mentioned, were strong readers, and doing his own music.

EH: Right.

Q: What did his music sound like in 1950 or ’51 . . .

EH: Heh-heh . . .

Q: What was your reaction to playing those type of charts?

EH: I didn’t have any adverse reaction to it, due to the fact that I played in the orchestras; I played classical music. The big thing was looking at the way he wrote them. It was like orchestra music. You had scales, arpeggios, flamadas and like that. He would write a note and make a zig-zag line to another note, and within that time frame you played what you wanted to play. Which is modern writing today, but I wasn’t too hip to that, you know. I would have liked to stay along with him and played a lot longer, but I couldn’t go along with his teachings that he had after rehearsals and after playing, when he said, “I’ve been here before.” Because he was talking about “space is the place” and going on with that. I liked his music. I liked to experiment. But I couldn’t go along with the teaching. So not being with him, that’s when I more or less started playing with another group of guys, who I named earlier, where we did our thing.

Q: You mentioned drummer Ike Day, who was maybe recorded once, and the sound of the recording isn’t so great. A few words about his sound. Because he made an impression on everybody who heard him.

EH: Well, what can you say about an Ike Day? Who can I say that’s playing like he did? He was a combination like Max with his hands, or Philly Joe with his type of swinging. He was just a fantastic drummer. It was just unbelievable what this guy could do with just two sticks, playing on tables, on chairs.

Q: Someone told me they heard him do a solo with his toes.

EH: Well, I never witnessed that. [Laughs] But you can imagine a group of guys playing together like Dorel Anderson and Wilbur Ware, and then you’d have a guy like Ike Day sit in and play the drums. Dorel played drums . . . I mean, it was just extremely talented guys in that immediate area of Chicago, which was primarily the South Side. And I couldn’t understand why they weren’t recorded more, because it was right there. I mean, even though they had little mishaps of drugs and like that, but so did a lot of other people that were recorded!

Q: A lot of people also came through Chicago from other places. For example, Sonny Rollins a couple of times set up shop in Chicago, so to speak.

EH: Sonny Rollins worked there at a day job. In fact, they hired him, “they” meaning Max Roach-Clifford Brown. Clifford had brought me to the band to play at the Beehive, and he felt I was quite a player, that I could read the parts, I could play . . . But Max felt my tone was kind of funny.

Q: In some interviews you’ve talked about your tone. And I think in the interview for the liner notes of Artists Choice [Rhino] you said that you ran into Don Ellis in the Army, and he said that your tone was too light or something. Talk a bit about how you formulated a saxophone style.

EH: Well, the whole point of guys who were more or less envious and guys who were trying to bag on me, trying to bring down my arrogance and egotisticalness . . . Because you have to have this in order to play. You don’t have to be dogmatic about it, but you have to believe in yourself. And they’d say, “Oh man . . . ” This is prejudice times, now; this is the late ’40s or the early ’50s . . . the late ’40s primarily . . . “Oh, man, you sound like Stan Getz,” and that’s supposed to have been a putdown. I even had caucasian guys telling me that, because I played in caucasian bands. And they didn’t realize that really Getz was playing like Lester Young before he lost his teeth. Because if you listen to his old sound, “Taxi War Dance,” Prez and Hershel Evans, he played like that, with a lighter sound. As a matter of fact, any saxophone player that’s trying to play fast or trying to play skips or high notes, he or she becomes a lighter player, because you cannot play heavy and play rapido. But that’s neither here nor there.

Anyway, they put me down. “Oh, man, you sound like Getz.” So I had to live with that. Then finally, I started challenging the guys back because I just got fed up with it. “Oh man, but you know, you did sound like . . . ” See, they wasn’t listening to what I’m playing. People are just hung up in sounds. That’s even today, a person’s sound. They say, “Oh yeah, he sounds like Trane.” But what is he playing? Yeah, but as long as I get that sound, I’m automatically in. But not in as far as I’m concerned. But so many people just go by the sound.

See, I was trying to play higher notes, I was trying to play skips like that. But I was using that timbre of sound, which was really the Lester Young school as opposed to the Chu Berry or the Coleman Hawkins way, and to use that and make articulate playing, utilization of tonguing at least every other note, which I get a brass effect. And quiet as it’s kept, only one guy ever told me, he said, “I see, you’re trying to play like a trumpet on saxophone.” That was the late Pepper Adams, who was playing on a big band. He said, “Man, you’re the first cat that really peeped that I was trying to do that. Now, you see, I can play five C’s now, and you see I can hit high notes, and I do a lot of phrasing — I hit things like Miles and Clifford and them on the saxophone.

Q: And subsequently, of course, you used different mouthpieces, trumpet mouthpieces on the saxophone, or saxophone mouthpieces on the trumpet . . .

EH: Well, I was doing that to get different sounds. I was always trying different sounds. The only reason why I more or less put that on the back- burner was electric came out; then I started dealing with electric.

Q: Your relationship with Muhal Richard Abrams goes back to high school. In 1960 or 1961, you and Muhal organized a workshop band that got together briefly, then subsequently you parted ways. This band was the core of what became the AACM. What events, as you recollect it, inspired its formation?

EH: It was a thing that trying to play around Chicago, you figured there are guys that never played first chair, there are guys that never played on a big band, and there are other guys that never had an opportunity to write for a large number of people, and there are people that wanted to sing, and sing in front of a band — “so let’s form a workshop.” There were three of us. There was the late Johnny Hines, a trumpeter from the West Side of Chicago, and Muhal Richard Abrams and myself. And we just got this together at the C&C, which was a lounge, a large lounge. And the musicians . . . It was surprising that so many musicians came! I mean, it was just amazing. I think we must have had about 100 musicians.

But then you have this class set of the musicians who were more or less our age or older, who were astute musicians, then you had the younger musicians — and the astute musicians were like, “Oh, I don’t want to play with these guys, they’re just learning.” So a guy like myself, I’ll take a few charts and pass it out to the guys, and put guys in precarious positions. Like a guy I know that can play a good first, I’ll give him a third part. Now he’s got to play lower. [Laughs] Then you stomp off kind of rapid, and the guys would be missing notes, and then make the younger kids say, “Damn, they can miss notes, too!” And the guys would be all uptight who can really play. Then that deflates their ego some. Then we can get on with the workshop.

Lo and behold, it was going pretty good. But I had to travel, because I had this hit record, “Exodus.” But I don’t know what happened; when I came back there were divisions. Johnny Hines tried to take the musicians more our age; he wanted to go into the Regal Theatre so he could have a band to really accompany all the stars that come in there. Muhal had taken the younger musicians and let them learn in reading on scales and playing with each other. So that’s how that came about. And Muhal eventually got together with the Association . . .

Q: They chartered in 1965 and set up that whole . . . .

EH: Yes, they set it up. But that’s how that came about.

Q: Let’s hear an extended piece, I guess collectively worked out by the band from maybe around 1970 or ’71. This comes from Excursions, a double LP issued on Atlantic in 1973. The track is “Turbulence,” featuring Eddie Harris on electric saxophone and reed trumpet; Ronald Muldrow on guitorgan . . . ?

EH: That’s right, guitorgan. That was a guitar with pickups under the fret- board to make it sound like an organ.

Q: Muhal Richard Abrams on piano. Rufus Reid, who was living in Chicago in that period, around the cusp of 1970, on bass, and Billy James on drums.

EH: That was a working band.

Q: And you played all over, in many different situations.

EH: All over these United States.

[Music: “Turbulence”; E. Harris/E. Marsalis, “Deacceleration”]

Q: How did this duo album you made with Ellis Marsalis come about?

EH: Ellis and I have played together numerous times down in New Orleans where he lives, so I come down there and I play with him. On other occasions I’ve come down and played with different groups. And this guy I played with several times named Dave Torkanowsky, he had studied with Ellis, and he really enjoyed playing with me. He had an opportunity to produce a record, and he said he thought it would be great if Ellis and I would do a duo. He called me up and had me fly down to Dallas, and we did it on the spur of the moment — no rehearsals, nothing.

Q: Let’s talk about the scene in Chicago as it developed in the 1960s.

EH: There were a lot of guys playing good music around there in the ’60s. There was Gene Shaw who played trumpet, who passed later on. Then of course, there was the guy who had a group called the Pharaohs, which you’d know later on as the Phoenix Horns.

Q: I’m under the impression, though, that the club scene kind of declined and there were a lot fewer opportunities to work around Chicago then — although maybe you didn’t directly experience that.

EH: Well, the club scene was beginning to decline because television was on the rise, and as more television, people were staying at home looking at more of the wrestling matches and roller derby.

Q: You mentioned in an interview that you spent a good amount of time in New York and were working a lot, but you chose to come back to Chicago.

EH: I came here, and immediately, coming up out of the subway . . . After I checked into the hotel, I went and rode on the subway up to Harlem, and I walked up, and I’m looking at the tall buildings of Harlem, because I thought maybe they might be a little smaller in Harlem, because it was residential — that’s what I thought my first time here, in the ’50s. And what happened? I ran into the trumpet man. “Dag,” he says, “you’re lost. Oh man! What are you doing here?! Hey, man, come and play with my band.” I said, “Really? “Yeah,” he said. “If you’re in town here, you can come and play with me.” That was . . . I’m getting bad on names, man. Because see, you’re going back in time on me. He wrote this tune, [Sings the first few bars of “Blue Bossa”].

Q: Oh, that’s K.D. you’re talking about.

EH: Yeah, Kenny Dorham. And I went and played with him, and I walked around town here, and all the guys would hire me, because I played piano, I could play trombone, read, you know. And I can play clarinet, the oboe, bassoon. My flute playing is sad. It’s still sad, because I don’t think that is a double. Of course, I have several flutes at home, and I can make it through an amateur part, but I don’t care to play it. But I worked nine nights a week. I worked afternoons playing piano for some people tap-dancing, and I could play in pit bands. But I never had any money! I was living with Cedar Walton and Sam Fletcher, the vocalist, and I said, “Hey, man, I’m going back to Chicago.” They said, “Man, you’re crazy. Guys don’t come here and work like you.”

I just went back to Chicago. And what happened? That’s how I made “Exodus”. I was scheduled to go back to Europe and play, because Quincy Jones was going to hire me to take a guy’s place named Oliver Nelson, and he had me to play with him when I was over in Europe with his band. He said, “Man, I’m happy to run into you. You can go back to Europe with me.” I said, “Okay.”

I stopped by to see my mother, and she asked me what was I doing, and she said, “I’m going back over to Europe with a guy named Quincy Jones.” She started crying. She just made a big issue out of this. I said, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” She said, “I understood you was going to make a record.” I said, “Oh yeah, I can do that when I come back.” She said, “It’s a shame. I’m ashamed to tell people that you play music. Because everybody’s made a record but you.” I said, “I don’t care nothin’ about that. I’m working. I’m playing.” She said, “Well, you ought to make this one record, because VeeJay asked you to make a record.”

But they’d asked me to record on piano, because they wanted me to sound like the guy down the street at Cadet Records which I used to show chords to.

Q: Not Ahmad Jamal!

EH: No, Ramsey Lewis. [Laughs] Yeah, Ahmad was down there. Of course, he’s an outstanding piano player. But this guy had the Gentlemen of Jazz, this Ramsey Lewis, and that was selling. So they wanted me to do that down the street at Vee-Jay. And I wasn’t particular about that, so I didn’t care nothing about making a record. But my mother said, “Oh, please make this one record, then you can go to Europe, Asia, anywhere.” I said, “But won’t nobody want me then if I stay here and make the record.”

So I went down to Chess, and I talked with them, and they said, “Well, we don’t want you to play the saxophone; you’re too weird.” And I told him where to go. Well, there was a guy named Sid McCoy, and a guy named Abner, who ran the company . . . It was actually Vivian and Jimmy’s company, V-J, and Abner was the president, and Sid McCoy was the a&r, artists and repertoire guy. Abner, who had gone down there to college with me, said, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll let you play several numbers on saxophone.” I said, “Okay, that’s fair enough.” I told Quincy that. He said, “One record?! Oh, man.” And to this day, when he thinks about it, he says, “One record” — because that one record turned out to be “Exodus.” Isn’t that amazing? A million-seller.

[Music: “Love For Sale” (1965); “Harlem Nocturne” (1990); “God Bless The Child” (1959)]

Q: Eddie Harris said they used that version of “God Bless The Child” for a TV story of Lady Day’s life.

EH: Yes, yes. It was great. Billie Holiday was very instrumental in trying to get me to understand that I could not only swing, that I played melodically. I was playing at the Pershing Lounge opposite Ahmad Jamal, and played the off-nights. She had a club underneath, which at first she called Birdland, then the people in New York here wouldn’t allow her to call it Birdland, so she changed it to Budland.

She came down one time, when we were rehearsing during the afternoon . . . She came down to all these rehearsals, any time she could, and she directed the rehearsals. “Hey, don’t do that?” “Why don’t you leave me alone?” And she said, “You can really phrase. Your timing . . . ” — and she used a lot of four-letter words that I won’t use over the radio!

But the point is that she encouraged me . . . Because I’m basically a quiet guy, standing back, and all the guys, it seemed like they were hipper than me playing the horn because of the fact they played the Charlie Parker licks, the Sonny Rollins licks . . . well, whoever, you can play the Rabbit [Johnny Hodges] licks . . . And here I could read all these things and play, but when I go to play, I played more phrasing melodically. Of course, you had Gene Ammons around there who played melodically, but he wasn’t tackling the type of tunes we were tackling. We were trying to play like these other guys, but then trying to solo differently than the other guys. In other words, you play a Charlie Parker line, but if you take off on your solo you didn’t try to be Bud, or the bass player didn’t try to be Mingus, and the drummer wasn’t trying to be Max.

So she was telling me I should continue phrasing the way I was. I’ll tell you something, Ted. I’m saying this primarily for younger musicians out there, or people who might have kids that play. Sometimes you can do something that comes very easy to you, and you don’t think very much of it due to the fact that it comes easy to you. As a kid I could always play, and the house would swing, pat their feet. I mean, I didn’t need a rhythm section. I really didn’t. I could just hit a groove, and people would automatically…

But most of my colleagues couldn’t. So I was trying to play like them, playing off-meter, double-time, like that. And she was trying to explain to me, “Just play what you play, and people will just go berserk.” But I wasn’t looking at that, because you have your peers. The majority of the guys double up, run over the instrument, look like they can play faster than you. But they really couldn’t when we stomped off something fast. I could play fast, but I play in meter.

Q: When you play something like that, it almost has the quality of singing, and you said you were singing at a very, very young age.

EH: Oh, yes. But you don’t realize what you have, because you’re just swamped up by others. Because see, most musicians do not and cannot play in meter. And I didn’t realize this until later years. And I mean “in meter,” just have a guy play by himself, and he’s not playing one note, [sings one note sequence], but just trying to play — and you’ll see how his time fluctuates. In other words, a lot of people swing when they’re with swinging people, but are they swinging themselves on the instrument? In other words, you hear a guy phrasing, you can imagine if you were at the control room where you can douse the board and take the rhythm section out and hear this guy play. I mean, it’s nice. He’s making the changes, he’s making the modulations. But why did you stop patting your foot? Because he has no more support from the rhythm. Because he’s not carrying the rhythm himself — or herself nowadays.

This next piece is currently the way I’m playing, trio piano in Europe. I’ve just come back from 36 one-nighters, and playing piano with the bassist, who is Ray Peterson, and the drummer, Norman Fearington.

Q: This is the current working band?

EH: It’s the working band, yes. Ray Peterson is playing with Les and me down there. Of course, Norman had to go to Europe, so we have Ben Riley in place of Norman.

[Music: “Ambidextrous,” “Airegin” (solo sax)]

Q: We’ve heard you establish yourself as a player very much out of the esthetic of the period you came from, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, and that end of it, as a rabid experimentalist, dealing with every type of imaginable sound, and always within a very functional situation. It’s amazing that you’re able to play with the reed trumpet or the clarinet with no neck in front of some very tough audiences and make it come off. And we’ve heard the high standard of virtuosic saxophone playing, some great piano playing, and some singing. We haven’t heard “Why Are You So Overweight,” but I guess we could do that, too.

EH: If you ever get a chance one of these days, try listening to “Oleo” on Excursions, and you will hear me play the saxophone with the trombone mouthpiece, which makes it sound like a valve trombone.

Q: I’ll do that. But just a word about your piano playing, which we’ve touched on. We’ve heard two examples now, one where you play “Our Love Is Here To Stay” in a very expansive, Tatumesque, Nat Cole type of style.

EH: Mmm-hmm.

Q: On the last you were playing a Chicago left-hand boogie-woogie . . . Piano was your first instrument, I take it.

EH: Yes.

Q: A few words about your relationship with the piano.

EH: Well, I was taught by my cousin when I was a very young age, at four, and then I came up playing in the church, and I played and studied piano at Roosevelt College, where I had an awful time.

Q: Why was that?

EH: Because they wanted me to go to Piano 104, not beginning piano. I was taught in a church, and I was slow reading, and I had incorrect fingering — and I wanted to just learn the piano when I was going to college there. They said, “No, you’re not going to take this credit, because you play too well.” And they put me in a class with people running over piano, reading things — [sings fast, dense passage]. They was gone! And I stayed in there for quite a while, because I could listen to people play and I could sit down and play it. That doesn’t mean I could read it that fast, but I was telling them I wanted to learn it. I had an awful time trying to convince people that I was really trying to learn piano in the correct way. But no, they said, “You play too well.” So consequently, I didn’t go take private lessons . . . I didn’t care about the piano anyway. I just was doing that while I was in college. And lo and behold, I’ve made more money playing piano, working, than I have saxophone. It’s amazing.

Q: A lot of your early gigs were piano gigs.

EH: Yeah. Even recently, out in California, I started a club, and I played solo piano, then it wound up a duo and a trio — and now it’s one of the top jazz places.

Q: What club is that?

EH: That’s Bel Age. It’s a hotel, the Brasserie. One time I was here in New York, and I stopped on 23rd Street in a restaurant to get something to eat, and they had a piano there. I said, “Hey, can I play some while I’m waiting for the food?” The guy said, “Yeah, if you can play, man. Don’t be messing with the piano if you can’t play.” I said, “I can play.” I sat down there and played. And this guy offered me a gig! He says, “Oh, man, I like your feeling, the way you played, you know tunes . . . ” I said, “I wish this was where I lived. I live in Los Angeles.” He said, “Really? Well, come on up here and live!”

It’s strange. People like my piano playing. I wish they would like my saxophone playing like that. I don’t know what it is. The piano playing, maybe it’s because I can groove, I get across to the average John and Jane Doe. The saxophone, I don’t know what it is. I’ve never had that happen.

Q: The saxophone seems to me almost a laboratory for you, like you’re always looking for some new effect or new way to get something over so as maybe not to get bored… 

EH: Maybe that’s it. Because at the piano, I just don’t care. I just play, I make a run, when I run out of fingers I cross my hand over and I hit it with the back of my hand!


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Filed under Chicago, Eddie Harris, Interview, Muhal Richard Abrams, WKCR

For The 91st Birth Anniversary of Von Freeman, a 1987 Musician Show on WKCR

For the 91st birth anniversary of the master tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, one of the most singular individual stylists ever to play his instrument, here’s the proceedings of a Musician’s show that he did with me on WKCR in 1987. It was the first of what I believe were 4, maybe 5 encounters that I was fortunate to be able to put together with the maestro during my years at the station. Three years ago, when his NEA Jazz Mastership was announced, I posted this 1994 interview. A transcript of a 1991 encounter with Mr. Freeman and John Young has been posted on the Jazz Journalist Association website for more than a decade; maybe next year, I’ll post it here.

 

How did you get into music?

Well, actually I began very, very early by taking my father’s Victrola . . . See, that’s a little bit before your time. A Victrola had an arm shaped like a saxophone that the needle was in that played the record. And I had been banging on the piano. They had bought me a piano when I was about one year old, and I’d been banging on that thing all my life. So finally, I took up the saxophone at about five, primarily through my dad’s Victrola. I actually took it off, man, and carved holes in it and made a mouthpiece. He thought I was crazy, of course, because that’s what he played his sounds — his Wallers and his Rudy Vallees and his Louis Armstrongs (those were three of his favorites), his Earl Hines and things — on. He said, “Boy, you’re not serious, are you?” Of course, I was running around; I was making noise with this thing. So he bought me a C-melody saxophone, and I’ll never forget it.

How old were you?

Oh, I was about 7 at that time. The guy sold it to us for a tenor. Well, it is a tenor, but it’s a C-tenor, a tenor in C. And of course, I was running around playing that thing. Gradually I grew and I grew and I grew and I grew. Finally I ended up in DuSable High School, where I was tutored by Captain Walter Dyett, like so many Chicagoans were.

Were you in the first class of DuSable High School?

Well, see, DuSable actually began in Wendell Phillips. That was another high school in Chicago, and Captain Walter Dyett was teaching there, where he taught such guys as Nat “King” Cole and that line, who were a little bit older than I was.

Ray Nance, Milt Hinton, a whole line of people.

Oh, there’s quite a few.

The band program at Wendell Phillips was initially established by Major Clark Smith.VF:Right.Q:By the way, did you ever come in contact with him?

No, I never did, but I heard a lot of things about him! I heard Captain Walter Dyett mention Major Smith, but I was so young at the time. And I was so taken up with him, because he was such a great, great disciplinarian, as I would call him — besides being a great teacher and whatnot. He put that discipline in you from the time you walked into his class. And it has been with me the rest of my life, actually.

You were in high school with a lot of people who eventually became eminent musicians. Let’s mention a few of them.

Well, of course, everyone knows about the late and great Gene Ammons, and of course Bennie Green was there, Johnny Griffin . . .

Griff was after you, though.

Well, I’m just naming them, because there were so many of them . . .

But in your class were Dorothy Donegan . . .

Dorothy Donegan, right.

 . . John Young, Bennie Green and people like that.

Augustus Chapell, who was a great trombonist. Listen, there’s so many guys that we could spend the program just naming them.

Tell me about how Captain Dyett organized the music situation at DuSable. He had several different types of bands for different functions, did he not?

Yes, he did. Well, it was standard during that era, actually. He had a concert band, he had a swing band, and he had a marching band, and then he had a choral band. Like, you played all types of music there, and he made you play every one of them well. No scamming. And he had his ruler, he had his baton, and he didn’t mind bopping you. See, that was his thing to get you interested. Like, you could fool around until you came to the music class, which usually would be where you would fool around — but not with him.

Then they had a chorus teacher there who taught voice, and her name was Mrs. Mildred Bryant-Jones. She was very important. I haven’t heard her name mentioned too much, but I studied with her also. She taught harmony and vocalizing.

Actually, I never saw Captain Walter Dyett play an instrument, but I heard he was a very good violinist and pianist. I never saw him play saxophone or trumpet or anything, but he knew the fingering to everything, and he saw that you played it correctly — which of course I thought was very, very great. And he stood for no tomfoolery.

He provided a situation that was sort of a bridge from school into the professional world, didn’t he?

Well, that was later on. In fact, that was just about when I was about to graduate in ’41. He formed what he called the DuSableites. It was a jazz band. Originally Gene Ammons and quite a few of us were in that band. He had a great trumpet player who was living at that time named Jesse Miller, and he was one of the leading trumpet players in Chicago at that time. But Dorothy Donegan was in that band, playing the piano. A very good band. And we would play little jobs. He made us all join the union . . . That band lasted until ’46. I had come out of the service. I was in that band when it folded, actually, and that’s when I began playing professionally in, shall we say, sextets and quintets and things like that.

What kind of repertoire would those bands have?

Oh, it was standard. It was waltzes and jazz. He would buy the charts from the big bands, all the standard big band charts.

Were you playing for dancers?

Dancers and celebrations and bar mitzvahs, the standard thing.

While you were in high school did you go out to hear music? Did you hear Earl Hines?

Yes. Well, you see, Earl Hines, I’m privileged to say, was a personal friend of my dad’s. There’s three I remember that came by the house, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller.

Was your dad a musician?

No, but he loved musicians. My father was a policeman. But he loved music and he loved musicians. And he would always have on the radio playing, and he played the whole gamut. That’s another thing that helped me. He liked waltzes. He liked Guy Lombardo’s orchestra. And he always had the jazz orchestras on. At that time, of course, the jazz orchestras did a whole lot of remotes, you know, from different clubs. Like, Earl Hines was coming from the Grand Terrace, and Earl was coming on sometimes nightly. Of course, he had a great band. And Earl would come by the house maybe once a year or so, and I’d see him talking with my dad, and I formed a friendship with him. Great man. And Fats Waller even played my piano!

Amazing you even touched it.

Oh, yes, he was a beautiful man. And of course, Louis Armstrong was . . . I don’t know, he was just like you’ve always seen him — he was Pops. Those three men I just fell in love with.

He was Pops off the stage, huh?

Well, he was Pops on and off. Everybody was Pops. He called me Pops. I think I was about five or six years old. “Hi, Pops!”

Who were some of the other bands around Chicago that you heard? Or some of the other players, for that matter?

Well, listen, there were so many great bands. In fact, when Earl Hines left the Grand Terrace, King Kolax replaced that band. And let me tell you something I think is interesting. When I was in the last year, I think I was in the senior year at DuSable, he approached both Gene Ammons and I, and tried to get us to go on the road with him. Jug went, and of course Jug never looked back. I stayed in school. But Jug went with that band until it folded, and then he joined Billy Eckstine — and of course, the rest is history with Jug. He cut “Red Top” in 1947, and he never looked back.Q:I’ve heard mention from you of a tenor player named Johnny Thompson who you said would have been one of the best had he lived.VF:Oh, listen, man, he was a beautiful cat, and he played almost identically to Prez without copying Prez. He held his horn like Prez, his head like Prez, and very soft-spoken, and then he was tall like Prez. Johnny came to an unseemly end, unfortunately.

Well, Prez had that effect on a lot of people, I would imagine. You, too, I think.

Oh, I was running around there trying to play everything that Prez played. See, Prez was like this. Everybody loved Coleman Hawkins, but he was so advanced harmonically you could hardly sing anything he played. But Prez had that thing where we could sing all of his solos. We’d go to the Regal Theatre and stand out front and (now I know) heckle Prez. Because he’d come out and play, we’d be singing his solos — and Prez never played the same solo, you know! He’d look at us as if to say “I wish those dummies would hush.” We’d be down in the front row, “Hold that horn up there, Prez! Do it, baby!” So all those little nuts were running around trying to hold those tenors at that 45-degree thing like him. Needless to say, Prez must have had the strongest wrists in the world, because today I can’t hold a tenor up in the air, not longer than for four or five seconds. And he had that horn, boy, up in the air, and could execute with it like that. Simply amazing.

Prez with the Basie band, huh?

Oh, yes.

Where did they play in Chicago?

Well, the Regal Theatre mostly. Most of the big bands played the Regal. Then they had another place called the White City out at South 63rd Street, and a lot of bands played there, too.

Let’s review the geography of the South Side venues, so we can establish where people were playing, and in what types of situations.

Well, the Regal Theatre was, of course, at 47th and South Parkway, which is now King Drive. Now, the Grand Terrace was down at 39th Street, and Club DeLisa was over at 55th Street. But the center where all the big bands really came was at the Regal Theatre. See, Earl Hines was at the old Grand Terrace, and Red Saunders, who had a great local band, was at the Club De Lisa.

They had the Monday morning jam session there, too.

Oh yes. It was famous throughout the world.

The famous show band there . . .

Yeah, Red Saunders. He was known as the World’s Greatest Show Drummer. That’s the way that they billed him.

How did you first come into contact with Coleman Hawkins?

Well, Coleman Hawkins used to play at a club called the Golden Lily, right down at 55th Street, next door to the El. Of course, we would go down there until the police ran us away from in front of the place, and listen to Hawk blowing. You could hear that big, beautiful sound; you could hear him for half-a-block. And he played at another club called the Rhumboogie quite frequently. I got to talk with him a few times, and he was always . . . He was just like Prez. He was gracious and beautiful.

Well, you’ve been quoted as saying that your style is really a composite of Hawk and Prez, with your own embouchure.

Yes. Well, at that time I didn’t really understand, but they used two entirely different embouchures — for people who are into embouchures, you know. I was fooling around trying to play like both of them, and I was using the same embouchure. Hawk had more of a classical embouchure, and Prez had more of what I would call a jazz embouchure, an embouchure that enabled him to get his feeling out the way he wanted it. I wouldn’t say one is better than the other; it’s just that they both had two different embouchures. Of course, when I came along, I didn’t really know what I was doing; I was just trying to sound like both of them at the same time.

But of course, I liked all of the saxophone players. I had a few local saxophone players I was crazy about. There was a fellow named Roy Grant, one named Dave Young, another named James Scales.

James Scales played with Sun Ra at one point.

Yes. Yes, he did! Very good. And he’s still around. He’s a very good saxophonist. He never left Chicago. None of those three did.

[Music: Charlie Parker, “Scrapple From The Apple,” “Anthropology,” “These Foolish Things,” “Moose The Mooche,” “Confirmation”]

When did you first hear Charlie Parker in the flesh, Von?

Well, actually, it was at different clubs around Chicago. The Beehive was one, and he worked numerous little clubs.Q:Do you remember the first time?VF:Well, at the Pershing. That was back in the ’40s.

What were the circumstances? You were in the house band.

Yes. Now, a lot of people don’t know whether it was Claude McLin on “These Foolish Things” or myself. There were several tenor players that were on these different jobs, and they were mostly using my rhythm section. And I really can’t tell whether it’s myself either, because almost all of us were trying to play like Lester Young at the time, because that was the thing to do if you were able at all. You were either playing like Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young, so you took your pick. And I was trying to play like a combination, of course, of both of them. That made me a sound a little bit different. But we were all in either a Hawk bag or a Prez bag, or between the two somewhere. Of course, I admired both of them equally. And along with Don Byas and Ben Webster . . . Well, you name all the great saxophone players, I loved them all.

Well, obviously, you had listened to a lot of records, and had heard everybody.

Oh, yes. I still do.

You and your two brothers were the house band at the Pershing for several years. How did that happen?

Just a blessing. Just a blessing. There was a great producer around town, or promoter you could call him, named McKie Fitzhugh, and he took a liking to us. He thought we had a nice sound and were capable of playing with these men. We had the great Chris Anderson at the piano, who could play anything, anywhere, and my brother Bruz was an up-and-coming new drummer with plenty of fire, and either Leroy Jackson or another fellow named Alfred White on bass. We were using several men then who were top local men around Chicago, and they were all young and able to play. Bird played very fast, and boy, you had to have men that were capable of keeping up with him. See, he would play these records at one tempo, but when he played in person, oh, you know, Bird could articulate those tunes. Diz and Fat Girl [Fats Navarro] and Howard McGhee and all the cats, they played very, very fast, and you had to keep up with them, see.

So it was more a blessing than anything else. There were many musicians around Chicago that could have done the same thing, but we were called. And we answered the call.

You were in a Navy band for four years before that, stationed in Hawaii.

Oh, yes.

Let’s talk about those very important years.

Oh, that was a blessing. That’s where I got my first real training. See, I was with the Horace Henderson band just for a while. Of course, when I went in that band, I thought I was a hot shot, you know.

That was your first professional job?

Yes. And when I went in that big band, boy, I found out just how much I didn’t know. And he had all of the star cats in the band, and of course . . .

Who was in the band?

Well, Johnny Boyd was seated right next to me, and a fellow named Lipman(?) was playing trumpet, Gail Brockman was in that band . . . Listen, some of the guys I can’t name now, because this was back in ’39, and I was like about 16 or something. So I was the new hot-shot in town in this big band. I could read. That’s about it! And they took me in hand . . . Because I was very humble. See, during that era, the young guys looked up to the older guys, and well that they should have. A lot of the older guys would pass a lot of their information and knowledge down to you if you were humble. And of course, I was. Still try to be.

Were you playing exclusively tenor sax?

Well, during school we all played a zillion instruments, probably most of them badly. But I was playing trumpet and trombone, drums, bass. If there was anything that you could get your hands on, Walter Dyett wanted you to learn it. But I ended up mostly playing tenor.

After working with Horace Henderson, you enlisted in the Navy and joined the band.

Oh, that’s where I really learned, boy. That’s where I ran into all the great musicians from around the world. Willie Smith and Clark Terry . . .

You were in a band with them?

Oh, no-no. See, Great Lakes had three bands, an A band, a B band, and a C band. I was in the C band. But all the big stars were mostly in the A band, and then the lesser players were in the C band.

Great Lakes is a Naval base north of Chicago near Lake Michigan, right?

Yes. So Clark Terry and I used to jam, and that cat, man, he could blow the horn to death, even back at that time, and this is like 1941 or ’42. Then of course, the bands were all split up, and I was shipped overseas. Now, a lot of people say that I have an original sound, but that’s not true at all. Where I got that sound and that conception of playing was from a saxophone player named Dave Young.

From Chicago.

Yes. Dave Young used to play with Roy Eldridge and quite a few other guys. To me he was one of the greatest saxophone players I’d ever heard, bar none. He took me under his wing when I was in the Navy, when we were stationed in Hawaii. I said, “Man, how are you getting that tone you get? You have so much projection.” And I started using his mouthpiece and his reeds, and he corrected my embouchure a lot. In fact, I would say that most of my formative training on a saxophone was from Dave Young. I had been trying my best to play like Prez and Hawk and whatnot, and his style was what I’d say I was looking for between those two great saxophone players, Prez and Hawk, but it was his own thing and his own way of executing it, and I tried to copy it. I don’t think Dave Young plays any more. I think he’s still around Chicago, but I don’t think he plays any more. He was a few years older than I am. So the sound that I am getting I think is primarily the sound that he was getting. Maybe I’ve refined it a little bit more in all these years I’ve been doing it. But the idea for getting that sound came from Dave Young. Great saxophone player.

And he was with the band you were in when you were stationed in Hawaii called the Navy Hellcats?

Right.

You were in the Navy until 1946?

Yes, from ’42 until ’46.

What type of engagements did you play in the Navy? For the enlisted men, social functions and so forth?

Yes, and the officers. And we traveled all over the island. I was about the only one who had never been in a big band, other than Horace Henderson. All these men came out of Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway’s band, Count Basie’s band and what have you. That’s where I learned how to arrange; they taught me a lot about arranging. Because I used to take my little arrangements in, and everybody said, “Man, you got to get hip, baby. You got to tighten up some.” And they would show me different things.

The next music we’ll hear is by Gene Ammons, who was pretty much the main man in Chicago during this time.

Oh, Gene was echelons above the rest of us. He had already established himself, he had cut hit records, and of course, the rest of us were more or less using him as a guide post. At the time, Gene was working a lot with Tom Archia. Tom was like a vagabond type of musician; he was in and out of everything. He was a great player. And Gene mostly played with his bands.

What we’re going to hear now is Jug with drummer Ike Day. What did he sound like, as best as you can describe it?

Well, he had a very smooth sound; he was very, very smooth. He was ambidextrous, so he could do like four rhythms at once, and make it fit jazz — and a great soloist. But he was also a great listener. Like, he and I used to go out and jam, drums and saxophone, you know, and you didn’t miss anything. His time was very, very even, but he could do anything he wanted to do. Truly, I think, one of the few geniuses I’ve really heard.

Who were his influences? We were mentioning Baby Dodds before . . .

Oh, I would imagine those type. Sid Catlett and those type of fellows.

Was he originally from the Chicago area? Is that where he was raised?

You know, when I first saw him, he was around Chicago. I really never asked him where he was from. I know he loved the great Max Roach, he loved Klook [Kenny Clarke] — he loved all the fellows from New York, of course. And I would like to think that they dug his playing.

We’ll hear a Gene Ammons date with Christine Chapman on piano, Leo Blevins on guitar, Lowell Pointer on bass, and Ike Day on drums.

[Music: Gene Ammons, “Stuffy,” “Close Your Eyes” (1960)”; Ammons and Sonny Stitt, “Red Sails In The Sunset” (1961),” Stitt, “Cherokee” (1950)]

I’d like to go a little more into what the musical life in Chicago was like in the late ’40s and early ’50s. There was so much happening.

Man, it was one of the greatest eras of my life. You could go from one club to another, and you could catch Dexter in one club, you could catch the great Sonny Rollins in another club, you could catch Coltrane down the street, you could catch the great Johnny Griffin down the street, you could catch [Eddie] Lockjaw [Davis] when he’d come in town — all these cats were some of the greatest saxophone players ever heard of. Lucky Thompson, Don Byas.

Ben Webster, man, I used to hang out with! It was beautiful. I used to ask him, I said, “Mister Ben, how do you get that great sound, baby? Tell me, please!” He said, “Listen. Just blow with a stiff reed.” So I was running around buying fives, man! I wasn’t getting anything but air, you know, but it was cool, because Ben said, “Blow a five,” you know.

But all of the great saxophone players . . . Wardell Gray would come to the Beehive. If you name a great saxophone player or a trumpeter or pianist (well, a great musician), they were around 63rd Street during the late ’40s and early ’50s. And you could go from the Cotton Club, which was a great club there, the Crown Propeller, Harry’s — there were so many clubs there.

And all the clubs would be full. The community was into it.

Oh, listen! And people were patting their feet and their booties were shaking and clapping hands. When you walk into a club and see that, man, you know people are into that thing, see, because they can’t be still. You had drummers at that time, man, like Blakey and the cats would come in town; these cats were rhythm masters. When they played a solo on the drums even, you could keep time with it. Max would come in there and you could hear the song; you know, when Roach would play, you could still hear the song.

So it was just a singing, swinging era. And of course, I was running around there trying to get all of it I could get, get it together and try to piece it together. The cats who actually lived in Chicago didn’t have too much of a name at the time, but we were mixing with all of the stars from around the world. And it helped us. See, it helped us greatly. At that time you could do a lot of jamming, unlike today. Of course, it just helped you to get up and rub shoulders. You could talk with the cats. It was beautiful.

Were you able to make a living playing just jazz, or did you also deal with blues and other types of music?

Well, see, at that time, in my opinion, it was almost all the same. Like, they had this rhythm-and-blues, but it was very similar to Jazz. Now, you had the down-and-out blues cats, you know, who were playing just strictly three changes. But you had a bunch of the rhythm-and-blues cats who were actually playing jazz. And it swung. Maybe it was a shuffle beat, but you’ve got to remember, some of Duke’s greatest tunes, if you listen, the drummer is playing the backbeat or the shuffle, or stop time, or something — and that’s in some of his greatest tunes. Like, if you hear Buhaina play a shuffle or something, man, it swings, because he’s hip and he knows how to do it so it’s still jazz. It’s just a matter of having that taste and knowing where to put those beats. See? Because jazz musicians are always very hip, always very hip dudes, because they spend their life learning these things and practicing these things, see. And a lot of the jazz cats are in it to further the music. Of course, they want money, they need money like everybody else. But their primary thing is to further this music — I like to think.

Von Freeman is certainly one who has contributed to the cause.

Oh, well, don’t look at it like that, Ted! No, it’s just that if I’m not famous and make a lot of money, I can blame nobody but Von Freeman. Because I stayed right there in Chicago, see. And no one is going to stay in Chicago or anywhere else, unless it’s New York, and get a big name, because there are not recording outlets. Well, I know all of this. And I’m not sacrificing anything! Hey, I’m happy where I am. It’s just happenstance I’m in Chicago.

Well, I wasn’t thinking of it like that; I was thinking of it in terms of your advancing the cause. But you’re painting a picture of Chicago that was veritable beehive of musical activity.

Oh, it was. Everybody was coming there. And the whole town was swinging. Like I said, you could go from club to club and find a star — and he might not even be working; he just might be in there jamming. You know, that type of thing. Because the music had such a beautiful aura to it at that time. I like to think that it’s coming right back to that now. I can see it happening again.

In Chicago now.

Oh, yes, Chicago is really opening up.

It was pretty dry in Chicago for a while.

Oh, for a while we went through a dry spell that was mean. At one time I was on 75th Street, and I was the only guy playing Jazz on 75th Street, as famous as that street is! And I was jamming mostly, and all the cats would come by and help me by jamming. Like my brother George, with Gene Ammons, and Gene Ammons would come by when they were here — “Jug is down the street, man, with Vonski!” They’d all run down there, you know, and my brother George would bring Jug along with him. And of course, Jug had this big name and this big, beautiful sound, and he would take out his horn . . . In fact, he would blow my horn, and just knock everybody out. I loved Jug.

[Music: Johnny Griffin, “Chicago Calling” (1956)” Wardell Gray, “Easy Living” & “South Side” (1949), Dexter Gordon, “Strollin'” (1974)]

During the break we had a call from somebody who noted that we had been playing Sonny Stitt before, and noted Sonny Stitt’s propensity to try to take over jam sessions, cutting contests, so to speak, which certainly is popularly identified with Chicago tenor playing. He wondered if you had anything to say about that renowned institution in Chicago life, the cutting contest.

Well, now, Sonny Stitt was one of my running partners, boy. But nobody, nobody fooled with Sonny Stitt when it came to jamming. Sonny was extra mean. Because Sonny could play so fast, see. And Sonny would bring both his horns. See, we would all be jamming, and of course, Sonny would tell his story on, say, alto. It’s very hard to even follow that. And then after everyone had got through struggling behind Sonny, then Sonny would pick up the tenor. So the best thing to do with Sonny Stitt was make friends with him. [Laughs] That was the best thing. Because I loved him.

See, I have a lot of Sonny Stitt in my style. I used to kid him all the time. I used to tell him that he was one of the world’s greatest saxophone players. He’d say, “Aw, shucks, do you really mean it?” But I really meant it. Sonny used to come to Chicago . . .

In fact, you know, when you think about Chicago (this is my opinion, of course), and you think of the saxophone players . . . Man, I don’t know. But I can run down a list and the styles . . . Now, for instance, you had that style of Willis Jackson, Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, and you had Fathead Newman, and of course, Ike Quebec (everybody called him Q), and Joe Thomas, Dick Wilson, and of course, the cat who is still the man, Stanley Turrentine. Now, that’s just one style of tenor that’s hard to master, because all these cats played hard, man, and they hit a lot of high notes, and they played a very exciting instrument.

Then, on the other hand, you had cats around Chicago like Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Allen Eager would come through. Now they were playing . . .

That serious Prez bag.

Yeah, that serious Prez bag, which is that softer thing. Then you had cats like Don Byas, Lucky Thompson, and Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons bootin’ — that other type of tenor. And of course, don’t leave out Jaws, and the fellow that you just played used to hang around Chicago and wiped everybody out, Dexter Gordon, Long-Long Tall — he and Wardell.

Now, there’s three definite different schools of tenor, and when you pick up a tenor, unlike most instruments, you’ve got to master all three of those styles. And I can tell when a cat has missed one of them. I don’t care which one of these styles it is. I can tell when I listen to him a set which one of these styles he missed.

I think that’s what made Coltrane so great, was Coltrane was a composition of all these styles. Because see, when Trane first came to town, man, he was playing alto with Earl Bostic, and Earl Bostic, we considered not rock-and- roll, but rhythm-and-blues. Of course, Earl started on high-F and went beyond; that was his style; and then he growled on the tenor. And Trane was there with him. So Trane was getting all this stuff together.

And of course, nowadays . . . That’s one reason why I admire Chico Freeman so much. Because he has, and he’s trying to get Sonny Rollins and Trane, and then all the cats I named into his bag. Which is what you’ve got to do today. See, you can’t just have one style and say, “Hey, I’m going with that.” Like all these cats started with Trane in his later years, which is a beautiful thing, but they don’t know what Trane came through. And of course, it’s hard for them to get that feeling, because he had the whole thing. And nowadays, you have to try to get all that there, because all of these saxophone players are great saxophone players. Some of them are still living, see.

So to me, that’s what makes the tenor the mystery instrument. And I remember, like, in the ’50s, we were all trying to get Gene Ammons, because he was cutting all the hit records and he had this big beautiful sound. Then Johnny Griffin came along with all that speed; he’s another genius. So then everybody shifted over to his bag. Sonny Rollins used to come to town, into the DJ Lounge, and of course, Sonny had it all, everybody was trying to get between Johnny Griffin and Sonny Rollins — everybody was trying to get that thing together. Then before they could get that thing together, here comes Trane. And of course, Trane just kind of drowned everybody, because he had all of that stuff together, and he left a lot of wounded soldiers along the way. See, cats are still trying to recover from that Trane explosion. And of course, they shouldn’t look at it that way. I think they should look at it that Trane assimilated everything; they’ve got to assimilate everything up to Trane and then move on.

Of course, that’s hard. You see, it’s pretty easy, maybe much easier to take one of those styles and then go for it. But the tenor is such that when you play now, you’ve got to be exciting, you’ve got to be melodic, you’ve got to be soulful, cheerful, you know, and all these other adjectives. So the tenor, when they see you with a tenor in your hand, you’ve got all these styles. Like Willis Jackson again. Man, I went on a trip with that cat. Man, if you are not together, he’ll blow you off that bandstand, because he’s got such a big, robust style, and he can play forty different ways. And he’s just one of the cats.

So you have to try to get your discography together, and you have to listen. And of course, a lot of these fellows are gone, but their records are still here. So I challenge every saxophone player that . . . And I’m just speaking now of tenor players. Now, don’t let me get into the alto players.

Oh, you could get into a couple of altos.

Well, I really don’t like to get into them, because you know, Bird and Johnny Hodges and all those cats, man . . . There’s a bunch of them. If you get into them, a saxophone player says, “Aw shucks, I’ll play the piano, ha- ha, or the trumpet.”

Well, then you’ve got to deal with some other people if you do that.

Yes. See, there’s so many ways to deal with things. But I think everybody is so blessed nowadays that they have the records here, and they can listen and listen, and try to get these different styles into their head. And of course, they don’t have to worry about sounding like anybody else, because once you get all that stuff together, you’re going to sound like yourself — unless you just go and play somebody else just note for note and try to get their tone. And I don’t see much sense in that! I think eventually you’re going to find your own thing. I think that’s what it’s all about.

We’ll start the next set with a piece by bassist Wilbur Ware, a bassist who has to be classed in a niche by himself. And Von knew Wilbur Ware quite well.

Oh, he used to work with me. Well, Wilbur Ware, when I first met him, he was a street-corner musician. Man, he was playing a tub with a 2-by-4 and a string on it when I first heard him. I said, “Man, do you have a real bass?” He said, “Well . . . ” I said, “Do you play acoustic bass?” He said, “I’ve got a baby bass.” I didn’t know what he meant, but he had a bass that was about a quarter-size bass. It was a real bass, but it was very small. I said, “Well, man, come and work with me.” He said, “Well, where?” I said, “Well, I’m playing a duo on the weekends. I’ve got two gigs, man.” I felt great to have these two gigs. And we were playing in a place up on the second floor in the Elks Hall. He said, “With two pieces?” I said, “Yeah, man, that’s all the man can afford to hire.”

So this cat made this gig with me, man, and honest to goodness, just bass and tenor. And this cat was playing . . . See, Wilbur’s conception was that he played the bass like maybe he’s playing two basses, like he’s walking and he’s playing another line. That’s just his natural style! And the cat at the time didn’t read, he didn’t know F from G, he didn’t know nothin’. But he had this great ear. You know, formally! But he was great, man.

So he said, “Well, listen, man, how many more gigs you got?” I said, “Well, I’ve got a few more little old gigs” — because then if you had ten gigs a year, you were lucky. So I was telling him, “Man, I got a couple of other little gigs, but you’ve got to read some arrangements.” He said, “Do you think I could learn to read?” I said, “Sure, man!” So he started coming by my house, and I started showing him a few things about counting. And the cat picked it up so quickly! He was just a natural genius on bass. And he always played down in the bass fiddle. And I used to try to get him to smile, and I’d say, “Wilbur, smile some, baby. Come on, get with me!” Because I was I was doing the five-step and everything else, trying to feed this family and all. So he got to the point where he could just read anything you put in front of him. And I said, “Man, how in the world can you learn to read that quickly?” He said, “You know, I feel like I always could read.” But that’s when I found out that some people don’t really need to read, man. It’s great if you can. But that man could hear anything you . . . He was a natural musician.

As he proved with Monk when he went out with him.

Yeah, really. And a great cat. And he used to be so cool and so suave, until one night I heard him play the drums. He got on a cat’s drums, and he goes crazy. So I found out, now, that’s where his personality was. Because he kept great time on the drums. But he went nuts. He would start giggling and laughing! I said, “Man, get up off those drums and get back on the bass” — and he was very cool again! Wilbur Ware, man, he’s a great cat.

Do you think different instruments have different personalities?

Oh yeah. Because I’m pretty cool playing the tenor, but man, get me on a piano and I start jumping up and down. I think that’s where my natural personality is! I play something like . . . I’ll tell you who my style is like. It’s something like a mixture between Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor. Really, just naturally.

[Music: Wilbur Ware, “Mama, Daddy” (1957), Cliff Jordan, “Quasimodo” (1978), F. Strozier, C. Anderson, “The Man Who Got Away” (1960)]

Von, you and Chris Anderson were associates for quite some time.

Oh, man, he was with me a long time. He was the cat who hipped me to harmony, man. I thought I knew a little something about harmony, boy, but when I went around to Chris Anderson, that little genius was in this . . . Now, you’ve got to understand, this was back in the ’40s. Man, that cat could play some things; he and Bill Lee, a bass player that’s around. Man, those cats had such an advanced knowledge of harmony! Chris used to take me aside, and I’d sit there and listen to him just play, and the different variations that he could and would play, man — I’m still astounded. And I heard that record; he’s still doing it.

In the segment we’ll hear the “avants,” as Von said, another generation of musicians who were taking the music in a different direction. And one of the key figures in that is Sun Ra.

Oh, man, yeah!

Tell us about your experiences with Sun Ra.

See, Sun Ra and I were more than just musicians. We were like friends. I have a few stories I could tell about Sun Ra, but really not on air at this time. But Sun Ra was and is an amazing man.

But before I get into Sun Ra, I would like to mention Frank Strozier. I met Frank when he first came to town with Harold Mabern and George Coleman, and of course, these cats are three of the greatest ever. You know, I didn’t mention alto players, but Frank Strozier and cats like McPherson, and Lou Donaldson (who is appearing at the Apartment in Chicago this weekend while I’m playing here — because you know, I love Lou), and of course, the great Phil Woods, and Jackie McLean! See, when you get into the alto players, then man, we could talk all day long about them, too — because that’s another bag.

See, I have often said that there are alto players, and there are tenor players, and there are a few baritone players — and a few soprano players. I think that Sonny Stitt was a rarity, he and Ira Sullivan, that they doubled. But I think more saxophone players either hear B-flat or E-flat, or hear that high horn, which is soprano, or hear that low horn, which is baritone. Of course, we could get into the baritone players, too! We could be here until tomorrow!

But I love all of them, because I know the problems that face a saxophone player.

But speaking about Sun Ra, Sun Ra was a man who I think had envisioned a lot of things that are happening today, with the synthesizers and whatnot. Sun Ra was really actually doing that back in the ’40s. And he was living a dual life, man!

How so?

Well, this cat was writing a straight show at a big club called the Club De Lisa; I mean, dah-da-duh-da-da-data–boom. And then he was writing all these other things for his band. His music encompassed so many different varieties of things, until I think Sun Ra is finally getting his due. Whether you like him or whether you don’t like him, you have to understand that the man was a seer of the future. Because people are doing now what Sun Ra did 40 years ago. And John Gilmore was playing outside way back then. I mean, what they call outside now. John was playing like that then, he and Pat Patrick both.

John Gilmore has said he met Sun Ra in 1953; I know you were working with people even before that. Was he working at all?

Well, he was doing his thing . . .

Apart from the De Lisa gig?

Yeah. And he was playing then . . . He was so strong . . . He’d play a dance. If three people came, he’d thank them and keep right on writing and keep right on playing. The man is a strong man, physically and mentally and spiritually and psychologically. That’s why he was able to last. Because people used to say, “Aw, he’s spacey, he’s out there” — but now everybody’s doing it.

What did you think of the out-there music then?

Oh, I dug it. I love it. I love it right today. Listen, let’s get out! Let’s get out there!

But a lot of the cats you were coming up with playing bebop didn’t really share that feeling about it.

Well, I think what a lot of the people thought, and the musicians, because I talked with a lot of them, I came up with them . . . Well, nobody wants to hear anybody go out if he hasn’t learned in. You see, if you haven’t learned your basics and you didn’t come up through all these saxophone players and trumpet players and piano players and drummers, the people who were fundamental in creating this music, if you didn’t pay your dues in that, well, nobody wants to hear you play outside, because you don’t know in.

And I have often said that you should learn in. Not that you have to learn in, because some people are just geniuses. But I would say the majority of us have to learn in. Now, if a person comes along who is playing what he should play and he’s outside, well, I would just say he’s a genius — because a lot of people thought Bird was out. But Bird wasn’t really out. He was just advanced. But he wasn’t out.

So I think that a lot of people have to catch up with different artists. But I think as a rule, the average person should learn in, then go out. And if he goes out with taste, he’s not going to stay out there too long. What’s he’s doing that people can relate to, and he’s still using his dynamics correctly . . . And when you go outside and it’s still done with taste, you still have patterns, you have different things that you’re doing that people can relate to. That’s my opinion.

In this next set we’ll also hear something by John Gilmore with Andrew Hill, who came up in Chicago as a child virtuoso in the 1940’s, and made his recorded debut with Von in 1952, I think, with Pat Patrick and a very young Malachi Favors. And I wonder if you might say something about your relationship with Andrew Hill and Malachi Favors.

Well, when I first heard Andrew, Andrew was playing in a Bud Powell vein. This was after Chris and I had parted, and Andrew more or less took his place. He was a great player, but he was playing straight-ahead. Anyway, he eventually went on, and he crossed over into playing his own thing, which some people call avant-garde. I just say he just moved on.

Of course, Malachi Favors then was playing straight-ahead bass, which was great, and he was a good player and had a good tone, and then he went with the Art Ensemble and started his own thing — or their things.

But 1952, of course, was well before that. Does that record exist? Is there a copy of it?

[Laughs] It’s on a label called Ping, and the person who put this out passed, and so I imagine the record . . . well, I know the record is out of print.

But listen, you know one thing? Andrew was playing organ on that record. And no one back in Chicago at that time knew how to record organ. So if you’re listening to the record, you can hardly hear him. But he was an excellent organ player. And on that recording, that’s what he’s playing.

[Music: Sun Ra/Gilmore, “State Street,” “Sometimes I’m Happy”; A. Hill/Gilmore, “Duplicity”]

Now we’ll get into a short set on Muhal Richard Abrams, one of the guiding lights of the music in Chicago in the 1960s and ’70s, and someone Von has known for a long time. Let’s talk about Muhal. And you have other things to say, too, I know.

Oh, listen, you just about said it all. The man is a great orchestrator and a great father to a whole lot of the cats, and he taught them all very, very well. Listen. I guess a man that was less than he would have sapped himself, because he’s really given of himself, and he’s helped the music so much. He’s something like Walter Dyett. He taught a lot of these guys discipline through just watching him. And Richard is a very dedicated man. And hey, man, what can I say about him? He’s a great musician, and I love him — plus, he taught my son. I got to love him! Taught him well, too.

You know, speaking of Muhal, another man here who has done so much for the young cats (and I know this personally) is the great Sam Rivers. You know, with his loft sessions he helped many a man pay his rent. And he’s another disciplinarian, you know. Sam doesn’t take any stuff. And of course, his great lady, that lady Bea, she’s a great patron of the arts. I couldn’t say too much about Sam and Bea Rivers.

You were talking before about how Sam Rivers had really developed a style of his own, and that’s something you appreciate.

That’s right, he has a style of his own. And I know how difficult it is in this music to arrive at that.

You were also talking about the difficulties of doubling, and Sam Rivers has developed a personal style on tenor, soprano, flute — and piano for that matter.

That’s the truth. He’s a master musician.

[Music: Muhal-Favors, “W.W.”]

Von, did you have any relationship with the AACM in the 1960’s?

Well, see, what happened, when they first formed, Muhal had come to me and wanted me to be one of the charter members. But I’m more or less a loner, and he understands that. I have my way with the fellows that come around me. I’m more of a guy that teaches by example, I guess, if I’m teaching at all. Osmosis, let’s just put it that way. Muhal was into the fact that he was tired of the jukeboxes dominating the scene. And this is what was really going on. If you had a job and you didn’t really play what was on the jukebox, or something similar to it, the proprietors did not hire you. So he went to a club, which was Transitions East, with a fellow who is gone now named Luba Rashik, who used to help him manage, and they were able to play just what they wanted to play, and they had a built-in crowd. So that’s where it began.

They also played at the Abraham Lincoln Center.

At the Lincoln Center. He did the same thing. And they were able to play their own music. And they had a crowd for it, a built-in audience for it. And of course, when he came to New York, he continued the same thing. And he’s done that all over the world. A very brave, strong, fearless man.

I never did mention that there were some more cats that influenced me heavily, man, like Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and Pharaoh, David Murray and the World Sax Quartet, all of those dudes are some of the baddest cats in the world. And Sam Rivers, of course. You know, I had asked earlier if you’d ever heard of Marion Brown, because Marion Brown is a beautiful player, man. And he plays avant-garde to a certain extent. But these are just some of the cats, man, that . . . Of course, when you do something like this, you should say “and a whole lot of others.” Because you really can’t name everybody. But these are some of the persons that come to mind by the way that some folks call avant-garde or whatever they want to call them. I just call them excellent players.

And playing the music of the times.

Really. I would include Chico Freeman in there. He tries to move on.

[Music: Von Freeman: “Catnap,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “Tribute To Our Fathers”]

 

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Filed under Chicago, Tenor Saxophone, Von Freeman, WKCR

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.

* * *

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 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 The 86th Birthday Anniversary Of Johnny Griffin, a 1990 Interview on WKCR

Today’s the 86th birthday anniversary of Johnny Griffin (1928-2008), the magnificent tenor saxophonist from Chicago known as “the Little Giant” for projecting behemoth sound and lightning velocity from his jockey-like frame. I had an opportunity to interview the maestro on WKCR while he was in residence at the Village Vanguard in 1990, and I’m appending the complete transcript, which initially appeared on the web on www.jazz.com shortly after Griffin passed away.

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In conversation with johnny griffin

By Ted Panken

Can you recall your impressions when you arrived in New York for the first time in 1945 with Lionel Hampton?

I remember coming out of the subway on St. Nicholas and 125th Street with Lamar Wright, Junior, and looking at Harlem, and saying, “Is this New York?” Being from Chicago, there was always this competition—so the Chicagoans would have you believe—between New York and Chicago. Actually I was not impressed; I hadn’t been in mid-Manhattan where all the tall buildings were. That was like my first day of riding the train forever, and I was tired, and all I wanted to do was go to bed.

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Do you recall where the gig was?

I think we came in and played a ballroom. Not the Savoy; this was a one-nighter. Not the Amsterdam Ballroom. Oh my God, I forgot where. Anyway, I remember going to this ballroom to play, and George Hart, who was later Hamp’s road manager, was on the door and wouldn’t let me in.

He said, “Kid, where you goin’ with that horn?” I had this old Conn in this raggedy tenor case. They wouldn’t let me in until some of the trombone players came in. They said, “Johnny, what are you doing standing out here?” I said, “Well, these people don’t believe I’m in the band.” I was 17 years old, about 4-feet-10, and weighed about 75 pounds. I guess they thought I was just trying to hustle my way into this dance. Finally the trombone player said, “No, George, he’s with the band.”

Was this just after you’d joined Lionel Hampton?

Yes. This must have been in July, 1945.

And you joined Hampton right after graduating DuSable High School.

Right.

There’s a funny story about your first gig. You had thought that you were hired to play alto saxophone, and were quickly disabused of that notion.

Right. Well, I was playing alto like a tenor anyway, you know. What happened was, I had graduated on a Thursday, and Hamp started that week at the Regal Theater in Chicago on that Friday. The late Jay Peters, the tenor saxophonist who had been hired to play in the band a few months earlier, had to go into the military service. Then Hamp remembered me because he had come by my high school, and had a jam session in the school assembly or something—so he asked for me. They found me on Sunday, and I went down and played a few tunes with the band with my alto. On the following Friday they went to the RKO Theatre in Toledo, Ohio.

No one said anything to me about I was going to replace a tenor saxophone player, because Maurice Simon or one of his brothers was playing saxophone in the band then. I had no idea what was to transpire, until I was walking on stage in Toledo, and Gladys Hampton stopped me. She used to call me Junior. She said, “Junior, where you going with that alto?” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Well, you’re playing tenor in this band.” “What?” So I immediately caught a train back to Chicago. It was hard to come by a saxophone in those days, as the war was still going on, and they were making bullets and guns instead of musical instruments with the metal. I found an old saxophone and rejoined the band two days later.

When did you first get a chance to hang out a little bit in New York City?

Oh, I started hanging out as soon as I woke up that evening. At that time, New York was awash with after-hour joints. The hotel I stayed in was the Braddock Hotel, and in that hotel was the Billy Eckstine Big Band, the Count Basie Band, Lionel Hampton’s Band, and other musicians. The Braddock was right on the corner of 126th Street and 8th Avenue, and backstage of the Apollo Theatre was right up the street between 8th and 7th. The Braddock bar was downstairs, and all the famous musicians of the day would come and hang out and drink. Just standing around that corner you could pick up two or three big bands any time.

Do you remember hearing any music that night?

I have no idea where I went. In those days I was drinking, at my young age. It could have been the Baby Grand around the corner, or… I really don’t know where I went that particular night.

Do you remember when you first went to 52nd Street?

It could have been that night. I was in a rush to get down to 52nd Street, because I knew Dizzy was down there.

Now, I take it you were up on the latest trends in the music at that time.

Well, the latest trends being Charlie Parker. Yeah, as much as possible. I had seen the Billy Eckstine Big Band come through Chicago in ’44, and that was most fantastic thing I had ever witnessed. Of course, I was in love with Duke Ellington’s band and Count Basie’s band and Jimmie Lunceford’s band. But at the time, I thought that the Billy Eckstine band was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me.

When you were slightly younger, did you have a chance to see the edition of the Earl Hines Orchestra that had Bird and Diz in it?

I don’t think I saw that band.

I know they played in Chicago.

I went down there, but I wasn’t aware that they were… I don’t think I went down there. Now, they worked in the Beige Room in the El Grotto at that time. You see, when I was a kid, 15 years old, I played with T-Bone Walker, the famous blues guitarist. His brother had a big band, and I would play off-nights at the Club DeLisa, the Rhumboogie, and the El Grotto, which later on turned into the Beige Room, which was in the Pershing Hotel.

On Cottage Grove and 64th, was that?

Exactly. It was where Ahmad Jamal later on, fifteen years later, made his records. But he did his band upstairs, in the lounge. I really didn’t know about Bird and Diz in the Earl Hines band at that time. Now, I had gone down into that room, even underage. Billie Holiday sang in that room, and I never saw her down there either.

So your first memory of hearing Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker was around 1944 with the Billy Eckstine Big Band.

Right. I heard Bird on some Jay McShann records before that, and I had heard Dizzy on some records with Coleman Hawkins, when they did “Woody ‘n You,” which they called “Algo Bueno.” Now, Billy Eckstine was very popular, of course, as a singer, as a balladeer. But to witness that big band in full flight, playing the new music like that, was quite a shock and very refreshing.

Were you trying to implement these ideas in your own playing at the age of 16 and 17 in high school?

Oh yes. Well, as soon as I heard Bird, that turned me around. Well, I was following in the footsteps of Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges (I still have some of that in me anyway), and then, of course, the late, great Lester Young. But Ben Webster was actually my first influence, although it was hearing Gene Ammons play tenor saxophone that caused me to want to play tenor saxophone.

What did your teacher, the famous Captain Walter Dyett, think of the new thing that Charlie Parker was doing? Do you ever recollect him saying anything about it?

I never heard him say one way or another. But he was the type of bandmaster that, any good music that came out, he would transcribe it off records, and he would have the band at school—the dance orchestra or stage band, whatever you called it—play whatever is there. But at that time, we certainly didn’t have any Billy Eckstine arrangements. [At this point in the radio interview, Griffin played the following recordings: Bud Powell, “Tempus Fugit,” Elmo Hope, “Happy Hour,” Monk, “Ask Me Now,” Elmo Hope, “Carvin’ the Rock.”]

Let’s jump forward a few years. Under what circumstances did you first encounter Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell?

It was actually through Elmo Hope. Joe Morris and I had formed a band after leaving Lionel Hampton’s band in 1947—I think May or June. First we organized a sextet with musicians from Chicago. Joe Morris played trumpet, of course, and George Freeman, who is the uncle of Chico Freeman, and Von Freeman’s brother, played guitar. That group lasted from ’47 to ’48. Then we reorganized. We were walking around Harlem one day, and we ran into Benny Harris, the trumpeter, and we were saying that we needed a pianist. He said, “Well, I’ve got just the pianist for you.” It turned out to be Elmo Hope, who was of small stature, but a very brilliant if erratic-at-times pianist. It was through Elmo that I met Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. They were like a trio, inseparable, always together. Somehow or another, they adopted me. When I say “adopted,” I was around them, from piano to piano, from house to house, daily, from ’48 to ’50.

This was sort of a postgraduate education for you.

That’s exactly what it was. It was a very important part of my life. They still are important. They seemed to enjoy me, for some reason. I have no idea why, other than the fact that I had a little knowledge of the piano, so I could see what they were doing, and if I didn’t understand what was happening, I wouldn’t be afraid to ask, “What is that?” The three of them were masters in their own right. I heard Elmo and Bud Powell play piano duets, playing Preludes and fugues of Bach. They put on a program of Christmas music one year in the Bronx, at a club (oh Jesus, it’s so long ago, I can’t remember the name of this club—possibly the 845), for two pianos, and it was fabulous! It was really a trio, although during those days I didn’t hear Monk play that much. Elmo and Bud were always playing when you’d go to different homes—they didn’t seem to have a piano, of course. Other cats would play. Walter Bishop, Jr., would be around sometimes, too.

But I got a chance to hear Monk play mainly at his home, where he would be rehearsing Ernie Henry and other musicians in his band—I can’t remember the rest of them—for certain gigs in Brooklyn..

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Were you playing with Monk at all then?

No, I didn’t play with him at all during that time. I did play with Bud at somebody’s house party. Of course, Elmo was working with the Joe Morris-Johnny Griffin band at that time.

Did you start to learn Thelonious Monk’s compositions at that time, and Bud Powell’s compositions?

Bud Powell’s, but not Thelonious’. I didn’t start learning Thelonious’ compositions until after I came out of the Army at the end of 1953. Monk came to Chicago. I wasn’t working then, and was at home, looking at television or something, when either Wilbur Ware or Wilbur Campbell called and said, “Johnny, come on over to the Beehive. Thelonious is in town, and we need a saxophone player.”  So I immediately put on some clothes and ran over there, and jumped right into Monk’s music. No rehearsals.

That must have been exciting.

Very, if you know Monk’s music. Very exciting. I admire Thelonious more than any other musician that I have been around, in a way, really in my life. He always walked around looking like Jomo Kenyatta and people were afraid of him. But behind that facade was a real humorist, as if you listen to his music you can hear. Monk wasn’t a person to speak very much. He could be quiet for a half-an-hour or twenty minutes at a stretch, and all the other musicians yakkety-yak and running off at the mouth, and Monk would enter the conversation and say about four words, and destroy everything that had been going on for the past hour—totally. He would total everyone with three or four words. That’s the type of person he was. He used space as he did in his playing and his composition.

Later on, whilst playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1957, I was staying in Art Blakey’s home. In fact, I helped him move from the Bronx down to Manhattan. Now, Monk and Art Blakey were very, very close friends. Monk would come around the band, and Art Blakey was trying to get Monk to play piano in his band. This was at the same time Monk was working in the Five Spot with Coltrane and Shadow Wilson and Wilbur Ware. We even had a date on Atlantic with Monk playing piano.

Then the following year I played with Thelonious; he was trying to get Art Blakey to play in his band, although he had Roy Haynes playing drums and Ahmad-Abdul Malik playing bass.

But after these gigs were over at night, we’d go hang out at either my pad or Art Blakey’s pad, or Thelonious’… Well, not so much at Thelonious’, because he had a very small place, and we wouldn’t wake Nellie up. But Buhaina had a large place, and I lived alone, so it could end up anywhere. And the conversations would be torrid—about many different subjects, of course.

Can you say a few words about your relationship with Bud Powell?

Well, you see, Bud was a sick man. He had been injured by being in hospitals, and he had been beaten and had these electric shock treatments. So he was erratic, until he sat down to the piano to play, and then it all left, and he was the burner. I can still feel it. You will always feel it as long as you have recordings of him playing his music. Bud Powell was the Nth degree of a burning pianist. When I say “burning,” I mean the emotional content of fire. Volcanic, the way he played it. I consider him as a thumper. His touch on the piano was more of a thump than a touch, because he was very percussive, and you could feel the emotion in his lines and his solos, or even in his compositions. Very percussive. He was very strong, spontaneous, always fresh with so much strength. Yet still he could play a ballad, you know, completely on the other side of the coin, which would leave you breathless.

Elmo Hope had less recognition than Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. But you knew him very well.

Yeah, it’s funny. They were like twins. I remember once I was at Elmo’s house, and Bud’s mother called up Elmo’s mother to tell Elmo that Bud had just gotten out of the hospital, and “Please, Mrs. Hope, would you tell Elmo to let Bud get himself back together?” Elmo was like the ringleader, being a semi-devil’s advocate of whatever was happening on the scene in those days. But before she even got off the telephone, Bud was about to break the door down at Elmo’s house, screaming, “Elmo, it’s Bud! Let me in. It’s Bud. I’m back.” So there was no separating these two musicians.

[At this point in the radio interview, Griffin played the following recordings: Ben Webster, “Chelsea Bridge”; Johnny Hodges, “Passion Flower”; Lester Young, “D.B. Blues”; Bird, “Ko-Ko”]

Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges, two of the pillars of the Ellington band, were two of your great influences.

Very much. “Chelsea Bridge” doesn’t have the tempo Ben Webster put on, say, “Cottontail,” which was made famous with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, when Ben was playing rough—this was a very tender ballad, of course. But if you notice the closeness of Ben Webster’s style of expression vis-a-vis Johnny Hodges. Their styles were so similar, except one was playing tenor and one was playing alto. Johnny Hodges was from the Boston area and Ben Webster was from Kansas City.

Which is funny, because after Johnny Hodges had died, I was with Ben Webster, and I took him to the Selmer Instrument Company in Paris. I thought he wanted to have something done to his tenor saxophone, but he wanted to buy an alto saxophone. Actually, he wanted them to give him an alto saxophone, which they did. When I was taking him back to his hotel, I said, “I know why you got that alto saxophone.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “You got it because you want to sound just like Rabbit.” That’s what they called Johnny Hodges, because he looked like a rabbit, no expression on his face while he’s playing all this beautiful music. Of course, Ben Webster looked at me and said, “Why you little-bitty…” deleted expletive. . . . I can’t say the dirty words that he used to call me—fondly, of course.

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Were you emulating Johnny Hodges as a young alto saxophonist?

Yes, I was. Playing ballads. But if I played something in tempo, I’d be more like a rough Ben Webster, growling with the alto, not unlike an Earl Bostic sound, but trying to sound more like Ben Webster. I was really playing alto very hard. Seeing Gene Ammons play when I was about 12 years old made me decide right then that I wanted to play tenor saxophone. It was a graduation party for my grammar school, and Jug was playing with the King Kolax Band at the Parkway Ballroom. That started my voyage.

How old were you when you started going out to hear music regularly in Chicago?

When was I going out to hear it? As soon as they would let me go into any place, so that I could sneak in. I was playing with people, working when I was 14 or 15 years old, as soon as I could get in the Musicians Union. I lied about my birthdate.

You were at DuSable High School then, where the famous Walter Dyett was bandmaster. Did he facilitate that?

No, he had nothing to do with it. A group of us youngsters at DuSable had put together a band called the Baby Band, which played dances for the kids in school—not in the school, but in the ballrooms where the big bands that came to Chicago would play. So this promoter had the brilliant idea of putting up a big poster of me—I mean three times life-size—on the school store, which was right across the street from the band-room. You’d look out of the third-floor band-room window and see this poster. I was playing clarinet… No, I think I was playing oboe in the concert band.

I happened to come to school, and the Captain had seen the sign down there. Now, he had his own professional band, also with a few students, called the DuSableites, and sometimes his bands would be in competition for gigs. Well, not really. But anyway, when he saw this photo, this huge publicity sign on me. . . . Well, when I came to school he told all the students—there were like 115 pieces—to go to the window and look out at the star, the musical star that’s gracing the walls of the school store—this picture of me. He invited them all to sit down, and then he invited me to play my part on something, I don’t know; it was probably Ravel’s “Bolero” or something—that’s why I was playing oboe anyway. I hadn’t practiced right, and I was embarrassed. He completely undressed me in front of the band, to give me some humility and to make me practice and, you know. . . . But Captain Dyett was a wonderful man. As he was to all the kids. . . . Well, he taught Nat Cole, Gene Ammons, Pat Patrick, John Gilmore, Von Freeman, Bennie Green, the trombonist, Charles Davis, the saxophonist, Clifford Jordan. . . .

We could spend an hour listing the musicians.

Yeah, really. Chicago was a saxophone town. I mean, there were a lot of blues guitarists there, of course—T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Memphis Slim, Muddy Waters. But for jazz, it was really a saxophone town. Later it was an organ town, too. Most of the saxophonists tried to emulate the late Lester Young. Everybody knew Prez’s solos by heart. That was the main direction. We Chicago musicians played the music not of New Orleans, but the music that was emanating from Kansas City. That was the style. The Basie band.

Did you hear that on records? Was Basie coming through town?

The Basie band all the time, because they were traversing all of the states—as was Duke’s band and Jimmie Lunceford’s band and other bands. But a lot of territory bands would also come, like Alex Larkin’s band. Some would come from Texas, other bands from Oklahoma or Nebraska, and they would go no further east than Chicago. Chicago was the hub, as it still is, with the railroad system, and as O’Hare is as an airline hub. Some bands came to Chicago from the East, though not that many, and that’s as far West as they would go. But it was mainly the bands coming from Texas, musicians coming up from New Orleans and Memphis, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and out west from Denver, from Omaha and Kansas City.

Kansas City was like the center of that Basie-type music, Walter Brown singing the blues with Jay McShann, the Jimmy Rushing-Joe Turner blues singing type. So the young saxophonists, most of whom were tenor saxophone players, opted after Prez’s music—the swing! To show you the difference in this music coming from Kansas City. . .. You’d associate Ben Webster’s sound with the Duke Ellington Orchestra more than you would, say, with Count Basie’s band. Which is funny, because Ben told me at my house one day (I had him in my house for about a week) how as a young man he studied music under Prez’s father. Lester Young (when I say Prez, I mean Lester Young) used to take Ben Webster on his gigs as a pianist, because he liked the way Ben Webster comped. Ben could play stride on the piano. He liked that sound.

To me, Lester Young was the trunk of the swing tree. By that, I mean (it might be a bit strong) no Prez, no Bird. Basie’s band was originally more or less built around Lester Young and Herschel Evans, who was the other tenor saxophonist in that band. Prez and Herschel were very good friends, but the styles were completely different. Prez had a fleet, light filmy type sound, while Herschel Evans had a great big sound. I’d associate Herschel Evans’ style of playing with the way Arnett Cobb played, even Illinois Jacquet—although I think Jacquet had a touch of Don Byas in him also. But it was not like Ben Webster. It was completely different. Another approach. You would have to hear these records one by one to really tell the difference.

To me, Don Byas was the world’s greatest tenor saxophone player. I call him the Art Tatum of the tenor saxophone, because he used some of the harmonic progressions that Tatum used when improvising. Don Byas had a big, warm sound, and enough technique to do whatever he wanted to do. He could play beautiful ballads, and he could play as fast as you want. He was not a bebop tenor saxophonist, but he could play with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He played in a style between Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, like Paul Gonsalves, very smooth, but strong.

The first time I heard Charlie Parker was on a Jay McShann record that my cousin had bought, not to hear Charlie Parker but to hear Walter Brown sing the blues—the “Hootie Blues.” I was a kid, maybe 13 years old, and I loved the way Walter Brown sang the blues. Joe Turner also, and Jimmy Rushing. I loved the Kansas City blues. This alto saxophone player started to play, and it stopped me dead in my tracks. I rushed over to the machine, and started the whole thing all over. Everybody looked at me like I was crazy, because I’m interrupting the dancing. But I had to hear this over, because I couldn’t figure out who that was playing alto saxophone. First I thought it was Prez, and then I realized it’s an alto and Prez doesn’t phrase that way—although there was something there, that type swing, that I had gotten from Prez. It was Charlie Parker. His record, “Ko-Ko,” was my music lesson for years.

You recorded “Cherokee” twice in the 1950’s.

That tune was like the standard bearer for the jam session. When Sonny Stitt would come in town to challenge all of the saxophone players, he was. . . Now, Sonny Stitt was the devil. I don’t mean literally that he was the devil—he was, like, the heckler. He lived in Michigan—Saginaw, I think—and he’d come to Chicago to disturb the saxophone players there. Even later on in New York, he would come in my room and say, “Johnny, play me something.” So I would play something on my horn. He’d say, “Okay, now give me the horn.” Of course, Sonny Stitt was the master of his horn. He could play every modern cliché ever invented by Bird or Dizzy or whomever, and I would just pull my hair out by the roots to be able to do what he was doing. He would have made a helluva professor of music.

They say he would challenge musicians with how many pads there were on the saxophones. . . .

Oh, yeah! He would get very academic on you; you know, how many keys on a saxophone. And who in the hell would take time to count the keys? It’s enough to play them without counting them! But he was like that. Or what’s the notes in this scale or that scale. But he made me practice more than anyone else. Because it was my desire to be able to invite him on the bandstand to play with me, without being humiliated by his talent and the genius of what he was doing.

These type of sessions were very common in Chicago in the 1950’s.

Oh, it was. Sonny Rollins used to come into Chicago to woodshed, especially to come in and woodshed with Wilbur Ware and Ike Day.

Ike Day was a little, thin, almost purple guy, he must have been about 5-feet-7-or-8, very thin and wiry. I mean, he was so bad on the drums that he set up two drums in this club in Chicago called the Macombo, and then any other drummer could come and sit in. Buddy Rich came in and saw this, and he couldn’t believe it. He took him out of this joint on the South Side of Chicago to play in his big band at the College Inn in the Loop, which was a hotel where they didn’t even want black people. That’s how bad he was.

I think Ike came to New York around 1947 or ’48, with Slim Gaillard, and immediately went to Minton’s and tore the joint out.

Can you describe his sound was like?

From what I can recollect, his sound would be more like a Philly Joe Jones type, which in the beginning I found was like a cross between Max Roach and Art Blakey. I mean, that’s not completely true, because there’s a lot of Cozy Cole in Philly’s playing, too. But Ike could do anything. He was a showman, but everything was really swinging at all times without turning into a visual circus. It was amazing the way he could play.

And you must have been backed by him on any number of occasions.

Yes. Well, what happened was, at one point, when the Joe Morris-Johnny Griffin band was in Ohio, Philly Joe Jones quit, and we needed a bass player and a drummer. I called Chicago, and Ike and Wilbur came and joined the band for a while. That was my first experience to actually get to know them. However, I had sat in with them at a jam session in Chicago, at the end of 1946 or early ’47, in between the two times I played with Hamp’s band. They were working with Gene Ammons at a club called the Congo, along with Gail Brockman, the trumpetist.

Your association with Wilbur Ware continued many years.

Many, many years. Now, Wilbur could play drums, too. I heard that he and Ike used to play on the street corners of Chicago. Ike would set up his pots and pans and stuff, and Wilbur had a 2-by-4 with him, a washtub with a clothesline bass—they’d get out there and make money on the street-corner.

He was also a tap dancer, wasn’t he?

Exactly. Wilbur was very percussive. As you can hear in his bass playing.

Chicago had clubs just all over the place in the 1950’s. From what I hear, you could just go anywhere and play, and there was a very supportive situation for young musicians.

Yes, there were many clubs there. Of course, at the time I came up, a lot of musicians were in the Armed Services, because World War Two was going on. So there were opportunities for younger musicians. Like I said, I was playing with T-Bone Walker’s brother’s big band on the off-nights in these Chicago nightclubs. Chicago was wide open. As I said, many musicians were always in Chicago, coming from all over America. When the big bands would come to town, there were jam sessions; Ben Webster and other musicians would go out and blow after-hours. Well, it really didn’t have to be after-hours, because Chicago was a 24-hour town anyway. But there were many clubs in New York also at this time. There were many clubs in Detroit. Many clubs in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia used to be like my second home. If I wasn’t doing anything in New York during that period, sometimes Elmo and I would go there with Jackie Paris’ brother, an Italian singer, who had a little old car. He would drive us, and we would stay in Philly Joe Jones’ house to go and jam with Coltrane. Trane was then an alto saxophone player. Jimmy Heath was playing baritone. Philadelphia was wide-open, except on Sundays—because they had that Blue Law. But the rest of the week, Philly was wailin’! It reminded me so much of Chicago, the way the residential areas were set up. It’s so close to New York, only an hour and change away by train, so driving there was nothing.

I was with The Joe Morris band was playing a club in Philadelphia called the Zanzibar with our Chicago sextet with George Freeman the first time I heard Philly Joe. Our drummer at the time was Embra Daylie, who had been in World War Two, and had been injured in the war in the Pacific, so he had a respiratory problem. During intermission, I had gone out, and when I came back, I was informed that they had taken him to the hospital because of respiratory problems. “Don’t worry,” they said. “We have this drummer who is going to sit in.” We started playing, and I thought this guy was awful. I said, “Now, listen, wait a minute. We’ve got to get somebody else.”

Philly was so conscientious. I used to watch Philly Joe and Joe Harris, the drummer who played with Dizzy’s big band, practice all day long, really go through all the drum books of the day and practice getting control. They wouldn’t practice on the regular, hard rubber drum pads like you find most drummers do. They would practice on soft pillow cushions on the bed, so that they would have to bring the stick back up with their wrists, which gave them that ultimate in control—which really did them well.

To me, Philly Joe was the greatest, most exciting drummer that I have ever been around in my life. Now, I played with Art Blakey, who was one of the most explosive. . . . like you’re riding on a train with him. Buhaina when he’s really bearing down is really something else. I played with Max Roach—the sheer tenacity and knowledge that Max could put into intricate drumming. Roy Haynes also. The swing of Arthur Taylor. Now, there’s a drummer. I don’t know any drummer that could swing any more than Arthur Taylor. I mean, Arthur Taylor to me is like a cross between Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones, in a way, with some Max Roach thrown in there.

But Philly Joe was the ultimate, like Ali Baba in the Forty Thieves or “Open, oh, sesame. . . .” We used to play these Monday nights in Birdland, and had, like, Charlie Persip, who is a helluva drummer, known mostly for playing with big bands, but he had a small group then, and Max Roach and all these cats would play some drum solos that were outlandish. But Joe was a magician. I’d look at him and think, “Now, what is he going to do?” But just when I thought I knew everything he could do, he’d find something else to do. I’d see him during the day walking around in his sneakers and stuff (I don’t know what he was into), looking almost like Pete the Tramp. But then in the evening, when I opened up in Birdland, if I was playing with another group, when I’d walk on the stage there he’d be sitting right at the first table dressed up, looking like he’d stepped out of Esquire magazine—up tight, baby, too sharp! Over-charming. Unbelievable. Philly Joe Jones.

[At this point, Griffin played the following recordings: Philly Joe Jones, “Blues For Dracula”; Gene Ammons, “Nature Boy”; Dexter Gordon-Wardell Gray, “Move”]

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Filed under Chicago, Johnny Griffin, Tenor Saxophone, WKCR

For the 83rd Birthday Anniversary of the late Paul Motian (1931-2011), Some Unedited Interviews Between 1993 and 2005

Paul Motian (1931-2011) was born 83 years ago today in Providence, Rhode Island. Shortly after his death, I posted a few encounters with Paul — one link gives you a 2008 WKCR interview that I published on the www.jazz.com ‘zine and a 2001 feature article for DownBeat; another takes you to  an uncut Blindfold Test from around 2000.  I’ll use the occasion as an excuse to post several complete interviews that I had an opportunity to do with Paul over the years. . I actually can’t remember what the occasion was for the 2005 encounter — maybe a DownBeat Readers or Critics Poll article (that text is somehow mysteriously missing from my files). There follows a 2007 conversation for a lengthy obituary of Max Roach that I wrote for DownBeat. Then comes an interview from 2000 — I think this was done live on WKCR — in which many topics are addressed, not least his Electric Bebop Band. Finally, I’ve posted my first interview with Paul, from 1993 on WKCR, during one of the many weeks he did at the Village Vanguard with the trio he formed in the early ’80s with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano. Finally, as a reward for plowing through all this stuff, the post concludes with a full set of  interviews that I conducted with various PM associates and musical partners (Stefan Winter, Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano, Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett, Brian Blade, Joey Baron) that I conducted for that 2001 DownBeat article.

 

Paul Motian (Ted Panken) – (July 30, 2005):

TP: I need to ask you about the scope of your activity right now.

PAUL: One thing I’m excited about is that the week after next I’m going to mix the last Electric Bebop Band record I did, which we did in the studio last November for ECM. On some of the tunes, there’s three guitar players—Steve Cardenas, Ben Monder, and Jacob Bro. It’s the same band that played the Vanguard last January. [Malaby-Cheek]

TP: So these days you’re playing in New York and doing special hits in Europe…

PAUL: No, I haven’t been in Europe… I haven’t traveled for almost two years. I got burnt out. I hate it.

TP: All these projects with Enrico Pieranunzi that came out on CAMI-Sunnyside were in 2002-03. One’s a duo, with a few trios with Potter; one is a quintet date on Fellini music; one is a trio with Charlie Haden and him.

PAUL: Those were done a couple of years ago in Italy at Morricone’s studio. Nice. Charlie Haden didn’t like it, but I liked it.

TP: So you’re doing this thing with Bill McHenry, you’ve got the Electric Bebop Band, and there are a few records coming out that Tina Pelikan has sent with, with Enrico Rava and Stefano Bollani.

PAUL: Those are nice. I like that.

TP: Then this thing with Bobo Stenson.

PAUL: That’s nice, too. I just got a copy. I’m surprised how good that was.

TP: You went to Europe for those?

PAUL: No-no.

TP: They had to come here.

PAUL: Right.

TP: Everybody’s got to come to you now.

PAUL: Right.

TP: You only go out of New York for vacation?

PAUL: I don’t go on vacation. I go to the Vanguard. That’s my vacation! You know what I was excited about? I just played the Vanguard the first week of June with my band that’s called Trio 2000 + 1. That was great. [Poo Kikuchi, Chris Potter, Larry Grenadier; maybe another record]

TP: Are you now contracted to ECM?

PAUL: No, I’m not contracted to anybody. But I have been working with ECM lately. The last trio record with Frisell and Lovano we did for ECM, and the very first record with that trio we did for ECM.

TP: That was the end of your first go-around with them.

PAUL: Sure. It was in 1984-85.

TP: But you did your first trio records, with Izenson and Brackeen for ECM. So this is your second go-around with ECM. How is it?

PAUL: Great. Manfred Eicher is great. I trust him 2000%, especially during the mix. He’s got such great ears. Wow, he’s incredible. I love the sound of that trio record we did with Frisell and Lovano. Also the sounds of Enrico’s record and Bobo’s record. So I’m really looking forward to this Bebop band record.

TP: This thing started again when you went into the studio with Marilyn Crispell a few years ago.

PAUL: That’s kind of true, I guess.

TP: How did this happen? You had a very productive relationship going on with Stefan Winter from about 1987-88 until maybe three years ago.

PAUL: I must have done more than a dozen records with him.

TP: I think you did. And he gave you a lot of opportunity to put out all your different projects.

PAUL: Yes. In fact, there are still some records coming out now that have been re-released. A trio record with Frisell and Lovano that was recorded at the Vanguard that’s coming out now. We’re going to be playing in September at the Vanguard for two weeks.

TP: Has the trio been working?

PAUL: We played Carnegie Hall. That’s it.

TP: Were most of the pieces on this new record fairly recent?

PAUL: Yes. By not going on the fucking road, I’ve been staying and writing music. I think there are 7 or 8 new pieces I wrote for that record, and there’s I think six new pieces I wrote that will be on the bebop record.

TP: This bebop band record won’t be repertory…

PAUL: Well, there are a couple of Mingus tunes on there. It’s been so long since I’ve heard it; I’ve forgotten most of it. There’s a lot of my new tunes, and I think we did Mingus’ Pithecanthropus Erectus and Goodbye Porkpie Hat, and I think we did a Charlie Parker blues.

TP: You played with Monk that one week in Boston.

PAUL: Right. In 1960.
TP: You said you were scared to death, but you got through it.

PAUL: I was.

TP: You also said that Monk had you sing him your beat, and then he said play it this way.

PAUL: “Try it this way.”

TP: I don’t think you ever played with Bud Powell.

PAUL: No.

TP: And you didn’t play with Bird.

PAUL: I saw Bird play once.

TP: Did you play with Mingus ever?

PAUL: I sat in with him once at the Vanguard. I never really worked with him. I hardly remember it. I heard an interview with Jackie Paris once on WKCR, and he said he was with Mingus on the Vanguard, and he remembered a night when he threw everybody off the stage except Paul Motian. And I wasn’t working with him. I must have been sitting in or something. In those days at the Vanguard, there was always two bands. I might have been playing with Bill Evans opposite Mingus.

I’ll tell you, man, I forget a lot of shit. Somebody asked me, “Did you ever play with Jimmy Nottingham, the trumpet player?” I said, “No.” Then they showed me a picture of me playing with him.

TP: I’d figure that playing with Mingus would be a fairly memorable moment. And you have the gig book.

PAUL: No, it was mostly.. I did play a lot with Oscar Pettiford, though.

TP: The reason I’m asking is that at the time you put together the Bebop Band, there was almost a coming full circle quality. You came up in bebop, you expanded your vocabulary, your way of playing, your notion of time, and in your sixties, as a fully mature player…

PAUL: What’s happened with the bebop band now is that I started incorporating my own music. It started out only bebop, and then we went from that to putting in some standard songs, and then I introduced a couple of my tunes, and now I’m playing a lot of my songs. I’m just mixing the whole thing up.

TP: The way you approach the band changed. Initially, it was a head-solo-solo-solo-head kind of thing, but then you started changing up the arrangements, doing shout choruses…basically orchestrating it. I think it was the first time you used a larger ensemble as a vehicle for your music.

PAUL: Yes. It’s nice having that instrument. All those players, all those instruments…man, it’s great. Did I tell you the story of what Ornette said one time? I had just come from a rehearsal of the bebop band. This was years ago. I met Ornette in the street, around Broadway and 72nd Street. He asked me what I was doing, and I said I just came from a rehearsal with the bebop band, we were playing bebop tunes, and everybody was playing in unison. Ornette said, “all music is a unison.” I said, “Oh great.” That made me feel good!

TP: Lee Konitz told me about rehearsing with Ornette, and he was a bit nervous about there not being changes, and Charlie Haden told him and said, “don’t worry, we play changes…”

PAUL: That’s the story Dewey Redman says. They were rehearsing for a recording, and they were playing this melody that had no changes. Dewey said to Ornette, “Man, it would be great if this had changes.” So the next day Ornette came in with the same tune, and there was a change over every single note. So Dewey said he never asked him about changes again!

TP: You told me a story about Max Roach sitting in on your drums and telling you they were very hard to play, because they were so tightly tuned.

PAUL: Yes. That was at the Half Note.

TP: So the Electric Bebop Band recorded in November…

PAUL: It will probably be a year before that comes out! The record I did with Bobo Stenson is just coming out now, and I did that record when I did the trio record with Frisell and Lovano. [April 2004]. The bebop record I did around the same time I did Enrico Rava’s record.

We did the MFL record date right after I had a root canal. I had a fuckin’ toothache like… I called the dentist, and I went in, I had a root canal around 9 o’clock in the morning, and I went to the studio around 10, and we did that whole record that one afternoon.

TP: That’s very old-school, Paul.

PAUL: Well, I’m old. Anyway, we’re going to play in the Vanguard with the bebop band in January. It would be great if the record would come out at that time, but I doubt it.

TP: What is it about the way Manfred Eicher hears you…

PAUL: It’s him, but it’s also the engineer. James Farber was the engineer on just about all those records we’re talking about, and he’s got my sound down great. He’s got my sound on my drums that’s really wonderful. He’s really good at that. I’m very happy about that.

TP: In some of these conversations you’ve said contradictory things about drum-sound. On the one hand, it doesn’t really matter to you what drumset you play, you just go out and deal with it. You said you decided not to take your drum-key on a tour, and nobody had a drum-key on the whole tour, and you just dealt with it. You’d hear a sound and you’d play it. But on the other hand, you said that starting with Paul Bley, really, after you left Bill Evans, you became much more acutely conscious of the sound and timbre of the different components of the kit, and that this set off a sea change in the way you conceptualized the drums. Is that more or less how it was?

PAUL: That’s kind of true. But the thing is, when I went to Europe, I didn’t have my drums, so I had to deal with whatever I got. But I sort of managed to get through it and I was still able to play how I play. That’s what I meant. The sound was nowhere near what I really love, which are my own drums. Being in New York and playing just here and recording and always having my own drums, it’s a pleasure. I love that. But I have to deal with that stuff in Europe, playing on other drumsets. Sometimes I would manage to get my sound, but not really my sound as if I get them on my own drums.

TP: Are you still a Gretsch artist? Can you articulate what you like about the kit?

PAUL: No. [LAUGHS] It’s just the sound of the drums, the way they’re tuned. There’s kind of a bottom sound that I really love, especially with the bass drum and the tuning of the drums, the intervals between each individual drum. It’s great. It makes a lot of sense to me. It’s very musical. I played at Dizzy Gillespie’s Coca-Cola Room with Joe Lovano, Mulgrew Miller and George Mraz, and it seemed different to me. I had my own drums and my own cymbals, but it seemed like after the second or third night I changed the cymbals. That’s the first time I’ve ever done anything like that. It seemed that in that room, the cymbals I was using didn’t quite sound right. There’s a huge glass wall behind you, there’s a wooden stage, and there’s a wooden floor in the club. People in the club say the sound is great, but for me it was very different. I changed the cymbals. But after I changed my cymbals, I was satisfied. It sounded good.

TP: I guess another first for you is playing with Hank Jones on these several hits with Lovano. But you didn’t tour with Lovano, did you.

PAUL: No.

TP: You can only play with him and Hank if it’s in New York. How was it playing with Hank Jones?

PAUL: I loved playing with him. It was great.

TP: That isn’t totally a straight-ahead record, but it sort of is. I guess that never goes away, does it.

PAUL: No. Somebody sent me a CD of something I did with Andrew Hill, and I’m just playing straight-ahead 4/4 time. I don’t really do that any more. It’s a Blue Note record.

TP: I recall that Blackwell was sick in the early ‘90s, you subbed for him with Lovano.

PAUL: I don’t remember that. I remember playing with Dewey Redman when Blackwell got ill.

TP: Joe had a bunch of tunes that were kind of customized for Blackwell, and you dealt with them very much in that style. I hadn’t heard you do that before.

PAUL: Oh. Okay. [LAUGHS] There was a club on West Broadway years ago [Axis], and Dewey had the gig and he called me up. Blackwell was there, but he was so weak, he couldn’t play. I went down and played. Blackwell was really weak, and he was there trying to set up the drums. He was bent over, so weak that he couldn’t put the drumkit together.

TP: In 2001 when you were at the Vanguard, I was standing to the left of the doorway, watching you, and some musician was next to me and said, “Lovano and Frisell are playing the time; Paul isn’t playing the time.” You told me that was true. A lightbulb clicked on or a door opened, and I started hearing certain things. When did you stop hearing 4/4 time within the framework of your own music? You certainly were a helluva time player; you satisfied very demanding people. Why is it no longer part of your customary palette?

PAUL: It depends on the music. It depends on what I’m playing, who I’m playing with and what they’re doing. I’m sort of feeding off of them. The time is there. It’s already there. You don’t have to beat it to death, I don’t think. There was no one particular time when a lightbulb went off and I said, “Oh, man, I’m going to change, I’m going to do this or that.” I never thought that way at all. I never thought about doing anything special or doing anything on purpose. It just happened. It depended on who I played with. I remember the day when I first played with Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro, the way Scott LaFaro was playing. I’d never played with a bass player who played like that before. I was playing with Oscar Pettiford, Tommy Potter, Curley Russell, Wilbur Ware, people who just played straight-ahead 4/4 time. Here was Scott LaFaro playing… People used to say, “He sounds like a guitar player.” All of a sudden, the time started to break up. I guess maybe during that period was when I first started to realize that the time was already there; you don’t have to play it all the time. Maybe. Now it seems that every bass player plays like that. But in those days, it seemed that nobody played like that. Maybe Gary Peacock might have, but I didn’t know Gary yet.

TP: I think he came to New York a couple of years later. So the trio is playing in September. Do you discern any difference in the way the trio sounds? Might it be just the way Lovano and Frisell have evolved? I assume you listen to these records pretty closely?

PAUL: I think I take it more or less for granted now! I don’t think Frisell or Lovano play that much better now than they did 20 years ago. They played great then. But if I told people about it, they wouldn’t…

TP: You said “they were famous then, but no one would believe me.”

PAUL: That makes sense! I guess they’ve made some progress, I would hope!

TP: Both of them have 20-year careers as leaders, but when they play with you they blend together, and it’s interesting to hear it because of who they’ve become…

PAUL: Yeah, that’s true. I was playing some of that older stuff recently, and the difference is in their sound. They’ve developed different… To listen to Frisell from the first quintet record we did to now is really different. Lovano is not that different, but still there’s some difference in their sound.

TP: Does that have to do with the instruments they use, or the way they think about projecting…

PAUL: Partly. Frisell was using a lot of electronic shit in those days, too, and sometimes now he’s not.

TP: Then he was playing with Zorn and doing a lot of wild shit…

PAUL: This was even before that. I talked to him recently. He’s up in Canada now playing with a group, and it sounds like they’re playing folk music festivals.

TP: Another thing I was wondering: As a kid of Turkish-Armenian descent, and having listened to a lot of that music then, were those complex, wild rhythms ever part of your palette?

PAUL: I don’t know about the rhythms. The melodies would be more of an influence. The melodic part, not the rhythmic part. A lot of the music I heard as a kid, if I hear now… Not only Turkish and Armenian, but some Persian music and music that comes out of Iraq and Iran—the Middle East… Some of that music is dear to me. Some of those melodies are really beautiful. I heard something the other day by the Egyptian woman singer who passed away in the ‘70s… I can’t remember her name, but she was really great. She was singing on television with a 20-piece orchestra playing behind her. It blew me away. It was beautiful.

TP: Do your current compositions draw on those early experiences?

PAUL: Oh, yeah. Sure.

TP: Do you still listen to Middle Eastern music?

PAUL: Sometimes.

TP: You said you listen to classical music as well.

PAUL: Yeah.

TP: Are you listening to much jazz at all?

PAUL: I don’t know!

TP: Are you hearing anything you like?

PAUL: I’ve been pulling stuff out and listening. I haven’t heard any new stuff that’s come out. If I listen to stuff it’s probably older… As a matter of fact, the other day I was in a restaurant and I heard something that blew me away. It was Miles Davis, and I was sure it was Kenny Clarke. It just sounded great, and I went on a research and bought a bunch of records until I found what it was, and it was the the soundtrack from the movie, Elevator To the Gallows. There’s this one track with just trio, Miles and Kenny Clarke and Pierre Michelot. Boy, it’s fuckin’ great! Kenny Clarke was one of my big, big loves.

TP: You told me you wondered how he could get so much music out of such a small drumkit. You use not such a huge drumkit yourself.

PAUL: It’s just a normal set. Bass drum, two tom-toms, floor tom-tom, two cymbals, hi-hat, snare drum.

TP: Do they customize it for you?

PAUL: No.

TP: So you don’t give Gretsch specifications?

PAUL: No. As a matter of fact, James Farber asked me when I got my drumkit, and I couldn’t remember. Then he remembered because he said it was on Bill Frisell’s first record on ECM; I had the same drumkit. That means I’ve had it for 15 years or so, and I didn’t realize that. I just went into a drum-shop and bought it.

TP: You’re so matter of fact when you talk about these areas of your career…

PAUL: Yeah! It’s not no deep fuckin’ secret! People talk about this shit like it’s some kind of…

TP: But you were involved in a lot of cataclysmic events. The Bill Evans Trio, which influenced every pianist who came after. You’re involved in the Keith Jarrett Quartet, and a ton of people are still drawing on that vocabulary. You came in on Albert Ayler and Paul Bley and a certain way of organizing that kind of thing. Frisell and Lovano, that trio set a template for everybody under 40 (who went to a conservatory anyway). So that’s at least four major shifts in the music that you’re part of.

PAUL: Well, okay.

TP: Well, you know this. It seems to be part of following your instincts, the quotidian thing of being a working musician in New York. “I like it, I go there, I play it.”

PAUL: Yeah-yeah. That’s it, man. There’s no…

TP: But wasn’t it a conceptual leap to play behind Albert Ayler after you’d been playing with Bill Evans?

PAUL: No.

TP: Maybe Scott LaFaro prepared you for that.

PAUL: Nobody prepared me for… No. No! No, man. None of that stuff is true! Somebody calls you for a gig, and you go, and you play, and you play with the people that you play with, and you play with them, and you try to make music. You try to make music with the people you’re playing with, and then play a certain way, so you might play a certain way just to make it musical or make it magic or make it something that’s worthwhile.

TP: Then it becomes part of your style, doesn’t it.

PAUL: I don’t know.

TP: You don’t let it go. It becomes part of your muscle memory or your brain memory…

PAUL: I don’t know! [LAUGHS]

TP: Has that always been your attitude towards music, from when…

PAUL: When I was first in New York playing with all these fuckin’ great giants of jazz, man, I was thrilled to be doing it and I was happy to be doing it, but when I think about it now, I think I was just lucky to have the opportunity to do that. Someone asked me, “Did you ever play with Sonny Rollins?” I did play with Sonny Rollins. One night at Birdland. It was like a Monday night in Birdland. Sonny Rollins, Tony Fruscella playing trumpet, Curley Russell playing bass, and it was the piano player’s big, Bill Triglia. Bill Triglia called me to make a Monday night at Birdland. I went in there and played, and those were the people I played with. I was kind of scared at the time, when saw it was Sonny Rollins and all these people. But I did my best, tried to play my best, tried to play with them, and learn…I don’t know, just play!

TP: What was the quality in your playing that got you entrenched on the scene? You were working 300 days a year for five-six years, and that probably started around ‘55.

PAUL: Looking at that gig book, there was a time when I played every single night.

TP: So it’s not just luck. You had skills. It can’t be just luck. What was it about you that got all these very diverse personalities to call you?

PAUL: I don’t know.

TP: What do you think?

PAUL: I don’t know, man. Even with Edgar Varese, man. I rehearsed with Edgar Varese, and he recorded it on a tape. Teo Macero still has that tape, man. I don’t even know who called me for that.

TP: Is it just because you had really good time.

PAUL: I don’t know.

TP: Do you think you had really good time?

PAUL: I don’t know. Maybe I was getting high with somebody and they liked me.

TP: But no speculations?

PAUL: Somebody would call me for a gig, and I would be really happy that they called me for the gig. For instance, that night when I played with Sonny Rollins and those cats at Birdland, Zoot Sims was in the audience, and he asked me to go to Cleveland with him. He heard me play that night there, so he must have liked what he heard, and he needed a drummer to play that gig in Cleveland, and he asked me to play that. I did it, and I ended up playing with him and Al Cohn at the Half Note quite a bit. I guess because I was on the scene, and playing so much all over town and in a lot of places, people heard me, and if somebody needed a drummer and liked what they heard from me, they called me. I don’t think it was anything any deeper than that.

TP: By the time you got to New York, you had enough skills together that you could fit into the scene.

PAUL: I don’t know. That time when I played with Monk, I didn’t know his music. I just kept my fingers crossed that I didn’t fall on my fuckin’ ass!

TP: Moving to the present with Bobo Stenson and Enrico Rava: These were set up to put them together with you, I’d think. What sort of preparation do you do? Any rehearsing beforehand?

PAUL: No. We didn’t get together beforehand. No rehearsal. I don’t do that with anybody.

TP: Why not?

PAUL: I just don’t. What for? I’ve been playing long enough. I’m old enough to know what the fuck I’m doing at this point in my life! I don’t need a rehearsal. I’d rather depend on my own skills and my own whatever to play good and play well when the time comes. I don’t want to rehearse. I think a rehearsal takes away from the beauty of the music.

TP: Is that the case with the Bebop Band also?

PAUL: No, we don’t rehearse. The time we rehearse is when we’re setting up and getting ready for a gig.

TP: The soundcheck is the rehearsal.

PAUL: Yeah. That’s what I’m going to do with Bill McHenry, too. On Tuesday I’ll go down there at 4 or 5 in the afternoon, and we’ll go over a few tunes, and that’s it. That’s what happened on the trio record with Frisell and Lovano. We didn’t rehearse. I brought the music in, I showed them the music. We might have tried a few things in the studio, but we didn’t have any specific rehearsal time.

TP: Even though you’re more involved in composition than ever, the aural quality of music is still very important to you.

PAUL: Oh, yeah. Sure. I thought this was going to be a short interview!

TP: When you were a kid learning drums, did you… I think you said you played in high school bands. Did you learn to read, to play in big bands?

PAUL: Yes.

TP: You have those skills.

PAUL: Well, I don’t…

TP: Or had.

PAUL: I did that, sure. I took drum lessons and read the drum books, went through that. I played, even in pre high school, in the band. I was 12 years old when I started, and any time there was an opportunity to play in a band in school, I did that, and as soon as I got out of school I played. I went on tours with the big band throughout New England before I went into the Service, before the Korean War. Then I played in the band during the Korean War when I was in the Navy. I was in a band!

TP: How did Bill Evans rehearse the band? Was it a bandstand process? You told me you’d go to his apartment and play?

PAUL: It wasn’t rehearsals. We would play. He had an apartment on 82nd or 84th Street.

TP: You said there were a lot more sessions then anyway, so those sessions were like de facto…

PAUL: Right. I saw Bob Dorough the other day, and we talked about that. He used to have a place in the east 70s. I used to play there a lot, up four-five flights of stairs and play. Sessions around town. I used to play all the time. That’s the way it went.

TP: that was the musical culture of the city then.
PAUL: People don’t do that now, I suppose.

TP: How did the association with Bill McHenry begin?

PAUL: He called me to record with him. I guess he knew me. I had never met him. I might have heard about him. I’m not quite sure. But he called me to record with him, and I did, and when I did the record, I really liked it. I liked his music, and I liked playing with him and the band, and the recording was really good. Then when he got a gig at the Vanguard, he called me and I said okay. I think this is the third or fourth time for us at the Vanguard. I think we’re going to record live in the coming week.

TP: Did you decide to do it after he sent you a tape of his stuff, or you just liked the way he approached you?

PAUL: I don’t think he sent me a tape.

TP: What are you looking for in the musicians you play? You seem to keep adding young musicians to your circle.

PAUL: I’m a little careful about what I’m doing. In fact, somebody called me recently from Boston, left a message on my machine, told me he was a piano player and told me his name, and told me the name of the bass player, and said they wanted to come to New York and do a record, and they wanted me to make a record with them. I didn’t return the call. I didn’t know who they were.

TP: But you knew who Bill McHenry was.

PAUL: Yeah. Somebody calls me out of the blue like that, I won’t even react to it unless I talk to the person and they tell me what they do and what the project is about, and maybe I might get interested. I don’t know. But if I don’t know them, I’m not going to get involved.

TP: Are you looking for any particular qualities?

PAUL: Good music.

TP: It seems a lot of your band members have come into your bands on recommendations. Bill D’Arango told you about Lovano, Pat Metheny told you about Frisell… Frisell told you about Kurt Rosenwinkel… But it’s the recommendations.

PAUL: Yes, that happens a lot. Matter of fact, with Malaby, Chris Potter was playing with me, and then he couldn’t anymore, and something else happened, and when I asked about other saxophone players I think he mentioned Tony Malaby…or it might have been Chris Cheek. But that’s the way it goes. Somebody would recommend someone, or I’d ask about someone… If I trust someone’s… Like, Masabumi Kikuchi has been telling me recently about Greg Osby. I don’t know Greg Osby; I don’t think I’ve heard him play. But Masabumi told me he likes him, and he recommended him, and I trust Masabumi. So if it came up that I wanted some… [END OF SIDE A]

TP: You would have no compunction about calling him, and might respond if he called you.

PAUL: Yeah.
TP: But you’ve heard of him. You know of him by reputation.

PAUL: Sure.

TP: So you’re doing this thing with Bill McHenry next week, and it’s been going on for several years. Then you’re going to mix the Bebop band record, and that’s maybe the 7th or 8th record by the Bebop band, but the first for ECM, and they’re going to play in January at the Vanguard. Then Lovano-Frisell-Motian is two weeks in September at the Vanguard. Any other new projects? We have the Enrico Rava and Bobo Stenson records…

PAUL: We’re talking about playing Dizzy’s Coca-Cola Room at the end of November with Enrico Rava and Stefano Bollani. But I haven’t heard back from Todd Barkan, who books the room. I don’t know if it’s going to happen. But I would hope it happens; I’d like to do that. In fact, the sound in the room with that trio might be more to my liking since there’s no bass.

Also I think I’m going to do two nights at Birdland with Enrico Pieranunzi and Marc Johnson in March. In April, I’m playing the Vanguard again with Trio 2000 + 1. Also, the two weeks with Lovano and Frisell at the Vanguard again, too. We do it every year around August-September. I love playing at the Vanguard. It sounds great in there. The sound is beautiful in there! I just love it. Every time I play in another club, it’s never as good. It’s amazing, isn’t it, man? I think the first time I played in there, it must have been in fuckin’ 1954 or ‘55. I played in there with Lee Konitz. I think it was 1955.

TP: You have a gig book entry for New Year’s Eve, 1956. Fifty years at the Village Vanguard.

PAUL: Yeah! I’m sorry I’m not more articulate. Some people are so good at that. Keith Jarrett is great at that. Bill Evans was incredibly articulate.

TP: How’s your book project?

PAUL: I’m looking at it now. It’s on the floor. Every couple of months I pick it up and look at it, and then I correct it. A lot of the stuff I’ve told you is in there.

TP: Last time I spoke to you, you said you had an editor.

PAUL: I don’t know any more. Sort of an ex-girlfriend of mine is a writer and screenwriter and filmmaker, and she helped me a little bit and said she would be an editor. But she lives in Canada, man. I was enthusiastic at one point, but now sometimes, when I read over some it, it sounds kind of stupid. My next door neighbor works for a publishing company. He said, “come on, Paul; just let it go.” Publish it!

TP: You wouldn’t do that with your drumming.

PAUL: It’s quite different, man. I’m not that good at writing.

TP: During the’50s and ‘60s, a lot of the artists were tight with… There was a lot of back-and-forth between the different artistic communities. Did you have a lot of painter friends, writer friends during the time?

PAUL: I remember there used to be sessions at Larry Rivers’ place in the Village. I think he played. Then he had another friend who was a painter that played saxophone. I think that kind of thing was going on. But my memory isn’t that good about it.

TP: Were you part of the Five Spot scene?

PAUL: I don’t think I ever played in there. That’s when I met Charlie Haden for the first time.

TP: I guess you didn’t have time to hang so much, did you. You were always playing, always working.

PAUL: Pretty much. Now everybody wants to hang and I don’t! I don’t have the time. Charlie Haden’s called me four times already to come to the Blue Note. I’m not going down there.

I knew Alvin Ailey. He used to live in my building. Matter of fact, one time he asked me if Keith Jarrett was black, and when I said no, he said, “Oh, fuck him,” and then he used his music anyway! [LAUGHS] That was funny because Alvin wanted to use his music, and then when he found out he wasn’t black, he wasn’t going to use it. Then he used it anyway!

I knew Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. They used to be on the scene.

I was just looking through part of my book where I wrote about Pee Wee Marquette. One was about the pronunciation of my name at Birdland.

TP: If you didn’t tip him, he would pronounce it wrong.

PAUL: Right. Then finally I gave him $5 one night, and he said something like, “Paul Mo-tee-ann!” Some shit like that. It was funny! Then I saw him later on when he was in front of his Hawaiian restaurant on Broadway, sort of like a street hawker. I stopped and talked to him for a while, and that was the last time I saw him. I remember once talking to him, when after a gig at Birdland he asked me where I was playing next, and I told him I was playing at the Vanguard. He didn’t know where it was. He asked me where it was. When I told him, he told me that he’d never been below 42nd Street in his life!

TP: It’s interesting. There were no clubs in the Village presenting modern jazz until the Bohemia until 1955. There were sessions, but it was Nick’s and Eddie Condon’s and that sort of thing.

PAUL: Well, the Bohemia, we used to play sessions in there before they… The Bohemia was one of the places where you could have sessions, where I used to go to play, to have sessions. Then they opened up as a jazz club, and Charlie Parker was supposed to open it, and he died. It was just a bar to go to have sessions, just like Arthur’s Tavern. These were places where you could go and play. There was no money involved; it was just a place for jam sessions.

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

PAUL: Wow!

TP: Where was Take 3?

PAUL: I think it was on McDougal around the corner from where Visiones used to be. I think it’s the third or fourth building north of Bleecker on McDougal on the west side of the street. I think there was a basement part and another part that was upstairs. That’s where I played with Paul Bley, Gary Peacock, John Gilmore…

[—30—]

 

Gretsch Artist:

Bass drum, 20″
Snare drum, 5-1/2″ wood
TwoTom-Toms on the bass drum, one is 8″ x 12″, the other is 9″ x 13″
Floor Tom-Tom is 14″ x 16″

Two cymbals. One is A. Zildjian, 20″ w/ rivets (had it for 50 years)
Other one is Paiste 22″ Dark Ride

Hi-Hats are 14″. One is a Paiste 14″ dark cymbal. The other is old Zildjian Army cymbal that he got in a parade somewhere (over 50 years)

Gretsch Permatone Drum Heads which are the closest thing to the old calf-skin heads. “They really make the difference. A lot of drumsets now have these seethrough plastic heads, which are good for rock-and-roll, but they’re not good for me.”

* * *

Paul Motian on Max Roach (Aug. 19, 2007):
TP: I assume you first heard Max Roach on the Charlie Parker recordings from the ‘40s and other bebop records.

PAUL: Yes. I was pretty young at the time. I was up in Providence, Rhode Island, maybe still in high school… I remember listening to live broadcasts from New York, maybe from Birdland, maybe even before Birdland opened. Birdland opened in December 1949, and I guess I was out of high school by then. But I heard stuff on the radio that Max was on, and I remember sending letters and money to whatever address it was in New York, and they send me back a 78 disc of the recording that I wanted that had Max on it. I used to get that in the mail, and that was the first time I heard Max, I guess. When I heard it, I was kind of in shock. I was pretty young at the time, and I didn’t know too much. But I loved what I heard, and I thought it was interesting and really great, and I wanted to have those records and recordings, so I used to send away for it, and I got these 78 discs.

Of course, he was a very strong influence on me. What he played seemed to be so hip and so modern and so great, and different from… Kenny Clarke was one of the important people in my life who influenced me, but Max was doing something a little bit different. His solos were a little bit different, and just seemed to be really hip and fit right in with what Bird was doing, and the bebop music that was being played. It just seemed really hip and strong, and very well done, and really great.

Did you ever see that movie with Dorothy Dandridge (Carmen Jones) that Max was in, where they play music that’s sort of from Carmen? It was made in the ‘50s. With Harry Belafonte…

Then when I came to New York in the mid ‘50s, and I saw Max play when he had the band with Clifford Brown and Harold Land, and later with Sonny Rollins… That’s when I first saw him play. There was a club called Basin Street. That might have been the first time. No, there was another time. I had just graduated from high school, and Birdland had just opened, and I drove to New York. I had an old car, and I was 16-17 years old, and I went to Birdland. I saw a band that had Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, J.J. Johnson, Bud Powell, all these all-star great jazz bebop players, and I thought the drummer was Max. I remember telling the story to Art Blakey one time in a dressing room when I was in Japan, and Art told me, “No, that wasn’t Max; that was me.” But I still feel like it was Max. That might have been the first time. If it wasn’t, then the first time had to be one of those times when I saw him in New York in that band with Clifford Brown.

TP: For Ratliff you chose “Carolina Moon” by Monk which Max was on. That was in ‘52.

PAUL: I didn’t see that. I heard it on record.

TP: You used to live a few blocks away from him also, on CPW.

PAUL: Yeah, right near me. I used to see him here a lot. If I was walking on Central Park West… I remember bumping into him a couple of times when he was standing in the street in front of his building. We used to talk, and he’d tell some stories. I remember we were talking about Bud Powell, and he told me that when they did the recording with Bud Powell where they played “Un Poco Loco,” he started playing a pretty standard Latin beat on the drums. DING-DING-DA-DING, DING-DING-DA-DING. That’s a pretty standard beat. He said he was doing that on “Un Poco Loco,” and Bud Powell stopped the shit and said, “Max, what are you doing? You’re Max Roach. Can’t you come up with anything better than that?” That’s how Max came up with the beat he played on that recording, which is so great.

TP: I heard Max relate that as “You’re supposed to be Max Roach.”

PAUL: Could have been. Then Max said he bumped into Bud Powell in Harlem after the recording, and he said, “Bud said to me, ‘Hey, Max, you fucked up my record.” Max was telling me, “You know Bud. He was crazy.”

TP: You remarked to Ratliff that once you saw Max with a bass player, Al Cotton, and he told you to watch how Max addressed the drums.

PAUL: How he played and how he moved. Al was saying, “Check him out. Listen.” I seem to remember that there was a balcony or something. I was kind of far away and sort of looking down on the stage, and he said, “Watch how Max plays. He’s not just using his hands and wrists; he’s using his whole body. Look how he moves.” I was checking that out and saying, “Yeah, man, that’s really got something to do with it. You use your whole body. It’s not just in your hands.”

TP: You also talked to Ratliff about the precision and clarity of his arrangements, specifically “Delilah,” but that’s characteristic of the sound of the Brown-Roach band.

PAUL: That’s true. I remember saying that. I love that record, and I play it now and then. The arrangements with that band are so great—and probably all the bands Max was involved in. How meticulous it was, how great it was. There was always an arrangement. There was always an introduction… It wasn’t just always the standard way, like “this guy plays, then he plays, then you take it out.” It seemed like it had something extra in it, it was something special, and it was arranged so beautifully, man. That shit was incredible.

TP: You also spoke about how Max played the form of the song, both accompanying and leading into the solo. Anything you can say to me about that?

PAUL: Well, just that. You can use what I told Ben. Max plays a great solo on that Monk record where they play “Brilliant Corners,” a great chorus.

On the day that Max died, it’s really strange… Before I knew that he died, I was on my computer and went to iTunes, and I played “Koko” by Max with Charlie Parker. Max plays a chorus on “Koko” that’s incredible. Really great. Then later on, on ABC News, they talked about Max, that he had just died, and I had already heard that Max had died, and then they played a clip on TV that was his solo on “Koko.” Sometimes people say that magic is all in your head and it’s not really true, but I think that’s bullshit. Sometimes there’s shit in the air that just happens like that. I guess it’s by coincidence, but it’s hard not to believe that there’s magic in the air sometimes.

TP: as a kid, did you try to play that solo, get it under your hands?

PAUL: Not that particular solo…

TP: But other solos by him?

PAUL: Sure. I tried to copy what I heard. Sure. I did that with a lot of drummers.

TP: Can you talk about what he did that distinguished him from Kenny Clarke or Art Blakey or Roy Haynes?

PAUL: I wish I could. One of the things is sound. Kenny Clarke played great, Art Blakey played great, Philly Joe played great, but they all had their own sound. Big Sid Catlett. If I listen to these guys, I can hear a different… Max’s sound was different from those.

TP: Was it his drum tuning?

PAUL: Could be. That would have something to do with it. But also his technique. The technique that he had, it wasn’t just technique—it was musical. He made music out of the technique that he had. I guess they all did that, but his sound was a little bit different. It could have been in the tuning of the drums, could have been the way that he played… Boy, it’s really hard. I wish I could make it clearer. I just read an interview of Sonny Rollins from Vanity Fair, and he said some stuff in there that’s hard for me to understand. He was asked about people he admires, and he said there really wasn’t anyone. But for me, I admire people like that, who can explain stuff in words that I can’t do.

TP: Some of the younger drummers say, for one thing, Max tuned his drums higher than other people, so he was able to set up intervals to enable his melodic concept of soloing.

PAUL: That’s kind of true. But I have another story for you. I was playing with Tony Scott at the Half Note in the late ‘50s, and my drums were down there on the stage, I was all set up, but I had another gig that day, so I was late when I got to my gig at the Half Note, and when I got there Max Roach was playing in my place on my drums. I said, “Wow, isn’t that great; my man, Max, is playing on my drums. I felt great, I felt proud, I felt privileged.” Then when he came off the stage, he said to me… At that time, my drumset was made by a company called Leedy, and I used to tune my drums really tight. The heads were…I guess the word is taut. It’s not easy to play drums when they’re tuned like that. But Max came off the stage and came up to me, and he said, “Man, I just subbed for you, but your drums were really hard to play. You keep those drum heads really tight.” He found them hard to play. But he played his ass off. Of course, he played great. But when the drums are like that, you can’t fake anything. You’ve got to play the shit, and he did. But he did tell me that it was difficult.
TP: I guess that was a good compliment.

PAUL: It sure was. My drums aren’t tuned like that now, but they were then. He had a hard time with it.

TP: People have also talked about the way he incorporated Afro-Caribbean rhythms and even East Indian rhythms into his beat flow, that he was ahead of the curve.

PAUL: I don’t know about that. I don’t know if I was aware of any of that. Although there were things in the paper about different groups he had, and M’Boom, with all the drummers, and the band he had later with Odean Pope and Cecil Bridgewater… I didn’t hear that much of that. When I was really into it… The thing that killed me and knocked me out was the band with Clifford Brown and Harold Land and Richie Powell—and Sonny Rollins later—and George Morrow. Actually, that was my first experience of being involved in the jazz scene, and learning about people dying and being killed. When Clifford Brown and Richie Powell got killed in that car crash on the turnpike, that was my first experience of that, and it was really devastating. Since then, there’s been multitudes of people! But that was the first time that ever happened to me, and that fucked me up.

TP: Do you recall when you first met Max Roach to get to know him? Did he come to hear you play, or at a Monday night at Birdland?

PAUL: It could have been. But I must have known him before that Monday night when he subbed for me at the Half Note.

TP: For one thing, you were playing with Tristano all the time, so he must have…

PAUL: I was. But the other thing is, there was an interview with him in Downbeat back then, in the ‘50s, and they asked him if he heard any new young drummers on the scene in New York, and who did he hear and who did he like, and he named me and Elvin as the two drummers he heard and liked. That made me very proud, and I felt really good about that. The other thing was, I did this recording with George Russell, one of the first recordings I did, and I remember going to the Café Bohemia with George Russell, and we walked in, and there was Max sitting at the bar. That might have been the first time I met him. George Russell went up to Max and said, “Max, this is Paul Motian; he just recorded with me. I wanted to know if I could use that quote of yours that Paul and Elvin are two young drummers you heard that you liked.” Max said, “Yeah, you can use that.” That made me really feel good.

TP: Among your peer group in the ‘50s, was Max respected as the main guy?

PAUL: I suppose. I don’t know. I would hope so. I would guess so. One thing that makes me sad is that Big Sid Catlett died pretty young, and he was still alive when I was in New York…

TP: He died in 1951, I believe.

PAUL: Oh. I wasn’t in New York then. But I never saw him play. That’s too bad.
TP: You saw Papa Jo Jones play, though.

PAUL: Sure.

TP: So you continued to know Max, but it sounds like you weren’t so up on what he was doing after the early ‘60s.

PAUL: I guess maybe not.

TP: What did you think of his solo compositions? Did you check them out?

PAUL: Sure. There was another time I was in Europe, Sicily maybe, at a jazz festival, where the bands played. It was outdoors. He played a solo. I remember seeing and hearing that. It was great! He put that shit together so good!

TP: During the late ‘40s and early ‘50s he was studying composition formally, and orchestral percussion and so on. Another thing people are talking about are the components of his kit. He had a floor tom with a pedal that was set up to sound like a tympany, and he used a little tom-tom on the snare that he’d use. So there were certain tonal things that were part of his sound.

PAUL: I didn’t know any of that. One thing I remember, though, that surprised me that I didn’t know about… I didn’t know too much about his history or what he studied. But I remember being in the Vanguard one time, and I don’t know if I was playing there or not, or if I was just there, or if Max was playing there… I don’t know. But there was no one playing at the time, it might have been at the end of the night, and Max was sitting at the piano, playing the piano. Knocked me right on my ass! I didn’t know. I said, “Wow, isn’t that interesting. He knows what to do on piano. I should have known that anyway, but I didn’t. But when I saw him play piano, I was a little surprised, and thought that was really great. It made me want to study music more, and get into composition, which I wasn’t at the time. I’m not sure if I was playing with Bill Evans or Keith Jarrett; it was a while ago. But when I saw that, it sort of turned me on to want to do more… Because I didn’t get into composing and trying to study piano and all of that until I was in my mid forties. So when I saw that at that early time, it made me think about that, and wanting to be better at what I did, and getting more into learning more about music. When I first studied drums, I didn’t know that a song had 32 bars, or changes, or whatever. But seeing Max do that, and then getting into that, just turned me on.

TP: Do you think a lot of drummers were like you, not as trained, and Max inspired that?

PAUL: Yes. The joke always was, “Oh, he’s not a musician; he’s a drummer.” That made me mad! [LAUGHS]

Max was very intelligent and very articulate. He knew what he was talking about, and he made people like me understand… He wasn’t a fuckin’ dodo, man. He knew what he was talking about, he was very articulate and very sure of what he said, and very strong.

Look at all the stuff that he did. He wasn’t just a drummer who had a band and shit. He had the double quartet, the M’Boom thing, the Freedom Now Suite, all those different things. He was incredible. He was great. What about that documentary about him, where he plays with the hip-hop group. That documentary also has a clip of Kenny Clarke and a clip of Big Sid Catlett.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

* * *

Paul Motian (9-7-00):

TP: Vis-a-vis the electric bebop band, what was the motivation for going back to the repertoire that I suppose you began with?

MOTIAN: Well, that band started ten years or so even before that, but I didn’t do anything with it. I just had a rehearsal with different people. It was Mike Stern and Bill Frisell on guitar and Mark Egan on bass and myself. We had a rehearsal in my house, and I taped it, and then I kind of forgot about it. then ten years or so later, I was on tour with Charlie Haden, and Charlie’s son, Josh, who is also a bass player and has a band of his called Spain… I just mentioned it to Josh, about bebop music and what I was doing back then, and he said, “Oh, that sounds really interesting; I’d like to hear that. At that time I was playing at the Vanguard with Geri Allen and Charlie Haden, and I said, “Okay, in the afternoon let’s get together and we’ll have a little rehearsal. So we did, with Josh Haden and Kurt Rosenwinkel and another guitarist, Dave Fiuczinski. That was the late ’80s or so. Then I got interested in it again. About ’90 or ’91 or ’92, Kurt came over to my house and we talked about it, and then we put this band back together, and it was just two electric guitars, electric bass and drums. The bass player was Stomu Takeishi at the time, and Brad Schoeppach and Kurt Rosenwinkel on guitar. It grew out of that.

TP: You’ve played the whole realm of improvising and been on the forward tip of it at any particular time you’ve played in, playing with Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh and Oscar Pettiford in the ’50s, and getting into the true outer partials in the ’60s, actually leaving Bill Evans to do that, with Keith Jarrett’s very influential band in the ’70s, and of course the trio with Frisell and Lovano that’s influenced so many younger musicians. Why moving back to bebop?

MOTIAN: Oh, I love bebop!

TP: Does it feel fresh?

MOTIAN: Yeah!

TP: Was it something you had to not do for a while to really appreciate.

MOTIAN: Well, no, it’s not a thing about that. It’s just that that’s the music I kind of grew up with, you know, when I first came to New York in the early ’50s, and it’s the music I love, and I was involved in it… I think it’s great music. There’s a lot of great players, a lot of great players that came out of that, from Dizzy and Monk and Bud Powell to Tadd Dameron.

TP: The tunes are unbelievable. It’s like an endless well of repertoire.

MOTIAN: Oh yeah! I just keep finding more stuff, more stuff. We played and recorded a Herbie Nichols tune recently, and someone was telling me about all his great music, and someone else was talking to me about Elmo Hope and all the great music he did. So there’s no end to it, man.

TP: One thing that distinguishes you is your direct contact with masters. You sat in with Thelonious Monk, and did you say once you’d sat in with Bird…

MOTIAN: No, I never played with Bird. I saw him play once, but that was it.

TP: I guess you came to New York in ’53, and you got into the mix pretty quickly.

MOTIAN: Mmm-hmm.

TP: How does the instrumentation affect what you do with the material? Also, what you do as the leader, as the drummer, in shaping the flow. What’s your intent in working with this music?

MOTIAN: I like to play good music. I like to play great music. I don’t know about any intent outside of that. It just keeps growing. I keep finding people, and… It started out, like I said, with just two guitars, bass and drums, then I said, “Well, it doesn’t have to be just that.” Then I added a saxophone, who at the time was Joshua Redman. Then we were playing in Ronnie Scott’s Club in London, and Josh could do half the week, and I hired Chris Potter to finish the week, and one night they crossed paths and two of them played. So I heard two saxophones, I said, “wow, I really like that,” and I hired two saxophones. So it got to that.

TP: It certainly gives you a lot of options. The band sounds very full now. People are doing spontaneous orchestrating. There’s always something going on.

MOTIAN: Yes. I wanted to get away from the usual thing of melody-solos-melody-end. So I try to arrange it. I try to make everyone aware. And I make them kind of be aware of it. I make them arrange it. I’m sort of like, “Step in it, man; go ahead; see what you can do. Why don’t you trade off with this guy and do this and that.” And they’re growing inventive about that. so it’s just growing into becoming more arranged and playing a lot of piano player’s music with no piano and stuff like that.

TP: It’s also interesting that there’s such a wide pool of strong young musicians who want to explore that music, which might not have been the case 20-25 years ago.

MOTIAN: Right. And I appreciate that. These guys are willing to go with me on tour. It’s rough out there! [LAUGHS] We went to Beijing, played in Shanghai… It’s been great.

TP: You travel a lot.

MOTIAN: Yes. But it’s not going all year long. You know what I mean? Maybe four months out of the year I’m on the road.

TP: But there are a lot of players who know your sound and want to articulate a musical experience that has the Paul Motian sound, whatever that may be. The next offering is from a recent collaboration of that nature.

MOTIAN: I was contacted by two French musicians, Bruno Chevillon, a bass player, and Stephan Oliva, a pianist. They really told me that they loved my music and they wanted to play with me. They said that they had arranged my music, and would I come to France and play a concert with them — which I did. It was very successful. People liked it a lot. Then we did it again at a festival in Paris. Then they arranged a recording, so we did a recording for the French BMG label. It’s mostly all my music, and I really appreciate what they did with it. It’s really great. We did play at a club in Paris for a couple of nights, too, which was a lot of fun.

TP: Did you do it before the recording as a sort of rehearsal.

MOTIAN: No, those gigs in Paris came afterwards. Before the recording we had played two concerts. That was it.

TP: What do you do when you go into a situation cold with musicians you haven’t known before, and you sit down and it’s unmistakably your sound imprint. You just go in and hear and play?

MOTIAN: I just play from what I hear. Sure. I sit down and play, and I react to what I’m hearing and play that. That’s it.

[MUSIC: Fantasm, “Interieur Jour”; Solal-Johnson-Motian, “Night and Day,” “Gang of Five”]

TP: Paul was saying that 37 years ago you performed with Martial Solal in his American debut at the Hickory House, and didn’t see him again…

MOTIAN: Right. Teddy Kotick on bass.

TP: You didn’t play together again for 35 years.

MOTIAN: Wow. [LAUGHS]

TP: Do these ironies present themselves in the moment of playing, or in retrospect?

MOTIAN: I guess so, yeah.

TP: You certainly sounded like you played together let’s say one week a year…

MOTIAN: Well, I played the Hickory House gig with Bill Evans one time, with Martial Solal another time, and with Joe Castro another time. That was a gig that went on for months. You played in this club for two or three months at a time. It was a steakhouse actually. I didn’t play with Martial for 30-odd years or more.

TP: You said he was a raconteur, very humorous. He’ll say, “Here’s the piano player” and point to the bench.

MOTIAN: Yeah, he’ll point to the bench. Actually Enrico Pieranunzi does that, too. [LAUGHS] These guys, I don’t know…

TP: It’s a European thing.

MOTIAN: Could be. He reminds me of Victor Borge, in a way.

TP: This record combines originals by you, Martial Solal, and a few rearrangements. You must have a book of a hundred or so compositions?

MOTIAN: No, not that many. About 50 or so.

TP: You’ve been composing for a long time.

MOTIAN: Not that much. But I don’t feel too bad about it Somebody told me Monk didn’t write that many songs either — 50 or 60. That’s fine with me. I was into it more… I’m not into it so much… I’m not doing so much writing now.

TP: So the ’70s and ’80s were a time when you were generating a lot of…

MOTIAN: Yes. Because I was putting together… Starting in ’76, when I put together my first trio with Charles Brackeen and David Izenson, and I started writing. I was studying piano and writing and trying to learn. Then it went to a quintet, and I had to write stuff for that. I did a lot of writing at that time.

TP: Let’s take you back to ’63 when you did those couple of months with Martial Solal at Hickory House. At that time you were still part of the Bill Evans Trio, which you left the next year. You spent the ’50s playing with Oscar Pettiford, you played with Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, you played with Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh and numerous gigs. Let me take you into some well-trod territory with those years. You grew up in Providence, Rhode Island.

MOTIAN: Right. Born in Philadelphia, then the family moved up to Providence; I couldn’t have been more than 2 years old.

TP: You became interested in drums around 10 years old?

MOTIAN: I started at more like 11 or 12. I took some drum lessons and whatnot, went through the usual stuff. I started playing professional gigs I guess when I was still in high school ,which is the late ’40s.

TP: By then bebop had hit. Things like “Shaw Nuff” coincided with your beginnings as a musician.

MOTIAN: I used to listen to jazz radio from New York and I’d send away for 78 records. I used to hear records by Max Roach, Bud Powell and Monk, and I’d send to New York for them and get these 78 vinyl records in the mail. I listened to a lot of big bands when I was a kid.

TP: Who were the drummers who impressed you early on?

MOTIAN: The first drum teacher I had was a drummer in the neighborhood, who really wasn’t a teacher; I heard him playing one day and got really interested in it, and asked him to show me some stuff. He gave me a couple of lessons, and then I went to another teacher. But he played me a record with Gene Krupa on it, and that impressed me right away. Then I heard Max Roach, and like I said, I was sending away for records from Max.

TP: The early Charlie Parker releases, “Koko” and that sort of thing?

MOTIAN: Right.

TP: So it just developed from there. And you said were playing professionally in high school. Were you working as a musician and going to high school simultaneously?

MOTIAN: No. Maybe a couple of gigs on a weekend. I hooked up with a neighbhorhood musician or musicians in bands, and a couple of players from high school — maybe we played a couple of weddings and stuff like that. Not really that much jazz. Playing in clubs and bars, stuff like that.

TP: When did it become apparent to you that you were going to become a musician?

MOTIAN: I guess right from the beginning. I never thought about anything else, I never did anything else, and I didn’t plan it or anything. It just happened. I just went along with the flow.

TP: That seems the operative thing. You seem to go along with the flow and surround yourself with strong personalities, and you have a strong personality, and…

MOTIAN: Well, I love music, man. [LAUGHS]

TP: You mentioned that you joined the Navy because you wanted to go to the Navy School, because it was a great way to get a higher education and get it paid for.

MOTIAN: And not have to go to Korea to a war zone. The deal at that time was, I was about to get drafted in the Army. I was the right age for that. Then I heard that there was a school of music, that if you joined the Navy you could pick what you wanted to do if you volunteered. I heard about their music school in Washington, D.C., so that’s what I did. I volunteered for the Navy and went to that music school, and then I got ill and never really spent any time there — and then they shipped me out! [Europe]

TP: Were you playing over there?

MOTIAN: Yeah, I was in the band. I was part of a band that was the Admiral’s Band, the Admiral of the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean. We were his band. Where he went, we went. When he transferred from one ship to another ship to another ship, we went with him. That was the deal.

TP: That wasn’t such a bad way to spend your Service time.

MOTIAN: No, I enjoyed it. Working out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with nothing else around except the sea and sky and air. It introduced me to Europe. It was great. I was 19 years old.

TP: You’re one of the many musicians who came up at the time you did who got a good deal of education in the Armed Services. Then you were stationed in New York, you were living around the Brooklyn Navy Yard, you were released and got into the scene.

MOTIAN: I got really lucky. Because when people got transferred… You did a tour of duty on a ship. I did I think two years. That was usually what happened. Then you would get transferred, and you have no choice; where they send you, they send you. I got lucky, man. They sent me to New York! It’s called the Central Receiving Station, which was across the street from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But I had an apartment in Brooklyn. I’d go to work in the morning, there would be a band rehearsal, and then you’d go home, unless there was some dignitary coming into town who you had to play for or a parade. Otherwise, that was it. There were some nice musicians in that band, and we started playing then. Then when I came out, I just stayed in New York.

TP: You came here in ’53. Did you start hanging out right away?

MOTIAN: Oh yeah. I went everywhere. Wherever anybody played, I was there. I’d take my drums on the subway. Anything.

TP: You mentioned being at the Open Door quite a bit.

MOTIAN: Yes. There were a lot of things happening at the Open Door, a lot of sessions there. That was on Lafayette and Third Street, around that area. It’s all probably part of New York University now.

TP: Same buildings but much more expensive.

MOTIAN: [LAUGHS] I heard Charlie Parker there, man. It was incredible. And there were sessions there you’d go to. A lot of people, man. You played. It was great. There were other places. There was a place called Arthur’s Tavern in the Village that had sessions. There were sessions at a lot of places. You’d go to people’s houses. I met Bob Dorough; we used to have sessions at his house on the East Side up in the 70s. There was a pianist named Don Rothenberg who used to have sessions. I met Ira Sullivan there, and we used to play there. Every chance I got. There was a place up on 110th Street, a bar in Harlem where you lined up, man, took your turn and played.

TP: When did people start hiring you? You mentioned that Monk took you to Boston for a week around ’55 or so?

MOTIAN: No, that was ’60. January 1960. I played for a week at Storyville in Boston with Monk, Scott LaFaro and Charlie Rouse. I was scared to death!

TP: But by then, you’d already played with Oscar Pettiford, Lennie Tristano and Bill Evans. I’m just looking for how you began to form the network of associations that kick-started your career.

MOTIAN: Well, in those days, when all those sessions were happening, you were out there. You were quite visible. People heard you and people called you and people hired you. Tony Scott hired me and he hired Bill Evans. Actually, when I met Bill Evans, there was a clarinet player named Jerry Wald, who used to have a big band, then he had a small group. Through the grapevine, I heard he was auditioning people to take a band on tour. So I went to that audition. This was almost after I got out of the Service. I went to that audition and Bill Evans also went to that audition, and I heard him play and said, “Wow, who’s that piano player? He sounds great.” Someone said, “Oh, that’s Bill Evans from New Jersey; he plays really good.” So I was thinking, “Wow, I hope I gets this gig and he gets it. He sound really good.” So we both got the gig and we went on tour with Jerry Wald. We went to Puerto Rico, we went around the East Coast different places. It was a sextet with a vibraphone player and a guitar player, a singer. Then somehow, Tony Scott hired me and he hired Bill. We went on tour with Tony. That was kind of the beginning. I guess with Jerry Wald it could have been ’55. With Tony Scott, 1956-57, in there.

TP: You must have taken advantage of the opportunity of being in New York and being able to go around and study all the great drummers first-hand, who you could hear almost any time. I mean, Max Roach and Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey and Shadow Wilson and on and on. I know all those people impressed you, but talk about how it worked. Your transition from being talented to being a working New York professional.

MOTIAN: I don’t know if I can follow that path! But at Birdland at the time, the original Birdland, which was on Broadway and 52nd Street… I heard Art Blakey in there with his band. It wasn’t called the Jazz Messengers at that time. It was with Horace Silver and Curley Russell maybe. Anyway I heard that band a lot. Max Roach with Clifford Brown and Richie Powell; I heard that band. At Cafe Bohemia, Kenny Clarke playing with Oscar Pettiford and George Wallington. I was in those places daily, nightly, all the time, man, listening to those people.

TP: The most amazing education you could get.

MOTIAN: I thought that was par for the course. Everything happened like that.

TP: We’ll hear something that wasn’t released until a few years ago, the Lee Konitz-Warne Marsh Quintet at the Half Note with Bill Evans and Jimmy Garrison. You played quite a bit with Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh, and Lee Konitz has been a friend and recording colleague for years.

MOTIAN: True. There was a club downtown called the Half-Note run by the Cantarino family, and they talked Lennie Tristano into coming out and playing. Lennie hadn’t played or performed in public in a long time, and he didn’t plan to. Anyway these people called him and got him to come out and play at the Half Note, and I played there a lot with Lennie in the late ’50s-early ’60s for two or three years. One time we played at the Half Note ten weeks. Ten weeks at the Half-Note, man. And Lennie kept me and used ten different bass players during that time, everyone from Teddy Kotick to Paul Chambers to Peter Ind, Red Mitchell, Whitey Mitchell, Jimmy Garrison, Henry Grimes… It went on and on. [LAUGHS]

TP: He was very specific about wanting his drummers to keep things within a certain area.

MOTIAN: He never said anything about it, but you felt that your job was to keep time, man, and let these guys go and play. One time we were exchanging fours, and he said, “You know, Paul, your fours sound like a drunk falling down stairs.” I said, “Oh, that’s great. Thanks a lot, man.”

TP: I’ve heard that said about other drummers like Dave Bailey. Anyway, Lennie Tristano wasn’t in the house the night this was recorded.

MOTIAN: Yes, Tuesday was Lennie’s night off. He was teaching on Tuesday nights. So on Tuesday nights we would play sometimes without a piano player sometimes with. That particular Tuesday it was Bill Evans. Bill had been playing with Miles Davis, and he had just left and was about to start his own stuff. It was around that time.

[MUSIC: w/Konitz-Marsh, “April”; Konitz-Swallow-Motian, “Johnny Broken Wing”]

TP: The Electric Bebop Band plays a repertoire that mines the amazing compositions of the period when Paul Motian came musically of age, between 1945 and 1960… [ETC.] At once idiomatic and contemporary. The sound has evolved…

MOTIAN: We’re doing some of my music with this band, which is interesting. I have some very open kind of pieces where I like to have everybody playing at the same time and trying to make some music out of it. Interesting.

TP: In the next set, we’ll hear music with Paul Bley, who you’ve been playing with since the mid-’60s, and Keith Jarrett, with whom so many people heard you during the late ’60s-early ’70s. Let’s go through your bio again. You began playing with Bill Evans in Jerry Wald’s Sextet, and you’re on Bill Evans’ first trio recording in 1956 for Riverside. How did things develop? Did the trio work a fair amount up to 1959, when the next recordings are?

MOTIAN: Yes, we were playing. We were doing gigs. We didn’t go on the road. We played mostly around the New York area. Then Scott LaFaro came on the scene, the next record was with him, and then we did go on the road!

TP: In that interim, you were playing and touring with Oscar Pettiford. You were playing in one of his tentets, and he took an integrated band to Florida in ’57 or so.

MOTIAN: Yes, it was ’57. We played at the University of Florida, we played in Virginia. Went by bus from New York on quite a bus ride.

TP: You have an amusing story about Oscar Pettiford about the drumsticks.

MOTIAN: okay. We were playing at Small’s Paradise in a quintet with Ray Copeland on trumpet, Sahib Shihab on baritone saxophone, Dick Katz on piano, myself and Oscar Pettiford. At that time I had these very light, skinny drumsticks, 7-A’s, and I was playing with those. After the set, Oscar picked up one of the drumsticks, and he said, “What kind of sticks are these, man?” He sort of was bending them; they were almost like rubber in his hand. He said, “Get yourself some sticks, man.” So I went downtown to the drum shop, got some heavy sticks, came back the next day and played.

TP: He must have been a strong man.

MOTIAN: Yeah, he was great. He played great. People used to say, “Man, you’re playing with O.P. He’s death on drummers, man. How are you doing, man? What’s going on?” I said, “I guess he likes me.”

TP: Apparently so. And you were also playing a lot with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims.

MOTIAN: Yes, we used to play at the Half Note quite a bit. I loved those guys; they sounded so great. It always confused me, because it seemed like everyone always talked about Zoot and not many people talked about Al, and Al had this great big sound, played so great. Well, both of them; they were incredible. I couldn’t figure out how they… They used to drink so much. I couldn’t figure out how they could play so great and drink so much alcohol.

TP: I heard a story where Zoot Sims said he practiced that way.

MOTIAN: [LAUGHS] I guess so. And someone else told me another thing about Zoot, that Zoot walked into this bar on 52nd Street called Jim & Andy’s dressed in a tuxedo, and everyone freaked out. They said, “Zoot, what are yu doing in the middle of the day in a tux; what’s going on?” He said, “I don’t know; I woke up like that.”

TP: Let me ask you a question about drums. How has the drumset changed from when you started playing up until when you were playing with Bill Evans and to today? Has it changed palpably? Has the sound of drumming changed because of changes in the way they’re made?

MOTIAN: Wow. I don’t know.

TP: Are you very particular about the size and make and composition of the cymbals?

MOTIAN: No. I’m interested in sound. I don’t care what it looks like, what size it is. It has to sound musical. It has to sound right to my ears. People say to me, “Oh, we’ve got this rider that you’ve got to have this 18-inch bass drum. I say, “Man, I don’t care. It could be a 50-inch bass drum. If it sounds good and musical, I’ll play it. That’s the way I feel about it. Also, I like musical sounds, man. I want it to be pleasing to my ears. I don’t tune the drums to specific notes or anything like that. It’s just pleasing to my ears.

TP: When you go on the road for one of these long European excursions are you taking…

MOTIAN: No. I don’t take anything any more except for some drumsticks and brushes. Last tour I didn’t even take a drum key, and that was a disaster. Because no one seemed to have a drum key everywhere we went. So I dealt with it. So I have to deal with the drums, and that’s kind of a drag, but there’s no getting around it.

TP: Apparently, if recorded evidence is worth anything, which I think it is, I think people will know it’s you on whatever set of drums. But you’ve been an informed observer of drum construction for about fifty years now, so I wondered about your perspective.

MOTIAN: I guess the first drumset I had was during World War II, and the rims were wood instead of metal. Then they came up with more stuff. They just kept coming out with more stuff. I mean, cymbal stands that do certain things, boom stands…there was none of that when I first started.

TP: Before this digression, we were discussing your early years with Bill Evans. So the records came out in ’59, and the records became popular and an incredibly influential entity.

MOTIAN: Well, that kind of happened later. A lot of gigs we did, we didn’t have full houses and people screaming and clapping when we played. I remember playing in the Village Vanguard with Bill and Scott LaFaro with only 4 people in the club, and talking to Max Gordon and saying, “Hey, man, can we go home; there’s only four people,” and he says, “Oh, no, you’ve still got a table of people and you’ve got to play another set.”

TP: And it was probably the third set.

MOTIAN: Oh, in those days, man, we used to play from 9 or 10 at night til 3 or 4 in the morning. I didn’t see the sunlight. And we went from one club to another club to another club. You never went out of town. All the gigs were in New York. You went from one club to another, from Birdland to the Vanguard to the Half Note, then back to Birdland. Like I said before, we played ten weeks at the Half Note with Lennie Tristano, nine weeks at the Vanguard with Bill Evans and Gary Peacock. Then we’d go back to Birdland for three weeks, then go back to another club, and then maybe go to Boston for a couple of gigs and then go back. It’s the way it was. In those days you spent $2 in a taxi to get to a gig, and it took you maybe half-an-hour to get there, and you played for 6 hours or more. Now it’s like 8 hours on a plane, and play one hour, and 8 hours in a plane back. [LAUGHS] It’s quite different.

TP: It must make things sound different as well. Then as far as the Bill Evans Trio, as time goes on, there’s ferment in music in New York.

MOTIAN: Yeah, there was a lot going on.

TP: And you left Bill Evans to be part of it.

MOTIAN: Yeah, I left Bill Evans in 1964. I came back to New York and was playing with Paul Bley and the Jazz Composers Orchestra at the time. There was a lot going on.

TP: And your affiliations with that scene began during your tenure with Bill Evans. That’s when you met people like Steve Swallow and Charlie Haden?

MOTIAN: Well, I met Charlie when I was playing with Bill Evans at the Vanguard, and Scott LaFaro said to me, “You know, there’s a really great bass player playing over at the Five Spot with Ornette Coleman. I want to introduce you. I want you to meet him. Come on over. So I went over and Scott introduced me to Charlie. That had to be ’59.

TP: So you heard Ornette Coleman when he hit New York?

MOTIAN: Yes, at the Five Spot.

TP: In ’59 were you open to it? Did it sound right to you?

MOTIAN: Yeah, I was. You know, it was very different, and I was interested. Sure, I thought it was great.

TP: So basically, you’re aware of everything that was going on around you and you wanted to partake of it.

MOTIAN: Yeah. I was on the scene a lot. A lot more than now.

TP: You and Paul Bley have done numerous recordings, and we’ll hear from a Soul Note date from 1990 called Memoirs.

[MUSIC: Bley-Haden-Monk, “Monk’s Dream”; Keith-Peacock-Motian, “You And The Night and Music”]

TP: When did you begin playing with Keith Jarrett? ’68 or ’69?

MOTIAN: I’m not sure. When I met him was with Tony Scott. There was a club in the Village called the Dom. Tony Scott was playing there, and he called me. It was a Monday night. I was playing somewhere else, and I had the day off Monday, and Tony Scott calls and says, “I’ve got this gig for you, man,” and I said, “No, it’s my night off,” and he said, “No, come on, you’ve got to do this gig.” So I went and did the gig, and when I walked in the club Keith Jarrett was playing piano. I said, “Man, who’s that? Cat sounds great!” He said, “Oh, that’s Keith Jarrett; I discovered him.” Tony always said he discovered everybody. Bill Evans. Everybody. I think Henry Grimes was playing that night. So I met Keith then and we played. We played with Charles Lloyd together in ’68.

TP: So when Jack De Johnette left Charles Lloyd, you became the drummer with Charles Lloyd.

MOTIAN: Right. I did that for about a year. We did a very interesting tour at that time. We went to Laos and to Malaysia and Singapore, Japan, Okinawa, the Phillippines with Charles Lloyd, but Keith didn’t go because they were trying to draft him, put him in the army to go to Vietnam, so he couldn’t leave the country. A pianist named Jane Getz did that tour with us. But I had met Keith; we toured the country with Charles Lloyd then. Then when Keith wanted to put together his own trio, he called me and he called Charlie Haden, and he said the reason was that he always liked the work that I did with Bill Evans and the work that Charlie did with Ornette, and he thought that would be a good combination. That’s how that started. It had to be around ’68-’69.

TP: The sound of the music is palpably different than what you did with Bill Evans in the early ’60s, and I guess the role of the drums also becomes very different. Was it a transition for you?

MOTIAN: Yes.

TP: How did you approach that? Was it hard for you to change your mindset or did it happen very naturally?

MOTIAN: It did. Because there was a lot of stuff going on. Just little by little. When I first started playing with Scott LaFaro with Bill, I started breaking up the time and playing more open stuff, then that grew and grew and grew. Before I played with Keith, I was playing a little with Paul Bley. Then there was the Jazz Composers Orchestra where the music was getting more out and freer. Then joining Keith and seeing the way he played, that seemed perfect for me. I was really happy with that. It seemed like that was the way to go. It seemed like an improvement, it seemed like an evolution… Let’s play!

TP: At that time, did you change the drums you played?

MOTIAN: No-no.

TP: It was never about that in any way.

MOTIAN: No. It’s all inside.

TP: For you, in your learning process, were you ever someone who would internalize what other drummers were doing and try to do that as close as you could?

MOTIAN: Oh yeah. I tried to copy them! Yeah, man, until you find your own voice.

TP: Who were those drummers?

MOTIAN: Kenny Clarke mostly. Max Roach. Art Blakey.

TP: With Kenny Clarke it was the way he played time?

MOTIAN: Yeah, just the sound. And the way he played, and how he played, and how he got such music out of a little amount of equipment! Boy, when he was playing at the Bohemia, I was there every night checking that out. It was great. Then Art Blakey and Max. Listening to Max Roach on record and trying to play like that, to copy it exactly, and do the best you can that way. I remember listening to Charlie Parker and trying to play his phrasing on the drums, and stuff like that. That’s the way you learn. Then eventually, hopefully, you develop your own voice and take it out there!

TP: With Keith Jarrett it was a steady-working entity for about eight years.

MOTIAN: Oh yeah. It went on for a while.
TP: Dewey Redman joined when, in ’71 maybe?

MOTIAN: In ’72 at Slugs, the jazz club that was down at the East Village. Lee Morgan was shot on a Sunday night, they were closed Monday, and we opened Tuesday. And the vibe was very strange in that place! That’s when Dewey joined. That was ’72.

TP: Was the band very interactive? An equilateral triangle type of situation?

MOTIAN: Oh yeah. I mean it was his music. He wrote the music. We didn’t play standard tunes. Also, I had my first trip to Europe with Keith.

TP: So at the end of your tenure with Keith Jarrett you start forming your own groups.

MOTIAN: Right around ’76 is when I started doing that

TP: And I suppose your interest in composing music gestated while you were with Keith Jarrett’s band.

MOTIAN: Exactly.

TP: Was it again a gradual thing, you had to do this…

MOTIAN: Well, I never felt compelled, that I had to do anything. Like I said before, I play from what I hear and I’m listening and trying to make music, and integrate myself and my playing into the music, and go from there.

TP: I think your first record is in ’74 or so, Conception Vessel?

MOTIAN: My first record I guess was a trio with Charles Brackeen and David Izenson.

TP: I just want to take you up to the trio of twenty years standing with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell. I personally was very struck by the records with Charles Brackeen and David Izenson.

MOTIAN: There were two. There was another record with J.F. Jenny-Clark, who died recently.

TP: But that particular sound and the Brackeen-Izenson trio; I’m interested in the personnel and in the way you were hearing. Basically you made a transition to being a bandleader, doing your music.

MOTIAN: Basically, the reason that happened is I was playing with Keith Jarrett, and at that time I was starting to think about doing my own stuff, and I asked the agent who was booking Keith, “If I put a band together, would you get me some gigs?” He said, “Sure.” So I put together the trio with Brackeen and David Izenson, and he got us one gig. In Michigan. That was it. And I was stuck with being a leader. Well, there you go. Okay, Paul, you got it.

TP: And I guess you kept doing it. Well, I guess part of your activity is that and part is these freelance assignments with various associates. Let’s hear the most recent recordings by the Paul Motian Trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano, from a pair of recordings documenting the band at the Vanguard in ’95, Sound Of Love and You Took The Words Right Out of My Heart.

[MUSIC: “The Sunflower” & “Misterioso”]
TP: …one of the most influential bands of the ’80s and first part of the ’90s, when they played together with great regularity. Paul informs me that “You took the words right out of my heart” comes from a Bob Hope movie with Dorothy Lamour.

MOTIAN: When I first heard it was on a Thelonious Monk record. Monk was playing it. That’s what turned me on. Then I copied it off the record and started playing it. Then I saw a film that was made in the mid-’30s, in 1934 or something like that, called The Big Broadcast of ’34 or some year, with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour, and Dorothy Lamour is singing this in this film! But I heard Monk play it first.

TP: The process of hearing things backwards didn’t just start with this generation of musicians.

MOTIAN: That’s right.

TP: A few words about Lovano and Frisell, and the chemistry.

MOTIAN: It started out as a quintet. First it was Billy Drewes and Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell and Ed Schuller. Then it became Jim Pepper and Joe Lovano. We did three records for Soul Note that I like very much. I guess they’re hard to find, but I think there’s some great music there. We were playing one night somewhere in Italy, and there’s one piece of mine that just called for the bass to lay out, and for a few minutes it was only Joe and Bill and I playing. At that moment I thought I could play my music with this trio without having a quintet. Economics was involved, and I liked the idea of playing without a bass and just to give it a try. That’s how that happened.

TP: That trio became one of the more influential bands of the time. A lot of musicians speak of hearing that trio just as people like Joe Lovano or John Scofield cite the Keith Jarrett Quartet as having an impact on the way they thought about music. It gave them a sort of paradigm shift, hearing what you did with Monk’s music, or the three albums of deconstructed show tunes. Did you embark on those projects as concept records, or were they part of the imperative of what you were doing?

MOTIAN: During all the years of playing, there were a lot of songs that I felt associated with, songs that I played with Bill Evans, song that I played on commercial gigs or whatever, and I just wanted to record those songs that I felt close to and that I had experience with. So I added Charlie Haden, and we did two records also for JMT…

TP: It’s been a great producer-artist relationship.

MOTIAN: Yes. Except you can’t get those JMT records any more. They’re gone. That’s too bad. So we did three records of standard songs, called Paul Motian on Broadway. There’s a funny story that the cover designer for the first of those records walked to Broadway and took a photograph of me and threw it up in the air and took a picture of that, and put it on the album cover. Then the third one was the same band with the addition of Charlie Haden plus Lee Konitz.

TP: Did your choice of material have to do with personnel?

MOTIAN: No, I wasn’t thinking about that. I was just thinking about the songs. They were songs I felt close to, and I wanted to record them. I did a lot of research. I was checking out all the composers. There was some great music there — Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter. I love that stuff.

TP: In the last five-six years, as Lovano and Frisell both have such busy careers, it’s hard for that band to get together. But obviously, when you do hit, you hit with a vengeance. Just a few sentences about Lovano’s qualities, Frisell’s qualities, the simpatico you feel. You said for one thing about Joe Lovano that he remembers everything, that you can pick up something you did eight years ago, and he’ll remember it.

MOTIAN: Yes, that’s what’s great. I don’t want to think about it if I don’t have to. I give it to Joe, man. He’s great for that.

TP: Anything salient about Frisell, how his sound meshes with you?

MOTIAN: I don’t know. I just like it. I tried to put together a band after the trio with Brackeen and David Izenson and then with J.F. Jenny-Clark. I wanted to put together the quintet. I talked to ECM at the time and they said, okay, they’d record. I heard Michael Gregory Jackson, the guitar player, play in New York one night, and for the first time I heard the guitar sound with synthesizers or whatever, and I thought, “Wow, the guitar can sound like a violin; isn’t that great.” Then I was playing with Pat Metheny, and the quintet was going to be Pat Metheny and Michael Gregory Jackson and Julius Hemphill and Charlie Haden and myself, and it was going to record for ECM. We did a quartet gig in Boston with Michaael Gregory Jackson. But then it sort of didn’t happen, and the quintet I ended up with was the continuation of that. Pat was the one who recommended Bill, and I heard Bill getting this sound I’d heard before that could do so many things, and that got my interest up. So that’s how it started.

TP: So it gave you a broader orchestral palette, as opposed to the more monochromatic spectrum of the Izenson-Brackeen trio. This is the The Paul Motian Trio Plus One, from 1998. Core trio is Chris Potter and Steve Swallow, and coming in on tracks are Poo Kikuchi and Larry Grenadier.

[MUSIC: “Three In One” and “Sunflower”]

TP: Back to 1983 for a track with the Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra, which you played with throughout the ’70s into the ’80s, and maybe the only big band I can remember you playing with as such. You didn’t do very much big band playing.

MOTIAN: Not much, no. The Oscar Pettiford Big Band for a little while. The Jazz Composers Orchestra was quite a big band. Charlie Haden.

TP: What memories do you have of the Jazz Composers Orchestra?

MOTIAN: Oh, I thought it was a great experimental kind of scene. There was some great music, the music was changing, getting more free. I met some good players. It was a nice scene.

TP: In ’64-’65-’66, who are some of the people you were playing with? Did you do gigs with people from the whole sonic range?

MOTIAN: It was mostly Paul Bley during that time. I never did play with Albert. I heard him a lot, of course. Also, there was a period for me during that time when I didn’t have that many gigs. Before I joined Keith Jarrett, there weren’t that many gigs. I took a bunch of commercial gigs. For a while I was playing floor shows and stuff like that in New York.

TP: So it was like taking a day job so you could do the things you wanted to do.
MOTIAN: Well, it was hard to do what you wanted to do in those days actually. For me it was. I mean, the time after I left Bill and then before I got with Keith Jarrett. Rock-and-Roll was more and more popular, and jazz was sort of not…

TP: Passe.

MOTIAN: Kind of. So there weren’t that many gigs around. I wasn’t hooked up with anybody special at the time. I did what I could. So I took a lot of commercial gigs, and sometimes didn’t gig at all, and no money, no nothin’!

TP: That was probably the last period when you could live in New York, however meagerly, and do that.

MOTIAN: True. Rent in an apartment… You could get by with $100 a month and have a decent apartment.

[MUSIC: Charlie Haden LMO, “El Segador”; Pietro Tonolo(?), “Wig Wise”]

TP: We’ll conclude as we began, with the Electric Bebop Band, drawing on the vast wellspring of music composed between 1945 and 1960, drawing on Tadd Dameron, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus and Herbie Nichols, and some original music as well…

A lot of musicians who came up in the ’50s and ’60s played a lot of Latin music as rent gigs. Was that part of your scene?

MOTIAN: No. No. Didn’t do that.

TP: The show demonstrates the interconnectedness of personalities in jazz. It seems in this music there’s only two degrees of separation! I think this afternoon is a living embodiment of that in addressing the career of Paul Motian, who since arriving in New York in 1953 has played with or shared bandstands with or been in proximity to every major improviser you can think of, from Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge and Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans and Lennie Tristano and Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett and Dewey Redman and on and on, and always stamping his own sound on the music. So truly one of the legends of jazz music, and still thriving, about to go on a three week tour that will put you 20 flights in three weeks.

MOTIAN: Or so. One time we did a tour with the Broadway quintet, with Lee Konitz, Frisell, Lovano, myself, Mark Johnson. In three weeks we had 35 flights.

TP: So while 40 years ago, the life wasn’t the healthiest life, playing from, say, 9 to 4 a.m. every day, and the various hazards of the jazz culture, but now you’re going off flying every day on these extended tours.

MOTIAN: There’s always some dues to pay, man. If you don’t want to pay any dues, don’t do music. [LAUGHS]

[MUSIC: “Split Decision” & “Celia”]

* * *

 

Paul Motian (6-15-93):

Q: I’m very glad to introduce to the New York radio audience, his first WKCR appearance in 25 years, the drummer-composer Paul Motian, who is leading the Paul Motian Trio at the Village Vanguard this week, one of the most creative ensembles in the world of improvised music. Welcome back to WKCR, Paul Motian.

PM: Thanks. Nice to be here.

Q: This trio has been working together for 12 years, is it?

PM: Just about. I think so.

Q: How did you find these guys? Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano are now famous musicians, but in 1981 they weren’t.

PM: Yeah. I tried to tell people that in 1981. They wouldn’t listen to me!

Q; That they were famous?

PM: Yeah. [LAUGHS] I said, “These guys can play, man. Check ‘em out.” Anyway, it takes time. I found them through the usual thing, word of mouth, other musicians. Yeah. Pat Metheny recommended Bill Frisell to me, and I think it was bassist Marc Johnson that recommended Joe Lovano. In the beginning, before this trio happened, it was a quintet, and before that it was a quartet with Marc Johnson, Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano and myself. Then Marc ended up leaving, he went with Stan Getz, and blah-blah-blah…

Q: Was there an instant empathy?

PM: Yeah, there was. I mean, there were other people involved, and then it just… When it got down to the nitty-gritty, it ended up with Bill and Joe and I. And it’s worked out great.

Q: It’s a group that takes the ethos of improvising to real heights.

PM: Yeah.

Q; Nothing is ever treated the same way on a given night.

PM: Right.

Q: That must be very stimulating to you.

PM: Yeah, hopefully. Yeah, it is. It is. Because we’re playing some of the same music we’ve been playing for years, and it’s always a little different. And especially now, since Bill and Joe also have their own bands and we don’t get together as often as we used to, it’s really taken another turn — and it’s great. I love Bill and Joe. We’ve been together now for this while, and we’ve done lots of tours together, a lot of gigs together, records, and it works out good. They are both very helpful. Joe is great, Bill… I mean, they remember tunes and arrangements, and you know, also have suggestions and things; we work things out. It’s been great.

Q: There are very few bands with that type of longevity around.

PM: Uh-huh. Well, I don’t know. What about the Modern Jazz Quartet?

Q: Well, I said very few. I didn’t say none! The band plays this mix of standards and your original music that you’ve recorded.

PM: Right.

Q: You must have a huge book by now to draw on.

PM: Yeah, there’s a lot. But I mean, sort of like it’s settled into a few favorites, as it usually does, ha-ha…

Q; Define “few”.

PM: I don’t know, about ten or twenty tunes. [LAUGHS]

Q: I believe this is the first time that this band or a band under your leadership has appeared at the Village Vanguard. Am I right?

PM: That’s true… There were other bands that were…you know, there were coop sort of bands with trios and stuff that I was part of. But this is actually the first time for my own thing, yeah.

Q: However, your history at the Village Vanguard…

PM: Goes back.

Q; …goes back maybe a year or two.

PM: Heh-heh, it goes back, yeah.

Q: You were telling me your first appearance at the Vanguard you can definitely pin down…

PM: To New Year’s Eve, 1956, with Lee Konitz. ’56, let’s see…thirty…

Q: 37 years ago.

PM: Something like that. And I think I may have played in there earlier, because I was in New York actually in ’53, even though I was in the Navy at the time, but I was living in Brooklyn… So in ’53-’54, I was in New York then already. So I could have been in the Vanguard before ’56. But I started keeping a record in ’56, so I know that for sure.

Q; [ETC.] Tell us a little bit about Motian in Tokyo. We’ll be primarily hearing your own compositions.

PM: This is a record that was done in Tokyo, in Japan, a couple of years ago, a live recording, mostly my compositions. I think there’s one Ornette Coleman tune on there, but it’s mostly my tunes. A lot of them were pretty new at the time. We were actually reading the music and stuff. But there’s some nice things on here. I’d like to hear this track called “Mumbo Jumbo” that we play pretty often.

[MUSIC]
Q: We heard three offerings by the core of the Paul Motian Trio, augmented by Lee Konitz and Charle Haden on the last two selections. That, of course, was “Tico, Tico,” preceded by “Handful of Stars.” That comes from the most recently domestically issued release by the Paul Motian group, Paul Motian on Broadway, Volume 3. [ETC.]

I’d like to talk to you about your background in music. You grew up in Providence, Rhode Island.

PM: Right.

Q: Did you start playing drums very early?

PM: I was about 12 years old when I started.

Q; Did it really start at 12? Were you doing rough-hewn, hand-made percussion, or banging on things?

PM: No, I took my first drum lesson from a neighbor who was a drummer at that time. I was around 12 then.

Q: Was there music around the house, in your family?

PM: The music around my house, in my family was sort of Middle Eastern music, Arabic music, Armenian, Turkish, that kind of music. Old 78 records, and the wind-up phonograph… That’s what I heard as a kid.

Q: Did you ever get to go out and hear music? Was music part of family functions?

PM: No, not really. They liked that music, the records that they had. They enjoyed that. But as far as I know, there were no musicians in the family or any big interest. As a matter of fact, my mother was against me playing drums. She didn’t want me to do that.

Q: It must have made a racket around the house.

PM: Yeah.

Q; So what happened? You just took to the drums…

PM: I just took to the drums. I did. I did. I loved it. And still do! [LAUGHS]

Q; So this neighbor gave you the rudiments.

PM: Yeah, he gave me one or two lessons. He really wasn’t a teacher. And then I found a more legitimate teacher, and then played in school in the bands, you know, in junior high school and high school, like that.

Q; When did you first start listening to Jazz and to Jazz drummers?

PM: I guess I heard… When I was in high school in Providence, Rhode Island, from the radio, from broadcasts from New York, from other musicians that turned me on to stuff. I remember I was in about the tenth or eleventh grade in high school, and someone took me to a record shop and played me a Charlie Parker record.

Q; So you heard Max Roach there.

PM: Yeah. Right.

Q; So what did you think about that at that time? How did that sound to you?

PM: I loved it.

Q; Yeah?

PM: Oh, I loved it. I feel for it right away. And then I started sending away for records. I used to send to New York for records, like 78 records. I’d get them in the mail.

Q: What were some of the records you were hearing then?

PM: I’m talking about Bird and Max Roach, some of those, and some big band stuff, like Count Basie and Duke Ellington and like that. But I guess it must have been radio. I was hearing stuff on the radio.

Q: Were you listening to that analytically, in terms of yourself as a drummer…

PM: No.

Q: …or just in the total sound of the music?

PM: Yeah, to the music. I wasn’t analyzing it, no.

Q: When did you start really being serious as a drummer with the idea that it would be your life?

PM: I don’t know. Probably not much longer after I got out of high school, and then went into the Service and played in the band in the Navy. I guess from then on… And then started… When I was in the Navy and I was stationed down South, I used to go to jam sessions and try to find places to play all the time. I was about 19 or 20 years old at the time. And around that time, I guess, I was getting pretty serious.

Q: Now, for a lot of musicians of your generation the Army really was a great musical training ground.

PM: Yeah.

Q: Was that how it was for you?

PM: Well, in a way. I mean, the reason I went into the Navy was… It was during the Korean War, you know, and a lot of friends of mine were getting drafted and getting killed and stuff. And then I heard that there was a music school, that the Navy had a music school, that if you joined, enlisted, you could go to this school. Which I did. But it ended up I didn’t go to the school very much because I got sick, and I was in the hospital, and then they shipped me out! [LAUGHS]

But I met a lot of great, interesting people during that period, and I’m still friendly with some of them. And one of them is a bass player, Jack Six, that plays with Dave Brubeck — a close friend.

Q: Other well-known musicians you came in touch with?

PM: No. But I mean, through that music school… I know Bill Evans went through that school, and so did Eric Dolphy.

Q: What school is that?

PM: This is called the Navy School of Music in Washington, D.C. I didn’t see them, I didn’t meet them there at that time. But they were in there sort of. We kind of, you know, passed…

Q; Well, you wound up, as you said, in New York in 1953 or so.

PM: Yeah.

Q: Was that also through the Navy?

PM: Yeah, I was stationed in Brooklyn.

Q; Were you in a band?

PM: Yup. But I was living in… I had an apartment in Brooklyn. And we used to go in at 9 o’clock for a band rehearsal, and have a rehearsal, and then go home. Unless there was some function that you had to take part in, play in a parade or something like that — you did that. And I was there for about 10 months, I guess.

Q; So you got to New York in ’53, and I take it you took full advantage of the opportunities of being in New York.

PM: Oh yeah. Yeah, sure. Then after I got discharged, I stayed — stayed here.

Q: So you hung out a lot, you heard a lot of music.

PM: Yeah.

Q: Did you go to Birdland…

PM: Yeah.

Q; …and different clubs…?

PM: Yeah! Saw Bird play at the Open Door. There was a place called the Open Door. It’s down where NYU is now, Lafayette and 4th Street or 3rd Street, something like that. I saw Bird play there one afternoon. And actually, I got to play with Thelonious Monk there once. I went there to hear Monk, and Arthur Taylor was supposed to be the drummer and he wasn’t there, so Bob Reisner, who was running concerts at that time, knew me, he’d seen me around town, and he said, “Paul, if you want to play with Monk, go home and get your drums — you can play with Monk.” I said, “Wow, great, man.” So I ran home, got the drums, and played that night with Thelonious. That was at the Open Door. And that was in 1955. Because Donald Byrd was playing at the time, and recently I ran across Donald Byrd in Europe, and he told me he’s got a picture of me playing with Monk that night — that afternoon or whenever it was… I don’t even remember if it was night. I guess it was night. That was in ’55, man.

Q: ’55? I guess that’s before…? Was Monk’s cabaret license reinstated at that time?

PM: I don’t know.

Q; I take it you were also gigging around this time.

PM: Right.

Q: You were working with a number of people.

PM: Actually, I met Bill Evans at an audition for… There was a clarinet player at that time named Jerry Wald. He was putting a band together. He was auditioning musicians for some gigs on the road, a sextet — he had a sextet. And I went to the audition, and that’s where I met Bill. I think that was in ’55. And at that time also I was playing with Tony Scott, also with Bill Evans playing piano. And doing… You know, gigging around town, doing gigs, doing commercial gigs, doing jam sessions, doing whatever.

Q: I have here a liner note to a 1957 release that you appeared on with Warne Marsh, by Nat Hentoff, and he says: “He has worked with Oscar Pettiford, Tony Scott, Don Elliott and Zoot Sims, among others.”

PM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: Was that a one-off thing, or a semi-regular thing?

PM: Well, I was playing one night at Birdland on a Monday night, which was the off-night in Birdland; I was playing in there one night with Sonny Rollins. And Zoot Sims came in and heard me, and hired me — he took me to Cleveland with him for a gig. That was the first time I met Zoot. So that was in the mid-Fifties, probably ’55, ’56, something like that.

Q: What was it like working with Oscar Pettiford?

PM: Great. Oh, I loved him. People used to say to me, “Hey, man, how are you getting along with O.P.?” You know,, they’d say, “He’s death on drummers, man; he kills drummers.” And I said, “Man, I don’t know. He must like me!” [LAUGHS] But one day we were playing at Small’s Paradise, and after the set he grabbed my drumstick. At that time I was using these drumsticks that are called 7-A. They are very thin and very light. And he took the drumstick and he said, “What is this, man?” — and he started to bend it. He said, “This ain’t no drumstick, man.” He says, “Go get you some drumsticks.” So the next day I went down and got me some heavier sticks!

But Oscar was great, man. I learned a lot. He was a great bass player.

Q: Did other people give you… Was that type of advice-giving…?

PM: Yeah.

Q: That was a kind of frequent thing?

PM: Yeah, sure.

Q: What are some other things that people told you that you can relate to us?

PM: Monk asked me…he said, “Sing me your beat.” [HEARTY LAUGH] And I went, you know, “DING-DINGADING-DINGADING.” He said, “No, no, man. He said, “DU-DING-DING-DADING-A-DING…” [LAUGHS] I mean, stuff like that; you know, that came up.

Q: Do you think there was more collegiality among musicians then? That musicians were more open with each other in a certain way…?

PM: Yeah. Yeah, I think so. I don’t know if it was more or less. But I got along pretty good! [LAUGHS]

Q: I guess where you really came to prominence in the broader world of Jazz was through your work with the Bill Evans Trio.

PM: Yeah, I guess so.

Q: You’d worked before that, you were on records, but this is where your name really became…

PM: Yeah. It’s funny, too, because I mean, at the time you didn’t really think about it. And I remember when we did the Village Vanguard and we did the Vanguard recordings, which was the last time we played together, and as we were packing up we kind of said, “Well, let’s try and play more; let’s try and do some more things and play more often” — and that it would really be nice to make a music that didn’t have a date on it. And at the time I didn’t realize… One never thought about if that would happen — and actually it somehow.

Q: I guess the first recordings by the trio were in 1956.

PM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: But were you working fairly steadily together from then through the first records that really made their splash?

PM: Oh, I don’t know about steady. We worked… We didn’t work 365 days a year, you know, but we put in a few months a year. But I was pretty tight with Bill. We used to hang out a lot and play at his house a lot. But it was always music, you know. I mean, we’d be involved in it one way or another. If it wasn’t actually a gig, it would be a session I’d play or go somewhere. I used to take my drums on the subways, on the ferries, on the buses all over.

Q: We’ll hear a few selections from Portrait In Jazz, Scott LaFaro’s first session with the Bill Evans Trio. These are selections you picked out amongst the…?

PM: Well, it’s all good, man. I like this record. I think this is one of my favorites, if not my favorite Bill Evans Trio record.

[MUSIC: “Turn Out the Stars (Paul Motian/Bill Evans, JMT)

“What Is This Thing Called Love,” “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” Portraits in Jazz, Bill Evans Trio.

Q: Before we continue, just a few words about Bill Evans and your sense of him as a person, a colleague, a friend.

PM: Well, I always kind of felt like he was an older brother, you know. He was a couple of years older than me. We were very friendly. We hung out together. Close friends. Great pianist. He influenced a lot of people. I had great times with him. I’m glad I have those memories, man. It will last forever. Great music.

And this thing you just played, “Turn Out The Stars,” I never played that with him, actually. I guess he wrote that after I had left. So that was a pleasure to do that. It was a pleasure to do the record.

Q: You said that in the late Seventies you were starting to really listen to the compositions…

PM: Oh yeah.

Q: …and get that together with him somewhat.

PM: Well, the thing was that when I left Bill, it was in 1964 or something like that, and then I didn’t see him, or we didn’t really hook up for many years — you know, ten years, fifteen years went by. And then, a few years before he died, I guess about four years before he died, we got together. He had a birthday party at his house, or it might have been a Thanksgiving party or something where he was living in Fort Lee, New Jersey. And I went there, and we hung out, and it was great to see him and great to hang out with him again. I took him a tape. I had a tape from an old radio broadcast that we had played together on from Birdland, and he played that. And it was nice getting back together with him again.

At that time, I was kind of getting into writing more, and… Actually, he called me. He asked me to play with him again. He called me and he said Philly Joe Jones was playing with him, and had just quit, and would I play with him again. And I had to turn him down, because at that time I had just formed my own trio with David Izenson and Charles Brackeen, and we were about to go to Europe on a tour. So I had to turn him down. And then when I was on tour in Europe, I was thinking, “Gee, it’s nice to get back with Bill and to hang out with him. I can learn so much from him, and now that I’m into writing music…” But then he died, so that was the end of that.

Q: Was that sort of the genesis way before of this project, of the Bill Evans project?

PM: No, not really. This Bill Evans project came up much later.

Q: Well, it’s one of a number of concept records, for lack of a better word…

PM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: …that you’ve done for JMT. There are three volumes of Motian on Broadway…

PM: Right.

Q: …with your own singular reorchestrations of…

PM: Standard songs.

Q: …standard songs, so to speak, and this, and there’s also an album of your orchestrations of Monk’s music as well, Monk in Motian.

PM: Well, the Monk In Motian idea was from the record company. They approached me. That was my first record for JMT. And Stefan Winter from JMT Records approached me about that. He asked. He thought it was a good idea if we did a Monk record with the trio. So that was kind of the beginning. And the Broadway records are songs that I just love and that I have been associated with through the years. And I think that the writers of those songs from that period, the Twenties, Thirties, Forties are some really great, great music! And I researched it and picked out the songs that I felt close to or ones that I liked, and tried to vary the different composers. Then I started reading autobiographies and biographies of George Gershwin and Cole Porter and Harold Arlen and…heh-heh, on and on. So I spent a lot of time researching that and picking out the tunes — it was a lot of fun.

Q: You also would have been playing in situations where this music was being played…

PM: Right.

Q; And I’m assuming behind vocalists as well.

PM: Sure.

Q: Who are some of the vocalists you’ve performed with over the years?

PM: [LAUGHS] Well, I did get to play with Billie Holiday once. That was great.

Q; What was that like?

PM: That was incredible. She was in the audience. I was playing with Tony Scott at a club called the Black Pearl, which was on First Avenue up in the Seventies somewhere; First Avenue, Second Avenue, somewhere on the East Side. Sam Jones was playing bass, Kenny Burrell was playing guitar, it was Tony, myself, and I think Jimmy Knepper was playing trombone. Billie Holiday was in the audience. And Tony just… Tony Scott got to the microphone and just started saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, Billie Holiday. Let’s have her sing, get her up here.” And she was shaking her head, no; she didn’t want to get up there. But Tony was insistent. So she came up. So I got to play a couple of songs with Billie Holiday, which I love! I was in Heaven playing with Billie Holiday. I also played opposite her at one time, once or maybe twice.

And other singers…I remember playing with… Well, when I was playing with Oscar Pettiford, somehow we ended up… We were playing at Birdland with Chris Conner. I remember doing a gig or two with Anita O’Day once. Like that. Not too many, though.

Q: But all the music on these project albums has a real visceral connection to you?

PM: Sure. Well, I mean, they’re songs that I feel connected to.

Q: It’s part of your life experience in a very tangible way.

PM: Sure. I would say that. Mmm-hmm.

Q: When you’re thinking about the reorchestrations… I know we’re kind of shaky territory talking about why you make the kinds of creative decisions you make…

PM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: The melodies are always there, but they are always twisted in a certain way. Maybe just take one of the songs, and talk a little bit about why you decided to treat it the way you did.

PM: Well, I don’t know. It wasn’t anything written out. There was just my ideas about who should play where and when and with who. I mean, that kind of thing. That was all. There was nothing really…

Q: So you’re leaving a lot of the content to your musicians, Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano.

PM: Yeah. I mean, I may have an idea about, like, who should play the first solo, or who shouldn’t, or who should lay out here or lay out there, and when people should play together, you know, depending on how I hear it. And I would explain that to them or tell them about it, and try and do that. And we may have tried something that didn’t work, and I might want to change it or not, you know… It was like that. It wasn’t anything… I didn’t sit down and write stuff on paper.

Q: Another area of music that’s touched you very closely is the Bebop music of the 1940’s and early ’50s that you came up under.

PM: Sure.

Q: You’re currently leading a new band that I guess has been together maybe a year now…?

PM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: Paul Motian and the Electric Bebop Band. [ETC.]

PM: Bebop, that’s the music I grew up with, man. I mean, that’s…. And I love it. And I just wanted to play the music, but I didn’t want to do it in the sort of standard way with trumpet-saxophone-piano-bass-drums. I wanted to do it a little different. And the idea was to have two guitars, two electric guitars, electric bass. It started out like that. Then later on I added the saxophone. The music that I grew up with, the music that I loved…

Q; How did you recruit these musicians?

PM: How did I recruit these musicians…? [LAUGHS]

Q: Josh Redman is the tenor player in the group. One of the guitarists is Brad Schoeppach…

PM: Brad Schoeppach and Kurt Rosenwinkel. You know, the same way that the trio stuff happened, and before the trio, the quintet — from word of mouth. Actually, I think Bill Frisell recommended both of those guitar players. Bill heard Kurt Rosenwinkel in Boston in a band. And when I was putting this thing together, I was… Actually, the first time I tried this was about ten years ago, and I had it with a band with Bill Frisell, Mike Stern and Mark Egan. We did a rehearsal at my house, but it really didn’t work. But at the time, we were kind of playing my music and not so much Bebop music. So that was kind of the beginning of the seed or whatever you want to call it.

And then it was kind of like word of mouth; someone would recommend someone. I had a couple of other guitar players. But the two that ended up on the record and now that did the tour with me, it’s working out real well.

[MUSIC: “Scrapple From The Apple,” Paul Electric Bebop Band; “Gaia,” Kikuchi-Peacock-Motian, Tethered Moon; “Monk’s Dream,” Bley-Haden-Motian, Memoirs; “Birth,” Keith Jarrett-Redman-Haden-Motian, Birth.]

Q: That set reflects one particular musical association with Keith Jarrett, who you played with from the late 1960s until the late 1970’s.

PM: Yeah, about ten years, I think. I think there’s maybe 13-14-15 albums I did with Keith.

Q: It was a very popular group at that time.

PM: Umm… I don’t know. [LAUGHS] It was fun. I loved the music. We had fun. It was great. And we did work fairly often.

Q: Do you find that the albums reflect the true quality of the group, for the most part?

PM: Mmm…yeah.

Q: Yeah?

PM: [LAUGHS] Sure.

Q: What was your hook-up?

PM: With Keith? Actually, Tony Scott called me to play with him at a club that was down on Eighth Street. What was that called? I forgot the name of that place already. So I went down with Tony, and when we walked into the club, Keith Jarrett was playing piano with Henry Grimes on bass, and I don’t know who else, and they were playing “The Song Is You.” And I said, “Hey, Tony, who’s that guy? He sounds great” — the young piano player. He said, “Oh, that’s Keith Jarrett. And that’s when we met, and that’s when we hooked up.

And then we started playing together a little bit. Then after Jack DeJohnette left, I played with that band for about a year or so. And then we did his trio stuff, and then it became a quartet. The quartet started in 1972. I remember we played at that club down on the Lower East Side where Lee Morgan got shot… What was the name of that place?

Q: Slugs.

PM: Slugs! Right. That’s when Dewey joined the band. We played in there the day or two days after Lee got killed in there. It was a very strange vibe! It was! So that’s how it started with Keith, hearing him at that club downtown and then getting together and hooking up.

Q: And during the existence of this band is when you start putting together your own groups and recording under your name for ECM.

PM: Yeah… I was actually thinking about Keith… When Keith formed that trio with me and Charlie Haden, he said that he had always wanted to do that because he admired my work with Bill Evans and Charlie with Ornette, and he always wanted to do that.

But anyway, I wasn’t really writing then. It was after that that I got into it. I did write a couple of things when I was back with Bill Evans, but I never pursued it too seriously.

Q; Your collaboration with Charlie Haden continues, particularly on record.

PM: Right.

Q; I don’t know how much you get to perform together in concert situations.

PM: Well, not so much any more, since he’s living in California now. But I’m still part of the Liberation Music Orchestra. As a matter of fact, we’re going to be doing a European tour next summer. And this coming September, we’re doing some gigs with the Liberation Music Orchestra, at the Monterrey Festival and a couple of other things during September. But I haven’t seen him now for a while. But yeah, we’ve been involved with different groups together.

Q; And does your relationship with Paul Bley go back to the Sixties, Fifties…?

PM: Oh yeah. Sure. With Paul Bley and Gary Peacock, we did a recording back in the mid-Sixties, a little later, that came out eventually on ECM…

Q; Was that the one with John Gilmore?

PM: No, this was before that. And I remember playing with… We used to play at a club down in the Village, around the corner from where Visiones is now; I forgot what that was called. But that was with Paul Bley. We used to make a dollar, two dollars a night! And it was Paul Bley, Gary Peacock, John Gilmore, Albert Ayler and myself. It was a hell of a band.

Q: Now, in the early 1960’s, you were working with Bill Evans, but you were also involved in a wide range of…

PM: Right.

Q: It seems you’ve always been involved in things that would just totally confuse anybody…

PM: [LAUGHS HEARTILY]

Q: I mean, to think of you playing with Bill Evans and Albert Ayler at the same time…

PM: Uh-huh.

Q: Do you feel that all things are possible in music?

PM: Yeah, man. It’s all music, isn’t it? I mean, that’s the main thing. I mean, when I was playing with Bill, I was also playing with Lennie Tristano, I was playing with Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, Oscar Pettiford — a lot of people. I mean, just playing with Bill, I don’t think I could have made a living actually. We didn’t work that much.

Q: You had to be flexible over the years.

PM: Yeah.

Q; You certainly seem to epitomize that. We’ll now hear a set of Paul Motian Trio recordings… [ETC.] I guess I first really became aware of you as a writer in the late 1970’s with the release of two albums on ECM when you had the superb saxophonist, Charles Brackeen, in your band, and David Izenson was the bassist early on. [ETC.]

PM: Mmm-hmm. I think it was around 1976 when the Keith Jarrett band broke up; that was the end of that. And I kind of wanted to see if I could do something on my own. I can’t remember how or why I got together with Charles Brackeen somehow… It might have been from his record. He did a record called Rhythm X…

Q; With Blackwell and Charlie Haden.

PM: Right. And David Izenson, I can’t remember the specifics.

Q: You probably had hooked up at some point…

PM: Well, I knew David from before. I mean, we had played together and we had done some projects together. And I was starting to write; you know, I was starting to write some music. And I was with ECM, and at that time ECM put together tours, European tours. So we did the record and we did a tour. And that’s how that was.
Q: The date on the record is 1977. We’ll hear “Dance,” the title track, and then a few more contemporary recordings by the Paul Motian Trio… [ETC.]

[MUSIC: “What Is This Thing Called Love” and “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” Motian on Broadway, Vol. 1.

PM: We still play “Dance.” It’s one of the pieces that stayed with us, stayed with me.

Q: So there’s really a process of weeding out.

PM: Yes, there is.

Q; You write prolifically, and then you decide and establish…

PM: Yeah. You know, depending on what seems to work best of the ones that I choose or we choose.

Q: [ETC.] We’ve mentioned many different projects you’re involved with. There’s the Electric Bebop Band, you perform still with Paul Bley…

PM: Occasionally, right.

Q: The Charlie Haden Liberation Orchestra. What are some of the other…

PM: I just did a record with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow, and the trio with Masabumi Kikuchi and Gary Peacock is ongoing. I just did another record and a tour in Europe with bassist Marc Johnson and a very nice pianist, Enrico Pieranuzzi. And there’s more… I’m afraid that now I’m going to leave out some people; they’re going to get mad at me. But I mean, I’m involved in a few things. For me it’s all music, you know. Anything that’s happening that’s musical to me or to my taste, I’m going to get into it.

Q: We’ll conclude with two dates from a 1958 recording with Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz that produced two records. You played a fair number of times with Warne Marsh, Lee Konitz…

PM: Right, with Lennie Tristano. I’d say in the late Fifties, ’57, ’58, ’59, in there, ’60…

Q: A few words about Warne Marsh.

PM: Oh, wow. Well, a great player. As I was saying before, there was one night in particular we were playing at the Half Note, where he played so great that it just shocked me. It was incredible. A really great player.

[PLAY “YARDBIRD SUITE”]

Q: You hadn’t heard that for a while…

PM: Yeah, it sounds great.

Q; You mentioned with the trio that when selecting the standards, you did a lot of research.

PM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: Do you sing? Were these songs that you were coming up with even before you were playing?

PM: No. No, I don’t sing. But when I was researching, I was also trying to get into the lyrics, too, and try to really check them out…

[ETC.]

[-30-]

* * * *

Paul Motian Colleagues (Stefan Winter, Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano, Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett, Brian Blade, Joey Baron):

TP: I’d like to speak with you about Paul Motian. In a sense, he’s commenting on a life and history lived in music — fifty years of experience as a professional musician. There’s a direct correlation between his association with your label and the flowering of what had been the beginning of a creative renaissance for him in mid-life. He’s been able to take projects that he was beginning to fully articulate in the ’70s and ’80s, and with you was able to realize their fullest implications. Again, what was the appeal for you? What qualities did he embody in his persona as an instrumentalist and as a composer-bandleader that made him someone you wanted for the label?

STEFAN WINTER: I discovered jazz very late, when I was around 20 years old. [43] I knew about jazz before I was 20, but there was nothing that I would say hit me. I came from Classical music, I started at that time in Classical music, and by whatever coincidence, I heard a Keith Jarrett album which I have to say is still one of my favorite albums. It was the first what I call jazz album I really heard, and I still love it. It’s the album Somewhere Before with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. It’s a live album. As far as I remember, it was released on Atlantic. This album is for me absolutely beautiful. Keith on the one side is playing some free pieces, and on the other side I think he is playing maybe a Joni Mitchell song. He is touching so many different fields, and he is reflecting on this album a lot of things, and I was totally touched by it. I also loved what Paul and Charlie were doing on that album.

A couple of years later I had the opportunity to meet Paul. I think it was Tim Berne who said to me, “Ask Paul to make a Monk album.” I thought this was a great idea, and I asked Paul, “Paul, what do you think about doing a Monk album?” and Paul immediately said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” That’s how we started our relationship.

TP: You have a knack for knowing how to market an artist in the best sense of the word, by giving them projects that allow them to strike a chord and yet be entirely themselves within a frame, which would describe the Motian Meets Broadway series and Motian Meets Bill Evans. Those records gave him a certain definite identity among the jazz audience beyond being a superb drummer.

WINTER: I am trying to think about where a musician or where a personality is coming from. I think everything you’re doing has to be connected with yourself. If you’re doing something that is connected with yourself, I think you give also the listener a certain kind of identification. Again, it’s like watching a movie, and if you can identify yourself with a certain character or with a certain time period of your life, then I think this movie will talk to you in a very specific way. If I start to work with artists, I m trying to listen to them and to hear where they are coming from, and when we are sitting together and drinking a glass of wine or whatever, just to talk about this and talk about that a little bit. The best is if then these artists start to realize that they want to do this and that project. I think it’s important that it’s not coming from me and I’m not saying to someone, “Let’s do a Broadway album.” That’s not how it happened. How Paul and I work together, we talked about it. We talked about where he’s coming from and what he loves and what he wants to do, and then this idea came out. Paul himself said, “What do you think about doing a Broadway album?” Basically, I was waiting for something like that. Then I’m just jumping on it and pushing that this was happening. Because an idea by itself doesn’t mean anything if you don’t realize it.

TP: Again, can you elaborate the qualities Paul Motian embodies that make him such a distinctive artist to you.

WINTER: I learned a lot from Paul from the way Paul works with his so-called sidemen. Paul is giving his sidemen, or the people with whom he’s working, a lot of freedom, and basically he giving them space to develop in his group their own personality. I would say Paul is for me like a godfather. I learned from him to watch people, to see what they can do, and then even support them or do something for them so that they really can develop their own language and their own style. I think that’s what he did, in a way, with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano. Paul is also able, like when he’s playing together with Charlie Haden, to respect other people and to work together with them and just give his identity, to add it together with their identity, and then build together something new out of it.

TP: So it really transcends instrument and technique. It has to do with the development of tonal personalities.

WINTER: It has a lot to do with tonal personalities, and I think it has a lot to do with how you look at music, if music should be made in a certain hierarchy, like how we know it from the Classical world, like there is a conductor and he is telling the people what to do, or if we look at music that it is played by individuals and we have to respect these individuals. I think Paul is one of the key people who is respecting individuals. I think how he played together with Bill Evans (and I still love today to listen to these albums) or how he played together with Keith and then later on in his own groups, like in the Broadway groups or in his trio with Bill and now with the Electric Bebop Band, he is opening up a world for other musicians so that they can develop their creativity.

TP: Particularly with the Electric Bebop Band he’s doing what you would think of as repertoire music. I had been not so impressed with that band, but when I heard them at Sweet Basil last time they were treating the music in an utterly creative way.

WINTER: I think this is very important, what you are saying now. Because even if he is playing with young musicians bebop music, he is giving them the understanding that they have to make their own story out of this text. For me it is boring if I hear today a musician who is playing as another musicians played 40 years ago or 30 years ago. It doesn’t give me anything. But if I hear that somebody has his own style and own language, but he can also work with traditional material, this is incredibly nice. And this counts also for Classical music. If a Classical musician is able to turn the text, for example, of Schubert’s music into his own music, if he can interpret Schubert like it’s his own music and make it to his own thing, then it makes sense to listen to it again. The repertoire by itself doesn’t mean anything. I think it’s really just some written notes on the piece of paper. The question is what you do with it. If there is somebody who is turning the text into his own language, that is his own text, then the music talks to the listener. Then it’s talking to me. I think that’s what Paul is doing. Paul is like the master of everything that he is playing. If he is playing his own music, his original music, or if he is playing Monk’s music or Bud Powell’s music or Broadway songs, he is making his own music out of it.

[BREAK]

TP: Let me take you back to the ’50s and recall your early encounters with Paul and what the affinities were? You worked together quite a bit from ’56-’57 on. Earlier?

LEE KONITZ: I don’t know about “quite a bit,” but we did work together, and I always liked Paul very much. He played with Lennie’s group a few times. Once I remember at the Half Note where the record came out with Bill Evans playing instead of Lennie, Paul and Jimmy Garrison really sounded great together, and Bill was sitting back a lot, not being part of the rhythm section too much, for whatever reason. But they sounded beautiful together.

TP: Do you have any particularly vivid memories of early encounters?

KONITZ: No, not really. I didn’t know Paul that well. I just loved the way he played. He played like a man who was listening and interpreting what he was hearing immediately.

TP: That was always part of what he does.

KONITZ: Always. Yes, as far as I know. In all the contexts that I heard him with Bill and with Keith Jarrett especially, and to the later days when he played with his own different situations, he was always very much interested in what everybody else was doing.

TP: Do you remember when you first did play with him? Was it the period when he was playing with Lennie Tristano?

KONITZ: That’s what I remember most. I’ve forgotten a lot of thing, and it’s kind of embarrassing to admit to that.

TP: In our conversations he’s painted a picture of the New York scene in the ’50s where people would play month-long engagements at one place, then go into another place for a week, and let’s say the Half Note to the Vanguard…

KONITZ: I was the second band in the original Half Note for 13 weeks. I recall that. I’m wondering if I recall accurately. Mingus opened the club, he was in for a long time, then he moved on to the Vanguard or something, and recommended me. Then he wanted the gig back and tried to talk them out of having me there. That was extraordinary. Usually a week was still a good period.

TP: What are the advantages and disadvantages of playing 13 weeks straight?

KONITZ: Well, the obvious one is that you get to play a lot and get to pay the rent with a minimum of anxiety for that two months or three months. And mostly the opportunity to be out and playing.

TP: So not too many disadvantages to the situation except for fatigue or getting into a rut.

KONITZ: Yeah, you can get into a rut if you don’t stay fresh.

TP: You’ve developed a rather substantial friendship with Paul, yes?

KONITZ: I feel very close to Paul these days especially. He’s done some things recently that were very sweet, and I appreciate it very much.

TP: When do you recollect that your friendship started becoming something more than professional?

KONITZ: Well, we both lived in the same place on Central Park West for a while, and although I didn’t really see him that much, there was that kind of affinity. He asked me to do the project with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden, and that kind of endeared me a little more. Being asked into that environment was really nice. Most recently, I was playing in Vicenza, Italy, and I had a big kind of unpleasant scene with Ray Brown one night, and the next night Paul was in with Bill Frisell, and he cancelled that out immediately by extending himself in a very spontaneous way. So it’s just been increasing. Now we’re supposed to play… I asked for this Duos on the Hudson in October. I was supposed to do it with Martial Solal, but he didn’t do it, so I recommended Paul. I’m really looking forward to that.

TP: You were talking about his listening, and perhaps that’s a sufficient description. But is there anything more you can say about Paul in relation to his contemporary trapsetters of the ’50s and ’60s?

KONITZ: Well, Paul has a great sense of time, and that’s still the function of the traditional playing, and doing it with everybody else in the year means that you can do it with the right volume and get a sound. That’s still kind of a special ingredient for that instrument. There’s still a tendency to overplay the instrument. Joey Baron is another guy who can do that. There’s a lot of fine drummers who are very interested in what’s going on, and try to get a sound and a blend. But Paul was one of the first ones that really did that.

TP: Did you play with a lot of different drummers with your bands in the ’50s? On some of these ’50s Verve records, there’s Dave Bailey, Shadow Wilson on one of them, Nick Stabulas maybe. Was it difficult to find a drummer who suited you? Were there more of them around in the ’50s?

KONITZ: No, I don’t know that there were more around. I was just really trying to find out how to play with a rhythm section, and the drummer was the most problem for me usually in terms of getting a natural balance. So I always appreciated when someone like Paul was available to play with.

TP: Well, it sounds like he was pretty much an infinitely adaptable drummer. He played with Oscar Pettiford, he played with Lennie Tristano. Those are two very different concepts of what the beat should be.

KONITZ: Well, that’s to be considered in his overall ability to play. I just know him from my standpoint really, but I know that he did all these other things, and that just indicates how much he loved the music and could adapt to it.

[BREAK]

TP: But the first thing I want to ask is, at the point when you joined Paul were you pretty much aware of his persona as a drummer, and what at that point did his persona as a drummer mean to you?

BILL FRISELL: Yes, I was very much aware of it. For me, it was sort of like getting the Miles Davis phone call. I had been in New York for a couple of years, and things were getting gloomier and gloomier. It seemed like I was doing more weddings… I was getting pretty discouraged. I was getting to play a little bit of music of what I wanted to do, but I was getting kind of dark. And then, sort of out of the blue, the phone rings and it’s Paul. Oh my God, what’s this? It totally freaked me out. Because this was a chance to… I had done a few little things, mostly jam session things, or I was playing with Bob Moses a little bit, doing little things around town. But this was what I sort of think of as the first chance for me to really… He wasn’t calling me because I was a guitar player. He was calling me for…he wanted my personality, me as an individual. There’s a pretty big difference between working as a guitar player and trying to fill in some role that someone…

TP: You worked quite a bit in the ’80s as the trio, and less so in the last eight-nine years. Would you say that experience of working and rehearsing with him is something that helped open you up and helped you find your sound?

FRISELL: Yes, because it was just wide-open. It’s still like that whenever we play. That’s what’s amazing. We’ve been playing for 20 years, and every time we play, I still don’t know what’s going to happen.

TP: It seems that he takes pains to make it that way.

FRISELL: Yes. Every note he plays is like the first and last note that he’s ever… Every time he hits the drums, it’s like somehow he has this way of surprising even himself — and of course, it surprises everyone else. You know people say he plays like a little kid. He hits something and it’s like, “wow, what is that?” But at the same time, there’s this virtuosity in there, too.

I don’t know how he has managed to… Well, there’s some kind of genius in that, where he’s so deft and he has the technique and everything, but it never… The music always overshadows the instrument somehow. Ornette said something once… He did a recording, and he did two takes. He said, “the first take I played the song, and the second one I played the music.” There’s something about Paul that’s always…it’s like he doesn’t play the drums; he plays the music.

TP: But that said, is he unique amongst drummers you’ve played with? You’ve played with a strong personalities who are drummers. Would you say that the qualities you’re describing are the salient aspects of what makes him him, and not so much the actual ideas he executes on the drums?
FRISELL: Oh man, that’s a hard question. There’s nobody else on the planet like him. He’s absolutely unique. Also, there’s that history. It’s such an honor to stand next to that… I really don’t get that from anyone else, where his experience… When you play a tune with him, he played with Oscar Pettiford and Monk and Sonny Rollins, and he sat in with Coltrane and everything else that everybody else knows. These days that’s going pretty far back into the deepest recesses of the history of the music. So when we play a standard tune or a Monk tune, to get to do it with him, it just takes on a whole… That’s pretty rare these days. It’s really first-hand. He’s handing it to you straight from the source. He didn’t learn it off a record. He learned it from playing with those guys.

TP: When I saw you last August, it was the first time you’d played in the year 2000.

FRISELL: Right. And we haven’t played since until this week at the Vanguard. That’s what it’s been over the last few years. We play usually a few times a year. We haven’t rehearsed in I don’t know how long. At the beginning, when I first started playing with him, we rehearsed for like nine months before we ever did a gig, and at the beginning there was a lot of working out of arrangements… Not so much talking about stuff, but it was more worked out. We tried to figure out what we were doing. But then after a number of years, it got to be where we don’t have to talk about anything.

TP: I don’t know how you’re listening to the music as it’s going on. Do you see the not-rehearsing affecting the music in any particular way? My sense hearing you last night is that you’re talking as many if not more chances than ever, but there’s something very clear about it. That probably has to do with you and Joe continuing to grow and grow and become more defined in how you think about things.

FRISELL: I hope so. Sometimes I wish I could come outside of it and see it from the outside. When we start playing, it’s like you just enter into this thing. It’s like whatever kind of real intense sort of conversation that we’re having. I’m not really sure what’s coming out the front. It’s like I just jump into this thing and you’re in there, and when we finish playing I come out of it. So what you’re saying is encouraging. I hope it’s clear.

[BREAK]

TP: Paul said that Bill D’Arango recommended you to him? He told Paul that you and Billy Drewes played well together.

JOE LOVANO: Bill might have mentioned me to Paul. Paul knew Bill. But Marc Johnson was rehearsing with Paul and Bill Frisell as a trio, and they had some saxophone players come up. Paul was wanting to have a quartet at that time. Marc and I had played with Woody Herman together and we were playing with Mel Lewis, and Marc told me he had been telling Paul about me. Then one Monday night Marc said, “do you want to come up and play with Paul this week?” I didn’t even talk to Paul. I went up there, and we played quartet. From that moment, we started to play, and it was a quartet. Right at that time Marc got the gig with Stan Getz. Then I got Ed Schuller on the thing. Then we played as a quartet for a while. Eddie and I and Bill and Paul did one gig in Boston, and Paul wanted to have two horns, and I got Billy on the thing. It was a quintet for that first tour we did, and recorded Psalm.

TP: You played and recorded extensively with the trio for a decade. That was a rather frequent gig.

LOVANO: Yes, all of the ’80s. We went to Europe two-three times a year for a long time, most of the ’80s. We were recording for ECM at the beginning, and then Soul Note, when Jim Pepper joined the band. Then the trio emerged in 1984 really on a quintet tour with Pepper, and we recorded for ECM, It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago. Throughout the ’80s I was in heaven, man. I was playing with Paul, Mel Lewis and Elvin. In 1987 especially I toured with the three of those cats, and for the whole year I was playing in the most amazing situation.

Paul is one of the rare drummers that dares to be so creative and free from within the world of swing. He knows how to accompany in any direction. He could play for anybody in whatever style. But to play with him, how he… He plays with total feeling, and creates such an amazing texture within the form of a tune. Especially with the trio, with no bass, within the structure that we play, Paul plays with all different elements within the music. He plays like a pianist, where he’s playing the melody, he’s playing the changes, he’s playing the rhythm, and he doesn’t have to just play a repetitive beat. He leaves a lot of spaces. There’s a lot of counterpoint and things that happen. Paul is one of the most creative musicians in jazz.

TP: It often sounds in the trio like you’re the one who’s playing the time.

LOVANO: Well, we’re all implying the tempo as we move around. the tunes that we’re doing have really formal structures. Some are just a melody and are very free, but we’re approaching them and trying to create inner structures. But the implied tempos let’s say in one chorus of any given tune… A tune like “Crepuscule With Nellie,” let’s say. One time through that chorus can move at different paces throughout the chorus. Sometimes we can move through the whole form quickly. Sometimes we’ll stretch out a certain chord here or there, or a certain phrase. We’re trying to actually create the music as we’re playing. So the structure and melodies and harmonies are all there, but the freeness in the way we’re putting the time together… So there could be implied tempos on certain phrases or chord, and we’re just trying to follow each other and build it together as a group, instead of just counting a tempo off and letting the beat kind of give us the way of playing. Paul is one of the few cats you can play like that with and create that magic.

TP: When did you feel that the group came into its sound? Around maybe ’87 or ’88? Paul said that you rehearsed extensively the first few years.

LOVANO: We were playing a lot. We used to play at my pad all the time, and up at his place. Mainly we’d rehearse for recordings or for tours and stuff, and putting a lot of repertoire together. That was so great, because now we have such a deep reservoir of compositions and things we can draw from, and throughout an evening cover a lot of different music, from Monk’s music and Bill Evans’ music, standard Broadway tunes, some of Billie Holiday’s music and Paul’s originals. Both Bill and I have had the opportunity to have Paul play with us in our ensembles and record with us, too. That’s been really a great and beautiful education. Paul is on my second record for Soul Note, Village Rhythm and he’s also on a record called Worlds: Live At Amiens, that actually Bill and Paul are on. There’s some trio moments on that recording. It features Gary Valente and Tim Hagans as well.

TP: When you first met Paul, you’d first heard him playing with Keith Jarrett in the early ’70s, and you had to have known the Bill Evans stuff, and probably the stuff with Paul Bley as well…

LOVANO: His way of playing I was attracted to years before I ever met him, or even heard him live with Keith. The sensibility and the tone he played with, and the way that he was such a… He wasn’t just a drummer in the Bill Evans Trio. It was a trio experience when you listen to those recordings. I was drawn into that style and way of playing from digging the stuff that Max Roach was doing. I heard Max in Paul’s playing early on, in his sound and the way he tuned his drums. At that time he was playing more kind of traditional as a drummer, but not really. He made the Bill Evans Trio be so creative like that. Any other drummer in that group, I don’t think Scott LaFaro would emerged, and the way they played together would have never happened.

TP: He says that developed that way of playing through listening to Scott LaFaro, and it become logical that that was the way to do it. As he puts it, he follows the sound.

LOVANO: Well, there you go. You play with the people you’re playing with at the moment, and you don’t really think about it, and stuff happens.

TP: But then he’d do ten weeks… We went through his gig book from ’57 to ’60. I put it all on the tape. He’d have ten weeks with Lennie Tristano at the Half Note and with Eddie Costa the other two nights, or almost five consecutive months with Bill Evans, or Al Cohn and Zoot Sims.

LOVANO: He was playing in different ways and having fun in every situation. And you know what? A lot of the stuff I’ve been doing in the last ten years has been a lot like that, too. Playing in different groups with different… It’s your personality and your tone, but if you can execute your ideas within the different genres and feelings in the music, man, it’s so expansive. Playing with Paul and digging his career and the way he’s done that has given me a lot of confidence to put myself in different situations a lot. I’ve learned so much from him.

TP: Would you say that’s the main impact that being with him has had on you as far as your own career?

LOVANO: Well, that has been one big thing. And compositionally and also just putting ensembles together and trying to play with people and create music together with trust.

TP: Can you break down compositionally the impact and say a few words about his tunes?

LOVANO: Well, yeah. As a player, as an improviser, all the songs that you play and study, no matter what they are, teach you something about how you can put ideas together for yourself. If you wanted to. Some cats play and they never write. There’s a lot of great improvisers and players who only play other people’s music. But I’ve tried to learn from every tune I’ve studied, to try to put ideas together with their own melodic invention or harmonic structures. Experiencing Paul’s music and playing with him, from his roots, the kinds of tunes he’s written from playing with Keith or Bill Evans… When you’re actually there and experiencing the music, it gives you confidence and ideas. It’s hard to say how. But a lot of my tunes… I do a lot of writing on the road. Trio Fascination, let’s say, with Elvin Jones and Dave Holland, we were on tour with Paul and Bill prior to that recording, the year before or something, and I was preparing for that date. After gigs, after we’ve played in such a creative way, man, I’m just full of ideas. I go back to the hotel and I’m hearing all these things. Of course, it’s 2 in the morning or whatever, you can’t take your horn out, but I sit and starting writing out ideas and sketches and stuff. I put a lot of my tunes together like that on the road, being inspired from a performance or something that happened during the gig. Touring with Paul all these years has been one of the most incredible, creative parts of my life.

TP: And that said, it’s obviously harder and harder to get the trio together. If it weren’t so satisfying, it probably wouldn’t exist any more, because it seems you and Frisell have to make a real effort to get the thing to happen.

LOVANO: And Paul, too. He has several different things. In the last four or five years, of course, Bill and myself have had a lot of bands and we’ve been on the road a lot as leaders. Paul also has been doing a lot of different projects with a lot of people himself. When we come together, it’s a real special moment. Last year we played one set all year, at Carremour. Man, I was looking forward to that set for months and months and months! Even though, yeah, okay, it would be great to play a three-week tour or something. But just that one set was perfect. At this point, it’s nice to come together like that. Because most of the ’80s we were on tour quite a lot. It’s been a thrill playing with Paul. He’s one of the most creative musicians in this music.
JL: [1995] Paul is a melody player all the way. All the music that he has experienced through the years, playing with the Bill Evans Trio and the things with the Keith Jarrett Quartet with Dewey and Charlie, those were the first things that I knew from records of Paul. I loved his playing, like, immediately. He was someone that was coming from Max Roach in the early days, but yet had his own feeling, and created his own atmospheres when he played. To play with him was a real dream of mine through the years.

I remember the first time I saw him play with Keith in Boston, I think it was in ’71 or ’72, and it was the quartet with Dewey and Charlie. Man, I went every night! Oh, man, it was the most happening quartet I ever saw live. The music just took off, every note everybody played. They were into what each other was playing. And it was maybe the first time I’d watched cats play that played like that. I was used to hearing Stitt and other groups that just played tunes that they’d known and played all their life. Keith’s group, when they played all their original pieces, the way they improvised together, the tempo changes, and just how they were listening constantly to each other, and shaping the music as a group — that was the direction I wanted to go in, right from that moment.
TP: Paul Motian and I went through his gig books, and talked about a very dramatic moment when he left Bill Evans at Shelley’s Manne Hole in California to join you in New York. He says that playing with you opened him up in many ways. When did you first hear Paul, what are your early impressions of him, and what chemistry allowed the two of you to work together so felicitously in the mid-’60s?

PAUL BLEY: We’ve been playing together so long, I can’t really answer the question. I don’t remember not working with him. I do remember that he and Sonny Murray were two of maybe a dozen players that introduced free playing to drumming. The drums were the last instrument to get free. Because the bass players were free, the horn players and the pianists were free, but the drummers felt a need to keep time. And eventually, one day in 1964, somewhere around the Cecil Taylor-Albert Ayler post, the drums woke up one day and said, “You know, if these guys are going to play waves, I’m going to play waves.” Now, up until then, through the Ornette period, the audience was still with the musicians. It was difficult, but they could understand the fact that it was done against drum time, and that meant they saw the continuum. Anyway, the drums were the last to realize that there was no necessity to play time, because everybody else in the band was playing waves. Now, the public thought that that, instead of being an incremental advance, was a revolutionary advance, and after having lost a good percentage of the audience by the other musicians playing free when the drums played free, the audience just said, “Forget it, get me a Capitol record of the Beatles, I don’t want to hear about it any more,” and they made a right turn. That left the musicians high and dry with the label “avant-garde.” The mainstream was over, and now the musicians were on their own. Even though not one musician in New York had changed their style, the fact that the drummers joined them made it extremely radical, even more radical to the public than the microtonality that preceded it.

TP: I would presume that you heard Paul with Bill Evans, or with Lennie Tristano or Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and those gigs where he was playing time, which was his quotidian for most of his first decade in New York?

BLEY: Right. I heard him in all those gigs..

TP: And what about what he was doing in those gigs made it evident that he would be able to make that transition in as sensitive a way as he did?

BLEY: Well, there was nothing in those gigs which indicated that he would make the transition. Of course, I had the same situation with Barry Altschul.. He was a recording engineer assistant, which meant that he got to sweep up the recording studio after the record session. We had a chat, and we talked about the fact that there hadn’t been free Latin, there hadn’t been free Indian, there hadn’t been free any of the other genres, that “free” just meant playing as fast as possible and as loud as possible and as free as possible for as long as possible! It was a single stroke that everybody jumped on, regardless of the instrument. I thought at the time that all the history of jazz could be advanced by using those principles. Barry agreed. So we had this chat, we had dinner and so forth, and we put together a trio which in ’65-’66 was at the same point as Paul was. He and Barry and I, in terms of drummer and keyboard, were simpatico. I took a band with Barry to Europe. I didn’t take Paul to Europe. Paul had heard that band… This is not gospel. My memory is not worth quoting without checking with the other people.

TP: But what do you remember about this gig on McDougal Street with Albert Ayler, John Gilmore, Paul, Gary Peacock and you?

BLEY: I remember a lot about that. It was a snowy winter (I’m not sure which month), and I had gotten a call from Gary, who was going to be the bandleader at the Take 3, which was on Bleecker Street (not McDougal) just opposite the Village Gate on the second floor. So Gary called and said he had this gig, and we were going to do a double gig. He and I and Paul would be the rhythm section for the double gig, and on one of the gigs it would be Gilmore and on the other gig it would be Albert Ayler. So we did one set with the one and one set with the other. The drummer also changed, as I remember. Paul was on one of the gigs, and Sunny Murray was on the other. The recording that came out for that on my label was the Gilmore record with Gary and Paul. The one with Albert and Sunny Murray was not a recording. And it paid $5 a night.

I accepted the job two or three weeks in advance, and after accepting the job I got a call from the drummer who was working with Miles at the moment (this was in December-January, snowy New York City), and he said, “How would you like to come down to the Caribbean and do a month with a band…” It was an all-star band in the Caribbean. I really got pissed with him. I said, “I’m really angry about this.” He said, “Why?” I said, “I just accepted a $5 gig with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian and John Gilmore. I would have loved to go down to the Caribbean, but the reason I am going to stay on Bleecker Street is that I have the feeling that jazz is going to change on this gig.” That was my quote. And you know, I’ve been doing crystal-balling for a while.

TP: But this wasn’t the first time you played with Paul. The first time was after he left Bill Evans in California in ’64. Had you ever played together before that?

BLEY: I’m positive we had, but I don’t have the record.

TP: So basically we could say that Paul, while playing with Bill Evans and Tristano and Al and Zoot is partaking of the events that were percolating in New York in the early ’60s.

BLEY: Yes, you could say that.
TP: Let’s jump ahead in time. You play with Paul until about ’68-’69, and then you go electronic and Paul goes with Keith Jarrett? Is that pretty much how that works?

BLEY: I’m very bad with the dates and times. [ETC.] Check the book. I wrote the book so I could get the dates straight!

TP: But in the last 15-16 years, the relationship has flourished, resumed and become quite fruitful. Maybe more like the last 12-13.

BLEY: Well, it was always on… Same with Gary. There was always a strong relationship. It’s just that the philosophy with these musicians is you don’t marry your mates, you’re promiscuous.

TP: Can you break down the qualities of his playing to you, how you hear him within the lineage of drummers, or other drummers that you play with. Give me some sort of paragraph or two about his sound.

BLEY: Well, the joke about Paul Motian’s is that it sounds like he fell down the steps of the Village Vanguard with a full set of drums, and it made a great idea.

TP: Is that the soundbyte? Please be a bit more elaborate than that on how you hear drums through the medium of Mr. Motian.

BLEY: In the case of Paul, he has since that time where I quote him… There is a famous painting of a woman walking the stairs, where she’s all disjointed (“Nude Descending the Staircase” – Duchamp). Well, that’s exactly how I heard Paul in that period, in the ’60s, was random. Now, the update on Paul in the last ten years is that in terms of the soloist he’s become an idea man as opposed to a language man. So I hear one idea on the drums, and there is a silence, and then there is another idea, and it has nothing to do with accompaniment per se. It’s way beyond that. He’s playing as many ideas as the people he’s playing with, and sometimes more vividly because of the silences.

[BREAK]
KEITH JARRETT: Let me get dumb. When tape recorders go on, things are never as good as when they’re off.

TP: This is for “Downbeat” and it won’t be so verbatim.

JARRETT: Okay. Then I can say anything at all. I was only kidding.

TP: A very basic question. In your formative years, when were you first aware of Paul Motian’s identity as a drummer?

JARRETT: Oh, it must have been with Bill. Actually, I wouldn’t say that was the first I was aware of his identity. The first I really knew of his identity was when I heard him play with a free player in Boston named Lowell Davidson. I don’t really remember much about what he did. If there’s a way to say this, maybe it was somewhere between Cecil Taylor and Paul Bley or Bill Evans, but that would be a very banal way of saying it. He had a touch, so that probably presented a little more of Bill’s direction. I thought Lowell’s playing was interesting, but what struck me is that when I heard Paul on a tape, I didn’t know who it was and I didn’t know who it could be. Then at some point I ended up sitting in at the Dom, on 8th Street, with the clarinet player…

TP: Paul ran this down. Tony Scott told Paul to come down on a Monday night, that he had to hear this piano player, who was you. So that was the first time you played with Paul.

JARRETT: Right. I hadn’t met him, but I had heard him with Bill in Boston when I was coming through town with Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians when I was 15 or 16. The bass player in that organization and I both went to the Jazz Workshop, and I saw Bill there. Paul was sitting, looking really like businessman in his suit, the way some of the pictures from those early Riverside recordings suggest, and he was sitting pretty still, using brushes. Then the next I knew, I was hearing this Lowell Davidson tape with Paul, and I thought, “Who is the drummer?” I must have found that out when I heard the tape, but I can’t remember the circumstances.

TP: Did you hear him with Paul Bley as well during the ’60s?

JARRETT: No, not that I know of.

TP: Let’s get to your recruiting him for your trio when you formed it, not so much the how you did it, but the why.

JARRETT: Well, the Why was that the enormity of the difference between how he played with Bill and how he played with Lowell (and maybe there were other players he played with in a free context) made me think that he was not one of those players who would decide ahead of time what he liked and what he didn’t. It’s true. I mean, the guy worked with Arlo Guthrie while he was playing with Charles Lloyd! He doesn’t seem to have any categoristic…if that’s a word; it’s probably not…he doesn’t have a thing about categories. A lot of players maybe would say they don’t, but in their playing you’d hear that they prefer certain things. Paul is open in a way that… Paul likes music, and he was actually the first drummer I ever knew and probably the most vivid example of a drummer who liked music above his own involvement in it. Like, he would request that we play ballads in the early trio with Charlie.

TP: None in your experience had, I take it.

JARRETT: Well, not in the consistent way Paul… Paul just loved good songs. And that was one of the principles I would look for in a player, somebody who… We would be listening to Bartok together. We’d be listening to whatever was good.

TP: I’d forgotten before calling you about that year with Charles Lloyd, which Paul said was 1968. So you’d spent a good deal of time on the road with him by the time you had the trio.

JARRETT: Actually, he was in the trio first. I’m not sure about the chronology. I’m writing my own book, and I’m still not sure of the chronology. I think we started rehearsing… If my memory serves, I was rehearsing with Paul and Steve Swallow the very first time for a possible gig at the Vanguard. Whether it was for that or for a record, I don’t know, but we were allowed to use the Vanguard to rehearse, because we had no other place. And Steve was too busy with I think Gary Burton at the time, and he didn’t know if he could do both things. Then I used Charlie. That was probably ’65 or ’66, and at that time maybe I had started with Charles and Jack was in that band. Jack was in the band a couple of years more, if I’m not mistaken. Paul might have joined the band at the cusp of the end of the ’60s.

TP: [ETC. on dates] I guess it was about an eight-year steady musical relationship, until about ’76. Can you discuss how associating with Paul impacted your concept of music and composition and improvising, how the feedback went from him to you.

JARRETT: That’s not exactly an easy thing to know, not to mention answer.

TP: Speculate.

JARRETT: I don’t know. See, already I was in some way affected by the Middle East in terms of philosophy. I was involved in Sufism and Gurdjieff, and a lot of Paul’s heredity was involved there to some extent, being Armenian. He has this way of tuning his drums that isn’t a traditional jazz way. At least he did. We’d go into a studio, and they’d want to use a mute on the bass drum because it sounded too much like a real drum, and he never wanted to do that. If I was going to say how that kind of thing was working from Paul to me, it was that he was presenting that side also. Jazz drummers are generally jazzy, and Paul isn’t particularly jazzy. He sounds to me very much like who he is in terms of his background and his… His Armenian-ness comes through.

TP: He did say his parents played that music, and he has vivid memories of it from pre-school, and it had a huge impact.

JARRETT: Yes. He plays like he’s on a caravan. You know? [LAUGHS] I think what he ended up being able to contribute was this feeling of openness that wouldn’t have come if he were — I don’t know — even a hip jazz drummer. We had a group whose strangeness was both accidental and on purpose, the way we played. Everybody was an individual. And Paul was definitely not going to play like any other drummer, nor would he be able to be forced to at gunpoint. [LAUGHS] He just wouldn’t do it! Sorry! That was good for me, because I was younger than the rest of my band. I needed to know that there was this kind of openness that was deeper than just a whimsical thing. Now, if I were the same age now, I don’t know who I’d be able to have in my band. If we were talking about being the same age as Paul and Charlie. If I was told by a George Avakian type of guy “you can choose anybody you want and I’ll produce an album,” man, that wouldn’t be easy.

TP: Well, none of us would be the same person if we were a different age than what we are.

JARRETT: That’s true. That’s why “ifs” are important.

TP: I think you’ve given me a sense of that essence. I know you haven’t played together very much since the early ’80s. I do love that one record from the Deer Head Inn, which I think is very special. Can you address how you’ve heard his concept and playing evolve in the last 25 years?

JARRETT: When something evolves, it’s something… I don’t know what people think of when they hear the word “evolve.” Sometimes I think they think it’s a linear thing. You know what I mean? I don’t see that with the greatest players, and with Paul I don’t see it either. If it is evolution, which I think I would say it is, I might define it as remaining in some way yourself while being more and more inclusive of things, and Paul has certainly been able to do that. I never heard him swing as hard as he does on that Deer Head recording, and he wasn’t playing much, nor does he ever play that much as far as technical stuff is concerned. But I’ve played “Bye Bye Blackbird” with my present trio quite a few times, and that version on the Deer Head in terms of swing would stand up under all circumstances!
I think he was surprised, too. I don’t know if he had swung… That’s what makes Paul special. He probably didn’t know… It’s not like he brings his tool kit with him. He just brings himself along, and if something starts to click, he falls right in. It’s almost like he has no choice.

That whole quartet was like that. Although Charlie and Dewey had much more preference…they liked and didn’t like certain types of things. Paul would play everything, no matter what it was; he would try to find something that was appropriate to it. Otherwise, how could he play with Arlo Guthrie and enjoy it? But there is something that closes up in some players… Even though people would say they’re evolving, I might not agree if whatever that is closes on them or they close it themselves. Their playing can evolve, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the same as keeping the doors open. And that’s what Paul has done. He’s kept the doors open.

TP: Let me take this from one other angle. If you put on something representing Survivors Suite and then heard him on a record from 2000, is that instantly recognizable as the same tonal personality?

JARRETT: I don’t know, because actually it’s been so long since I’ve been listening. I’ve not been listening to anything for a while. But it’s a fair question. I have a feeling that the answer would be that I would recognize Paul right away. But it wouldn’t be because he has gimmicks. It would be because he’s always himself.

TP: There are no stylistic tropes. It’s his process of functioning in the moment all the time.

JARRETT: Yeah. It’s almost as though he’s purposely eliminated stylistic sophistication in order to stay pure. But that can really be a problem. If you get hipper and hipper, then all you’ve got left is hipness.

[BREAK]
BRIAN BLADE: I’m a big fan of Paul Motian. When you hear him… Or particularly Elvin Jones. Just one strike of the cymbal, there’s something transcendent in the sound.

Johnny Vidacovich introduced me to Bill Evans records. I sort of discovered them when I went to school, but he wanted me to listen a lot to Paul Motian, because he liked Motian a lot. He possesses this amazing looseness that is so lyrical, but also at the same time the pulse. A lot of people sometimes miss it, that Motian really moves the music and gets inside of it. It’s quite a different approach from records where you hear Art Blakey or Philly Joe Jones play the drums. But at the same time there is this swing and, like I say, this pulsation that injects the music with a good feeling.

[BREAK]
JOEY BARON: Around a certain point, I started hearing another kind of groove that was going on, and that’s the kind of interplay that wasn’t necessarily about stating 4/4 all the time. It was more like a floating kind of time, more like a circle than a straight up-and-down hard groove, like Paul Bley and Bill Evans, that kind of school — the way Paul Motian would approach playing a ballad. To hear him play a ballad was really incredible, because he made it interesting rather than just a straight boom-chick, which a lot of drummers did. He really played a ballad. That was also a really big influence, because ballads are great to play. There’s lots of time to listen to what’s going on, to think about and comment on it. That was a whole different approach that I started listening to parallel to Oscar Peterson, Red Garland and Wynton Kelly. I was kind of interested in being able to do both, because I liked them both. I didn’t bring with me this record called Ramblin’ by Paul Bley with Barry Altschul and Marc Levinson, who now makes high-end sound equipment. Hearing the way they played on that record, sometimes you couldn’t tell where the time was. Was it that important that you couldn’t tell where it was? The feeling was just incredible. It was a very forward-moving feeling. That intrigued me as well as the straight up-and-down kind of grooves that were coming from people like Oscar Peterson, Wynton Kelly and Red Garland.

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Filed under Bill Frisell, Drummer, Joe Lovano, Keith Jarrett, Lee Konitz, Paul Bley, Paul Motian, WKCR

For Bill Frisell’s 63rd Birthday, A DownBeat Article, An Uncut Blindfold Test, and A Few Other Pieces

Best of birthdays to guitarist Bill Frisell, who turns 63 today. Most people who would read this blog don’t need me to say much about him. But on the personal tip, I’ve admired Frisell’s unique sound and concept since the  early ’80s, when he first recorded with Joe Lovano in the Paul Motian Trio, and that decade with John Zorn’s Naked City. During my years at WKCR, I was fortunate  to have a number of opportunities to host him on-air, several times by himself, once in dialogue with Paul Motian, another time in dialogue with trumpeter Ron Miles, his old friend and fellow son of Denver.

I’ve posted below my “directors’ cut” (about 1500 words longer) of a DownBeat cover piece I wrote about Bill and his long-standing trio partners Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen, during a week in Perugia for the 2008 Umbria Summer Jazz Festival. I’ve also appended the uncut proceedings of  a Blindfold Test that he took with me around 2000 or 2001, in his extraordinarily cramped room at the former Earle Hotel on the corner of Waverly Place & MacDougal, on the northwest corner of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.

Bill Frisell Trio in Perugia, Downbeat, 2008:

At midnight on the first Sunday of the 2008 Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, an impromptu party was in full swing on the cobblestoned  streets outside Teatro Pavone, a horseshoe-shaped, five-tiered acoustic marvel with with a giant sunflower chandelier hanging from the ceiling.  It opened in 1740, when Perugia was still an independent city-state, as the gathering place for the local aristocracy. In response, forty years later, a consortium of Perugia’s merchants converted an abandoned nunnery perhaps a quarter mile down the hill into the grander, showier Teatro Morlacchi, a 785-seater with ceiling frescoes.

Inside, however, about 250 listeners paid close attention as the Bill Frisell Trio, with bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen, positioned themselves on stage to begin a six-night run.

Smiling, Frisell touched a pedal with his black-shoed foot. Nachtmusik birdsong plinks came forth, resonating against the old wood facades. For the next several minutes, Frisell followed the sounds, weaving an abstract web of tone color—whispery one moment, skronky the next. He inserted electronic sounds into the dialog with pedal taps and dial switches. Wollesen scraped his snare drum, hand-drummed on his hi-hat and stroked a gong on a tree of little instruments placed next to his kit. Gradually, a familiar melody emerged. Scherr inferred a walking bass line, and the tempo began to coalesce from rubato to meter. Then, on a dime, Frisell launched the melody of Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso.”

This launched a free-associative, genre-spanning suite of songs, each declarative melody transitioning into another—“Moon River,” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “You Are My Sunshine,” Monk’s “Jackie-ing,” Charlie Christian’s “Benny’s Bugle,” Boubacar Traoré’s “Baba Drame” and Lee Konitz’s “Subconscious-Lee.” Seemingly able to call up guitar dialects ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Mali to Charlie Christian at a moment’s notice, Frisell went for equilateral triangle dialog, simultaneously feeding information to and drawing it from Scherr and Wollesen. The band displayed implacable patience, grabbing sounds, constructing lines and creating musical flow from the environment. If you thought about it a certain way, you might reflect on how the architects and painters who created the look of Perugia between the 12th and 18th centuries responded to the particular light of the Perugian sky and the planes of its topography when they conjured their images and structures. You might also reflect on the ingenuity and learning that went into their designs, and the amount of labor that went into actualizing the final product.

Six hours earlier on the same stage, Pat Martino had played the third concert of a parallel 10-night engagement, leading his quartet through a sparkling seven-tune set. Dressed in a crisp white-on-white shirt, black vest and pressed black pants, barely moving a muscle, he spun out a series of high-degree-of-difficulty declamations, each a little sculpture of its own, marked by flawless articulation, an unfailingly plush tone, attention to melody and an enviable sense of form. Martino tore through the swingers and created high drama on the ballads; it was hard to determine whether the solos were set pieces or spontaneous inventions. Ascending the stairs after the concert, a guitarist from another band shook his head at the futility of it all and said, “I’m going to go back to the hotel and throw away my guitar.”
Throughout the week in July, the daily juxtaposition of these two—Frisell a master of space and implication, Martino determined on every tune to display his efflorescent gifts—was a fascinating programming subplot.
“You wouldn’t know it from listening to what I do now, but I’ve listened to Pat Martino a lot, and at one time I was maybe trying to do that,” Frisell said the following day. We sat in a walled-off space in the back of the dining area of the Rosetta Hotel, situated down the block from Teatro Pavone. Frisell wore a white t-shirt, paisley shorts, white Converse high-tops, and horizontally striped socks in bright colors. As we spoke, the kitchen staff prepared a luncheon buffet as diverse as the program he had presented the previous evening.
“I was checking Pat out yesterday, trying to unravel this mysterious stuff he’s doing, and it blows my mind,” he continued. “John McLaughlin was another hero. Day-in, day-out, I tried to play like him, and I couldn’t come anywhere close. I saw a concert with Shakti in the early ‘70s, heard this incredible stuff coming out, and  it was this moment of despair. I realized that I’d never, ever be able to do that. I wanted to quit. Then the next moment it was like, ‘Oh, thank God that’s over with; now I’ll deal with what I’ve got.’”Frisell noted the spontaneous quality of the previous evening’s concert. “It wasn’t planned,” he said. “My mom died a few weeks ago, and I had to miss a bunch of gigs, so I hadn’t been playing. I was feeling, ‘Wow, here I am—now I’m back with my buddies and I really want to play, but my hands are like…I haven’t been playing my guitar very much. So I thought, ‘Okay, I just want to make a sound and see what it sounds like.’”
Perhaps more in touch with formative memories than he might otherwise be because of his mother’s recent passing, Frisell mentioned reconnecting with painter Charles Cajori, now 87, an active member of New York’s art world since the early ‘40s, and a family friend. “His father worked with my father in Denver in medical school, and when he was in Denver he’d come over for dinner,” he recalled. “He’d tell me all this New York stuff: ‘I heard this incredible drummer—I went to the Village Vanguard and I was sitting right under his cymbal.’ That was Tony Williams when he first started playing with Miles. The first Monk record I ever saw was from this guy.“Forty years go by, I’m in New York, and I thought about him. I looked him up on the Internet, and he was teaching at the Studio School on 8th Street in Manhattan. I hadn’t talked to him since I was 14. I wrote a note, and brought it to the front desk at the school, which is around the corner from my hotel. A few weeks later, I got a letter from him. He’d seen me play at the Vanguard, and knew me through Paul Motian and so on, but didn’t connect that I was that kid from way back. Now we’re friends, and he comes when I play. There’s a picture of Monk playing at the Five Spot, and right behind him is a poster that says ‘Cajori’. He was friends with Morton Feldman. He’s in his late eighties, and he said this amazing thing: ‘One thing I’m certain of is that drawing is a worthy endeavor.’ He teaches, and he sees that some of these things are slipping. To be able to draw is important. To be able to play an instrument. The fact that your fingers have to move around. Just that one little thing he said—it’s a worthy endeavor.”
[BREAK]
The first half of Frisell’s 2008 release, History, Mystery [Nonesuch], consists primarily of music that he composed for three collaborative projects with Jim Woodring, a Seattle-based cartoonist who transforms biomorphic shapes into characters in phantasmagoric narratives. He arranged it for a Fall 2006 tour by an octet propelled by Scherr and Wollesen. It’s far from Frisell’s first sounds-meet-images project. The 1995 Nonesuch CDs Go West and The High Sign/One Week document his responses to a pair of silent films by Buster Keaton, and several years ago he scored Tales From The Far Side, an animated film by Seattle cartoonist Gary Larson, a close friend. Indeed, Frisell’s wife, Carole D’Inverno, is a painter whose canvases, both figurative and abstract, reveal an economical command of line and color.
“When the music is happening, it’s not visual,” Frisell said. “But I like to look at art. I can’t draw, but if I didn’t play music I’d probably do something like that. We probably have some instinct or motivation coming from the same place. I’ve said before that when I met Jim Woodring and saw his art, I felt his drawing was a lot closer to what I’m trying to do with the music than a lot of musicians I know. It’s the place you’re trying to get to—to bring something to the surface that’s not always visible or audible, something people feel in this reality that isn’t always there.”
In a drawing dated 1997, Larsen portrays a bespectacled Frisell playing guitar. He scalps him, revealing his brain as a laboratory in which a mad scientist sits in a sort of director’s chair atop a ladder, blowing notes into a large funnel, through which they pass into a complex, Rube Goldbergesque processor, which in turn feeds them into Frisell’s guitar, which is plugged into his left temple lobe.Frisell’s father was a biochemist, and I asked whether, in any way, he references that aspect of his background in his musical production. He demurred.“I didn’t connect with that at all,” he said. “Chemistry classes and that stuff, I failed right out of all of it.”That being said, Frisell’s instantaneous use of electronics—he deploys a distortion pedal and a fuzztone device, two delays, a reverb, and several small music boxes that he attaches to his guitar pickups—within the flow to trigger random elements within a performance, and his ability to work those sounds seamlessly into the warp and woof of his improvisations is a quality that continually astounds the people who hear him most.“Bill totally embraces all this technology,” said Claudia Engelhart, Frisell’s sound engineer and road manager. She met Frisell in 1989 while touring Brazil with John Zorn’s Naked City band, after spending her early twenties mixing for Willie Colon and Eddie Palmieri. “Sometimes he’s creating loops without us hearing them, and then he’ll turn them on and there they are at precisely the right moment. It’s like he’s composing, thinking ahead, when he’s playing other stuff. I don’t know how he does it. My job is to sit and listen, but I daydream a lot when while I’m mixing sound for him—he takes me on these trips.”
By his account, Frisell began using effects towards improvisational imperatives in 1975. “I heard Santana play this incredible sustain sound that sounded like a trumpet,” he said. “I was trying to play like a horn player; I wanted to sound like Miles Davis. So I got a distortion thing. Then I was listening to pianists and admired how they could hold notes down and let them ring. Back then, there was a little cheap delay that had a cassette tape in it which sort of did what my little digital delay does for me now—that piano-y sustained thing.”
He remarked that he practices neither the sonic combinations that he conjures up nor the gestures by which he puts them forth. “It doesn’t make sense to do it by myself,” he said. “It developed from playing live with other people. I like the element that I’m not sure what’s going to happen with the machines. I trigger a loop, and it goes haywire. It’s not like I have something pre-programmed on a push-up button, and, ‘okay, now I’m going to get that sound.’ Sometimes, though, I feel like I get into certain patterns—I can build things up in ways that become predictable to me, and probably eventually to the audience, too. I try to keep it so that it’s not.”
To avoid the predictability pitfall, and break things open, Frisell frames himself with numerous configurations drawn from what is now a repertory company of musicians familiar with his language. Since 1996, when his long-time trio with bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Joey Baron dissolved, he’s triangulated Scherr and Viktor Krauss with drummers Wollesen, Jim Keltner, Rudy Royston, and Matt Chamberlin; used several rhythm sections to propel ensembles of varying size with violinists Jenny Scheinman and Eyvind Kang, lap steel guitarist and banjoist Greg Leisz, trumpeter Ron Miles, and reedmen-woodwindists Billy Drewes and Greg Tardy. He’s developed a corpus of string quartet music and formed a quasi-world music ensemble (the Intercontinentals). Then there are the one-off projects—a trio CD with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones, a standards duo with Fred Hersch, a more recent trio date with Ron Carter and Paul Motian, the latter his employer since 1981 with the Paul Motian Trio, with which he continues to perform annually around Labor Day at the Village Vanguard. Still, as he puts it, the trio with Scherr and Wollesen—which first convened for a 1999 week at the Village Vanguard, and performs on Unspeakable, East, West, and History, Mystery—feels like “home base.”
“I’ve listened to thousands of records with Ron Carter, but when I stand there and play a chord, and he plays some note I’m not expecting, and your mind has been obliterated…,” he said animatedly, before breaking off the sentence with a laugh. “You want to stay up in that thing. I want my mind to be blown. Then along come Tony and Kenny. By this time I’d been looking at a lot of other music, songs with words, listening to Hank Williams songs, Roscoe Holcomb and Doc Boggs—things I hadn’t listened to much before. It wasn’t just about I want to play a Monk tune or a Lee Konitz tune, or I want to write my own tunes. I was also trying to remember where I come from—when thinking about a Bob Dylan song when I was a kid, playing this Lovin’ Spoonful song when I was 16. Being honest about what got me playing. I did a record in Nashville, played with a banjo player for the first time. Some people said, ‘Wow, he went to Nashville, and he’s selling out,’ and so on, but for me, it was like, ‘Whoa, this is really weird.’ I was stretching myself, playing with people I’d never met before, people who come from different places, people who didn’t think about music or learn music the same way I did. I couldn’t write out charts for them, the way I used to. It was a whole different way of playing, and I learned so much. Still am.
“Both Kenny and Tony are like my teachers. In so many areas I want to go into, it’s like they know 20,000 times more than I do. Last night, as an encore, we played this Ron Carter song, ‘Mood.’ Tony’s heard that, and he knows 20 different versions of it, and any other song I’d ask him to play. He’s an awesome guitar player and also a singer—he knows the words, too. When I discovered Roscoe Holcomb, who came out of nowhere for me. Kenny went, ‘I got that record when I was 12.’ I’ve put myself in this amazing situation where they can challenge me. But then at the same time they respect me! They just play, and they’re not intimidating. Like I said, they blow my mind.”
[BREAK]
“Bill accepts the way people play, and plays with who they are, rather than with who they’re supposed to be,” said Scherr the following morning. “He’s constantly open to anything he hears. It’s sincere. If somebody is playing an instrument, that’s music—if it’s musical. There’s no preconception of what somebody is supposed to know or not.”
The sky was clear, facilitating a spectacular view of the Tiber River Valley from the terrace outside the Hotel Brufani, the festival’s nerve center. It stands atop the remnants of Rocca Paulina, a massive fortress constructed in 1543 on the order of Pope Paul III to show the town’s staunchly anti-clerical citizens—who had battled for autonomy against Papal authority since the 11th century—who was boss. To emphasize the point, Farnese, then 75, commanded that 138 buildings belonging to the Baglione family, Perugia’s most powerful clan, be razed to the ground.
“I didn’t grow up hearing jazz,” said Scherr. Early in his teens, he played guitar in a rock band in which his older brother, Peter—now a Hong Kong-based classical contrabassist—played bass. “I heard rock-and-roll and soul and all kinds of other music. That’s when I got bitten by the bug of playing with other people—that feeling of discovery and learning how to play together. When I was 14, my brother brought home Miles Davis’ Jack Johnson, and we went backwards from there. Around then I met a guy who would take me to his house, and we’d play guitar. He showed me who Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters were. We would play vamps, what people think of as a standard, a song by the Animals, then we’d turn off the lights and play free. In my mind, it all lived in the same room, because that’s the guy I was in contact with. I suppose it took me a while to recognize that ultimately I was looking for that kind of guy. I never really thought about the difference between the genres. I recognize that in common with Bill, because Bill seems to just hear a song—it doesn’t matter if George Jones or Billie Holiday sang it. He writes beautiful, classic songs, too, with melodies that go around in my head. When it comes down to it, there’s just great songs, great melodies, and people hear them, and want to interpret them and be themselves and have a language with the people they play with.”
Scherr wore a retroish short-sleeved shirt over black jeans, the way young Manhattan hipsters dressed in the ‘80s, when Scherr, now 43, went on the road with Woody Herman. In the ‘90s, he played numerous jazz gigs on bass, joined the last edition of the Lounge Lizards, played with Maria Schneider, and joined Wollesen in Stephen Bernstein’s Sex Mob Quartet.`
“Maria Schneider started asking me, ‘Have you played a lot of rock music or something?’” he related with a laugh. He spoke in a deliberate baritone perhaps an octave lower than the gravelly tenor he displays on his new release, Twist in the Wind, on which he sings 13 songs, including 10 with his own lyrics. “In Sex Mob, which is a kind of a combination of Louis Armstrong and Led Zeppelin, I realized how I actually hear the bass. We went through Seattle, and Bill came to the gig, and called me up soon after, and we started playing. I’m glad that it didn’t happen until I had some idea of what I sound like. At that point, I had been a fan of Bill’s music for quite a long time, and would check out every album, so I had some idea of who he was and what his language is about. It was very comfortable to hear this guy who had his own voice on guitar. An enormous part of what he does is very sophisticated, much more complex than I would understand—though I’ve heard him do it for years, so I might be able to hear something that goes with it. The simpler part that I do understand comes from the guitar language that I know. Bill reminds me to be more open, to wait and surrender to what actually happens, rather than thinking I know already. I used to think I knew. Now I’m sure that I don’t.”
As if on cue, a slender, elderly man in gray shorts, a sleeveless sweater and walking boots appeared before us, took a breath, and began to sing a tarentella of indistinct origin in a clear tenor. He finished, began another, halted, said, “Gusto. Musica.” Then he walked off. Scherr laughed and applauded. “I couldn’t have said better than that,” he said. “Music. Love music.”
About half-an-hour later, Wollesen and I were strolling through the narrow streets, past pasticcerias, pizzerias, gelato shops, and taverns setting up for lunch. We settled on a café not far from a wall built by Perugia’s original Etruscan settlers as a fortification against invaders. It was a touristy place, and his red wine was served cold. In the background, you could hear the Coolbone Brass Band, out of New Orleans, warming up for their daily noontime ballyhoo.
“Bill’s rhythm is killing, and he hears everything,” Wollesen said. “I think his ears are supernatural. Right now, we’re talking at this table, and I hear what you’re saying, but there’s all kinds of sound happening around us. People would think of it as background noise. I think Bill somehow hears all of it. It’s kind of uncanny.“I’ve never really talked with Bill about music. I don’t think he’s ever said one thing to me about what to play. I have to figure it out on my own. It seems strange to me, because almost all the bands I play in, somebody says something about that.”
Perhaps Wollesen  was referring to John Zorn, with whom, several weeks before, he’d played two concerts in Paris, one placing him alongside Joey Baron; or to Butch Morris, whose conduction projects he frequently participates in; or to Stephen Bernstein in Sex Mob; or to Norah Jones and Sean Lennon. “Stephen often tells me exactly what beat to play, and he conducts the band on the bandstand,” he said. “It’s a totally different aesthetic somehow. It’s also a lot louder.”Because of these associations, listeners tend to peg Wollesen as a deep groover and texture-maker rather than a swinger. But as a teenager in Santa Cruz, California, he played in a popular local hardcore jazz unit with saxophonist Donny McCaslin, a peer, and, at the Kuumba Jazz Workshop, where he worked as a janitor in order to gain free admission, observed such drum icons as Elvin Jones, Ed Blackwell, Tony Williams, Billy Higgins, and Paul Motian on weekly Monday night concerts.
“I wasn’t into pop music as a kid,” he said. “It was just stuff that was on the radio. I was into Elvin Jones. All my friends were into that, and so was I. But I listened to a lot of different music—I played in klezmer bands, and I was really into Cecil Taylor and a lot of the really out stuff.”
Towards the end of the ‘80s, not long after he turned 20, Wollesen relocated to New York, moving into a funky apartment once occupied by Deborah Harry. “Purely for economic reasons, I made a conscious decision to take whatever work I could get,” he said. “Playing in so many different bands, different worlds—a rock band, a bebop band, Zorn or Butch—you realize that the fundamentals remain the same. You still have to take care of business, make the shit happen somehow. That means ultimately being in the moment when the music is happening, not projecting something that you learned or something that you already knew, or what somebody told you to play. If you’re still hooked into some other stuff, then you lost it. You’re not there.“I think about painters. They’ll spend hours and hours by themselves, but when it comes down to it, there’s the moment where they put the paint on the canvas. But they spend years getting to that place. It’s like that with music.”
[BREAK]
In November, the Bill Frisell Trio will tour Europe playing to movies—music from Frisell’s Buster Keaton and Jim Woodring projects, and also to a new film by Bill Morrison, who on a previous work used Frisell’s eponymously entitled 2001 encounter with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones as soundtrack music.“It will completely take us out of a lot of the things we’re playing now, force us to deal with a different batch of music, and push us into another zone,” Frisell said. “In some ways, it’s more restrictive, but I’ll have to figure out a way to keep it from being a show, where we do the same thing every night.”Frisell, Scherr, and Wolleson sat around the same table in the same wood-paneled adjunct of the Rosetta Hotel dining room. That night, they would play their fifth concert of the week.“I’m writing music with no parameters, which I love,” Frisell continued. “Having the film there boxes you in, in a certain way, but those limitations sometimes will push you out into someplace you’ve never been. It’s another way to get pushed into moving ahead.”They quickly turned the subject matter to qualities described in our one-on-one conversations—mutual intuition, shared language, trust.

“The time between our gigs always seems too long, but when we get back together we start almost beyond where we left off,” Scherr said. “The conversation just keeps going. I’ve always liked being in bands that really develop something together, like when my brother and I would put together a rock band. and we’d find a drummer, and play, and it would really click, and we’d learn a lot all of a sudden and be real excited about it, and you just couldn’t wait til the next time you played. When people play music together and travel, you get in close quarters, and people’s personalities come out. A thematic language—literal language—goes around the band, a couple of terms that get used for the entire trip or something, a running joke or a running topic. Then the next trip you find new ones. Sometimes it gets totally ridiculous, like that day in Peekskill when we started playing all the major tunes minor and all the minor tunes major. It was so silly, and it had everything to do with who we are. Those kinds of things emerge when you’re not worried about making mistakes, and you’re coming up with ridiculous things because it’s fun. The music becomes less precious and opens up— you feel free to demolish stuff together, and it’s totally okay.”

Scherr gave an example.

“On a lot of tunes we’ll go through the form, and although I’m not thinking about it this way while we’re doing it, it’s like playing a game,” he continued. “For instance, at a certain point on ‘Keep Your Eyes Open’ there’s a little melody, a chord, another little melody, and a downbeat. We’ve played that tune for years, and it’s almost unbelievable how many different ways we can play that chord—a snotty little swipe at it, or a broad, beautiful way of hitting it. Often it’s being open enough to just SEE how we’re going to do it, and toss it back and forth. Sometimes it’s as simple as hitting one note or one chord together on the first beat of the measure. When I first played with Bill, I paid a lot of attention to that. Now that notion has expanded to trying not to think, just to support the new thing I hear, whatever it is, and not answer the question before it needs to be answered.”

“What you play can be determined by the way things bounce around in the room,” Frisell said. “Every day is different, even in the same room—the number of people, the air, the humidity.”

“Bill will start playing a song because something is going on in life, and usually the lyric is totally relevant,” Scherr added. “To me, listening to him is the same as listening to a person I know talk, or hearing a singer.”

“In this group, I’m trying to sing the song on the guitar,” Frisell agreed. He referenced a 2003-2005 engagement as musical director of the Germany concert series, Century of Song, in which the trio joined various singers—among them Rickie Lee Jones, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, Vic Chestnutt, Loudon Wainwright, and Chip Taylor—in creating new arrangements of iconic repertoire.

“I talked about trying to copy Pat Martino or John McLaughlin years ago,” he continued. “Now it’s more about I’m trying to copy Aretha Franklin or Sam Cooke or Hank Williams. We’ve played “Lovesick Blues” a couple of times  and I’m playing what I got from trying to get even these little nodal things he does with his voice, which is sort of impossible.”

“Bill’s got the meaning of the tune, too,” Scherr said. “Well, there is no one meaning for any tune. We played ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ a bunch of different ways, a bunch of times. But I always feel that tune means whatever it means that day, and that’s where it’s living. It’s got a lot of room to be played.”

Lunch was ready, so it was time to clear out, get on with the day, prepare for the evening’s concert. “None of this is secret,” Frisell said. “But it’s this weird, super-intimate thing that we don’t talk about. For me, playing is as close as you can get to another human being. I don’t think whatever we’ve tried to say will break anything, but it’s not remotely close to what’s happening as we’re doing it.”

* * * *

Bill Frisell Blindfold Test:

1.    Richard Leo Johnson, “Sweet Jane Thyme,” LANGUAGE (Blue Note, 2000) (Johnson, 12-string and pedal steel guitar) – (4 stars)

Holy moly!  Oh my God.  I have no idea who that is.  [How did it sound to you?] It was…nice.  I’m trying to…I’m baffled by… It reminded me of some things that I’ve heard, like, Leo Kottke do, and there was a tiny bit of some of the things that Daniel Lanois did with Brian Eno back a ways, like the sort of secondary…whether it was a steel guitar or the kind of echoey, shadowy guitar behind the acoustic guitar.  But I have no idea who that is. [Was it one or two players?  How many guitarists?] I don’t know if it was overdubbed.  But there were at least two, I think. [LAUGHS] There was…was it a 12-string? [There was one guy on a 12-string in real time.] It sounded like there was a 12-string and then some kind of more atmospheric electric guitar as a background, the sort of cloudy sound… [He was playing a pedal steel and a 12-string, so there were two guitars overdubbed.] But there was one person. [One person.  He has a technique to create several voices.  Did you like the song?] Yeah, it was nice.  It didn’t like knock me out.  It was really cool and pleasant to listen to.

I have to think about how I’m going to do the stars.  Because to me, anybody who has decided to play music should get five stars, I think. [That said, there are gradations and…] [LOUD LAUGH] You’re trying to get me to… [I’m not trying to get you to slam anybody.  But the Blindfold Test is what it is.  If you want to give everyone a blanket five stars…] I really don’t like… Well, there’s things I like and things I don’t like, and I think certain things suck, just like everybody else.  But I still…somehow… I don’t like the idea of competition in music.  Also, with what I just heard, it kind of…I couldn’t place what… I don’t know where it’s coming from or what it is.  I don’t know if I would think it was better or worse depending on where it was coming from.  I could almost hear in a film. [He laid down guitar tracks, then he sent the guitar tracks to various improvisers, and they each laid down their tracks on top of his guitar track.  (ETC.) His name is Richard Leo Johnson.] I’ve never heard of him. [This is his second record.  He plays different guitars, and he’s a virtuoso, but he only started playing full-time four years ago.  He’s 45.  And he’s from Arkansas, the north Delta.  He’s self-taught.]

It made me be curious to hear how that is juxtaposed to other things on the record.  That’s something I would go do on my own now.  I guess I’m going to have to give it five stars… [If you give 4 stars to something that doesn’t knock you out, but you like and respect it, you’re really not insulting the musician.] Okay, I’ll give it four stars. [I think if you’re going to agree to do the Blindfold Test…] I did it once before, and I gave everybody 5 stars.  But also, everything was Jim Hall and Jimi Hendrix and Wes Montgomery.  Maybe I’ll give it 4.  Maybe that rating system will assert itself as we go along.

But a lot of it is context.  I could see this being in a film or something, or seeing it up against something else where it might be very powerful…

2.    Jim Hall-Pat Metheny, “Django,” BY ARRANGEMENT (Telarc, 1995) (Hall-Metheny, acoustic guitars) (5 stars)

That’s “Django,” I can tell you that. [at 3:35] Oh, I think I finally got who this is.  [at 5 minutes] I guess I’m ready to talk.  Is there a string quartet?  From the first moments of these strings, I thought…Jim Hall was what came into my mind, something in the sound of the writing.  Then I started listening, and I hear one guitar and another guitar, and I didn’t recognize the sound.  But when the first guitarist started playing nylon string guitar, it took me longer than what I thought it should too… I heard a bit of Pat Metheny stuff going on in there, and then I figured that’s got to be Pat playing nylon string guitar.  Then I figured… They did a duet record, but this isn’t that, so this must be Jim’s record where he did these arrangements, and the song, “Django”… [Absolutely.] Thank God I got that right.  But it was kind of confusing, because sonically it was so strange.  First I thought it was an old recording… I thought Jim Hall, and I heard the strings and I thought maybe this was going to be one of those things Jim did with Gunther Schuller years ago or something like that.  But it’s interesting how, without him playing, it fired some kind of response in my brain that me think Jim Hall right away.  I don’t know if it’s because I’m expecting at some point I’m going to hear Jim Hall in a blindfold test.  So I figured out it was Pat playing nylon string, and then Jim later playing acoustic guitar, which you don’t hear that often.  Also, I’ve never heard him make that much racket, singing along, groaning… Sonically they both sounded quite a bit different than you’re used to hearing.  But that was cool.  So now I have to give it stars.  That I’ve got to give 5.  The tune and that he could figure out something else to do with that tune, and those guys… That was great.  And it was cool to be that confused by… Those guys I’d figure I could recognize in two notes anywhere.  Is that on the record “By Arrangement”?  I should have known it right away.

3.    John McLaughlin, “Only Child,” TIME REMEMBERED (Verve, 1993). (McLaughlin, acoustic guitar, The Aighetta Quartet, acoustic guitars, Yan Maresz, acoustic bass guitar) – (5 stars)

The first thing that came into my mind was I couldn’t tell how many guitars were playing, and there’s a very low-tuned guitar, and I didn’t recognize the tune.  But then as soon as the soloist started… I was thinking, “What is this?”  Does someone have a 7-string?  It almost sounded like it could have been Johnny Smith or George Van Epps, that beautiful, just lush… I couldn’t tell how many guitars were in there.  Then as soon as my man started playing, I knew it was John McLaughlin playing Bill Evans songs with a guitar quartet.  I might even have this record. [You played some of these songs with Paul Motian.] Well, I’m not sure if I played this tune.  But I thought it sounded just exquisitely beautiful.  He keeps on being one of my heroes.  He keeps holding up.  Every time I hear him…sometimes I think he gets taken for granted a little bit.  He’s just a monster.  I remember going to hear him in Seattle a couple of years ago, and it kind of hit me in the face how heavy he is!  I don’t know what to say.  It was so beautiful to hear that orchestration, lush, thick… Whoever arranged that, it was really beautiful, just listening to the kind of written part and then real kind of moving, and when he started playing it was… He always blows my brains out.  There was one moment when I went to a Shakti concert, and I almost quit playing the guitar.  I just thought, “Man, this is hopeless.”  But it was a good moment because it made me figure out that I had to figure out something else to do other than that.  I’ll never be able to… But he’s so much more… He’s known for being, you know, fast, but he’s a soulful… And rhythmically and harmonically, so…it’s some far-out stuff he’s doing.  I can’t figure out why people don’t… He’s right in there in that line of… There’s Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery and Jim and whoever all other guys, and he’s one of those main guys for me.  Five stars.

4.    Derek Bailey, “Tears of Astral Rain,” ARCANA: THE LAST WAVE (DIW, 1995) (Bill Laswell, electric bass; Tony Williams, drums) – (5 stars)

It’s hard to talk and listen.  I think it’s Derek.  The thing that’s confusing me is… I’m going to just guess.  There’s Derek who I sort of got right away.  The other is maybe a guitar, but sounds… Is it Bill Laswell?  Because it sounds like a 6-string… It’s higher than a bass.  The distorted one is sort of… And I know Bill Laswell does that 6-string bass thing, so it must be that.  Then I know that they did a thing with Tony Williams.  I kept thinking that sounds like Tony Williams’ tom-tom or something.  It sounds like Tony Williams.  But I didn’t hear him do his Tony Williams yet!  I kept listening to be sure is that Tony.  The sound of the drums, it sounds like Tony Williams, but he was playing so
minimally.  This was also really cool, the way the thing moved forward.  There was this feel, this forward rhythmic motion.  You can’t say 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.  It’s interesting how just with the sound, they have that…a person’s sound… I heard a tom-tom, and it sounded like Tony Williams.  Is there more than one… I heard some of this, and it was really edited, and it sounded like they didn’t really put… The other thing about what I just heard is it really sounded like they were playing together in the same room.  The thing that I heard sounded much more pieced-together, like Derek overdubbed or they used a Tony drum track.  Maybe this was done that way, too.  I’m not sure.  But as I was listening, I at least felt like I was in the world of being in the same room with these guys playing.  Either it was pieced together really great or they were actually playing together.  But I think I heard that they weren’t all playing together when they did this.  That’s got to be 5 stars.

5.    Jimmy Bruno-Joe Beck, “Lazy Afternoon,” POLARITY (Concord, 2000) – (Bruno, acoustic 6-string; Beck, alto guitar) – (4 stars)

I don’t know what the tune is, but I know I’ve heard it somewhere.  I’m going to make a wild guess.  I don’t really know these people.  One of the guitars has to be a 7-string or something; it sounds really low.  I heard something on the radio, and this sort of reminds me of it.  It’s not Joe Beck and Jimmy Bruno?  I might even have heard this song on the radio.  I don’t know Joe Beck’s playing… He’s one of those guys who’s been around forever, and he’s been on a lot of records in real supportive ways, since the ’60s.  His name is always around, but it’s not like I hear a sound. Recently I’ve been hearing about Jimmy Bruno.  Talk about technique, he’s probably the most monstrous… But then I had heard a little bit of Jimmy Bruno, and I was surprised that he seemed more restrained… See, I don’t know him well enough even to know… I’m sort of assuming that on this tune Joe Beck was probably playing the melodic part and Jimmy Bruno was doing a lot of quite involved bassline and… [Oh, Joe Beck was playing that on the alto guitar.] Oh, he was.  I was thinking that if Jimmy Bruno had been playing the melodic part, it would have been twice as fast.  I heard some live thing with a bass-drum trio that was just off the scale of super fast tempo which was like how could you possibly do that… So I figured out what it was.  But that’s one of those guesses, thinking I’d heard this on the radio and I’d kind of heard about this guy.  It wasn’t based on knowing their sound; it was more an intellectual piecing-together.  It was pleasant.  It didn’t kill me or anything.  It was kind of easy… It didn’t wrench my guts out, so I’ll have to go 4.  But they definitely certainly play their instruments.  I guess there’s a thing with the guitar.  I mean, who am I to say… They can play circles around me as a guitarist.  I mean, they really play their instruments.  But I would maybe have liked to hear… The tune didn’t kill me or something.  Maybe if I’d heard them playing a tune that was richer, it would have been…

6.    A.D.D. Trio, “Three Characters, A.D.D. TRIO: SIC BISQUITIS DISINTEGRAT (Enja, 2000) (Christy Doran, guitar; Robert Dick, flutes; Steve Arguelles, drums) – (5 stars)

This is a guess again.  Is it Sonny Sharrock?  Then I’m lost.  I don’t know.  I really like the feel of the drummer, but I’m pretty well lost on this.  I might be getting in trouble here?  Is it possible that that’s Kenny playing drums?  I like this piece a lot.  But I have no idea who it is. [AFTER] Oh, Steve Arguelles!  I know him and I like him.  There was one moment I thought Robert Dick, but most of what I’ve heard of him is solo things or concert recitals, not in this… I like the feel.  Was the guitar generating some kind of loop?  I like the way the drums were interacting with that…the bass drum.  There was a moment where I thought about Joey Baron.  He had this super-low-tuned bass drum that’s really cool.  I like the feel of the drums.  That confused me, though Robert Dick flashed through my mind.  Then when he did these sort of slide things, something about the tone made me think about Sonny Sharrock.  But it was maybe a bit more reined-in than Sonny Sharrock.  I hate to give it less than 5 stars… I really liked that.  I’ll give it 5.

7.    Bar Kokhba, “Hazor,” ZEVULUN (DIW, 1997) (Marc Ribot, guitar; Eric Friedlander, cello; Mark Feldman, violin; Greg Cohen, bass; Joey Baron, drums; Cyro Batista, percussion, John Zorn, composer) – (5 stars)

Again, this is an intellectual piecing-together.  Is it Ribot?  So it’s the Prosthetic Cubans.  Then what is it?  The cello player… [Who do you think wrote the music?] I don’t really recognize it. [AFTER] Oh, okay!  Wow, now it all comes in there!  I haven’t listened to this stuff.  Now that you say it, I recognize the melodic…the thing with all the sort of Latin stuff, I’m thinking, “What…”  I recognize Ribot.  So that’s that!  That’s Cyro, and Eric Friedlander on cello.  I’ve heard so much about that band, and I think I have the CD at home in my pile of… I liked it a lot.  And Ribot sounded really cool.  He really got the killer tone on there.  I can hear that melody being played by the other Masada.  Aren’t some of these reorchestrations of that material? [He pools the book.] Right, but orchestrates it differently.  I should have known the melody.  But with that kind of Latiny stuff going on, I got sidetracked.  5 stars.  The guitar seemed sort of dominant, so I thought it was the guitar player’s thing.  He got a great tone on that.  There’s a couple of times I’ve heard him… He said he was going to give it to me.  I think he made a solo record of standard songs.  We were in the middle of the night driving somewhere, like to the airport somewhere, and Kenny Wolleson had this tape, and this thing came on, and it was “Body and Soul,” and I thought, “Who is this guy?”  It sounded like an old guy.  I mean, in a good way.  It sounded like some kind of old real guy that I’d never heard of before, and I couldn’t figure out who it was, and he was playing “Body and Soul.”  It turned out to be Ribot.  This had some of that real clean-enough but fat and kind of dirty, real good sound he got on there.  I really liked that. Oh my God. [Think older.] Well, the reason I thought Mark… I’m really going to stick my wiener out!  I heard bit of George Benson in there… [LAUGHS] I thought he’s had some impact on Mark.  Okay.  Wow!

8.    George Benson, “Hipping The Hop” (#6), ABSOLUTE BENSON (Verve, 2000) (Benson, guitar Joe Sample, piano, composer; Chris McBride, bass; Cindy Blackman, drums) (5/4 stars)

[GRIMACES] Man!  This is kind of a strange juxtaposition of things.  When it first came on, I thought it was going to be some smooth jazz thing, then it goes into… It’s an odd convergence of styles.  I’m going to guess Mark Whitfield.  The reason I say that is I heard maybe some of… Most of what I’ve heard of Mark has been more straight-ahead, and I knew he recently did something that I hadn’t heard, and I wondered if that could be it.  Wow!  Is this from George Benson’s new one?  Because I heard another thing on the radio, one song, I don’t know what it was, from George Benson’s new record.  Man, what a monster player!  The other thing I heard was a little more straight-ahead, and it reminded me of what a giant great player he is.  Christian can go from this funk thing to the straight-ahead thing, but it didn’t… It seemed a little on the light side.  The funk thing… It didn’t totally go to the straight-ahead thing and it didn’t go to the funk thing either.  The two things that were going on, going back and forth, sort of caused some restraint on either end.  It was really interesting, though.  Oh, boy, I can’t… So it was George Benson.  How is it that I get in a position that I’m sitting here talking about George Benson like I’m some kind of big-shot?  He’s a giant.  I guess it’s one of those things…the context is… He always sounds good.  It would be great to hear him play with Ron Carter and whomever and just play some tunes.  But who am I to say that?  5 stars for him and 4 stars for the arrangement.  Those guys are great.  Cindy plays great and Christian plays great.  Who knows what was going on in the…

9.    Duduka DaFonseca, “Por Flavio,” THE ART OF SAMBA JAZZ (self-produced ,2000) (Romero Lubambo & John Scofield, guitars; Nilson Matta, bass; Duduku Dafonseca, drums & percussion; Valtinho, percussion) – (

I’m getting confused.  I have to start guessing… I guess I’m obsessing over who… The guitars are very separated.  I really thought the one on the left was John Scofield.  It is John Scofield?  But I couldn’t quite get… Then I started thinking who is this other guy?  He’s playing a nylon string guitar.  I was kind of going off on who’s the drummer.  Then it sounded like there was  a percussionist.  I was thinking about Jack De Johnette for a second, but that didn’t seem right.  It’s getting more confusing.  Then I thought maybe it’s not Scofield.  There’s a lot of guys out there who picked up on some of his stuff.  It doesn’t seem quite like a Scofield record.  [It’s not.] The kind of dialogue between the two guitarists was cool.  I like that. [AFTER] I don’t know Romero Lubambo or Nilson Matta.  I knew it was Scofield, but the context seemed so… The piece was great.  I liked the two guitars going off of each other.  5 stars.  It felt great.  Oh, that’s bad.  Did I say Jack de Johnette?  I guess I was thinking too much, “if that’s him, then this must be that.”

10.    Liberty Ellman, “Blood Count,” ORTHODOXY (Red Giant, 1997) (Vijay Ayer, piano) – (5 stars)

I’m pretty sure it’s Steve Swallow.  It’s not?  Oh, my God.  That was a guitar?  It was an awful low-pitched guitar.  But it sounded like a 6-string bass to me.  Now you’ve got me really screwed up!  I just got it fixed in my brain that it was… [So it didn’t sound like any guitarist you could pinpoint.] No.  Also because it went much lower than a guitar.  I didn’t know the tune. [AFTER] I should know that tune.  I was thinking this was Steve Swallow playing his 6-string bass, just the sort of pure tone where Swallow gets this sound in between a guitar and a bass.  Now I’m really confused, because it didn’t sound like a guitar to me. [AFTER] I’ve never heard of him.  I really liked it.  I had it totally planted in my brain… I thought it was Swallow playing with Carla Bley or something.  Who was the piano player? [LAUGHS] I don’t know him either!  I heard this chord on the piano and I thought Paul Bley.  I thought Paul Bley and Steve Swallow.  Then I thought, no, that’s not Paul Bley, it’s Carla Bley.  Then I just settled into thinking that’s what it was.  I’d like to check out these guys some more.  5 stars.  Definitely his guitar was tuned…there was some super-low stuff going on there.  I’ve got to check him out.  Moments like that I really notice maybe I’ve been away from New York too much or something.  I don’t even know who any of these people are.  Not one person on this record I’ve ever heard of.  I’m old.  I’m a has-been.

11.    Kevin Breit-Cyro Baptista, “Sao Paulo Slim,” SUPERGENEROUS (Blue Note, 2000) – (4 stars)

I like it.  It’s another one of those weird juxtapositions of things.  It sounds like two kind of slide guitar guys.  Oh, it’s only one?  There’s a statement of the melody and then it sounded like another guy.  It sounded almost like another personality.  But maybe not.  Maybe it’s just the sound.  But he had sort of a… I didn’t sense it right away, but then when he played the solo I got a bit more of that country thing in there.  But then with the…I don’t know what this was.  He sounded, I thought, like somebody from down South, but then the rhythm section I couldn’t… The bass player playing all this little chordal stuff.  I think it was a bass player.  An electric bass player.  Maybe it was a rhythm guitar part that was hidden away in there.  So a kind of active… I’m just lost.  I don’t know this.  I guess I have to… Everybody sounded really great.  The tune didn’t kill me.  So I guess I’ll have to say 4.  But everybody played cool. [AFTER] Oh, shit! Oh, fuck!  Oh, no!  Oh, no!!  I asked him to send me this record.  Oh, shit!  Oh, fuck!  I love him!  I did a gig with him…we did a gig in Seattle where I had Greg Liesz… It was a thing where I had four guitarists.  I had Greg Lies, and Kevin, who has played a lot with Greg, like with k.d. Lang and… Man, I can’t believe it.  And Brandon Ross.  We sort of did a lot of my music that I had already arranged like for horns and stuff, but I had these four guitars.  And Kevin played sort of everything that anyone else wouldn’t play. Like, he had a low-tuned guitar.  So there’s a lot of overdubs on here.  Because it sounded like a band actually playing.  And he’s like a killer… Oh, he plays everything — mandolin, banjo.  I just love him, and I had such a good time playing with him.  I felt a real strong hookup playing with him.  But I never heard him play slide guitar at all, I don’t think.  It was like lap steel or whatever it was.  I don’t know how he can play all these instruments.  I’ve heard him play regular guitar, I’ve heard him play mandolin, I’ve heard him play this kind of 6-string bass guitar, and he KILLS on banjo — he really plays great banjo.  But I’ve never heard him play that slide stuff.  Wow.  Anyway, I really like him.

12.    Tim Berne-Marc Ducret-Tom Rainey, “Scrap Metal,” BIG SATAN (Winter & Winter, 1996) – (5 stars)

Well, it first came on and I thought it was Tim.  Then the guitar player started playing.  It’s interesting.  The writing is very cool, the first statement.  Is it Tim?  Thank God.  It’s weird how things… It’s cool to hear somebody after… I played with him a lot, and we’ve sort of gone on our separate ways, and I haven’t kept track of a lot of what he’s done.  This was really strong.  The writing and how the group was… This is stuff that had always been there in his music.  It’s real distinctive… It’s weird, these little electronic or whatever impulses that shoot through your brain.  Like, the first instant the thing came on, Julius went through my mind.  But then almost immediately, then, I thought, “Oh, that’s got to be Tim.”  Then I started thinking it’s really inspiring the way he… He’s stayed on his writing and…he’s stayed on this path all this time.  I felt really strong that compositionally, whatever was going… I don’t know what that was.  It’s stuff that was going on a long time ago, but you can hear how it’s…it’s just clear and it’s strange and it doesn’t sound like anything else.

There’s a lot of guitar players I’m not quite sure…I haven’t heard enough to know for sure.  Brad Schoeppach passed through my mind at one point, and then I thought Marc Ducret.  It must be Jim Black.  No?  Is it Previte?  Then I don’t know who the drummer is. [AFTER] Oh, shit!  Somehow I was thinking about Jim Black.  That’s embarrassing, because that’s another person I played with… We played a lot, like REALLY a lot, not so much gigs, but we’d get together and play for hours and hours, and I should know him.  But it’s strange, what goes on in my mind, because a lot of time has gone by, and we’re sort of off on these different… I’m over, wherever I’m playing, doing some hillbilly song, and he’s doing this.  It’s kind of…it’s weird.   5 stars.  It sounded great.  I haven’t heard Marc enough to always instantly know that’s him, but every time I’ve heard him, he’s kind of flipped me out. . I heard one time I think in Italy with this group where he just played acoustic guitar with no pickup or anything.  I’ve heard him in a lot of different contexts, and he’s just an off-the-scale great guitar player.  In this context, I thought he really sounded… There’s a kind of soulfulness in there that’s… Different people set people off in different ways.  There’s a feel Tom has that maybe makes Mark play in a certain way.  Anyway, I thought he sounded really great on that.

13.    Attila Zoller-Jimmy Raney, “Scherz 1,” JIM AND I  (Bellaphon, 1980/1995) – (4 stars)

What in the world… You’ve got me there.  I’m lost.  The recording was a little distracting to me.  The guitar in the left ear in the headphones was louder.  I mean, I’m not one to…I use a lot of reverb.  But it sounded like the reverb was kind of hitting on some stuff that was in the headphones.  Sometimes the headphones kind of amplify that stuff.  The one on the left was a lot louder.  And I kept thinking, is this overdubbed with the same guy?  Then right at the very end, the guy on the right, who was softer, came out for a moment by himself.  And I couldn’t recognize the tune.  I just felt lost, kind of.  I kept hearing little bits of something; I thought of a tune, then it sort of went off and I couldn’t follow it.  I liked the idea that there was all this dialogue going on.  It was never clear who was… I almost thought it was the same person.  Sometimes they were so on top of each other that then… Okay, tell me who it is. [AFTER] Attila crossed my mind.  Jimmy Raney was the one on the right.  I know that.  Because right at the very end he played this little phrase by himself, and it had the feel, the eighth note thing.  But the guitar player on the left, which was Attila, I don’t know his stuff that well, but… I guess it was the recording.  It was louder, and it kept sort of dominating the… I wish I could have heard it with Jimmy Raney being louder, because for me the actual rhythmic… Okay, I’ll be critical.  It was just that moment where Jimmy Raney played alone that the feel was killing.  For me, on this particular thing… Maybe it was the recording or the sound…he had also a brighter sound.  Attila seemed to dominate the whole thing.  Maybe Jimmy Raney was sort of following him.  That’s how I would critique it.  I love Jimmy Raney.  But that’s why it made sense when you said that.  4 stars.  Those guys were great, though.

14.    Brad Shepik, “Zdravo,” THE LOAN (Songlines, 1997) (Peter Epstein, alto sax; Tony Scherr, bass; Kenny Wolleson, drums; Seido Salifoski, percussion).

Got me again.  When it first came on… For a moment I… I’m guessing.  It doesn’t sound old guys to me.  It sounds like young guys.  Maybe it’s because I’m getting old; it seemed kind of hyper, like “let’s play this thing in 7.”  But they play great.  It just had this kind of real energetic thing that… I guess maybe it’s this being the last thing, we’ve listened to all this music, and I’m ready to cool out and relax.  And there’s people… See, there’s all these guys who I should… There’s people who went through my mind.  I mean, there’s people I still haven’t heard enough to know for sure.  There was a moment I thought of Briggan Krauss when they were playing the melody, but then when he started soloing I didn’t think it was Briggan.  For a moment I thought Briggan, then again I thought Brad Schoeppach.  It was Brad?  But I don’t really know his… It’s more like an intellectual thing.  Then I thought about this group of guys who haven’t fully formed in my brain when I hear them, like Jim Black… [It was your rhythm section.] It was MY rhythm section.  Oh my God!  Now I’m really… If I say Jim Black… I didn’t recognize who it was, and so let’s think who would be playing with who.  But I also have to say that for a moment Kurt Rosenwinkel went through my mind.  So I hope these guys don’t get pissed at me for this.  I guess so much of the music that I play with Kenny and Tony is so different than that.  But I thought I would know those guys, because I’ve listened to other things they do.  When I say energetic, they’ve got a lot of energy, but a lot of stuff they play is slowpoke, right, or Sex Mob.  A lot of stuff is about these kind of slower feels.  Was this Brad’s stuff?  It sounded live.
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There were guitar players in everything, and a lot of the music I listen to is not guitar-based.  On the last blindfold test I did, there was something, and I said, “Well, that was Paul Chambers on bass and that was Philly Joe Jones… But I screwed that up bad on this one, too; saying that was Jack de Johnette.  I guess it’s weird to zero in just on guitars.  I guess there’s so many different ways.  No one has ever done a Blindfold Test with me and played Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis.  Those are the things that have affected me.  But this is good.  I hope I didn’t say anything bad about anybody.  As I get older, it’s frightening how much… There’s more and more music accumulating, and less and less I feel like I can hear it.  It seemed like 20 years ago I would spend thousands of hours with one album, listening to it over and over again, and now it’s like you’re sort of flitting from one thing to another fairly quickly. [The music is sort of like that, too.  A lot of people don’t go into one sound so much as they delve into a lot of different ways…] But it seems like a lot of people are able to actually absorb and retain a lot of stuff.  I’m less and less able to do that, and there’s more and more stuff piling up.  I have piles of stuff at home that I think “I’ve got to listen to this or that.”

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