A WKCR Interview with Bobby Hutcherson from 1999

Here’s another of my newly-digitized interviews from my WKCR years — with vibraphone immortal Bobby Hutcherson (January 27, 1941 – August 15, 2016), who was playing at Iridium that week with an all-star band of thirty-somethings. It’s a remarkably candid interview — no filter.

 

Bobby Hutcherson, Out To Lunch, WKCR, Feb. 25, 1999:

[MUSIC: Bobby Hutcherson, “Pomponio”]

TP: “Pomponio” is from Skyline, Bobby Hutcherson’s new release on Verve. It features Kenny Garrett, Geri Allen, Christian McBride and Al Foster, a band that six months ago or so did a week at Birdland in preparation for this date. This week Bobby is in residence at Iridium through Sunday with a quintet. He’s playing this music with Kenny Garrett, Renee Rosnes, Peter Washington and Billy Drummond.

Skyline is your first release on Verve, though you’ve done some guest appearance on Verve albums in recent years. There are strong liner notes by Stanley Crouch that position you firmly in the vibraphone pantheon and explain why you hold the status that you do. But probably because of space considerations, he didn’t go into some of your biographical particulars. So if you don’t mind…

BH: Sure.

TP: One point he makes is that the vibraphone is an instrument whose vocabulary was very much invented in jazz, and in the jazz lineage. It wasn’t that common when you were coming up. Why was it the vibraphone for you? What circumstances led you to it, and what qualities attracted you?

BH: As I was growing up, first… My mom was bedridden for the first four years of my life, so I was always… As a toddler, instead of going out and playing, I was always inside the house, listening to a lot of stuff. I had an older brother who passed away, but he was a schoolmate with Dexter Gordon. They went to Jefferson High School.

TP: They had the famous bandmaster, Samuel Browne?

BH: Yes. Dexter was in the marching band and my brother was a cheerleader at the school. After school they’d come over to the house and they would play records. I’m a young toddler… I have an older sister, and my sister started singing, and she used to sing… This is before I even started playing. She was singing in her trio, and in her trio was Sonny Clark. One time she gave a concert, I remember, in Pasadena, where I grew up, at John Muir High School, and playing bass was Oscar Pettiford. I remember Oscar Pettiford walking up to me before I was playing and saying, “don’t you want my autograph?” — and I said, “Yes, I do.” I didn’t even know who it was! I was still young. Then later on, my sister started dating Eric Dolphy, and Eric Dolphy was a good friend of the family’s — again, before I started playing. Then later, she started going out with Billy Mitchell, who was playing tenor saxophone in Count Basie’s Orchestra.

TP: Jazz is a family experience for you.

BH: It was a family experience. There was always a piano in the house, and I used to sit around and play piano for my own enjoyment. Then one day when I guess I was 13 years old, I was walking down the street in Pasadena. It was summertime. I walked past a record store. This is when they used to play the music, so that when you walked by outside, on the speakers you could hear what record was being played. It was the Giants of Jazz with Miles and Milt and Monk, Kenny Clarke and Percy Heath — and “Bemsha Swing” was on. I just turned right around, and walked right in, got the record, and went home and wore it out. I said, “this is how I’m walking; this DAY.” I said, “This is what I want to do.”

Well, I had grown up with Herbie Lewis. We were in the same grade, going to Washington Junior High School. All the schools that Jackie Robinson went to. As kids, you either tried to be in sports and do what Jackie Robinson was doing, because when you walked in the gym, here was all his records; or you tried to get into music. Herbie said, “If you get some vibes, you can play in my trio, and we can play school dances.” I said, “Oh, great.”

I worked for my dad, who was a bricklayer, and saved my money that summer, and I bought a set of vibes. At the end of the summer, I got the set of vibes. I went and showed Herbie, “Hey, I got a set of vibes.” Herbie says, “Great – because we’ve got a concert in two weeks.” I said, “Wait a minute. I don’t know anything about the keyboard.” He said, “don’t worry; we’ll play around three songs.” I said, “Three songs? How can I do this?” We’re playing a concert. Bobby Troup was the emcee.

We took a black felt pencil. He said, “Here’s what we’ll do. Since you don’t know what the bars are, we’ll take a number for the next bar that you hit.” Well, if we’re doing three songs, it got like 318, 319, starting from #1, and it had all these numbers all over the vibes. But we practiced so much, I got pretty good, looking for which note to hit next, looking for the number on the bars. Well, came the night of this concert, the first time I’m going to play, and the stage manager and he says to us, “Ok, kids, it’s time for you to go on. Oh, by the way, Bobby, I saw some marks all over your bars, so I took a nice wet towel and I wiped everything off — I know you’re glad I did that.” He says, “Now, you kids go out there and have a great time.” I said, “Oh, no. You didn’t.” He said, “Yes, I did.”

So we went out, and all my family, my mom and dad, they’re sitting out there, ready to be all proud for me, and the kids going to school… I hit about the first three notes, and then after that they started throwing rotten fruit at me. At that point, I realized, “You’re going to have to study; you’re going to have to know what you’re doing.”

TP: It’s not paint by the numbers.

BH: no, you can’t play the numbers. But I still keep the numbers… No. [LAUGHS] But that’s how it all started.

TP: Well, you obviously weren’t discouraged.

BH: No. We used to have these jam sessions at my house as I was growing up, with Herbie, myself… And there was a young man named Terry Trotter who used to come over all the time. Terry became Margaret Whiting’s pianist. Charles Lloyd used to come over all the time. H.B. Barnum, who did all the arranging for Aretha Franklin, he used to come over and he would play tenor saxophone, alto, trumpet, he would play a little vibes, he would play some drums. Everybody in Pasadena would come and park their cars in front of the garage, and we’d open up the doors and we’d play all afternoon. It became like a school. After school, go over to Bobby’s house and listen to the music. There would be all these musicians… Walter Benton used to come over. An awful lot of musicians would come over and play. That happened until…oh gosh, until someone set my garage on fire, and all the instruments burned up.

TP: That happened during high school?

BH: Yeah. I think somebody really didn’t like…

TP: Resorted to drastic measures.

BH: Somebody burnt my garage down. You know what was the thing? All the instruments were in there, the vibes, the bass, drums and piano. I remember… I looked out the door the evening when the fire started, and I remember seeing the fire and trying to call the Fire Department, and the telephone line is burning down. I remember running out to the garage and thinking, “Maybe I can pull my vibraphone out.” And the door was too small! I got the small end out, and I got the big end into the door and I’m trying to get it out the door, and this big wall of flames just came and said, “Get out the way; you can’t do it.” The vibes, the drums, Herbie’s bass, the piano – everything burned up in the fire.

TP: Then what happened?

BH: Whoo, how about me telling my father that the garage burned down? He was at a party that night. He came back, he and my mom, and I said, “Dad, the garage has burned down.” He says, “don’t worry. Did you lose everything?” I said, “Yeah.” He just held me. I thought he was going to be really upset and be mad, but he just held me. He says, “That’s ok. I have insurance. So we’ll go through the things in the fire and find every nut and bolt that’s in there, and we’ll claim it. We’ll get you another set of vibes, we’ll get Herbie another bass…”

TP: Several things are coming out here. One is that you were in an incredibly supportive environment, both in the community (except for the people who burned down the garage) with your parents and fellow musicians, and that music was in the air, almost as though you couldn’t help but absorb the essence.

BH: Yes. I think that fire instigated us to play all the more. As I think back… I haven’t talked about that fire too much. Sometimes I push that back in my mind, because it was real traumatic. Some of the kids were really… I always felt it was some of the kids at school who had done it. I felt that because of what we were doing… Everybody was coming over and listening to the music, and it was like…

TP: It was a positive thing, some people felt excluded…

BH: Yeah.

TP: It seems that Los Angeles… Should I play some more music, and then we resume a little later.

BH: Sure.

TP: We’ll hear “Tres Palabras” from Skyline, on which you play marimba.

[MUSIC: Bobby Hutcherson, “Tres Palabras”; Bobby-Abbey Lincoln-Marc Cary, “Another World”]

TP: We were speaking about your early years. One quality about Bobby Hutcherson’s improvising that grabs me every time is the total honesty, spontaneity and transparency. People often hold back on the radio, but Bobby was discussing a very traumatic event of his youth – the fire that burned down his garage and destroyed his instrument. We’ll put the fire behind us…

BH: Put the fire behind us.

TP: Let’s talk about your path towards becoming a professional musician, getting on the road, and coming to New York City, where you participated in so much history on numerous dates for Blue Note.

BH: What happened was, going back to my sister going out with Billy Mitchell… Billy Mitchell and Al Gray had just left the Count Basie Orchestra and formed their own sextet. After I’d started playing, Billy asked could I join the group, and play 4 mallets, and comp and solo, and take the place of Gene Keys, and go up to San Francisco and work opposite Charlie Mingus. I had never played 4 mallets before, but I said, “Of course I can – yes.” In the group was Doug Watkins, and Doug took me under his wing and showed me things to do. He was wonderful. I really loved Doug Watkins.

Anyway, we played two weeks at the Jazz Workshop, and then came back to Los Angeles. Billy came back here to New York, and Al and Doug stayed in Los Angeles. A couple of days later I got a call from Billy Mitchell, and Billy said, “How would you like to come to New York and open at Birdland? We will play opposite Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.” I was also in college at the time. I asked my mom. She said, “I want you to graduate from college; it’s very important.” I said, “Mom, I’ve got a chance to go to New York and play at Birdland.” She said, “Oh! Well, forget college. Go on to New York.” She said, “I have this dream that you’re going to go to New York – go ahead.”

So we drove here in Doug Watkins’ car, the car he was killed in when he went back out to California – in his black Peugeot. We drove here. We started out with a steak dinner, and by the time we got to the Lincoln Tunnel we didn’t have enough money to pay to get through. We were eating potato chips when we came through…

TP: Sounds like the old days of travel…

BH: I remember in part of the trip, Doug’s windshield wipers stopped working, and we were in a snowstorm in New Mexico. He had to reach around, put his arm around and work the windshield wipers to keep the snow off as he was driving. It was bitter cold! Oh, gosh…

TP: The vibraphone, the bass, everything is in the car.

BH: Yeah. We come to New York, and we open at Birdland. First thing is, that afternoon I’m setting up, and Pee Wee Marquette was… I’d heard him on records, but I didn’t know he was a midget. Pee Wee Marquette saw me setting up, I was just by myself. So he walks up to me and blows a big puff of smoke in my face, and he says, “Who are you?” I said, “I’m Bobby Hutcherson.” “What are you doing here?” “I’m going to play vibes with Al Gray and Billy Mitchell.” He says, “We don’t need you. Pack up your vibes and go.” I said, “Oh, Lord, is this what I heard about what New York is?” He said, “You heard me. Go.” I just waited for him to walk back out the door, and I kept setting up.

That night… In those days you heard that Pee Wee could make or break you. So it went like this. “Ladies and gentlemen, from the Jazz Corner of the World, Birdland, the Al Gray-Billy Mitchell Sextet, blah-blah, and with Bubba Hutchkins on vibes.” I said, “Oh, no!” Every night he would do this. But we had two weeks there. So on pay night, everybody would go over to the Alvin Hotel, which was across the street (it’s a parking lot now, I think). I’m in Al Gray’s room, and there’s a knock on the door, and I open the door, and a big puff of cigar smoke arrives. There’s Pee Wee. He says, “Say, Papa, you got something for me?” I said, “I don’t have anything for you, the way you’ve been announcing my name all week.” Al Gray says, “give him five dollars.” I said, “I’m not giving him a thing.” Al goes, “Give him five dollars.” So I gave him five dollars.

So the next week goes like this. “Ladies and gentlemen, from the Jazz Corner of the World, Birdland, 52nd and Broadway, the Al Gray-Billy Mitchell Sextet with Billy Mitchell, Al Gray, and Bobby Hutcherson on vibes” – because I gave him that five dollars. So everything started to change right there.

We went on from there and worked the Apollo Theater. Besides playing the regular show, we played the talent night where they had to drop this cheese-cloth, and they’d throw all the rotten fruit at the entertainers who would come out. I had heard about that. That was unbelievable! I’d never seen people get fruit thrown at them. This was unbelievable. And the people were screaming, going crazy.

I think the next gig, we went on to Chicago, the Sutherland Lounge, and we worked opposite Redd Foxx. They would not let me in the club while Redd Foxx performed, because I would go crazy. It got to the point where I didn’t have to hear the joke. All I had to do was hear the sound of his voice, and I would be on the floor.

Anyway, after about a year-and-a-half, the group disbanded. I didn’t really know that many musicians. So I started driving a taxi.

TP: So they worked steadily, around the country, touring for 18 months, and then you move to New York.

BH: Yes.

TP: Quick question before we resume the narrative. There aren’t that many stylistic antecedents for a vibraphone player, but a few great ones. You heard Milt Jackson first, there’s Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, some others. Who were your models? All vibraphonists, or other instrumentalists as well?

BH: I’m going to tell you…I think I’ve told Tommy this. I really started listening to Tommy Flanagan. I think Tommy Flanagan… Tommy, if you’re listening, I love you. I just want you to know that I started listening to you to try to find another avenue, another way to come through the instrument.

TP: If you can, is it possible to describe the sound you were trying to achieve…

BH: I wasn’t really sure. I was just trying different things. I was just trying to be a part of. It was a situation, as I said, where I’m driving a cab. Herbie Lewis had moved to New York and he’s playing bass with the Jazztet. Grachan Moncur was in the Jazztet. So I started going over to their house and playing jam sessions as I was driving a cab. Now Grachan says to me, “I want Jackie McLean to hear you.” Jackie comes and says, “Oh, I like this.” He says, “I just met a new drummer in Boston; his name is Tony Williams. I’m going to bring him down, and we’re going to play at this club, the Coronet.” It was Grachan, Tony, Jackie, and Eddie Khan. We came in there. Everybody had heard about all these young kids playing at the Coronet Club in Brooklyn with Jackie. Alfred Lion, the owner of Blue Note Records, came in and says, “I want to record this; Jackie, I’ve got to record this.” After being at the studio, at Rudy’s studio, Alfred Lion came up to me after the first song that we recorded, and he walked up to me and said, “Bobby, how would you like to sign a record contract?” I said, “Whoa! Am I in the right place and the right time.”

[END OF SIDE 1]

TP: Jackie McLean was incorporating the sounds and ideas that you and Grachan Moncur were working with to get into what he calls “the big room” area of improvising.

BH: Yes.

TP: Had you been workshopping a lot of new ideas, experimental ideas in Los Angeles?

BH: You know how you can have your own personality, but if you get with someone else, another personality seems to come out of you and someone else… Well, that’s what started to happen. It got all of us together… We would be so silly — and be serious at the same time. But silly. I mean, we used to have comic books in our back pockets as we would come to rehearsals. So it would be really serious, but at the same time we’d be looking real serious, we’d be like, “this is the most ridiculous…”

What happened, besides doing those records then with Jackie, Grachan did a record with the same group – Evolution. In fact, this next cut you’re going to play, “The Coaster,” Grachan replaced Jackie with Lee Morgan, and Lee Morgan really played different on the original recording of Evolution and on “The Coaster.” I guess that’s really why when I did this last record with Verve, I wanted to remember those days.

[Bobby Hutcherson, “The Coaster” – from Skyline; “Little B’s Poem”-Components]

BH: Not a bad group.

TP: That recording featured four pieces by you and four by Joe Chambers; another album, Dialogue, comprised entirely compositions by Joe Chambers and Andrew Hill. It’s interesting that these Blue Note recordings became a forum for the ideas of other composers.

BH: The Dialogue album was my first album for Blue Note, and it was at a point where I wasn’t writing. All I was doing was working with other people. I was just trying to complete the circle. I didn’t really understand the situation, that in order to complete the circle (or complete the sphere), playing, and playing with other people, practicing, working on soloing…theories and stuff like that… You really start to complete the circle of music, or the sphere of music, by writing. Because then you’re really writing in your diary. This is what happened to me; this is how I feel today; this is the recipe for what happened today; this is the recipe for how this day went for me. Along with the routines that I went through to try to enrich my life.

TP: Did the recordings you did for Blue Note during the period when you were living in New York… Because then you moved back to California and formed a working quintet with Harold Land which was amply documented. Does it reflect the work that you were doing in New York as well? The performance situations, the gigs. Or do the albums more reflect a for-the-studio situation?

BH: I think it really reflected what was going on in New York. When I first came to New York, I’ll say a lot of my writing on the first album had to do with my still ties with Pasadena. This greenery, the relaxation type situations. Joe Chambers coming, as we met each other and started doing things together, it became a situation of looking into the sculpture of new things developing along with the renaissance that was going on, and the new people going on, and along with the fight for the Black people in the country. It was very common for me in those days to get in a cab and I’d be going to a rehearsal, and I’d be coming from 165th Street and Woodcrest, where I was living in the Bronx, and come past 125th Street and come past the Lenox Hotel, and Malcolm X would be on the steps in front giving a speech, and thousands of people would be standing there. The cab would stop at the red light, and even though I only had another 15-20 minutes to get where I was going, I’d tell the cab driver, I have to get out here; I’ve got to go listen to Malcolm X for a moment. I’d go over and listen and then get back in another cab, and then go on to rehearsal. It was a situation of that cabaret card, that police card that you had to have, which stopped an awful lot of musicians from working in nightclubs, and all the people playing in lofts in those days where you could hear all this writing. Everybody was writing music.

TP: So the recordings you did with Sam Rivers or Andrew Hill or Freddie Hubbard also reflected gigs that were happening at the time.

BH: Yes, a lot of it. Then, at the same time, I renewed acquaintances with Eric Dolphy, who was back here at the time, and we started rehearsing and doing things. I started doing gigs, playing here, at Brooklyn College, or we would go to Pittsburgh…Crawford’s Grill, on the Hill in Pittsburgh and play…

TP: Playing the type of music that was on Iron Man and Out To Lunch?

BH: Exactly. Going to Washington, D.C., and playing the Bohemian Caverns.

TP: Then you returned to the West Coast and formed a well-regarded group with Harold Land, who I guess you knew from your younger days in Los Angeles.

BH: Yes.

TP: Can you speak a bit about that band and your musical production during the 70s? I hear it as you blending the experimentation of the 60s with a look back to the fundamentals you’d come up with.

BH: When I went back to the West Coast… I got busted for some grass here. They took my hack license, my taxi license away; they took my cabaret card away – and scared me half to death. I decided to go back to the West Coast for a second and just regroup. So I went back and started working with Harold Land, and then I started getting calls: “Bobby, are you going to come back?” I said, “Yeah, I’m going to come back again and play.” The Slugs thing was starting to happen…no, it wasn’t starting; it had BEEN happening – but I wanted to come back. I always loved playing in Slugs. So I told Harold… There were some things happening over in Europe. I said, “Let’s form a group, come back to New York; I’ll call Joe Chambers and we’ll get a group together and we’ll start playing some music.”

At that time, it seems to me as though we stopped playing linear type things, and started playing a lot of intervals of 4ths and 5ths and 2nds, and tunes that went into that category. That was a change. That caused… Different combinations cause different things to happen. So that was a change in the sound, because of…solo-wise… A lot of the solos were constructed in 2nds and 5ths and 4ths and neighboring tones. I don’t want to get too technical. But that’s what started happening, and started the sound to change.

TP: With Woody Shaw there’s another evolution…

BH: Woody, yeah. Woody was playing different intervals. Woody was playing a lot of 6-intervals. Woody was playing more pentatonic scales. Our group was using pentatonic scales, but using different intervals, and Woody was using more of the pentatonic scales with a lot of the major VI in his. I didn’t use too much of the major VI.

TP: That was a very fruitful partnership, and you did a lot of records, though not all of them are around these days.

BH: Yeah. I used to go over to Woody’s house all the time, and we would start talking about what we were working on. Woody was always talking about the pentatonic scale that he was working on. It’s funny how all of a sudden there’s a style of playing that starts blossoming out of that.

TP: You’ve been at the center of several transitions. Then around 1980 or so, it seems you begin to go out as a solo voice with groups that elaborate your conception, and the co-led groups fade away. It seems for the last 15-20 years, it’s been Bobby Hutcherson’s sound. Is that more or less accurate?

BH: I went through another transition of the theories that I was working on. For a while, I started working on a lot of piling chords together, right next to each other, so it would be like a cluster, and it would become really hard to figure out what was the scale. I used to think a lot of times when I used to work with Eric Dolphy… He would say: “Now, Bobby, on this tune, this scale in this tune doesn’t end until it runs for 2 octaves, and every note is different.” I said, “Oh my goodness, what…” It was really different.

TP: You seem to have incorporated everything you learned, but also stepping back into the tradition in a personally meaningful way.

BH: Yes. It’s like taking some things, throwing them away, bringing them back. It’s just like sitting there and making something. I might say, “Ok, I want to make an old-fashioned apple pie. Do I get these new modern ingredients?” No. You have to use just some plain old apples and some sugar…

TP: Food is always the best metaphor.

BH: [LAUGHS] If that’s what you want, that’s what you’re going to have to put in there. It’s a great reservoir, if you can look and say, “Ok, on this I have to do this; and on this one, I’m going to try this.” To reach back and say, “Ok, this time…” Situations like not only that, but to say, “On this one, I have to play behind the beat; on this one I have to play on top of the beat.” If you want this situation to happen, you have to go from playing on top of the beat and slide into playing behind the beat, to get this feeling. And to think about those things as you’re playing is… It’s tough!

TP: Are you thinking about that consciously now, or is it a more organic thing?

BH: Exactly. You want it to be like it’s just a natural thing to happen, instead of it being a technical, mechanical situation. You want it to be just part of breathing. It’s almost a situation of there is no tempo. There is only feeling. There is only action and reaction. There is only You.

TP: On that note, let’s Bobby Hutcherson play “I Only Have Eyes For You” from his new Verve release, Skyline.

[MUSIC: Bobby Hutcherson, “I Only Have Eyes For You”]

TP: This Verve recording is one of the first in some time where you’ve had a decent budget and preparation time. A few ideas about your intents and purposes in putting it together.

BH: A lot of thought about each person. A lot of thought about music is not the image; it’s the reflection – and the images are the people involved and the love and friendship for them.

TP: We’ll conclude with a track from 30 years ago that you spoke off mic. You talked about trying to transcribe it some years later, and being in a totally different head space. This is it. It’s called “Visions,” originally from the 1968 date Spiral, which came out about ten years later, with Harold Land, Stanley Cowell, Reggie Johnson, Joe Chambers.

[MUSIC: Bobby Hutcherson, “Visions”]

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Filed under Bobby Hutcherson, Vibraphone, WKCR

A WKCR Interview with Han Bennink From 2000

A few weeks ago, I began a project of converting as many of the interviews I did during my 1985-2008 tenure on WKCR from cassettes to digital format, adding to the 100 or so I’d transcribed over the years. This 2-1/2 hour interview with Han Bennink came from a week where the Dutch master was playing in quartet with Dave Douglas at Iridium — a lot of information contained therein.

 

Han Bennink (Out To Lunch, WKCR, Sept. 23, 2000):

[MUSIC: Bennink-Dave Douglas, “Cherokee”-Serpentine-1996]

TP: Dave Douglas was the trumpeter, and Han Bennink on trapset and…

HB: No. I only played snare drum and clogs. No hi-hat, no bass. Only snare drum, brushes and clogs.

TP: Han Bennink and I are here for hopefully 3 hours. We have a wide array of music that brings us from 1964 to the present. Han Bennink is performing at Iridium with the Dave Douglas Quartet this week, with Misha Mengelberg on piano and Brad Jones on bass.

You were just describing to me your first visit to New York, which was 40 years ago.

HB: It was in 1960. I worked on a ship called the Maasdom(?—6:01) to play commercial or dance music for the passengers. Then we were about 5 days in Hoboken. At that time, I went to the Village Gate. I saw the John Coltrane Quartet. He was totally obsessed with “My Favorite Things.” The second set was Aretha Franklin playing an upright piano and a microphone in between her legs – and a drummer. It was just fantastic. Opposite the street was a joint called Caffe Ruffio, and I saw Steve Lacy there for the first time live. We’re now very good friends.

TP: You’ve recorded with him on a number of occasions.

HB: Yes, but he lives in Paris, as you probably know, and I see him often… Well, I actually saw him and his wife in Chicago on the 3rd of September.

TP: How does New York now impress you vis-a-vis 40 years ago?

HB: I am not a big city guy. I live very sort of lonely, like a monk, in a stable in Holland, like this sort of ivory tower. Here, somebody gave me a flat to live in, and it’s very nice for me. It’s opposite Central Park, so I can go bird-watching. After this enormous rain, the park was so fresh; it was really beautiful to be there. But for the rest, I am not a big fan of big cities. But most of my concerts are in big cities, and I’ve been traveling now for 3 weeks. I actually do 24 gigs in 27 gigs. I am so proud of that. But I have to travel for that a lot. And the last week is just fine; now I can go walking to Iridium. It’s only 45 blocks. That’s nothing for me. I like to walk. And back also in the night. So that’s cool.

TP: Forty years when you came here, you were playing on a ship, dance music. That’s how you started professionally as a drummer, isn’t it, playing swing music, dance music.

HB: Yes, my father was a studio drummer. Rein Bennink. He also played clarinet in Benny Goodman’s style, and very good tenor in sort of Coleman Hawkins’ style. So the first drummer I ever heard was Gene Krupa, playing with Benny Goodman, “sing, Sing, Sing.” My father also had a band where he played for the Army. I refused to go in the Army (but that’s another thing), but I still played for them when I was like 17 years old. So I started doing these gigs with my father. But besides the band, we had singers, acrobats, and sometimes a nude show or whatever. So I’ve been doing all that sort of shit, really.

TP: Who were the drummers you patterned yourself after? By the 1950s, Kenny Clarke had moved to Europe…

HB: Kenny is my absolutely favorite. I saw him a couple of times in Holland, because he was working with Pim Jacobs Trio with a female singer, Rita Reys. Rita Reys was sort of well known. She recorded in New York with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. I think it must have been around 1957. Then I was sort of teaching at the conservatory later, and I invited Kenny to do a master class. So I really did know him and his wife, who came from Rotterdam – she was Dutch. They lived in Montreuil, in Paris. Kenny set…it’s a black premier(?—10:42) still on the music school there. He was an amazing drummer.

TP: Say some more about his qualities and his place in the pantheon.

HB: The first time I saw him was in the Concertgebouw. The Phineas Newborn Trio was playing there, and Kenny was playing, Oscar Pettiford was playing there. Lee Konitz was playing there. The Concertgebouw is actually built for classical music, so it’s very boomy. When I saw Kenny playing for the first time, it was a shock for me. I was listening to a very tiny little radio at 12 o’clock under my blankets. We had Willis Conover from Luxembourg, and he had a jazz program. So I listened to music always fearing to control the button… But when you see the guys playing live, that’s another thing. It just sounded so amazing. And his brushes playing! I loved his brushes playing. And the feeling for the rhythm. It’s so light. It’s so up. It’s always dancing. It’s never draggy. It’s amazing.

TP: Who were other jazz drummers you paid attention to during your formative period?

HB: I’ve seen Philly [Joe Jones] a couple of times. Beautiful.

TP: Did he come over with Miles Davis and you heard him then?

HB: Yeah, and I saw him later with the group Dameronia that he was leading. An amazing drummer.

TP: But that was later.

HB: Yes.

TP: You were already a professional.

HB: Oh, yeah, professional. I am never a…

TP: Well, you certainly are. Over 40 years…

HB: Yeah, yeah, but it’s just such a heavy word.

TP: Anyway, describe his impact on you.

HB: It is hard to say. Enormous control. I was sort of aping the American drummers. But I come from Europe. It’s a completely different cultural background also. But part of the background, of course, is this jazz music. When we were young, we were listening either to Little Richard, Bill Haley, or jazz music – and that was about it. But now it’s hip-hop or rap or whatever.

But it’s very hard to say what it actually meant to me. For example, seeing Elvin live… And later on when I was playing in the Gato Barbieri band in Europe, we were traveling all over Europe, and it was the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine, the Gato Barbieri group (I was in that group with Lonnie Liston Smith and Mtume and me on drums), and the other group was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. So I met them all.

TP: You’ve been playing drums, I’d guess, since you could pick up a pair of drumsticks, given your father’s profession.

HB: yes, more or less.

TP: So I’d guess that seeing these great drummers and the different ways they got sound from the instrument, you’d be a quick mimic – see what they did and get that feeling.

HB: Yes, trying to get that feeling.

TP: You had a reputation among American musicians.

HB: Well, in 1962, it went like very quick with me. I started playing with Rene Thomas, but later on with Johnny Griffin, of course, and Don Byas, and Ben Webster lived in Amsterdam, and Dexter of course, and Wes Montgomery and Clark Terry and all those cats.

TP: They’d come through, you’d be the drummer, and they liked you because you could swing.

HB: Yeah, that’s right.

TP: When did you and Misha Mengelberg meet?

HB: I know Misha since 1960.

TP: What were the circumstances?

HB: Misha had a trio, and he was very much into material by Thelonious Monk to play. It was sort of strange in Holland; they were more interested in a fluid style like, say, Oscar Peterson or that thing. If you did Monk, that was really outrageous. At that time, I was at the Academy of Art in Amsterdam, and I brought all those records to our lessons, like “Misterioso” and all those pieces. So it happened to be that Misha was looking for a drummer, and it was in Utrecht in a jazz club called Persepolis. I played with him, and since we’ve been playing all the time. It’s an incredibly long…

TP: 40 years.

HB: Yes. Amazing. So strange. I think the only people who could say that in the music were Duke Ellington and Harry Carney.

TP: Maybe John Lewis and Connie Kay… There are a few people, but not many.

HB: Yes, it’s amazing. And in daily life, I practically NEVER see Misha. Maybe I’ve been at his place a couple of times, but not for food.

TP: So you don’t socialize. You just play.

HB: Not so much.

TP: I’ve read in press clippings his describing a famously love-hate relationship.

HB: Yes, but Misha is a big liar also.

TP: He’s a big liar?

HB: Yeah-yeah-yeah.

TP: What does he lie about?

HB: About everything. But on a very high level.

TP: Perhaps we can hear how that manifests at Iridium this week as the Dave Douglas Quartet performs.

HB: It’s a brilliant quartet. It sounds very good. I am very happy to play. Especially with Brad. It’s for me the first time to work with him… Because we’ve been playing with Dave in a trio and I’ve played a couple of duo gigs with him. I played last year in Italia, in the Dolomites 1,800 meters high. So I know Dave. But to be with Brad is really nice.

TP: We have cued up a duo between Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink from ICP 031, I think.

HB: It’s old, maybe 9 years or something like that.

TP: It’s an improvised duo?

HB: Of course.

TP: We’ll probably have to cut out, because it lasts 33 minutes and 42 seconds…

HB: It’s beautiful, but it goes much too long.

TP: I’ll fade out when Han Bennink tells me to.

HB: Cool.

[MUSIC: Han-Misha Excerpt-1991; Dexter Gordon 4 with Han, “Scrapple From the Apple”-Feb. 5, 1969-Amsterdam Club Paradiso]

TP: You couldn’t have a better aural illustration of Han Bennink’s scope and the history that he encompasses in his tonal personality. I’d like to speak a bit about your experiences during the 60s with some of the American jazz musicians you mentioned – Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster. How long did you play with Dexter Gordon?

HB: I played a couple of years with him. Not years… he lived in Copenhagen and he came on and off to Holland for tours, like for 14 days. I used to do gigs with him, and I loved playing with him. He was also a very, very good singer. But at a certain time, he was working for an amount of money and I was working also for a certain amount of money, but my money was so less that I asked the promoter if he could pay me a little bit more. That was not possible at that particular time, so I left actually. It had also to do with the fact that at that time I was playing with Willem Breuker and Misha and Peter Brotzmann and Evan Parker. So I was still doing time gigs, time playing, and trying to swing as hard as I can, but also the other improvisation stuff that doesn’t have to be time. It can be but it doesn’t have to. So my real interest at that particular time was already on the other side.

TP: I’d like to talk more with you about that evolution. But you also played with Ben Webster, you played with Sonny Rollins…

HB: Sonny Rollins – fantastic! He’s my still living big example. What a guy. Amazing. I talked about Pim Jacobs already. He actually died. But he had a television jazz program, what was called Jazz Scene. Because he had the money and the power to invite people to come from America. Like, Donald Byrd played there, and Wes Montgomery, and Johnny Griffin – but also there was one thing with Sonny. Pim was not playing at all. It was his brother, Ruud Jacobs, who was playing the bass. So it was actually my favorite setup, like Sonny Rollins live at the Village Vanguard with Elvin and Wilbur Ware, or Pete LaRoca. So we did play maybe for a week or so. It was just amazing. Amazing. I recently received a letter from him while he was performing in Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. I tried to keep in touch with him, but he was too busy and all that. I was very emotional, like, hearing him… But two days later, there was a big letter from him on my doormat. I am very proud of it. My big wish is to play once with him again, really.

TP: As you said, you were playing time gigs, swinging gigs, and also with the nascent…

HB: But now I am doing exactly the same with the Dave Douglas Quartet. We have let’s call it places in the rough, like with golf, but we have also straight gigs, or time – but that has to swing. There was a time with the so-called “new music” or “free music”… “Free” is such an incredibly weird title. “Free music.” Does it mean that you have to pay for it? Or what is free? Anyway, if a drummer is playing more a pulse than a meter… After a while, I found it to be boring. Because when I like to hear something interesting, you can also put your drumkit in a hailstorm and you can hear all sorts of sounds. But when it comes to tempo, I like to play rhythms as a drummer. I think that’s actually what a drum is made for – to play rhythm and to swing the band, rather than this plink-ploink stuff. I do that, too, but not all the time. I have a short counterpoint for that. Not too long. I also like a meter. And when it is a meter, it should swing – or at least trying to swing, like Kenny or Philly Joe or Roy Haynes.

TP: So Kenny Clarke and Philly Joe Jones and Roy Haynes are in the back of your mind regardless of what the situation is.

HB: That’s all history. Right? Or Baby Dodds, or Zutty Singleton, or Ray Bauduc. All those people. Fantastic.

TP: When did the notion start to form of playing in different, or playing just with sounds if you wanted to just play with sounds?

HB: When I was just coming from the art school I started to listen to Albert Ayler. I saw the Albert Ayler Quartet in Hilversum with Sunny Murray. I borrowed my drumkit to Sunny Murray. Gary Peacock and Don…

TP: You loaned Sunny Murray your drumkit for that record with Albert Ayler.

HB: Yes. I saw Don there, and sometimes I played with Don with the Peter Brotzmann Trio. But that was like a shock, to see that in 1964. It was amazing.

TP: You were oriented to swing and bebop. How did it strike you when you first heard that music?

HB: Of course, I wanted to do that, too, and I started listening to the New York Art Quartet with Milford Graves and Roswell and John. So I got very much into that, and by the time I recorded with Willem Breuker for our own label, the New Acoustic Swing Duo, I was playing and was interested in playing tablas, mringdam, balafons and gongs. I had a whole van full of that shit. Really! Bells from everywhere. It was like a little museum. I needed so much space on the stage that it was a bit odd for Misha. Misha was sitting all the time in the corner and I was banging around. Now I am reducing myself tremendously. I just like to go like Marcel Duchamp, only use a couple of sticks, or a matchbox with two matches, and still play the shit out of it.

TP: Do you see analogies between Duchamp’s approach and the way you approach music?

HB: Actually, I am an artist and a painter, and I come from the art school. So I am still looking and looking. I don’t have much time to paint or to do art, because my heart and my desire is in playing music and I have to travel so much for that, so by the time I’m home I really have to rest before I start to do another drawing, I like to practice very, very long. There is less time. I have my diary and I make even the new record sleeves, something like that…or CD sleeve – sorry.

[MUSIC: Misha Mengelberg solo, “Ik Hab Een Turqoise…I have a Turquoise Cap”-Buzz Records; Misha-Han duo-1992; ICP Orch, 1997, from Jubilee Varia]

TP: That duo entered more orchestral sections. The ICP Orchestra has been existence in one form or another for over 30 years, as is the label ICP – Instant Composers Pool.

We’ve heard Han Bennink with Dexter Gordon, in duos with Misha Mengelberg and Dave Douglas over the first hour. The next segment will present music by the Clusone Trio, a group which I guess gave you in your late forties or early fifties…gave Americans their first consequential exposure to Han Bennink, who had been highly visible to an international audiences for many decades. Clusone emanates from ICP Orchestra. I’d like to step back to the 1960s, and discuss the gathering-together of like-minded musicians looking for new ways to express themselves, to shape form, to find their own voices within a European context.

HB: Well, you had in Germany Peter Brotzmann. He started his own label, actually a half-year before ICP started. ICP was at that time Willem Breuker, Misha Mengelberg and myself. In England, people like Evan were very busy, and Paul Rutherford, and Derek Bailey of course, and Steve Beresford…

TP: In the 60s, Steve Beresford…

HB: Yeah, yeah…

TP: John Stevens was doing it then.

HB: Yeah, of course. John was playing, and Trevor Watts.

TP: How did you find each other?

HB: It comes by playing on a festival or whatever. You just meet somehow. There’s no special reason for it. For example, I am not the type at all who comes out of his house or say, “Now I go to London to see what’s happening there.” No-no…

TP: You’re a working musician, and in the course of your work you encounter people and make associations.

HB: Yeah, that’s right. Peter Brotzmann had a bit more facilities in Germany – because Germany is simply bigger than Holland is. He invited Evan Parker and Derek and Paul Rutherford, and then it started working.

TP: I think my earliest document of ICP is a record John Tchicai did with you around 1970.

HB: Yes, that’s ICP 004. It’s called Fragment. It was Derek Bailey, John Tchicai, Misha and myself.

TP: I should have brought the LP>

HB: Wow. Well, you brought so many already.

TP: All CDs. But let’s talk about ideas evolved. It seems people from each country developed different ways of organizing sound, and developed distinctive personalities that merge when the individual musicians come together.

HB: Mmm. We always were sort of compared to the other European countries a bit tasteless. We were doing everything… Like, for example, in England in improvised music at that particular time it was absolutely forbidden to go into a blues or a march or whatever. We were absolutely tasteless in that sense. We took everything. That has a lot to do with Willem, of course, as a composer, and of course Misha. They were both writing for bigger groups. We were doing theater pieces, musical theater — still in 1974. Then Willem Breuker went his own direction and Misha stayed like ICP.

TP: How would you describe the difference?

HB: Still I love to play with Willem as an improviser, but I don’t like to play like a fixed program, in a way. It was a bit too static, in a way, probably for me. But nevertheless, I admire Willem tremendously, and all our work, all our CDs are coming via BVHaast, and distribution is done, and we have the same fantastic manager in ICP and Willem Breuker in the sense of Susanna von Canon, who has been doing this wonderful work for us. So it’s nothing like enemies at all.

TP: I was trying to get to the aesthetic direction more.

HB: Willem liked to have a band and travel with a band, and the feeling of those… ICP, for example, our band now is Mary Oliver on viola, Tristan Honsinger on cello, Ernst Glerum on bass, and we have Ab Baars for reeds, Michael Moore for reeds, Wolter Wierbos for trombone, Thomas Heberer on trumpet, Misha and me. All of those people personally can fulfill a one-hour solo program. So in the end, they are all solo players. But somehow, the chemistry in this band is so well. They like to work for each other, and that is amazing. So the setting is already different, compared to Willem. We have, of course, a lot of material, but Misha just makes a program like, say, 5 minutes before the show, and then we’re waiting, looking for the sheets… I can’t read notes, so for me it’s very easy. I have it all in the head. Sometimes it happens that I am the only one who knows about all tunes by Misha — I can sing them. “How was that going?”

TP: Are some of the things ICP plays now thing Misha wrote in the 60s?

HB: For example, in the group with Dave for this week we play many old compositions from Misha. But also Herbie Nichols material, which is of course very nice, and some Monk pieces.

TP: Even Ellington. I think you were playing “Happy Go Lucky Local” to conclude a set at Tonic recently.

HB: Yes, with the ICP Band. But I am very quick moving from the Quartet to ICP.

TP: Sorry. You were talking about Dave Douglas; I was talking about ICP. Talk about what in the broader cultural milieu of Holland in the 60s influenced you towards incorporating theater and absurdism in your presentation. Misha Mengelberg has talked about being influenced by the Fluxus movement.

HB: Yes, absolutely.

TP: John Cage, Nam June Paik – those kind of people.

HB: Misha is, of course, older than I am, and he was doing some Fluxus movements. For me, I was very interested and reading about it, but I was in the art school… I met later on Wolf Vostell via Brotzmann, because Brotzmann was also a Fluxus member, and then we had a very good friend and Fluxus member, Thomas Schmidt, in Berlin. I met Josef Beuys and I played at his opening. So it’s not so much to say. It just happened.

TP: It was part of the milieu in which you existed and functioned.

HB: Absolutely, too, when we played in 1969 in Berlin, we played for the heavy left-wing student movement – Rudi Dutschke and all those cats. Peter was very much into that. I am not interested in politics at all. I can play for all parties, but I don’t like to play for fascists and rednecks. But for the rest I am very flexible.

TP: Was Misha political in the 60s?

HB: You should ask him. Yeah, I think he was, but not so heavy than all the other…

TP: Less so than in England or Germany with many of the musicians. Let’s talk about the affinities by which Clusone Trio was established out of the ICP Orchestra.

HB: The Clusone Trio…actually we had an invitation to play in Clusone. Clusone is in the north of Italia, near Bergamo. At the time we were invited to play, it was a quartet. There was no name for it. The quartet was Michael Moore, Ernst Reijsiger, the cello player, Guus Janssen, and me. Those are all fantastic players. But somehow it was set-up…actually thesame set-up that I work in this week… It was a jazz set-up. But Ernst was dealing with the cello, so there was no bass. But it was a real jazz quartet. I like actually a bit more space. I love to play with Guus Janssen duet. He’s most of the time playing with his own brother. But I love to play with him. He’s a very good composer and a very skilled piano player.

So Guus went out and we carried on as a trio, the Clusone Trio, and it became very, very successful. We traveled to Australia. We were playing in Vietnam. We were playing in China. We were playing in Burkina-Faso. We were playing in Mali, and all over Europe. It was really very nice. I know Ernst since he was 12 years old, and then he came to me already. So I had a relationship with him. Ernst was sort of responsible for getting Michael to Europe, so that was cool. And Michael’s interest in pieces and…

TP: He comes from a background not so dissimilar to yours, with a father who is a music teacher…

HB: Yes, his father is Jerry and he’s a very high-rated teacher in Eureka, California.

TP: So I guess it was a superb chemistry.

HB: Yes.

TP: And I guess the group disbanded maybe two years ago.

HB: Something like that.

[MUSIC: Clusone 3, Irving Berlin repertoire]

TP: We were speaking of the ICP Orchestra as it developed during the 80s, when it, as one of the clippings I read from Misha Mengelberg put it, it began exploring repertory, and specifically repertory by the composers who were his great influences in the 1950s, Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington. Had did this transition happen, from the raucous, more open-ended, theatre-composition from before.

HB: I think Misha actually is more interested to write his own material, but somehow I think he had an invitation for the radio to do a whole Herbie Nichols set-up. Because we always have to a little bit force him in the direction to put up or to come or play this older material. I think it was an invitation from a radio station, and it was the ICP Orchestra plus George Lewis and Steve Lacy.

TP: George Lewis was exploring electronic music and AI in Amsterdam at the time.

HB: Right. He was busy with his improvising robot. But of course, with us he played the trombone, thank goodness.

TP: The track we’ll hear features another trombonist, also appearing in town this week with Archie Shepp, Reggie Workman, Andrew Cyrille, and Grachan Moncur at the Jazz Standard. It’s Roswell Rudd, from a record titled Regeneration from 1982 on the Soul Note label, with Steve Lacy – both were involved with the music of Herbie Nichols and Monk during their formative years in New York. Also Misha Mengelberg on piano, Kent Carter on bass, and Han Bennink. What do you recollect about the album?

HB: This record was also an idea by our friend Filipo Bianchi, and of course, we knew that Roswell played with Nichols and there are more compositions of Herbie Nichols also, so we brought it together.

TP: On Herbie Nichols’ original recordings, the drummers were Max Roach and Art Blakey – also Dannie Richmond. Did you hear those recordings when they were out?

HB: Of course. I have them all. I particularly like them with Art Blakey. I have two 10″ he actually made for Blue Note, and a bigger one, a normal one with Max. But I prefer the ones with Art Blakey. Maybe it’s with the type of his piano playing… Personal taste.

TP: Herbie Nichols in his writing orchestrated for the drums.

HB: Yes.

TP: The feeling of the drums, and sometimes the parts were specific. In your interpretations, do you hew to that?

HB: Of course I hew to that. On one album for Blue Note, he wrote these fantastic liner notes. Of course, Misha, who brought me the whole idea of Herbie Nichols… When you play that stuff, I think you have to stay as close to what’s actually meant with the particular music at that time. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense to me.

TP: For you it’s all an aural process? Do you have the sort of memory where you hear something and it imprints itself… Do you hear like that?

HB: Oh, no-no. I can’t tell you nothing what I am doing. I cannot do that, because it’s music and it’s no words. When it was music, if it was language, so I could write a book and you could go from page to page what I am actually doing. But it is not. So I have to do it tonight again, and hopefully tomorrow again, and after tomorrow. But there are no words for that to me. I cannot declare my music.

TP: I wasn’t trying to break down your technique. I was thinking of the way music enters your mind and comes out.

HB: Yeah, but it’s completely abstract how that works. I can tell you nothing about it.

TP: So it’s as organic as language.

HB: Yes, I guess.

TP: I guess you’ve been doing it since you start learning language, so it’s organic as language.

HB: Yes. Well, you dive in the middle of a swimming pool and you try to reach the sides, and there’s nothing more to tell. I throw myself into a musical situation, and I have to…

TP: If you’ll use the analogy of being thrown in the swimming pool, then hopefully you’ve learned how to swim.

HB: Absolutely.

TP: You’re not diving in without a thorough background.

[MUSIC: Rudd-Lacy-Mengelberg-Carter-Bennink, “Blue Chopsticks”; ICP Orchestra, “Spinning Song”]

HB: Dutch Masters was made in an awful little studio in Milano, really, with a terrible drumkit, and I had to sit in a drum booth that was horrible. Horrible circumstances.

TP: Sometimes beautiful pearls emerge from the ugliest surroundings.

HB: Oh, yes. For example, listen to Bird at St. Nick’s. It’s one of my favorite albums, and the circumstances there must have been horrible – so much noise.

[MUSIC: Rudd-Lacy-Bennink, “Hornin’ In”; ICP Orchestra, “Bospaadje Konijnehol”; “Mooche Mix”]

HB: Many people are not playing in our band any more. Our band has been changing all the time. I think now we have the best band there ever was.

TP: Why is that?

HB: It’s so well balanced. I’ve been learning a lot, so… I have a name that I can play sort of loud. But in the ICP Orchestra I have to behave, because now I cannot play louder than, for example, Mary Oliver who is playing violin, and in pieces where the sections are playing things, has to be heard. So I am reduced to lots of brushes work. That makes you a good brushes player.

TP: You said “reduced.”

HB: Yeah, sure. My English is sometimes a bit short.

TP: Now the ICP Orchestra has been performing the repertoire it has for 20 years; it’s an established fact, and a few generations of musicians have come up hearing it, some of whom are playing in the band. How does that affect their approach to the music once they’re in the band?

HB: It’s not easy to play in that band. Well, it’s Misha’s band. Misha is writing for it. But I am also responsible to bring in new people. Because I play with a big variety of people, so I actually brought everybody in except Thomas Heberer, the German trumpet player – he came via Misha. But for the rest, I brought in all. There’s nothing more to say about it; it just functions fantastic. We all love to play in that band. We do a lot music-wise. It’s not an ego thing at all. We just go for it in a positive sense.

TP: I’ll raise a question that we were discussing when the music was on? Does ICP play much in Holland?

HB: We never play in Holland. We play, say, 5 or 6 times a year in Holland. We’d love to play more. But it’s expensive to have 9 people on the road, and then the possibilities in Holland… Everybody from abroad thinks, “Wow, Holland is a mecca of improvised music.” It probably is, but the possibilities for us to play are very small. Also, we live in a very small country. In that country’s network, say like 15 clubs where you can perform, and maybe we can perform in 7 of those clubs. When you do that round once or twice a year, you’re done. You have to go to Germany or france or England or America. But then you must have a name that people like to have you as well.

TP: And you have to establish a tonal personality that people recognize and want to hear.

HB: Absolutely.

TP: Which Han Bennink has been doing all his life.

HB: I do my best.

TP: you travel around the world, more than ever.

HB: More than ever.

TP: You know musicians everywhere, and you cover every area of music. A lot of older musicians now, from different ends of the spectrum, James Moody to Andrew Hill, say that the quality of musicianship among young players now is the highest it’s ever been. They’ve never seen it quite like this in terms of what they can do and their openness to many times of music. What’s your sense of that.

HB: If you think in the sense of instrumentalists, a skilled player, there are many, many skilled players, and not only in our music but also in classical music. When I was performing in the Lincoln Center, I was passing by Juilliard School of Music, and I was surprised at how many people from Asia were carrying a violin and coming out of that school. So I think there’s a hell of a lot of competition in certain musics, and probably also in ours. I train myself a lot, more than ever. But I think exactly what Kenny Clarke said to me. “Well, you must have enough technique to explore yourself so you can make yourself…” Like, having lots of technique like a Buddy Rich, or other technique like, I don’t know, Roy Haynes or someone like that – those people have their personal touch and personal tuning for drums, and personal sounds. So it comes to a person rather than to an overall technique. But they are very skilled. Nowadays people can play… And standing on their head, for example. Well, I’ve seen it once. Don Byas standing on his head, playing saxophone, “Body and Soul”, upside-down, also backwards.

TP: He played the tune backwards and was standing on his head.

HB: Yes, and standing on his head. In a bathroom of the Hilton Hotel. It was a party. The Dizzy Gillespie band was there, and Don came from Amsterdam (because he was based in Amsterdam) to see that. He did all those sort of tricks. He was an amazing player.

TP: There’s a certain component to what you do that’s lost on a CD. You have a visual aspect. You’ll play the telephone…

HB: That might be true, but you don’t miss it in the music.

TP: I sometimes have to close my eyes when I see you play, so that I can focus on the musicality of what’s going on. The visual stuff can be distracting.

HB: Yes, but it is still based on the music and the musical possibilities – what’s going on at that particular moment in the band. When there’s nothing happening, there is for me no reason to leave the drum chair and play in the hall, because it means nothing. But when there’s a musical tension between Misha and me on stage, then I can leave him alone and I can leave him PERFECTLY alone, because he can take care of himself probably better than I do in music live. So then it is a reason for me to do something else. But when the music is not happening, I can’t do it. It’s sort of static. For example, when I have to play in a club like where we play tonight, that is more like a jazz club set-up – when you’re behind the drums, you are behind the drums. You can hardly move because of the little space. I like actually for myself halls not too big, but a space on stage where you can move a bit. Because for me, playing on the floor, on a wooden floor, or not even on a wood floor, is exactly the same for me as playing on a drumkit. Some drummers stay…or they want a 50″ bass drum rather than that high. I don’t have belongings in that at all. I am just pleased with two sticks, and that’s it. I like to make the best and the weirdest music out of that. That is my goal.

TP: Doesn’t matter what the drumkit is.

HB: Doesn’t matter. I’ve been playing on pizza boxes, carton boxes, pieces of wood, drumkits falling apart, broken drumheads, broken drumsticks – all sorts of stuff.

TP: You do that in your sculpture as well, no?

HB: Yes.

TP: A lot of it is with found objects.

HB: Yes, objets trouvees.

TP: We have two more duos before you leave. This is the most recent of many duo collaborations you’ve done with Derek Bailey over the years. I guess it goes back to about 1968 or so. On Incus?

HB: No. I did the first thing with Derek on ICP. It’s ICP 004. I think it must be 1969.

TP: Again, Derek Bailey’s vocabulary is now an established fact of the music, over 30 years. Back then…I don’t know, perhaps it wasn’t totally new; there’s nothing totally new. But in some sense it was, because of its electronic nature. Again, how does that familiarity with your partner’s vocabulary change the nature of the interaction? And this is not a live encounter. Here, you’d tape something, send it to the other…

HB: Yes.

TP: …tape a response, send it back, a response gets taped, and so forth and so on.

HB: Right.

TP: Just to use the word “free’ in the commonly accepted sense of free improvising, these people are all shaping utterly personal vocabularies that no one else is using. How does that familiarity then shape the responses?

HB: I don’t like it for myself when it’s static or fixed. And I know exactly what you mean. I was playing in Tonic not long ago, and Derek was staying there for a whole month, and I saw a concert he did with Blood Ulmer. I have to say, when you hear the guitar sound you recognize Derek immediately. I think that’s an incredible pro. You recognize Miles. You recognize Thelonious Monk. All great players. Also Derek. But in a way, it’s already done… “Oh, that’s Derek then.” But I’ve been recording now with a Punk guitar player from the Ex, Terrie Ex. His real name is Terrie Hessels. He is not into certain technique or overtones or this thing at all. He just starts moving. He’s more like an action painting, in a way. The sounds that’s coming from this sounded to me different from Derek in a way… Well, you can’t say from Derek that it’s not fresh, because he plays always fresh. But you know that sound now. So for me, it was fresh to hear the other approach from Terrie coming to it. Because when you play with Derek, you never know what he is playing, but you know that particular sound. But the other… That’s different with Terrie. So in a sense, when you play longer and longer, you have to run, otherwise the time is eating you. You know? And there’s not much time. The grave is yawning, as we say in Holland. So you have to keep running. That’s why I’d like to leave the studio and walk it off.

[MUSIC: Bennink-Bailey- “Duo#3”–Fragile (Incus 34); Bennink-Eskelin, “Let’s Cool One” from Dissonant Characters]

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For Master Bassist-Composer Ben Wolfe’s 58th Birthday, a 2001 Downbeat Players Profile, 2 Interviews Conducted for the Profile, and an Uncut 2015 Blindfold Test

Best of birthdays to bassist-composer Ben Wolfe, one of the strongest individualists in jazz 30+ years. In 2001, Downbeat gave me an opportunity to write a “Profile-Players” article about him; he sat with me for a couple of interviews, most of which couldn’t be used. They appear below the article.

 

Ben Wolfe (Downbeat “Players”Article) – 2001:

In the latter 1980’s, Ben Wolfe, recently arrived in New York from his native Portland, Oregon, was squatting in a funky apartment on Utica and Montgomery in the East New York section of Brooklyn. To take a bath he routed the water down a board from the sink; electricity came from a jerryrigged outside line. He was earning $20 a night, six nights a week, as bassist in the house rhythm section for a well-attended 1-4 a.m. jam session at Manhattan’s Blue Note.

“I quickly was on the scene,” Wolfe recalls, “but it seemed like I was the last one to get a real gig or a big gig. It drove me crazy, because I felt like I was ready. But I never was one to give up. A lot of people come to New York and get frustrated and leave. I always stayed.”

Persistence paid off for the moon-faced bassist; now 39, he boasts an enviable c.v. He cites lucrative, high profile ’90s gigs with the likes of Harry Connick and Wynton Marsalis, and is currently in the second year of his second go-round with Diana Krall. Each appreciates his professionalism, definitive harmonic ear, impeccable time, and — not least — the huge, unamplified sound his fingers elicit from gut strings. “I think it’s very ironic,” Wolfe states at his comfortable pad on a block of warehouses near the waterfront in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. “I never followed the crowd. But it makes sense. I never got a gig through an audition. I’m always hired for what I do, not for somebody who needs a bass player.

“I prefer the sound of every one of my favorite bass players — Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford – without the amp. I want to experience the problems that my heroes experienced — the strings breaking, intonation trouble, a drummer playing too loud. If someone is too loud and it’s out of balance, that’s the sound of the music. It shouldn’t be corrected manually.”

Wolfe most recently elaborated these purist principles on the suite-like Murray’s Steps [Amasoya], which follows a pair of well-received late ’90s disks [13 Sketches and Baghdad Theater (Mons)]. On each he hews to the aesthetic of group interplay and the rhythms of bebop, and displays a well-honed sense of sonic narrative.

“I’m definitely from the bebop well,” Wolfe avers, citing Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Bill Evans — as well as Ellington and Strayhorn — as primary influences. “I feel a connection to Mingus’ ’50s music, the way he combined playing hard and writing beautiful music.

“My music is definitely not bass oriented; most of my tunes are solo piano pieces that I arrange for the band. I like arranging, putting stuff together, finding different harmonic movements and sounds. I think of what I do as chamber music in a jazz context, as ensemble music, versus having somebody blow on top of a rhythm section.”

How does he reconcile quotidian sideman work with creative imperatives? “I think of myself as a composer who plays bass,” he says. “With Diana, I’m there as a bass player, playing tunes, trying to swing and make people feel good every night. We’re not trying to change the world. With Wynton, whose vision is so strong, I was playing original extended compositions; I learned a lot about ensemble writing from him. With both Wynton and Diana, it’s about trying to realize their vision and keeping your ego in check. When I do my music, it’s a completely different head space. I write and arrange all the music, do everything I’m capable of doing. I have much more control because I’m trying to realize my vision and conception.”

Not that Wolfe plans any radical career shifts in the near future. “Playing with Diana enables me to spend all my down time writing,” he concludes. “I like the idea of doing both things at the same time. If I had it my way, I would only play with my band, but that’s not a reality now. I think I have something tangible to offer as a leader. I feel patient. I’m always working on my music, and eventually I’ll get to do it.”

**************

Ben Wolfe (Downbeat Int.):

TP: I just said that you have to avoid cliches, and Ben said, “Well, that fits the modern jazz era,” then he said, “Unh-oh.”

[PAUSE]

TP: After talking about all those cliches, let’s talk about you started learning those cliches when you were young. You’re from Portland.

WOLFE: I was born in Baltimore, Maryland, but I grew up in Portland, Oregon. I moved here in 1985.

TP: Let’s get to some nuts and bolts. Are your parents musical?

WOLFE: My father played violin with the San Antonio Symphony for one season, and then he quit. He felt he was always fighting the instrument. He claimed he wasn’t that great. He actually got in without an audition, which is unusual in a symphony. He’s now a photographer. My mother is a therapist, a gestalt therapist, and she also owns some restaurants — she’s remarried. She loves the arts, but she’s not a musician; but she goes out to hear string quartets and loves jazz…

TP: So you came from a cultured Jewish family.

WOLFE: A cultured family. [ETC.] My great grandparents did not come from here. But my parents divorced when I was young. I grew up with my Dad. But I also came out of that whole Hippie thing, for better or worse, on my Mom’s side. Don’t put it in there, because it implies something… So my family was just me and my Dad, so instead of a traditional Jewish family, it was more like two guys who didn’t really know what they’re doing. Basically, he’d work all day and I’d be in school, and I’d come home and it would just be me watching TV and trying to be I guess an athlete, as all young kids try to be. When I started playing music in 7th grade it was like I found something that I could do, that was easy to do, that I was good at, or thought I… It was easy for me to do. I started playing the tuba in 7th grade, and that just consumed my life immediately.

TP: Was that through a school program?

WOLFE: Yeah. It was pretty good for what it was. Then in high school, they had me doing all kinds of different instruments. I was a tuba player, but they decided I should be a bass player also, so I was playing electric bass and a little acoustic bass. That’s when I discovered that some people in the band weren’t planning on being professional musicians. I wasn’t aware that there was a choice. I just thought that’s what you do. I didn’t think there was a choice. I started playing music, and it was so natural, so comfortable, it never even occurred to me it was something you do on the side. It just seemed like, “Okay, this is what you do.” I was very naive about it. I thought everyone was like that. I remember someone in the high school band said they were going to go to school and be a doctor, whatever it was, and I went, “Huh.” I didn’t understand. Then it finally occurred to me that maybe some people were just in the band for fun or whatever. So I never saw it that way.

I was playing a lot of electric bass. I started really enjoying electric bass, playing like in funk bands and stuff like that, and being…

TP: so you got your reading and so on together in the school band?

WOLFE: Well, I was a Classical tuba player, but I started really enjoying playing in the stage band, playing jazz and playing electric bass, which also was easy for me to do at first. And they also had me play acoustic bass in the orchestra, which I wasn’t into at all. But my father told me I would be. He really said that, and it’s funny; we laugh about it now. In high school, when I’m playing different instruments and stuff, this is ’77…

TP: so this is the height of Fusion and…

WOLFE: Fusion and the Disco era.

TP: Sort of the other end of the plateau of creative fusion and into the disco era.

WOLFE: I got immediately into Return to Forever and Weather Report. Stanley Clarke was my first bass hero when I was a musician and a bass player. And the first time I heard his record, I didn’t recognize the bass line. I thought it was guitar, so I didn’t know what it was. But at the time, everything was so new. My taste wasn’t… I didn’t really have good taste in music. I just enjoyed playing. I wasn’t listening… I was more into just, “wow, check out how so-and-so plays.” I wasn’t even really into the music, looking back. I believe in a musical adolescence, which I think a lot of people never leave, which is a part of the problem today — which is a whole nother subject.

Then through high school I started doing all these different things. I was going to camps in the summer, stage band camps, concert band camps… I wasn’t playing the acoustic bass at all. I wanted to be a funk bass player, a studio player. That’s what I was going to do. I was going to be like tuba in the symphony, I was going to be a studio player during the day and bass trombone with Basie or whatever big band. I started playing bass trombone, and I really got into that.

TP: Those Nelson Riddle charts..

WOLFE: I wasn’t really listening to anything. I was just playing all the time. It’s funny. I was playing music all the time, but I wasn’t like studying it, the way Wynton did in high school — he had a regimented practice thing that he did every day. I wasn’t like that. I was just a regular… I was out smoking weed, doing what everyone else was doing. But I was playing tuba and the bass. And eventually, my junior or senior year, I joined some dance band, so I was playing in bands. I finally formed my own little group, and we had this great singer, so we started playing high school dances. I enjoyed that very much. I was also going to two schools my senior year, a magnet program at another school that had a great music program. Me and this drummer would go over there in the afternoon, and I met more musicians over there. I started making friends who were other musicians around town and we formed little groups.

Let me back up a little bit, back to acoustic bass. In the stage band, I was forced to play the acoustic bass on a Count Basie tune. We didn’t have pickups or amps. So in a stage band contest, I played the acoustic bass with no mike and no amplifier, and the judges were really into it. “Wow, man, that sounds great. That’s cool. That’s like they used to do.” Which is what I do now. It was just an interesting coincidence.

TP: It’s interesting when musicians come up who are studied but are also ear players, in the way they approach music.

WOLFE: I wish I could say I was a total ear player. But that’s one of the biggest things I don’t have together actually, compared to people I see. I wish I was just a complete ear player. It seems like the most honest way of playing . I call myself a schooled street player in between. I was going to school, taking classes and studying, but at the same time all I wanted to do was play at jam sessions.

TP: When did the notion of jazz as such start to enter… When did you start identifying yourself as a jazz musician?

WOLFE: Not til later. My senior year we had a band called Swing Shift playing jazz where I was playing electric bass, and another band playing funk.

TP: Was it always just playing the function, or were you listening to role models?

WOLFE: I was always listening to Paul Chambers. Well I shouldn’t say always. My father would play me a lot of records of all kinds of music. Looking back, it seemed like he had it from me. He had a whole collection of records that were R&B, he had James Brown and whomever. Then he had rock records with the Stones and the Beatles, which I loved — the Who. He had all these jazz records, Charlie Parker and Mingus and Prez and Coleman Hawkins, and he always pointed these guys out to me. “Listen to this; this is Thelonious Monk.” I remember I identified Monk immediately. I remember hearing his left hand and really digging how he was playing. He played me this record, Paul Chambers-John Coltrane, with “Dexterity” on it. That’s the first one; it knocked me out. That became my THANG. I was a Paul Chambers freak. I mean, from then on. He’s my favorite bass player. I’m not saying he was the greatest…

TP: Well, he might be.

WOLFE: He might be. But then I have to put my Oscar Pettiford, some Jimmy Blanton… I had a definite connection with him. You know how the musicians you love, you almost feel like you know them personally, and all you ever hear is a recorded mike on their instrument. It’s amazing to me; you feel like you know them. But every other bass player says the same thing about Paul Chambers; it’s huge, the way he reaches people. At that point I loved it, but I was still into this other thing. I was just playing electric bass. Then I started playing in top-40 bands.

TP: That senior year of high school.

WOLFE: This was the senior year of high school. Then I’m in college, this Mount Hood Community College that has a great music program. I played bass trombone in their stage band and played electric bass in the practice room with people in these little combos during the day, and I’m going on the road with these top-40 bands. So I haven’t really found my home, so to speak. I’m doing all these things. I’m working. I’m playing electric bass. I’m playing trombone, playing tuba. Then I started playing so much jazz on electric bass. I’d go to the school, and all I would do was go in this practice room and set up and play. And I had a great theory teacher who also was an acoustic bass teacher, and I was playing Jazz jazz — and now I’m identifying myself as a jazz musician. I play jazz electric bass. That’s my thing.

TP: So you’re Ben Wolfe, you’re 19-20, it’s ’82…

WOLFE: I’m playing jazz electric bass in Portland.

TP: What’s the scene like in Portland?

WOLFE: Well, I’m still not quite part of the scene. I’m getting calls to sub every now and then. I’m still an electric bass player but people are starting to think I’m talented and wanting me to come hang out, and now I’m meeting people. But now I’m deep into jazz, I think. I’m still playing electric bass, but I’m deep into jazz in my mind, playing non-stop. That’s all I’d do, was play.

TP: Acoustic at all?

WOLFE: Every now and then I’d say, “Hey, I’m gonna check that out,” and I’d play it.

TP: So you had a certain facility.

WOLFE: Well, I was playing electric every day. But I didn’t think in those terms of facility. I just loved music. I picked it up and I could play it. I fooled around on it all the time. Then all of a sudden it occurred to me, “Wait a minute; if I’m going to play jazz, I’ve got to…” I borrowed this guy’s bass for a jam session — Louis Ledbetter. I was like, “This is what I’ve got to do.” It was like BAM, I found my home. So I asked a teacher if I could study with him. I told my father, “Look, I think this is it, acoustic bass. You were right. That’s what I’ve got to do. I want to play with top-40 band; I want to play jazz.” I must have really seemed serious, because he sold his violin and actually put up some money for me to get an acoustic bass — which was heavy. He hadn’t been playing the violin. And this guy, the bass teacher at the school said, “You know, you really shouldn’t do this.” He said, “Who knows if he’s really going to do this or not? He hasn’t even started yet.” And I was really into it.

TP: Put up or shut up.

WOLFE: But I was so into it that all of a sudden it’s like “Oh, this is it.” So I got this bass and I started taking lessons, and I started doing little gigs around town. Every night, my blisters… It was terrible. I was in pain. Then they had this little function in Portland. Some musician who was on the scene before me had passed away, so they had one of these things where everyone in town played, all these different bands played for this guy whom I didn’t know. And at this thing I was supposed to play with this one musician, and none of the bass players could make it, so I ended playing with everybody. Then all of a sudden I started working all the time. I started getting all these gigs in Portland, so now I’m on the scene.

I started playing with this guy Sonny King. He hired me for his band. Do you know who Nancy King is, the singer? He used to be married to her. He’s passed away. He was probably in New York in the ’70s, playing with Jimmy Garrison and these guys, a free jazz sort of alto player. And Lawrence Williams, who plays drums with Marcus Belgrave. Me, him, and this other piano player, Eddie Wheats(?), an older guy in Portland. He formed a band playing some original Coltranesque music. So now I’m in this band with these guys who have been around for a long time, and I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m playing with this great drummer, who to me was just amazing, especially at the time — this Elvin Jones-like drummer who writes ballets and long-form compositions and he called me “Partner.” So I was like, “wow!” I felt like I was playing with Miles or something. It was incredible.

So I’m in this band, and I’m practicing a lot. I’m playing literally non-stop. There are stories in Portland. “Oh, I hear you worked at the Fine Arts Building every night, all night long, practicing.” It wasn’t like that. But I made friends who were serious, and we would get together and play literally all night some nights at different places. It was non-stop. And I started working all the time, and I started making friendships. That’s always been important to me, having friends who also viewed things similar to me. Because most people I don’t agree with on anything. So even to this day, that’s real important to me.

TP: As a jazz musician, do you feel somewhat marginalized? [PAUSE, BATHROOM] first you were talking about cliches, that they permeate…

WOLFE: Just the whole thing. I’ll put it this way. It seems now, whenever I hear a new record or… Let’s see how I can put this…

TP: Jazz is a subculture. As far as being a sideman goes, you’ve got some of the highest profile gigs of anyone out there. Yet even you in the larger scheme of the music business are small potatoes, with 2% of the sales…

WOLFE: Oh, definitely.

TP: So jazz has to do with a point of view, a way of looking at the world.

WOLFE: No question.

TP: So one thing I always ask people is why jazz becomes the thing they feel they have to do.

WOLFE: Versus what? Versus playing with a Pop band?

TP: Or versus being some sort of creative Pop musician.

WOLFE: I think it all comes down to what one’s intentions are and what one’s goals are. A lot of people I see out here, I think they should do that. Because it seems that’s really what they’d rather do. I get the impression a lot of people would rather be in Funk bands and want to be Pop stars. I’m not saying that’s bad…

TP: Well, not everybody can be one.

WOLFE: Not everyone can be one, but a lot of times under the jazz name they can get a little further. But that’s all career. If you look at it from the art perspective, everything seems a lot different. The amount of people diminish greatly. Most of the people I know don’t seem so much coming from that perspective, where I really consider them artists versus instrumentalists. These days, it seems like a lot of jazz seems like an expression of the instrument versus something out of the mind. A lot of people are just demonstrating how well they play their instrument. I see that all the time. “Wow, check out how so-and-so plays! wow. Amazing! He’s all over the instrument. It’s always about the individual’s technical feats, it seems like, which is…

TP: Let’s continue on technique. You’re obviously developing a fairly substantial technique as a young guy.

WOLFE: I suppose.

TP: You’re listening to Paul Chambers, so you have a sense of the real elemental swing and how it’s supposed to sound…

WOLFE: Well, when I hear Paul Chambers, I don’t hear technique. I hear a character, an actual…

TP: But the technique is awesome.

WOLFE: The technique is awesome, but the technique is also completely unimpressive, in a way. Because anybody can learn the technique. The technique is not what makes Paul Chambers great. There are many bass players who have more “technique” who I suppose can play faster. There are guys now who can play much faster or… Well, it depends what you mean by “technique.” If you mean technique as far as producing a gorgeous around a/nd playing from the brain and really listening and all that kind of stuff, that’s fine. But when I hear Paul Chambers, the band always sounds good. And I hear a character in him.

TP: Who taught you how to look for making the band sound good? Is it innate? Did you know it intuitively?

WOLFE: Musical conception was always something that came easily to me. A lot of people have perfect pitch and can hear… Everyone seems to have certain things that come easy for them. That’s something I seem to understand easily. I’ve always thought that way, and I’m also always getting frustrated on the bandstand because of that, because I hear things that are little that drive me crazy. Playing fast doesn’t impress me at all.

TP: So in other words, technique reaches a point where it’s not an issue any more.

WOLFE: It’s never an issue. I don’t think technique is ever an issue.

TP: It is if you can’t play.

WOLFE: Well, it’s obviously necessary. I mean, the carpenter has to know how to hammer a nail.

TP: I can’t write an article if I use passive verbs.

WOLFE: No, you definitely have to have the technique. But the art being an expression of the technique. The technique is something you use to express whatever it is you’re trying to express. I think more and more, it’s become an expression of the technique.

TP: Technique becomes more a function of the craft, and the art is a whole different thing.

WOLFE: Right. The art is what counts. The only thing that really counts is the final product to me. That’s what counts. Of course, the more technique… I mean, obviously, Charlie Parker had amazing technique and facility on his instrument. But that’s not why you get chills… That’s not why when Bill Evans plays a ballad you might have a tear in your eye. It’s not because he understood…. That’s not what it is. It’s because he had a vision, and he needed the technique to produce his vision, and the whole struggle… That’s where it’s at.

TP: So is that part of the experience you had playing with Sonny King?

WOLFE: Well, at that time I wasn’t thinking this way. When you first start playing music, just the joy of playing the instrument is enough. The quality of the music for me wasn’t as important. It’s just I was so happy to be playing an instrument and to be able to do it what I thought was well for that point or whatever. But playing with Sonny King was just… At that time, everything was new. New experiences. Playing with a drummer, learning tunes, playing harmony… Everything was all new. At that time, I played with Woody Shaw for a weekend. He came through town. I was so not-ready to play with him, but at the same time it was incredible. I was so excited. I remember playing with Woody Shaw and I went and bought every Woody Shaw I didn’t have. Didn’t learn any of the tunes, but I bought the records and looked at them. I was just so thrilled and excited, and I went to this gig, and he called “If I Were A Bell,” I didn’t know the tune… I did a pretty good job. But I was so excited and proud. I remember afterwards he said he was going to Europe, and I was thinking, “Man, take me to Europe and get me…” In my mind I’m playing with Woody Shaw now. I said, “Yeah, who’s in the band?” He goes “Red Mitchell…” I’m staying here in Portland! But back then, everything was just about learning.

TP: Was Woody Shaw the first national guy you played with, or are you sitting in by this point?

WOLFE: By that point I might have played one gig with Bud Shank or something. But I think he might have been one of the first people I played with.

TP: You come to New York in ’85, you’re 22-23. You’d reached the point you couldn’t get any more in Portland?

WOLFE: I reached the point where I felt I needed to keep going. I was frustrated. I was playing with the same people in the circle. Not that I wasn’t learning, but it was time for me to move on. A friend of mine, a drummer named Alan Jones, who is actually back there now, had a place and needed a roommate. So I came out here. I got my car, put all my stuff in the car, and drove out here. Slept in the rest stops on the way. I had like $1000. I was so green. I had my travellers checks, and I was so afraid of everything. I was SO green. I came out here, and we lived in this funky apartment that was probably once really nice, and we paid rent for one month and they never charged us again. This guy Alan Jones is a guy who makes his own drums, his own machines, can fix anything, so he had electricity hooked up from outside illegally. Everything started breaking in his apartment. I remember to run a bath we had a take a board from the sink and let the water run down. But at the same time, it didn’t bother me. And I got a steady gig, sort of, because this drummer in Portland, Ron Steen(?), called Ted Curson, who he used to work with, and Ted hired me for the Blue Note. So I was playing six nights a week at this after-hours session, making $20, but meeting all kinds of people.

TP: That’s ’85. It was a very interesting time in New York. People were pouring in here and forming their sound.

WOLFE: Yeah, it was. I remember the guys who would come down there. Dave Kikoski was just in town. Benny Green had been here for a few years. Tyler Mitchell was down here doing the gig also. Art Blakey had the band with Jean Toussaint and those guys. They were down there. He ended up running the session. The Harper Brothers, Philip and Winard, were on the scene. Jeff Watts would come in sometimes. Grossman would come through… It was actually not bad. At the time we thought it was terrible, but of course it wasn’t bad. I did that for a couple of years under different leadership. Manny Duran ran it and Jean Toussaint. At that point I was spending a lot of time… I was living with or near Rudy Petschauer, the drummer, and Renee Rosnes. We were the rhythm section at the late night session.

TP: that was from ’85 to ’87?

WOLFE: Something in that vicinity.

TP: So six nights a week at the Blue Note. You must have learned a ton of tunes.

WOLFE: Learned a million tunes. Ted knew a lot of tunes. I was also forming my friendship with Ned Goold, this tenor player, who’s like a partner, a musical partner. That was important. We were learning a lot of tunes, and to this day we play each other’s tunes all the time. I’m on his CDs, he’s on mine. We were playing each other’s music during the day all the time. That was the most important thing happening back then.

TP: Shortly thereafter you hook up with Harry Connick.

WOLFE: That was in ’88.

TP: You’re in New York, you establish yourself as someone who’s reliable, can do gigs, your learning curve is expanding greatly, and you’re meeting your peer group.

WOLFE: Yeah, but I wouldn’t say I quickly established myself. I mean, I quickly was on the scene. But it seemed like I was the last one to get a real gig or a big gig. Everyone else seemed to have all these gigs. A years ago Ira Coleman told me, “Yeah, I remember it seemed like you were the last one to get the gig.” Everyone else I saw working, and it used to drive me crazy.

TP: Do you think it was politics?

WOLFE: I don’t know what it was. I think it just wasn’t time yet. I always believe everyone gets their chance. But at one point I started to feel like, all right, I’m just going to be this guy who never gets a gig. It was frustrating, because I felt like I was ready. But I never was one to give up. I always stayed. A lot of people come to New York and get frustrated and leave.

TP: Well, not everybody gets to work six nights a week at a place like the Blue Note. It kept you busy.

WOLFE: Well, everybody could come play at the session. I mean, it was just $20. It was a good thing. But I ended up meeting a lot of people. I ended up playing a lot of restaurants with this piano player, Rob Bargad. We played duo gigs all the time together. I started making associations. I met Harry Connick at the Blue Note. He was playing at the Knickerbocker, and I came by there and sat in or something. That started in ’88. That’s when everything changed, right at that point. We started doing duo gigs, the two of us. That’s when I met Wynton, because he came down and heard me play. I used to call him all the time on the phone; he was never home. I still call him all the time. Every now and then you get like a 5-minute conversation. It’s great, though. I love talking to him. [Don’t print that; it sounds…]

So now I’m touring with Harry Connick, making some good money, more than I had before, and doing television, and I started to make records, the When Harry Met Sally thing and all that…

TP: You were there when his star was rising.

WOLFE: That’s right. I was there doing all of that. And it was all new to me, the whole thing. Which I actually got caught up into, the stardom… It’s a very seductive world, and I won’t lie and say I wasn’t sucked into it. At one point, when the big band was happening, I wasn’t really practicing. I was into this world.

TP: You were profiling.

WOLFE: Yeah, the whole thing. all of a sudden I had money. I’d never had money before. That TV [32″ Sony] is part of it. When I bought that, I felt like I had bought a Mercedes. It was like, “wow!” It was all new to me, all those things. So I got really into it. I spent all the money I made. But I’m glad. It’s kind of like if you’re in a bad relationship with a woman, you look back and you’re glad you went through it so you don’t make the mistakes again. I’m not trying to say that experience was like a bad relationship. Because parts of it were great. I learned a lot of music. But I saw in that whole Harry Connick thing… You’ve got to be careful how you print this. But I saw a whole lot about the music business and how everything works. I saw the whole business side. It’s about selling records, filling houses. Which makes sense. The money has to come from somewhere. But I never thought about it that way before.

TP: That relationship has endured for several years.

WOLFE: Well, we didn’t talk for a long period. We would go through different things.

TP: What interests me is how that experience and playing with Wynton inflected your sense of music. Because if you’re playing as much as you were with people like Harry Connick and Wynton, with the visibility it gave you, there has to be an impact. It’s part of who you are, and continues to be.

WOLFE: Oh, no question. That makes sense. Well, playing with Harry Connick is when I was able to be out there playing the way I play, with the gut strings and no amplifier, which certainly isn’t something I started, but at the time there were only a few guys doing it. So now I’m doing this on a national stage, and I’m learning how to record in the studio, I’m learning how to play in different-sized rooms, I’m learning what it’s like to be on the road, I’m experiencing all these new things — which was great. Harry is an extremely talented musician, so now I’m playing with someone who’s scrutinizing everything I play. He hears everything.

TP: He’s a perfectionist.

WOLFE: Yeah. But he hears that way. He hears every note you play at all times. It was good that way. That was a great experience, playing in all different situation. First it was the two of us, then we had a trio, then we had a quartet with Russell Malone for a short time. We did all these records, touring a lot. Seeing the world was interesting. I’m going to movie sets when he’s making his films and meeting all these actors. It was whole nother world for me from squatting in East New York, out at Utica and Montgomery… 88 Montgomery. So it was Utica and Eastern Parkway.

TP: You’re hard core, man.

WOLFE: It wasn’t that. It sounds hard core. It sounds real romantic and hard-core. I had a car, so I could leave. But Harry Connick was a great experience. I learned a lot and I became a professional musician, in the sense that I was in a lot of situations where I had to deliver and learn to deliver.

TP: Yeah, before 15,000 people.

WOLFE: Learn how to play with a singer, and learn how to play with a band, learn how to play with a bandleader who’s a perfectionist, and he’s a star — learn how to be around a star type, whatever that means. Played with Branford for the first time. It’s funny. All of a sudden you’re on a gig now, and people talk to you in a different way, which is absurd — but that’s just how it is. When you’re just one of the many early-twenties bass players in New York, maybe you play okay, maybe you don’t… But there are hundreds of them. You’re fighting to be heard. All of a sudden, now I’m being heard.

TP: What was it about you that appealed to him?

WOLFE: I think the way I approached the bass was unique at the time, the fact that I was playing acoustically. I think the sound I produced was…

TP: Why was that the way you approach the bass? I’ll bet it scared a lot of people off, too. Maybe that’s one reason it was hard to get the gigs. You’re not following the crowd doing that…

WOLFE: I never followed the crowd. But the thing is, it makes sense.

TP: you don’t follow the crowd, but you get these high profile…

WOLFE: I think that’s very ironic. But the thing is, remember, I’m always hired for what I do, not for somebody needs a bass player. If I audition, I probably won’t get the gig. I never got a gig through an audition, ever. Someone hired me to do what I do.

TP: How did that attitude develop? It’s also not the easiest way to get a sound out of the acoustic bass?

WOLFE: Well, that’s the way that every one of my favorite bass players plays. Paul Chambers. Ray Brown at the time. Ron Carter in the ’60s. Oscar Pettiford. You can name any bass player. Not one of them do I like the way they sound with the amp better than without the amp. That’s just not how it happened. Someone will say, “Well, what if you can’t be heard?” — all these different problems. I wanted to experience those problems that my heroes also experienced. I wanted to experience the strings breaking. I wanted to experience the intonation problems; I certainly still experience them. I wanted to experience a drummer playing too loud and not being able to turn up. I wanted to go through all those things that they went through. That’s partly how it started.

TP: You seriously felt that way.

WOLFE: Oh yeah. I was saying at the time, “You know what? I want to go through those problems also.” With the gut string… I played Dennis Irwin’s bass, and I also played it on a guy’s bass in Oregon, and I said, “Yeah, that sounds like jazz bass ought to sound.” It sounded like the same instrument that’s on the record. Before that I was into Buster Williams and trying to get that kind of sound. That to me is a different thing. But when I put the gut strings on and didn’t have an amplifier, it sounded like the jazz from the records. Not the way I played, but the tone. It’s like hearing a fender Rhodes versus hearing an acoustic piano. If you’re into Bud Powell, the acoustic piano is going to make more sense to you than the Rhodes. The Rhodes is easier. You can turn it up, you can play faster and you can sort of control the sound based on electronics. That’s the same thing with the bass with the amplifier. You can turn it up if the drummer is too loud.

But I think that’s bullshit anyway. Dave Holland once said at a clinic… I remember this. This is going to sound weird, but at his clinic that he gave at Bass Shop, it moved me more than anything I heard him play before or since, hearing him play in his bands. Not that he don’t sound good, but hearing him talk about the bass and how he learned to play and his philosophies was amazing to me. It seems simple now, but like with Tony and Ron, if Tony played too loud and you couldn’t hear the bass, that’s the sound of the music. I totally believe in that philosophy. If the drummer is too loud or someone is too loud and it’s out of balance, it should sound of balance. It shouldn’t be corrected manually that way. So another thing with the amplifiers, they’re just not for me. I don’t think it sounds good. I don’t think it makes the band sound good. And that’s how all my heroes have played.

It also seems to me hat a lot of the bass players who didn’t play with the amps and then switched to the amps, sometimes it seems as if they think that the guys who aren’t doing that are making a mistake, when a lot of times they’re just doing the same thing they did. So if the amp if the answer, then I’m going to find out the same way they found out, going through the same pattern. But I don’t think it is.

I used to always have this conversation with people. I no longer talk about it, because it doesn’t matter. The final product is what counts. To me with amps it doesn’t sound as good. It makes the ride cymbal not sound good. But that’s all part of how to get the final sound.

But Harry Connick liked the fact that I did that. I think he liked the sound I got and the approach.

TP: It probably reminded him of the sound he was hearing from his models.

WOLFE: Maybe so. He was using Reginald Veal before me. It’s funny. We always end up in the same place. Our careers are different, but have been somewhat parallel. We always seem to be in the same places at different times.

TP: That brings us to Wynton, then.

WOLFE: Before Harry hired me, he wanted Wynton to hear me play at first. So I met him that way, and I’d talk to him on the phone every now and then. Eventually, Veal had some dental work done or something, so I subbed for him for like a month, and that’s when the Harry Connick thing, let’s say, dissolved.

TP: The first separation.

WOLFE: [LAUGHS] Yeah, there you go. Then I subbed and I prepared myself… They were real surprised I learned the music. “Wow, you played ‘Citi Movement’ without a rehearsal!” Well, that’s just professional. If one didn’t do that, it’s more like, “Why didn’t you do that?” instead of being celebrated for doing what you’re supposed to do. I mean, I always liked that they were impressed by that, but I didn’t think… I just learned the music. I was just excited to play.

TP: I’m sure with Wynton, if you take care of business, that’s the first principle.

WOLFE: That’s the only thing he cared about, the music. That was a great, great experience, playing with those guys. I loved it. I loved learning the music. And that’s when I was subbing, so it was really…

TP: Now, Harry Connick has a specific piano style and I guess he’s an ear piano player to the Nth degree so the stuff can go anywhere, but there’s a certain level with him that’s about presentation and showmanship. But Wynton is someone who has a very sophisticated and evolved compositional aesthetic. So it’s really two very different experiences.

WOLFE: Oh yeah. Harry at that time was a big band and it was a show. And with Wynton it was playing these ballets he’d written. So it was a whole other thing. It was no show, really. It was just the music. That’s what I loved about it. It was really interesting, playing with those guys. Then when Veal left the band, I took his place for basically two years. I should say one year.

TP: It was a very good year, though. Because when you hear this Vanguard record you can hear how his concept honed itself in in ’93, to the last stuff with Veal and the stuff you’re on in ’94.

WOLFE: I didn’t know it would sound that good when I heard it. Really I love it. I thought we sounded okay. I had no idea we sounded as good as we do on that CD. It was a good band.

In that band we did this tour of In This House, On This Morning, which was wild for me. Long-form composition, custom-made for Reginald Veal. I was always trying to play the music correctly and not be Veal at the same time. But looking back, I was still going through trying to find out where I was at musically. I was still going through this struggle with myself at that time with Wynton, and still learning a lot, and wasn’t as formed in what I wanted to do. I was still taking in a lot of information from him. In that band… What was the question?

TP: It seems that band was the first time you were involved in a very sophisticated, high aspiration, compositional entity. And these records are all about composition, really, or at least finding compositions where the personalities of your cohorts, Magnarelli and Gould can be expressed. So I’m curious how the experience with Wynton inflected your compositional attitudes in let’s say 13 Sketches.

WOLFE: Well, all this time we’re talking, I’m writing music. So the whole time, my career is one thing and what I’m trying to do is another thing. That’s been going on the whole time. I’ve always been writing music. Ned Goold and I are always playing together, original music, every day, since I got to New York. That’s always been happening and is still happening. That’s what I do. That’s the reality of who I really am as far as what I’m trying to do, and then the career is something else. That’s like half of it. It’s the half everyone sees.

TP: It’s also part of who you are. It’s all going in there.

WOLFE: Oh, definitely. But with Wynton, I was in a band now… When I was actually in the band, when I wasn’t subbing any more, I thought I was part of something important. It was great. It was like a real family, this band. It still feels that way when I go back and see them. It feels like family. I love that about that group. I always felt that’s what a band should be like. I really felt like I was part of something and I felt welcomed.

TP: Also, you were the first white guy who was ever part of the circle…

WOLFE: That’s not really true. I was the first white guy permanently hired in the Septet. Lincoln Center had white guys, and some piano players… I think Peter Martin played some gigs with Wynton. But that was NEVER an issue! Never an issue except for the issue around it. But the funny thing was, with all this stuff of Wynton being a racist or whatever you read, when I was in his band, no one ever asked me about it. No one in the press, no one in interviews, not one time ever suggested, “Well, he’s got Ben Wolfe in the band; he’s white.” It never came up. It was bizarre. It never came out of the band, except for people making idiotic statements after the gigs. It was never really an issue, other than like private jokes among the band out of love. Both ways. But that was never an issue. That was the most get-along band I’ve ever been with. There were more issues with things in the Harry Connick band. It was great, just like being part of a little family. We got along for the most part. We played music all the time. I never felt like an outsider. I mean, it’s like you see a basketball team. If there’s a white guy, they’re going not to be thought of as different. They’re like a team. It was never a problem, or an issue… It didn’t even really come up, other than… It really was never a thing.

TP: Did being with Wynton affect your compositional sense, your sense of maybe orchestration or…

WOLFE: Wynton had a huge influence on me.

TP: You’re also in LCJO at this point.

WOLFE: Before and after.

TP: It seems to me that one thing that’s really valuable at LCJO for Wynton is that he got to really get into the building blocks of jazz from the inside-out, because he had the scores and had to play the music in an idiomatic manner. So he’s playing Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington, Armstrong, Monk, the whole nine from the inside out in a way that most of your contemporaries, really starting from your generation, didn’t have a chance to do.

WOLFE: True enough. I see that. To me, I always like it best when Wynton plays Wynton Marsalis. I’d rather hear Lincoln Center play his music any time.

TP: But his music is very informed by those…

WOLFE: yeah, but it doesn’t sound like that. I don’t think his music sounds anything like Duke Ellington’s music. That’s the one common thing through all his records that I recognize, and I… Always, if I’m attracted to anything, it’s his composition. People always debate his playing…

TP: I think he has his own language, but… For instance, Blood on the Fields, those soli passages by the trumpets, are his own language, but the building blocks seem very much a 21st Century type of concept.

WOLFE: That’s what people say. I don’t hear it like that. He’s influenced by some Beethoven also. I don’t hear people say “Beethoven!” Obviously, he’s deeply into Duke Ellington, obviously, and it influenced him, clearly, but I… Going back to what we were talking about not being impressed by technique, I’m more interested in hearing the part… I tend to hear what’s him in the music.

TP: What was your attitude to playing that music?

WOLFE: I love playing Wynton’s music. You mean Duke Ellington’s music?

TP: Well, playing Wynton’s music and the J@LC experience of playing… Well, he doesn’t like it to be called repertory, and I don’t really think of it like that, but playing… Look, you’re out there sitting in the shoes of Jimmy Blanton.

WOLFE: It was great to play it at first. But I’m at the point now where I don’t want to play other people’s music.

TP: But put yourself in your shoes back then to how it’s inflected you now.

WOLFE: Okay, that makes sense. I think playing his music affected me more than playing Duke Ellington’s music. Because I’ve always heard Duke Ellington’s music, and I used to listen to Duke Ellington all the time, and I love Duke Ellington. You know, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly it influenced me, especially Wynton’s music. Because the way I write is different. He writes a lot thicker than I do. He writes real thick sometimes, and I don’t do it the same way. The thing I liked that Wynton used to do, which maybe influenced me but is something I’ve probably always been into anyway, is he would assign emotions to music sometimes. He would say things like, “This is about so-and-so.” He would express what’s happening in a non-musical way, what the music represents. That’s something I’m very much into, completely into. A lot of his conceptual things I learned, from being around him so much — the way he would talk to the band, the way he would say like the rests… Little things he would say influenced me a lot. The way he thought of music. The way he approached everything the same. Whether he was soloing or playing the written part, it was all jazz to him. And the whole ensemble concept influenced me, and that’s something I’m very much into also, the way of an ensemble still sounding like jazz, even if it’s not… Even if it’s written, if parts are written. His whole work ethic also. But it’s hard to pinpoint how playing the Ellington music influenced me. I mean, hearing it…

TP: Or Jelly Roll Morton or Monk…

WOLFE: I mean, I’ve always loved Monk. I’ve been into Monk since I’ve played music. That’s something I’ve always connected to, just the rhythm of Monk’s band, the way they play rhythms.

TP: But here you’re actually doing. You’re going on the road with this music and playing it a lot. It has to affect you. Or not.

WOLFE: I’m not sure exactly how playing all the Duke Ellington music affected me. Because at that point, I’ve already been on the road a lot playing a lot of different music. So I’m not sure how that affected me. Playing Wynton’s music affected me because it was a challenge to play it well, and try to find my own way of playing and also play it correctly. I think I gained more from playing Wynton’s music than Duke Ellington’s music. I think if I were in Duke Ellington’s band, I would get more from playing Duke Ellington’s music than playing… Like, if you’re in Duke Ellington’s band, you’re going to gain more playing Duke’s music than playing someone else’s music. You know what I mean? Not that I didn’t gain from it. It was great to play all those parts, all the Jimmy Blanton parts, all the Oscar Pettiford parts you’ve heard on records.

TP: But you’re inside-out with the architecture of the music.

WOLFE: In a way. But I’ve heard it. I’ve heard a lot of the music before. It was just getting a chance to play it. I’m not sure how much… It would be kind of like playing Charlie Parker’s music. I mean, listening to it I might gain more than playing his tunes. Maybe.

TP: More accurately, though, might be Dizzy Gillespie and being inside of the band.

WOLFE: That I wish we would do, play more of those tunes. Well, it’s hard to say. I’m sure it affected me. But I didn’t like break it down and go inside and study the scores. I just played the music.

TP: Is that not the way you approach music, like breaking it down into minutiae?

WOLFE: Not always. Not as much as others, I should say.

TP: When do you leave Wynton?

WOLFE: I finished in Wynton at the end of ’95; the septet breaks up and I do another year with Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. I’m also playing with Benny Green at that time and Eric Reed, and doing other little things in and out at this point. And I went back with Harry before I went back with Wynton. When I subbed for Wynton, and then joined his band, in between I played with Benny Green and Harry Connick — and Marcus Roberts, a little bit. Little pockets of things I was doing.

TP: A few words about Benny Green and Marcus Roberts, who are two of the most visible pianists of the era.

WOLFE: Well, I met Benny… Our high school band did a concert together when we were seniors in high school. We didn’t meet then but we saw each other. Craig Handy was in that band also. But we’ve played together in different situations, and we’re good friends. We played in the trio with Kareem Riggins playing free jazz! He was breaking out of the Oscar Peterson mold. He’s something else. I love Benny Green. I love his musicianship. I think he’s a great musician. We played over here at the house, myself, Ned Goold, Benny Green and Rodney Green, this young drummer. He’s my favorite drummer in New York. I love his drumming! We played over here, and it felt so good that I would loved to just give up all career and just do that. I would have actually done that! I’d have said “just do this.” Everyone was like, “Wow, this really feels good.” [ETC.] Benny and I talked yesterday on the phone. We have long, real conversations actually.

I played with Marcus for a very short time. We went on the road and rehearsed. I think Marcus is a really funny guy. He makes me laugh. I dig Marcus, and I really respect the fact that he’s trying to do something. He’s an artist. He’s not just trying to get over and sell records. Because he could easily associate himself with Wynton completely and just be that. And I don’t know what he did, but it seemed like he consciously removed himself to try to stand on his own two feet or whatever, which I respect and like.

TP: He makes some outlandish claims for himself, but then you get past it.

WOLFE: But he’s trying to do something. All his records, he seems to be trying… Which is more than most people do.

TP: You’ve played a lot with Eric Reed.

WOLFE: He’s one of these super-talented guys. He just can play anything. Yeah, we played a lot together, with different drummers… In fact, me and Eric Reed and Greg Hutchinson, I thought we had a great trio. I really liked that combination.

TP: Were you on that first record he did?

WOLFE: I’m on two records. The first Impulse record I’m on half and Ron Carter is on the other half, and the record before that me and Rodney split.

TP: So you leave Rodney in ’95 and you do your first record in ’96..

WOLFE: Yeah, I’m playing with Eric Reed at that time. I did my first record then. I’m doing a lot of gigs at Smalls with little… And I’m doing little gigs at the Village Gate. All through this time I’m doing little gigs. I’m writing a lot of music.

TP: So no matter how up on the feeding chain you get, you’re not losing your connection to the lifeblood.

WOLFE: I’m doing more. Every gig I’ve been doing feeds into that one way or another, whether it’s financially or learning things. With Wynton I learned a lot about writing. I don’t know what I learned. I can’t tell you what it was. But I learned a lot being around him. But I’m writing a lot of music during all this time. I spent a lot of time at the piano writing a lot of music, writing a lot of ballads.

TP: Was your first record a collection of things you’d been writing over the years or did you write stuff for the project?

WOLFE: Both. I had so much music, I just tried to record as much as I could.

TP: A bit about Magnarelli and about Ned Goold.

WOLFE: Joe Magnarelli was my neighbor when I lived on Thompson Street. He always seemed like he wanted to be there in my group. Like, the first time I hired him… I was at the Village Gate, I hired him for the weekend, and he came in on the Wednesday to sit in and had everything memorized. He’s real diligent, hard-working. I’ve known him for years, and he has improved so much as a trumpet player. Tardo Hammer once said to me, “Man, the first time I heard Joe Magnarelli, he sounded terrible, he was awful, and now he’s my favorite trumpet player.” He made this HUGE…like bang. But he works hard.

TP: Joe has a specific timbre to his sound, and it’s coming out of K.D. and Tommy Turrentine, but it’s his thing. Is that a sound you relate to a lot? Is it imprinted on you from early listening?

WOLFE: I don’t know. When Joe is playing good, there’s something about it… It just sounds good. He plays much different than I play. He seems to think a lot differently. I still don’t think Joe has really become what he’s going to be yet. I still think he’s fighting. Something is in his way. I really believe that. I’m not sure what it is. There’s a certain view he has seen yet into how to make music, and he’s still trying to figure out the instrument even though he can already do that. I think that’s his thing that he struggles with. But you can’t put that in there, but it would sound like I’m putting down my man. But I think that’s something with Joe, that he’s still not…which is somewhat frustrating.

TP: How about for you?

WOLFE: For me?

TP: Yeah, these two records… How do you see this new…

WOLFE: Well, on the first record, the bass playing is terrible. I didn’t play any bass on it. I wasn’t thinking about the bass on it. I wasn’t thinking about the bass. I was thinking about the record and about the music, and I didn’t play the bass well on that record at all. I didn’t like the way it sounded. I mean, except for a couple of tunes. But overall, I forgot to play the bass on the record. And the second record, I practiced a lot and I think I played the bass better. I didn’t solo very well, but I played the bass better. I think if you were to combine both the records, take a few tunes from each record, you’d have one record that I could live with forever. Each record has a few tunes that I’ll never wish were different. I can say that for both records. The second record I think was far superior to the first record. But it’s still not successful all the way, just like the first one.

TP: What would make it successful all the way?

WOLFE: Well, the first tunes of both records are successful. They sound good. I don’t wish something was different. They sound like music. I stay in the music. A lot of tunes didn’t come out conceptually the way I would have liked them to. Which is not… That’s normal, I suppose. Both records were done in one day, very quickly. A lot of tunes. The sound of the second record is better. I got a great sound in the studio on the second one, I felt. I really liked the bass sound for the most part on the second record.

TP: Again, was that first record something you wrote for the date, or had you been collecting tunes over the years?

WOLFE: In the two or three years before that record came out, I was writing differently. I was writing as if I was a composer as much as a bass player, versus being a bass player who wrote music and loved to write music. I was writing as a composer, a lot of music. So that record is kind of a product of a lot of that music, and it’s finding some kind of voice as a writer. The second record is a much more refined version of the first record. Each record I learned something. The first record I had trombone; the second record I had the baritone saxophone. They’re similar actually, but the second record is a little more realized, I guess.

TP: Talk about some of your compositional influences.

WOLFE: Billy Strayhorn is a huge compositional influence on me. Mingus, the way he wrote ballads. Yusef Lateef, from the Paul Chambers record First Bassman. Duke Ellington influenced me as a writer. Charlie Parker influenced me as a writer.

TP: On first blush, they sound like Bebop records, which isn’t like a lot of guys in your generation.

WOLFE: I’m definitely from that well. I don’t want to play Charlie Parker’s music every night, because he did that. I don’t want to play my influences’ music every night. But he’s a huge influence on me. And the rhythm of Bebop, the rhymes of it are definitely a big part of my writing.

TP: You also do some very hip substitutions. One of the tunes on 13 Sketches is “Little Willie Leaps,” very cleverly disguised.

WOLFE: Yeah, “All God’s Children Got Rhythm,” “Blind Seven.” That’s written for Sherman Irby. We used to play some card game, Blind Seven. Another tune on that record is based loosely on “Dewey Square”. Every tune on that 13 Sketches is a description of something, of a person or a situation. M Mostly people. Every single tune. The second record is pretty much descriptions of situations or people. The second record is more like a soundtrack for a movie without a movie, which is something I really want to do — and I just did something actually for this guy’s student film, with a 17-piece band, with strings and clarinets. I love that. That’s what I want to do. I want to write, compose and play the music.

TP: There’s some very specific technique involved with that, making the stuff fit the frames-per-second.

WOLFE: Well, this wasn’t that kind of thing. I don’t really care so much about that. I just want to write.

TP: When did you start with Diana Krall?

WOLFE: I played with Diana Krall for two years, and that ended a year ago, and I played with Harry Connick for the summer, and with Ned Goold as the opening act. We did that also, which was tremendous. A live record should be coming out. And I’m back with Diana now, as of a month ago.

TP: Again, it’s one of the highest visibility gigs…

WOLFE: It’s a good band. Right now it’s Dan Fanley, a guitar player from Oregon, and Shannon Powell, who used to play drums with Harry back when I played with him years ago. It’s nice. We just play tunes and try to swing. We’re not trying to change the world. But in a way, I like that it’s not trying to change the world. Because I have my own vision and that’s what I want to pursue. So every time I do a gig with someone, I’m like helping someone pursue their vision, so to speak. This is easier, in a way. I don’t mean this to sound bad. I play with Wynton, as much as I love playing with him, it’s a reminder of so much what I want to do and what I’m not doing. I’m seeing him do it, which is great. And in a way, Harry Connick, too, because he writes a new song every day and has his own band to play it. So it’s like, okay, why am I the guy in the band? I don’t want to be the guy in the band. I don’t feel like I should be, but who does? But I really believe in the music I write, as much as I believe in my bass playing — equally. With Diana, it’s we’re playing standards and just trying to make people feel good every night, so it’s a good gig to have for me, especially as far as keeping my frustrations intact. I get very frustrated on the bandstand sometimes. You should ask Benny Green; he’ll tell you.

TP: With other people’s imperfections?

WOLFE: With everything. I just see things more and more so clearly how I think they should be, or how I’d like them to be, and I’m still learning how as a sideman to realize I’m not either… Play the gig or don’t play the gig, but don’t make it your band, because it’s not my band. But I feel these things so strongly, and sometimes they’re really… To some people they would seem so small. Like the way a drummer holds his stick in his left hand. If he’s playing (?), it drives me crazy. I can’t play with it. It drives me nuts. It’s little things that most people don’t even notice. so I’m still trying to figure it out. That’s why I need to be a bandleader.

TP: One thing about being a sideman, there’s a level where music is also narrative, and if you’re playing with a singer you’re evoking these very palpable stories. you seem to think of it that way in terms of your tunes…

WOLFE: I think of it that way sonically, not so much verbally. But that’s true also. I don’t really know a lot of lyrics to tunes, though I should. When Diana’s playing the song I know them, but I probably couldn’t tell you the lyrics to the tunes afterwards. But when they’re being sung, I hear them go by, and I’m aware of them. But when the song is over, I don’t remember what they are.

TP: Does being around lyrics all the time for two years have anything to do with putting images for…

WOLFE: No. Reading books about Picasso… I read a book called Picasso on Art, talking about his views and people saying things that he had said — and that influenced me greatly. It’s hard for me to describe. I’m certainly not a painter, and I don’t want to sound presumptuous. I don’t know enough about… Well, you can look at his paintings different ways and see different things. I love the whole concept of duality; is it a tree, is it a woman… I love that kind of stuff? And I write that way. There’s a tune on the first record called “Ursula’s Dance” where it has two melodies. The melody could be a melody, it could be a counter-melody — it can be heard either way. It’s not important how one hears it, but it could be viewed differently. But that way of having things have dual meanings. I put a lot of stuff in my tunes just for me, that no one would ever in a million years notice, where I quote myself, or I’ll put a certain melody or chord or rhythm I used in other tunes, almost like as a marker for myself, so I know… I have a lot of things like that. My titles will have other meanings that are never… My mother once said to me, “You know, your titles are great if you know what they mean.” But no one could ever know what they mean. In the book, one thing that struck me was Picasso… Some students were talking about trying to draw the perfect circle, they’d spend hours trying to get a perfect circle. He said, “No, just draw the circle, and your personality will be in that circle every time.” I love that way of thinking, sort of little, witty, clever conceptual ideas.

I think music is of the brain, not of the instrument, and that’s what drives me crazy today, is people don’t play that way. Jazz just isn’t happening any more. It just isn’t, at least… I’m not saying I am either. But it seems to me that a very small percentage of jazz musicians have a jazz sound.

TP: What is a jazz sound?

WOLFE: I knew you were going to ask me that. It’s hard for me to explain. Maybe it’s some sort of consciousness of the sound between the sounds, the space between the notes, a way of hearing… I don’t know how to hear it.

TP: Bennie Wallace was saying that about a Sonny Rollins solo, the space between the beats, the pitches between…

WOLFE: The in between. There’s like air, and it’s relaxed and it’s swinging. I don’t know really how to describe it, but I know that it doesn’t seem to exist as much now. It seems like these days, for the most part, you have people expressing some sort of ability on their instruments, which I think is sometimes very suspect in what they think of as ability, and different versions or imitations of the ’60s, and calling that modern. The ’60s is a lot closer to the ’40s than it is to here. Or you have people picking their eras and imitating them, and ignoring the others, and it’s like all about which era one is… How they’re imitating which era in what way. Which is bullshit, really. I mean, it’s a way to learn, but the people they’re imitating weren’t doing that. Monk certainly wasn’t doing that. You can find his influences, but he sounded very fresh. Bird wasn’t doing that. I mean, he wasn’t trying to imitate Prez’ bag. Prez wasn’t doing that. Duke wasn’t doing that. They all had a vision, they were trying to find… Ornette. All of them. Coltrane’s band in the ’60s… How many bands now, how musicians do you hear trying to sound like Coltrane’s band in the ’60s? I mean, if you look at it… A lot of drummers are trying to sound like Elvin. Right? When I first came to New York, everyone was Tony, Ron and Herbie, and everywhere you’d go, every piano player was Herbie Hancock. It’s like why?

TP: But then a lot of guys got past that. A lot of guys who did that 12 years ago sort of found their own take on it. You don’t think so.

WOLFE: I don’t. I hear so many Herbie Hancocks, man, out there. That’s nothing against Herbie, but that’s not what Herbie was doing. That’s not the lesson with your heros. The lesson isn’t how to sound like Paul Chambers. The lesson is how to sound like yourself. How did Paul Chambers sound like Paul Chambers? He didn’t sound like everyone else. You hear him, “Oh, that’s Paul Chambers,” “Oh, that’s Bud Powell,” “Oh, that’s Sidney Bechet,” “Oh, that’s Bird.” Why are they such beacons?

TP: So you’re saying you can’t listen to that many people and identify them as them.

WOLFE: Well, everyone says the same thing. Everyone says the same thing, everyone plays the same way, everyone talks the same way. Everyone’s trying to be this “jazz musician,” and no one is trying to be an artist. And I hate that. I mean, I could care less about that. I don’t care, man. Being a jazz musician and playing jazz seem to be two different things. We can go out and be cool and talk hip and shake hands and dress nice and talk about so-and-so-‘s killin’ and not really mean it, and say, “Hey, yeah, let’s get together” and not really mean it… All that stuff is all bullshit. It means nothing. It might be fun t go to the Vanguard and be cool and have Lorraine fuck with you, all those things, the whole jazz world… All that is nothing, man! It means nothing. I mean, it’s fun and it’s a lifestyle, but it means nothing — absolutely nothing. What means something is what one is actually producing and I think most people aren’t even trying to produce much. Not really. You certainly can’t compare the records now with the records of the past. They don’t hold up well in any way, in playing, in sound, in creativity. They just don’t. My records included, believe me. I’m much more attracted to people trying to do something.

TP: Who do you like?

WOLFE: I like Ned Goold. That’s who I respect the most. Him and Wynton are the two people I respect the most, by far.

TP: Who else do you like?

WOLFE: Who else do I like? It’s dangerous, because when I say who I like I have to preface each time… I don’t like a lot of people the way I like Monk or the way I like whoever. I like the way Veal plays the bass. If I had to pick one bass player I like, I would pick him, because when I hear him play, he sounds like a character. I hear his personality. I don’t hear him just trying to be somebody or just trying to be professional. I would pick him over all the rest of them, if I had to pick one person. Of all the bass players you could name, I could tell you things I like about them and things I don’t like about them. Everyone one of them I could say what I like and don’t like.

Another thing is, I hear a lot of arrogance in music, that I hate. I can only describe it, it sounds arrogant… The sound of conceit, I hate. If that makes any sense. When I hear Monk, I don’t hear that. I guess Freddie Hubbard or Lee Morgan are very bravado. But when I hear like Bird… To me, what I hear. I’m not saying how they are as people. But I don’t hear it as arrogance in the music. It sounds like it’s a humble artistic gesture to take it, and do what you want — you like it or you don’t or whatever. It is what it is, like a poem or something. A lot of times now everything seems real arrogant, and I find that offensive in music. I probably sound arrogant right now talking this way, and it could be construed like I’m talking down…

TP: Well, it sounds a bit like flailing against the wind. There’s a reality and you’re in this reality…

WOLFE: I don’t feel part of the reality. I feel like it’s my job to do these gigs. But I don’t feel connected with the jazz scene that way. I don’t feel like they’re my peers in certain ways. Not really.

TP: Do you feel you have a peer group?

WOLFE: Ned. No, not really. I don’t look at it that way. I’m just trying to find a way to get to do my thing, and hopefully develop it and hopefully have a chance of being great. I want to have a chance to be great. I’m definitely not anywhere near that. The whole music business… See, now I’m getting dark, man. But I really believe these things. And I don’t dislike people. But I don’t go out and buy a lot of jazz records, because they don’t appeal to me. I put the jazz radio on a lot, and every now and then I hear something I like. It’s funny, when I hear something I like I’m afraid to give it a second listen, because I’m afraid I won’t like it the second time. Like, I heard something a few years ago and I thought, “Wow, this is interesting; I like this.” It was John Zorn live with that Masada group. I’d never heard anything from him other than that one tune, and I was almost afraid to hear anything more because I was so satisfied by it. I haven’t forgotten it since. I like Wynton. I like a lot of what it stands for.

TP: It sounds like some of what you’re looking for is in avant-garde music you haven’t gone to in your career stuff. I hear a lot of individuality there.

WOLFE: Oh, what I’m doing in my career is nothing at all what I would do if I was doing my own thing. It’s just that’s what I do for a living. And I enjoy doing it. You’ve never heard my band probably.

TP: No, just these records.

WOLFE: That’s a small part of it. I write all the time. That’s what I want too do. Whether it’s avant-garde… The music I want to play is based on principles of how one thinks on the bandstand. Like, the intention of the music is as important as music itself. It’s funny. I was talking to somebody, and it was a common argument about opinions. “Well, if someone like it, then it’s good. If it makes someone feel good, then it must be good.” I said, “Yeah, but you can lie and make someone feel good. You can tell someone they’re beautiful, you can tell them you love them, you can tell them they’re this and they’re that — and be lying to them and make them feel good. But the intention was not good.” And I think that’s important. In music I think you can lie and you can impress, and I don’t like that. I kind of have a… When I make my records, for better or worse, I try not to think at all business-like. The first record someone said, “Maybe you should put a couple of standards on there.” I don’t care if it sells one record. I’m not going to put something on there in order to make it sell. I refuse to do that. I do enough of that as a sideman. I’m a hired gun, so to speak. But when I’m doing my own thing, I refuse to do it for that reason. What people hear is going to be honest.

TP: There’s a notion of genre that goes to Hollywood studio directors who made great art within those forms. There’s an element of that in jazz as well. I mean, just playing the function, if you do it with your personality, then that becomes a statement in and of itself.

WOLFE: True enough. That’s true. I agree. But I need more control than just being put in it. For my best work, I need to be more than just a bass player. Mingus was like that. I’m not comparing myself to that. But he wasn’t just a bass player.

TP: It’s an interesting dichotomy, because you’re so successful as a sideman.

WOLFE: Successful in one regard. Paul Chambers, I’m not like him.

TP: I’m not talking about the aesthetics. As far as your career, 99.5% of the bass players out there would kill to have the gigs you have.

WOLFE: No, and I’m glad I have them, because I need to make money and I need to be out there, and I need to pursue what I’m trying to do. Because no one is going to pay for my 17-piece record. Which is fine.

TP: So that’s sort of a Connick attitude, in a certain way, which I believe Connick is telling half the truth when he says that half of what he does is so he can put the band out there so he can write his music.

WOLFE: I think that’s true, but he’s a complicated figure. It’s hard, because you have to learn… By playing these gigs that I’m doing, it makes it easier to not be disgusted by who is chosen to do their own thing. When I see who is getting to write their music, and I see people who are being celebrated for whatever reason they say they’re celebrating them, when I know that’s not really what’s happening… You can become so frustrated that you don’t want to be part of anything, and that’s not the way to get what you want to do. You have to accept that that’s the world, that’s Corporate America. But at the same time, I always got to things from a different route. I can’t do what everyone else does. That way doesn’t work for me. And I don’t want to be part of that anyway.

[PAUSE]

No piano. Well, the music I write is definitely not bass-oriented. It’s all written on the piano. Most all of my tunes are solo piano pieces that I’ve written on the piano, arranged for the band. When I have a piano it’s so… Well, I’ll probably have more piano in the future. But it’s so definitely what I ask from a piano player as far as the voicings, that it’s almost… I’ve decided for a while to have the piano…to try to arrange it for the band. But I do love having piano. But I want a piano player to be a third rhythm section, not run the show… It just hasn’t happened yet. It’s not like I don’t want piano. It just hasn’t happened.

TP: Is that analogy to Mingus’ mid-’50s music accurate? Did you listen to it a lot?

WOLFE: I haven’t studied it, but I’ve heard it and I feel a connection to it, especially “Self Portrait in Three Colors,” the ballad. That influenced me a lot, just that ballad, the use of the trombone in it. In fact, the way Mingus kind of played hard. He played hard, with a lot of ass, for lack of a better word, and wrote music that was really beautiful and pretty. That combination I could kind of relate to in a sense. People think of Mingus as being rough, but his music is really beautiful. I can relate to that in a certain way.

[-30-]Wolfe-Panken (8-8-01):

TP: First, since we last talked, which was about 18 months ago, what’s new? Then you were just leaving Connick and starting to go out with Krall.

WOLFE: I started working with Diana again, and we started touring like crazy, and I started planning this new CD of mine. That’s pretty much been my life since then. That CD originally was going to be doing something real quick, and it turned into the biggest project I’ve ever done. I wrote a lot of music and recorded it in a real unique way, and I’m real happy with it actually. That’s what I’ve been doing, trying to do my work for that. It’s out now, and…

TP: Have been with Krall this whole time?

WOLFE: I’ve been with her a little less than two years. This young drummer, Rodney Green has been playing. We’ve become a real team. It’s nice to play with a drummer like that. He’s unique in the fact that he gets a great sound on the drums. At that age you don’t hear that so often. A real developed tone quality, which personally I love, being a big fan of the drums.

TP: So more or less, it’s been either you’re touring with Krall or putting together this new music on your downtime.

WOLFE: Yes. I want to write for some films. That’s one of the things I want to do. But I spend a lot of time writing… I’m already planning my next record, writing music for it, for whenever that does come around. I’ve been writing actually for full orchestra.

TP: Will the tunes be more filled-out? It seems with each record, you’re treating the tunes more and more minimally and more through-composed. Some of the tunes here seem a bit sketchy, but maybe that’s the imaginary film aspect.

WOLFE: Here’s the way I think of it. I write all my music on the piano. Almost like little solo piano pieces. Then I arrange them for different combinations of instruments based on the instrument and the person playing. I try to arrange them and write them for a different sound. I think of the instruments almost like characters. The way I describe my writing these days is chamber music within a jazz context. Like, I might use cello… I’m writing a piece now, an half-hour five-movement extended work, for a concert in Oregon that I’m producing, and I have the sextet I use, which will be bass-drums-piano-trumpet-tenor saxophone-baritone sax/flute. For this long piece I’m adding three classical musicians, an opera singer soprano, a cello player, and a tubist. So it will be 9 musicians.

TP: You described Murray’s Steps as an imaginary film. Can you describe that film?

WOLFE: Well, it’s not so much that I pick a story. I just put it together as if it was for a film. The way the CD is set up, it starts off with this particular tune, the same tune it ends with, almost I imagine like the credits rolling, or on the way out I imagine people leaving a theater from a play. It’s that whole experience. The first tune is a short little introduction, almost like an overture, coming into the experience. The second tune is a little interlude that introduces the characters, so to speak, and some of the sounds I’m using throughout the record. And then the third tune is almost like the first tune of the record. I’m trying to write it like an experience, like a journey, so to speak. I tried to put it together almost like a suite, in how the tunes go together. I spent a lot time figuring out how much stuff between the tunes.

TP: Who would you say are some of your compositional influences? You’re obviously mixing a lot of information, a lot of perspectives, or interpreting or reformualtion… There’s a lot of information being distilled here.

WOLFE: When I write, I don’t really write in terms of trying to write like anybody, so to speak. The influences I think you hear would be Billy Strayhorn, Duke Elllington, Monk, Bill Evans, Charlie Parker. It’s definitely jazz music. I like arranging. I like putting stuff together and finding different types of harmonic movements and arranging to find different sounds that sound good to me. Basically, when I write, I just find what sounds good to me. I like thinking of it as jazz ensemble music versus somebody who’s blowing on top of a rhythm section. I’ve never been real attracted to that, unless it’s done in its finest sense, the way I like it, when it always sounds like a group — it doesn’t sound like someone getting off on top of a rhythm section.

TP: Well, you had a lot of good experience with ensemble playing in your couple of years with Wynton.

WOLFE: I learned a lot from Wynton, because he was writing a lot of ensemble type music, with solos in it, of course. But it’s more about the whole thing versus the soloists. I like the thought of jazz music being ensemble music, whereas… That’s what it really is to me. Unless it’s that one person playing, to me what makes it beautiful is the connection of the musicians and how they play together, not so much what they’re playing by themselves, but how they play together.

TP: So what you’re describing must be part of the satisfaction of playing with Diana Krall — apart from it being a great gig.

WOLFE: My sideman work is something to me that’s totally separate than what I’m doing on my own — or trying to do. It’s like a whole different thing. It’s a different perspective from the bass, from everything. When I’m hired as a sideman with Diana or whomever… It depends who it is, of course. But to me, when I’m playing with Diana, it’s about her vision, it’s about her conception, and it’s about what she’s trying to do. I’m there to help realize her musical vision, so to speak.

TP: How would you describe her musical vision and how you fit into it?

WOLFE: She doesn’t do much original music, but mostly we do standards, beautiful lsongs she likes to sing. My job is to play good supportive bass, to play good notes and hopefully keep it swinging. Just to pretty much play good rhythm section bass.

TP: If people notice what you’re doing, you’re probably doing something wrong.

WOLFE: Maybe. For me, on a gig like that, the challenge is that you have to put your ego in check. You can’t go on there and just try to get off and play all your stuff. For me, any gig where you’re working for somebody, especially a singer, you’ve got to figure out what your role is and your little area in the music, and find a way to be supportive and give the leader what they want, what they’re looking for, and at the same time keep your integrity intact and try to find ways of being expressive and creative within the context of what the the leader is doing.

TP: You’re referring to your area of music within the ensemble.

WOLFE: Within the ensemble, exactly. If she’s singing, I need to play good notes that will make her comfortable when she’s singing, or make the rhythm feel good so that she’s comfortable. I mean, it would be the same just playing for a soloist, if the soloist was a leader. But whereas I’m playing bass in my group, or my music, I’m kind of driving from the bass. If this is my vision, I hate to say I have more freedom, but I have a little more…

TP: You have a more control.

WOLFE: I have much more control because I’m trying to realize my vision of how I view music and my conception of how I would like it to be.

TP: You’ve cited Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford and Ron Carter as your favorite bassists…

WOLFE: P.C. is my all-time favorite. Also Jimmy Blanton.

TP: Except for Blanton, all of of them at least led records if not groups. Do you think of yourself as a composer who plays bass or as a bassist who’s a composer?

WOLFE: I think of myself… The closest bass player to what I do would probably be Mingus.

TP: In that Mingus wrote this programmatic music.

WOLFE: That’s what I try to. I think of myself as a bass player and as a composer equally. They’re both as important and they’re both needed for each other for my doing what I really want to do. Now when I’m playing with Diana Krall, I’m not there as a composer. I’m there as a bass player. I’m doing my job as her bass player. When I’m doing my own thing, I do everything. It might sound like a control freak kind of thing. But I write all the music, I arrange all the music, I do everything that I can do. As much as is capable for me to do, I will do.

TP: But you’re working all the time, by present-day standards. With Wynton you worked a lot, with Connick you were on the road a lot, with Diana Krall you’re on the road a lot. A lot of your quotidian, a lot of your daily life is involved in playing that music . I’m wondering how much your activity as a sideman impacts your ideas compositionally. Is it a totally separate thing?

WOLFE: I think it all goes together. Obviously, when I was playing with Wynton, I was watching… His vision is so strong and he was doing… I did tours with him playing these long pieces, In This House and Citi Movement. These are long original compositions where he was doing his thing. It wasn’t just playing tunes. It was definite large compositions, which was different than playing with Diana where we’re doing these songs with arrangements. They’re just songs. Great songs. But obviously playing tunes from the Nat Cole songbook in a quartet or a trio is much different than playing a ballet that Wynton wrote.

TP: But all of it becomes part of your experience.

WOLFE: It all becomes part of my experience. But even playing with Wynton, it’s still I’m the bass player playing his…

TP: But all I’m saying is that the information, the actual things that you’re playing, coming from your fingers, the sound of it, the ambiance of it…I’m wondering how that inflects… Does it become part and parcel of your identity as a composer or is that identity something very separate?

WOLFE: I think it’s something very separate. Two completely separate things. But I do think all musical experiences influence each other. But when I’m playing with Diana it’s a whole different head space than when I’m playing with my own band.

TP: That said, how much are you able to play with your own band?

WOLFE: On December 28th I am producing a concert of my music in Portland, Oregon, in a place there called the Old Church, which is literally an old church, 200 or 300 seats. It’s a beautiful place, and they do a lot of chamber music concerts there. I’m premiering this five-movement piece there. Now, this is one night in December, and it’s already a big part of my life now. That’s something I get completely wrapped-up in. I’m completely into it. It’s a whole nother head space for me. Because it’s an opportunity to really do what I do. For me, when I’m playing with my own group or making a record or writing, I feel like that’s really what I do, that that’s my for-real musical personality. When I’m working with someone else, it’s what I do and who I am, but it’s not as complete a thing.

TP: Do you find this frustrating? It seems like if you become a bandleader, it’s going to be a while before you’re able either to afford to do it, put in the time to make that a truth in the marketplace, in the real world economics you live by, or get the recognition to have some demand for it.

WOLFE: I don’t want to stop playing as a sideman right now. I can’t afford to do that right now. But by playing with Diana, it enables me not to have to worry about trying to find little gigs when we’re off. I can spend all my time writing. But I like the idea of doing both at the same time. Of course, if I had it my way, I would only play with my band. That would be what I do. But that’s not a reality right now, at this point in time. I do think I have something tangible to offer, though, as a leader. It’s just a matter of getting the opportunity to do it. But I feel patient, and I really believe in what I’m doing. It’s not like I’m, “Boy, I sure would like to be a bandleader.” I really believe in what I’m trying to do, and it’s the most important thing in the world to me. I’m patient about it because I’m always working on it. I’m always writing. I have three CDs out now. So there’s evidence of the work I’ve been doing. So it’s not frustrating at this point. I think that if I never get to do it,, that would be very frustrating. But I believe I will get to.

TP: Why are you doing so much of this work in Portland. I know it’s where you’re from. But is it a certain rapport you have with those musicians? Is it harder to get musicians in New York to pay attention?

WOLFE: No, it’s not that. What happened was, when I make my records, I’ll usually record them around the holiday time. Because I know that Ned Goold, who I need to have on the record, will be off with Harry usually. People are usually off and more available at that time. The reason I did the last record in Portland was I knew I was going to be there and there was a place to record there. That’s done in a guy’s living room, but he gets an amazing sound there. It’s the best bass sound I’ve got on a record. I do have a relationship with the musicians there, but it’s not so much I prefer recording there. It just kind of worked out that way. It started out as being a little experiment.

I believe in the music sounding the way it sounds. In other words, if somebody is too loud, say the drummer is too loud and you can’t hear the bass, if that’s what’s going on, that’s what you should hear. I’m not a real fan of the modrn style of recording, of fixing missed notes and so forth, and having it be manipulated and going for “perfection.” I’m a real firm believer in the band playing… If the band is swinging, if the band is playing and that’s a good balance, then that’s what you hear. That’s the way I like to play jazz, with an honest sound. I think that the way it’s done a lot today, you have the musicians in separate rooms and trying to get everything perfect, I think you take away a lot of chance for magic by doing that. I’m not saying it’s wrong or you can’t get a good recording that way. But I think there’s something… I prefer a more organic approach.

TP: When did you start with Diana?

WOLFE: This second stint started approximately March 2000. I’m really trying to establish the fact that I’m not just Diana’s bass player.

TP: Well, the sideman work is part of your persona as a musician. From my perspective, the qualities that made that happen have to be mentioned.

WOLFE: To me, when somebody asks me what I do as a musician, I’m a composer and I play bass. To me, that’s what I do. Even though people see the other thing, but to me, when I think of myself as a musician, I think of myself as a composer who plays bass. That’s really what I do. Of course, what people see is the other thing, which is more like what I do for a living. But I write music and I have a vision and a conception that I have to realize.

 

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Ben Wolfe Blindfold Test (Raw):

1. John Clayton, “Isfahan” (Parlor Series, with Gerald Clayton, ArtistShare, 2013) (John Clayton, bass; Gerald Clayton, piano)

“Isfahan” by Billy Strayhorn. Beautiful song. I will say this. The minute the pianist started the introduction I thought of Billy Strayhorn, but once they got into the tune, I was thinking about how, for me, they weren’t playing “Isfahan”; they were playing the chord progressions of “Isfahan” and playing a certain way…kind of fast… For me, that song loses something. It tends to sound like a chord progression to solo on it or play on it, which is ok. But “Isfahan” is like a piece of poetry to me. It’s something I’ve spent time with, and I find extremely beautiful, kind of like Mozart—melody-driven music. That’s not necessarily putting them down. It’s just out of a personal connection to his music, and I don’t hear it that way. I’m not sure who it was. The pianist reminded me of Bill Charlap. I don’t think it was Bill Charlap, but it reminded me of him. It reminded me of people I know, but I didn’t think it was any of them. The pianist had obviously an Oscar Peterson influence in his playing. The bass player clearly had checked out Ray Brown. But it wasn’t Christian. It wasn’t someone coming out of Ray Brown who I think it’s recognize immediately. A lot of notes. The bass player to me sounded like someone who usually uses an amplifier, but didn’t for this session, maybe because it’s a duet.

There were things about it I like. I like the fact they were playing duo, which can be really difficult to keep the lean, the groove moving forward. Sometimes it tends is to slow down and get boring. I think they did a good job that way. But I didn’t get a real sense of connection between the musicians on this recording. I felt like they were taking turns playing…which is fine. They sound like very accomplished musicians. I was going back and forth. Is this older musicians who play great on a more modern recording, or is it a young cat? I couldn’t tell. I could go either way. But I would just be guessing who it is, and I don’t want to guess, because I’m not sure. Are they my contemporaries or are they my heroes? I could go either way. But I can say this. I probably wouldn’t want to hear that again. “Isfahan” to me a delicate song that I prefer hearing delicate. I know Joe Henderson played it fast, and people do that. It’s just music, so one should do what they do. 4 stars, because they’re good musicians, and it’s their choice how they play. Since it’s the first thing we’re listening to, I’m erring on giving extra stars. So I’m protecting myself in case it’s a friend. [AFTER] It’s funny you say that. John Clayton was the next name I would have mentioned. Great musician. I love the father-son thing. As a father, I think it’s beautiful. Again, great musicians. I wouldn’t approach the song that way. So I got the Ray Brown influence correct. Gerald is an interesting musician. I like the fact that he doesn’t just play the one might expect John Clayton’s son to play. But I heard those things. I thought, “Ok, comes out of Oscar, but not Oscar; coming out of Monty, but not Monty.” I heard those influences, but I heard it wasn’t those people. I should trust my instincts and just say John Clayton next time.

2. Eberhard Weber, “Seven Movements” (Stages Of a Long Journey, ECM, 2007) (Weber, bass; Jan Garbarek, soprano saxophone)

This is so far from what I do. It reminds me of something Jan Garbarek and Eberhard Weber might play together. I’ll keep listening and see if anything comes to mind. Is that two bass players? [One bass player.] So he’s doing it at the same time, I guess. Or maybe doubled… It sounds like two—the low note, the A-pedaling, and the notes on top. There’s so much effects on this that it’s hard to hear what his actual sound is. The way the bass is recorded, it sounds like electric bass to me; it sounds like an electric bass exercise or something. Which I know it’s not, but that’s what… I’m not even sure how to listen to this, or certainly how to rate it. It certainly had clarity. But it’s so far from where I’m at with music, that it’s hard to… I’m not even sure what to say about it. I really don’t know who that is. Again, accomplished musicians… [You guessed it.] I haven’t listened to those musicians a lot, but the fact that I recognize a sound that I attribute to them immediately is worth noting, I think. It immediately reminded me of two musicians who I know their sound but don’t listen to a lot, and that’s who it turned out to be. There’s something to be said for that. Whereas the previous recording, I know both musicians very well and I wasn’t sure who it was. I’m not sure what that means, but I think there’s something to that. I found the piece uninteresting. But it had a sound. They have a way they play, and it’s got a certain sound to it. But it seemed very… It sounded composed, which is ok, but I wasn’t hearing a lot of melody. It wasn’t pretty to me. It has a feeling to it that I recognize, but it doesn’t necessarily resonate with me. But I’m not a believer in what one likes is any judgment on the quality. I separate quality and like-or-dislike as two separate things. 3 stars. I would like to hear him play the bass acoustically, to hear what it sounds like.

3. Mark Dresser, “Not Withstanding” (Nourishments, Clean Feed, 2013) (Dresser, bass; Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; Denman Maroney, hyperpiano; Tom Rainey, drums)

That’s wild. It almost reminds me of something Steve Coleman and Dave Holland might do with Smitty, but it’s got a different quality. The way the pianist is playing. Obviously, musicians who know how to play. They have a way they play together. A little bit hard to hear the bass, a lot of drums. But I like the sound. Trombone kind of reminds me of Ray Anderson; I don’t know if it’s him or not. Prepared piano, sounds like. Eric Revis sometimes on his records does stuff that reminds me of this. For a second, I wondered if it was Revis, but I know it’s not. I love the way he plays stuff like this. I’m not sure who it is. Again, it’s probably someone I know. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t hold me. The lack of melody; it doesn’t hold on to me. It’s kind of sloppy in a good way. I like that. It’s not overly clean. It’s loose. I like the vibe to it. It does sound like like-minded musicians. I get the sense they play together or they know each other. It doesn’t sound like they’re thrown together for a record date. [AFTER] It reminded me of Steve Coleman, but there’s a certain lack of clarity—again, I don’t mean that in a negative sense. I like the looseness of it. They seemed to be playing in a common way; like, they had the same goal. It wasn’t just everyone for themself. But it had that real loose feeling, which I like. I didn’t really notice the bass player except for the solo. The way it was recorded, the bass wasn’t clear. The drums were kind of covering the bass in a way. I like bass player records where it’s not all just about the bass. But I do like to hear the bass. I found the solo interesting. I found the bass player interesting. He seemed like he was part of the group. Everyone seemed part of the group. It didn’t sound like it was his record, though. It sounded like it was the saxophone player’s record or the drummer’s record. Even the pianist’s. It didn’t sound like the bass player’s record, which, in a way, if it is the bass player’s record, that would be a compliment. Just because you’re the leader doesn’t mean the music should… The bass is still the bass. 4 stars. Mark Dresser? That makes sense. I know about Mark, but I don’t know his sound enough to recognize it. But I figured it was one of those guys…that sounds weird… Sort of freeish… It reminded me of Braxton and Dave Holland, but it had a rougher edge to it than that, which I liked. I liked the fact that it wasn’t pristine. The alto player wasn’t Braxton. It wasn’t Steve Coleman. It wasn’t Greg Osby? It wasn’t Tim Berne? I don’t know Rudresh Mahanthappa’s playing. I’m not familiar enough with any of their playing, but I get the sense they play together a lot.

4. Stanley Clarke Trio, “Three Wrong Notes” (Jazz In The Garden, Heads Up, 2009) (Clarke, bass; Hiromi Uemara, piano; Lenny White, drums)

It sounds like they’re not playing together because they’re not playing together. They’re clearly in separate rooms. So it’s musicians playing at the same time. But for me it’s so distracting… The drummer sounds… Something about the drummer I like a lot. He might be the senior member of the band who’s played with somebody or done something. But they record it… Like, the tom-toms sound separate from the rest of the set. The bass player sounds like he’s listened to a lot of Eddie Gomez. Plays in that style when he solos. But the bass solo sounds like he’s more interested in playing than when he was playing the bass lines. For me, I find that distracting. “Oh, the bass player is coming to life now that there’s a bass solo.” He plays the instrument very well, clearly knows the music. I’m assuming it’s his tune—changes to “Confirmation” with the bass melody written over it. It’s something Sam Jones would do, that kind of bass melody, but the way he did it, it had a certain humor to it for some reason. This had more of an exercise thing to it, like, “Let’s take ‘Confirmation’ and write a little bass melody to it.’” It wasn’t Eddie Gomez, but that vibrato, that sort of whining vibrato, it reminds me of Eddie Gomez. Stanley Clarke used to play that way as well, that Eddie Gomez influence. It wasn’t Stanley Clarke, it wasn’t Eddie Gomez, it wasn’t George Mraz… There are a lot of guys who can play that way and do play that way. The most interesting thing I found about that recording is the snare drum. The snare drum had history in it. That was some bad shit, the snare drum. The rest of it sounded like the same old thing. The piano was the same old thing. Great players can play that way, and not so great players play that way. Again, it’s probably people I know, or know of. But the way it was recorded… The only thing that stuck out to me was the groove. The way it was leaning had a sort of uniqueness to it. But it wasn’t a uniqueness I recognized, that I could attribute to anybody. The bass player played the bass well. He played up high a lot when he soloed. It had that big vibrato, that Eddie Gomez vibrato, that sort of singing quality. But I don’t know who it is. It wasn’t John Patitucci. It wasn’t Eddie Gomez. It wasn’t George Mraz. Lynn Seaton? Rufus Reid? I don’t know. Those names all come to my head. None of them seem like the right ones. You’re going to tell me who it is, and I’ll say, “Oh yes.” 4 stars because of the snare drum. It’s cool, but it doesn’t grab me. The way the snare drum was played, the way the drummer didn’t force the beat. That’s what struck me. Without that, I would have been waiting for it to end. [AFTER] It was Stanley Clarke. That makes sense. I love how Lenny White sounded on there. I’d rather hear Stanley play Stanley Clarke stuff. Not that he can’t play jazz. But jazz isn’t a part-time art. That’s not what he does. It’s where he came from and what he can do, obviously. That’s a more recent record. When Stanley was playing jazz more, that’s how he played. I think when musicians take decades off from something, when they resume they’re in the same place. You played Stanley my record on his Blindfold Test. He said he appreciated the string writing; that’s all right. Stanley Clarke was one of my first bass heroes when I was a kid, but to me, that’s not the best Stanley Clarke. That way of recording doesn’t make sense. It comes from pop music, the one-amp separation so they can control it. It’s just the common way. But it doesn’t sound as good, not to me. It leaves less in the hands of the musicians—or the ears of the musicians, I should say.

5. Matt Brewer, “Abiquiú” (Mythology, Criss Cross, 2014) (Brewer, bass; Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; Steve Lehman, alto saxophone; Lage Lund, guitar; David Virelles, piano; Marcus Gilmore, drums)

That was interesting. Compositionally there was some stuff I liked about it. Again, I’m not sure who that was either. It sounded like maybe some young cats. The bass player played well. He or she was pretty in-tune, and seemed to have control of what he or she was playing. Kind of like one of the other tracks. The bass seemed more present when soloing than when playing basslines. It got a little bit lost for me with the drums. It’s a similar thing with the recording, the way the drums were tuned. The snare drum low. Just the sound of it… I lost the bass in the drums, but not in the way that, like, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin were, where Jimmy Garrison became like a tom-tom. It was different than that. It sounded like there was an alto and a tenor, but just an alto solo. The alto player had a sound like a lot of alto players have now, sort of a Kenny Garrett-Steve Wilson kind of sound, but with a Steve Coleman-esque thing to it. I don’t know it was. [THIS PLAYER IS VERY INFLUENCED BY JACKIE MCLEAN] It didn’t sound like Jackie McLean-influenced players are influenced by… I’m not saying this person, but I find this often. A lot of the Jackie McLean-influenced musicians are influenced by him and the way he was and what he believed in, but the Bird part of his playing I don’t hear in a lot of their playing. Which isn’t a bad thing. It’s just something I’ve always noticed. Sometimes I think maybe the person’s philosophies are more important than their musical influences. I liked the piece, but when the soloing started I wasn’t hearing the song any more. 3½ stars. [AFTER] Matt was one of my students at Manhattan School of Music. That’s ironic. If I’d said what I was thinking during the recording, it would have been really accurate, because I was going to mention Larry Grenadier, who I know has not recorded as a leader. The playing was like Larry, and that’s one of Matt’s biggest influence. I knew it wasn’t Larry, but he plays in that way. If Larry had a record out, just from the bass playing along, that’s who I would have thought it was.

6. Dave Holland, “The Empty Chair (For Clare) (Prism, Dare2, 2008) (Holland, bass, composer; Kevin Eubanks, guitar; Craig Taborn, piano; Eric Harland, drums)

We’re getting to kind of the Soul Jazz-Pop area now. Which is ok. I already know a whole lot of who it isn’t. When you grow up in an era of pop music where it’s everywhere, it’s always interesting how it affects jazz musicians and how it comes out in their playing. I would say it’s virtually impossible for it not to come out in your playing, especially if you grew up with it. This is an example of that. I’m going to keep listening. I always notice the drums. The tom-toms are recorded in a way that I find distracting. They’re too loud. But these are musicians who have a good groove, a good pocket for this kind of pocket. It doesn’t always mean they can swing, but maybe they can. It’s a different thing. But they should have tuned the tom-toms different, in my opinion. It’s taking away from the subtlety of the groove, the way the guitar and bass are playing. This is someone who probably likes D’Angelo a lot, like I do. It could be some of these young bass players whose records I haven’t heard, like Ben Williams. It doesn’t remind me, but at the same time it could be, because he likes to record sort of poppish tunes on his recordings. There’s another young guy, Alan Hampton, but I don’t really know his records. There’s a certain way Ben plays on a certain area of the bass that this reminds me of. But I’m not sure. It’s interesting, now that they’re playing louder, it’s mixed softer. The drummer is playing harder now, but the tom-toms are softer, like more compressed. This is very studio-ish. This reminds me of a pop record, and it’s cool. The bass player sounds good. He sounds like he had a lot of ideas behind this, but I’m not really hearing his personality in it. I’m hearing a lot of guitar and drums. The keyboard player playing his part. Even in the solo, I didn’t hear a lot of his personality. That’s why I don’t necessarily think it was Ben, because he plays with a lot of personality that I hear. This bass player, I didn’t hear a lot of personality. I didn’t hear who they were. The only thing it is, it sounds like that D’Angelo influence, but I’m not hearing the kind of beat that usually goes with the cats who play that way. It doesn’t have that behind, Quest-love thing going on, which makes me wonder if it’s a different group of cats playing on here, again coming from more of a pop influence. This is not the Robert Glasper cats, it doesn’t sound like to me. It might be, but something in the way they’re playing… I’d be curious to know who it is. I’m not sure how to rate this. Do I rate it as an R&B tune with a jazz influence? Would I rate this as jazz musicians playing on kind of a funk groove? I’ll give it 3½ stars. [AFTER] That’s always how I feel about Dave Holland. Of course, you played me Dave Holland and I said about the personality. Dave Holland clearly is a great bass player, and anyone who loves his playing, I understand why, but I just don’t… When I hear him… That’s how art should be; you react how you react. But I don’t feel him in his sound. I hear him in his great ability. That’s why I knew it wasn’t Ben Williams, because I didn’t hear an overwhelming personality in their sound, which I don’t hear in Dave. I hear it in his rhythms. But I don’t hear it… That’s me. I know that can sound like an insult to Dave, but it’s not. It’s just an honest reaction. So when I heard this, the rhythm was good, but I just didn’t hear a lot in the sound of the bass. But I heard his Mingus influence hidden in there, in the way the chords were. But that D’Angelo sound… Craig knows those records, I’m sure. Eric Harland does. But Dave Holland is coming from a different point of view. The thing about that group of musicians, they have a way they play, and whether one likes it or not, or to avoid that whole what-is-jazz conversation, I’m a fan of community in music, and they have that, and I didn’t hear that sound in this recording. But Kevin Eubanks…he can do anything on the guitar. But the tom-tom thing threw me off. The last time I heard Dave Holland was a long time ago, in Spain. I remember marveling at how comfortable Steve Nelson was playing on those hard-ass tunes. It was an amazing display of rhythm and great musicianship. Steve Nelson was so soulful over it. It was amazing. Again, Dave Holland is a great bassist. There’s just something I don’t hear in his playing. Who cares if I hear it or not? It doesn’t mean anything. But it’s the truth.

7. The Bad Plus, “You Will Lose All Fear” (Inevitable Western, OKeh, 2014) (Reid Anderson, bass; composer; Ethan Iverson, piano; Dave King, drums)

This is very odd-sounding. You have some tambourine in there. The bass is a little bit buried. Ah, there it is. I’m waiting for the tune to start. I guess it’s kind of rolling, landing on these chords. I think they’re about to land. It sounded like two tunes. You had the beginning part, obviously, that went on; I had no idea where it was going to go. Then we had this ending, this vamp, with some interesting melodic notes. I’m not sure how they’re connected other than the contrast. Perhaps the idea was we’re going through this area to get to this other area. For me, I’m synesthesia, so I see sound, so that was two striking views of sound. One like a lot of scribbling on the page, a lot of information, and then very clear. It was hard to tell who the bass player was, because on the first part it was covered by the piano and the drums; in the second part, he was just playing the part, which I appreciate hearing bass players just playing the bass part. In the second part, it was more a pop sensibility. I figured it’s the bassist’s composition, but the pianist was running the show. I don’t know who it was. I didn’t hear the connection between the two sections. I liked the bass playing at the end when he was just playing the part. I find that interesting, bass players just playing good notes with good rhythm. But it was a composed bass part. 3½ stars. [AFTER] I like the Bad Plus. It’s interesting. A lot of the groups I hear… Well, that’s a good example of a group that it’s pop-influenced acoustic music, in a way. Again, not that it’s a bad thing. But they weren’t playing jazz grooves there, which is ok. For me, I have mixed feelings about that, but that doesn’t change how it sounds, and they play well together, and they have a sound. There’s a certain clarity with how they play… Although at the beginning part there was so much going on, but that was the idea. But yeah, it was interesting. It’s interesting melodies. To me, jazz is dance music, it’s groove music, so when you take that element out of it, it changes so drastically that it’s like another music, so for me it’s like a different criteria for how to listen to it. I remember hearing a group once (it doesn’t matter who) at the Vanguard, and I said, “let me check these cats out; I’ve never really heard them.” I remember in the first half of the set I was like, “Wow, I can’t get with this; I don’t understand it; it’s frustrating me.” Then I listened to the second half of the set from the point of view as if it were just a funk band playing, and I loved it. So I had to adjust my sensibilities. This is kind of in between. It’s like pop-based jazz, but not R&B pop. It’s like the love of Radiohead shows up, which to me is a strange thing. I’m still waiting for Radiohead to play some of our tunes. I grew up in Portland. I moved here in 1985. The bass player in the Decemberists went to high school with my sister. I went to hear them play because I knew the guy, and I didn’t nokw they were rock stars. But good for them!

8. Alexis Cuadrado, “Asesinato (Dos Voces De Madrugada En Riverside Drive)” (A Lorca Soundscape, Sunnyside, 2013) (Cuadrado, bass; cajon, palmas; Claudia Acuna, vocals; Miguel Zenon, alto saxophone; Dan Tepfer, piano; Mark Ferber, drums; Gilmar Gomes, congas)

The thing about steel strings, not that they’re bad, but it makes so many bass players sound the same, whereas with the gut strings you hear so much more the personality, or the differences in the sound of the bass players. I’m hearing this, and it’s the same sound that’s coming out of Stanley Clarke. It’s the same sound that Charnett Moffett might get. It’s the same kind of sound Eberhard Weber might get without the effects. It makes it tricky. Because in solo bass of this style, there’s certain devices that seem to always be used—fifths and tenths. That’s a nice groove there. The alto player sounds like he’s an alto player into Branford; it’s a nice feeling. I thought of Claudia Acuna, but she… It is Claudia. It reminded me immediately of what she and Avishai Cohen played together, but it didn’t sound like Avishai Cohen. His playing changed after he played with Chick Corea. I always thought Claudia had such a beautiful sound. I think I know the saxophone player, but for some reason I’m drawing a blank on his name. Was that Myron Walden? It reminded me of Myron for some reason. I know Avishai played used to play with her a lot. Omer played with her; it doesn’t sound like Omer. I know on piano Jason Lindner played with her; it didn’t sound like Jason either. So it sounds like maybe she got people for this record. [It’s not Claudia’s record; it’s the bass player’s record.] Ah, that would explain that. I’m not sure who the bass player is. That was nice. It had a nice groove. Again, I couldn’t hear the personality in the bass sound. The gut strings, which I play… It doesn’t make one better or worse. But the gut strings tend to make the sound less uniform. It doesn’t even it out so much. You hear the imperfections in the instrument. You hear different qualities. Paul Chambers had certain kind of buzzes in his sound that for me are beautiful. But the steel strings evens everything out, particularly when guys use an amplifier. But even without the amplifier it evens it out. That’s why the John Clayton piece threw me off. I said, “It’s not a guy who uses an amp usually.” He never uses an amp. But the steel strings make it so uniform. So that’s one of the reasons why prefer gut strings. 3½ stars. I don’t know Alexis. I like the groove they’ve got going. I like Miguel Zenon.

9. Christian McBride, “Cherokee” (Out Here, Mack Avenue, 2013) (McBride, bass; Christian Sands, piano; Ulysses Owens, drums)

Wow. A walking bass line. A rarity in jazz today. A very bizarre recording. It’s got that several-room thing where the bass and drums are separated. They’re doing the Ahmad Jamal half-time 3/4 bridge on “Cherokee.” Another Ron Carter influenced bass player. Wow. I like the Ahmad Jamal half-time 3/4 bridge on “Cherokee.” This could be so many people. This is the kind of jazz that frustrates me. I hope this isn’t people I know or are friends. But so far it feels like they’re just playing. They’re not really playing together. They’re playing the same song at the same time, and it’s fast, it can be tricky… The piano player is just playing. There’s no breath. I feel like the bass and drums are just trying to hold on, just trying to stay with the piano player. I don’t feel like they’re moving and turning corners together. They’re going for the excitement. Hard tempo. [BASS SOLO] It sounds like Christian there. The way he plays the bass…it’s amazing; no one can really play like that. But it didn’t sound like him at the beginning, to me, for some reason. I’m not sure what it was. But obviously it’s him. With Christian, obviously he can play fast and with clarity, and he can do all these amazingly impressive things. But I just heard him with his big band last week at Dizzy’s, and that’s some of my favorite Christian I’ve ever heard. It was like he played much less. But he just plays the bass parts…I love the way he does that. For me, that’s a more interesting thing. But he can do anything on the bass. There’s a handful of guys with that type of immense natural gift for music, and it’s always fascinating how they use those tools. I imagine it would be a challenge where, if you could play anything you wanted or like anyone you wanted, it would be very seductive to play like your heroes. I think that’s a unique dilemma that these immensely talented musicians sometimes have to deal with. That wasn’t Carl Allen, was it? I could tell Christian on the solo; it didn’t sound like him on the bassline, for some reason. I remember the first time I heard him, I was amazed by his clarity. The next day, Stanley Crouch called me and said, “Have you heard this kid, Christian McBride? He has a clarity.” I said, “Yeah, it’s amazing.” He’s a special musician with enormous talent on the bass. But I’m impressed by the other side of his playing than the obvious, impressive side. I’m giving it 3 stars, but I’ll give Christian 4 stars. It’s not my favorite I’ve heard from him. I like him on this record called Watts, by Jeff Watts. I wouldn’t have thought it was Ulysses. I play a lot with him, and something about that didn’t work for me. I love them. Sorry, guys.

10. Barry Guy-Agustí Fernández, “Annalisa” (Some Other Place, Maya, 2009) (Guy, bass, composer; Fernández, piano)

That sounds like that pianist, Pilc, and his bass player, the way they play together. But they usually don’t play this out. It reminds me of them, but more free. When they went into that melody together, it was so accurate. It’s interesting to hear cats play this out, and then play that accurate in the middle of it. It makes me think of some younger musicians, recorded in the last ten years or something. The bass player is strangely accurate in his playing. I was trying to think who can play major VII chords on the bass like that. That’s something Oscar Pettiford used to do, though obviously this is a whole nother thing. But it’s interesting that he played that same exact thing on the bass on “Stardust” at one point, but there’s such a different context, and this sounds completely different. It’s amazing how the same combination of notes can sound so different with a different recording and a different context and different rhythm. The concept of playing a three-note chord on the bass can be hard to make sound. You have to be at the right time, the right place. I’m not sure who that was. They’re playing real wild and free. The thing about playing that way is, the principles of art still apply. You still have to listen. You still have to hear what’s going on. You don’t have to play constant. You can leave space. It’s got to breathe. I think they had their moments there. There was something oddly familiar about the bass player to me. But I don’t want to be guessing. I don’t know who they were, this duet. What threw me was the way, when they came together and played the composed section, it was so accurate. That’s what threw me off. It caught my ear. If you’re playing that free that way all the time, you’re not playing a lot of composed sections. [It’s a composition, though.] Even so, just the fact that that section was so accurate. 3½ stars. [AFTER] I don’t know Barry Guy. I can’t tell from that whether they can swing or no.

11. The Cookers, “Dance of the Invisible Nymph” (Time and Time Again, Motéma, 2014) (Cecil McBee, bass, composer; David Weiss, trumpet, arranger; Eddie Henderson, trumpet; Donald Harrison, alto saxophone; Billy Harper, tenor saxophone; George Cables, piano; Billy Hart, drums)

that’s the intro, but when the melody came in, I was not imagining it having that kind of sound at all. The horns come in almost with a Blue Note kind of vibe in that groove. I was not expecting that. Let’s see what reveals itself. Sometimes I think it’s turning into an art how to not play the jazz groove any more. There are so many different ways of not just swinging. Sometimes those ways work and sometimes they don’t. But it’s amazing how often we don’t hear the swing groove any more in jazz music. Interesting sound on the trumpet. In 8 measures I’ve heard influences of Freddie, of Wynton, of Kenny Wheeler. Is that Ambrose Akinmusire? I don’t really know Ambrose’s playing that much, but I know he has the wide influences, so I thought I was hearing that in his playing. That cat clearly is a young cat who has checked out a lot of different styles. Well, I shouldn’t say ‘clearly.’ That’s my thought on that short solo. Maybe it’s David Douglas. When I first met David Douglas, he was into Woody Shaw. It reminded me of that type of musician. But some things are hard to tell, because they’re soloing over a groove, so there’s no conversational element to the solos. They’re just soloing over something. The way they’re playing doesn’t require listening in any kind of conversational way. They can just play over. But I’m all for a good groove. That’s a nice melody on top. But more often than not, the lack of listening is what makes very good individual musicians not have a sound together. You don’t listen, it makes it impossible for the magic to occur as a group. I wish there was more to this than just a string of soloists over a groove. I think there could be more connection between the melody part and the rhythm section. I’m hearing more just they’re playing on top of it. I don’t remember the melody; I’m trying to remember it. Here it comes. I like this melody, but I didn’t hear that sound at all in the solos, which makes me question why have this melody, or why have the solos? Is it just a device to improvise on? I like the melody as always present. You hear that in Monk’s music. The melody is always present, so that there are interactions with each other and with the melody. At the same time, I write a lot of music where the melody just sets up another section for soloing, so I understand it. Sometimes I like on these types of compositions, where you have a melody, then you play on something, not to go back to the melody, to go somewhere else, to move forward. But this is nice. I like the blend of the horn players; I like the balance, the blend they have together. I find the band as an ensemble more interesting during the melody section than I did during the solo sections. There was something that could have been more in there for me. The melody was interesting. The rhythm section, the parts were happening, but then in the solo sections they just went to a groove. Again, I didn’t hear a reason for it, a connection between the two. It’s like they were too separate for me. But well-played. But like I said, the melody was more interesting to me than the solos, not the individual, but the way the ensemble moved I found more interesting on the melody. 3½ stars. [AFTER] Eddie Henderson? That’s funny. That explains when I said the sound they have together… That comes from the music they play…being part of it, that thing. When I said that “young trumpeter” and looked at you, I knew I was wrong. I love Eddie. He’s one of those musicians who it’s very special to play with him. He makes it exciting. Eddie sounded different to me on that, the way he used the upper register.

12. Scott Colley, “Speculation” (Empire, Camjazz, 2010) (Colley, bass, composer; Brian Blade, drums; Craig Taborn, piano)

That reminds me of Dave Holland there. Again, these solo bass things, everyone uses the same devices on the instrument. So it’s hard to tell. It’s almost like the bass is amplified on this, even though it’s just solo bass. He can play fast and clean. It’s a good tone, but it’s the same old tone. It’s like a common sound done well by someone who plays the instrument very well, clearly. It’s like the era of the original sound on the bass… You hear Wilbur Ware, you hear one note, it’s clearly Wilbur Ware. That type of sound, where it’s so different from player to player, has gotten lost, so the sounds blur together now. It’s like different versions of the same tone. It used to be… Not that things need to stay the same. I’m not saying this in the spirit of it should be how it was back in the day or anything like that. I’m all for art moving. But it used to be every bass player in jazz had their own way of playing quarter notes. This is cool, but again, it could be anyone. It could be great players I love. It could be players I’ve never heard of. It could be players I dislike. The way they’re playing… I’m not sure if I like it. I’m going to keep listening. I’m listening for the clarity. All the sounds and notes are for a reason. The drummer is interesting. It sounds like he likes Jack DeJohnette. It’s got a delicate quality that I like. It’s not being forced, and it sounds sincere. I’m not hearing a whole lot of melody, though, again. It just seems it’s in a place. Perhaps it’s a Dave Holland-influenced player. I don’t know. Scott Colley? I’m not sure. It could be a lot of people. All right, it is Scott! I got one. He always struck me as Dave Holland-influenced with Charlie Haden in there. That’s an interesting combination, a guy who is influenced by Charlie and Dave Holland, because they played with a lot of the same people but play completely different, almost like opposites in many ways. Charlie is a master of one note; Dave Holland can play things on the bass that… He doesn’t play like Christian, but he’s like Christian in the sense that he owns what he does. He does things that are amazing and difficult. So the combination of an influence of Dave Holland and Charlie Haden… I’ve known Scott for a long time. He plays with a lot of clarity, and it’s clear, but the kind of sound…it’s like a good version of that sound. I’m not sure how to describe HIS sound. An example of someone who has an extreme sound. I mentioned Wilbur Ware. Charlie Haden is like that. If you think of Charlie Haden, you can think of his sound with one note. To me, that’s something that I love in great musicians. But not everyone cares about that. There are so many different things you can think about or try to achieve. Scott Colley plays the bass really well, and he’s clear in his ideas, so it comes down to what he wants to do. But I prefer a more clear personality in the sound. But that’s me. Again, not negative. He’s had a lot of experience and has played with a lot of players, and clearly knows music—and he’s a really nice dude, too.

13. Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trio, “A Feeling” (Kenny Barron, Gerry Gibbs, Ron Carter, 2013, Whaling City Sound) (Ron Carter, bass, composer; Kenny Barron, piano; Gibbs, drums)

Another Ron Carter influenced bass player, but he plays something that Ron never would have played. I was hoping you were going to play me Ron so I could talk about Ron, but it’s all right. I’m trying to figure out the drummer. Interesting ride cymbal sound. That sounds like Ron there, but it’s not, because he wouldn’t have played that up-high note…I don’t think. A lot of that stuff is right out of the Ron Carter Handbook, but Ron wouldn’t have a drummer play that much over him and that loud unless it was mixed that way afterwards. There’s something in that ride cymbal I like. Strangely recorded. Again, I don’t feel the tom-toms sounding like that. This is a trick, because this is going to be real obvious when I know who it is afterwards. So much of this reminds me of Ron Carter. Even the harmonic movement on this reminds me of him. But something about it tells me about him. I’m not sure who the piano player is. I liked it. There was so much going on. So much drums, so much tom-toms covering everything up. They could be so many people; I’m not sure who it is. The bass player threw me because he was playing so much of Ron’s stuff, but he played one high notes, went to it in a way that I can’t imagine Ron doing, but it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t. Plus the way it was mixed. But then again… Ah! Aha! Was that Gerry Gibbs? [It was.] It was the Thrasher Trio. That’s what threw me. It was Kenny Barron. It’s Ron’s tune? That makes sense. It sounded like Ron’s tune. But the way it recorded, Ron usually is more present in the mix, especially with this kind of sound. When Ron is playing with his amplified sound, his modern sound… I prefer Ron’s sound when he played acoustic. One of the most beautiful bass sounds in the history of jazz. He created a new sound with the pickup. The new sound is a cushion that the drums would reside under. So the bass moves like an escalator, and the drums are on it, in a sense. This was reversed, so it took away some of the sound. I had more issue with the recording, the mix of it, than the playing. It was Ron Carter walking, so 4 stars.

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Filed under Bass, Ben Wolfe, Blindfold Test, Wynton Marsalis

A Group of Pieces on Robert Glasper: A Jazziz Feature From 2013; a Jazz.Com Interview from 2009; A Downbeat Blindfold Test, circa 2008; A Short Downbeat Piece in 2005; and the Liner Note for His First Record in 2002

 

Robert Glaser Jazziz Feature, Nov. 2013

In late September, Robert Glasper, his appetite restored after coming home from China the week before with stomach flu, tucked into a plate of South African-style wings at Madiba, a restaurant in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene.

“I met T-Pain last week at a party,” Glasper remarked offhandedly after making inroads into his plate. He excused himself to look at drawings of angry monsters by his 4-year-old son, Riley, sitting beside him. “You draw so good, Boogie!” Glasper said, punctuating his praise with a kiss and fist bump. Resuming, he pinpointed his encounter with the twice-Grammy-awarded rapper in Shanghai, where — after an eight-day run in Japan that concluded at the Tokyo Blue Note — the Robert Glasper Experiment had performed on a program with singer-emcee Mos Def, for whom, during the past decade, Glasper has frequently served as music director.

“Mos Def told him, ‘I’m about to do an album with my man, Robert; it has a lot of hip-hop and jazz influence,’” Glasper said. “T-Pain was like, ‘I would love to be part of that. Please take me out of this R&B-hip-hop game.’”

Whether that proposed collaboration will happen is unclear. But if it does, T-Pain will join a cohort of high-profile performers looking for a piece of the sui generis sound that the Experiment revealed on Black Radio, which, upon its February 2012 release, debuted at No. 4 on Billboard’s “Hip-Hop and R&B” chart, No. 1 on its “Jazz” chart and No. 10 on its “Overall Albums” chart. The disc went on to earn a 2013 Grammy for Best R&B album, and has sold, to date, 200,000 units. As the flow unfolds over the course of a leisurely hour, ranging from hip-hop to pop to R&B to straight-up soul, the Experiment — pianist and keyboarist Glasper; singer (through a vocoder) and alto saxophonist Casey Benjamin, electric bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Chris Dave — complements hit-makers Erykah Badu, Mint Condition vocalist Stokley Williams, Lupe Fiasco and Musiq Soulchild, along with “underground soul heroes” (Glasper’s phrase) like Mos Def, Ledesi, Lalah Hathaway, Meshell Ndegeocello and Bilal Oliver. RGE’s idiomatic backgrounds and creative interjections impart the feeling of a cohesive body of work rather than a cobbled-together collection of tracks.

“I expected Black Radio to be an underground sensation, without getting much mainstream attention,” Glasper said. “But from the beginning, it did things I wasn’t expecting. We self-promoted big-time, doing Twitter and Facebook while we were making it, and people got excited. I think it’s another cycle for R&B, the epitome of crossing over hip-hop and jazz. Since you can only pick one slot for the Grammy, I put everything in R&B; I felt the R&B community understood it better than a lot of the jazz people.

“Remember when the neo-soul movement got big around ’99 or 2000, when D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Common’s Like Water for Chocolate and Bilal came out, and everybody was like, ‘Whoa, what’s happening?’ This is like a second coming of that wave — maybe a little different. That wave signified an opening to do music that didn’t sound factory-made or cookie-cutterish. In that era, being a real musician was cool and good, and you got a lot of work. The music felt good, and you could talk about more than one or two subjects. Since we won the Grammy, I think it’s opened the doors for many artists.”

Riley’s stomach hurt, and Glasper persuaded him to rest his head on Papa’s shoulder. As he dozed, Glasper discussed the recently released Black Radio 2 (Blue Note), whose participants include Brandy, Anthony Hamilton, Norah Jones, Jill Scott, Faith Evans, Common and Snoop Dogg. “My goal was to not make the same album twice, especially when everyone was wondering how I’d beat the first Black Radio,” he said. “So I decided to do just an R&B-soul album, less jazz-infused, not as loose. On the first record, I didn’t think at all. We just played and did it, and it became what it was. Here I did more thinking and processing and figuring things out.”

Although the feel on Black Radio 2 is less freewheeling, the playing is vivid and alive. Glasper wrote songs for each vocalist, sometimes collaborating with professional songwriters, sometimes eliciting lyrics from the singers. “I wanted either to put them in a place they’ve never been, or bring them back to their early stuff that everyone loves,” he said. The latter imperative was operative on the insouciant “Calls,” on which Glasper created for Jill Scott — whose forthcoming album he produced — “her sound when she first came out.” As examples of the former, the leader offers “Let It Ride,” on which label mate Norah Jones renders the lyric with an intense, growly purr before murmuring wordlessly over Glasper’s whirling piano figures, and “What Are We Doing,” which frames Brandy with stripped-down Rhodes-bass-drums instrumentation that Glasper describes as “a progressive, D’Angelo Voodoo vibe.”

Closer to the informality of Black Radio is “I Stand Alone,” which begins with original verses by Common — a Glasper employer and collaborator since the late ’90s — and ends with a paean to individualism delivered by sociologist Michael Eric Dyson. A few hours before recording that track, a guest-free RGE cut a version of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day,” vocoder-crooned by Benjamin. A friend of Withers who was present connected the songwriter and Glasper on his cell phone for a brief conversation.

“When Common arrived, we played him ‘I Stand Alone,’” Glasper recalled. “He walked around, rhyming from scratch, but midway through the second verse he got writer’s block. We were chillin’ in the kitchen, and Bill Withers walked in. He talked to us for about three hours. We recorded everything. Common used some of his lines to finish his rhyme.”

At this point, Riley declared he was feeling better. “I’m going to draw,” he said, asking for a piece of paper. “Now we’re talking,” Glasper answered, delivering another kiss and fist bump before offering a back story for “Persevere,” with Snoop Dogg, Lupe Fiasco and Luke James. His friend Terrace Martin, the rapper-producer, “called to say Snoop loved Black Radio and wanted to talk to me,” Glasper said. “When I went to L.A., Terrace took me to a rehearsal, and Snoop and I talked about jazz for an hour. So I hit him up to be on Black Radio 2.

“Terrace got Snoop involved in a record Quincy Jones is doing with Clark Terry. They got in a private jet and went to Clark’s house in Arkansas. They hook up this equipment by Clark’s bedside, and Clark and Snoop Dogg are scatting, trading on the blues. I’ve seen the footage with my own eyes.”

[BREAK]

Toward the end of the Experiment’s set at the Detroit Jazz Festival on Labor Day, Wallace Roney — who had hired Glasper for a 2005 tour, soon after he’d signed with Blue Note — sat in on “All Matter,” a Bilal Oliver song that, says Glasper, “is just F-minor; you don’t have to know to play it.” Propelled by Derrick Hodge’s surging bass lines and Mark Colenburg’s inflamed refractions of Tony Williams, Roney, standing stage right, assumed an implacably take-no-prisoners persona, posing a series of “let’s see what you’ve got” challenges to Benjamin, who rose to the occasion, delivering his responses with a dark, glowering tone that displayed his assimilation of alto saxophone vocabulary from Charlie Parker to Kenny Garrett.

Two months before, at a midnight concert before a full house of cheering, arm-waving 20-somethings at Perugia’s Morlacchi Theater, Glasper drew upon his own considerable command of modern jazz piano language on an extended preface to Benjamin’s vocodered reading of Radiohead’s “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box.” After a Coltrane-ish alto solo, on which Benjamin modified the pitch with foot pedals, Hodge segued to a Spanish-tinged statement on “No Church In the Wild,” the Kanye West-Jay Z hit. While delivering the lyric of Sade’s “Cherish the Day,” Benjamin manipulated his voice with sound effects triggered in real-time on a keyboard synth, then counterstated with an intense saxophone declamation on which he built tension with fresh, electronically modified shapes and swoops. Colenburg embellished and subdivided the pulse like a human robot, coordinating into the grooves slaps and claps generated by his drum pad on covers of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Get Lucky” and “Time After Time.”

Throughout both concerts — and a dozen-plus performances posted on YouTube — the Experiment’s telepathic ability to reach emotional agreement was palpable. One factor influencing their mutual intuition is long acquaintance (Glasper, Benjamin and Colenburg have played together since they attended Manhattan’s New School during the late ’90s, while Hodge joined a year after the Experiment’s formative sessions at the Knitting Factory in 2005). The band has also spent a lot of time on the road together — eight months in 2013 — since Black Radio’s release. Furthermore, everyone has experience performing and conducting in the upper echelons of pop and hardcore jazz. Glasper, Hodge and Colenburg all cut their teeth as church musicians, learning to follow the arc of a sermon, to play for different guests, to illuminate different stages of the service and to address the unpredictable elements that differentiate one Sunday from the next.

“Coming up in church, you learn by ear,” Colenburg says. “There are no boundaries, no formulas telling you something has to be done a certain way. That helps with creativity. But knowing jazz means that you learn your instrument more thoroughly than in any other genre, so you understand how to have a voice in different genres.”

“Jazz is the spine of what we do,” says Benjamin, a native of Jamaica, Queens, whose c.v. includes work with Stefon Harris and Buster Williams. “Even on the biggest pop stage, we try to find some way of sticking in the jazz message.” As vocal influences, Benjamin cites Betty Carter for her “patience” on a ballad, Ron Isley for his phrasing and Withers for “his presentation, where it seems he’s just talking to you with the melody.” He credits Herbie Hancock’s phrasing and timbre on the 1978 LP Sunlight as the primary inspiration for his vocoder concept and Pat Metheny’s guitar-synth-playing on “Are You Going To Go with Me” for kindling the notion to electronically process his saxophone.

“You’d think Casey is the leader, because he’s singing the songs,” Glasper says. “I’ve never felt comfortable playing in the middle, unless it’s late-night TV, when the world has to know who I am pretty fast. Other than the songs we’re playing, everything is literally made up on the spot, but we come together so quickly that it seems things are arranged. There are no real roles. Everyone has the baton and can make something shift.

“Each of these cats can out-chop most people on their instrument, but they don’t let that override what needs to happen at a given time. I respect that so much. It’s harder to express yourself fully but honestly, and not feel you have to do certain things to please. They’re my favorite musicians in the world.”

However collective RGE’s orientation is when performing, the members acknowledge that Glasper sets the tone. “Black Radio was designed to mimic how the Experiment works,” Hodge says. “It’s a testament to Rob for being confident enough not to clench up in the studio. We came in laughing, cracking jokes, and then, ‘Oh, shoot, we’ve got to record something.’ Then we’d record it and before you know it, the album is done.”

“This baby was built because of my 11-12 years in the game,” Glasper says flatly. “Blue Note signed me. Also, I’ve taken my falls. Sometimes your band members make more than you, because you have to make things happen for your career. You have to be seen at a certain festival, no matter what it pays. I used to pay for the hotels and travel, and I wouldn’t make money, but the guys had to be paid. If you don’t have my liability, if you’re not losing what I would lose, then you can’t gain what I gain.

Black Radio 2 is for me to have longevity in this mainstream R&B game,” he continues. “I want to establish myself, like George Duke and Quincy Jones. I’m a jazz cat at heart, but I want an R&B bank account. I have a son. Living in Brooklyn ain’t cheap. I honestly don’t see myself doing the same jazz festival 50 times, and having to do them to make money to keep afloat.”

Financial considerations aside, Glasper has no intention of eliminating hardcore jazz expression from his musical production. “I love playing acoustic jazz, and I think my jazz lovers are missing it, even though I’ve only been gone for one album,” he says, referring to the Blue Note trio albums — Canvas, In My Element and the first half of Double Booked — that established his bona fides. “When I go back to jazz, I’ll do trio for sure, maybe live. I need to do a Village Vanguard album.”

Another possibility is a Black Radio gospel project. “It would bring everything back to the beginning,” Glasper says. “Most of the people I work with grew up in church, so there could also be people from the secular world — R&B or even jazz — as well as gospel.”

He recalls an end-of-April conversation with Herbie Hancock and the late George Duke at the United Nations International Jazz Day festivities in Turkey. “I asked Herbie’s advice, and he said, ‘Don’t stop anything you do. Do them all at the same time.’ I like where I am, because I feel I’m serving a bigger purpose than I could with just straight-up jazz stuff. Jazz trio is my favorite group to play in, but I don’t feel like I’m changing anything — though my version brings in a newer audience. But in the larger scheme, I can only go so far with it. To be able to live in both worlds, to understand both worlds, to be sought after in both worlds — that’s my whole thing. That I love.”

[–30–]

****************

Robert Glasper (Aug. 28, 2009) — http://www.jazz.com:

“I’m dramatic,” Robert Glasper told me in 2005 for a Downbeat story. “I feel like an actor and a painter—all the arts in one. When I play, I won’t sacrifice the vibe for some chops.”

On his 2009 release, Double Booked [Blue Note], Glasper actualizes this aspiration more completely than on any of his previous recordings. He devotes the first half to his soulful, expansive, highly individualized conception of the acoustic piano trio, drawing harmonic references from a timeline spanning Bud Powell to Mulgrew Miller. His lines flow organically through a succession of odd-metered and swing grooves and unfailingly melodic beats. He stretches out, but he’s also not afraid to milk his melodies and develop them slowly, using techniques of tension and release more commonly heard in functional situations than art music contexts. For part two, Glasper transitions to a plugged-in mise en scene, deploying spoken word and rhymes from such luminaries as Mos Def and Bilal. The latter both employ the Houston native on both recorded and performance projects, as have the likes of Q-Tip (The Renaissance), Kanye West (Late Registration), MeShell Ndegeocello (The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams), Erykah Badu, J Dilla, Jay-Z, Talib Kweli, Common, and, most recently, Maxwell, who kept Glasper on the road for consequential chunks of 2009.

Out of Houston, Texas, where he attended Houston’s High School of Performing and Visual Arts, Glasper developed his ability to spin tales in music from emulation of his mother, the late Kim Yvette Glasper, a professional jazz, blues and church singer, and from early experience playing the service in three different churches, one Baptist, one Seventh Day Adventist, and one Catholic.

“The music in the church is built on feeling, period,” he told me. “It’s not ‘Giant Steps.’ People give praise or cry, and you have to control all those things. You put a little something behind the pastor. Depending on the type of song, church music has jazz elements and pop elements, too. Hip-Hop is natural for me, because church music has a lot of the same grooves. I just fall in—take from here, take from there, but don’t take too much from one thing.”

In late August, I caught up with Glasper, now married and a father, at the offices of EMI-Blue Note for a conversation.

Describe your last few months of work. How much has it been divided between the acoustic trio, being on the road with Maxwell and your other sideman things, and to the Experimental Project? To what degree they’re separate and to what degree related would be a good way to launch the conversation.

Actually, this year I haven’t been doing much, because I just had a baby, January 22nd, and I pretty much stayed home until April to be with the baby and my lady. I did a few trio gigs at the end of March, and then I went to Africa and did the Capetown Jazz Festival with the Experiment. So we did one night with the Experiment there, and the very next night we did the Experiment with Mos’ Def. Then right from there, which is funny, I flew home for one day, on my birthday, April 6th. The plane was delayed for six hours. So I got to stay home literally, like, 8 hours, got on the plane, flew to Japan to do the Cotton Club with the Trio for a week. Did the Cotton Club with the Trio for a week. Right from Japan, I flew straight to Oakland to do a week with Mos’ Def with my Experiment band, at both of the Yoshi’s—went back and forth from the San Francisco Yoshi’s to the Oakland Yoshi’s. We did that for a week. Then I came home, and basically started the Maxwell rehearsals. Then I went on tour with Maxwell for two months. Got back maybe a week-and-a-half ago. Now I’m starting back out with Max next week, and we’re going to be gone until the middle of November. Then I go out with my trio when I get back, to do a few dates in Europe. Then I go to Japan with the Experiment in December, with Bilal as my special guest. Now we’re actually booking more dates around that time. I’m going to be home for like two months. So we’re trying to do it like that.

But you’re not double-booked for any of those.

I’m not double-booked for any of those, no-no-no. But day to day, I’m doing one or the other.

So it’s a pretty even split.

It’s a pretty even split. Right now, it’s working out, and I can really say I’m working. That’s a good thing.

Double Booked has some structural similarities to the other records. However, where the other records presented one sound, this one presents two. That said, particularly on your Blue Note records, you use the producer’s strategy of splitting the record in half. In My Element began with originals, and then the flavor changed.

Exactly.

Can you speak to how your thinking about making recordings has evolved since your first one, Mood [Fresh Sound], which I wrote the liner notes for. On that one, you said you were trying to do in with an open attitude, like it was a gig. Three years later, when I spoke with you for a Downbeat when you released Canvas, you said the opposite.

For most of Mood, it was just trio, and it was on a small label, so I wasn’t shaking or scared, really. I was, “Ok, I’ll do a record on Fresh Sounds. No one’s going to hear it.” [LAUGHS] For me, it was “everybody does a record for Fresh Sounds; whatever.” So there was no pressure. So I tried to approach it like a gig. But it didn’t really come off the way I wanted to, because we recorded at 10 in the morning—you don’t do gigs at 10 in the morning! Canvas was my first Blue Note…

But it obviously got some attention.

Yes, it definitely got more attention than I was expecting, so that was great as well. When I did Canvas, though, obviously that’s another level. It’s Blue Note now. It’s going to be a debut thing. So I wasn’t so comfortable. I didn’t really approach this one as a gig. This was more like, “let me think this out, because the world is going to hear this.” I had Mark Turner on that record, had Bilal on that record. It was more a compositional record, I think, for me. It wasn’t so much about the trio. It was more about what my sound is and the vibe of my compositions.

For In My Element, I was way more comfortable. It was just about the trio. We had just got off tour, so we knew the songs. I’m not one of those artists that spring up new songs on the day of the hit. I like to know what we’re going to do as far as the songs we’re going to play. I’m not really about, “Ok, I’m going to take two choruses here, and you do this.” I don’t like to structure it, because I do want it to have the feeling and vibe of a live gig. I’d like to keep that as much as possible.

For this record, I started recording a little bit later, so I could have the vibe of, “ok, I’m playing at night now.” I had a few drinks at the studio. I wanted to keep it loose and have the vibe correct. It’s really cold in the studio, and the walls are white, and you have the headphones on—it can really kill the vibe. So if you don’t feel jazz, it’s hard to play comfortable. So I tried to keep that feeling as much as possible. For In My Element, we’d been on tour with it, so it was comfortable—almost every song except for one or two, were first takes, and we only did one take, of “In My Element.” Same thing with Double Booked. Every song on the trio side were first takes and only takes, except I did one extra take on “59 South,” just to do it, because it was the last song we recorded. Incidentally, we never played that one before. That was really new, and I brought it to the studio, and we did it the first time, and it worked out—then I did a second take.

For the Experiment side of Double Booked, same thing. We recorded them in different places, different times. But my Experiment Band is different, too. I love them because we’ve only had one real rehearsal. Everything else we kind of vibe on stage and come up with. Even when we play songs, we might learn a song, say, at a soundcheck, or say, “Hey, learn this song separately, and let’s come together and see what happens.” I love that surprise aspect of it, the way it sounds organic when we do it like that. That’s what happened in the studio. Every song was a first take. We recorded at night, once again had some drinks there, chilled out and made it really loose. So every song on the Experiment side was a first and only take, except two or three takes of the Bilal song, “All Matter,” because that was our first time ever playing the song.

My main thing is trying to translate to CD the live, organic, comfortable performance you would see if you went to the Village Vanguard or another club. That’s hard to do, but I try to get as close to it as possible.

Is there a different intention with the Experiment than the acoustic trio?

Not really different intentions. What makes my trio different, I think, is that we tap into the hip-hop side, and most piano trios don’t do that, and do it back and forth. But with the Experiment, it’s, “Ok, let’s go all the way in and go for it.” It’s not even like Experiment is a hip-hop band. If you listen to the record, all of the songs aren’t hip-hop. It’s not like that at all. We’re a worldly music thing, I guess you could say, in a way. It’s more a hiphop-fusion-jazz-soul vibe, if you will.

Not everything you do as a sideman is hiphop either. Maxwell isn’t hiphop.

Exactly. It’s a mixture. When people refer to Experiment, they say hiphop, but for the most part it’s a different side of me that I can’t really portray in a trio setting. I get to play as a sideman when I play with the Experiment. I get to comp behind Casey Benjamin, and come from a whole different angle musically. I bring in the Rhodes and electric bass, and sonically it’s a different sound, too. So it’s a band that can take you more places than an acoustic piano trio can take you. You can only go so far with acoustic piano and acoustic bass.

The transitions are delineated by a pair of phone messages. This isn’t the first time you’ve used your answering machine as part of the record—you included a message from Dilla on In My Element. At the beginning of the CD is a message from Terence Blanchard—“Are you double booked? Give me a call.” Halfway through, there’s a different sort of message from Quest Love. In any event, were you double booked?

[LAUGHS] That’s the story of the record. I’ve actually been double-booked before. Not with Terence in that instance. But I wanted to find a way to make this album make sense, because when you’re listening it could well seem very random. “Huh? Where did that come from?” I wanted to make a story line. Most jazz records don’t go that deep into their record to do that. That’s more of a hiphop thing, a pop thing, to have interludes and storylines and messages and things. It’s interesting, and I think jazz needs to be more interesting.

We tend to be snobs at times. The whole genre tends toward musical snobbery, in a way. You go to a jazz concert, it could be like going to a golf tournament or something. SHHH. They have that whole vibe. I’m of this generation, and we do things like that. We make the music fun. I try to make it more than just your average record. So I try to throw in those little musical snacks, interludes, and phone messages from people in my other worlds, and make it somewhat different than the normal jazz record—here it is, here’s the tunes.

Are you thinking about it before, or is it all post-production?

For this record, definitely before. I had to figure out the way I wanted to make the record make sense and make a story out of it. Like I say, I didn’t want it to be random.

There are a number of components to your style, which you’ve spoken of. There’s hiphop and jazz. There’s certainly gospel. There’s a blues feeling, too. You also have a pretty distinctive time feel, as has often been noted. I’d like to talk about these elements discretely, perhaps beginning with gospel—and blues as well. As you described to me, early on you played some drums in church, and your mother, who was a singer, brought you with her to clubs, because she wouldn’t entrust you to baby-sitters.

Right.

You said: “I have a certain feel, a certain way of thinking and imagining and hearing harmony, and it all descends from coming up in and playing music in the church.”

I guess that’s where I developed my sound. Growing up in church gave me my way of hearing harmony; I would take church and gospel harmonies and mix them with the jazz harmonies I know. That’s not too normal in jazz. Pretty much, the jazz realm, especially when you look at standards and so on, is very II-V-I oriented in the chord changes and AABA in the form. The form and the chord changes tend to repeat a lot—though of course, nowadays, people are branching out and doing all kinds of things. I would write gospel tunes all the time, and people would say about my gospel tunes, “They sound a little jazzy.” But then, when I played jazz, they say, “I hear gospel.” I try not to ignore any part of my background or what I hear. I become a vessel for the music that I hear, and just let it come out how it comes out.

Your sound and harmonic imagination come through pretty fully-formed on <i>Mood</i>, the first record. I think the evolution has come in other way—narrative focus, broader frames of reference, more clarity. But there’s a pretty recognizable line from when you were 21-22. Would you agree with that?

Yeah, I would. I’m glad of that. I didn’t think so at the time, I didn’t know at the time, until I did the record and started hearing that. “Wait. Maybe I do have a certain sound.” That’s the greatest compliment anybody can tell someone—“You have your own sound.” It’s different than, “You’re a good jazz musician” or “boy, you can really play.” There’s a million people who can really play, but that don’t have a sound. It’s totally different. I know people who aren’t really great players, but they have a sound, and they can write, and they also have a sound compositionally. I’ll take that over just being a good player, because those come a dime a dozen.

Another component of gospel is not the sound that imprinted itself on your consciousness, but that you started working as a professional musician at a very early age in the church.

Exactly. Especially for African Americans, too. That’s the only place where at 8 years old you can get a paycheck playing music. People don’t come up with money, so if you’re a musician, it’s a way you can help out with the family. I know people literally 7 years old that play drums in church who make a check. There’s no other way you can do that musically at 7 right around the corner from your house.

No more Jackson 5.

No more Jackson 5, that kind of stuff. Church is very accessible for African-American people to come up and play in. Then from church, that’s when you develop being spiritual in music, being able to touch someone with a song. When you play in church, the audience, the congregation, the choir, are all reacting to you as well. Everything you play, the singers are reacting to you, the audience is reacting to that, and it’s all very spiritual. I think that’s another part of music that I take from church as well—not playing for the sake of playing but for the spiritual aspect, the emotion, the realness of it, the organic honesty of the whole thing.

By the age of 16, you were orchestrating 10,000 congregants in a service at the Brentwood Church in Houston, where Joe Samuel Ratliff was the pastor. That’s quite a responsibility. And not just there, but at the Catholic church nearby, and another service, too…

Then I played another service on Saturdays with my mom at a Seventh Day Adventist church. So I was rolling in the dough in high school!

Talk about your learning curve. How quickly did you develop facility at the piano? And what do you think allowed you to have that kind of perspective and detachment at that age?

I don’t know. Honestly, I think I was born with that thing. I just discovered it late. Then I think I always had the talent to play the piano, but kind of refused it—I kind of tapped in and just left it alone. I thought I was going to be a track star, but it didn’t work out for me. I ran the mile. I was pretty fast. Up until four years ago, the record for my elementary school for the mile run was still up. No one had beat it. I don’t even know if it’s been beaten yet. But four years ago, my old coach found me, emailed me, “good to hear what you’ve been doing; by the way, your record for the mile run has still not been beaten.” Oh yeah! Look out. Bolt, look out!

I think Bolt is safe for a while.

He’s amazing. Bolt is a very inspirational cat to me right now. But I think I got the musical gene from my mom. Well, my whole family is pretty musical. My grand-dad’s a singer, my aunt is a singer. So when you go to our family reunion, it’s like a musical. Everybody’s singing and doing things. So just my sensibility to music, and even to my facility on the piano… I can’t explain it, because I never had formal lessons. I’ve just been able to play. That came natural. Along the way, I learned certain things, definitely, but it all pretty much came natural. And then, holding down a church service by yourself on a piano does require some facility as well. Certain things you’ve just got to be able to do. That helped as well.

You couldn’t have been entirely self-taught, though, because you did go to Houston High School of Performing Arts, a magnet school, where there must have been some formal training.

Yes. But there wasn’t piano training there. All the school had there was a jazz combo and a jazz band. Jazz big band and jazz combo. Basically, they’d give you charts, and you’d just learn tunes and stuff like that. We had a harmony class, so you would learn things about harmony, ear training, and so on, that, but never an actual piano teacher who would sit down with you at the piano and show you things. To this day, I’ve still never had a real piano teacher. I just picked up things here and there where I could, off the streets. A lot of comrade church musicians, we would sit down and shed together. I got a lot from Alan Mosley, a piano player in Houston who played with my mom all the time. He’s the reason why I even play jazz. He’d come over to the house and rehearse with my mom, and I’d sit there by the piano the whole rehearsal and watch him play, and afterwards he’d show me things. I think the first jazz tune I learned to play was “Spiderman,” the actual cartoon Spiderman—he taught me a jazz way to do it, like a minor blues. Then he showed me how to play “Cherokee,” how to play “Giant Steps,” things of that nature. So he’d be it as far as a jazz teacher or piano teacher goes.

A very pragmatic education. Put your fingers here, you get this sound.

Yes.

I’d like to talk about pianistic influences. You have a Herbie Hancock tune on every one of your records. I know you’ve said that this is by accident, but it can’t really be one.

The first two albums it was completely, “Dang. Really? I did it again.” Kind of accidental, not really thinking about it, just kind of happened. Then In My Element, I actually further Radioheadalized “Maiden Voyage,” which I’d done on Mood, but hid the Radiohead more, so it wasn’t so obvious. But there I wanted to make it obvious, so I redid it for that purpose. Then on Double Booked, we did “Butterfly.” Now a part of my repertoire is Herbie songs. We feel comfortable playing them, and he’s an amazing composer.

Actually, I thought for the life of me that “Silly Rabbit” was referencing “Jackrabbit” from Inventions and Dimensions.

Not one bit. But it’s certainly in that vibe. Herbie’s impact on me is his ability to go between any genre of music and fit right in. Herbie could easily go from a Bonnie Raitt gig to a Stevie Wonder gig to a Miles Davis gig to a Mos’ Def gig, to any gig he wants to go to, and just slip right in, and sound amazing, and still sound like Herbie—but fit what’s happening. He’s like water. He fits the shape of whatever is needed without losing his self, his consistency, his own thing. Now, he’s one of my favorite acoustic piano players, but he’s also my favorite on Rhodes. No one gets a sound out of the Rhodes like Herbie. It’s amazing. What’s he’s done in terms of branching off from his acoustic jazz career, and doing the Headhunters and the Mwandishi stuff, and getting into the hiphop side, and getting the recognition he’s got from the world. Everyone knows “Rockit.” It’s hard for a jazz person to get that recognition. Most people know “Watermelon Man,” believe it or not. Stuff like that. And he hasn’t lost any respect from anyone by any means. He’s still playing to this day. I respect him on the piano, and also off the piano, just business-wise and his imagination. Then there’s how open he is to this day. He’s not a musical snob. Not one bit. It maybe an “us Aries” thing. He’s very open, and he sounds open. When he’s playing, he sounds like he’s having fun, and I love that, too. Some people take what they do way too seriously, so it comes across. But you can hear he’s having fun, reaching for things. I love his spirit as well.

7-8 years ago, you mentioned Keith Jarrett less as a stylistic influence than as a template for your trio playing. Does that still hold true?

Yes, that totally still holds true. With Keith, it’s so organic, and he translates that very well from live to record. Everybody in the trio has a voice, and it makes the music more interesting. When you go to Keith’s concert, you don’t know where everything is going to come from. You can tell everybody has a place, and also trades places.

Monk. You do “Think of One” on this. I like the version, because you played the tune idiomatically but also sounded like yourself. When did you get involved in Monk’s music? In high school or later?

No, that came after. Even when I first got to college, I wasn’t a big Monk fan. I liked his tunes. That became a thing, especially in college. Everybody tries to learn the most obscure Monk tunes, have a competition who knows the most obscure Monk tunes—but I was never really so into it. Around mid-college, 1999-2000, I became more intrigued by him.

Was it being in New York for a while?

That, but then also, when everywhere you go, everybody’s trying to play a Monk tune. You think, “Let me check this out and see what it is.”

What hadn’t appealed to you, and when then did appeal to you?

Now I’m more into the composition and his comping. And Monk’s attitude. He had a certain attitude when he played, a fun, free attitude like what I hear when I hear Herbie or Chick. Have fun. It so comes across. Monk’s that way. When you watch him, you can tell. But in college, checking out his compositions really did it for me. When I decided to do a Monk tune, I didn’t want to do it the regular way. Everyone does Monk tunes all the time, to the point where, after a while, it gets annoying, because “ok, now you’all just doing it to do it.” You’re not doing it any justice. So when I did do one, I wanted to do it in a way that was fresh and new, and at the same time you never lose the tune. Some people will redo something, and it’s like, “where is the song?” They’ll even change the melody to fit some chord or something. Huh? So I try to respect the song, and at the same time put my own thing on it, and at the same time make it as modern as possible. That’s what I did when I mixed it with Dilla. I came up with that idea.

Speaking of Dilla, let’s talk about your time feel. A few years ago, you told me that Damion Reed, who played drums with you then, called the way you feel time “the circle.” You continued: “We don’t think straight-ahead like 1-2-3-4. We feel where the measures end, do whatever we have to do between 1 and 4 to get back to the 1, and then come in together.” Does that description still obtain for the way you think about time?

Yes, but not so much as then, because I play a little bit different with Chris Dave. Damion was more open and free-flowing, to the point where sometimes the time would get lost—you don’t know where it is. It’s still there, but it’s more mysterious where the time is. Chris is a master at knowing where the time is, and doing so many different things with it, but you still feel where it is. So I still feel the pulse. With Damien, you would lose the pulse sometimes—in a good way. “Oh, shit, where’d it go, where’d it go? Ah, there it is.” BAM. So it made me play a certain way within measures. That still has its place now, too, at times, but not so much as it did.

You obviously use many beats from hiphop, particularly ideas that were in play during the ‘90s, in your formative years and when you first became involved. Can you speak to your perception of how hiphop affected jazz time? Also, once in New York, did you personally incorporate other rhythmic influences? You arrived here at a time when various hybrids were taking shape. Dafnis Prieto came to town in 1999, along with other Cuban and Afro-Caribbean musicians. Brad Mehldau’s ideas were well-established.

A lot of those things are true, but probably I didn’t realize it, just being in it. Sometimes it just seeps in, and you don’t know. Just going from club to club and playing with different people in school and outside of school, a lot of things affect you, and you don’t even know. It’s like catching a cold. You never really know where exactly you got the cold; just you get home and don’t feel too well. You don’t know if you got it on the subway, when you were outside, when you were at McDonald’s. So a lot of the rhythmic things are just being in New York and getting all of it at different times.

But also, playing in a soul and hiphop setting often, as well as playing jazz often, I would intermingle the two without really trying, I think. I’m used to playing this way time-wise. When I play hiphop and soul, especially with the people I was playing with, behind the beat is kind of the thing to do. It has a certain feel. So I took that over to the jazz realm, and it became my style, in a way, to have that kind of vibe with the jazz style. The jazz style tends to be on top of the beat more, versus laid-back. I think I get that from especially hiphop in the area of Dilla, who I got into around 2000-2001. His stuff is about things like sampling pianos, or any instrument, putting it way back behind the drums, and the bass is way behind, but the snare on the drums is a little bit ahead, and there’s nothing landing you anywhere—you’re just wobbling around in the middle, nodding your head, like “Oh my God. I feel the time; I can’t really nail it, but it’s there.” It’s kind of mysterious. I call it “drunk funk. Anyway, I took that, and cats like Pete Rock have the same thing, and some Tribe Called Quest things (which Dilla was part of for the first part of his career) have the same thing. DJ Premier, too.

What’s the appeal of that time feel?

It just feels so good. It doesn’t feel jagged or in a rush. It feels like you’re taking your time, like you’re just chillin’. You’re not taking anything too…almost too seriously. I feel like I’m hanging out for a while! Or something. You feel more in control, too. Because when everything is jagged, and you’re on top and they’re on top, it feels like rush hour. Imagine being in rush hour, but you’re going slow as hell, but you’re still with everybody, so everybody else is looking at you like you’re in slow motion—there’s no traffic for you but it’s rush hour. It’s an interesting feeling.

Would the rush hour feeling have anything to do with a northern way of thinking vis-a-vis a southern way of thinking?

Not really. Honestly, I think it’s a mixture of the two. Culturally, African-American people tend to lay back behind the beat. Other cultures tend to be more on top of the beat. [DEMONSTRATES ON HIS CHEST] That lazy, fucked-up rhythm from Africa. It’s passed down. It’s more natural. We’re more rhythmic people, if you will. I think that’s probably what it is.

In high school, before you came to New York, what hiphop were you listening to?</b>

Mostly just Tribe Called Quest and some Busta Rhymes stuff. I wasn’t as big into hiphop in high school as I became once I moved to New York.

Was this because of the church influence?

Church influence. For the most part, my life was pretty much church and jazz. I was working in church on the weekends, and during the week choir rehearsals and stuff like that, and then, when I’d go to school, it was jazz. Once I moved to New York, which is the home of hiphop, is when I really got knocked in the head with a bunch of hiphop. I started to work with Bilal, then started meeting all these emcees and doing little things, shows with him and shows with different hiphop artists. That’s how I got into it more. I’m still not the biggest hiphop head. But I like what I like.

You described for me a couple of years ago how your jazz career evolved from the New School. You came here from Houston, Dr. Ratliff from Brentwood Church knew the pastor at the Canaan Church in Harlem, so you got a job playing that service early on, which probably kept you in funds.

Yes.

Then you started going to sessions. You mentioned a place in Fort Greene called Pork Knockers, Cleopatra’s and Small’s in Manhattan. Anthony Wonsey linked you to Russell Malone, and things happened. But could you go into some detail on your progress in..well, let’s not call it “hiphop,” because it seems insufficient. Let’s call it Urban music.

The very first day I got to the New School, they had all the new students play. They call your name up and put a little group together on the spot, and you play together. I can’t remember if Bilal and I were on the stage together or if we were separate, but by the end of that day, we were boys, we were friends. We started hanging out. One of the teachers from the New School said, “I have a friend who lives right around the corner who used to drum for the Spin Doctors, Aaron Comess, if you want to do some recording over there.” We were like, “cool.” Bilal wanted to do a demo, and we went over there and did some recording. Soon after that, Bilal got signed, and once he got signed, before his record came out, we started doing gigs around the city, and that’s where I started meeting people in the Soul genre, in the Hiphop genre. Bilal had Common and Mos Def on his record. So at one point, we went on tour with Common, and then Common opened up for Erykah Badu, so the tour was with Erykah, Common, and Bilal. Then I met Mos Def. I was playing with Bilal, but on the tour, you get to know all the cats in their bands, and you get to know the them, too. I’ve done some playing with Common, and done some things with Erykah, not in her band, but situations where we’re together. From that, I met the Roots—Bilal’s from Philly, the Roots are from Philly—and I started playing gigs with the Roots on and off. Throughout the years, that aspect of it has continued to grow. From there, I started playing with Q-Tip. I’ve done some things with Talib Kwali.

It seems like the two most consequential relationships now are with Bilal and Mos Def.

Yeah, Bilal, Mos Def, and Tip.

Talk about each of them.

Bilal is my favorite singer, period, of all time. He’s extremely organic. He doesn’t do anything unless he means it. He’s an amazing vocalist, period. People don’t even know, but he was like all-state opera in high school. He has an extremely trained voice without sounding trained. But he can sing any genre. He’s probably the only male jazz vocalist I know that actually sings jazz for real. Most people that sing jazz get on my nerves, because there’s a specific jazz voice people have when they sing jazz that’s annoying. It’s like, “I’m singing JAZZ now.” It sounds like their eyebrow is up. It’s really annoying. But he gets it, and he’s actually a jazz musician at heart. He knows how to interpret songs. He can do that in any genre of music, and he knows how to change his voice to fit certain things. Musically, he’s an amazing cat.

<p>Mos Def is a great person overall. Funny cat. Very down to earth. I don’t think there’s an asshole bone in his body. He doesn’t come off like one of them cats, like, “Oh, I’m a superstar, leave me alone”—that kind of vibe. He’s very open, and musically very honest, and has an eclectic library of music in his head. When we do shows with him, we’ll go from an Eric Dolphy tune to a Neal Young song in a minute, to a Radiohead song, to a James Brown. To whatever. He loves music. He’s a vessel for music. He understands the live band aspect, because he plays a little piano, plays a little drums; he respects it and is always searching for more knowledge. Also what’s great about working with him is he lets me be me. We have a good working thing, because he listens to me, I listen to him, and we work things out. It’s a very give-and-take relationship.

Tip is the same way. Mentally, his musical library is ridiculously huge, and so is his physical library at his house. He has so much music. He’s one of them cats that I would call if I was on Millionaire and there was a question about music. He’s a deejay at heart, too. Records, years of records… And he has perfect pitch. An emcee with perfect pitch? A lot of the songs that we start, songs that he sings, he can start them off the top and be in the right key all the time. He’s another emcee, like most, who knows how to play a little piano. He’ll be rhyming, and then, “Yo, stop real quick. When we get to that A-flat-minor chord, play this.” That’s crazy. For an emcee to be that musical is different than a singer, because most emcees much just rhyme their tracks, so they’re not really doing it with a live band aspect. Again, Tip has a big respect for the live band aspect. He’s one of the people trying to bring it back and move it forward, and look to the future and do some cool things.

That segues well into my next question, which is how hiphop/urban music has evolved during your own maturity, since you arrived in New York in 1997. At the time, there was a confluence of many streams, which have since branched out, until today hiphop itself is in a different place, and the hot performers from then have matured and gone in different directions.

In 1997, when I first got here, the Neo-Soul movement was big, which brought back the live bands and the importance of the live band sound. There was a big blast of, “Let’s bring live bands back.” Hiphop artists were using bands. Then something happened in Neo-Soul, and it got strange. I think once D’Angelo was out of the picture, it started dying down a little bit, then Hiphop in itself got real strange, and now you have all these kind of dumb songs, and they’re not really Hiphop. I call it “Hip-Pop.”

Is Hiphop something else now?

No, Hiphop is still Hiphop. But the stuff that people say is Hiphop isn’t even hiphop to me. That’s like people calling Smooth Jazz, “jazz,” to me. When people say “jazz,” I think what I think, but somebody might call it listening to jazz—which they can, but for me it’s not that. I don’t even get mad. There’s a lot of bullshit out right now getting fed to the public, and they’re eating it, and they’re thinking that’s where real music is. That’s the area we’re in now. We’re trying to fight back and bring back the live band and the good music, and even the stuff that people are talking about is… You’re still talking about money and fat asses? Really? Can we move on? That type of thing.

Now I think there’s more of an uprising of actual cause for good music. For a while there was no cause. A lot of good music is lost. Back in the day, there was great music, because there was a cause behind the music. Something political was happening…

What do you mean by “back in the day”?

‘70s and below. There was always a cause. Your “What’s Going On” era with Marvin Gaye. All that shit. There was always a cause and a passion for real music, a PASSIONfor it, and now it’s just like some dumb shit. But I think it’s coming back. Politically, there are things happening. You have Barrack Obama. Michael Jackson just passed, so now people are revisiting those records and getting influenced again. Sometimes you don’t really think about shit until it’s gone. I think Michael’s passing is really making people reflect and look back and see what’s real now, and it’s changing their aspect on things…

How so? For you, for instance?

My lady and I were talking about this the other day. I think Michael’s influence for most people is different than anybody else’s, because he was such a big influence on the world when he was 7. I don’t know anybody else who can say that—like, on his level. He was a major superstar for 43 years. On top of the world type stuff. That’s unheard-of. So you kind of watched him grow up. You feel like you knew him when he was a child, when you see these videos. He was always an influence for me. I used to get in trouble for moonwalking in second grade. I had the glove and everything. I actually went to a Jackson Five concert, and the whole nine. When you listen back, people forget that he could really, really sing. Michael Jackson was a brand, so you get caught up in his whole thing, with the dancing, and just him being weird, and the Jackson Five and all this stuff. But if you sat Michael down in a chair next to a piano and start playing, just to hear him sing…he was ridiculous! I think people skip over it. You think he can sing, but when you listen back to the music you’re like, “Wow, he can really sing!” He was so ahead of his time! When he was with the Jackson Five, when they were small, doing the Destiny album, with some of those changes on there, and he’s singing all through them changes, eating them up… It’s like, “Yo, you’re 7; why are you sounding like you’re 30 and you’ve been hurt already?” That’s what Smokey Robinson was saying after he recorded “Who’s Loving You,” and Berry had Michael Jackson sing it after he signed Michael Jackson. Berry called Smokey, like, “You sung this song, but listen to this,” and Smokey heard him and it was like, “Oh my God. This boy sounds like he’s been through it all, and he’s like 9.” So Michael Jackson was an angel that God put here specifically for a reason. He did inspire me and most people musically.

Before your digression on Michael Jackson, you spoke of the ways in which the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s reflected the times in which it was created, and said you say you feel similar winds in the air today. Can you reflect on any connections between the way you’re approaching jazz and the way the culture has developed during your maturity?

I’m trying to involve things and people in the music that have something to do with today, and pushing the envelope in music and politics and everything in general. I had a song on the record that I didn’t release because we couldn’t get it cleared. I was playing a one-motif thing, and over it was the news about the Sean Bell hearing, and it had Martin Luther King’s “We Shall Overcome” speech….

Sean Bell was the man who was killed by 50 shots from several policeman after leaving his bachelor party in Jamaica, Queens.

Yeah. More than 50 shots. They all got off. It also had my friend, Jessie, who was a Katrina victim, speaking about his experience with that, and there was a Barrack Obama thing at the end of it. It addresses the time period we’re in. Certain albums you can look back on and you know the time period it was in just by listening to it. I think being able to capture the times musically within a record is kind of a lost art as well. Then, the people I’m using on the record, like Quest and Terence and Mos, are visionary people who I look up to, who are doing things. The time period we’re in is making me be more aware of my surroundings. That kind of thing.

I do want to ask you about one tune on Double Booked, “Festival,” with Casey Benjamin, which in the beginning, the way Casey is playing and the way you’re comping, makes me think of the Wayne Shorter Quartet. Now, whether or not I’m accurate on this, could you discuss some of other bands you’ve been paying attention to over the last 8-9 years?

It’s very possible that what you say is true. I love Wayne. He’s my favorite jazz composer. I love his composing, period. I also love Art Blakey and the Messengers. I love the Miles Davis Quintet. I love Herbie’s stuff on his own. I love the John Coltrane Quartet. I love Brian Blade’s Fellowship Band. I love the Bandwagon—Jason Moran. Terence Blanchard’s band. He’s had a few different bands through the years, and I love what he does.

A few words about the contemporary bands you spoke of—Bandwagon, Fellowship, Blanchard.

First of all, Brian Blade is one of my favorite drummers of all time, because he gives you a feeling like he’s playing keys. He brings so much color to the music that normally a drummer wouldn’t bring. His textures and the passion that he has when he plays, you can feel it and you can hear it. It’s all there. He’s just a very emotional drummer. I’ve cried listening to Blade. Drummers don’t generally make people cry. I also love the compositions that Fellowship plays and the way they portray them. Brian Blade Fellowship put on probably my top favorite concert I’ve ever seen, at the Vanguard a few years ago. You can get a lot of great musicians, put them together, but they don’t sound good as a band. But Fellowship is a great band, in their collective honesty and how they play with each other. Ego can get in the way of allowing honest things to happen, but with Fellowship there’s no ego on that stage.

I think that’s what it is with Jason, and also Terence. It’s Terence’s band, but he doesn’t have an ego about it. He lets everybody write, lets everybody be themselves, and kind of goes where the music goes. He’s not trying to dictate everything because he’s the leader and “this is what it is.” You can feel that from the spirit. What makes me like people is the spirit, the intention, and that really comes across in Terence’s band. Especially Terence’s current band, because Kendrick Scott is on drums. He’s another one of my favorite drummers. He’s like a Blade, too—I think he’s also made me cry. I’ve been playing with Kendrick since high school, and Kendrick was playing with me at Dr. Ratliff’s church. I’ve known him for years. He’s definitely a very egoless drummer. Really about the music and what’s happening, and lets the spirit move him. I love that about him.

You made a remark in 2005 about liking to play with Derrick Hodge, who plays on the Experimental half of Double Booked, because he can go in and out of jazz and hiphop feels seamlessly, as can you. Can you speak to the qualities that are distinctive to rendering jazz and rendering hiphop, and the complexities that pertain to a jazz-oriented musician addressing hiphop and to a hiphop artist addressing jazz?

As far as jazz and then going into hiphop, I think it’s the disconnect between urban music and jazz musicians. Because nowadays, let’s face it, there are less African-Americans playing this music than there were before. I sat down not too long ago and tried to name five pianists that are my age or younger who are known on the scene.

Who are African-American?

Yeah. I couldn’t name five—I was really trying—who are really known, who are my age and younger who are actually on the scene. In other words, is somebody in Chicago going to know this person? Since we live in New York, we have a false reality. If I live in Kansas, am I going to know Eric Lewis? Love him to death. He’s one of my favorite pianists. He’s ridiculous. Amazing. I mean, I can name some people I know who are in New York that are bubbling. But I’m just saying cats that are getting some kind of broader recognition. You do this for a living, so you’re going to know these cats. But I doubt someone who’s going to a college in Houston or in Kansas is going to know who all those cats are. I’m not saying they’re not here, but they’re new, bubbling kind of cats that are not getting the recognition they probably should.

But as a whole, there’s not a large amount of African-Americans playing this music, as was the case before. Let’s flip it around. In the ‘60s, there were more black people playing jazz than white people.

Whether or not that’s true, black musicians formed the preponderance of those crucial to the development of the idiom.

Yes, of course. I did a survey of my own. If you look at the life of jazz, and take out anybody who wasn’t black, would it really change? Probably not so much. I don’t think it would have been a big change if you take out anybody who wasn’t black. Nowadays, if you flip it around, if you remove people who are black, the scene wouldn’t change very much. Look at all the magazines, look at everything—there’s not many black people in there. Most of your vocalists under 30 that you’re hearing about and seeing are white. Now, I’m just speaking about 30 years and younger. This generation. I’m talking about the difference between my generation and another generation. This generation has more European and more Asian than Black. I think it’s at an all-time high now. With black people, what happens is, when they’re young like me, they get sucked into playing in church. It’s easier. They make money. Not everybody has a jazz mentor. Like I say, we live in New York, so we have a false reality. If you’re from wherever, Cincinnati, and you’re an up-and-coming piano player, there’s probably one jazz club, maybe, and there’s probably no jazz station, and if there is a jazz station they’re probably playing Charlie Parker. Let’s be honest. Jazz stations suck nowadays. There aren’t many good jazz stations.

Well, I’d hope they were playing Charlie Parker. But hopefully they’re playing something of today as well.

Right. Music moves on in every other genre. If you turn on Hot-97, they’re playing Usher. When you turn it on, 9 times out of 10 you’re probably going to hear Chris Brown because he’s up to date. Any other genre of music is like that, except jazz. Jazz is very history-oriented, and it pretty much stays there for most people. Versus any other music. It’s very history-oriented, and it’s to the point where, “Do you care about the future?” Hello! Some people aren’t about the future. You’re about the future. But you have the same respect for the past.

You have to balance it.

You have to balance it. But most people, when it comes to jazz, there’s no balance. They won’t talk about Marcus Strickland. Jazz is hidden. Where would you find him? If you don’t live here, how would you know him? 99 times out of 100, the jazz stations aren’t going to be playing him. If you turn on the TV, you’re not going to see him. You have to dig pretty hard. Other genres of music, the new shit that’s out, it’s put in your face. I have to know Chris Brown right now. Without trying, you’re going to know him. You’re going to see him in the magazines, you’re going to see him on TV, you put on the radio and he’s going to be there. That’s how it is. They force-feed new artists down your throat.

I’ve wavered way off the point. But I’m saying that this is the disconnect of it. Because now, this music has changed from being more of a music that I guess black people have been playing to more of a music that other people are playing, so therefore the aspect of the groove, that urban groove, is lost. The Europeans and Asians aren’t driven by urban rhythm. They’re more driven by melody, notes, and other kinds of things. So it’s very hard for a jazz musician nowadays to be able to play a hip-hop groove, because that’s not really where they’re from with it. So it’s changed. Because back in the day, in the ‘60s, if you told somebody a jazz musician was on the gig, it was like, “Oh, great! Yes!” They did a lot of the Motown recordings. It was like a marriage back then. After the jazz clubs, they’d go right to the studio. If you look on many albums, you’ll see Ron Carter on the record, Herbie on the albums…

There was a studio scene.

Exactly. There was more of a mingle, too, between the studio musicians and the jazz cats. Now, to be a studio musician, you live in L.A. and you play real jazz here. It’s really separated.

This began when I asked you the impact of hiphop on jazz. Now let’s talk about the impact that jazz is having on hiphop.

Well, jazz has always had an influence on hiphop. Jazz is one of the reasons why hiphop is what it is. Jazz musicians have been sampled for years now. That’s what made me start listening to hiphop, from when I was listening to Tribe Called Quest in high school. I grew up in the suburbs in Houston, so a lot of the rap I would hear, I wouldn’t be able to identify with it, because a lot of people talked about guns or the ghetto or these girls, and I wasn’t about that, so it would go over my head. Until I heard A Tribe Called Quest, and I was like, “Wait—there’s chords. Wow, there’s melody. Wait, that’s ‘Red Clay.’  I know that tune!” It kind of grasped my ear. It’s like, “yo, they’re melodic.” So then I started listening to them. That’s what grasped me, the chord changes and things of that nature. To this day, I’m catching more and more songs, like songs I used to love, and I’m like, “Oh, I know what that song is; they sampled that tune.” So jazz always had an influence.

I think nowadays, it’s now about having the actual musicians mingle together. That hasn’t happened in a very long time. Granted, hiphop is new, so Trane couldn’t mingle with a hiphop artist now—he’s gone. Bill Evans, the same thing. But those cats have been sampled. Ron Carter’s done it. He’s done it for Tribe. So there certain cats now actually are bridging that gap, and have bridged that gap. I’m trying to bridge that gap, and do it while I’m actually doing my thing as well at the same time.

You remarked to a British paper a few years ago that you play “intelligent hiphop.” Can you elaborate a bit?

I can’t stand the hiphop that’s all about the jewelry and the girls and the money and the guns. I like more conscious hiphop, like talking about the empowerment of black people. Your empowerment of yourself as a person, whatever color you are. Treating women right. Every other song is dissing a woman and calling them a bitch or whatever. I’m more into other hiphop that’s more positive, talking about something else, something that’s not degrading. Moreso than ever, those songs are the ones that I like the music for, because those people are more conscious, and mostly conscious people listen to better music than people who aren’t conscious. Tribe Called Quest is very conscious. Common is very conscious. Mos Def is very conscious. They all have great, great music. So I guess that’s what brings the two together for me.

You were talking about all the obstacles that militate against a young black kid actually playing jazz. You could get trapped in the economics of being a church musician, you won’t get to hear it on the radio, and so on. But quite a number of remarkably mature, well-formed jazz musicians emerged from Houston, like you and Kendrick Scott, Jason Moran, Eric Harland, Chris Dave, Mike Moreno, Walter Smith…

Jamire Williams.

There we go. Was that solely because of the high school? 

Having that high school helped. That’s a big boost. I’m pretty sure that in a lot of other states, there are musicians just as talented, but probably never had the chance to… When colleges come to Houston, they go right to my high school before they go anywhere else. If you’re a music college, you’re going right to my high school. If I went to a regular high school, they would come right there. I probably wouldn’t have been so diligent and worked so hard. When you’re in high school with a bunch of talented people, it makes you work harder. It’s a competition type thing—you want to get better because this person is better. All your friends have the same agenda. They all love what you love. I went to a regular high school my first year, and I couldn’t talk to nobody about jazz! Nobody knew nothing about jazz. If you’re around a lot of people who don’t have the same dream as you and all that kind of stuff, it could wear you down, and you become not so serious about it, and then if you go to a high school that doesn’t have any kind of hoopla about it, you’re probably not going to get the attention from colleges that you want. So for some people, it gets heavier and heavier and heavier on them, and they don’t get that kind of chance. They were talented, but they didn’t hone their craft enough or get the opportunity to do this, and have comrades to do this with. So they just stay in church and do what they do, and it’s that.

But in Houston, I think a lot of it was that from the door the cats are just naturally talented, but then being in a school where there’s other talented cats that have the same interests as you really helps. You’re learning from your friends. I learned a pile of stuff from my comrades that I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t go to that school. Mike Moreno or Walter or Kendrick would bring tapes to school, like, ‘Yo, check out this new stuff.” They were really into what was happening in New York and in the jazz scene, and so on.

You made a remark, “I feel like I’m an actor and a painter. It’s all the arts in one. So when I’m playing the piano, I don’t just think of it as, ‘Oh, I’m playing piano.’ I won’t sacrifice the vibe for some chops.” You said, “it’s a mood thing. On each song I go into a place in my mind, and I’m in my moment right there.” Does that attitude perhaps hearken back to your church background, and orchestrating the function?

Exactly. Everything has its place. I’m not one of the people who play for the sake of playing. Some people say I don’t play enough. “I loved that tune, but you didn’t play enough of that tune.” But at the same time, a person will come to me and say, “the way you played on that song…” Space says just as much for me as playing something, and I think once you realize that space and silence is sound, that it has as much of a place as something you’re playing, it takes cats a long way. You really jeopardize the meaning and the mood and the focus of what’s going on when you just play to play. I think you reach people when it’s just honest. “Shit, I don’t feel like playing on this part.” It doesn’t come to me like that. “I just want to lay on these chords.” Then you’ll hear the inflections, say, that the drums are doing more. Then maybe the drums take over. He’s not even really soloing. It’s just the vibe, and you start thinking. It gives you a chance to think. A lot of times, if you go to a concert, people are doing so much on stage, it doesn’t allow your mind to be free to think of something and go somewhere. I like to be a soundtrack sometimes, so I might just play something, and it repeats. It might be a vamp. I might not be soloing, but I may be sparking some thoughts. It’s almost like giving you a soundtrack to whatever you’re thinking right now. Then you might start, “Oh, man!” It makes you feel a certain way. All that plays a part. So I think I’m just in tune with that.

Were things that happened in the early ‘90s…Was MBASE an influence on you?

No.

Was, say, Buckshot LaFunke, Branford Marsalis’ stuff, an influence on you?

I knew about Branford in high school, but I didn’t know about Buckshot LaFunke until I got to college. None of those things really…

Once you got to New York, did MBASE…

No. It still doesn’t.

That approach to music-making still isn’t so meaningful to you.

No. Not to say it can’t be later. But now, no.

You made a remark to the Boston Globe that you couldn’t bring the Experiment out too soon. “I had to establish myself first as a jazz pianist, and get that respect, otherwise very fast you’ll get pegged as a hiphop pianist.” What do you mean by that?

I still get it to this day—a little bit, not so much. But timing plays a part in everything. You can bring something out too early or bring out something too late. It’s just timing—of that record, of your band. I’m an up-and-coming pianist, I’m new, and I’m black; a black piano player having his own trio out in the world working right now is a whole different thing. I’d like to capitalize on that and keep doing that. I didn’t want to move quickly, for the second album on Blue Note, to “Ok, now I’ll do hiphop” or “now I’m playing Rhodes and I got a vocoder and so on,” because then it’s like, “that’s what you really wanted to do, isn’t it?” No. Playing jazz trio is my true love. So I wanted to do a few records with that first, and establish that, so people will respect me for that and understand it, and then I can turn around and do the Experiment stuff.

Is playing the sideman things and playing the Experiment equally as gratifying to you as the acoustic jazz trio?

Yes, definitely. I have A.D.D., I think, so I have to be doing something different all the time. I have to keep moving, and keep it moving. Which is one of the reasons why I love my trio, because it’s never the same shit all the time. Vicente is not going to play the same thing, Chris is not going to play the same thing. It’s always going to be something different. I don’t feel like I’m going to a job and clocking in. At the same time, I love the fact that I do all these different kinds of gigs. They all call for something different, that demands a certain amount of professionalism and a certain amount of musical maturity. You have to know, “Hey, in this situation I can’t do this; I have to do this. In that situation, I have to do something else.” So it teaches you patience and teaches you to be mature and to respect other kinds of music, while at the same time being able to put yourself into it, which is whole nother type of thing to be able to do. That’s not very easy for a lot of people.

Ted Panken spoke to Robert Glasper on August 28, 2009

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Robert Glasper (Blindfold Test) – 2008 – Raw:

1. Joe Sample, “Shreveport Stomp” (from SOUL SHADOWS, Verve, 2004) (Sample, piano; Jelly Roll Morton, composer)

That’s some ragtime stuff going on here. Some strange moments. This is some Scott Joplin type. He doesn’t sound very comfortable doing it. He sounds cool, okay doing it, but it doesn’t sound like he’s very comfortable with the ragtime thing. But I guess the whole… I guess he’s not trying to push the envelope. The point is to play like within that time period, the Scott Joplin type style. It’s the kind of thing Marcus Roberts would do, but Marcus Roberts is a lot more comfortable with it. He makes you believe like he lived in that time period or something. I’ll give it 2 stars. He still needs to work some things out. Kudos to him, though. I can’t play ragtime!

It sounds like he’s trying to play a transcription; he hasn’t like digested the whole thing yet for real. Marcus does digest it. When he plays it, I believe that he lived then. But this cat, it seems like he’s not too comfortable with this time period yet. Some of the timing is strange, a little bit, and you can hear in the ragtime stuff that his left hand is not as comfortable, and the stuff he’s doing with his right hand is very worked out. You can tell it’s hard. I don’t know the tune, but it was in that whole Jelly Roll-Scott Joplin type joint.

2. Jason Lindner, “Monserrate” (from AB AETERNO, Fresh Sound World Jazz, 2006) (Lindner, piano, composer; Omer Avital, bass; Luisito Quintero, cajon, percussion)

I like the concept of the tune. It’s nice. His touch is a little bit strange, I think. I don’t really feel the compassion that it should have or that I want it to have from his playing. I like the percussion. Yeah, it sounds a little forced. It’s almost like forced passion, ha-ha, or something. I think I’ll give this 2½ stars. More the conception of the band… I’ll give it 2½ stars. No, take that back. 2 stars. I think I really just like the percussion. The percussion is nice. But it doesn’t really sound like a band. There’s an uneasiness to it. It sounds like it should be relaxed and it should be more free-flowing, but it sounds kind of jagged and forced—but the point is to be free-flowing.

It sounds like someone under 30…of a European descent. [Do you mean Caucasian descent, or European?] Perhaps. Either-or. Rhythmically it just wasn’t there. It didn’t sound like a cohesive band. I appreciate the concept, like the percussion and the way they started. But I don’t know. It sounded like it should have been more free-flowing, the kind of tune where it was effortless and free-flowing and beautiful, but it sounded like they were trying to force that idea.

3. Ethan Iverson, “Mint” (from The Bad Plus, PROG, Heads Up, 2007) (Iverson, piano, composer; Reid Anderson, bass; Dave King, drums)

Definitely of a Latin descent. Sounds like some tune Gonzalo would do. Many sections. Get lost in the sections. You probably can’t hum the melody of the tune when it’s over. But good ensemble. Cohesive trio. It definitely has the touch and the sound and the chops and the writing conception of Latin descent. But I’m thinking Gonzalo—or maybe I’m wrong. Good band, though. They’re definitely together…in their randomness, they’re together. Organized randomness. He’s definitely checked out Jason Moran. The right hand gives me Jason Moran, but I don’t know. Because the group also has that sort of together-random but composition vibe that Jason’s group has, that no one else really has. That’s what makes Jason’s group so different. Once he gets to the solo section, I think it’s Moran. No, it’s not Jason! I thought it was. It’s definitely somebody influenced by Jason; Jason’s writing, definitely.

I don’t know this cat’s playing very well, but is it Vijay Iyer? No? I was saying it has a randomess. Like, in the writing it’s a cohesive randomness. There’s really many parts, and it’s kind of random, you don’t know where it’s going to go, but the group is together, so it’s definitely organized randomness, like Moran’s trio will do or kind of like Gonzalo writes, but it’s really tight… It gives you that vibe. At first I figured it was Gonzalo because of the way his attack and stuff was, and how it was at the beginning of the composition, a lot of shit going on but it was together. But then, once they started soloing, they sounded like Jason, right hand. And the composition sounded like Moran would write. I wouldn’t come home and put it on. 3 stars. Bad Plus? Gotcha. They’ve definitely been influenced by Bandwagon.

4. Kálmán Oláh, “Polymodal Blues” (from ALWAYS, Dot, 2004) (Oláh, piano, composer; Ron McClure, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums)

I’ve heard these songs before. It kind of sounds like a high school band. [LAUGHS] I mean, as far as the cohesiveness of the group goes. I’m not really digging the ensemble at all, or the composition, or the cohesiveness of the ensemble. It’s just something that I’ve heard before, and it’s not really a good version of that. The drummer definitely checks out Jack DeJohnette. But it sounds like they all have different agenda or something; I don’t know.

I mentioned that the drummer definitely checked out DeJohnette. I don’t want to say it’s DeJohnette, but DeJohnette on not a good day. It sounds like that whole trio sat down and listened to some Keith Jarrett; it was like “Let’s try to do that.” But obviously, they’re all influenced by that trio. But I don’t dig what happened there. I don’t dig the tune. I don’t like the pianist, really. I mean, he can play the piano. He can play. But I don’t really like what he’s doing. It’s nothing I would get out of bed to go see…if they’re playing next door. 2 stars.

On “Hungarian Sketches”: They sound better doing this vibe. They’re more comfortable with this, it seems like. The swing tune sounded real pretentious, real not-comfortable. Whoever the piano player it, I can tell he’s one of them cats that would write something for a grant or something, like a really through-composed kind of cat. It kind of seems like it. They sound better doing this vibe. That’s a much better representation of the ensemble. So much better. The other one really gave me high school. But this one sounds good. I still don’t know what the melody was, even though I listened to it for three minutes. That’s kind of a new thing, I guess. Some cats just kind of write for the sake of writing, and there’s no real emotional purpose, or it’s just kind of writing to write, see what kind of bad shit I can write. But I like that vibe they had going on. 3 3 stars. The ensemble sounded great. The drummer was cool, and the bass…even the sound sounded better on this. When he was walking, he sounded like cats fighting in the alley. I don’t dig that style personally.

5. James Hurt, “Eleven Dreams” (from DARK GROOVES-MYSTICAL RHYTHMS, Blue Note, 1999) (Hurt, piano, composer; Francois Moutin, bass)

I like the pianist’s touch; the pianist has a really nice touch. I’m not buying the bluesiness of it, though. He sounds more into the composition, like that’s definitely his vibe. But once he starts swinging, trying to get the blues thing, he’s definitely out of his element. Sounds pretentious. But everything else sounds great. I’m not sure of the point of the solo, what’s going on with it. I’m not sure how he’s putting it together. It sounds like he’s warming up. Heh-heh. He should take a few breaths also.

He’s definitely European. Sounds European. Maybe not definitely, but he sounds European. Everything was cool until he started playing bluesy, then it was AGGHH… Strange. When he started soloing, it got strange. But as far as the composition, it sounded beautiful. But once it got to the solo, it was strange. I couldn’t tell you who it is. Because I don’t listen to that… 3 stars.

6. Eric Reed, “I.C.H.N.” (from HERE, MaxJazz, 2006) (Reed, piano, composer; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Willie Jones, drums)

This feels great. They all feel comfortable in what they’re doing. The pianist has a real nice touch, real laid-back with it. Like, he knows he’s swinging. He ain’t gotta try. He sounds like he has a cigarette in his mouth, hanging out the side, and a glass of ‘nac on the top of the piano. The bass and the drums have a really good hookup. Feels really good.

The band felt great. I forgot to critique. I was just listening, feeling it. The bass and drums had a great hookup. It’s great to hear something when it swings doesn’t sound pretentious. Some of it gives me a Jaki Byard vibe. Also, there’s a little jerk in the melody. I like the pianist’s touch. Had a really nice touch. Really laid back. You can tell he listened to a lot of old cats. He really dwells in it, but at the same time he sees the light at the end of the tunnel. Don’t know who it is. 4 stars.

7 Jean-Michel Pilc, “Spiritual” (from LIVE AT IRIDIUM, NEW YORK, Dreyfus, 2005) (Pilc, piano; Thomas Bramerie, bass; Mark Mondesir, drums; John Coltrane, composer)

Nice touch The pianist has a really nice touch. Very warm. Not forcing anything.

I don’t know who it is, but I really like the pianist’s touch. It sounds really warm. It doesn’t really sound like he’s forcing anything. They sound natural and comfortable in what they’re doing as a trio. I kind of know the song. It’s a remake. It almost sounds like… I’ll give it 3½ stars. I used to see him play with Ari Hoenig’s trio. I actually subbed Ari’s gig like twice.

8. Esbjorn Svensson, “Goldwrap” (from e.s.t., TUESDAY WONDERLAND, EmArcy, 2006) (Svensson, piano; Dan Berglund, bass; Magnus Ostrand, drums)

I like the composition. It’s pretty. I can hum the melody, but at the same time it has a lot of things going on, but the amount of things going on don’t really overshadow the melody too much. I like that. Nice group. They sound good together. I’m not crazy about the pianist’s soloing, but…

I liked the composition. It’s pretty. There’s a lot of things going on, but at the same time, it’s not overbearing, and I could hum the melody. There’s a good mixture of complexity and something you can grasp onto. He doesn’t sound like he’s writing for other writers. A lot of people have that whole thing where the average person wouldn’t buy their record. They write for other musicians, to be like, “Wow, they can really write”—or other writers. Then they wonder why there’s like five people at the show—and all musicians. I don’t know who it is. I’ll give it 3 stars.

9. Stanley Cowell, “A Whole New World” (from DANCERS IN LOVE, Venus, 1999) (Cowell, piano; Tarus Mateen bass; Nasheet Waits, drums; Alan Menken, composer)

I feel like I know this song, or maybe just a piece of that melody I can recognize. It reminded me of “Green Rainbow,” a piece of it. “Things to know. Ways to go.” The band sounds cool as a trio. I’m not too crazy about the solo the pianist is taking. Sounds like Nasheet on drums.

It’s definitely Nasheet. But it’s not Jason Moran and it’s not Tarus. It almost sounded like it could be Tarus, but at the same time it could be Charnett Moffett. It was Tarus? Okay. But the pianist, I don’t know… Judging from that, it’s probably…I don’t know… I liked it until he got to the solo section. It was cool. I could take it until they got to the solo section, then they got strange. The pianist’s feel wasn’t…it didn’t feel right to me. He could play. But it didn’t feel right to me, and his timing and… His sound got a little hokey for my taste. I hate to keep saying this; he sounded European. The composition is always cool, but then once you get into the solo section it always gets strange. That’s where you can tell that, okay, obviously there’s no blues clubs in Europe, they don’t have church, they don’t have things that… It just sounds like that to me. But hey, I could be fuckin’ wrong. 3 stars.

10. Antonello Salis, “La Dolce Vita” (from PIANO SOLO, CamJazz, 2006) (Salis, piano; Nino Rota, composer)

Beautiful touch. Nice chops. Very clean. Very sincere. Whoever it is checked out some early Keith Jarrett stuff, and probably some Latin type stuff.

He had a beautiful touch, and chops were off the chart—a lot of chops. At the same time, he’s really sincere. I could hear sincerity in his playing. He’s creative. He made my eyebrows raise once. That was good. Surprise! I mentioned that you could tell that he checked out some early Keith Jarrett type shit. I don’t know who it is, though. At first listening, I wanted to say Gonzalo, but going on, I don’t really know. 4 stars.

11. Matthew Shipp, “Invisible Light” (from HARMONY AND ABYSS, Thirsty Ears, 2004) (Shipp, piano, composer; William Parker, bass; Gerald Cleaver, drums; Chris Flam, programming [drum & synths])

Very interesting. I like it so far. The intro is really cool. The way they’re playing is really cool. They’re like sparse and random kind of free, but together at the same time.
I liked that! I liked that interlude, whatever you want to call it. That tune was cool. They were like playing free, separately, but at the same time it was together, even though there obviously was nothing written. It just sounded like raindrops. They were all acting like raindrops, but everything fit. Like a typewriter typing really fast, where everything fits together. 4 stars. I can appreciate that type of playing. You probably will never catch me checking it out at the crib, listening to it. Do I ever work with an avant-garde type vibe? Not so much avant-garde. Solo piano wise, I’ll do some stuff that’s kind of like that, on a Cecil Taylor type vibe. But even his shit is organized noise. It’s not free at all. People think it is, but no. That’s the tune! I checked the shit out with video. It’s just the tune. That’s fuckin’ crazy.

12. Cedar Walton, “Daydream” (from ONE FLIGHT DOWN, High Note, 2007) (Walton, piano; David Williams, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums; Billy Strayhorn, composer)

The band sounds like a BAND. It sounds like a band in the sound. The pianist is losing the groove, to me. He’s playing all over in the solo section, kind of just losing the groove. I don’t know. Definitely sounds like an older rhythm section. It definitely has an Ahmad Jamal Trio vibe. But I don’t know. I like the drummer’s hi-hats!

I liked the feeling of it. The feeling felt good. I feel like I’ve heard the drummer before, definitely. The drummer and the bass player had a good thing happened. It sounded like they were older cats. Part of me wanted to say the pianist was Cyrus Chestnut, because some of it gave me some Cyrus vibe. But then half of it was strange. I was like, “I don’t know.” I haven’t heard a Cyrus record in a while, though. 3 stars.

***********

Robert Glasper , Downbeat Players Piece – 2005:

Accustomed to navigating complex, cerebral soundscapes, today’s twenty-something jazzfolk don’t always leave space to tell a story.

Not pianist Robert Glasper, who blends abundant technique with oceanic emotional content on Canvas, his Blue Note debut.

“I’m dramatic,” says Glasper, 26. “I feel like an actor and a painter — all the arts in one. When I play, I won’t sacrifice the vibe for some chops.”

Glasper is a 2001 New School graduate who apprenticed with hardcore jazzfolk like Russell Malone and Christian McBride, and built profile as pianist of choice for prominent hip-hop and R&B singers like Bilal, Q-Tip and Mos Def. Through the first six tracks of Canvas, he articulates an expansive, soulful interpretation of the piano trio. Using all ten fingers liberally, he draws harmonic references from a timeline spanning Bud Powell to Mulgrew Miller, and his lines flow organically through a succession of odd-metered and swing grooves and unfailingly melodic beats. He stretches out, but he’s also not afraid to milk his melodies and develop them slowly, using techniques of tension and release more commonly heard in functional situations than art music contexts.

“I’m not a singer, but I like to play things I can sing,” Glasper says. “If you constantly sing while you’re playing, then you probably won’t play bullshit!”

Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Glasper inherited this aesthetic from his mother, Kim Yvette Glasper, a professional jazz, blues and church singer, who was murdered last spring at the age of 45. Her spirit hovers over the proceedings, and her recorded voice — she’s singing a raunchy blues — opens the elegiac final track, “I Remember.”

“I wanted to make sure she was on my first record,” Glasper says. “I’m the spitting image of my Mom, totally like her in every aspect. My confidence level. Everything. She was a diva. Yes, sir. A diva.”

When Robert was 12, Kim Yvette Glasper taught him to play piano in the small Baptist church at which she sang. By 14, he was playing the service.

“Once I got better, I told myself I needed to make real money doing this,” Glasper relates. “I started playing at Brentwood, the biggest church in Houston, 10,000 people. During 11th and 12th grades, I played there every other Sunday at 11 o’clock, and I played in the Catholic church around the corner at 9. Saturdays I played the Seventh Day Adventist Church. My pastor in Houston knew the pastor at Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem, and I played there for two years once I got to New York.

“The music in the church is built on feeling, period. It’s not Giant Steps. People give praise or cry, and you have to control all those things. You put a little something behind the pastor. Depending on the type of song, church music has jazz elements and pop elements, too. Hip-Hop is natural for me, because church music has a lot of the same grooves. I just fall in—take from here, take from there, but don’t take too much from one thing.”

On the last four tracks of Canvas, Glasper deploys his populist influences. He entextures “Chant,” another elegiac refrain, with Bilal’s moans and his own organ and kalimba, while on Herbie Hancock’s “Riot,” the date’s only cover, he signifies on Mark Turner’s fleet solo with capacious keyboard color on the Fender Rhodes, before uncorking his own fleet, percussive statement.

Glasper plans to support Canvas with trio tours this fall and winter, filling down time on jobs with the singers – he performs on Q-Tip’s Fall release, joining guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and bassist Derrick Hodge – as well as hardcore jazz work.

“You’ve got to have a balance,” he says. “Church can be a bad habit; everything you play can sound like a church chord if you don’t know how to get out of it. It’s part of my thing, so I put it in there, but I play a little Bud Powell so you go ‘Oh.’ I haven’t played in church for seven years. There’s some black churches up the street from my block, so sometimes I’ll check out the choir or musicians. I get more from them than I do from a lot of preachers. Everything is so damn corrupt, you can’t trust anybody. Only thing you can trust is the music.”

**********

Robert Glasper (Liner Notes for Mood – Fresh Sound – 2002):

“You can’t join the throng til you sing your own song,” Lester Young once quipped, his singular argot underscoring an eternal jazz truth that all aspirants, however learned or technically accomplished, must come to grips with.

The Prezidential imperative of individualism and self-expression is one that pianist Robert Glasper, 23, fully understands. Like much of his peer group, Glasper has the vocabulary of piano modernism — Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Kenny Kirkland, and Oscar Peterson are among his reference points — at his fingertips. Unlike much of his peer group, he has no compunctions about using that language as a springboard from which to leap into his song of the moment. Or, as Glasper puts it, “I take small bits of information of from everyone and make up my own paragraphs.

Fortified by impeccable chops and uninhibited imagination, Glasper spins compelling tales throughout his conversational debut release. His core unit comprises young drummer Damion Reid and veteran bassist Robert Hurst, the latter until recently a long-time member of the “Tonight Show” orchestra after a decade playing hardcore jazz next to piano icon Kenny Kirkland in the high-visibility bands of Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Augmenting on various tracks are tenor saxophonists John Ellis and Marcus Strickland (respectively, runner-up and third-place awardees at the 2002 Thelonious Monk Competition), guitarist Mike Moreno, and popular Hip-Hop/Soul artist Bilal Oliver. All but Hurst were Glasper’s fellow students in the Jazz and Contemporary Music program at Manhattan’s New School, where the pianist matriculated in 1997 on full scholarship.

“The quality I like most about Robert is that he’s an improviser in the truest sense,” says Hurst, who in the spring released his own freewheeling earlier recording of the same trio [UNREHURST (Bebob Records)]. “He’s not afraid to fall flat on his face! He realizes something might or might not work, but he’ll try it, because he wants to do it differently than he did it last night. He listens and he doesn’t play licks. I feel that the music can go anywhere, which keeps me thinking on my feet.”

“I have to improvise,” Glasper agrees. “At my classical recital in high school, I was supposed to play three tunes. I played one, and then broke out and started ‘Giant Steps.’ Otherwise, I feel like I’m regurgitating what somebody else wrote.

“For instance, I love Keith Jarrett, but I can’t transcribe anything he plays. He just speaks. He doesn’t play anything he doesn’t mean. I can hear Keith Jarrett over and over again, and always get something different. The way his trio works together is amazing. They’re real musical. They’re patient. They don’t mind vamping. They let the music breathe. Wherever it goes, they go. They don’t put a cap on it. Some cats have told me to make my tunes four minutes long, then take it out. But that’s not where the magic is. That’s not why people love Trane and Miles. They actually stretched out, tried to take the music someplace else, and when it’s over, then it’s over.”

Testifying through music comes naturally to Glasper. From toddler years he witnessed his mother — who was not inclined to entrust the care of her child to any third party — singing jazz, gospel, R&B and the blues at various Houston venues and home rehearsals. At 12, pianist Alan Mosley, newly recruited to his mother’s band, sparked the youngster’s jazz flames. Soon, Glasper enrolled at Houston’s High School of Performing and Visual Arts, where such current luminaries as pianist Jason Moran and drummer Eric Harland had studied. By 14, Glasper was playing the church service; by 16, he was earning steady money playing jazz and pop gigs around the Houston area.

Glasper kept working after he got to New York, attending jam sessions and taking obscure gigs around the city. One such was a weekly hit on “a broken-ass keyboard” at a Brooklyn bar called Pork Knockers not far from the apartment of pianist Anthony Wonsey, who happened by on a night when he was playing. Impressed, Wonsey asked Glasper to sub for him with Russell Malone, who became a frequent employer between 1999-2001. During those years he also worked with Christian McBride, Mark Whitfield, Nicholas Payton, and Kenny Garrett. He’s played steadily with Bilal since the singer signed his record deal midway through their second year of school, and appears on Bilal’s recent record First Born, Second.

Such activity left little room for formal studies; Glasper notes, “I blew through school a little bit, and didn’t really take lessons, but the teachers were cool about it.” Meanwhile, he did develop instant simpatico with classmates Marcus Strickland, E.J. Strickland and Brandon Owens who share his aesthetic of not stopping until the piece is done (they’re documented on Marcus Strickland’s excellent quartet album, AT LAST, [FS-101]) and with drummer Damion Reid, a Los Angeles native who came to the New School after a couple of years at the Thelonious Monk School and the New England Conservatory.

“I play trio a lot different than I play with a group,” says Glasper, whose first instrument was drumset. “Damion and I call the way we feel time the circle. We don’t think straight-ahead, like 1-2-3-4. We feel where the measures end, do whatever we have to do between 1 and 4 to get back to the 1, and come in together. Damion is really free, but in time. If your time isn’t strong within yourself, you can’t even play with a drummer like him, because it’s going to sound horrible.”

Hurst elaborates. “These guys were raised on Hip-Hop, and it influences what they play, even in the jazz tradition. In the same way, my generation grew up on P-Funk and Motown and Prince, and we weren’t afraid to let it affect our music. Some people rejected that, and I think the consequence is that they sound stiff and they sound old. Not that you have to put a funk beat on everything. But in my opinion, you have to embrace everything that’s around you, or it’s going to be stale.”

There is nothing stale or old-school about Bilal Oliver’s treatment of “Maiden Voyage.” Treating Herbie Hancock’s classic melody as a kind of ritual invocation, he puts some multi-tracked throatsong-to-falsetto vocalese on top of an affecting reharmonized vamp and a funk-with-a-limp straight-eighth beat.

The trio embarks on their own voyage with Glasper’s “Lil’ Tipsy,” using compression-expansion techniques to explore in painstaking detail a disjunctive dance of inebriation. Glasper uses the concluding vamp as a spur-of-the-moment opportunity to segue directly into “Alone Together.” There ensues an avid triologue, Hurst holding down the bottom as Glasper and Reid, with nonchalant confidence, weave through an obstacle course of rhythmic signatures.

On “Mood,” a quintet track, Moreno and Ellis offer beautiful contrapuntal section playing and pungent solos, capturing the composer’s intent to resolve from a melancholy opening to an impassioned feelgood vamp. Bilal ratchets the intensity on “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” a bluesy jazz ballad to which Glasper wrote the melody and the lyric. Glasper says: “I have a certain feel, a certain way of thinking and imagining and hearing harmony, and it all descends from coming up in and playing music in the church.”

Glasper returns to ebullience on a creative and virtuosic treatment of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” “There was a detergent commercial that used it during my first year in school,” he relates, “and I was singing it all the time. Then someone told me it was a jazz tune. I arranged it for a concert at school. A year later, I came up with this arrangement.

“‘Interlude’ happened because we kept playing after I faded out from the drum solo, and when I listened to the tape I thought the hip-hop part was hot. Hip-hop is a part of me, too, and I wanted to have that influence on the album.”

“In Passing” began as an elegy for Glasper’s Houston friend, Scooby, who died in 1999. “I never could finish the tune, but I started working on it again when Aliyah died,” Glasper says. “Not too long after that, 9/11 happened. That made me finish the song. It’s about how your time on earth is passing.”

Glasper ends the program with the incendiary “L N K Blues,” setting up a John Ellis-Marcus Strickland tenor battle that implicitly affirms his connection to and extensions of the idiom that defined the sound of jazz in Houston from the ’40s through the ’60s. “My Mom sang in a lot of blues clubs,” he says. “And the church. Blues and church kind of go hand-in-hand. Instead of ‘I love you, baby,’ it’s ‘I love you, God.'”

Perhaps that foundation bedrocks Glasper’s heady blend of spirited play and formal discipline, and allows him to avoid the strut-all-your-stuff trap that so many ambitious young artists fall prey to on first releases.

“This album is not about ego or soloing on every tune,” he concludes. “A lot of jazz purists might not like it because of the way it starts off, with ‘Maiden Voyage’. But the product I’m giving you is based on my experiences with different music and with life. That’s true in the compositions and how I arrange them. That’s what it is.”

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For the 83rd Birthday of Maestro Saxophonist-Flutist James Spaulding, Two WKCR Interviews from 1995 and 1993

I’ve been digitizing and transcribing interviews from a number of radio shows that I did on WKCR during the 80s, 90s and early 00s. Here are the proceedings of a pair of shows with the singular alto saxophonist and flutist James Spaulding, an Indianapolis native who was a fixture on some of the more venturesome Blue Note recordings of the 1960s and on several of Sun Ra’s late 50s Saturns, who made a terrific series of CDs for Muse records between 1988 and 1994. At the top is a Musician Show from August 1995; it’s followed by a briefer appearance on Out to Lunch in July 1993.

James Spaulding, Musician Show, August 9, 1995 and Out To Lunch, July 21, 1993:

[MUSIC: Spaulding, “Song of Courage,” “Public Eye”]

TP: Before we move back in time, let’s talk about the present. There are a few engagements coming up in the next few weeks.

JS: This will be the Jazz Legacy group, Larry Ridley’s organization of musicians – Charles Davis, Virgil Jones, Frank Gant on drums, and myself. That’s the 21st of August at Jazzmobile on 122nd Street here in Harlem. Also, on the 27th of August a tribute to Bird at Tompkins Square Park – Lester Young’s birthday. Also, I’ll have my own quartet at Visiones on the 18th and 19th, plus a few Mondays with the David Murray Big Band.

TP: Anyone who’s ever heard James Spaulding play would conclude that you listened seriously and with much intensity to Charlie Parker as a kid, and on our first segment we’ll focus on some compositions of Bird. But first, let’s take it back. You were born in 1937 in Indianapolis. So you were coming of age at the time when bebop hit. Tell me about your intro to music. Your father was a guitar player.

JS: My father was a professional guitarist. He actually started the Original Brown Buddies orchestra in the 1920s, the late 20s, and he formed a small group that traveled around playing college concerts, dances mostly. Later on, Bob Womack, his friend, a drummer…they put the two groups together and later called the group Bob and the Bobcats. This carried on through the 30s, and I was born in 1937, so I came through the Swing Era.

TP: It was mainly a regional band around Indianapolis.

JS: Yes, just a regional band, and the first integrated band actually that began to have white musicians and black musicians play together – to start doing that at that time. 1937, on to the 40s and the 50s, and my father stopped playing quite early, because more children were coming on the scene… I was the third of seven. Large family, and economics weren’t that good, so he had to stop playing and take something steady.

TP: What was his name?

JS: James Spaulding. The 2nd actually. I’m the 3rd.

TP: Was he an improviser?

JS: Yes, he improvised and sang also. He did a little singing, and he booked the gigs. He did a lot of the business things that were happening for the band. Did a little traveling upstate. I think he told me he went to Troy, NY with the band when they traveled around. He never did come to New York. He always wanted to come here.

TP: is he the one who gave you the early musical training?

JS: He’s the one who brought the records home. He said, “Listen.” He brought home the Charlie Parker records. “Shaw Nuff” was one of the early ones. ‘Mohawk” with Dizzy and Bird. I was 10 years old when I heard Cab Calloway. I told you about that one. Then Charlie Parker came on the scene when I was 10 years old – listening to those recordings. Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. Man, the big bands of Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

TP: These inspired you to play?

JS: Yes, the Charlie Parker record, “Shaw Nuff,” really inspired me to play.

TP: When were you able to start hearing music live?

JS: Well, he used to take me around to bands that would come over in our neighborhood and set up right out there in the park and play. He would take us to concerts where guys were playing at the Indiana Theater. I saw Billie Holiday at this theater, and Lester Young. George Shearing was there. I believe it was called the Indiana Roof. I don’t think it’s open any more. He exposed me to music. He also wanted me to be a prize-fighter. He used to take me to the gym to work out. Which I didn’t have eyes for having my chops get mashed in. But he was a fight fan. He loved boxing.

TP: When did you start doing the little gigs? I take it alto was the instrument.

JS: Alto was the one. I got some gigs. I learned how to read in high school. I was able to develop my eyes so I could get through some of those charts, and I was reading quite… Actually I was reading before I got into high school, in grade school. I taught myself how to read through the charts. He would take me over to some of the older musicians around town and let me sit in and read some of the arrangements. I remember I got hired for a gig, and my father went with me to kind of chaperone me – because I was 10, 11 or 12, something like that.

TP: Indianapolis had a thriving musical community. A lot of great musicians from there. J.J. Johnson, the Montgomerys, Slide Hampton.

JS: Man, it was something.

TP: You were a little younger than them, though.

JS: Right. Leroy Vinnegar. Carl Perkins.

TP: Were they around?

JS: No. As you say, I was quite younger. Slide, Wes, all the brothers. Freddie and I had a chance to sit in with that group when they were working at a club called the Turf Club in Indianapolis.

TP: That’s Freddie Hubbard, who’s a year younger than you, and who you worked quite a bit with over the years.

JS: Yes. Freddie and I started off learning Charlie Parker tunes. I’d go over to his house, and he would come out to where I was stationed in the Army, out at Fort Harrison Army Base out there when I was in the band, and he’d come out and sit in with the band. He was playing then! He was up on his instrument. He was an executionist. At that age, at 17, which is how old he was when I first met him at a jam session.

TP: So you hooked up after high school.

JS: Yes. I was in the Army and Freddie was still going to high school. He was about ready to graduate from Arsenal Technical High School there in Indianapolis. He graduated, and came on out with us when Larry Ridley formed a group called the Jazz Contemporaries. We worked around Indianapolis at George’s Bar and the Cotton Club… Larry booked a lot of these gigs. He had that business sense about him to take care of these things, while we just enjoyed the music.

Yeah, Indianapolis was happening, man. Clubs all up and down Indiana Avenue. You could just walk in one club and out into another club. Just take your instrument. If the guys knew you, they would ask you to come up and play something with them.

TP: Who were some of the older musicians who were in Indianapolis? Slide Hampton talks about a piano player named Earl Grandy.

JS: Earl Grandy! Yes, he was fantastic. He just passed not too long ago, I heard. He was blind, and he was an inspiration to a lot of the musicians. He would show them changes and different things on the instrument. He played right up to his passing. It’s a great loss.

Jimmy Coe is still there, and there’s Pookie Johnson, a tenor player. There are a few more musicians there. But it’s no work there now. Nothing is happening there at all practically. I think they have one club, and it’s called the Jazz Kitchen. Wallace Roney and his brother performed there not too long ago. They said they had standing room in there. Two shows, two sets, and it was packed. I’m working on going down there with a group perhaps.

TP: Slide also talked about a ballroom run by the Ferguson Brothers, who booked a lot of big bands, so that bands would start their tour in Indianapolis. Was that still happening when you were coming of age?

JS: These brothers had real estate, they had a little money, so they were able to set up these places and get musicians come in through Indianapolis. Charlie Parker came through there once, I remember. I was too young to go see him. I remember seeing the posters on the lightposts, “Charlie Parker’s in town.” He was down at the Sunset Lounge, Sunset Café at the time. You could go down and try to listen through the door in the back, but it was very hard to hear. Yeah, I remember when he came into Indianapolis, man. It was quite a day.

TP: I guess it was whenever Bird came to whichever town it was.

JS: Wherever anybody flocked, man. Everybody loved him so much. He was such an inspiration to so many musicians.

TP: Bird was really your first inspiration, then? You hadn’t been checking out, say, Johnny Hodges or Benny Carter, and then changed. You heard Bird and it just hit you.

JS: Yeah, it just hit me. I listened to the rest, but with Bird playing, it was just…I never quite recovered.

[MUSIC: Bird, “KoKo”; “Mohawk”; JATP (Bird-Prez-Roy) w/Ella, “How High The Moon”-1949]

TP: You remember hearing that “How High The Moon” record when you were 13 or so.

JS: Yes, I was about 13.

TP: Before “KoKo” had records like “Red Cross” and the Jay McShann records come to Indianapolis? Were they popular?

JS: They were, yes. “Red Cross” and “Buzzy” and “Donna Lee.”

TP: I take it you checked out everything as it came along.

JS: Yes, as much as I could. My father would bring those records. I’m so glad he did, man. I would have missed them.

On “Mohawk,” I just love that melody. I just asked Dad, “Play that over again.” That and “Shaw Nuff” were my favorites to listen to.

TP: Charlie Parker wasn’t the only saxophonist you were paying attention to. As a musician in school bands, you weren’t going to be able to play Charlie Parker’s language. Was there any tension between the requirement of playing “legitimate” or needing rudiments, and then the flights of fancy that would come to mind from hearing Bird?

JS: I was very fortunate to have a music teacher at Crispus Attucks High School, where I attended – my first year of high school. He was into jazz, and he would ask musicians if they would want to stay after school. He would stay there with us and work with us to learn to read these syncopated bebop tunes, like “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” Count Basie’s things they had these stock arrangements on. We formed a little group called the Monarch Combo with Melvin Rhyne. I think Virgil Jones was in the band. There was Curly Hampton, a cousin of Slide Hampton. We just learned how to phrase and how to play that music the way it was coming over on the record. We tried not to copy, but tried to stylize our playing as much as possible with that. And Mr. Brown (Russell Brown), he would stay there with us and work with us. I don’t if any other high school teacher was like that.

TP: So Russell Brown was the bandmaster at Crispus Attucks H.S.?

JS: Right. He was the bandmaster. And like I said, I had taught myself how to read good enough to get into the freshman band and the senior band, and then I got into the orchestra my first year of high school with Mr. Newsome, and I played the flute. I taught myself how to play the flute well enough to get into the string orchestra at school. That got me into the woodwind quintet. I played flute with that group, and we played concerts and…

TP: Is that the classical repertoire you were playing?

JS: Yes, we played classical repertoire, European pieces. We had played the dances around Indianapolis with this Monarch Combo group, which we would rehearse after school, and Mr. Brown would be our guide and our teacher. We sort of developed out of that, and we stayed around Indianapolis doing a lot of background playing for singers that would come into town, like Bull Moose Jackson (you remember him?), the tenor saxophone.

TP: Playing the blues behind Bull Moose Jackson.

JS: Yeah! He was something else, man.

TP: So you’re playing wind quintets on the flute, the blues behind Bull Moose Jackson, playing Charlie Parker tunes in the woodshed, doing all this…

JS: Yeah, all this music. All this happening. You start growing more and more, until I went into the Army in 1954. I got out in 1957, and went to Chicago.

TP: You mentioned that Tab Smith’s “Because Of You,” recorded in 1951, was the first solo you memorized.

JS: The first solo I ever memorized was “Because Of You.”

TP: He projected a different tone or timbral quality than Bird. Talk a bit about your sound on the alto, and developing it.

JS: I just tried to… I kept hearing Bird all the time, and I wanted to try to get as close to that sound as possible. Then I heard Tab Smith with his sound; he had a sweet, nice alto sound. And Johnny Hodges also…I listened to him a little bit, too, and was inspired by his playing. But Tab was right there and the music was right there, so I just said, “Let me just learn how to play this piece.” That was the first piece I ever played without reading the music.

TP: That became your feature…

JS: That became my little feature piece.

I first heard Illinois Jacquet at JATP, doing “Flying Home,” that exciting piece. Louis Jordan, “Open The Door, Richard” was one… Oh, he played so many pieces. He used to have me knocked out, man. It was so beautiful to hear this music played. And it still is. It’s still fresh to me every time I hear it. It’s a stone gift.

TP: Tab Smith, “Because of You,” with a Chicago-based band – Sonny Cohn on trumpet, Leon Washington (formerly with Earl Hines) on tenor sax, Lavern Dillon or Teddy Brannon, piano; Wilfred Middlebroks, bass; Walter Johnson, drums.

[MUSIC: Tab Smith, “Because of You”-1951; Louis Jordan, “Buzz Me”-1945; Illinois Jacquet, “Jet Propulsion”-1947]

TP In this first hour, we’ve taken James through learning the alto saxophone and flute and your experience at Crispus Attucks High School with Russell Brown, and playing a wide range of music during those years. You were also influenced by big bands, which, as we mentioned before, came through Indianapolis with some frequency.

JS: Oh yeah. There would be big bands that came through a lot, that would come in our neighborhoods and play right out there in our playground – set up a community thing. Like the earlier Jazzmobile. They got fed and the whole thing…

TP: Were there local big bands?

JS: Yes, we had the local big bands, they also…and bands that would come through and work at a major club there, and then come over and donate the music to the community.

TP: Where did the bands stay when they came through Indianapolis? It was a pretty segregated city, I take it.

JS: Yes, it was. They would stay at the Y. And a lot of the musicians would stay with musicians who were in Indianapolis – they would spend the night or whatever, stay there with the families. In fact, Teddy Wilson would come by my house and jam with my father and some more musicians who would come to town.

TP: So you met Teddy Wilson, had dinner with him and so forth?

JS: Yes, he would sit there, and the guys would be jamming and we’d sit there and listen to them. It was quite exciting.

TP: You mentioned that your father brought home a lot of records – Ellington’s records, Cb Calloway. So you were hearing big band music from an early age, both live and on records.

JS: Yes.

TP: Did you know how to pick out the different soloists? As a kid, did you identify the sounds of Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney…

JS: Yes. I’d get to learn their sounds, to identify their sounds as well in the context. But those records, man, that was it. I’m so glad. My mother, too. She was very supportive, a very spiritual, church-going person. In fact, she just turned 84 this past June, and she’s going strong. She would always encourage me to keep playing and practice. She was very encouraging.

TP: Did she play music herself?

JS: No. She just sang in the church. A very spiritual lady.

TP: Let’s hear a short set of big band music, then we’ll review James Spaulding’s experience during the latter 50s as a working musician in the Chicago area. Unless there’s something else you’d like to say about Indianapolis.

JS: There was the Camp Atterbury, an Army base there, and the guys from the base would come in and support the music, and go from club to club at that time. That was one of many things that were going on up and down Indiana Avenue, as they called it. That was a strip. Like 52nd Street compared to that…but not quite… We had quite a bit of turnover; there was quite a bit of action going on during that period. There was a place called the Cotton Club, and there was a Savoy, and I told you the Sunset Café where Bird played. There was the temple, where John Coltrane played one of his last concerts, I believe.

So from 1954… I was in the Army band, and I did a lot of big band stuff there and combos. I was in Special Services actually at the time, so I got a chance to just play in the marching band, the dance band, they had a jazz band and had a little jazz combo. We’d play on campus and I would go off-campus… That’s how I met Freddie Hubbard, at this jam session at the Cotton Club.

[MUSIC: Ellington, “Take the A-Train”; “Sophisticated Lady”-1957; Calloway, “Minnie The Moocher”; Basie, “L’il Darlin”]

TP: After your got out of the Army, you went to Chicago, but first talk about your Army experiences.

JS: I was in Special Services. I had that set up before I even went in. My father had it arranged. I had to take these tests; I had to pass the exams. As I said, it was a good thing that I’d learned how to read. It was so vital. You had to sight-read some parts. So I got the gig in the Army! From there, after I finished basic training… Six weeks, I was in Fort Linwood, Missouri, then they shipped me to Fort Ord, California, and I continued band training out there. This was 1954, 8 weeks out there, then I came to Indianapolis to Fort Harrison, which is a few miles outside of Indianapolis. I was able to commute back and forth.

TP: What sort of functions did you do in the Army band?

JS: There was the Army Finance Center, which was not too far away from where we were stationed, where we had our housing. We would do our regular thing of marching…what do you call that thing before closing down… Anyway, we’d play over at the Army Finance Center, work there during the day with the jazz band. Then at night, sometimes we would go to the NCO club and play music for the non-commissioned officers there. We had some good musicians in that band, and we would jam and play charts and play arrangements. Going back to my being able to read, that also really helped me to continue to play.

TP: A lot of musicians found the Army a great finishing school, because you’d play all the time.

JS: Oh yeah. It was a great help to a lot of guys. A lot of them just in there 20 more years, and got a retirement thing. I wanted to get out. I wanted to go to Chicago and go to New York. I wanted to venture out some more.

TP: You mentioned meeting Freddie Hubbard when you were stationed outside Indianapolis.

JS: Yes. I went to one of these jam sessions that they’d have every Saturday afternoon, I think it was, and there I met. We just got together and started rehearsing tunes. I went out to his house and met his mom. Man, she could cook. Oh God, could she cook! He’d come by my house. And we’d go out to the Army base and play with the Army band members. Slide Hampton would come out there, too, bring his arrangements and test them with some of the guys out there.

TP: At that time, he’d just joined Buddy Johnson (55-56), and then on his way to the Lionel Hampton band. He was here last week, so I’m up on Slide’s career.

JS: He’s such a tremendous musician. He’d bring his arrangements out there for us to play, and that was always a treat every time. We’d go over to the Army Finance Center and play, and we’d give him a few dollars to come out there.

TP: What was Freddie Hubbard playing like at 17-18 years old?

JS: He was definitely influenced by…he was listening to Clifford Brown and Miles mostly. Those were the two trumpet players he’d really taken to. We’d work out learning Charlie Parker tunes, so we could go out and play together. Especially with Wes Montgomery and Buddy and all those guys, you had to be up on some tunes!

TP: Were the Montgomerys still around Indianapolis at this time?

JS: Yes. They were playing regularly at a club called the Turf Club. They’d have jam sessions every Saturday afternoon also. We’d run out there and jam with them. Then we’d run back into town to the Cotton Club and jam at George’s Bar; that would last from 5 until about 9, when the regular band would come on. We did a lot of playing.

TP: Was Wes Montgomery’s style fully formed by the mid 1950s?

JS: Oh, definitely. He went on to record with Cannonball. Was it Cannonball who brought him in…

TP: His first recordings were for Pacific Jazz.

JS: Pacific Jazz. I recorded with them. I did one of my first recordings on an album with Larry Rice.

TP: Let’s bring you to Chicago, which was a big center for jazz during the 50s, with a lot of great musicians – a self-contained scene unto itself.

JS: Definitely.

TP: Talk about what drew you to Chicago.

JS: What drew me to Chicago was Johnny Griffin – his records. When I first hear his record, I was in the Army, and I said, “I’ve got to meet this guy.” I had to go to Chicago and hear this man. His speed and his dexterity. God! He played the tenor like you play the alto. He did play the alto at one time.

TP: But made it sound like a tenor.

JS: Yes. I went to Chicago and I finally met him. I met his mother. I was working a day job there that my cousin had gotten me. And I met his mother there. She told me where he’d be, and I went to see him at this club called the Flame. I saw Lester Young there, too. It was off 63rd and Cottage Grove.

TP: There was a strip of clubs there.

JS: Yes. McKie’s Lounge, and the Cotton Club right across the street, and around the corner, down the street (I think it was Cottage Grove), there was the Flame. Later it burned down.

TP: Went up in flames.

JS: Yeah, it was strange. But I saw Lester Young! Johnny Griffin was there first. I went down to see him, I met him, and told him I’d like to come by and just talk to him. He said, “Ok,” and gave me his phone number. So I got a chance to hang with him for a few times.

TP: In Chicago, you affiliated with Sun Ra, and the records you’re on by him are much prized. How did that come about?

JS: It was a jam session at the Pershing Lounge, at a place where you’d play until 10 o’clock in the morning. You’d go down there and just jam. I was jamming, and I met Pat Patrick and John Gilmore, and Pat approached me and asked if I would like to make a rehearsal, that Sun Ra liked the way I played. I said, “Ok.” That’s how it started. I went to this rehearsal, and Sun Ra wrote out a piece right in front of me – wrote out my part and gave it to me.

TP: What did the part seem like to you? Was it congruent with your style?

JS: I was able to read it enough to get the gig. But it was so different from everything else I had been trying to play or learning to play. Especially the improvisational aspect of it. He asked me to play. I didn’t see any chord changes. That’s what made me see there was something else happening beyond what’s on the paper. Pat would say, “Don’t worry about that; just play.” That started some other wheels spinning. I stayed with him off and on for a while, and we went on some… We went to Indianapolis, as a matter, with the band! We went on a couple of concert tours around Chicago and different places. But we mainly stayed there at Pershing Lounge. That was like a home base for most of the musicians.

TP: The Pershing Lounge had a long pedigree in Chicago, as a place where Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins played in the 40s and early 50s in the ballroom. Ahmad Jamal played downstairs…

JS: Downstairs, in the basement. So we were down in the basement, kinda like, with this breakfast jam, they called it, and we’d go down there and stay until 10 the next morning. Guys would straggle out. We’d go and have breakfast and talk. There was a lot happening.

TP: The next track features Sonny Stitt, who was very popular in Chicago as well.

JS: Oh, yes. He and Gene Ammons used to get together and lock horns. I saw them together in Chicago once. It was very exciting. It was like a shootout corral. The guys would come in the door, and look at each other, stop and pull out their instruments. The crowd was already there, waiting, so it was like a big drama thing. So when they got on the stage, Sonny had his fans and Gene Ammons had his fans on one side, and it was like back and forth, and they would solo and do the fours… It was tremendous, man.

[MUSIC: Sonny Stitt, “My Melancholy Baby” (Hank-Freddie Green-w. Marshall-Shadow Wilson-1956; Johnny Griffin, “Chicago Calling”; Gene Ammons, “Canadian Sunset”; Coltrane, “Dexterity”; Sun Ra, “Hours After”-from Jazz In Silhouette]

TP: We’ll now move into some of James Spaulding’s more far-reaching recordings of the 1960s, when he became a favorite of New York’s hip audience, some of whom are calling and sharing their memories. You returned to Indianapolis from Chicago for a bit, and moved to New York in 1962. Anything else to say about Chicago apart from your experiences with Sun Ra?

JS: I forgot to mention Jerry Butler, the Iceman, that was one of the first recordings I did before Sun Ra. I played a flute solo on one of his pieces, called “Lost.” I just remember that. That was back in the 60s.

But Chicago was…everybody was going to New York, I guess, before the end of 1959.

TP: George Coleman and Booker Little had left, Frank Strozier…

JS: Everyone was moving on to New York. But Chicago was very helpful, very inspiring, to go there and… I’m glad I went to Chicago instead of going to New York. Everybody said I should have come to New York first, but I think I made a better choice.

TP: Because it was more relaxed, you could get certain things together?

JS: Yeah, I could relax. Plus I could use my G.I. Bill to go to the school there, the Cosmopolitan School of Music on Wabash Avenue. It was down the street from Roosevelt University, upstairs there. Frank Strozier graduated from there. Bobby Bryant, the trumpet player, he graduated from there. I studied with Bobby Bryant. He helped me out a lot with the chord changes and stuff. He’s out in California now.

TP: Then your path to New York.

JS: Well, I went home and charged my batteries. Michael Ridley, Larry’s brother…we both came to New York together with 50 cents between us, in his car. We landed here, and I called up Freddie, and he called his brother Larry, and I’ve been here since.

TP: What were your first affiliations in New York?

JS: Actually, I just stayed with Freddie. I was trying to find some work, trying to find a place to live – that whole thing. Making these little gigs. Worked in the Time-Life Building as a messenger. Until Freddie called me for this Hub-Tones date. In 1963 I got married. Then things started opening up for me. I have two grown daughters now.

But Freddie called me in 1963. He was working with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and they were traveling. In fact, when I was up in Canada, when I met Cab Calloway, I was telling you…

TP: That happened a little later.

JS: We worked in this huge place, right across from the Notre Dame, in that area. Cab was up there singing “Hi-de hi-de ho,” and I went backstage to meet him and talk to him about his experiences. That was about a week. My wife and I had a little honeymoon there. That was the first experience with him. I told him how I’d listened to his records when I was 5 years old. He was laughing; he enjoyed that.

TP: you’re on quite a few of these Blue Note recordings, some of the most venturesome of the 1960s, like The All Seeing Eye, Wayne Shorter; Bobby Hutcherson’s Components

JS: Yeah, right after Hub-Tones, which was the first date I did. Right after that, I was getting calls to come in and record with everybody. Duke Pearson was the A&R man during that time.

TP: Right. You’re on Sweet Honey Bee.

JS: Yeah, he was the A&R man, bringing in a lot of cats.

TP: If you’re working on a Blue Note record by Freddie Hubbard or Wayne Shorter or Bobby Hutcherson, did that mean you were also gigging with them? Were these working groups or set up for the studio?

JS: Freddie’s was the group that I began to work with after he left Art Blakey, and we started working with Joe Chambers, Ronnie Matthews and Eddie Khan on bass – a quintet. It was Freddie’s first working band. We did a few gigs around… We never did go out of the country. We kind of stayed around the area. We did a few things in Philadelphia, went up to Boston and did a couple of things. It wasn’t working that much, but at least we had a chance to tighten up before we did that Breaking Point album.

TP: We’ve been listening to jump bands, bebop, Gene Ammons and Johnny Griffin playing very straight ahead. But we listened to John Coltrane’s “Dexterity,” which you said had a big impact on you, as did Coltrane’s music in general.

JS: When I first heard Trane, it was in Chicago on that recording. It was a different label. But that “Dexterity” inspired me a lot when I first heard it, when I heard John Coltrane. I’d never heard of him before. I heard Johnny Griffin. But when I heard John Coltrane, that took me into a whole nother thing. His structure, his whole phraseology, his whole approach to the music was so unique and so HIM. You could identify him so well – his individuality. It stood out so profound.

TP: Had you heard Coltrane by the time you were Sun Ra?

JS: No, not yet. It was before I left, right around the end, around 1958 or 59, I heard that record. Then I had to hear him again. I came to New York and he was at the old Five Spot. It was so crowded that night, I was standing on my toes trying to see him. Freddie Hubbard brought me down there that night. And Birdland. That’s when I saw Dexter Gordon on one of those Monday night jam sessions they had. Lee Morgan was conducting the jam sessions, with Dexter up there cooking and Curtis Fuller. Freddie took me to that session also. I was a little nervous about coming to New York anyway. Freddie had to kind of pull me. “Come on, man, get your horn out and play some.” I said, “No, not yet.” He’d encourage me. “Come on, play, man.” He was a great inspiration to me. He still is. Everything looked like… All the clubs were closing down at that period. From 1963 on down to 67 or 68, clubs were closing, everything was changing. The scene was changing quite a bit.

TP: The music was changing, too.

JS: Yes, it was. Quite a bit. It was maintaining… It’s still here. Everything is still here. We listen to all these old cuts; all this music, when I hear it now, it still sounds fresh. There’s just so much that we can get from it. When you listen to it and you understand where it’s coming from, I think you appreciate it more. Know its origins, and reaching back and doing some research on it, and I’ve been studying and reading more books about the music and about the different artists who made those contributions, and those who weren’t as well known as others that made contributions but never got the recognition or the financial thing. It’s all out there. It’s all here with us, and I’m just happy to be part of it. I’m very proud to be part of this music. I look forward to doing some more writing for the big band with David Murray; I’m writing some stuff now for his band, and I’m hoping to rehearse it down there on Monday nights at the Knitting Factory.

It’s all connected. The name of my group is Linkage.

TP: One thing we can say about the music of the 60s is that the protagonists were all rooted in the sort of music we’ve been hearing on this evening’s show. Coming up are a few highlights from James Spaulding’s recordings for Blue Note during the 60s.

[MUSIC: Spaulding-Freddie, “Hub Tones”; Freddie-Spaulding-Mobley, “Outer Forces”; Wayne-Spaulding, “Chaos”; Bobby Hutcherson-Spaulding, “Little B’s Poem”]

[MUSIC: Spaulding, “Bold Steps”-1988]

TP: Any memories from any of the Blue Note dates we heard? How about The All Seeing Eye? Any memories, or is it vague to you?

JS: It’s sort of vague. I just remember the music, Wayne’s writing on that date, and the excitement of having this material, beginning to get into our own and be able to express ourselves in the way we were doing in that time, in the 60s, when so much stuff was happening, so much energy was circulating. Going to the studio, we just couldn’t wait. Everybody couldn’t wait to get there and set up and do what we had to do. It was a wonderful time.

TP: One question someone asked you over the phone, and which I was asked to ask you by a guest earlier today: With all the recordings that you contributed to as a sideman, were you ever offered to record by Alfred Lion?

JS: Yes, he asked me to record. He wanted me to get into a commercial vein of the music. With all respects to Lou Donaldson, who I love and enjoy his playing… He wanted me to do some stuff that Lou was doing, the Alligator Boogaloo kind of thing… He wanted me to put some stuff out there on the jukebox that would push records, and I didn’t have any material like that. I wanted to play some bebop. I wanted to play some straight-ahead music at the time. I was working with Freddie and time went by, and we never did come to any agreement on that.

TP: You spoke of the impact Coltrane had on you during the 60s…

JS: All the saxophone players are influenced by Trane, I’m sure – they still are at this time. Every time you hear him it’s always something new. If you play it once, you have to play it twice, and then you have to play it again. Because each time you’ll hear something fresh and new. His own personal approach is what made it stand out so much.

TP: Did you know Coltrane at all?

JS: I saw Trane in Chicago at McKie’s Lounge. Elvin was on the gig. Jack deJohnette was also on that gig. I walked up to him, just met him and talked and said hello. He was waiting for Elvin to come in and start the set. The place was packed. The second time I saw him was in New York at the Vanguard. I talked to him after the gig, and got his phone number, and he invited me out to his house. We were going to get together. I wanted him to show me some things. He was such a nice cat. Such a beautiful individual.

TP: It’s a common story among musicians that you could approach John Coltrane and he’d invite you to his hotel room or to his house, and spend time with you.

JS: He was just a regular person and very approachable, and you could ask him questions and he’s talk to you and make you feel comfortable.

TP: Did you have any aspirations to play the tenor sax?

JS: I played the tenor sax in Chicago for a while, and I played tenor sax in the Army for a while. I had some gigs, but carrying the alto…I had the alto and the flute… You know how Sonny Stitt would carry all his instruments. I tried to do that, but it got a little heavy.

TP: Being a triple threat was a little too threatening.

JS: Playing one instrument is a job!

TP: We’ll hear “Hipsippy Blues,” something you requested by Hank Mobley, who was another associate of yours. You were on Slice Of The Top with him, and he was on Freddie Hubbard’s Blue Spirit date.

JS: Hank was a beautiful cat. I can’t say enough about his musicianship. He was an incredible musician. He gave you all he had. He really was involved and committed, and you could hear it in his instrument, in his writing. He wrote so MUCH stuff. I want to do a tribute to him on one of my next record sessions. I was trying to get Joe Fields and Don Sickler to set something up for that, pick out some of his unknown cuts to record. He had such a tremendous contribution to this music and to the alto saxohone.

[MUSIC: Spaulding, “Hipsippy Blues” and “Down With It”]

 

James Spaulding on Out To Lunch, July 21, 1993:

TP: How did you come to be the latest member of World Saxophone Quartet? You’ve been working with David Murray’s Octet for a number of years now.

JS: Yes, it was David Murray who told me about the possibilities of becoming a member of WSQ, and Hamiet Bluiett was instrumental in calling me for an engagement out in Albuquerque, NM, with Jayne Cortez and Bill Cole. After that, they called me about a gig in Boston. It was December 11, up in Boston, the first day after we had that horrible rainstorm. That was my first engagement with the African drums also.

TP: Your experience on flute I’d think would fit in very well with the African drums. Last night you were playing wooden flute as well as regular flute.

JS: Yeah, we were definitely going back to the ancients in terms of sound and instrumentation, reaching back to the ancestral connections with roots, and basically being inspired by the great music that’s still coming through from the great continent of Africa, and different parts of it, from the time when great civilizations were born, jumped out – so instruments and music also followed. Here we are today, extended from that.

TP: In your early career, you recorded with Sun Ra, who was so involved in bringing out that kind of material, including one of his most famous albums, Jazz In Silhouette. How did it come about? You were originally from Indianapolis.

JS: Right. I got out of the Army… I had three years in the Armed Services, with the Army bands, doing marches and concerts. I got out in 1957, and I decided to go to Chicago and go to school on the G.I. Bill – Cosmopolitan School of Music. It was a great school. They introduced jazz and different studies outside of the normal curriculum. One day I was going out jamming. Jam sessions were happening all over Chicago. I met John Gilmore and Pat Patrick, and at the jam session they heard me play, and they said, “Listen, man, how would you like to make a rehearsal with Sun Ra?” I said, “Sun Ra. Sure. I’ll be there.

TP: Did you know who Sun Ra was?

JS: No, not really. I just heard his name mentioned a couple of times. So I made it to this rehearsal, and there was Sun Ra, sitting at the keyboard, writing out arrangements, giving parts out. That’s the first thing that amazed me. I said, “Wow, this is terrific.” So we ran down the parts, and he told me to play. I said, “Play? Play what?” I didn’t see any chord changes or anything. He said “Just play! Don’t worry about it.” So I played, and Sun Ra said, “Ok.” He liked what I was doing. I was quite nervous, of course. He started calling me for gigs in the Pershing Hotel. At the time we were playing in the basement for what were called breakfast shows. We’d stay there until 7-10 in the morning, playing. People would come down from their jobs, gigs and have breakfast, and musicians would come in and sit in. Sun Ra would have this tremendous book of music. Oh, God, all kinds of music, from dance music to concert stuff. He was complete. I’ve never seen a musician with so much energy and so much imagination.

TP: Were you rehearsing 6-10 hours a day, every day, as a number of the musicians have said?

JS: Yes, we’d rehearse quite a bit. He was serious. It could get hot. It could get quite hot in there sometimes.

TP: That was a very talented group of young musicians who’d been well-school through high school and/or the Army, like yourself, which I think is a characteristic of your generation. Very well-schooled either through the education system or the Armed Services or whatever, but with a real hunger for new horizons, new dimensions in music.

JS: Man, this was a whole new experience for me to play in this band. It opened up my sense of direction in terms of playing free, getting rid of the barlines, and the structural, scientific parts of it. I said, “Yeah, that’s it” later on. It took me a long time to digest this. Here, I’m coming out of Charlie Parker and thinking swing, and the structure things that were already mapped out. Being with this band, it just opened up another area. “Oh yeah, this works.” So as I developed with that band, I started incorporating that information with my information, and I started expanding that knowledge. I was starting to see where a lot of the free playing of this music was coming from. Improvisation! The raw improvisation that was coming, and it was the most natural! I said, “Yeah, this works.” So Sun Ra was very instrumental for inspiring me, and there’s nothing but good things I can say about this man and his inspiration to all of us.

TP: Could you say a few words about your upbringing in Indianapolis, where the scene was thriving at the time you were coming up? Was saxophone or clarinet your first instrument? And when did you start playing?

JS: Actually, the trumpet was – the bugle. My father bought me a little bugle, and I was around the house blowing with that. Then I picked up a little trumpet in grade school, and I was messing with that for a while. Then my father would bring home all these records. He was a musician himself; he was a professional. Guitar. He was manager of the Original Brown Buddies of the 1920s to 1940s. Another organization took over. But he formulated that band actually. He would bring home all these records – King Cole, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, everybody. I was only 5, and I would listen to this music, and it just got into my system right away.

The wonderful part about it is that my father was able to let me listen and make up my own mind about the music. He didn’t force it on me. He didn’t make me practice. He saw that I was going to get into the saxophone. Now, when I heard Charlie Parker, I said, “Yeah, Dad, I want a saxophone; I want an alto. Charlie Parker. I got to do this. This is the greatest thing I ever heard in the world.”

TP: Do you remember the first Charlie Parker record?

JS: It was “Mohawk” with Diz. Now, “Shaw Nuff” was the one I really liked the most on this 78. Later I listened to more and more, and I said, “Yeah, this is great.” At the time I was with a band, a young group of musicians in Indianapolis who called ourselves the Monarch Combo. We’d play all the teenage dances around Indianapolis. Bull Moose Jackson would come to town; we’d play behind him. Johnny Ace – we played behind him. We played for all the dances. Man, a lot of things were happening in Indianapolis. Clubs. We’d go and sit in. We’d go out and sit in with Wes Montgomery and his brothers out at another club. Freddie Hubbard and I got together at a jam session. That’s how I met Freddie, at a place called the Cotton Club in Indianapolis, at a jam session. I was in the Army at the same time, see. I was stationed at Fort Harrison in Indiana at the time. It was like a job. I had a car; I was driving back and forth from the base back to Indianapolis. So I used to bring Freddie with me out to the Army base, and he would sit in with the Army band. We’d do concerts at the Army Finance Center. It was a lot of music and activity. It was incredible.

TP: The 50s is called a conservative time in histories of jazz, but on the grass roots level it was one of the most open times ever, because musicians were able to glean experience in almost every area they’d need to access to make their way later on as independent-thinking musicians.

JS: Yeah, and you could take instruments home. Now you can’t take the instruments home, I heard, I found out. I asked this little kid next door, “Where’s your instrument? You said you play the trumpet – where is it?” “It’s in school.” I said, “School is closed. You don’t have an instrument?” He said, “No.” I always brought my instrument home. I’d go in the band room, sign out a flute. I taught myself the flute by signing out the instrument. I could bring it home and practice it. I brought it back in good shape. The instruments weren’t that good. I had an old raggedy, beat-up clarinet that I learned the clarinet on. We had those kind of opportunities. We had places to go. We could go to the Y; we could go swimming, play ping-pong, all kinds of activity at one time. All this is gone now! Today in Indianapolis there’s no place for youngsters to go where they can be supervised by people who are paid to do these jobs. So we see all these kids now standing on corners. There’s nothing to do. There’s no space. No places to go. So the music is being deliberately cut off.

TP: Did you enter the Army as a musician?

JS: Yes. I went to Special Services. My father made sure of that. This was 1954, right after the Korean War conflict. I went out to California… First I went to Fort Linwood, Missouri, for basic training for 8 weeks, and then went out to California, Fort Ord, for band training, and I was out there with the band. You had to prove yourself to be able to read. If you weren’t able to read they would put you in clerk-typist school or some other occupation. I had to bone up and get ready, because these guys, everybody could read – marches and the concert pieces you had to do. Learn how to march in formation and a lot of other stuff.

TP: That’s another rather common experience of musicians from your time, that experience in the Army bands and really getting their music together in that environment.

JS: Yes, it was very important to have that knowledge. The discipline, first of all, to be able to read. I had that discipline, fortunately, from my father, who was very gung-ho on all of us. I came from a family of 7. There were 7 of us. We had to be on our toes. My fathe was very strict, and my mother was very… She was in our corner. She’s a very spiritual woman, who was into the church. She kept us aware of our integrity, our values, kept us closely together. And we’re still together, except for one brother who was killed in an automobile accident in California. He was only 40. That shook everything up for a minute. I lost my father in 1975, when he was 70. Everything continues. Everything keeps moving on, and you keep learning, you keep growing.

TP: You have a series of records for Muse, all very different programmatically in terms of personnel. Let’s now hear a selection of songs from these first two. The first is a dedication to Thelonious Monk, titled Brilliant Corners, with a mix of young and veteran musicians — Wallace Roney, Mulgrew Miller, Ron Carter and Kenny Washington.

JS: On the first record I did a tribute to Duke Ellington. I had the same idea for Monk. The musicians took care of business on the dates. I was very pleased with it. Monk? What can I say?

TP: Did you hear Monk on records in the 50s?

JS: I heard Monk on records, right, in Indianapolis. Then I came to New York and met all these people, Max Roach and all these people. It was a whole beginning for me. The inspiration was unlimited.

[MUSIC: Spaulding, “I Mean You”; “Caravan

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For Arturo O’Farrill’s 60th birthday, Downbeat Features from 2017 and 2014, a DB Blindfold Test From 2016, and an O’Farrill-Eddie Palmieri Conversation from 2003

Pianist-composer-bandleader Arturo O’Farrill turned 60 yesterday. For the occasion, I’ve put together an omnibus post containing — in order of presentation — Downbeat feature articles from 2017 and 2014, an edited Blindfold Test from 2016, and an unedited conversation between Arturo and Eddie Palmieri (with some input from Brian Lynch) in 2003 conversation at Birdland that became a Downbeat article.

 

Arturo O’Farrill-Chucho Valdes-Familia Project (DownBeat Article) – (2017):

At its core, the new Arturo O’Farrill-Chucho Valdés collaboration, Familia: Tribute to Bebo and Chico (Motéma), is a meditation on the eternal subject of patriarchy, the complex relations of fathers, sons and daughters. The title references Bebo Valdés (1918-2013) and Chico O’Farrill (1921-2001), both seminal figures in the evolution and global dissemination of Cuban music, whose respective musical legacies receive a sprawling interpretation from their eminent pianist-composer-bandleader sons, themselves separated by a generation. Their talented grandchildren—New Yorkers Adam (23) and Zack O’Farrill (26) on trumpet and drums, and Habaneros Jessie (31) and Leyanis Valdés (36) on drums and piano—refract ancestral spirits through a decidedly 21st century prism.

Speaking at his Brooklyn studio, O’Farrill traced the gestation moment to 2002, when Chucho Valdés invited him to perform at Havana’s Plaza Jazz Festival. “I was ambivalent about going,” O’Farrill said. “I was traumatized by the idea of betraying my father, who was bitter about the revolution for many years, but softened late in life. He rejected an opportunity to return to Cuba when Miami’s Cuban-American community stated it would boycott him. That tore him up. I wondered what could possibly be so special about your land of birth that would cause you such agony.”

After receiving Valdés’ invitation, O’Farrill received no initial confirmation of venue or accommodations, and wrote the festival organizer that he wouldn’t make the trip. The organizer responded, “Please come—we have a special surprise for you.” O’Farrill continued: “I get to Cuba, and men with suits and a badge meet me at the airport. I’m thinking: maybe I’m going to die; these guys are either CIA or Cuban secret police.”

Instead, they brought O’Farrill to “a beautiful building, all stone and chrome and wood, called ‘Palacio O’Farrill.’” Outside, a line of people awaited his arrival. “The director of this hotel, which they said was an old O’Farrill house, opened the car door and said, “Welcome home, Mr. O’Farrill.’ I started crying. As I’ve spent more time in Cuba, I’ve realized how much the sounds and sights my father grew up with, his cultural roots, shaped his aesthetic. I developed a powerful obsession to perform my father’s music in his native land.”

Now 57, O’Farrill arrived in New York in 1965, when his parents relocated from Mexico City, where his father—who spent 1948 to 1952 in the Apple—had moved from Havana in 1957. In 1997, after a protracted Oedipal journey that that saw him shun and then embrace his father’s distinguished corpus, O’Farrill launched a 14-year Sunday night sinecure at Birdland helming the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra of Chico O’Farrill. O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, featured on the first disk of Familia, has occupied the slot since 2011.

In September 2014, Valdés came to town for a Jazz at Lincoln Center collaboration with Pedrito Martinez and Wynton Marsalis titled “Ochas,” an eight-part suite dedicated to eight Yoruban orishas. O’Farrill dropped in on a rehearsal. “We were hanging out, and then went to lunch,” O’Farrill recalled. “We talked about how lovely it would be to work together, to do something that extended the idea of family and legacy and our fathers and our kids. Later, I’d see Chucho at one thing or another, and we’d remind each other of the idea, until we started talking concretely about the music and the concept—we’d write a piece together, I’d write a few pieces, we’d do a piece by Chucho, re-record a piece by Bebo and by Chico, and then turn over the baton to the young people.”

Towards that end, O’Farrill and Valdés spent several days at Valdés’ Miami home, brainstorming repertoire and co-writing the album’s opening track, “BeboChicoChuchoTuro,” a Haitano merengue upon which both pianists stretch out. “We sat at two pianos, and played, and talked, and played; sat at the kitchen table and drank coffee; talked and played some more,” O’Farrill said. “Although Chucho is a commanding presence, he’s soft-spoken. He chooses his words carefully. But at the piano he becomes gregarious, carousing and absolutely accessible. A lot of sentimental, major, diatonic, happy sounding music came out of that meeting. It’s all about family, and you can’t avoid it. But it’s not like me at all—every cell of my being fights sentimentality and feel-goodness.”

A member of the musicians union at 14, O’Farrill was still a teenager when his father first hired him for jingle sessions. First-hand observation of Chico O’Farrill’s scores taught him to arrange and compose; tough love from bandmates and the ministrations of Andy Gonzalez, helped him evolve into a proficient practitioner of clave and Afro-Caribbean codes. Meanwhile, in parallel, O’Farrill was cultivating another, very different tonal personality, oriented toward embracing speculative musical environments. He attributes this mindset to examples set by Carla Bley, who he joined at 19 and remained with throughout the ’80s, and Charles Mingus, whose album Mingus Ah Um “changed me forever.”

“Mingus would take the existing ingredients of acceptable jazz composition, and deconstruct them and flip them around and toy with them and throw in this and that,” O’Farrill said. “That’s where I come from more than anything else. Carla taught me to stick to your guns no matter what. I love writing, but I love art more. My father was an innate and brilliant composer—writing was his end-all and be-all. But for me, it’s always about the greater challenge of using your craft to serve the art.”

That stated aesthetic pervades ALJO’s prior CD, Cuba: The Conversation Continues; on Familia, O’Farrill applies it effectively on “Three Revolutions.” The piece began as a response to the death of Fidel Castro while O’Farrill was in Havana to bury his father’s ashes, not long after the election of the 45th U.S. President. “It was a sad day in Havana,” O’Farrill said. “The Revolution is not going away, but even so, it felt like it was gone. And after the U.S. election, I felt the American Revolution died. The third revolution is the one we all still hope will come—a global realization that every human being will be accorded the same value as every other, that we’ll wake up to the reality that if one suffers, we all suffer.”

O’Farrill explicated: Valdés’ opening cadenza, “strong, romantic, passionate, quoting Rachmaninoff,” denotes “the power and grace of the Cuban Revolution.” His own cadenza is “enigmatic and modern and strange, and asks if we really had a revolution.” There follows a “minimalist section that indicates militaristic roboticness, very 16th-notey, very square, but with a non-metric melody that denotes a strong undertow of resistance against the metric rigidity.” Prefacing kinetic solos by the co-leaders is a “‘matrix’ section, where everything is blown out of the water and you hear these trails of sound, calling into question the question-mark—that there is no finality; we’re still looking for that third revolution.”

ALJO captures the elegant essence of“Ecuacion,” a 1982 composition on which Bebo Valdés juxtaposed the language of bebop with his own definitive conception of mambo big band writing. O’Farrill first performed it in 2005 when Bebo performed “Suite Cubana” with the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra of Lincoln Center, which Wynton Marsalis invited O’Farrill to form in 2002. The program notes for Bebo De Cuba (Calle 54) quote Valdés that he wrote it during an evening of conversation with Dizzy Gillespie in Stockholm, where Valdés settled and formed a new family in 1963, three years after defecting from Cuba. “I decided to write Dizzy something on the spot with diminished fifths, which I played for him on the piano,” Valdés wrote.

Both pianists improvise floridly on Hilario Duran’s arrangement of Chucho Valdés’ “Tema De Bebo,” which Valdés often performs with his Afro-Cuban Jazz Messengers, and on “Pianitis,” which Machito commissioned from Chico circa 1979. The idiomatic grace and lucidity of O’Farrill’s solo on the former piece denotes his intimacy with the classical Cuban piano style, as does his nuanced solo flight on his father’s “Pure Emotion.” “I adored Bebo,” said O’Farrill, who played the “Latin piano” tracks on the 2010 animated film Chico and Rita, in which the male lead is loosely based on Bebo Valdés in Batista’s Cuba. “The value system of writing in the mambo big band doesn’t exist any more. The Thad Jones-Bob Brookmeyer-Jim McNeely resonance on all of us who write and arrange for big bands has resulted in different textures. Rightly so. Things change. But Bebo did that so beautifully, so lush and fat and gorgeous, so lovely to behold. It’s timeless.”

“Bebo was one of the most personal musicians ever,” Chucho Valdés wrote via email. “He was equally proficient writing and arranging for big band, string orchestras and small groups.” Valdés added that his father imparted comprehensive home-schooling in the codes of jazz and the many varieties of Cuban music. “He told me to have an academic background, to study pure classical, to learn each genre correctly in its specialty, without jumping. We started with Jelly Roll Morton, and I learned by epoch ragtime, boogie, swing, bebop, and modal. He taught me to be an individual musician, and I have taught these things to my children. This recording clearly proves that they have found their own way.”

Jessie Valdés upholds Chucho’s encomium on “Recuerdo” (“Memory”), a flowing Jazz Latin piece dedicated to Bebo Valdés that he propels with painterly, subtly percolating beats, and features Leyanis Valdés’ flowing, harmonically informed, high-chops solo—the fruit fell close to the family tree. “We’d see my father studying all day, and he ordered me to study every night,” Jessie recently told a Cuban journalist. “He’d listen to the music of Oscar Peterson and my grandfather. One time he went on a trip and brought back for me a very small set of drums, and said he’d place my drums by those of Enrique Plá. Leyanis and I are proud to be his children. Our goal is to respect his musical patterns, to follow the tradition that he and Bebo have charted in terms of good music and composition as we compose our own music.”

A similar predisposition to pay respect to elders through individualistic expression infuses the contributions of the O’Farrill siblings, both semi-regular ALJO participants . “We could probably sing back entire suites of our grandfather, as much from hearing it a ton and playing it a bunch as from overt, deliberate study,” Zack O’Farrill said. “But our father always supported us in playing our own music that has very little to do with what he does or what our grandfather did.”

Zack’s contribution, “Gonki, Gonki” a Jazz Latin line fueled by his complex clave permutations and elevated by inflamed solos from young Cuban trumpeters Kali Rodríguez-Peña and Jesus Ricardo Anduz, sardonically references his mother’s descriptor for the run-of-the-mill salsa gigs Arturo O’Farrill still was playing when Zack was a child. “Neither of us rebelled against his music the way my father rebelled against Latin music growing up,” he said. “He’s invited us to join what he does in a very equal way, and he’s also introduced us to things his dad couldn’t introduce him to—free jazz, straight-ahead jazz, Rock, Pop and R&B.”

“As much as we play with him, he’s our father first, bandleader second,” said Adam O’Farrill, who titled “Run and Jump,” to which he contributes a powerful trumpet solo, to reference the videogames he and his brother played with their father while growing up. “Stylistically, it’s a huge departure from the rest of the album,” O’Farrill said. “It’s not in any sort of Afro-Cuban tradition. But it is about fatherhood and fun, and the kind of relationship you can form with your parents.”

In a sense, the O’Farrill brothers’ contributions mirror their father’s mandate that ALJO not replicate canonic repertoire like a “museum band.” “For one thing, the technical refinements in the way pianos and trumpets and saxophones are made gives them a very different sound,” Arturo O’Farrill said. “Also, in the 1950s, when a lot of this music was originally played, songo and timba and other incredible rhythms hadn’t been invented. So in playing this music, we’re honoring the spirit and the tradition it was created in, but we’re very capable of adding to that conversation.

“When you go to Cuba, you understand that we still haven’t solved the riddle that Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie and Mario Bauzá were beginning to unravel—the thing that binds us together. It’s not just artistic. It’s spiritual. Cuba and America are so powerfully part of one another; you have the messiest divorces with the people you love most. So when I look to my future, I have to look to my father’s native land. Something in that soil informed my father’s entire being as a musician. Something in that land speaks to me, speaks to my training, speaks to my furtherance and my history and my trajectory.”

Sidebar: Arturo “Chico” O’Farrill and Dionisio Ramón Emilio “Bebo” Valdés Amaro:

“For me, Chico O’Farrill is the best arranger in the history of music,” Chucho Valdes said last May. He spoke in his dressing room at Manhattan’s Blue Note after a set by his Afro-Cuban Jazz Messengers that ended with “Tema Para Bebo,” a song he composed just after the death of his father, Bebo Valdés, on March 22, 2013, at the age of 94. Pere and fils Valdés shared an October 9th birthday; Chucho reported at the time that his father sang him the memorable refrain in a dream.

Bebo Valdés was born in the village of Quivican to a cigar factory worker. His grandfather was a slave. He left for Havana at 17 to study at Conservatorio Municipal, where he remained until 1943. During these years he befriended the iconic bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez, with whom he recorded the 2005 CD El Arte Del Sabor. By 1941, when Chucho was born, Bebo was playing regularly in Havana’s dance clubs; from 1943 to 1947 he was a staff arranger at the progressive radio station Mil Diez. In 1947, he left Havana for Haiti, and spent the ensuing year with bandleader Isaac Saleh, during which he keyed into traditional drumming and song. He returned in 1948 for an engagement with vocalist Rita Montaner, and became house pianist at the Tropicana Club with Armando Romeu until 1957. In 1952, he participated in Cuba’s first descarga (jam session) recording; he also introduced the batanga, a dance style that incorporated the sacred two-headed batá drum into the percussive base. In 1958, he played piano on Nat “King” Cole’s Cole Espagnol recordings, and contributed four arrangements.

In 1959, Valdés began using Chucho occasionally in his orchestra, Sabor de Cuba. They next played together on the 1993 CD, Bebo Rides Again (Messidor), convened at Paquito D’Rivera’s instigation, which, along with D’Rivera’s Cuba Jazz: 90 Miles To Cuba (TropiJazz-1996), brought Bebo back to international consciousness. Fernando Trueba’s 2000 documentary Calle 54 documented their next encounter; a subsequent documentary, Old Man Bebo, earned its director first prize for Best New Documentary Filmmaker at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. During his gloriously productive final decade, Valdés had a hit with the Cuba-meets-flamenco date album Lagrimas Negras with singer Diego El Cigala, creating a high standard that he matched on Suite Cubana and Live at the Village Vanguard.

The son of an Irish-born lawyer and a Cuban mother, O’Farrill—born in Havana in 1921—was slated to follow in his father’s footsteps, but caught the jazz bug as a teenager in a Georgia boarding school and devoted himself to music. He began to arrange for Armando Romeu’s orchestra at the Tropicana cabaret in 1942. In 1947, he organized an ahead-of-the-curve unit called Los Beboppers. A year later, he relocated to New York, where he caught the ear of Benny Goodman, who recorded “Undercurrent Blues.” In quick order, he composed “Cuban Episode” for Stan Kenton, “Afro-Cuban Suite” for Machito with Charlie Parker, “Manteca Suite” for Dizzy Gillespie, and a series of 10″ leader LPs for Norman Granz. These recordings established O’Farrill as the first composer-arranger to blend the vocabularies of modern jazz, 20th century European music, and Afro-Cuban idioms.

They also made him a lodestar figure in Cuba, as implied by Chucho’s recollection: “I learned a lot from the rhythmic structures in Chico’s arrangements that the Tropicana Club Orchestra had, while his recordings with Peruchín, Richard Egües, Guillermo Barreto and Tata Güines are master classes. Chico’s Cha Cha Cha is my favorite.”

During his final 46 years in NYC, O’Farrill functioned successfully as a journeyman arranger, while generating a masterpiece 1967 album Nine Flags (Impulse!), comprised of his originals; 11 albums between 1965 and 1970 with the Count Basie Orchestra; and Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods with Gillespie in 1975. After two decades of radio silence, he recorded the Todd Barkan-produced “comeback” albums Pure Emotion, The Heart Of A Legend and Carambola with the reconstituted Chico O’Farrill Orchestra.

[—30—]

************

Arturo O’Farrill & ALJO, DownBeat Article (2014):

Since 1997, with occasional interruptions, Arturo O’Farrill has spent Sunday evenings directing big bands at Birdland—14 years with the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra of Chico O’Farrill, his father; three years with its legatee, his own Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. On the 900th or so such occasion in early June, not long after the release of ALJO’s third CD, The Offense of the Drum (Motéma), O’Farrill opened the show with “Vaca Frita,” a swing-to-mambo original infused with Gil Evans-esque brass, then Chico O’Farrill’s “Trumpet Fantasy,” which juxtaposed rumba-driven call-and-response sections with subtle restatements from the Canción section of Chico’s “Afro-Cuban Suite.”

O’Farrill rose from the piano bench, stated titles and personnel, and introduced “On The Corner of Malecón and Bourbon,” which he composed. “I do everything backwards,” he announced. “When I teach jazz history classes, I start with Cecil Taylor, then we go to Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Mingus, we keep searching, and finally end with Scott Joplin. The beginnings of Jazz and Latin come from the same root.”

As on the version that appears on The Offense of The Drum, O’Farrill’s florid introduction evoked Rachmaninoff more than Taylor, but everything else was as stated. Alto saxophonist Bobby Porcelli uncorked a soulful a cappella Charlie Parker refraction. An Ellingtonian passage followed, springboarding Seeley into a “West End Blues”-“St. James Infirmary” medley. Baritone saxophonist Jason Marshall’s unaccompanied passage channeled early ‘70s Mingusian Hamiett Bluiett, foreshadowing several call-and-response passages on which the sections, blowing reconfigured Mingus themes (think “Boogie Stop Shuffle” meets “Tijuana Moods”), alternated with bassist Carlo DeRosa, in “Haitian Fight Song” mode. Suddenly, the refrain of Joplin’s “The Entertainer” emerged. The band dropped out for O’Farrill to render a brief falling-down-the-stairs passage. When they reentered, the rhythmic template switched from funk to salsa. Trumpeter John Powell rode the wave, then passed the baton to Seneca Black and Adam O’Farrill—Arturo’s son—for a climactic two-trumpet passage.

By now, patrons packed the room; the applause was raucous. O’Farrill waited. “We’ve decided that Latin Jazz is not defined by Cuban and Puerto Rican music,” he declared, then offered “Mercado en Domingo,” a highlight of the new CD. Composed by Colombian pianist Pablo Mayor, it contained janky trumpet lines, tangoish sax unisons, Rafi Malkiel’s alligatory trombone solo and Seeley’s piercing declamation, all goosed by a porro streetbeat, which would sound apropos in a New Orleans second line. Next was O’Farrill’s “Freilach a Nacht,” a klezmer-ish minor blues propelled by a crackling merengue perhaps one degree of separation removed from a polka. On the set-closer, a Ray Santos mambo dedicated to Mario Bauzá, ALJO idiomatically channeled the soulful Afro-Cuban essence of its namesake.

Within this kinetic six-tune episode, O’Farrill encapsulated the overlapping streams that define his musical production since 2002, when Wynton Marsalis invited him to form the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra of Lincoln Center. His mandate was to assemble an exhaustive book of “Mambo King” era repertoire associated with his father, Machito, Bauzá, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez and other Afro-Caribbean heroes, and to perform it authentically, with an attitude firmly planted in the here-and-now. After JALC severed ties in 2005, O’Farrill regrouped, substituting “Latin” for “Cuban” in the band’s title. In 2007, supported by a 501(c)(3) non-profit called the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, he launched an annual concert season at Symphony Space, an Upper West Side theater, which includes an annual musica nuevo concert devoted to commissioned works—The Offense of The Drum culls nine of them—reflecting Pan-American and Afro-diasporic perspectives.

A few days later, in the courtyard of Harlem School of the Arts, where ALJA has its offices, O’Farrill, 54, discussed the roots and branches of his hemispheric sensibility. He recalled the in-studio response of Donald Harrison—on-site to perform the Mardi Gras Indian flagwaver “Iko, Iko,” which ends the album—to a playback of “Mercado en Domingo.” “Donald started laughing quietly,” O’Farrill said. “He understood the idea I’m selling—that the same music he grew up with in the streets of New Orleans was happening in the streets of Bogotá or Lima or, for that matter, any major metropolis in South America where brass bands played African rhythms. We’re playing each other’s music, but from different entry points.”

These connective portals reveal themselves in various guises in the otherwise disparate pieces that comprise The Offense Of The Drum. Colombian harp virtuoso Edmar Castañeda solos over a melange of Colombian, Brazilian and Afro-Cuban rhythms on his glistening “Cuarto de Colores.” Spanish alto saxophonist-vocalist Antonio Lizana infuses flamenco soul into Eric Satie’s “Gnossiene 3 (Tientos),” which he arranged. The hip-hop cadences of Nuyorican poet Christopher “Chilo” Cajigas’ recitation-chant of “They Came,” arranged by Jason Lindner, intersect with D.J. Logic’s turntable sound-painting and an admixture of reggaeton and bomba beats.

The oppressive, martial sound of Japanese taiko drums, set ironically against a fugal form and a bolero cadence, opens the title track, which O’Farrill wrote in response to the gradual suppression of public drum circles in New York City during the mayoral administrations of Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. During the second half, liberation beats fuel the orchestra’s rowdy splashes of color.

“Everything Arturo writes is really from the drums, although he writes around melody and conceptual things as well,” ALJO drummer Vince Cherico said. “When we’re learning something in rehearsals, he’ll stop the horns and have the rhythm section—or maybe the conguero or me on drums—play the patterns over and over until it sinks in. He says, ‘This is what you have to play the notes on top of.’”

Vijay Iyer’s brief piano concerto, “The Mad Hatter,” conceived in tribute to O’Farrill’s anything-goes persona, explores, Iyer stated, “compatibilities between Carnatic rhythmic ideas I was thinking about and certain rhythms in clave.” “I see it as similar to Satie and Phillip Glass in the way Vijay explores the idea of unfolding within a context of stasis,” O’Farrill remarks. “It also intrigued me that he would have the audacity to fuck with clave, because he clearly doesn’t come from that world.”

Some band members found “The Mad Hatter” “threatening,” O’Farrill reported. One questioned the necessity of playing the first section in its ascribed 21/8 time signature, to which O’Farrill riposted, “Because we can’t play ‘Oye Como Va’ forever.” The next day the malcontent cell-phoned, “The bridge is a mess, there’s an overturned tractor-trailer, and I’m trying to get to New York.’” O’Farrill answered, “Brother, life isn’t always 4/4—is it?”

“To me, that was a perfect object lesson,” he continued. “If you define your music by constructs that are already in place, you’re a fool. Now, I love 4/4. At my core, I’m a jazz pianist. I may have this big vision of what jazz could become, but my entry point into that conversation was bursting into tears when I first heard Herbie Hancock on ‘Seven Steps To Heaven.’ I wanted to play like Herbie more than anything in the world, because if you could float rhythmically over that bed of swing, like him, you were a complete human being with mastery over time and space. But people don’t understand that when Herbie started playing his shit, someone said, ‘You don’t sound like Red Garland.’”

[BREAK]

Already a “mid-level” practitioner of Mozart sonatas and Chopin preludes when he experienced his Hancock epiphany, O’Farrill, then 12, was just beginning to experiment with jazz and improvisational music. By 14, when he joined Local 802, he was playing with experienced New York vets like trumpeter Manny Duran and trombonist-drummer Artie Simmons. “I didn’t know much about harmony or stylistic nuance in jazz, but I had really good keyboard skills, which always seems to impress people,” O’Farrill commented.

You can infer the level of O’Farrill’s teenage skill-set from his father’s contemporaneous piano concerto, “Pianitis,” which Arturo performed during the ‘80s with Machito. “Arturo is scary-virtuoso,” said Iyer. “He has amazing power. He can cut through the ensemble effortlessly, with all those drummers, he has great rhythm, and he’s extremely expressive, very colorful—just a joy to listen to.”

Over the course of three decades, O’Farrill evolved from efflorescent performer to the impresario-maestro of his maturity. Born in Mexico City, where his Havana-born father and Mexican-descended mother moved after the Communist Party consolidated power in Cuba, and a New Yorker since age 5, he experienced “tremendous ambivalence” about his cultural roots. “I thought the music of Chico, Machito and Tito Puente was secondary to jazz in importance and intellectual ability,” he said. “Growing up, the only Hispanics I knew were the school custodian and the basketball star. When I found out that Herbie had come from Bud Powell, I became a Bud Powell freak.” Even so, while immersing himself in bebop and free jazz, O’Farrill began playing on his father’s jingle dates, beginning with a Bumble Bee tuna commercial.

“I knew what a montuno was, but I didn’t understand how to make it work in the clave,” he recalled of that session. “Sal Cuevas was playing bass, and told me that I had to study and get my shit together.” O’Farrill purchased Papo Lucca records, learned the mechanics, but resisted the subtleties. He dropped out of Music and Art High School, worked as a bicycle messenger, and led a peer-grouper sextet called the Untouchables, which in 1978 took a gig upstate “at a hole-in-the-wall bar, playing for beers.” The proprietor notified Carla Bley, who lived down the road. She stopped by, liked what she heard, and soon thereafter hired O’Farrill to play a Carnegie Hall concert, initiating a four-year association.

“I’m much more Carla’s child—or Charles Mingus’ child—than Chico O’Farrill’s child,” O’Farrill said of his aesthetics regarding musical narrative. “Composition was my father’s end-all and be-all. He held jazz on a pedestal. Carla taught me that the notes are secondary to what you want to communicate; it’s not the vehicle, but where the person who’s driving wants to go.”

As the ‘80s progressed, O’Farrill freelanced, worked more frequently on his father’s commercial and creative projects, earned a degree in Classical Performance at Manhattan School of Music, and did extensive fieldwork in the Latin piano tradition with bassist-scholar Andy Gonzalez. “Andy told me that I needed to embrace where I come from, to understand how beautiful it is,” O’Farrill said. “Almost immediately I realized that Latin piano was as sophisticated—maybe even more so—and as difficult to cop as anything Herbie was doing.”

These looking-backward investigations coincided with O’Farrill’s burgeoning appreciation of the depth and quality of Chico O’Farrill’s corpus. “In my twenties, a friend had me listen to ‘Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite,’” O’Farrill recounted. “He asked, ‘Have you really heard this?’ I went, ‘Yeah…not really…no.’” He blames the Oedipus Complex. “Whatever legendary musician he was, my father was also prone to the foibles and frailties of fatherhood,” he said. Youthful resentments dissipated during the ‘90s, as père O’Farrill, who died in 2001, experienced an end-of-career renaissance, spurred by the the recordings Pure Emotion, Heart Of A Legend and Carambola, which Arturo music-directed. “I learned how to arrange by looking at my father’s scores. I learned how to compose by listening to my father’s compositions. I learned about voicings and counterpoint. I also learned that my voice was very different than his. It wasn’t just about mimicking, saying, ‘This is a good way to do it.’ It was also about, ‘No, I reject this.’”

“I sensed that Arturo felt very much in Chico’s shadow and fervently desired to establish his own identity,” said Todd Barkan, who produced Chico O’Farrill’s final recordings, as well as The Offense of The Drum and, indeed, Arturo’s 1999 leader debut Bloodline. “But I never saw him be anything less than totally deferential and acquiescent to Chico’s wishes. In his soft-spoken, almost passive way, Chico was an incredibly strict disciplinarian, but he never outwardly expressed his emotions, unlike Arturo, who had to be challenged to control his temper. Arturo has a lot to be proud of in how he’s served his father’s vision and legacy.”

“Chico’s health was failing, so I was thrust into taking over the functions he’d done so well—standing in front of the guys, conducting them and emceeing,” O’Farrill said. “I had to stop being a pianist. He could barely walk, and I worried that he was frail and elderly and might keel over. It’s good that he’s getting his due, but he’s also ambivalent about the attention. At the same time, I had to pursue responsibilities I wasn’t really sure I was prepared for.”

[BREAK]

After Wynton Marsalis played “Trumpet Fantasy” with the Chico O’Farrill Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall in 1996, Arturo approached him for advice. “It interested me that he assembled this orchestra that was building a canon of American jazz, and I asked him—or maybe his assistant—for thoughts on how we could develop a relationship with an institution that might help us create a similar repertory orchestra,” O’Farrill recalled. “A few years later we were playing at a Christmas tree lighting, and Wynton said, out of the blue, ‘I really like your idea, and I want to give you a home at Jazz at Lincoln Center.’”

O’Farrill retains bittersweet feelings about the association, which JALC severed a year after entering its high-maintenance quarters at Columbus Circle. But he prefers to see the break as a blessing in disguise, by which ALJO was afforded the opportunity, as Barkan puts it, “to venture into the world on its own and be its own person.”

“That Wynton would fully open up his platform to us was extraordinarily moving to me,” O’Farrill said. “I learned a lot of lessons from him. He never told us what to do, how to do it, or controlled what we brought to his stage. At the end, I asked him point-blank if we did something wrong. He answered that we represented the House of Swing with great respectability, but that JALC was under great financial duress and would no longer be able to house us.”

One point of common ground is a mutual commitment to grass roots educational initiatives. Another is a decidedly non-preservationist approach to performing the “classic” repertoire that forms the core of each orchestra’s mission, with insistence on technical excellence in matters of instrumentalism, composition and arrangement as a default basis of operations, as is apparent in ALJO’S flawless navigation of the diverse environments of The Offense Of The Drum and 40 Acres and a Burro [Zoho], from 2011. The latter date includes sparkling performances of an Afro-Peruvian original by Gabriel Alegría, two programmatic pieces by O’Farrill, and creative-yet-idiomatic charts—each by a separate arranger—of Pan-American repertoire spanning Argentinian tango (Astor Piazzolla), Brazilian choro (Pixiguinha), Brazilian rhapsody (Hermeto Pascoal), Cuban danzón (Chico O’Farrill), Nuyorican salsa (Oscar Hernandez), and Afro-Caribbean-inflected bebop (Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia”).

Both institutions also operate on the principle that to bring forth new work is as important as the mandate to preserve. “We honor the spirit and tradition that this music was created in, but never try to replicate or play like a museum band,” O’Farrill said. “We are capable of adding to that conversation. For one thing, technical refinements make the instruments sound different than 50 or 60 years ago. Afro-Cuban rhythms like songo hadn’t been invented when much of this music was first played.

“My model since the Lincoln Center days is to look for musicians who are multi-layered, multi-cultured, flexible stylistically and artistically, who understand clave but can also read in 21/8. I like to put a younger musician next to a veteran and hope each will influence the other’s thinking.”

In his wholehearted embrace of the music of the Americas, O’Farrill draws not only on extensive travels through South and Central America and bandstand interaction with musicians from those cultures, but frequent visits to Cuba since 2002.

“The only thing that could make my father cry during his last years was remembrances of his youth,” O’Farrill said. “He rejected an opportunity to return because he received hate mail from Miami’s Cuban-American community. It tore him up. I wondered what could be so special about your birthplace that would cause you such agony in your later years. I learned that the sounds and sights of Cuba indelibly shaped his aesthetic and cultural roots, his sense of harmonic counterpoint and Afro-folkloric counterpoint. The more time I spend in Cuba, the more I realize it’s the land I come from, and also that Cuba is part of Latin America in very concrete ways.”

O’Farrill cited his next recording, a project called “The Conversation Continued,” for which ALJA has commissioned young composers in the United States and in Cuba to imagine what might have happened had the U.S. not imposed an embargo. The program will comprise next season’s Nuevo Musica concert at Symphony Space, joining separate programs curated by Lionel Loueke, exploring the direct African influence in jazz, and by Antonio Sanchez, exploring Mexican jazz and Mexico’s influence in jazz.

Of Mexican descent on his mother’s side, O’Farrill states he can’t “identify more as a Cuban than as a Mexican.” He adds, “I’ve gone back periodically on a regular basis, and all my aunts and most of my family that I know are in Mexico. But at the end of the day, I feel not so much Mexican or Cuban, but I feel Pueblo. I relate to the pace of South American-Latin American life. I like the noise of children in the streets, and dogs running around, and colors and bright sounds, and food smells, and people practicing on terraces. When I first returned to Cuba, I remember walking down the street and thinking, ‘This feels like home.’ I’ve had that feeling in Mexico. I’ve also had that feeling in Lima, and in Cali, and in Santiago.”

More than anything, though, O’Farrill’s need to create on the edge, in an experimental, cross-disciplinary context, emanates from his New York origins. “Everything I do—being a bicycle messenger as a teenager, running a non-profit now, my musical projects—I take great chances,” he said. “What makes it exciting is that it could crash and burn.”

[—30—]

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Arturo O’Farrill Blindfold Test (2016):

After earning a “Best Instrumental Composition” at the 2016 Grammys for “The Afro-Latin Jazz Suite” (from Cuba: The Conversation Continues [Motéma]), the 55-year-old pianist-composer-arranger Arturo O’Farrill now holds three such awards for his musical production with the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. This was O’Farrill’s first DownBeat Blindfold Test.

Pepe Rivero Big Band
“Gandinga, Mondongo and Epistrophy with Sandunga” (Monk and the Cuban Big Band, Universal, 2013) (Reinier Elizarde “El Negron”, bass (solo); Rivero, piano (solo); Georvis Pico, drums; Raul Gil Antillanos, Manuel Machado, Javier Arevalo, trumpets; Julio Montalvo, Julien Ferrer Riol, Dennis Cuni, trombones; Juan Ramon Callejas, Ernesto Millan, alto saxophone; Bobby Martinez, Segundo Mijarez, tenor saxophone; Rafa Serrano, baritone saxophone)

That’s “Sandunga,” the famous Frank Emilio composition. Is it a Cuban big band? Now it’s “Epistrophy.” The bassist is old school, almost Cachao-like in his solo style, not virtuosic, play-a-lot-of-notes nonsense, but connected to the tumbao. Is it the pianist’s record? Definitely not Chucho. The playing is modern and lean, not histrionic. Elio Villafranca? Was this recorded in Cuba? Here? Overseas?—like the WDR Big Band? Pickup orchestra or real orchestra? Beautiful arrangement, with lots of 16th note syncopations, very difficult to play. Right off the bat I thought a Cuban wrote it—the trumpets, trombones and saxophones are interspersed with high precision, the timba and sound of the swing are authentic, plus, let’s face it, not many jazz musicians know what “Sandunga” is. 4½ stars.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba
“Moore” (XXI Century, 5Passion, 2011) (Rubalcaba, piano; Matt Brewer, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums)

Aruán Ortiz? David Virelles? Fringey stuff, fresh and new. I admire it. I have no clue. You can’t play with that much freedom unless you’re really listening. This person is not a replicator, is playing intuitively, in touch with the ebb-and-flow second by second, creating a holistic experience, very in tune with themselves as a human being. It’s extremely well-played, but not facility for facility’s sake. 5 stars. Gonzalo has redefined everything he does, which is extraordinarily courageous when you have huge success early on in the game.

Sullivan Fortner
“Passepied” (Aria, Impulse!, 2015) (Fortner, piano; Tivon Pennicott, soprano saxophone; Aidan Carroll, bass; Joe Dyson, drums)

It’s pleasurable and nice to listen to, but didn’t challenge me in terms of chords or syncopation. Not that things have to be challenging; it’s stupid to make that an aesthetic reason to listen to something. Good composition; I liked the ending. The piece sounds young and studied. It didn’t sound easy to play. The pianist is very accomplished, a lot of contrapuntal skill. 3½ stars.

Fabian Almazan
“Jambo” (Rhizome, ArtistShare/Blue Note, 2014) (Almazan, piano; string quartet [Sara Caswell, 1st violin, Tomoko Omura, 2nd violin; Karen Waltuch, viola; Noah Hoffeld, cello]; Linda Oh, bass; Henry Cole, drums; Yosvany Terry, chekeré; Mauricio Herrera, batá)

Histrionic. But there’s a tumbador in there. String writing, contemporary language, Cuban-based with a conga part, an awareness of Afro-folkloric layering. When it dips into the harmonic world, the chromaticism is almost Romantic, but there are flourishes, clusters and very avant-garde writing. It’s interesting that the piano is mixed down and the drums are loud—the artist wants the composition to be center. I’ll assume the pianist went to ISO or whichever conservatory, but the cognizant use of rhythm shows he’s spent time playing rhythm-based music, and has a large repertoire of contemporary-sounding sounds, techniques and voicings. 5 stars.

Pedro Giraudo Big Band
“Push Gift” (Cuentos, Zoho, 2015) (Giraudo, bass; John Ellis, tenor saxophone solo; Alejandro Aviles, Todd Bashore, Luke Batson, Ellis, Carl Maraghi, saxes and winds; Jonathan Powell, Miki Hirose, Mat Jodrell, flugelhorn, Josh Deutsch, trumpets; Ryan Keberle, Mike Fahie, Mark Miller, Nate Mayland, trombones; Claudio Ragazzi, guitar; Jess Jurkovic, piano; Franco Pinna, drums, Paulo Stagnaro, cajon)

There’s something very Argentinian about this, and Spanish at the same time. It starts out with the cajon, a very site-specific rhythm, then a beautiful, classically written fugue in the introduction. The voicings are well-done. Not a lot of chance-taking or strange harmony—no avant-garde-isms. Straight-ahead, lyrical music. I’d say Guillermo Klein or Emilio Solla. Neither? It has Guillermo’s vibe. I’ve played with the sax player, who plays beautifully, but I’m blanking on the name. 5 stars.

Osmany Paredes
“Perla Marina/Longina” (Trio Time, Menduvia, 2013) (Paredes, piano)

Lovely playing, elegant and simple, but I have issues with the constant arpeggiation in the left hand. Every other chord is rolled. For a minute, I thought of Tete Montoliu. I find that sometimes we pianists, instead of really playing, arpeggiate every chord in the left hand—maybe it’s an affectation or reflex. 4 stars.

Edsel Gómez
“The Chant” (Road to Udaipur, Zoho, 2015) (Gomez, piano; Areismar Alex Ayala, bass; Bruce Cox, drums; Felipe Lamoglia, tenor saxophone; Roberto Pitre Vázquez, flute; Fabio Tagliaferri, viola; Walmir Gil, flugelhorn)

Alfredo Rodriguez? This is very Cuban, despite the odd meter. Very modern. [clusters] That’s great. Sometimes Cuban music is divided into Afro-folkloric seriousness or heavy-duty hyper-virtuosity. It’s elegantly played, and the rhythm section is good. It’s fun, tongue-in-cheek, clever, and in command of its elements. 4 stars.

Danilo Pérez
“Light Echo/Dolores” (Children of the Light, Mack Avenue, 2015) (Pérez, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums)

Is it an older record? The sound is very compressed. I know the pianist—the language and the approach to improvisation—but I’m not placing it. The pianist is not out to prove a technical issue. It’s entry-point improvisation, where you start an idea and it flowers into fruition. A lot of integrity. 4 stars. Danilo works out his ideas through his fingers, not just playing what he knows. They don’t sound like they do when they’re playing Wayne Shorter!

Emilio Solla y la Inestable de Brooklyn
“Raro” (Second Half. ) (Solla, piano; Pablo Aslan, bass; Eric Doob, drums; John Ellis, Tim Armacost, saxophone and winds; Alex Norris, trumpet; Ryan Keberle, trombone; Meg Okura, violin; Victor Prieto, accordion)

Pablo Ziegler? Pablo Aslan? I’ve heard this; I don’t remember the record. Ah, Emilio Solla, Y La Inestable de Brooklyn. This was up for the Grammy the year we won it, and it’s extraordinary. This is Emilio at his best. Like a lot of his writing, it has a cinematic edge, with a narrative arc and characters in the music. Emilio has a large story to tell; nothing he writes is simple. When you can be a storyteller as a composer and improvising artist, that’s pretty huge. 5 stars.

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Eddie Palmieri-Arturo O’Farrill (Birdland, 9-22-03):

TP: We’re at Birdland, and all together for the Downbeat conversation. I wanted to start with a comment for Eddie. I’ve been thinking a lot about you in the last couple of years and listening to a lot of your music. And it occurs to me that you’re from the same generation as Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. You’re a little older, actually, than all of them, but only by a few years. And all of them within the last decade or so have been revisiting roots, their roots in the music and the things that initially inspired them, with fresh ears. It seems you’re doing the same thing these days, particularly with La Perfecta and with El Rumbero del Piano. It seems this last decade has been a period of consolidation. It’s not a specific question, but could you take it and offer some reflections on what you’ve been doing in the last decade.

PALMIERI: Well, what happened, after the dance genre really ended, in a sense, of the music called Salsa, then I started to record Latin Jazz. That’s when I was working with Brian Lynch, Conrad Herwig and Donald Harrison. We did three CDs, “Palmas,” “Arete” and “El Vortex.” That was the move. We started to travel to Europe and started doing concerts, playing Latin Jazz. What happened was that the last two CDs, which were recorded for RMM, the label company of Ralph Mercado…and we analyzed that to see if we could get back into our main genre, which was, again, the dance orchestra. Because it’s essentially a dance orchestra. That’s where you have “El Rumbero Del Piano.” After “El Rumbero Del Piano,” which closed the 20th century, then to open up the 21st century Tito Puente and I did “Masterpiece.” But Tito passed away, and we were never able to travel or do concerts, which we naturally had planned. Then I decided to go back… The idea came from a conversation with Conrad Herwig. He was doing some transcription work on Frank Rosolino, the trombonist, who was his idol, and he said that we should do this for Barry Rogers, who was the co-partner with Jose Rodriguez on the trombone. That’s where it started. Then we started to do the work for La Perfecta. We did the first album, LA PERFECTA, II. We were quite fortunate to have the flute player Eddy Zervignon, and we took that conjunto to Europe, and it was well received. Then on the second CD for Concord, RITMO CALIENTE, we brought back some of those compositions as well and recorded them again.

TP: You wrote new music as well. Was it inspired by the same idea, the same notion? Did you use the older compositions as a springboard for the new work as well?

PALMIERI: Well, the old work, as far as the compositions that had been recorded, they knew what we were going to do there. The new work that was created was from a ballad that we had written, then a gigue of Bach that I always had in mind, and I knew we could work it out — by adding the batas, it became quite exciting. That’s how we were able to get some new compositions and mix it with La Perfecta on RITMO CALIENTE.

TP: You just brought up a point that I think is very pertinent for both you and Arturo as bandleaders dealing in this idiom. This is dance-driven music. But there aren’t so many venues, I wouldn’t think, for you to play for dancers any more. I don’t know how many jobs either of you do in a year for dancers, but I wouldn’t think it’s too high a percentage. Can you address the impact of the function, of the situation on the music that you play and the music you conceive?

O’FARRILL: It’s funny, because there aren’t really that many great dance halls left. That’s one of the problems. In the heyday, during the ’50s and the ’60s, there were a lot of dance halls. Also, I think this is true. People don’t know how to dance any more! [LAUGHS] They don’t know how to dance.

PALMIERI: Yeah.

O’FARRILL: They’re not taught to dance. The few dances that I’ve played, I look out on the floor, and there’s no style, no elegance. So I think there’s an absence of really fine dancing, and that has a lot to do with it. It has a lot to do with the fact that there’s also no dance clubs. We played the Copacabana this year with the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, and it was very disappointing, because we didn’t get out as many people as we would have liked, and the dancing was… I mean, it was very lovely, but I think that it’s a lost art. I think we need to have dancing schools, so people can learn how to dance again!

TP: When La Perfecta was formed, I’d imagine most of the songs were written and conceived for dancers — and for the greatest dancers around!

O’FARRILL: You can’t listen to those records without moving.

PALMIERI: Well, it certainly happened that it was the time and it was the location of the Palladium, and there were the greatest dancers. To be able to play the Palladium, you had to have an orchestra that was… It was like a challenge between the dancer and the orchestra, who could outlast who, in a sense. And to be able to get into the Palladium… Then once you got in, then the word of mouth… We were a dance orchestra, and how we presented that with the two trombones and flute was quite interesting and very exciting to dance to.

TP: It’s the same process as the old big bands, the jazz dance bands, who played with chorus line dancers or played at the Savoy or the Apollo. A lot of the music, which is an untold story, was done in response to the dancers. What were the first principles for your compositions? Rhythmic? Harmonic? A combination of both?

PALMIERI: At the time, it was following the Cuban structures that I heard in the different orchestras that were coming out of Cuba in the ’50s and ’60s. It never ceased to amaze me how it would excite me to listen to them. At that time, you could record only within 2 minutes and 45 seconds. How they were able to get you! I dedicated all of my time and my career to listening to the structures that were coming out of there. Once I learned them intuitively, then I learned them scientifically — why they excite. There were reasons. There’s a tension and resistance within the forms, and the rhythm section and how it has its own form so it can reach that climax. That’s what made it interesting for me.

O’FARRILL: That’s an interesting word — “tension.” When I listen to your music, man, to me it’s always eminently listenable and eminently danceable.

TP: And intellectually challenging.

O’FARRILL: Intellectually challenging, and always with a heavy attention to exactly what you’re talking about — the tension. The dancing. The groove. There’s very few people in the world who have ever achieved what Eddie has done, to make music really intelligently and eminently groove. I mean, the groove is the factor, too.

PALMIERI: Thank you.

TP: Do you think that having intensively played timbales in your early teens… You’ve said that you copied all of Tito Puente’s solos.

PALMIERI: Oh, yeah. As a youngster, me and all my friends, we all wanted to be another Tito Puente, and by 13 years old I was playing the timbales with my uncle, who had a typical folkloric orchestra — a conjunto. For two years. Then after that, I gave him back the timbales, or sold it to him, whatever, for the next drummer who was coming in. But that certainly helped me to be able to comprehend what I was listening to later. In 1955, I went with Johnny Segui. In 1956 is when I came into the orchestra with the conjunto of Vicentico Valdes, who was also Cuban. The conjunto that he was presenting was extremely exciting, and the rhythm section was what was happening. So I was able to capture that also. After that, I worked with Tito Rodriguez for a couple of years. By late 1961, then I formed La Perfecta.

TP: So you had a long apprenticeship. Your concepts didn’t just come out of nowhere. You had a lot of time to think about it, and you’ve been playing since you were young.

PALMIERI: Oh yeah. And certainly, the different orchestras that I was able to work with and comprehend…

O’FARRILL: I think it’s very important for all musicians to play some kind of percussion instrument, especially Latin musicians — especially Latin Jazz musicians. You should be able to play timbal, on the conga, or whatever it is. To get that concept, you have to play it. I’m the kind of person who learns by doing. I can’t learn by rote or by hearing it. I have to do. So playing timbales, that has to be a heavy part of your development.

TP: What percussion instruments do you play, Arturo?

O’FARRILL: Conga. That’s it.

TP: And is playing the drums important to your identity as a pianist, to your tonal personality?

O’FARRILL: It’s difficult on my hands. As a pianist, you don’t have to have calluses on the bottom of your fingers.

TP: You’d better pick up some sticks.

O’FARRILL: Well, I wish I had thought of that! [LAUGHTER] No, you want the calluses on the tips of your fingers. But at least for the fingers to have a thorough understanding of the different patterns that come into play in a rhythm section. A lot of people take Latin Jazz and do a generic thing. But to really know what each instrument plays, that’s where you begin to have an understanding. And as a player, you begin to pick up on things. You can land in places rhythmically, because you’re aware of what the timbal is doing or the bongo. It’s very important stuff.

TP: Your approaches to the piano are so different, and yet come from such a similar root. Arturo is a very florid player. You play a lot of notes, there’s a lot of facility and elan…

O’FARRILL: I have to say that’s true. But when I’m playing… We did this record called… It was a Machito tribute, “Live at Hostos.” And one of the highlights of my life was that I sounded like Eddie Palmieri! [LAUGHS] On a Papo Vasquez composition. For a minute there, I had his groove. It felt so good! Florid, whatever. But to have that kind of command of the groove, that to me is very important.

TP: Where I wanted to take this is: Arturo, even though your father is one of the seminal composers and arrangers in the idiom, you yourself came out of a jazz head and then moved back into the structures of diasporic music and Afro-Cuban music.

O’FARRILL: Yes.

TP: And Eddie began as a rumbero type of personality, and then moved to jazz later. You’re quoted as saying that you hated jazz at first.

PALMIERI: Yes, I never comprehended it. Not that I never comprehended it, but I really concentrated on the structures for dancing. That’s where I really stood, as a dance orchestra leader. What was I going to do with an exciting orchestra to make the people dance? But sure enough, then we certainly had to go into the world of jazz harmonics and go into the Latin jazz, as we did on those four CDs.

O’FARRILL: See, I came from a different background. It was probably because I did the typical rebellious son thing. My father was a very great Latin composer-arranger, so I rejected that. You know how kids are. You reject what your father does. So my first influences were Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and that’s all I played. It wasn’t until many years later that I started listening to Latin music and playing it.

TP: What were the challenges you faced in adapting your style to the rhythms and structures of Latin music, coming from the orientation you had. What are the challenges for a jazz-oriented person in adapting themselves to Afro-Cuban music? Conversely, what are the challenges for someone who is immersed in Afro-Cuban structures to adapt themselves to jazz sensibility and expression?

O’FARRILL: It’s very different. There’s a tradition in Latin piano, and you have to respect it. You have to really understand and know the great pianists, to be able to play in that style without losing your identity. First of all, it’s a different technique. Your hands have to move differently. It’s not florid. It’s not Bud Powell. It’s a different concept. And I think that if you play enough right-handed, heavy, florid, 16th note type stuff, you lose that percussive sense. Also, it’s a very Cuban kind of piano style that you have to adopt.

TP: Elaborate on that.

O’FARRILL: Well, Rene Hernandez. Peruchin. That’s the kind of school you’re coming from, with the octaves, thirds… You’re playing stuff that you can’t really do with 16th notes. You have to really play that stuff with a heavy touch. And if you grow up playing Bud Powell, that’s not the school. Bud Powell is the school of 16th notes in the right hand and spare comping in the left hand. So I had to basically retrain myself to really be able to play that. And I had to grow up. I had to get past my teenager crap, and come to love this music. Because it’s who I am.

PALMIERI: And for me, like Arturo said, it was the octave playing, which came from the players… Rene Hernandez was one of the greatest arrangers that we had here, naturally, and his father, Chico. And when we’re playing in the Latin area, the minimal harmonic changes is…we land up, more or less, on tonic and dominant, I-II-V-IV chord changes. When you get into the jazz, that really was a whole other world for me, and I had never experienced that. Because I listened to the jazz artists earlier, but never gave it the time and the effort that I gave the dance orchestras. So then, it was quite difficult for me. And still, to work out that different… How to change the style of fingering also, to play certain things. Because when you’re playing in octaves… And that was a time when there was no mikes, so you had to play really…

TP: You had to play loud.

PALMIERI: That’s really the worst position, because the extensions are locked in. So sure enough, I had to get back to some basic fundamental exercises, thirds and minor thirds and sixes, and double note techniques, so that I could be able to play in a different style. It’s still difficult for me to go from one to the other.

TP: Arturo, is going from one to the other complex for you as well? Because both you record and perform in both areas of the music.

O’FARRILL: Ideally, you want to blur that line. You don’t want to have that big a changeover. What I try to work towards is having the two styles be transparent, so that you can play. As Eddie was talking, I was thinking that there’s a thing in Latin music that we call “timba.” It’s a lot easier to fudge and fake jazz type stuff than it is to fake “timba.” Because when you’re playing in Latin music and you’re not really grooving, people pick up on that — especially dancers! So you can do all this fast stuff, and that’s like nonsense to me. But when you’re playing a really heavy groove, you’re playing “timba,” that’s a lot harder to fake. I don’t think you can make it. I think it really has to come from your soul. So the thing that I work with is to blur the line between Jazz and Latin, and kind of come out of this fast kind of stuff right into “timba,” right into a heavy, groove-oriented, clave-aware style.

TP: Eddie, you’re not just a pianist, but I would think there must be an orchestra in your mind all the time when you’re playing. Is that how it is for you when you’re soloing?

PALMIERI: What happens, again, it’s how I’m able to go and extend, if it’s a variation, within the chordal structures that… They’re not variant. For us to lock up…Arturo said the word “timba.” For me, it’s always, again, holding onto a dominant, and how am I going to be able to extend on that, what was I going to do on that. That’s where it started to extend, harmonically or whatever, I was able to perform in the sense of what I was playing. Whole tones came in, and different kinds of tension chords within the structures that I play. I still keep working on it and keep developing it.

O’FARRILL: Eddie plays with a lot of texture. Eddie plays with what I call sound waves. He plays with the texture of the piano. It is orchestral.

TP: I would imagine that 98% of what you’ve recorded has been your own original music or your own arrangements on music in parallel to what you do. Which is one reason why, when you played on Conrad Herwig’s “The Latin Side Of John Coltrane,” it was very interesting to hear you improvise on “Africa” or “Impressions.”

PALMIERI: [LAUGHS] Right!

TP: So I was wondering if for you playing the piano equals composing? What’s the relation between improvising and composing for you?

PALMIERI: To compose for me is what I’m going to be able to…what theme I’m going to work on, what am I looking for. For me, the majority of the work in Latin was also with the vocalists. So what theme was going to be on it, what’s the story going to be about. And naturally, I was more interested always to write constantly more original music, and keep it that way. That’s why I never ventured into recording with many other artists, except what I recorded on my own. And then, in improvising, it’s based on those structures that I create within that composition, and what I do with that, and how I move it around is quite enjoyable to me! [LAUGHS] I’m very fortunate that it’s been accepted. So between the two of them, it’s a great combination, like the composing and the improvisation.

TP: Were you composing before you left Tito Rodriguez?

PALMIERI: No, I started really when I formed La Perfecta.

TP: How many compositions have you published over forty years?

PALMIERI: I’d say we’re close to maybe 200.

TP: And how much of that is in the book of your band at any given moment?

PALMIERI: Well, there’s different books. I have the enlarged orchestra, you know, with three horns, with five horns, and that’s one book. Then we have the Latin Jazz. Then I have the Perfecta work, which is not in its entirety. But the majority of that work, what I’ve written, is unplayed.

TP: So now you’re revisiting a lot of things, and setting a precedent for going back.

PALMIERI: I’m bringing some of them back.

TP: Arturo, you lead the Chico O’Farrill Big Band, which has access to the entire body of work of your father, who was composing as far back as the early ’40s in Havana. In Ira Gitler’s “Swing To Bop” he said that after he heard “Salt Peanuts” in 1946, he started writing charts for a band he had in a Havana club, and had it for six months. So from 1946, he was aware of modern jazz. And he’d arrange for his band and was also an arranger for hire. So you have a huge repertoire at your disposal. When he formed the big band again in the mid-’90s, how did he choose older repertoire to play? How did he make his choices?

O’FARRILL: He chose pieces that were suggested to him. There’s an old saying that the great composers always have four or five great themes, and they regurgitate them over the years. Chico has rewritten a lot of music. So something from the ’40s might show up in the ’90s as a different piece. It’s smoking. But it has its roots there. I think it’s a process of working out your ideas that you may not have worked out fully in 1948. Certainly, a lot of the stuff that we play now… Some of my favorite Chico O’Farrill is from the ’50s. Some of that stuff is classic.

TP: The things he did for Norman Granz?

O’FARRILL: “Almendra,” “The Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite.” What always strikes me about his writing is that it’s very simple. It’s not cluttered. It’s linear. So over the past three records that we did, people suggested to him what stuff might be brought out of the closet, and then he would rework it.

TP: Your father did a lot of writing for hire and for studio bands, which is different from Eddie’s experience. You were always in the Ellington position of having to sustain a performing orchestra and create music for it, and to play for dancers. Arturo, from your perspective as a bandleader and someone who analyzes music, can you talk about the dynamics of Chico O’Farrill’s music vis-a-vis Eddie Palmieri’s. Very different perspectives on similar roots.

O’FARRILL: Right off the bat, you have to remember that Eddie is a monster pianist, too. My father didn’t play anything.

TP: He was a trumpet player.

O’FARRILL: Believe me, as soon as he figured out that he had to practice all the time, he gave it up. A lot of the music that Eddie writes is for Eddie, and specifically for the unbelievable performance that he gives. Chico’s music doesn’t do that, because he didn’t create it for himself to perform. Also, he made the decision early on in his life; he was 21 or 22 when he said, “I can’t play music; I just want to write!” For him, it was an easier way to be a musician. It was an easier way for him to work out his musical battles.

TP: Arturo, you’re obviously influenced in many ways by the example your father set for you, from your teenage rebellion against Latin music to your embrace of it. I’m sure Eddie was influenced by your uncles who played, but I’m sure the deepest influence for you would have been your older brother Charlie, because you had to follow in his footsteps in bands!

PALMIERI: Right, Charlie. And he was the one that would recommend me to the different orchestras. My brother was nine years older. We had no other brother, no other sister. It was just Charlie and I. So he was certainly my great inspiration as far as his form of attack on the piano. He really went at it! That certainly came into me. I could never really thank him enough for showing me that road. My brother was quite an exceptional player. He knew Arturo’s father, Chico O’Farrell, more than I. I believe I met your dad when he was already elderly; I didn’t know him before. But Charlie had. So that was an tremendous asset to me in my playing.

TP: Arturo, within the last year, you’ve taken on the position as Director of the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra at Lincoln Center, which is an institutional position, and one that involves a lot of responsibility, because you have to accumulate a lot of repertoire that’s representative of this tradition. How does Eddie’s music, which is so personal… I mean, it’s hard to think of anybody else playing Eddie’s music, because your sound and your vibration is so fundamental to it. Is there anything you can say about that?

O’FARRILL: There’s a whole controversy about repertory orchestras. People always ask me why they exist, and it’s a very good question. Because the people who created this music left an indelible stamp on it. I just believe that musicians are organic. They bring to the music a whole nother vibe. There’s never going to be an Eddie Palmieri. This is the cat! But to have Eddie’s music continue, whether Eddie’s playing or just sitting in the audience, is very important. Machito is gone, Mario Bauza is gone; does that mean their music shouldn’t be performed? Hell, no.

TP: Which of Eddie’s compositions would be your choices?

O’FARRILL: It’s a daunting task. And I’ve got to talk to Eddie, because we’ve got to get some of your music in the book! Eddie played on the Benefit Gala at Lincoln Center.

PALMIERI: Yes, I remember. We had the two orchestras, I think.

O’FARRILL: The two orchestras side-by-side. How do you choose? That’s like asking me…it’s like the kid in the candy shop. There’s just an amazing amount of music that I would play as a regular part of the canon. Now, it’s a funny thing, because it’s a very important position…but it’s not. What it is, is just bringing this music forward, bringing it out. That’s more important than the position or the institution. And Eddie has been all over the world, playing this music in Finland or in Japan or in Des Moines. That’s what it’s about.

PALMIERI: One of the greatest dancers we’ve seen, we saw in Pori.

O’FARRILL: We played in Pori. They LOVE his music in Finland.

PALMIERI: And I certainly congratulate Arturo on his position with Lincoln Center…

O’FARRILL: I just want to say one more thing, because it’s important. Again, Jazz at Lincoln Center is a huge institution, and it’s important to me personally that Latin music be taken seriously, that it be given the weight that it merits, that it be accorded the position it deserves. That’s all I’m trying to do.

TP: One thing about leading a band for forty years is that people come through it and go on to make original contributions of their own. So in the early ’70s, you have Los Diabilitos, the Gonzalez brothers and Nicky Marrero and people like this, who all went on and added to the vocabulary, Conrad Herwig and Brian Lynch, Richie Flores and Giovanni Hidalgo. I’m wondering if you can discuss how the vocabulary of Afro-Cuban music has evolved during your career.

PALMIERI: For me, it’s on the rhythm section side. But certainly the music that harmonically has been composed going into the Latin Jazz world has extended. I find it very interesting what’s happening… Again, what we do with it. How we’re going to present it, where we’re going to present, and how important it is to be presented properly. It’s a constant challenge.

TP: How has musicianship changed over the years?

PALMIERI: They certainly have extended in their preparation, compared to the younger players when… When I started, for example, the elders were very well prepared. And what I find now, coming out of Puerto Rico, for example, are incredible trumpet players and saxophone players. Percussion has reached an incredibly high degree. I have to say that. Before we would have just a conga player and the bongo who were there to accompany. But now we have incredible soloists. You talk about a Giovanni Hidalgo or a Richie Flores, who each came through my orchestra. I call it my Hispanic Jazz Messengers, with all the different artists who came through my different orchestras.

TP: Arturo, one of the defining events in jazz over the last 15 years has been the influx of musicians from all over the world who are familiar with jazz and bring their own culture to the music. How do you see this movement affecting the vocabulary of jazz as a whole? It seems there used to be more separation between jazz and Latin music. Now things seem to be converging more. Does that sound right to you?

O’FARRILL: I think so. I think you have to be very well equipped to compete in the traditional Latin Jazz world now. You really do have a wide variety of styles. You’re talking about Danilo Perez and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and then there’s people also like Papo Vazquez, and Bomba and Plena. That’s why the world of Latin Jazz is no longer, and actually hasn’t been for many years, just Afro-Cuban. That’s very important to me, because Cuba was very central to the formation of these styles, but now the thing has really gotten quite large. I mean, you’ve got Chano Dominguez in Spain, and you’ve got… So the world is really opening up for Latin Jazz. And it’s still Latin. It still comes from our corner of the world. But it’s very much more open, very flexible.

The thing I’m proud of is that our musicians tend to really love jazz. I mean, the ones that come out of our tradition are really very well trained in jazz. I haven’t quite found that parity in jazz musicians. Jazz musicians aren’t as well trained in Latin music. They don’t really research it as much as Latin musicians tend to learn about jazz. I think it’s a very exciting time for Latin music and jazz to interact.

TP: It just seems to me that things that used to be considered (and I’ll use the word in quotes) “exotic” in jazz 15 years ago — maybe Dizzy Gillespie was applying them — are now part of the mainstream. Every musician is supposed to know it, basically — at least in New York.

O’FARRILL: Well, it’s funny, because I run into… Twenty years ago, ten years ago even, drummers…you’d talk about cascara, and they’d look at you like you’re from Mars. Now every drummer coming out of every conservatory that has a conservatory is learning about cascara and about clave and all these things that were considered exotic 10-15 years ago.

TP: Eddie, how do you observe this with the musicians who come into your bands? You do have steady personnel. How do you see the musicianship?

PALMIERI: It’s tremendously rounded now. As Arturo says, we have players coming from all over, and making it quite… For example, from the Afro-Cuban it went to Afro-Caribbean, with the Puerto Rican (?) in the ’60s. Now it’s Afro-World. And now it’s all over. The talent just keeps pouring in. On my end, I’ve been carrying lately a band of certain personnel. So it’s not as varied as it was before. I used to have different musicians coming in and out of the different orchestras. But now I’m hanging on to certain personnel. We have Brian Lynch, who comes in and out and performs with us. But I see it as quite exciting, very educational with the intermixture that’s happening now. They’re all different players, and they’re interested in the Latin music, and where we’re going to be able to present it and where we’re going to be able to take it.

TP: In bringing a new piece of music to the band, how do you go about it? Do you sit down with the drummers and go over their specific parts with them, and ditto with the brass, or is it something they’re expected to know and it evolves over time?

PALMIERI: Well, with my rhythm section, when we’re doing a recording, they know what they have to do as far as the structure of what we’re playing, and the horn players have their music, and then we gel it together whenever we’re able to have a rehearsal for recordings. I don’t have that many rehearsals constantly. But when I have new material that’s going to be recorded, certainly I need it. The problem I’ve had, in a sense, is that in the last certain amount of years I’ve had different types of recordings, and that certainly has hampered the situation of the personnel.

TP: Well, these days it seems like you’re accessing your whole corpus of work. You can go to La Perfecta, you can go to the more open ended things of the ’70s, and the vocabulary you built up in the band with Brian and Donald and Conrad. All those things are there for you, and now you’re consolidating all of them in some sense.

PALMIERI: Right. But lately, in the last few years it’s been just the typical La Perfecta orchestra. When we have certain engagements, the Latin Jazz, we bring out certain other compositions.

TP: Arturo, you’ve been in the enviable position of having the same big band for many years with very constant personnel. Talk about how playing every week builds the growth and identity and sound of a band.

O’FARRILL: There’s no substitute for having a regular gig. Also, I’m very blessed in that the musicians I have are bona fide Latin players. They understand how to phrase. It’s very subtle, it’s very different. You can’t walk in off the street and be a straight-ahead jazz player and play this music. You have to be aware of clave, you have to phrase, you have to be aware… Victor Paz once said to me, “You do not wear a tuxedo to the beach.”

PALMIERI: That was his form of identification.

O’FARRILL: That’s a very Victor Paz thing. But what he meant was that you get players who understand Latin music and you put them together, and it’s an invaluable thing. I am very lucky, very blessed. I have wonderful musicians who have been doing this for a long time.

TP: Have either of you been able to do any amount of playing in Africa at all? Eddie, have you brought your band to any of the African nations?

PALMIERI: No. I haven’t been to Africa. As far as I’ve gotten, we went to Algiers. Another problem is that to get into an African country, you need shots, and I always wanted to stay away from the shots — at that time.

O’FARRILL: We went to South Africa. I’ve been there several times. The last time we went… They have a Northsea Jazz Festival in Capetown…

TP: My God, that’s the real extension of imperialism.

O’FARRILL: You better believe it! Talk about colonial imperialism! I was amazed. I was there with Papo Vazquez, and they loved it.

TP: Eddie, was listening to African music ever part of your early experience, or was it all Cuban?

PALMIERI: It was Cuban. But I knew that the fundamental, naturally, was African. But it was the music that was coming out of Cuba. That’s where I really centered my education on.

TP: How would you describe the difference between the Afro-Cuban approach to these rhythms and the African approach to these rhythms?

PALMIERI: I think it’s the evolution and crystallization of these rhythmical patterns. They were certainly coming from Africa, but when the “mulattoes,” so to speak, were born in Cuba, it became a mixture of Spaniard and the African, along with the native who was there, and that combination… They took it into another direction, in my opinion, and it was really more eventually from their religious “abacua,” that was strictly African (naturally) and their religious belief to the dance orchestras that then started to come out from Ignacio Pinero earlier, and his Sexteto Habenero from the ’20s and the ’30s, then they started to use those patterns for people to dance. That’s where I come in.

TP: So it’s a stylization of the folkloric, or as you once put it, of the primitive.

PALMIERI: Exactly.

TP: Arturo, how influenced was your father by the African aspect of Cuban life? Was he very involved in the rumbas and the folkloric rhythms, or less so?

O’FARRILL: He grew up in a pretty rural part of Cuba. Undoubtedly, he heard a lot of ritualistic music. I think it influenced him greatly. That kind of music gets in your blood. It kind of becomes a part of you. I remember the first time I heard Los Munequitos. Man, I started bawling! I was weeping, man. Because I’d never heard that profound a sentiment, and a sentiment expressed in rhythm, as when I heard those guys. That’s such a central feature of “Latin Jazz” — and I use that word in quotations. It has to be folkloric. It has to have its roots, and it has to respect its African roots. It has to respect it in terms of its instrumentation and in terms of its textures. You can’t just slap a conga on something and call it Latin Jazz. Whether or not my father transcribed the crostic rhythms of the Gon people… He did not do that!

TP: But he got Machito’s players, who could put their own stamp on anything he might give them, if he wanted that feeling.

O’FARRILL: I don’t know how much of that stuff is an oral tradition and how much of it is actually transcribable. Anybody can write these rhythms. It takes somebody who really knows that stuff to play it well.

TP: But Eddie, when you were a kid learning Tito Puente’s solos, or hanging out and soaking up Cuban music with Manny Oquendo in the ’50s, was it an oral tradition? Were you writing it down or learning by doing?

PALMIERI: Well, naturally, by listening. That was the main direction. And then, when I went on to play timbales, I listened to the older records. Because the orchestras that were recording here were really happening! Machito, Tito Rodriguez and Tito Puente, who had conjuntos at that time. Conjunto meant without the saxophone. So certainly, by listening to them, that was my guide. Then eventually, I started to do the same when I got hip to the Cuban recordings. The main time was when I was with the orchestra of Vicentico Valdes.

TP: Is it different for you playing for dancers vis-a-vis a seated audience? As a kid, from the age of 13 or 14, you were playing for people who were dancing.

PALMIERI: Well, it’s certainly a great feeling when you’re performing and you see some great dancers. That’s something that gives you balance. It’s absolutely wonderful. But again, as the genre changed and the art of dancing is lost now, and mostly what we do when we’re presenting the orchestra is have concerts. On the concerts, certainly everyone is thinking about how do you excite them, get them moving in their chairs and making them feel… When you’re playing one of the jazz rooms, it’s another kind of feeling. But again, it’s a musical and rhythmic challenge.

O’FARRILL: You can’t be a musician in New York without playing dances, salsa gigs and whatever. I’ve been playing for dancers since I was a kid. To me, there’s something slightly artificial about playing for a seated audience!

TP: And you play for them a lot.

O’FARRILL: Oh, I do all the time. When you’re playing this kind of music, invariably, somebody will get up and shake a little bit, and I think that’s what you want. Cabaret laws notwithstanding, I encourage people to get up and dance whenever they feel like it. You can’t do that at Alice Tully Hall sometimes. But that’s the real deal. That’s what this music is about, and getting people moving is central.

TP: But the pool of musicians now comes primarily from conservators. They’re very technical. A lot of jazz we hear now has very complex rhythms, but it’s also a very technical thing. So it’s an interesting challenge, I’d think, to keep that feeling in the music given the climate of the times.

O’FARRILL: Yes. There’s the old saying, “You can be very well trained or you can be very well trained.” A lot of musicians are coming out of conservatories who can play, but that’s a small part of what music is. My father always said, “Okay, so you can play an instrument. So what?” That’s a small part of it.

TP: Eddie, are you still doing a lot of composing?

PALMIERI: I haven’t been writing since the last CD. I stopped since “Ritmo Caliente.” But there are a few things now that are starting to work up, and I’m seeing what I can do now to prepare for another CD when the opportunity comes with Concord again.

TP: Has your process in writing been a project-oriented thing, or is it something that’s just part of your everyday life?

PALMIERI: Well, sometimes I’ve had a project presented to me. I did the Ballet Hispanico work, and that music was never recorded. I have it at home. But usually, it’s when I get inspired by some theme that I want to present or make a statement on, and once I get that, then I start working from the bass line up, and start layering, putting the structures on to write the arrangement.
TP: Do you make use of the new technology?

PALMIERI: No. I haven’t been able to comprehend that. I leave it alone!

O’FARRILL: I can’t make heads or tails. I’ve had Finale for many years. I still prefer pen and pencil and paper. I can’t cope with it at all.

TP: And how much composing and arranging do you do?

O’FARRILL: I do quite a bit. And still, I can’t use sequencers or samplers or notation software.

TP: Is it project-oriented for you?

O’FARRILL: It’s always project-oriented. For me, deadlines are crucial. I have to have something presented, where I have to come up with a project or a writing assignment, because left up to my own devices I’ll just procrastinate forever. So it always has to do with a project or a deadline that is looming. My father was very much the same way. Now, Chico had the unusual ability to churn out an arrangement in an hour-and-a-half, three hours — he would do it in pen!

PALMIERI: Amazing.

O’FARRILL: He would do it transcribed. The instruments would be in their proper… So he was kind of a freak that way. It’s very different for me. But he also had to have a deadline, and he had to have a specific goal and a real articulated project for him to be able to do that.

TP: For many years, you’d go to hear an Eddie Palmieri performance, and he’d be playing a keyboard.

PALMIERI: The reason is that when I play you can’t amplify the acoustic… The feedback is on it. For me, it’s the feel of the instrument. That’s why the keyboard was put on top. I’ll play solo piano first, and then come in with the keyboard. I get complications with it, too, because of the volume and complaints, but it’s the only way I feel I can cut through. It’s very seldom you can find a great engineer… We just did the Monterrey Jazz Festival, and they had two Marcus Berrys, I think, so I got the microphones they had, and the acoustic was quite wonderfully amplified.

O’FARRILL: That’s rare.

PALMIERI: But still, when I play with the orchestra, if I can’t be stimulated, then I have a problem to stimulate the band, in my opinion.

TP: So it’s to hear yourself. To hear yourself think.

O’FARRILL: The clarity.

PALMIERI: Yes, and to hear myself play, so I can cut through with the band. The rhythm section is quite heavy also. And we use three horns or five horns. So I use the keyboard on top.

TP: Arturo, you’re basically leading two bands. There’s the Chico O’Farrill Orchestra. Is the repertoire expanding for it?

O’FARRILL: The repertoire is expanding.

TP: And where are you getting repertoire?

O’FARRILL: Original music from the members and from myself, and we’re digging out stuff from Chico’s archive.

TP: With Lincoln Center, I guess you’re cherrypicking from everywhere.

O’FARRILL: Absolutely.

TP: How are you conceiving that? Where are you getting material from? How big is the book now?

O’FARRILL: Some of the stuff we’ve had to transcribe, because it’s impossible to get the actual scores from the sources. For example, the Machito stuff I can’t find. It’s irreplaceable. The scores are gone. So we pay a transcriber to do that stuff. And there’s a lot of material that exists.

TP: How has leading these bands influenced your own personal growth as a musician? It’s a huge responsibility, and there’s so much more involved than just playing.

O’FARRILL: It’s funny. I’m not a happy bandleader, because I find it very difficult to deal with all the issues. There’s the issue of playing and there’s the issue of creating music, and then there’s the difficulty of dealing with people’s schedules and people’s idiosyncracies. I don’t have patience for that, to be honest with you. But I care about the music. I have to do it. I CARE about this music. So I’ve been put in this position. I’m very happy to do it. It’s because this music is vital. It’s very important. But bandleading is difficult at times. It’s a very strange position. People don’t understand. You’re dealing with Lincoln Center, and they start a Latin Jazz Orchestra. That’s a huge deal. The name of Lincoln Center opens doors all over the world. When Wynton approached me to do this… It was born out of an idea that I had. Ten years ago I said to Wynton, “Man, we’ve got to have an orchestra that plays the canon,” and I guess it just sat in his brain for a while, but he came up to me a couple of years ago and said, “Let’s do it.” But it’s still a huge responsibility. Culturally, if this thing doesn’t take off in a major way, it’s going to be a huge faux pas for Lincoln Center. I feel like this music has to be performed.

TP: How big is the book for that orchestra?

O’FARRILL: It’s running 30-40 pieces.

TP: Done much touring with the band?

O’FARRILL: We’re going to do a tour in March. We just got signed to a new agency, and we’re going to be touring in March.

TP: But to return to the question, in what ways has being a bandleader influenced your musicianship and your vision of music and sense of possibility?

O’FARRILL: Certainly it’s expanded me as a musician. Being responsible for an evening’s performance and a set group of people has heightened my musicianship, my sense of… When you’re rehearsing a band, you want to make sure the trumpets blend, and you want to make sure the dynamics are honored and the people aren’t stepping on one another. That’s pure musicianship. That takes a lot of skill. So all that has honed my musical skills. It’s also created a larger sense of my understanding of this music, which is invaluable. I’ve had to listen to a lot of music.

TP: So it’s made your musicianship richer and imparted more depth.

O’FARRILL: Yes. And not as a pianist. As a musical concept. As a mind. As a pianist, I’ve tried to stay out of the way.

TP: Eddie, forty years ago, playing gigs at the Palladium, with that whole cast of characters who populated it, would you have envisioned an institution like Lincoln Center establishing an Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra? What does it mean to you?

PALMIERI: I think it’s absolutely wonderful that we have the orchestra to represent this music at an institution like Lincoln Center with the blessing of a Wynton Marsalis. It presents a challenge for all the musicians in this orchestra, in writing for it, and to their preparation, their musicianship. So I think it’s absolutely wonderful. I never thought something like that would happen, and I’m elated that we have it.

[PAUSE]

TP: Brian Lynch is here, and I’m sure he has a few comments or questions for Eddie.

BRIAN: How has jazz been something… What has the weave been between… You may not describe yourself as a jazz musician per se, but I think jazz has always been a counterpoint. I always feel one of the unique things about you is the way you’ve epitomized jazz, even though a lot of times you do music that may not be termed as much. But you seem to exemplify the jazz attitude in a lot of ways that I see it. The spirit of improvisation, the spirit of doing things differently each time instead of staying in the same place, the rawness of a lot of your music. I think you’ve attracted a lot of unique personalities. The one who comes to mind, of course, is Barry Rogers, who came from being a jazz musician, but I think you and him had the same way of thinking — you came from different sides of the street, so to speak, and you met in the middle. Has jazz always been something that’s been on your mind, no matter what you’ve been playing?

PALMIERI: Well, jazz phrasings for sure, in the work we did with Barry. Then that led to… Well, definitely, when I met you, we went into the Latin Jazz, starting the work of “Palmas.” Once that came in, that was my inroad to the work I did.

BRIAN: You’ve spoken of listening to some of the jazz greats in the early years, both in person and through the medium of records, and I remember you saying that you had to make a conscious decision about which way you wanted to go, whether to follow jazz or to follow however you want to term the music you’re playing.

PALMIERI: Right. What I followed was definitely the dance orchestra. That’s where my heart was. But certainly, I developed an orientation from my early listening to records by Art Tatum, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. We heard the Count Basie band… Remember, the original Birdland was right next door to the Palladium, so the exchange was quite exceptional. But it’s certainly helped me in terms of how I structure, how I think of the phrasing and the harmonic changes I want to use — it comes from the jazz idiom.

BRIAN: Arturo, maybe I can ask you something. I feel that so much of the Cuban music I hear you could call jazz. If you apply the same criteria that you’d call Count Basie or Benny Goodman or that style of jazz: This music is played for the dancers, it’s got improvised solos, it’s got swing — all these qualities. Do you feel sometimes people kind of miss the point?

O’FARRILL: I’ve always maintained that the music that came up in Cuba in the ’20s and ’30s paralleled the music that was taking place in the States in New Orleans and Kansas City. It’s another branch of the roots. Just like you have your Kansas City school and St. Louis school and Detroit school, you have a Havana school growing at the same time. I think where people goof is that they don’t accord it the same kind of stature. You’re right. The roots of improvisation are there for both musics. There’s a similar instrumentation style and orchestration style.

BRIAN: I think it has to do with the appropriation of a certain word, and the appropriation is the word “American.” That America means just the residents of the United States of America.

O’FARRILL: That’s very narrow-minded.

BRIAN: Well, if you talk about jazz being a music of the Americas, instead of American music… I think a lot of things get left out. The genesis of jazz, in a lot of senses, is pan-Caribbean.

O’FARRILL: I’m sure if you visited Congo Square in New Orleans at the turn of the century, you’d hear a lot of clave-inspired music. Guess what? New Orleans is the Caribbean!

BRIAN: I was looking through a book of photos by James Van Der Zee and found a picture of Sexteto Habenero in Harlem in the late ’20s. It looked for all the world like a picture of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five. All these things are very much together. So there’s a case for saying that this is all jazz.

TP: One thing I could bring in is that musically, the styles may be different branches of the same tree, but I think the scene, in certain ways, was more stratified when Eddie was coming up. A lot of jazz players played in Latin bands, but I think the musics were seen more as very separate. With the notable exception, of course, of Dizzy Gillespie, who was fifty years ahead of his time.

BRIAN: I think in 1945 or 1950, the typical jazz musician knew much more about playing Latin rhythms than he did in 1970 or 1980.

O’FARRILL: Yes, there was a moment there when it fell out of favor.

BRIAN: Maybe we’re just about back now to a certain… It’s still the same thing. Back to what you were saying, “jazz musicians” don’t do their homework as much about Latin music as the other way around. A lot of times they’re missing something in their comprehension of what the requirements for jazz is. And this maybe gets back to what we were talking about before, about having an incomplete analysis of what jazz is and what it means.

O’FARRILL: Well, that’s the $64,000 question. What is jazz?

BRIAN: What is jazz. Or what is swing? I know in my own experience, playing Latin music helped my straight-ahead swing immeasurably.

O’FARRILL: Oh yeah. I have to agree with you there. Your whole rhythmic concept is broadened in Latin music. Your ability to hear eighth notes and sixteenth note sequences in a flow.

BRIAN: And also the idea of consensus and playing a groove together. I came to town in the early ’80s, and sometimes it seemed that swinging was kind of a lost art back then.

O’FARRILL: Yeah. It might be a lost art today! I would add to what Brian was saying. I think that to look at jazz as separate from Latin is a real fallacy. Human beings love to categorize things. They put things in boxes and make understandable that which is not. The idea that Latin Jazz is so popular is both a blessing and a curse these days, because it further delineates the differences that people have in their mind about the two.

TP: What did your father think about it?

O’FARRILL: I don’t think he gave it much thought. I think he looked at life as a musical challenge. The only thing that bothered him was that Latin musicians tend to get paid less, and the music is less well received and not accorded the same respect. It’s basically an economic issue. To this day, I think, Latin Jazz tends to pay less, just in terms of economics. I think my father didn’t care. He was just a consummate musician. He just wanted to write music. He didn’t care if it was Count Basie or Machito. He just loved what he did. I don’t think he saw one or the other.

BRIAN: Jazz is an attitude and a procedure to what you’re doing. It’s about improvisation. It’s always about wanting to extend something. I think a proper relationship with your material is, as Eddie was talking about, extending folkloric materials of one sort or another.

TP: We were talking about how sophisticated everything has gotten today, and yet the folkloric element is still so fundamental.

BRIAN: Well, you’re seeing a lot of this trickle back into straight-ahead jazz. A lot of the polymetric kind of wizardry that’s going on and a lot of the sophisticated bands is kind of coming in through the back door through Caribbean and Afro-Cuban music. The fact that drummers have a much more pronounced emphasis on the 12/8 in their beat I think has to do with some of that, too.

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A July 2015 Jazziz Feature on Drummer-Composer Antonio Sanchez

In the weeks to come, I’m going to try to upload more posts that document pieces I’ve written with “younger” musicians — well, no longer that young. Here’s a July 2015 Jazziz feature on in upcoming weeks. Here’s a feature on the great drummer — and strong composer — Antonio Sanchez.

 

Jazziz Feature, Antonio Sanchez, July 2015 – “Beyond Birdman”

By Ted Panken

In the program notes for his new release, The Meridian Suite, Antonio Sanchez draws an explicit analogy between the raw materials of his long-form, 55-minute work and the invisible pathways along which energy flows through the human body, even the lines that criss-cross the globe and the celestial spheres. These days, Sanchez’s Q score is as high as any living drummer after 15 years of constant touring with Pat Metheny and the release last year of the widely admired solo-drum soundtrack that he created for the award-winning feature film Birdman, yet he was thinking of matters more prosaic than chakras and qi when he titled the ambitious five-part “Meridian Suite.”

Specifically, the work gestated in a hotel room in Meridian, Mississippi, after an October 2012 concert by Metheny’s Unity Band. Sanchez saved a 5/4 motif that he had conceived, then named the file for the location. In 2014, at the beginning of a 10-month tour with Unity Band, Sanchez was pondering the next step that his quartet, Migration, might take after the previous year’s release of its eight-tune album New Life. “I remembered this cool intro that I thought was OK,” he recalls. “I listened and liked it again. That’s a good sign.” Working in short spurts while on the road, he added more sections, realized it would be a suite, and began to trace the metaphysical connections.

I spoke to Sanchez, 43, on a balmy May afternoon at the airy one-bedroom Jackson Heights co-op that he shares with his fiancé, singer Thana Alexa. He had recently returned from a 17-concert, seven-clinic sojourn to Canada, Mexico, Japan, Germany, Finland, Italy and England with the personnel from Meridian Suite(tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake, pianist John Escreet and bassist Matt Brewer), with whom he’ll tour extensively to support the CD during the remainder of this year. He and Alexa had spent the previous week house-hunting in neighboring Brooklyn, motivated more by practical imperatives than dissatisfaction with their current premises. “This place is super-quiet and beautiful, but I can’t practice, because it disturbs the neighbors,” Sanchez says.

The strength of Sanchez’s playing on Meridian Suite and the simultaneously released Three Times Three — both on the CamJazz imprint — demonstrates that attenuated practice time has been anything but an impediment. On the former date, he creates sections tailored to the tonal personalities of his bandmates, including Alexa’s powerful contralto. She sometimes doubles with Blake’s bass clarinet-sounding EWI (Electric Wind Interface) passages, which are reminiscent of vintage Mini Moog. Escreet contributes skronky Fender Rhodes; Adam Rogers interpolates high-octane guitar. Sanchez propels the flow with complex rhythmic figures drawn from rock, fusion, swing, electronica, Afro-Caribbean and free-bop. He executes them with an extravagantly detailed attention to texture, as on “Channels of Energy,” the third section, for which he compressed the drum sound in post-production, put a pillow inside his 20-inch bass drum to make it sound like a rock kit, and used piccolo and soprano snare drums.

“I’m tuning everything a little lower than I used to,” Sanchez says. “I like getting more meat from the drums. On a regular jazz record, you keep the sound consistent and don’t change the tuning for just one piece, but here it felt right.”
Sanchez says that his “first albums were mostly about improvisation, with everyone soloing over the form.” He mentions his 2007 debut, Migration, on which Metheny and Chick Corea (with whom he toured and recorded that year) blew a tune apiece with tenorists David Sánchez and Chris Potter and bassist Scott Colley, and its 2008 successor, Live in New York at Jazz Standard, on which alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón replaced Potter. “The approach was, ‘Let’s get in the studio and record some tunes.’ But Meridian Suite is the most structured thing I’ve done. We did it to a click, which I completely mapped out on the computer. I learned that from Pat, as well as compositional things and production elements.”

In the notes, Sanchez compares Meridian Suite to “a musical novel instead of a group of short stories,” in which the composition develops analogously to “the way a novelist develops a story and its characters.” He acknowledges as an antecedent Metheny’s 2005 long-form epic The Way Up, on which he played. He adds that he shares with Metheny an aesthetic of contextualizing complex musical ideas within an epic narrative frame. “Music without storytelling doesn’t hold my attention,” Sanchez says. “My tunes can be over 10 minutes, because I love to tell that story as fully as I can. That’s why Meridian Suite was such a cool vehicle to tell a story over a longer period of time. Most of the stuff I’ve been influenced by my whole life seemed to come out.”

He continues: “I love the show aspect of things. I don’t like being in bands where you play the first tune, then discuss what you’re going to play next on stage while people are waiting. So, as a bandleader, I really like to plan. I grew up listening to rock and fusion, which is very arranged, and my attitude descends from that — but Pat’s methodology rubbed off on me.”

Metheny discovered Sanchez in Turin in 2000, when, while dining backstage after a performance, he heard the Danilo Pérez Trio playing onstage. He remarked, “The drummer and percussionist are playing really well together.” The promoter responded, “No, it’s just one guy.” Metheny decided to verify, and watched Sanchez operate. In London soon thereafter, Metheny attended the trio’s second set at Pizza Express, and asked Sanchez for his email address.

“Pat sent a long note that described in detail everything he liked about what he heard, and then posed some questions, like a job application,” Sanchez recalls. “He asked if I considered myself someone who could play any style or just did jazz. Did I consider myself someone who is stable? Did I like going on the road or not? Then he asked: ‘What are you doing next Thursday? Do you want to play?’

“His vision is very specific, and learning the parameters — which are very clear — was the hardest part. The first time we played, we did ‘Turnaround’ and then ‘All the Things You Are.’ Then Pat asked, ‘What would you play behind this?’ I started playing a rhythm I knew from the Pat Metheny Group that I thought would fit. Pat said, ‘Try 30 percent less with your left hand and 10 percent more with your hi-hat, and maybe 50 percent more, or 52 percent (he was seriously like that), with your right hand on the cymbal.’ He was half-joking, but completely serious. It was his way of telling me, ‘I need you to have that much command of your instrument.’ That was mind-boggling. Luckily, I was at a point where I could do it.”

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Less scripted than Meridian Suite, but as cohesive, are the performances on Three Times Three, released in Europe in 2014. Three separate trios for which the only possible description is “all star” — pianist Brad Mehldau and Brewer, guitarist John Scofield and bassist Christian McBride, and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and bassist John Patitucci — play two Sanchez originals and a rearranged standard apiece. Himself a classical-piano student before migrating from Mexico City to Boston’s Berklee School of Music in 1993, Sanchez devoted particular attention to writing pieces that Mehldau “could sink his teeth into.” These include a reharmonization of “Nardis” and a 14-minute original called “Constellations” that occupied 15 pages of sheet music. “I got carried away,” Sanchez says. “I’d told Brad it would be an easy blowing session, so he was a little ticked off. But he had it down in no time.”

For Lovano and Patitucci, Sanchez offered the aria-like “Firenze” on which Lovano milks the melody like an operatic tenor. There’s an outer-partials, tempo-shifting treatment of Thelonious Monk’s “I Mean You” that Sanchez compares to “a race car that you can steer in any direction.” Scofield and McBride plumb the harmonic riches of Wayne Shorter’s “Fall,” and hit a deep, funky pocket on “Nooks and Crannies,” of which Sanchez says, “I can’t imagine another guitarist playing it.”

“Antonio writes for the occasion,” says vibraphonist Gary Burton, whose third album with Sanchez is 2013’s Guided Tour, which begins with the drummer’s “Caminos” and ends with his “Monk Fish.” “His pieces are tailored very much to my strengths and what interests me as a player. When you explain and demonstrate a new song, he picks it up immediately, and you hardly have to think about it.”

McBride, who toured and recorded with Sanchez on various Metheny projects from 2003 to 2008, elaborates further on his qualities. “He’s one of my few friends I can make inappropriate jokes with,” the bassist says. “When Antonio told me he was doing his first CD, I said, ‘Oh, that means you’re going to get everybody else to do the writing for you, right?’ But when I heard it, I was shocked. I said, ‘When did you write that? We were together almost a year; I never saw you at the piano.’ I have to point to his work ethic. You’d be hard-pressed to find a drummer who practices as hard as he does, just on technique and learning forms and how to play inside and outside those forms.”

Sanchez has put in his time, and then some, since his teens in Mexico City, when he spent mornings at the Escuela Superior de Musica, afternoons in regular high school and evenings training in gymnastics (he was a member of Mexico’s Junior National Team). From age 13, he found time to play occasional rock gigs on drums. Fearing burnout, he dropped out of high school with his mother’s blessing, and “immersed myself way deeper into music and gymnastics at that level.”

He modeled his discipline and professionalism from examples in his immediate family. His grandfather, the esteemed actor Ignacio Lopez Tarso, is still active at 90. “He’d have to be about to die to miss a performance,” Sanchez says. His mother, Susana, still in her teens when she had him, “was single and working from the beginning. She studied literature and philosophy, and was a film critic for years. She took me to rock shows and the symphony, and to the theater to see my grandfather. When I was super-heavy into rock drumming, she tried to play me an Art Blakey record, but I had no interest.”

A family friend gave Sanchez drum lessons at 6, teaching “basic technique and how to play along with the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.” Later, Sanchez took three lessons with Tino Contreras, “the Buddy Rich of Mexico.” Otherwise, he learned by doing, playing along with progressive rock and fusion records, and emulating the examples of Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta and Dennis Chambers on hard-to-come-by videotapes. “I’d devour them for days on end, very methodically,” he recalls. “I’d put a mirror before my drum set and check that my hand position was exactly like theirs. I learned a lot that way. Most people I was playing with in rock bands weren’t as serious as me, and I thought if I got better I’d be able to play with different people. That led me to Latin jazz and fusion, and I got more technique and general knowledge.”

At Berklee, Sanchez, who had elected to study piano because “I thought I knew everything there was to know about the drums,” discovered that his self-regard was illusory. “I had chops, and a lot of drumming friends told me I could play, but I didn’t know left from right,” he says. During first semester, an instructor spotted him with his stick-bag and suggested he attend a bebop ensemble. “I brought my humongous kit, with a 22-inch bass drum, 7 cymbals and double-bass pedal.” The group began playing Sonny Rollins’ hard-bop classic “Pent-Up House.” After adjusting to the time feel, Sanchez “started blowing as many chops as I could — and I had some fancy ones. I thought I was impressing the hell out of everyone.” The instructor approached, “and started taking my drum set apart as I was playing. He left me with a hi-hat, bass drum, snare drum and ride cymbal, and told me, ‘Now solo in the form and trade choruses.’ I built myself up from there.”

While matriculated, Sanchez studied and jammed every day for hours. “I would volunteer for anything,” he says. “I was afraid of tendinitis because I was playing way too much.” Already playing frequently with Zenón, a fellow student, Sanchez developed a relationship with Pérez, six years his senior, then on faculty at New England Conservatory. “Danilo took me under his wing,” Sanchez says. “We’d have lunch and listen to music, and he started to come to a lot of my gigs. Then an opportunity arose to study with him at NEC. The lessons were mostly about rhythm. But my plan was, ‘Danilo, I love that tune of yours; how does it go?’ I’d pretend I didn’t know it well, although I did. He basically started training me for the job without even knowing it.”

Pérez was in the vanguard of a cohort of generational contemporaries from the nations shaped by the collision of the Iberian and African diasporas who focused not only on playing jazz with idiomatic fluency, but also on exploring their own cultural heritage. “I met a lot of students from Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela and Puerto Rico who all seemed to be so connected with their music,” Sanchez remembers. “I was almost envious. Mexican music was always in my life, but it didn’t draw me to want to write something Mexican-sounding or grab a Mexican rhythm and incorporate it. I wanted to play jazz, not be pigeonholed into Latin music, even though I loved it and it came easily to me. It has too many rules. Clave is so embedded in the culture that people have fist fights, and I wasn’t interested in being part of that, especially since I didn’t grow up playing it. We’re close to the U.S. and the Caribbean. We have a lot of influence from everywhere.”

After joining Pérez’s trio in 1998, following a consequential stint —on Pérez’s recommendation — with Paquito D’Rivera’s United Nations Orchestra, Sanchez developed his mature style. “Danilo made me jump from student to a high level in a relatively short amount of time because we played so much and so intensely,” he says. “You can’t slouch for one second in a piano trio, and his physical and psychological approach exhausted me at first. We would play the Afro-Cuban and Panamanian rhythms and bend the rules, as we did later in Miguel’s and David Sánchez’s bands with Puerto Rican rhythms. It was a new way to combine Latin music with jazz and make it open. I started experimenting with different sounds on the kit, exploiting the size of the drums, the rims, cross-stick combinations. When I started transitioning to other kinds of music, that stayed in my playing. It’s become my own sound, in a way.

“My own band really should have no rules. The name Migration has a lot to do with my story — leaving Mexico, leaving my family and coming here — but everyone in the band is from somewhere else. I’ve played with immigrants my whole life. If what we play comes from Latin influence, great. If it comes from rock or jazz, great. But I don’t want to pigeonhole in any way, shape or form.”

SIDEBAR

Title: Movie Music

Sanchez’ storytelling mojo may have reached an apogee in the solo-drum soundtrack that he created for Birdman, available on Milan Records, which aurally depicts the lead character’s descent into madness. Perhaps it’s because his connection to director Alejandro Iñárritu, who is eight years Sanchez’s senior, has deep roots.

“I started checking out Pat after hearing the Pat Metheny Group on Iñárritu’s radio show, when he was a deejay in Mexico City,” Sanchez says. “Then he came to hear us in 2005, when we were touring The Way Up, and we met. Nice guy, super-unassuming. We hit it off. We kept in touch. When he’d come to New York for, say, a screening of his movies, he’d call me. When I was in L.A., I’d call him, and he’d come to my gigs if he was around. He’s a hoot. I’ve never met anyone more Mexican than he is. The connection was easy.

“When he called me for the project, he put me on the spot. ‘Do you want to do it or not? Are you into it?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘I’ll send you the script.’ I thought it could either be amazing or a train wreck. He said it was a dark comedy, but I didn’t laugh once the whole time I read the script. It would be the equivalent of me sending him the charts to my music, and ‘This is the idea for my new record,’ and expecting him to decipher what it’s going to be in the end.”

Thinking Iñárritu wanted something scripted and specific, Sanchez wrote separate rhythmic themes for the different characters. Iñárritu praised the results, but told him he wanted the opposite — “something jazzy, improvised, very organic.” Toward that end, Iñárritu talked to Sanchez about each scene, then sat facing him as he improvised so that they could imagine it together, raising his hand whenever he wanted to denote a shift to the next phase of the scene.

“As a jazz musician you react to your surroundings — to your band, or somebody else’s music, or to what I just played, if I’m playing by myself,” Sanchez says. “So reacting to the storyline or to an image, once we had an image to react to, wasn’t that different. It wasn’t conscious; you see something, your brain goes there, and you play something. You don’t have time to think about it. But most of the time, if you’ve done it enough, that part of your brain makes the right decision. I was just reacting to what was going on.” —TP

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For Nasheet Waits’ 50th birthday, a Jazziz Profile from 2017 and Nasheet’s Max Roach homage for www.jazz.com in 2009

To mark the milestone fiftieth birthday of the great drummer Nasheet Waits, here are a couple of pieces — at the top is a feature piece I had an opportunity to write about him for Jazziz at the end of 2017; below it is an article that I commissioned Nasheet to do for the great, late-lamented http://www.jazz.com ‘zine back 2009, where Nasheet selected and discussed a dozen of his favorite tracks by Max Roach, who a key mentor and influence in his life.

 

Nasheet Waits Jazziz Article (#1):

It was midweek in early February, the eve of a snowstorm, and Nasheet Waits, internationally known as the drummer with Jason Moran’s Bandwagon for the last 17 years and counting, was playing before a sparse audience at Manhattan’s Jazz Gallery with a quartet led by 19-year-old alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, comprising 20-year-old bassist Daryl Johns and 21-year-old pianist Jeremy Corren. It could have been the most innocuous of gigs. But Waits, who is 45, devoted full attention to interacting with partners young enough to be his children. Sight-reading the rubato, ametric passages and shifting time signatures in Wilkins’ charts, he interpreted the melodies on the fly, unleashing a stream of undulating beat permutations while eliciting precisely calibrated textures from each component of the drumkit within the flow.

“They were incredible,” Waits said the morning after. “What comes out of their instruments is very mature.” He became sold on Wilkins and Johns after hearing them play standards in trio with twentyish drummer Jeremy Dutton two weeks earlier at Smalls, down the block from the Village Vanguard, where Waits had just finished his evening’s duties with Christian McBride’s open-ended New Jawn Quartet.

“They were expanding them to the edge of what you could still identify as the tune,” said Waits, who had shared Iridium’s bandstand with Johns on a Macy Gray gig in January. “It reminded me of the Bandwagon’s approach to stretching and bending and refracting the foundation. I thought, ‘Oh, these young brothers have the same kind of spirit; it will be nice.’ You have to start accepting who you are age-wise.”

The encounter underlined Waits’ status as a first-call among his generation for multiple bandleaders, famous or obscure, who want a drummer to render a 360-degree range of styles with authoritative execution, high musicality, imaginative intention and inflamed-soul spirit. During the ’90s, Antonio Hart, Stanley Cowell and Hamiet Bluiett were the most prominent leaders who recognized Waits’ potential; in the first half of the aughts, in addition to Bandwagon commitments, Waits frequently played with the Andrew Hill Sextet and Big Band and the Fred Hersch Trio. But during the past decade, he’s become a ubiquitous presence on projects led by upper echelon shape-shifters and speculative improvisors. Since 2011, Waits has toured and recorded with David Murray’s Infinity Quartet, most recently documented on Blues For Memo (Doublemoon). Into the Silence (ECM) is his fourth CD with trumpeter Avishai Cohen; Quiver (ECM) is his third with trumpeter Ralph Alessi; Incantations (Clean Feed) is his fifth with tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby. Then, too, during the last 15 months, Waits’ special sauce infuses pianist Ethan Iverson’s old-school piano trio recital, The Purity of the Turf (Criss Cross), with Ron Carter on bass; alto saxophonist’s Logan Richardson fusion-esque Shift (Blue Note); alto saxophonist Michael Attias’ outer-partials opus Nerve Dance (Clean Feed); and pianist Sophia Domanech’s programmatic Alice’s Evidence (Marge).

Recently, Waits contributed his interpretative mojo to Abu Sadiya (Accords Croisses), on which he, French-Tunisian woodwindist Yacine Boularès and cellist Vincent Segal mold the Malian-descended Stambeli music of Tunisia into original works. A collaboration of longer standing is Tarbaby, an experimentally oriented trio with pianist Orrin Evans and bassist Eric Revis whose four recordings since 2009 include discursive encounters with Nicholas Payton, Ambrose Akinmusire and Oliver Lake. New Jawn Quartet’s prospective spring recording for Mack Avenue will reflect the freewheeling interactivity that McBride and Waits achieved throughout their week at the Vanguard.

“I love Nasheet’s intensity, that he’s a conversational drummer without being obtrusive, which is a fine line to walk,” McBride said. “Playing with him is an exciting feeling, like running down a street when a dog is chasing you.”

Moran deployed a different metaphor to express a similar observation. “The way Nasheet’s sensibility moves on the kit is unsettling,” he said. “He can make the ground that might be lush soil turn into ice very fast. You think you have your footing, then all of a sudden it becomes very slippery, and that next step you take, all of a sudden you’re sliding. That can be infuriating to a soloist. I heard that the first time we played together, and it’s intrigued me ever since.

“Any bandleader who calls Nasheet is not looking for anything light. They want to feel the fire underneath them. They want to feel the rhythm really moving. Also, most importantly, when you write music and hand it to a drummer, you are looking for them to fill in every gap you left in the score, to make all the decisions that you aren’t able to make as a non-drummer. He’s figured out the tools to utilize to make people’s average shit sound awesome. That’s what great drummers do.”

“Sometimes you play things that aren’t necessarily what the person wanted, but it’s what the music needed,” Waits said. “I have more resources now than I used to. I always had a creative connection to the music, but I wasn’t always capable of folding that creativity into every situation because I didn’t have the capability. I’ve become more versed in the music’s continuum, and it’s strengthened my foundation. I’ve put a lot more tools in my shed.”

[BREAK]

Shortly before New Jawn Quartet entered the Vanguard, Waits had played several dates in Europe with his group, Equality, with alto saxophonist Darius Jones, pianist Aruán Ortiz, and bassist Mark Helias, who perform on his 2016 leader album, Between Nothingness and Infinity (Laborie Jazz). He recorded it eight years after his leader debut, Equality (Fresh Sound), with Richardson, Moran and Bandwagon bassist Tarus Mateen. Both recitals reflect, as Helias puts it, “an unspoken imperative that we’re going to stretch out and take chances. Nasheet is most interested in where a piece is going, how we can expand it from the inside out to make something happen musically.”

One of Waits’ four originals on the new release is “Hesitation.” “It refers to my hesitancy to even ‘lead’ a band,” he says. “The way our industry works, you’re viewed differently as a leader than as a sideman. It took a while for me to become comfortable with feeling I was ready, although Andrew Hill had encouraged me to start my own thing.”

He seized the moment in 2007, while touring with Eddie Gomez for an Italian promoter who suggested Waits organize a band to play some dates. “I knew the promoter’s roster, and I thought a certain aspect of music was under-represented,” he says. “Everything I was seeing was very technical—well-executed, but missing a certain rawness and spontaneity. I felt Jason did that, Tarbaby did it, and that this could be my opportunity to do it.”

After the 2008 recording, Waits did sporadic hits with Equality, some with Moran, Mateen and Richardson. Helias entered the mix, and Cowell, Craig Taborn, David Virelles and then Ortiz played piano at different times. As Waits participated more and more in Murray’s projects, Valerie Malot, Murray’s wife, who runs the 3D Family production company, offered to help him find outlets for his sonic vision.

“I was reticent,” Waits says. “I felt sated in terms of my creativity. But I heard Darius, and enjoyed the emotive quality of his sound, so I decided, ‘Yeah, let’s work on some stuff.’ One thing led to another, and once we got this contract we started doing things overseas. This band definitely has a collective spirit. We’ve had quite a few special moments. I want to be part of creating as many situations like that as possible for the rest of my life.”

Waits traces the consistent imperative to exist as a creative being—to take risks, to make mistakes and play out of them—to “the people who mentored and taught me, my father first and foremost.” He’s referring to Frederick Waits, who worked with blues and rhythm-and-blues groups as a youngster in Jim Crow era Mississippi, before moving to Detroit, where he became a Motown house drummer. He moved to New York in the late 1960s, and ascended the ladder, accumulating a c.v. that boasted work with Ella Fitzgerald, Lee Morgan, Richard Davis, McCoy Tyner, Hill, Cowell, Donald Byrd, Bill Dixon, Cecil Taylor and Max Roach’s M’Boom.

Waits lives with his wife and four-year-old son in the apartment he grew up in at Westbeth, the venerable artists’ complex on the western edge of Greenwich Village where his parents were original tenants, sharing the space with luminaries like Gil Evans and Merce Cunningham, along with numerous painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers and actors. During childhood and adolescence, his main passions were baseball (he played shortstop) and the drums, on which he practiced assiduously to high-octane jazz recordings like Lee Morgan’s “The Beehive,” from Live at the Lighthouse, fueled by Mickey Roker. He played timbales and drum solos in an excellent middle school band that included best friends Eric McPherson and Abraham Burton, now esteemed jazz pros; Rashied Ali’s son, Idris, who played trumpet; and Sam Rivers’ granddaughters Aisha and Tamara, who played clarinet. At 11, Waits recalls, he accompanied his father to a gig in Connecticut with Jackie McLean, and was allowed to sit in for a tune. For his 16th birthday, he asked his father take him to Sweet Basil, a few blocks away from Westbeth, to hear Cedar Walton, Ron Carter and Billy Higgins.

“I was there at the inception of hip-hop, but it was filtered through Gil Evans and all this other stuff my father was involved in,” Waits says. “It wasn’t that it was jazz; I was attracted to the way it made me feel. It was never presented to me that I had to approach jazz in a certain way, but a cultural importance was placed upon it—if you were going to participate you had to have a respect and reverence for the music.

“Greenwich Village was wild, a lot more diverse—culturally, economically, racially—than it is now. I could say that it translated to being attracted to a certain raw quality in what I do, but also in seeing validity in a lot of different styles of music. It’s more about the culture to me, and the culture can be expressed in a lot of different ways.”

[BREAK]

Waits’ mother, Hakima, died when he was 13. He enrolled at a boarding school in Pennsylvania, from which he matriculated to Atlanta’s Morehouse College, where he studied history and psychology, while tabling his involvement with the drums. But when his father died in November, 1989, Nasheet returned to New York so that his 9-year-old brother would not have to be uprooted. For the next decade, they lived together at Westbeth, given unconditional support by family and friends like Max Roach, Roach’s M’Boom colleague Dr. Fred King (Waits’ godfather), and Carvin, who opened their homes and hearts. So did McPherson and Burton, who invited Waits to McPherson’s weekly gig at Augie’s, an uptown bar where other stars-in-the-making like McBride, Brad Mehldau, Jesse Davis and Peter Bernstein came to play. In this environment, Waits rekindled his passion for music-making.

“I didn’t read, and I hadn’t practiced rudiments, like doing a paradiddle or a double-stroke roll,” Waits says. “On my first gig at Augie’s, they called the blues and I didn’t know what they were talking about; they called Rhythm changes and I was like, ‘What does that mean?’” He set about systematically transforming raw talent into knowledge, abetting the process through formal lessons with Carvin; classes at Long Island University’s strong jazz program; and ample face time with Roach, who responded to Waits’ questions with cryptic, koan-like answers. Gradually, Waits assimilated dicta that his father had impressed upon him, particularly the notion that “the sound you pull out of the drums is the first impression you make to people who are listening.”

“My father never forced any of his opinions upon me, but let me discover these things for myself,” Waits says. “He, my father and Michael would always tell me to start my own thing. ‘Ok, this is the way they did it; now how are you going to do it, what are you going to incorporate?’ The breadth of their work was wide, and their hearts were open. They were practicing on the bandstand every time they hit. They had no limitations, and that became part of my lexicon.”

Roach’s insistence on “always sounding like he’s on the edge,” on “never playing it safe,” will remain core to the default basis of operations that animates Waits, his partners in the Bandwagon, and the other company he keeps. “Part of what’s helped us stay together so long is that I try to keep finding other frameworks for us,” Moran says. “It could be conceptual frameworks, where we work on how slow can we play, how long can a space be between one note and the next. I could ask Nasheet to do a press roll for 15 minutes on a piece, and then not have him do it during the performance. It’s to have us think about these processes and how we work together. These things give us new edges to jump off of.”

Waits concurs wholeheartedly. “If you’re always accessing something that you know, you’re limiting what you can learn and the music that can be created,” he says. “Sometimes it can be a disaster, but out of those disasters is a lot of beauty. The way Bandwagon evolved is optimal. It reflects being inside the music and trying to release yourself within that, becoming the music, as opposed to trying to control it or make it do something. To play a tune that sounds good the same way all the time is definitely not the goal. We’re always looking for the sweet spot, but to find that sweet spot you might have to tread through deep and murky waters where you don’t achieve it. The search is lauded as much as the accomplishment. Look at and approach the music like it’s putty in your hands. Make it elastic. Put it in a ball, throw it up against the wall, take it off, see what’s imprinted on it. That can be done in infinite ways, so there’s never an answer. That spirit lends itself to being fresh all the time. Immanuel and his guys were approaching it that way. Most of the musicians I’ve surrounded myself with have that same spirit.”

 

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Nasheet Waits (Max Roach Dozens for http://www.jazz.com):

In an era when drummers consider it a default performance practice to navigate a global template of rhythmic expression, it is important to remember that Max Roach (1924-2007), whose eighty-sixth birthday anniversary came along last week, is the single most important figure in this development.

Just ask the drummers who knew him, as I did a few years back when Downbeat gave me the honor of writing a lengthy obituary. “Before Max, all the drummers, even the great ones like Baby Dodds or Gene Krupa or Chick Webb, approached soloing on the drumset from more of a rudimental and snare drum concept,” said Billy Hart. “Max was the first one to take the rudiments and spread them melodically around the whole drumset—bass drum, tom-tom, snare drum, cymbal.”

“Max was adamant that it was just as important for him to know the form and melody as everybody else,” Kenny Washington added. “He took independence between two hands and two feet to the next level.”

Roach was never content to recreate the past, which he associated with segregation times, and he spent the second half of his career in perpetual forward motion, determinedly bridging stylistic categories. “Max may have used 30 signature things, but he used them in so many different ways,” Jeff “Tain” Watts remarked. “One piece of vocabulary could function as a solo idea, a melody for a solo drum piece. He’d take the same fragment of melodic material and take it out of time, use it like splashing colors on a canvas or whatever, or use it in an avant-garde context, like his duets with Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton. That cued me not to be so compartmentalized with certain stuff for soloing and other stuff for something else, but just to use vocabulary—your own vocabulary—to serve many functions.”

Born on Jan. 10, 1924, in Newland, N.C., and raised in Brooklyn, Roach was the first jazz musician to treat the drum set both functionally and as an autonomous instrument of limitless artistic possibility. As a teenager, Roach paid close attention to “drummers who could solo”—Jo Jones, Sid Catlett, Chick Webb, Cozy Cole. Toward the end of his studies at Boys High School, he began riding the subway from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Harlem for late-night sessions at Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s uptown House, where the likes of Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and Dizzy Gillespie, all Roach’s elders by several years, explored alternative approaches to the status quo.

By 1942, they had reharmonized blues forms and Tin Pan Alley tunes, changing keys, elasticizing the beat and setting hellfire tempos that discouraged weaker players from taking the bandstand when serious work was taking place. Before World War II ended, the new sound was sufficiently established to have a name—bebop.

Thoroughly conversant in how to push a big band—he hit the road with Benny Carter in 1944 and 1945, and filled in for Sonny Greer with Duke Ellington in early 1942—with four-to-the-floor on the bass drum and tricks with the sticks, Roach made his first record in 1943 with Coleman Hawkins, and played on Hawkins’ ur-bebop 1944 session with Gillespie on which “Woody ’N’ You” debuted. But as Charlie Parker’s primary drummer in 1944 and 1945 and from 1947–49, Roach developed a technique that allowed him to keep pace with and enhance Parker’s ferocious velocities and ingenious rhythmic displacements. His famous polyrhythmic solo on Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco” in 1951 foreshadowed things to come in the next decade.

During the early 1950s, Roach studied composition at Manhattan School of Music and co-founded, with Charles Mingus, Debut Records—one of the first musician-run record companies. In 1954, he formed the Max Roach–Clifford Brown Quintet, in which he elaborated his concept of transforming the drum set into what he liked to call the multiple percussion set, treating each component as a unique instrument, while weaving his patterns into an elaborate, kinetic design. After the death of Brown and pianist Richie Powell in 1956, he battled depression and anger, but continued to lead a succession of bands with saxophonists Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, George Coleman, Stanley Turrentine, Eric Dolphy, Clifford Jordan, and Gary Bartz, trumpeters Kenny Dorham, Booker Little, Richard Williams, Freddie Hubbard, and Charles Tolliver, tubist Ray Draper, and pianists Mal Waldron and Stanley Cowell.

Roach also performed as a sideman on such essential ’50s recordings as Thelonious Monk’s Brilliant Corners and Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus and The Freedom Suite, as well as important dates by Herbie Nichols, J.J. Johnson and Little. He interpolated African and Afro-Caribbean strategies into his flow, incorporated orchestral percussion into his drum set and worked compositionally with odd meters, polyrhythm and drum tonality. He gave equal weight to both a song’s melodic contour and its beat. “Conversations,” from 1953, was his first recorded drum solo; by the end of the decade, he had developed a body of singular compositions for solo performance built on elemental but difficult-to-execute rudiments upon which he improvised with endless permutations.

He continued to expand his scope through the ’60s. A long-standing member of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Concord Baptist Church, he incorporated the voice—both the singular instrument of his then-wife, Abbey Lincoln, and also choirs—into his presentation. It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and he used his music as a vehicle for struggle, expressing views on the zeitgeist in both the titles of his albums and compositions—“We Insist: The Freedom Now Suite” (commissioned by the NAACP for the approaching centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation), “Garvey’s Ghost,” “It’s Time”—and his approach to performing them.

Roach joined the University of Massachusetts, Amherst faculty in the early ’70s, and seemed to use the post as a platform from which to broaden his expression. In 1971, he joined forces with a cohort of New York-based percussionists to form M’Boom, a cooperative nine-man ensemble that addressed a global array of skin-on-skin and mallet instruments; and in the early ’80s he formed the Max Roach Double Quartet, blending his group, the Max Roach Quartet with the Uptown String Quartet, with his daughter, Maxine Roach. He recorded with a large choir and with a symphony orchestra. A 1974 duet recording with Abdullah Ibrahim launched a series of extraordinary musical conversations with speculative improvisers Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp; these sparked subsequent encounters with pianists Connie Crothers and Mal Waldron, and a 1989 meeting with his early mentor Gillespie.

He also reached out to artists representing other musical styles and artistic genres—playing drums for break dancers and turntablists in 1983; collaborating with Amiri Baraka on a musical about Harlem numbers king Bumpy Johnson, and with Sonia Sanchez on drum-freestyle improv; improvising to video images from Kit Fitzgerald, to moves from dancer Bill T. Jones, and to freestyle verse from his nephew, Fred “Fab Five Freddie” Braithwaite, who conjured the epigram, “The man with the fresh approach, Max Roach.” He scored plays by Shakespeare and Sam Shepard, composed for choreographer Alvin Ailey, and set up transcultural hybrids with a Japanese kodo ensemble, gitano flamenco singers, and an ad hoc gathering of Jewish and Arab percussionists in Israel.

No drummer born after the Baby Boom knew Roach more intimately than Nasheet Waits, whose father, the excellent drummer Frederick Douglas “Freddie” Waits (1940-1989), was an original member of M’Boom. Nasheet attended high school with Roach’s twin daughters, Ayo and Dara, and after Freddie Waits passed away, Roach took Nasheet under his wing, eventually hiring him to play with M’Boom.

”Max always used to say that the drums were treated like the nigger in the band—disrespected in terms of your knowledge of music, your ability to be ‘a real musician.’” Waits says. “Nowadays drummers like Tyshawn Sorey and Marcus Gilmore write as well as anybody else. You have to be to be aware of what’s happening on a lot of levels to be able to play the music. Max may have been the first of his kind like that. He was known as a reader. That’s why he got called to play with Duke Ellington when Sonny Greer was ailing. But then, he said, when he got up to play the chart, there was no chart! So it became instinctual. That’s something that he always stressed to me, personally.

”I had the good fortune of being in his presence quite a bit, on a one-on-one basis, setting up drums and just being around the house. I was starting to get back into playing, and I’d be asking him questions, but his answers were always in a parable, always presented as esoteric knowledge, like trying to get information from a griot and receiving it as a riddle. He always emphasized that the key was to find your own voice, your own path. Everything I’ve heard he plays on always sounds like he’s on the edge, always taking chances, taking it to another level, not satisfied playing the role that drummers traditionally play—and still play.”

[BREAK]

1. TRACK: “For Big Sid.”

ARTIST: Max Roach

CD: Drums Unlimited [Atlantic SD1467 / Collectables CD-6256]

Recorded: New York, April 25, 1966

Musicians: Max Roach, drums.

RATING: 100/100

“For Big Sid” is one of three drum solos that Max recorded on Drums Unlimited, along with “The Drum Also Waltzes” and the title track. He had referenced that composition quite a bit, but to my knowledge, this was the first time it was released. Just the fact that he had those drum solos on the album, and the way he presented them, was pretty revolutionary. To me, it’s one of the great albums in the history of jazz music, not only for interspersing the solos between the other songs, but also the quality of those tunes, like “Nommo.” It’s what he played, how he played it. In this music, you always find connections and threads to the history, and even though Max was always forward-thinking, he also referenced the past. This is a perfect example of that.“For Big Sid” references the tune “Mop, Mop,” which Kenny Clarke developed, and is also a direct reference to Sid Catlett who recorded that tune with Art Tatum in 1943. It’s like he’s killing two birds with one stone.

Call-and-response is always present in Max’s approach to soloing as well as comping. Here it’s like he’s playing a melody and comping for himself—all of it happens at the same time. It’s a supreme example of theme-and-variation, where he initiates a theme, and answers himself. He continues that pattern all throughout the piece. He takes a motif, flips it around, inverts it, elongates it. Same initial phrase, but it gets longer—different dynamics and so on. Max always said that he didn’t really play melody, that he played form and structure and shape. He meant that within the course of the framework of the song, the harmony and so forth, he was creating those shapes and following the form. But he always did it so cogently, with great clarity. This is a perfect example of that quality.

What he played was individual to who he was, and how he synthesized all of his experiences. He preached that mantra, but he also followed it. He referenced all types of sources—from the Caribbean and Africa, from the church, from Western Classical, rudimental solos, and Wilcoxsen. All of that is expressed when he played, and it’s certainly evident here. You see his technical virtuosity, but you also see how he uses space. It’s almost like the stuff that he isn’t playing is just as important as the stuff that he does play. Regardless of what he played, he always used that call-and-response, but there’s so much call-and-response from phrase to phrase within the context of this solo in the way he builds it and creates the architecture, and the tones he uses to express it. DIGGIT-UH-DUH-UNH, DIGGIT-UH-DUH-UNH, DIGGIT-UH-DUH-UNH-UHN, DAHT-DAHT.] Sometimes Max goes from left to right, right to left, and then he comes out this way. It’s almost looking in a kaleidoscope. You see the shape, then you twist it, which changes that shape. It’s coming from the last one, but it’s still related to what came before it. All his stuff is related to what comes before, and then he recapitulates to the
beginning.

2. TRACK: “Dinka Street”

ARTIST: Max Roach

ALBUM: The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hassan [Atlantic, Collectables CD-6256

MUSICIANS: Max Roach, drums; Hassan Ibn Ali, piano, composer; Art Davis, bass

RECORDED: New York, December 4, 1964

RATING: 100/100

Jason Moran brought The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hassan to my attention, and it really speaks to me. It’s one of my favorite records, period. The whole record is a departure from traditional piano trio playing I’ve heard up to that point, which is late 1964. It wasn’t like the piano player soloing, and then the drummer and bass player are in support mode, like the Oscar Peterson Trio, or any other trio. It’s like everybody is almost soloing at the same time, or collectively, in the sense of New Orleans collective improvisation. That’s the historical reference I draw from it. It’s never that Max is just playing even the swing pattern and comping for Hassan while he takes a solo. They’re always back and forth, a true conversation. Everybody has individual responsibility as to what’s going on.

The tune starts with an arco bass thing at the beginning, he plays the melody, then a solo section. There’s no real TING, TING-TA-DING, TING-TA-DING swing going on through it. It’s referenced, it’s intimated, but it’s not really that. And Max isn’t really playing the hi-hat on 2 and 4 either. There’s no regimented feel throughout the course of the piece. Then the rhythm that all of them are using is pretty advanced. Hassan is playing phrases in 5 and in 7, and they’re all playing over the bar, even when on the trading. All of it is right on the edge. All of them are virtuosos, but they’re taking it to the apex in terms of creativity within the framework of a trio. Even Elvin Jones, as influential as he was in terms of phrasing and so on, generally rooted everything with a 2-and-4 thing on the hi-hat. Max abandoned that in certain situations, and this, as you can clearly hear, was one of them. He told me there were certain techniques you could use to play that way and still maintain the groove—the groove isn’t abandoned, but he’s still not playing 2 and 4 on the hi-hat. It’s more of a dancing kind of feel. I’ve heard older musicians say that to drummers and to bass players, like, “Yeah, ok, we’re walking, but I want you to dance.” So there’s more freedom involved in how everybody is approaching the rhythm within this group.

There’s also some ride cymbal distinctions on this tune which also, for me, references back to Kenny Clarke. In terms of the music’s evolution, I always think of Papa Jo Jones establishing that ride cymbal pattern, and then Kenny Clarke embellishing on that with techniques like “dropping bombs,” syncopating more between the bass drum and the snare drum, and also varying the ride cymbal pattern, using the ride cymbal more in terms of accents—so not playing four-on-the-floor all the time. On this particular cut, as on the whole recording, Max takes these ideas to another level in the phrases he’s playing in conjunction with what Hassan and Dr. Davis are playing, terms of the pattern of the ride cymbal associated with the omission of the 2-and-4 on the hi-hat. Everybody is listening hard, too, responding and reacting to each other. It’s not like anybody is just doing their own thing. There’s a true synergy. No automatic pilot.

Max changes the texture when the bass solo occurs by switching to the brushes. So takes the flow from a more interactive quality to just straight quarter notes, and changes the dynamic of the piece—more like a movement in a symphony. They’re constructing the music in a way that goes out of the framework of the regular song. From the bass solo in the introduction, to the piano rubato, to the tune, then back to the bass solo—the tune’s structure, the form of the song is pointing forward, elongating. It’s different than the regular 32-bar or 12-bar blues that some people associate with “jazz music.”

3. TRACK: “Tropical Forest”

ARTIST: Max Roach

CD: Birth and Rebirth (Black Saint (It)BSR0024)

Musicians: Max Roach, drums, percussion; Anthony Braxton, clarinet

Recorded: Milan, September 1978

RATING: 100/100

My younger brother is like a renaissance man; he does all kinds of things. A few years ago, some of his friends would come around to our studio and hang out, playing chess, and they’d put on this record. These people were in their early twenties, they weren’t musicians, but they really got into the music. I found that very interesting. This date is a set of extemporaneous compositions. They’re just hitting. But man, these people played this thing over and over again. Some of them were dancers. It spoke to them in a very powerful way. So I guess music can transcend boundaries of the acceptable or the unacceptable, or what people call “avant-garde” or “free.” This is a jewel right here!

It’s all beautiful to me, but on this particular cut what strikes me is that Braxton is playing clarinet, and Max is only playing the hi-hat and also a pitch-bending floor-tom, almost reminiscent of the tympany. Max wasn’t afraid to take chances. I don’t know anybody else who had that on their set—the pitch-bending floor tom with the tympany-like pedal. This piece sounds like, I would think, cut-and-splice—they went in and hit for however long a period of time, and took what they liked. “Ok, this is kind of a song form; let’s deal with this one right here.” This one starts out like that. Max initiates a basic phrase on the hi-hat, Braxton comes in and starts responding to that, they’re still having a conversation, and then Max opens up a little bit to the cymbals, and then he goes to the floor tom and alternates between the floor tom and the hi-hat. That’s it. He doesn’t touch any other part of the set for a little over five minutes. But he creates such a wonderful setting.

I wondered why they called this “Tropical Forest.” But then I realized that Braxton sounds almost reminiscent of those crying birds, like a toucan. I started receiving that kind of imagery from the sound he and Max got. In a lot of Max’s tunes, the title creates a certain image. I started seeing a rainforest setting—tropical colors, yellows and oranges.

This made about as powerful an impression on me as when I heard Roy Haynes play “Subterfuge” on Andrew Hill’s Black Fire. Roy just plays hi-hat the whole track, but still projects the force and drive as if he was playing the ride cymbal. Just that same phrase. I got the same feeling when I heard this track. Sonically, it’s almost a three-part structure, but they transmitted the feeling so effectively. That’s one I’m going to have to go back and revisit a lot. You stumble up on stuff, and then you go, “Wow!” You wind up playing it over and over again. That’s definitely one of those.

4. TRACK: Onomatopoeia

Artist: Max Roach

CD: M’Boom (Columbia JC36247, CK57886

Musicians: Roy Brooks, Joe Chambers, Omar Clay (composer), Freddy King, Freddie Waits, Warren Smith, Max Roach (drums, percussion, vibraphone, marima, xylophone, tympany), Ray Mantilla (conga, bongo, timbales, Latin percussion); Kenyatte Abdur-Rahman (percussion)

Recorded: July 25, 1979

RATING: 100/100

M’Boom is an all-percussion ensemble, a special group formed in 1970; this recording is from 1979, so it had been a while in the making. The initial members were Omar Clay, Warren Smith, Joe Chambers, Roy Brooks, Max, Freddy King, and Freddie Waits, who was my father. Ray Mantilla came in later.

“Onomatopoeia” is a word that describes a sound. M’Boom is an onomatopoeic expression. I’ve always thought of it as bass drum to the bass drum and cymbal — MMMM-BUM. Tympany. This piece is a perfect example of seamless transition. A lot of themes and phrases overlap and others emerge. or phrases or whatever. It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of stuff where it stops and starts—one thing happens, an undercurrent of something under it comes to the forefront, this recedes, something else comes in. Polyphony all the time, shifting dynamics, the different instruments introduced in a staggered way. The piece is in 11, it starts off with the chimes, then the vibes and marimba enter, then after that’s established, the tympany and drumset come in, and they’re kind of soloing over that hemiola that’s repeating in 11—that’s Omar and Joe on drums, I believe, and Warren on tympany. That’s the first portion of the song. Then they make a transition. They stay in 11, but instead of playing [CLAPS 11 QUARTER NOTES], they start playing [CLAPS FOUR HALF-NOTES AND THREE EIGHTH-NOTES] and they go from the marimba and vibes to membrane. I remember playing this song, and they would always be like, ‘Membrane! Membrane!”—meaning going to the skins. If you’re playing a timbale, play the center of the timbale; if you’re playing congas, the center of the conga. No rims. That creates an interesting counter to the xylophone, which is in a different type of register. Max takes the xylophone solo.

Max always used to tell me, “Get to your shit quick” when you’re soloing. He’d go, “Yeah, you’re making some nice statements, but get to your shit quick.” In live performances it might have been different, but for this recording everyone gets their ideas out quick. Regardless how wild or expressive they may be, there’s always that very clear message, to me—not only from Max, but everybody. Warren Smith takes a solo on tympany after Max, then they transfer the phrase from the membrance to the rims—in other words, to the metal. Then he takes a solo on the membrane of a tympany. It switches up. That theme also occurs in a lot of Max’s work, whether solo or with bands—a juxtaposition of different feelings or sounds or meters against each other.

All the members of M’Boom were adept at making those types of rhythmic changes and comfortable with that variation, to the point where the transition from one to the other was seamless. The different textures create a different feeling for the listener. In certain instances, it creates a sense of power, and then when they go to the metal, it sounds a little more frenetic, more like an anticipation of the climax, which is coming next.

5. TRACK: Triptych: Prayer / Protest / Peace

Artist: Max Roach

CD: We Insist: Freedom Now Suite [Candid CCD 79002]

Recorded: New York, September 6, 1960

Musicians: Max Roach (drums); Abbey Lincoln (vocals)

RATING: 100/100

First and foremost, this recording was really important because of its social implications. The liner notes begin with an A. Philip Randolph quote”: “a revolution is unfurling—America’s unfinished revolution. Masses of Negroes are marching onto the stage of history and demanding their freedom now.” That’s where I assume Max copped the title, which was very powerful and definitely indicative of what was happening in the country in 1960. The Civil Rights Bill wouldn’t be signed until 1964. There was a long way to go. Black people in America were living under very severe conditions, and Max was addressing that in the music.

It’s a powerful piece. It’s a duo between Abbey and Max, presented in three parts. Max did a lot of duo work during the course of his career, which speaks to his musical sensitivity, because in every situation, even though he plays some similar language, he presents it differently—and it always seems so fresh and creative. The other day [pianist] Connie Crothers told me they had done a recording on which, he told her, he played some things on brushes that he had never played before. So he was always in tune, always searching for something outside his usual language. We all have language that’s usual to us. I use certain words and phrases more often than others. It’s the same with music. Even a genius and virtuoso such as Max Roach always referenced certain phrases—you can hear them on “Triptych.”

“The Freedom Now Suite,” was a collaborative piece by Max and Oscar Brown, Jr., but “Triptych” is just a duo, which it seems like an extemporaneous composition in three parts. The first part is “Prayer,’ which is the cry of an oppressed people. He starts with a simple phrase. That call-and-response, that antiphony, is always present in his playing. He starts, Abbey is singing, like a prayer, and then the protest emerges from that, where she’s screaming and yelling, and Max is rumbling. There is a definite sense of anger, but there’s also, especially in Max’s playing, a sense of organization. Taking it out of the musical realm and applying it to the social: People had been killed and mistreated for hundreds of years, so there was tremendous anger and resentment, but organization was essential to achieve the goal. I received that message especially in this part, because even though Max is playing aggressively and intensely, there logic in his playing, and he conveys there is also a logic to what he is playing. It’s intense, it’s big, but there’s definitely a logic—and he conveys the message. Abbey as well.

The last part is in 5/4. But Max also references that “Drum Also Waltzes” motif in this section of “Triptych.”

So the image that was created with this song was very powerful and pretty clear. “Triptych” is a piece of art that has three panels, usually the middle one being the larger. That definition doesn’t necessarily apply to this piece; the movements all seem almost equal in length. But I got a very clear visual image from it. Not too long after Miles passed, in late ‘91 or early ‘92, Max organized a memorial for Miles at St. John’s The Divine. Judith Jameson was there, Maya Angelou, different people, and there was some dancing going on. I drove up to the church with him, and we were listening to “Bitches Brew” in the car. He went, “oh, man, I can see these evil-assed chicks brewing some shit.” He was hearing the music and he was relating it directly to the title. He said, “I can see them stirring up some brew to fuck up some cat.” He said it sounds like that.

This has the same effect. I got a very clear picture from “Triptych,” referencing clearly what was going on at that time in America. Max had a lot of problems getting work during this period, from making his political statements. He said a lot of times he went somewhere, and they’d say, “I love this music, but can you just not say anything about this?” He’d say, “No, I have to talk about it.” It was taking money out of his pocket—him and Abbey. I know that she suffered quite a bit as a result of them actually taking a stand and being as vocal about it as they were. Financially speaking, their careers took a hit. So Max always put his money where his mouth was. He was really dedicated. Really high integrity. Willing to sacrifice financial security to get across the message.

6. TRACK: “Fleurette Africaine”

ARTIST: Duke Ellington

CD: Money Jungle [Blue Note CDP 7 46398 2]

Recorded: New York, September 17, 1962

Musicians: Duke Ellington (p) Charles Mingus (b) Max Roach (d)

RATING: 100/100

“Fleurette Africaine” is my favorite song off the legendary Money Jungle record with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus. So how can I not include it as one of my favorite cuts that Max was involved in? The great star power of those three individuals together on a record is phenomenal. Actually, to be truthful, I don’t know if Max and Mingus really had that connection in terms of the rhythm section. In fact, Max told me about some things that happened at the session… What happened is probably legendary.

Max was connected to Duke; he’d played with him at 16, his first gig with a signature person, sitting in for Papa Greer [Sonny Greer] for a few nights while Sonny wasn’t feeling well. Here, twenty years later, Max is somewhat of a star himself, and of course, Duke influenced Mingus so much as a composer. To have them all there is special thing. A lot of times, those kind of pulled-together all-star situations don’t work, but this is one of the best dates of that kind.

The Bandwagon recorded “Wig Wise” from this session. I’d never heard it before we recorded, but when I listened, it definitely sounded like they’re at odds, and there’s a lot of aggression coming from Mingus. I dug it, though! It definitely sounds frantic and tense. But this song doesn’t have that quality, which is maybe why it’s my favorite from the album. It’s melancholy, in a way, almost softly sad.

To me, Max provides that calmness. He’s playing mallets, and the feel is subdued throughout. The whole piece sounds like a ballad-fairy-tale song. This is 1962, still the era of the Civil Rights movement, so the fact that they’re referencing something African as beautiful, and equating that with black people, was important. Nowadays it might not necessarily be as important, but then it really was. The “Fleurette Africaine” title references the times—1962 is the year Algeria got its independence from France, and the African nations generally were coming out of the colonial grip. I think the musicians were conscious of that, and were using their music to convey a kinship to those people who were struggling for their independence, because we were doing the same thing over here.

A lot of times it seems that Max is playing the opposite of what Mingus is playing. Mingus goes DING-DING, DING-DING, he’s up in there, and then Max is playing longer. When Mingus is doing the opposite, then Max is rolling. The sound of Max’s playing gives me an image of water in a shallow river bed over small rocks. It sounds like there’s small rocks under what he’s doing. Gentle, sensitive, inobtrusive playing. Very simple melody. Beautiful.

7. TRACK: Donna Lee

ARTIST: Charlie Parker

CD: The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes [Savoy Jazz]

Recorded: New York, May 8, 1947

Musicians: Charlie Parker All Stars: Charlie Parker (alto saxophone, composer); Miles Davis (trumpet); Bud Powell (piano); Tommy Potter (bass); Max Roach (drums)

RATING: 100/100

I could have accessed so many pieces from this era, but I really like “Donna Lee.” It’s a great band, a revolutionary band, with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Max, each a legend in the creation of jazz music. And it’s a great piece of music. It’s an abbreviated song—Charlie Parker takes two choruses, Miles and Bud Powell split one, and then they take it out. I like the fact that everyone was able to say so much within that period of time. But this tune also exemplifies how Max could propel a soloist—the way he builds through the course of the song, the way he accompanies the melody and then the soloist. He always pays attention to dynamics; when the piano solo comes, Max takes it down. But during Bird’s solos, he’s never playing anything corny, like when people are using the same rhythmic language to converse. They’re congruent with each other, but they aren’t necessarily using the same language. It’s almost like they’re parallel and connected at the same time. So they’re cross-sectioning, but they’re also parallel—Max is egging Bird on and answering his phrases, like they’re speaking different languages but talking about the same thing. I find that fascinating.

Max was such a risk-taker. He had to have received a lot of criticism for playing that way, because nobody else was playing like that in 1947. He was playing with the people who were at the edge of creativity, and he himself was pushing it forward. Where he was placing his phrases was completely unconventional as far as the rhythmic language of the day. As I listen, I keep wondering, “where is the impetus for you to do that?” The horns were so much out in front on recordings from this time, it’s almost difficult to hear what everybody else was doing! Duke Jordan’s comping is really traditional, playing the turnarounds and so on, and the bass player is just walking, but the interaction between Max and Bird is completely different.

On “Donna Lee,” even when the melody is being played, Max is playing a kind of counter-melody against it. Arthur Taylor used to talk about “Confirmation,” how there are hits in the course of tunes like that, that are the tune. That’s how Max is playing that in “Donna Lee.” He’s playing off of the melody, playing in the holes of that melody, almost like he’s creating an alternate melody, an accompanying rhythmic melody.

8. TRACK: “Un Poco Loco”

Artist: Bud Powell

CD: The Amazing Bud Powell (Blue Note)

Recorded: New York, May 1, 1951.

Musicians: Bud Powell (piano); Curly Russell (bass); Max Roach (drums)

RATING: 100/100

On “Un Poco Loco,” Max played one of the greatest beats ever on a jazz recording, in the same category as the beat Vernell Fournier plays on “Poinciana,” or the beat that Art Blakey plays on “Pensativa.” Max told me that in the studio, he was playing some variations on Caribbean-Afro Cuban rhythms, and Bud said, “You’re supposed to be Max Roach. Can’t you come up with anything slicker than that?” So Max went home and shedded it out, and he came back with this phenomenal beat. Months later he ran into Bud in the street after not seeing him for a while, and Bud said, “Man, you fucked up my record!” I didn’t understand it. I was wondering what about what Max did destroyed it for Bud Powell, because it’s one of my favorites. Of course, Bud may not have been coming from an entirely rational place.

A lot of people have studied the “Un Poco Loco” beat, because it’s in phrases of 5 over the 4, which was way ahead of the curve at the time. Also, the fact that he’s using that cowbell; the sound he’s getting out of the cowbell. It’s obvious that he spent some time dealing with those rhythms. Max had been spending time in Haiti, where he went to study with a guy who had told him that he was greatest drummer in the world. The guy would tell him, “Come here, meet me right here on this corner at 2 o’clock,” Max would get there at 2, and the guy wouldn’t come until 7—he’d leave him waiting! But he said that the guy gave him invaluable information.

Max did a lot of teaching, but he treated his one-on-one drum instruction like oral tradition. He studied from books, and I’ve studied from books, but that’s only a small component of it. Books will give you the facility to execute the stuff that you hear and feel already, but it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the creativity. This is a perfect example. Max distilled all this stuff and immediately hooked it up into an original beat—you’d never heard anything like it before. It’s the beginning of all those phrases based on rhythmic permutations of five over the four—a step into the future in 1951. A lot of people are playing those types of rhythmic permutations now, almost sixty years later. It sounds like he pulled it together the night before, because it’s right on the edge of almost sounding fucked-up. Then when he comes in, what he plays isn’t clean, the way it was clean with Clifford Brown and that band. It’s right on the edge of almost second-take. I’m talking about everybody. It sounds like it’s not quite settled and comfortable. But I think that quality is what makes it a great recording, and the fact that he was able to superimpose that feeling and beat at that particular time and have it work, keep it happening for almost five minutes. Amazing.

9. TRACK: “Garvey’s Ghost”

ARTIST: Max Roach

CD: Percussion Bitter Sweet [Universal Music Special Markets, B0012607-01]

Musicians: Max Roach (drums); Abbey Lincoln (vocals); Eric Dolphy (alto saxophone, bass clarinet, flute); Clifford Jordan (tenor saxophone); Booker Little (trumpet); Julian Priester (trombone); Mal Waldron (piano); Art Davis (bass); Carlos Valdez (congas); Carlos Eugenio (cowbell).

Recorded: New York, August 1, 1961

RATING: 100/100

This is one of my favorite cuts of music of all time. It’s another example of how the title really speaks to what’s happening in terms of the music. This references Marcus Garvey, the great Pan-Africanist in the States during the ‘20s and ‘30s, who died in England at a young age, mistreated, and his organization decentralized by the same tactics used against the Black Panthers some years later. The piece references that history, talking about self-determination, but then it’s also really haunting, ghostly—the melody is so powerful, and the fact that Abbey doesn’t sing any words. Max wrote the song. The solos by Booker Little and Clifford Jordan take are straight fire. Then again, we see that juxtaposition of rhythms against each other, because he has Patato playing the congas and Carlos Eugenio playing the cowbell—Max is kind of playing in 6 but also in 3, in the way he’s swinging, and keeps that pattern almost all throughout the piece. But the way he’s comping, it’s almost like he’s soloing. The way he pushes Booker Little and Clifford Jordan through their solos is reminiscent of a solo that he takes, but he keeps that ride cymbal pattern going the whole time, along with the other percussion. But everybody has a certain freedom within what they’re doing. Even the cascara pattern that the cowbell is playing is not fixed. Max’s ride cymbal pattern is, but the other shit he’s playing completely is not. It’s not like any traditional comping. It’s like collective improvisation. Then he solos over that cascara and the congas, and, as he often does, he utilizes a lot of space. He always plays something and then leaves some space, and then plays something else and leaves some space. He calls, he answers, he answers, and then he leaves some space, and then he calls, he answers, and he leaves some space. He always used to say that. There’s always room. “Get to your shit quick, make a statement, and in making that statement, the things that you don’t play are just as important as the things you do.” That always seemed to be a theme for him, and he utilized it in every component of his career. Always some space for others.

That’s the way it seems he led his life in aligning himself with different people, like the record with Hassan, where he gave him the opportunity to present his original music, and even though it was billed as the Max Roach Trio, the title was The Legendary Hassan. That was the only recording that Hassan made except for another Odean Pope recording that I don’t think was ever released. Or the fact that he aligned himself with Clifford Brown and said, “Let’s lead the band together.” I don’t know if he really had to do that. Also the different duo situations. Always on the cusp, but then also, in a sense, very selfless. To be as prolific as he had to have a strong sense of self, as I know because I was around him. That strong sense of self allowed him to let other people shine as well. It was never, “No, it has to be me, and you can’t do your thing.” It was “come on and do your thing.” This is a perfect example. It’s not like he has to growl over the whole thing. He leaves some space, and then he’ll talk to one of the cats, and communicate. Everybody’s listening. This is a year after We Insist, and Max was still on the same path. There’s tunes like “Man From South Africa,” in 7/4. He’s still making that commentary. He’s still on the soapbox, because it’s important and it’s still current, still developing in America.

In 1991, I remember doing a Sacred Drums tour with Max here in America, one of my very first gigs out of town. Tito Puente was on it, and some of these Native American drummers, some koto, stuff like that. Max was playing with Mario Bauza, who had a small orchestra. He was doing multiple things as well as solo stuff, playing with the small band, and this was one of the other portions of the show. Patato was in the band, too. During one of the rehearsals the piano player came up with some arrangements for Max to read, and he called over to me—I was there as a stagehand, his PA, setting up the cymbals and stuff like that. He was just trying to put some money in my pocket and help me out. Max said, “come here, man. Play this.” So he got me down to play the show, and got me my first traveling gig—with Mario Bauza! I had no idea then who he was. I didn’t know what I was doing with clave and so on. I remember Patato looking at me like, “You don’t know what the fuck you’re doing.” The other cats in the band were very encouraging, but Patato didn’t want to give it up. Which I understood, though, because I didn’t know what I was doing. Some years later, I did a recording with him and Michael Marcus and Rahn Burton, and he was cool—maybe I had gotten a few things together. But he tuned my snare drum. I don’t know how, because he still didn’t speak any English, but he tightened it in a certain way, and that snare drum still sounds great to this day. He showed me how to tune the bottom a little tighter than the top. He had that pitch. That snare drum was singing for years.

10. TRACK: “Love Is A Many Splendored Thing,”

ARTIST: Max Roach

CD: Clifford Brown And Max Roach At Basin Street [EmArcy MG 36070]

Recorded: New York, February 16, 1956

Musicians: Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet : Clifford Brown (tp) Sonny Rollins (ts) Richie Powell (p,arr) George Morrow (b) Max Roach (d)

RATING: 100/100

Clifford Brown And Max Roach At Basin Street is one of the albums that I played along with the most when I was younger, and—along with Round Midnight by Miles with Philly, Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, John Coltrane’s Crescent, and Horace Silver’s Silver’s Serenade—it’s one of the classic albums that anybody who is interested in pursuing a career in the music really needs to check out. Even though it was only together for about a year, it’s one of Max’s most important bands, with Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown on the front line. I love the arrangements and the way that band played together. The stuff was tight. It was a true band—a perfect example of the best. I hate to use that sort of terminology, but that’s the way I feel about it. These cats were executing at such a high level, and the music was so refreshing. It’s still refreshing, to this day.

This one starts off with a little, one-bar intro on the bell of the cymbal, and then they go into five, and then come the solos—Clifford, Sonny, Richie Powell, and Max. One thing that attracts me to this take is the way Richie Powell plays coming out of Max’s solo going back into the top of the song. It’s a seamless transition, like they’re coming together from different places, right into the theme.

It’s important that they were playing in 5/4 in 1956. In American culture most music is in four. It’s just those 5 beats, but with a little lopsided feeling. Now, if we were raised in India or Iraq, we would be accustomed to feeling those rhythms—but we’re not. So the fact that they were using it in “Popular music” meant something in pushing the music forward—initiating something that hadn’t been widely accepted, as happened when Dave Brubeck did “Take Five” a few years later. So this recording is an important document in terms of recorded history. Once an idea is documented, it becomes a possibility. If you were a younger musician in 1956 listening to this for the first time, it may have been the first time you’d heard someone do it, or play a different time signature—and the presentation is so beautiful. Max was part of so many movements where he was ahead of his time, or pointing to the future, part of the vanguard of musicians who always did something challenging.

11. TRACK: “Variation On A Familiar Theme”

ARTIST: Max Roach

CD: Max Roach With The Boston Percussion Ensemble

Musicians: Al Portch (frh) Max Roach (d) Irving Farberman, Everette Firth, Lloyd McCausland, Arthur Press, Charles Smith, Harold Thompson, Walter Tokarczyk (per) Corinne Curry (soprano voice) Harold Faberman (cond, dir, arranger)

recorded in Music Barn of the Music Inn, Lenox, Mass. on Aug. 17, 1958.

RATING: 100/100

I only heard this recently, and it’s an amazing piece—another example of seamless transitions. It runs 2-minutes-20-seconds, and it’s a variation of “Pop Goes The Weasel.” Theoretically it’s like a predecessor to M’Boom. I don’t know if that idea had anything to do with Max’s decision to pull these musicians together, but this was something completely different. He was just guest soloist with the Boston Percussion Ensemble. Harold Faberman did the arrangement.

Here Max is playing within the conventions of orchestral percussion, but from the first time you hear him on the brushes it’s unmistakably him—the same phrasing, the same sound out of the instrument. Regardless of the setting, the language was so indigenous to his person, you know it’s Max regardless of the setting. There are several sections. Max initiates some time with the brushes, then they come in with a theme, then they switch up from 4/4 to 3/4, and he makes that transition, too. A different theme is initiated, and then they transition back into four. This often happens in Western Classical music, but here it’s an interesting juxtaposition of time signatures and also of genre. It’s the “jazz feeling” or whatever, because Max is playing some time countered against what the orchestra is doing with the structure of the piece. He kind of solos in it, but he’s also weaving in and out of the piece, and he’s used to accentuate certain portions. It amazes me that Max was so open and flexible and willing to put himself into so many different positions throughout his career.

I have a degree in music, but the way I learned the music was kind of on the street, watching my Pops play and so forth. I’ve never studied Western classical. Now, Max went to Manhattan School of Music and studied it, but here it sounds like he’s using the techniques that he mastered from his experiences, not from the Western pedagogy. Within the framework of this piece, the music has a certain time feel. When I played with orchestra, it was always challenging from the downbeat, because when I see the conductor come down, I’m thinking that’s the downbeat, but it’s not. Then it’s weird. It’s the downbeat-and, and everyone’s responding to that. Visually, it was so challenging to de-condition yourself—in jazz, it’s always the downbeat, so everyone enters there, whereas in the orchestra the AND after the downbeat is the place. So the fact that Max was able to integrate what he does within that setting so seamlessly, to play the music so impeccably, was impressive—to say the least!

12. TRACK: Streams of Consciousness

Artist: Max Roach

CD: Streams of Consciousness (Baystate (Jap)RVJ-6016)

Musicians: Max Roach, drums, Dollar Brand (aka Abdullah Ibrahim, piano)

Recorded: New York, September 20, 1977

RATING: 100/100

This is another one of Max’s many extemporaneous compositions. On the jacket he writes: “This music is an expression of pure improvisation. Mr. Brand (this is when he was still Dollar Brand) and I had no rehearsals or plans, written or otherwise, as to how or what we were going to record…the resulting cohesiveness, I am sure, had much to do with our environmental similarities.” Another piece on this album is titled “Consanguinity,” and that’s what Max was talking about—the connection between people who are descended from the same ancestry. He’s talking about the fact that he and Abdullah Ibrahim, who was a South African pianist, were equally involved in the struggle for the freedom of their people—or had been involved, because by this time conditions had changed in America, though not in South Africa yet.

But the first cut, which runs about 21 minutes, is called “Stream of Consciousness.” To a certain degree, it’s a spontaneously organized suite that occurs in different movements. They definitely played some construct songs; I don’t know if Abdullah Ibrahim had previously played them, but they were definitely tunes. In between the tunes, a drum solo brings about the transition. That is, in between each statement, there’s a small drum solo, then there was another idea collectively expressed. There are 5 or 6 movements. It goes from drum solo, to interlude, to a 7/4 thing, then the drums initiate a faster 7/4, then they play a couple of blues, a solo—not really any solo piano except when Abdullah Ibrahim plays a little solo at the beginning, and then Max plays some. There are some church inferences after that. You can hear some South African themes, but not as pronounced as you might expect.

It’s another example of Max’s social consciousness and awareness, and also his ability to put himself in an unconventional situation—duo with drums and piano isn’t done that much. In all honesty, the sound is terrible. The bass sounds like a big drum, like he might be using some oil heads or something. The drums themselves don’t sound that good. But the magic between Max and Abdullah is pretty special. It’s obvious that they have a kinship in what’s being played. I think it’s ultimate artistry, not to plan or discuss what’s going to happen, to feel each other out, to let it fly and be open to whatever happens.

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R.I.P. Wallace Roney, May 25, 1959-March 31, 2020 — A 2016 Downbeat Feature and a 2014 Interview About His Presentation of Wayne Shorter’s “Universe”

Like the rest of the jazz community, I’m deeply saddened at the passing of Wallace Roney, the trumpet genius who died this morning of complications from COVID-19. I didn’t know Wallace well, but we did have a professional relationship, and during the 2010s I had a couple of opportunities to write about him. At the top of this post is a Downbeat feature from 2016, framed around the then-recent release, A Place In Time and another, a still-as-yet-unreleased recording of his production of Wayne Shorter’s 1960s masterwork, Universe. Below that is a transcript of interview that I conducted with Wallace (he reviewed the transcript for accuracy) when he gave the 6th performance of Universe at the 2014 Detroit Jazz Festival with a 21-piece orchestra conducted by Bob Belden — they only got halfway through it, before a lightning storm ended the concert.  Below that, I’ve included my review of that concert and the edited interview.

 

Wallace Roney 2016 Downbeat Feature:

It’s hard to cite a more accomplished 2016 release than Wallace Roney’s A Place In Time (High Note). For his 18th leader date since 1987, a nine-tune recital, the 56-year-old trumpeter assembled a sextet comprised of four over-60 masters—Gary Bartz on alto and soprano saxophone, Patrice Rushen on piano, Buster Williams on bass, and Lenny White on drums—and wunderkind Ben Solomon on tenor and soprano saxophone. Throughout the proceedings, Roney and company improvise fluently and passionately on vocabulary and syntax postulated in the pathbreaking 1960s recordings of John Coltrane, Miles Davis and such Miles alumni as Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams, generating the go-for-broke attitude that defined the era. Roney’s intensely melodic solos have an architectural, inevitable quality, but close listening reveals the instant decisions he makes in mapping out his well-designed routes.

“They were my band from 1998 to 2001, but we never recorded,” Roney said in the Blue Note’s dressing room on October 26th, before a soundcheck-rehearsal for night one of Chick Corea’s “For Miles” project, with Milesians Kenny Garrett, Mike Stern and Marcus Miller, and drummer Brian Blade. “That’s why we did this. We got together for two days, pulled out some tunes, reacted and responded to each other, and goaded each other to play better.”

He was asked to decode the title. “It could mean a place in time when only innovation mattered and what was being said was more important than the instruments involved,” Roney responded. “All of them lived it. They play this thing nobody else can play, and can’t express it with anyone else because no one understands it. They are innovative musicians. Everybody brings something to the table, and we all shape everybody’s music. That’s what Miles did.”

A Place In Time marks a point of departure from the last three of Roney’s six prior dates for High Note, his label since 2004, eleven years after he concluded an initial seven-album run for label proprietor Joe Fields’ previous imprint, Muse. On those, he emulated Art Blakey, his frequent ’80s employer, by hiring less experienced aspirants, among them Solomon, pianists Aruán Ortiz and Victor Gould, bassists Rahsaan Carter and Daryl Johns, and drummer Kush Abadey.

“Sometimes younger guys aren’t as up on things as you’d like,” Roney said, without naming names. “You teach them, they play with other people, and when they come back, they forget instead of utilizing it when you start to go for it. You want the time to be more elastic. They’re playing licks they heard but don’t understand how to expand on. They don’t know different ways to play a chord, or reinvent or substitute that chord, or how to make something go a certain way melodically. It’s frustrating.

“I want young cats to be open to everything. But sometimes you wish the music would go forward, not backward. I want them to understand that music didn’t stop in 1960, and it isn’t beginning in 2016. Kamasi Washington is not Coltrane. Coltrane is fifty years ago. Who’s more advanced? You’ve got to learn the most innovative things. If you can’t do them, you’re not in the ballpark. Learn why Trane and Wayne were able to do what they did, and be able to do it. Understand what Ornette was playing, or Herbie and John McLaughlin and Tony and Elvin. Those are the high-water marks. Then use your creativity, and see if you can add to it. Not just some pentatonics or false fingers, but the idea of that type of virtuosity and spirituality, the merging of mind and spirit, time and universe. This music is hard. People who want to play it on that level of communication and telepathy have to do a lot of studying. It’s a never-ending process.”

Roney has practiced what he preaches. As a child in north Philadelphia during the ’60s, he associated jazz with his father and his circle, who “were into social rights and civil rights and Nation of Islam—trying to enlighten and lift themselves.” He continued: “Jazz was a music of intelligence, whereas other music was social music. The radio was playing Smokey Robinson and John Coltrane. I liked John Coltrane. I didn’t have to like Smokey Robinson, although Smokey was cool.”

He was already playing trumpet and listening to his father’s records “at 5 or 6,” when Miles Davis entered his consciousness. “I could hear Miles was reaching for something,” Roney said. “He was my idol.” He heard, dug and assimilated Lee Morgan, Blue Mitchell, Kenny Dorham, and Clifford Brown. “My father would tell me he thought Clifford was better than Miles, and we’d argue. Matter of fact, I was so mad, I asked Clark Terry about it. Clark gave me the best answer. ‘It’s like apples and oranges; they’re both good.’”

Roney had moved with his father to Washington, D.C. when he introduced himself to Terry after a set at Blues Alley. Terry brushed him off, but, at a second encounter, asked the 12-year-old to play something. Roney responded with Morgan’s solo on “M&M” from the Jazz Messengers album Meet You At the Jazz Corner of the World. An enduring mentorship ensued. Soon thereafter, Roney met Gillespie, who showed him “different scales, things about mouthpieces, and breathing exercises.” At 15, he sat in with Art Blakey, At 16, he sat in with Cedar Walton, who subsequently hired him for a two-week engagement. He matriculated at Howard University, left after a year when Abdullah Ibrahim took him on the road, then transferred to Berklee. “I was aiming to go to New York,” Roney says, explaining why he left school in 1981 to join Blakey, looking for a trumpeter to replace Wynton Marsalis, who had moved on to tour with Shorter, Hancock, Ron Carter and Williams.

Two years later, Roney joined Jon Faddis, Randy Brecker, Lew Soloff, Jimmy Owens, Art Farmer and Maynard Ferguson “to each play a couple of choruses on a fast blues and end with a fanfare” at a Miles Davis retrospective concert at Radio City Music Hall. Hancock, Carter and Williams were the rhythm section. After rehearsal, Carter introduced him to his partners. After the show next evening, Farmer informed Roney that Davis wanted to meet him. “I went to Miles’ dressing room,” Roney said. “He told me, ‘I heard you up there, playing those things. Here’s my number, call me tomorrow.’” He called, and received an invitation to visit.

From then until Miles’ death, Roney says, “I saw him every time he was in town, if I could. Or if he was playing, I was always there. Miles didn’t like a lot of silly people, but he took me. He didn’t just pick me out of the street. He heard someone who was going inside his back pocket, his best stuff, and he said, ‘Man, how did you figure that out? Ok. Come on over here.’ I wasn’t just playing a couple of his licks. I was trying to figure out the theory, and giving my heart to it, because I knew it was the next extension of what the music is about.”

[BREAK]

On October 27 with Corea, in the first chorus of his solo on the set-opening “All Blues,” Roney hewed closely to Davis’ original 1959 presentation on Kind of Blue, then counterstated with complex, chromatic variations, creating long lines phrased to fall at odd places against the intense groove locked down by Stern, Miller and Blade. Later, during a long section on “Splatch,” he and Miller ping-ponged rhythms back and forth; on “My Man’s Gone Now,” he stated the theme with lyric, smoldering, achingly poignant tone, then, as the flow quickened, offered a master class in creating artful melodic variations.

“Wallace plays in Miles’ spirit, and he captures that essence, but there’s more to it,” Garrett said a few days later. “I’d hone in first on his beautiful, round sound—it grabs your attention immediately. We met when we were both 17—he was playing more like Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard then, and he already knew harmony. Now he’s evolved to another level harmonically, extending the lines, playing harmony on top of harmony. What he does is incredible. He’s way ahead of the game.”

After the October 26 soundcheck, Roney discussed his decision, taken in his early twenties, to embrace Davis’ innovative strategies as a jumping-off point. “I admired Woody Shaw, who basically came from Freddie Hubbard, who was the first to play those fourths and pentatonics on the trumpet, trying to play like John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy,” he said. “Woody took that aspect of Freddie, and developed it so much that it became his signature. Now, to me, Miles took the music to a very high level that no one else has gotten to. Trumpet-wise, too, as far as playing poetically on the trumpet—though no one surpassed Dizzy for technique. I told myself that if I could do with Miles what Woody did with Freddie, at least I’m not going backwards.”

He developed his conception during a long run with Williams’ unparalleled quintet, which he joined after playing on Williams’ 1985 album, Foreign Intrigue. Simultaneously, Blakey brought Roney back to the Messengers. Both bands were busy, and Roney spent a year trying to balance conflicting schedules, until committing fully to Williams, who gave him a mandate to “open up the chords” a la Miles, Trane and Wayne.

“I told Tony I was trying not to do that because I didn’t want people to say we’re trying to be Miles and Tony,” Roney recalled. “Tony said, ‘Don’t listen to what they say.’ He gave me the green light. Tony taught me polyrhythms, time modulations, and expansive rhythm. We played the changes, always played the form, but we didn’t have to play it in a locked way. We flowed. I’d play melodies and leave space between the beats, and fill it up like a brushstroke. It prepared me for playing with Miles and Herbie and Wayne.”

That opportunity occurred in July 1991, when Davis—who had been actively coaching Roney since they met—asked his disciple to play alongside him in a Quincy Jones-directed “Birth Of The Cool” concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival that would be his valedictory. After Montreux, Roney recalls, “Miles said to me, ‘Wally, me and you are like King Oliver and Louis Armstrong; I’m King Oliver because I’m the chief.’” After Miles died two months later, Shorter, Hancock, Carter and Williams decided to form a tribute band, and asked Roney to assume the trumpet chair. He participated in several “Miles Davis Legacy” tours with them before forming his own band in 1994.

“When Miles passed, I felt that Wallace was the one,” Shorter told me. “He wanted to keep going with not necessarily Miles’ vision, but his vision is really connected with Miles. I see him as standing on the shoulders of what Miles was doing, like when a father lifts up a kid at a parade and the kid starts telling the father what’s coming down the street. Wallace projects the never-give-up thing, going on the trail less-trodden. The other trail is crowded with wannabes and pop-this and pop-that—simplicity, simplicity and simplicity. I like what Einstein said: Yeah, we know we need simplicity, but no simpler. A lot of people fall by the wayside, give up and, like they say, ‘sell out.’ You want the people who take the hard trail, that warrior thing. Selling out is more noticeable than persevering. We have to make persevering more noticeable.”

“Wallace doesn’t compromise,” White affirmed. “He’s dipped and dabbed in this and that, but he’s a consummate musician and artist, because he doesn’t change his attitude about what he does. He’s authentic. I know he’s misunderstood—he has a real clear conscience and a clear direction, and sometimes that is perceived as a threat.”

After the Miles Davis Legacy tours Roney was reluctant “to jump back and play with somebody else as a sideman.” “How am I going to go back with someone who isn’t on their level?” he asked rhetorically. “I figured I had to take what those guys personally showed me, and use that knowledge in my band. Miles told me that if he ever got a band again, he wanted Tony, Herbie and Wayne, but, although he loved Ron, he thought he would still use Foley or Marcus Miller. He wanted that blend, and I started figuring that electro-acoustic was the way to go.”

Electro-acoustic is the template on In An Ambient Way [Chesky], a 2015 project on which the late Bob Belden, who had retained Roney’s services on numerous projects for a quarter-century, reimagined In A Silent Way with Roney, Oz Noy on guitar, Kevin Hays on Fender Rhodes, Johns on bass and White on drums. More consequential is a studio recording of Universe, an orchestral suite that Shorter composed, at Miles’ request, in 1967. The band broke up, the music was put away, and then rediscovered, Roney estimates, around 2006.

“Wayne called to say he’d found this music, and I was the only one who could do this,” Roney recalled. Shorter cosigns: “I sent him the scores just to do whatever he could do with it.” Roney continues: “My reaction was that this was the Dead Sea Scrolls. We’d all been trying to write something that would be the next step after, say, “Nefertiti.” But here it was, from the originator, the person who thinks like that—and not only that, he orchestrated it. In all this music, you can hear the conception of the band, how Wayne’s music influenced the band, Wayne’s reaction to the band. It’s a microcosm of everything that was going on.”

Perplexingly, Roney has not found a record company willing to release this labor of love. “We’ve had time to digest all the intricacies and respond, so the level is very high,” Roney said. “I’m very proud of it, and I’m happy that I documented it for posterity. I have no faith that a label will be interested, but I’d love to get it on the commercial market. If that ever happens, the world can hear it.”

“It’s hard to get a record deal,” Shorter said. “But never give up spirit. By persevering, Wallace is finding the key to open the door. More and more, Wallace doesn’t have to lean on what Miles did. He has to lean on HIMSELF.”

Roney signified his own feelings on receiving the torch that Miles bestowed upon him by quoting John 5:19-20 from the New Testament and II Kings from the Old Testament in the booklet accompanying the 2000 CD No Room For Argument. But he deflected a question on his thoughts about passing the torch himself as he assumes elder statesman status.

“I haven’t done anything yet to have something to pass on,” Roney demurred. “But Universe and the record with my sextet are two of the best I’ve made. If I don’t get a chance to record again, I’d be satisfied with what I just did.”

 

***********

TP: I read the piece in the Times and the interview in All About Jazz from last year where you talked a lot about this. Perhaps we’ll be covering some older territory, but let’s go for it anyway. Mostly about this program, and perhaps some other current things…

Roney: This is current.

TP: Tell me the back story.

Roney: The back story is, Wayne Shorter had written some music for Miles, for the Quintet, when he was part of the Quintet, and that band was probably the greatest band ever. The things they did, each record that came out, introduced something new that people hadn’t thought of or that was amazing on an individual level and on an interactive level. So after ESP and Miles Smiles and The Sorcerer and Nefertiti and Miles In the Sky, you said, “Well, what can they do next?” Obviously, Miles had asked Wayne to write a big orchestra piece. That’s why what I just said is important. This was the next level.

Wayne writes like that anyway. Like I say, Wayne always writes with a lot in mind anyhow.

So as he wrote these pieces for Miles, what wound up happening is the band was starting to break apart. Ron left, Herbie got fired, Tony left, and then Wayne left. I think that their feelings were hurt, because they really were a unit. They weren’t just cats that they had a gig, and they played, and they played good. They really loved each other. So each one of them, I think, took it personally. When I speak to these guys, even now, if they thought whatever…

So I think in Wayne’s case, he put the music under his bed or put it away, and forgot about it, and, you know, then Weather Report happened, and then years went by, and then his band. Then somebody remembered that he had written this music for Miles, and they looked it up in the Library of Congress and saw that it was registered. So then the buzz started coming out, and someone asked Wayne about it. Wayne also said Miles had said to him, before Miles died, “Hey, you remember that music that you wrote? We need to do that. Let’s pull it; let’s do it.” And I know that’s true. I know it’s true, because even though people said Miles never looked back, which he didn’t, he didn’t look back at his successes. But he wasn’t about to leave those things that he pioneered. He didn’t. Even in his last incarnation of his band, they were incorporating things like “Milestones” into their solo sections!

So when Miles decided to do the Gil Evans music… I know people thought he said he didn’t want to do it, but Miles had been telling me that he wanted to do it as far back as 1988. Then there’s a thing on VH-1 where you see him and Foley together, and he says it. So he has been hinting at that kind of thing for a while. And when Gerry Mulligan did the Rebirth of the Cool, Miles did agree to do it again—to re-do it. I guess he was just inspired by the moment.

All that to say I understand Miles wanting to go back and do Wayne’s music, because it never really got done. One piece did, the others didn’t—and none of it was recorded.

So Wayne said Miles asked him to go back and find these pieces also. So that, in combination with this other guy reminding Wayne, or bugging him, about this piece, he went and looked for it, and he found it.

TP: Do you know who this person was?

Roney: Bertrand Überall. So Wayne found the music one day. I think it was around 2006. He called me and he said he’d found this music, and he wanted me to play it. He was telling me that…saying a lot of nice things, and that he wrote it for Miles and I’m the only one who could do this. Very nice things. I loved Wayne anyway. So he found all the music and we had discussions, and next thing you know, he sent me the music.

TP: What was your reaction when you first examined the music?

Roney: Yeah, when I examined it… The Dead Sea Scrolls, That’s exactly right. I looked at it… He sent me a lot. When I looked at it, I said, “Man, this is incredible.” It’s like all of us had been trying to write something that’s going to be the next step after “Nefertiti” or something, but here it was, from the originator, from the person who thinks like that, but not only that, he orchestrated it, and you could see it was his orchestration. It was from his mind. Sometimes, on one of the pieces, Miles might get Gil Evans to orchestrate something of His or one of the guys tunes or something. This one was from the mind of Wayne Shorter, and you can see all these things. In that music, you can hear the band, you can hear the conception of the band, you can hear Wayne’s music and how it influenced the band, and you can hear Wayne’s reaction to the band and how the band influenced him too, all in the music. It was like a little universe, a microcosm of everything that has been going on, right in there. It was amazing. I got some guys over. Everybody was excited. We would look at the score, and each person would try to read a part of the score. That’s how it started.

TP: Did you consult with Wayne on the interpretation?

Roney: Of course. Well, what Wayne told me…

TP: I’m wondering what his reaction was 40 years later.

Roney: First of all, Wayne never heard what I did with it. But see, I had been with Wayne and Herbie and those guys, and I had been with Miles. Wayne told me to do what I hear with it.

TP: He trusted you.

Roney: Yeah, he trusted me. He knew that I knew things, and I had been well-versed. He said, “don’t fall into illusions and people trying to take you off your path; you can do this.”

TP: What do you think he meant by that?

Roney: I don’t think like , “what does he mean by that”, Ted. I just do it!

TP: I’m just curious.

Roney: Yeah, I know. But I don’t think like that. I just do, man. I think it’s flattering.

[PAUSE]

TP: You showed me the letter. He wrote, “don’t give in to outside illusions and delusions” — that was very personal. He probably didn’t say it lightly.

Roney: Of course.

TP: When did you meet Wayne?

Roney: The first time I met Wayne Shorter, who was my hero since I was 3 years old… Miles was my hero. Have you seen my nephew, Kojo, and my Son Wally?

TP: Only on Youtube.

Roney: Wally and Kojo is like me, and my son is like that. I loved the music from when I was like 3 years old. So that’s the backdrop. Me and my brother… My brother loved Wayne and Trane, and I loved Miles, and we loved the music, Jazz! We were chasing the music… Everybody else was dancing toR&B, or the Dells and Stylistics and all that stuff. We were looking at them like: Yeah, that’s because you don’t know nothin’. This is music that takes your head somewhere, that helps you understand life. That’s what we were thinking at 3 years old. I understood that. They thought I was a prodigy. I was reading; I used to read Jet and Ebony magazine and all that. They told me I could read Dr. Seuss. Next thing, I saw a picture of Miles Davis in the magazine, and I’m reading that—I want to know what that’s about. Or Malcolm X or Ray Robinson.

TP: You were born in 1960, right, Wallace?

Roney: Yes, sir. So we were following the music and Wayne’s innovations and when I finally got a chance to see him was in 1972. It was in Boston. Even though I was living in Philadelphia, my father had a friend who was later to become his third wife, and he took us up there. They had a festival up there, and Weather Report was on the festival. That’s when it was Eric Gravatt and Miroslav and Joe and Dom! Man, they were amazing. Wayne was still playing like there was no tomorrow, like he had just left Miles’ band. Or, like he always plays. You can’t put it on anything except Wayne. He was incredible. My brother had his eyes bulging out, and my brother kept saying he wanted to talk to Wayne, he’s going to speak to Wayne. At that point, I was 12 and he was 9.

When the concert was over, we went back to speak to Wayne. Weather Report was packing up in the van. They didn’t have road managers and all that. Well, they might have one. I said, “Mr. Shorter, Mr. Shorter.” He looked, he saw these two young kids there, and he was so nice. He came down and said, “Yes?” And he came over to us, and my brother sat there, and he was going to do all the talking—and he couldn’t say a word. He just froze. So I spoke for my brother. I said, “I’m Wallace Roney,(I was 12yrs old myself!) and his name is Antoine (or Tony, we called him), and he loves you. He wants to be a saxophone player.” Wayne looked at him and Wayne said, “You want to play the saxophone, huh.” He said, “Well, first play the clarinet for a year or two years, and then, after that, get one of these.” He pointed to his tenor saxophone. Man, that made an impression on my brother so much, he didn’t know what to do.

The reason why I told that story is, years later, after seeing… We saw Wayne a month after that in Philly, and it was the same band. It was burning. Miles was burning and had opened up the concert!and The Giants Of Jazz with Monk and Buhania and Dizzy and Stitt demolished the show!!! Anyway, years later, I got to know Wayne when we did the Tribute Tour for Miles ! In 1992, they wanted to do a tribute tour to Miles, and the first person to call me was Wayne Shorter. The reason why they’d called me… They’d wanted to get with Miles before, but they never got back to play with Miles again. Miles had passed, and circumstances prevented them from doing that, so they decided they were going to get together, and they wanted me to do it instead of Freddie! I had played with them earlier and I understood the language and things they pioneered, through Miles. The trumpet player had to have played with Miles. And I was the only trumpet player that played with Miles. Miles didn’t like a lot of the trumpet players out there, that was important!!!

So before we started, Wayne called me. Tony had already let me know that this was going to happen. Actually, I had gotten a message from somebody before…I don’t even know where that came from. Anyway, once we solidified it, Wayne Shorter called me, and we became like best friends immediately. We got together at the rehearsal, and we started playing together and we started joking together. It was so weird. It was like a person I knew all my… Like we were brothers. I appreciated that, and every town we would go in, me and him would walk the town. Every town, every place, we’d get off the plane, we’d wait a couple of hours, he’d say, “Let’s take a walk,” and we’d walk as much as we can.

So as Wayne and I developed a beautiful relationship, I was telling my brother about it, who idolizes Wayne still. Finally it got to a point where I was going to Wayne’s house a lot and we’d hang out. Just watch TV… Or crack jokes or eat, Herbie would come by and we all hang!!! Of course we talked music too!!! It got so bad, I almost was living there! I guess Ana Maria was like, “When is Wallace coming now?” So one day I took my brother over to see his idol in his house. And Antoine was cool. He had been talking to Wayne on the phone by this point. But he got over to Wayne’s house, and he started talking, and he started talking about saxophones. Wayne pulled out this new horn he’d just gotten, and he started playing. When he started playing, my brother’s mouth just dropped and froze. Wayne said, “What do you think this sounds like next to this one?” My brother never said a word! He went back to that little kid at 9 years old, and wouldn’t say a word! The funny thing about it was, Wayne kind of chuckled. Wayne realized what… He was beautiful about it. So Wayne talked to him, at him, through me, and Antoine just sat there until we left the house. When we left the house, Antoine said, “that was Wayne Shorter.” Oh, it was so funny. He went right back to 9 years old.

TP: What was it like for you when you first played for Miles? I get the sense your response was always something like you belonged there.

Roney: Yeah. But, I don’t know why.

TP: But you had an inner confidence.

Roney: You know what? It was just, to me, comfortable. I don’t know why. It was just comfortable. Now, there may have been a lot of times when I could have been scared. Or not scared. What did Ray Leonard say? “I’m concerned.” I like that, because as boxers, we get in there, and you’re…you’re not ‘scared’ but you can say ‘concerned.’ There’s been times I’m on the bandstand, especially when I first came to New York… I wasn’t extroverted. I was always more introverted. I might not take a lot of stuff if people say something to my face. But I have a healthy respect for the music and musicians, and people.

But when I first went to Miles’ house, he opened the door, and the first thing he said to me was, “I never liked Brownie—Clifford Brown.” That’s the first thing he said. “Not that I was jealous. He was a nice enough guy. I just didn’t think he played as good as everybody said. Him and Max played fast all the time because he couldn’t swing.” Then he said, “Max stopped swinging when he left Bird.” That’s the first thing he said when I walked in the house, and I was like… I heard him. And I loved Clifford Brown. I loved Miles more. But I loved Clifford Brown. But I was thinking to myself: You know, this is my idol; this is the master of music that even Clifford Brown had to look at at some point. Now Clifford’s gone; Miles is still here. I want to understand what this man is saying. I want to understand how to take these notes, these phrases, these statements, and make them more than a formula or an approach. How do you get from here to here and effect the whole music? Not just the music but someone’s emotion with the music. He’ll play a note or he’ll play a phrase, and it will be perfectly right, but it will affect the whole atmosphere ! You can say it was polytonality, or it’s rhythmically this, or whatever you want to say—and it will be correct. But what’s in his mind. And I was hearing melodically, that way melodically.

So, man, when he said that, I was like, “Yes, sir.” We sat down, and I remember he talked to me, told me I remind him of himself, gave me a horn and he said, “Play this.” I just played. He probably heard a lot of him in me, of course. Then he gave another horn, and he said, “Play that.” So yeah, I guess I didn’t feel concerned enough that it would have hindered me from playing. Or whatever it is. He heard something in me, and I appreciated it.

TP: Let’s go back to addressing this body of music, and examining it, to being able to perform it.

Roney: Well, you’ve got to examine it, because you’ve got to know what you’re doing. If you don’t, then you’ll be hitting and missing. So the examining part is… But after you understand what you’re doing, you have to flow. You have to be in tune with yourself. In other words, when I play, I play like I talk. If I answer your question by going, “How can I say this grammatically to make it work?” I let it flow, because it’s natural. And if it comes out awkward, it comes out awkward with a flow. You know what I mean more than if I say, “I am going to be as concise with my interpretation of how I process this music.” You see what I mean? I can say it more elegantly if I ”

So you have to do both. I learned from Miles that he was a great student of the music. He definitely was theoretically sound, or even better than that, innovative, because he was always questioning and pushing the boundaries of, If you can do this, what if we did this. With or without breaking the rules, but maybe trying to stretch it and twist it or adding to it, recovering it. So he was that kind of guy.

TP: Did he talk to you about Wayne?:

Roney: Yes, he did talk to me about Wayne. He talked to me about Wayne, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and Prez and Hawk. He talked about them the most. He also talked about Hank Mobley and a lot of other guys he didn’t like. I heard everything.

TP: What did he say about Wayne?

Roney: He loved Wayne. He thought Wayne was amazing. He thought Wayne was the next after Trane. And when he said “the next, after” he didn’t mean it as a putdown. He meant after Trane, he couldn’t handle more saxophone players, because they all were playing in a earlier that Trane had gone well past and taken further. After that you don’t want to hear anyone play stuff that they had already surpassed , because Trane had already beyond that and more. It took a long time until the advent of Wayne Shorter, and Wayne Shorter was the next one that played in a way that Miles said, “Yeah, He picking up right there, he’s going right where Trane is, he’s starting right there.” They’re sharing ideas… He loved him. There’s other saxophone players he would say either they were playing licks, or they would play these things that proved to other saxophone players that they knew how to play this thing. He called it “duty playing.” He said he hated it. Wayne didn’t play like that. Trane didn’t play like that. Bird didn’t play like that. They can hear in between the notes!

TP: It’s my understanding that this configuration is your quartet, with Lenny White on drums, Buster Williams on bass, and Victor Gould on piano, and also an orchestra.

Roney: Yes. Steve Turre is with me. Mike Lee is on tenor. I’ve got other people with me, too. Steve takes a solo on one piece.

TP: How often have you performed the piece now?

Roney: We did three nights at the Jazz Standard, and we did it at Poussin Rouge, and we did at the Drom, and last week at Marcus Garvey Park—so six times.

TP: Has it evolved?

Roney: Oh, yes, it’s evolved. It’s a hard piece. A lot of things that didn’t get played are being played, and then we’re adding more things to it that were written that we couldn’t add at the time because we just tried to get it done. Parts that might have been left out. So yes, it has evolved. And still evolving!

TP: How many pieces are there?

Roney: Four pieces.

TP: Are they a suite or separate pieces?

Roney: Separate pieces.

TP: Having now lived with this music for a while, can you break down why these pieces are so important, and what they contribute to the creative music community now?

Roney: They are important because, again, it was written at the time, in one of the most important periods, or an important evolutionary period in music and human life that has not been surpassed yet. A Revolution in life and music and culture that still hasn’t been honored! The music has taken different directions. But the evolution and the innovations that happened during that period between 1965 and 1969 are still being misunderstood and explored and unexplored, and not understood, and nobody can really grasp what really happened. I don’t really think those guys… Well, they can individually, but… So this is a moment still that is… Like I said, it’s like finding the Dead Sea Scrolls. The next thing that was hidden and didn’t get there.

The interesting thing about this piece is it’s futuristic. It was written then, and it sounds like it wasn’t written today—it sounds like it was written for maybe 50 years from now. It’s very futuristic, and it was written from Wayne’s mind as a young man. Now you hear Wayne’s pieces, he’s writing from his mind as a wise older master. Now, the difference is: As a wise master, he might not use as many notes to get from point-A to point A+, because he understands that you can do this, or he might have another way of doing things, or he might use a cluster of notes. Back then, he used everything he could think of. But the thing is, it was an optimism with that. So it might have been 100 million notes, but each one of those notes had the energy and optimism in it, and they all meant something, and they all say something. So with that, you still had the same mind of that master, who he is today, but in a younger form.

TP: As far as your own other activity, what other things have you been working on during the last year?

Roney: I’ve never understood that question. “Other things.” There’s never another thing. The thing is a commitment to the music!!! And what you’re doing at the moment is that commitment and the next thing is the thing that evolves out of it.

TP: What was the thing you were doing before this?

Roney: Music !!! Let me tell you why. Because it’s part of me, my band. I don’t do anything else but play! Well, I’ve done all-star bands, but you do all-star bands because they make you do it or you can’t do anything else, or put you in a certain position to have to do it. When I do it, I make the best out of it. I try to make a very creative statement out of what they want. But when they allow me to do this, this is what I do. And this is an extension of what I’ve done last year, five years, ten years ago. It doesn’t stop to me. It’s not another thing. It’s the same thing. It’s the next day. It’s a commitment to playing. So if you ask me that again, I’m just going to say I never understood that. It’s just a commitment to playing.

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For George Coleman’s 85th birthday, a 2016 Downbeat Interview and interviews on WKCR from 1994 and 1995

To honor the 85th birthday of tenor saxophone maestro George Coleman, here are three interviews — most recently, a long one conducted in 2016 for a shortish Downbeat “Beat” section article on the occasion of his SmokeSessions album A Master Speaks (his son, drummer George Coleman, Jr., was also present) ; then WKCR interviews in 1994 and 1995, pegged to club appearances.   Several years ago, I posted a 1995 WKCR interview that I did with Mr. Coleman and the great drummer Idris Muhammad, a frequent bandmate,

 

George Coleman (Feb. 8, 2016):

TP: This is your first recording as a leader in 18 years. Tell me how it developed.

GC: Basically, Eric Alexander conceived the idea. He said he wanted to produce a CD with me.  He discussed it with Paul Stache, and Paul thought it was a good idea, too. He selected the personnel, too, which is excellent—Bob Cranshaw and Mike LeDonne, and Junior playing drums, of course. I didn’t need control. They said they wanted to produce the record, and I said, “Go ahead.” There was no conflict.

TP: From what you just told me, doing records has not been your forte.

GC: No.

TP: By which I think you really meant that you haven’t been offered terms satisfactory to you on too many occasions over the years.

GC: That is true. And the record scene out there with a lot of young people doing records just to be doing them… That was one reason… I didn’t want to just do a record to be doing a record. A lot of times when you do records, they just sit on the shelf and collect dust. Some of the record producers…once they get the money that they invested, they’re not too particularly interested any more. At least that’s the way I’ve always felt.

TP: You were saying that you inaugurated Smoke in 1989.

GC: Yes, that’s right. Sometimes when these things happen, I’m really not aware of them. But I’m constantly reminded that I was the founder.

TP: you told me that Joe Farnsworth called you, who used to play at Augie’s a lot…

GC: That’s right. And the late, great Junior Cook. They used to play there quite a bit. Several other good players. James Farnsworth, who I didn’t know and never met, who passed away at a very early age. He was a baritone sax player who I heard was very talented. The Farnsworth family is a talented family. John playing trombone and saxophone now. Great.

TP: I’d think that your agreeing to do this recording after an 18-year gap for the reasons stated denotes a certain respect for and trust of Paul and Frank Christopher and the club.

GC: Yes. Sometimes things are not about money. They’re about integrity. It’s about people really interested in your product, and feel able to put it out in a commercial atmosphere, where you might get some record play. Something that people may have wanted to hear from you. There have been so many times over the course of these 18 years when people said, “Man, when are you going to make a record?”

TP: There was recording in 2002 of a collective group, The Four Generations of Miles recording.

GC: Then I did a thing with the Saxophone Masters, with Joe Henderson and Billy Pierce.

TP: that was the early 1990s, though.

GC: Also Live at Yoshi’s. Danger: High Voltage with the octet in the ‘90s, maybe 1996.

TP: The last one was I Could Write A Book on Telarc, with several things in odd-meters…

GC: There was one thing in 7/4, on “Lover,” just a little tempo change.

TP: So since then, there’s the Four Generations of Miles recording and I guess you played on one of Joey DeFrancesco’s records.

GC: I did some recording with Joey and did some gigs with him. Fantastic player.

TP: I didn’t get everything you told me about playing with Mike, and how it differed for you from playing with Harold, who you’ve played with for so long.

GC: Mike adopted some of the harmonic things that he heard us do. He’d be in the audience, listening to Harold when I’m playing with Harold. So he had a sense…he knew what to do harmonically for me, and he knew what I liked. Of course, I would always tell him about certain harmonic things that I wanted him to do, but he already knew that, because he knew we were inventive when we were up there. We were always trying to invent a different harmonic pattern, or something a little bit…not really unusual, but not done too much in this age, especially by young players.

TP: What’s not done too much? Not working out new harmonic patterns on the bandstand?

GC: Well, not even playing some of the old ones! There’s a lot in the old ones. Back in the dawning of the bebop era, there were so many harmonic things that were happening during that time that people have forgotten about. They don’t even do them now. You can play a standard and inject these kind of things. They’re oftentimes illustrated in original music, too.

I’ve always liked playing different tempos, key changes. That was really my motto. I guess probably a lot of record producers weren’t interested in that concept, because it went into the so-called fusion, rock, funk, jazz, whatever they’d like to call it. So I really wasn’t interested in that. I had some aspirations maybe to do a string album or something. Then I had one of my students from years ago who became a very good string writer, and started writing for Hollywood and California. He told me, “Man, I sure would like to do a string album for you.” But we couldn’t get the money together.” So it’s a lot of different things. A lot of things interject and interfere with certain projects you might feel you want to do. It mostly boils down to money.

TP: Did you do a big with this band before going into the studio?

GC: No.

TP: you didn’t do like two nights at Smoke or something like that?

GC: Well, I guess we did. Didn’t we?

GEORGE JR.: We played with Bob, myself, Big George and Mabern at the Disability Pride thing, but that was a year ago. That was the closest the band was to playing together. But I’ve actually worked a lot with Mike up at Smoke. He’s hired me a lot of times. So I was always very comfortable playing with him. But really, this particular band, we never really played before. The first time we got together was when we were in the studio.

TP: You didn’t even rehearse before you went in the studio.

GEORGE JR.: I came over here a couple of times…

GC: We had a little rundown over here.

GEORGE JR.: Just me, George and Mike, but not with Bob.

GC: Bob was a little under the weather, and it was cool, because he knows…

TP: His ears are amazing. With Sonny Rollins for 55 years.

GC: You don’t need to rehearse with him. That guy! Of course, he was at Sesame Street for over thirty years, right?

TP: On one of these radio shows we did… Remember I was telling you that you brought Idris to the station once in 1995. Here’s what he said: “George is special to me because he’s always working at new things.” He said that the night before you came to the station, you “were playing some stuff, and my left hand was going crazy, and I was trying to play what George was playing in my left hand and keep the rest of the things going, and it was pulling me, and I said, ‘No, I’d better stop myself,’ because I happened to stop my cymbal ride and my bass drum beat, because it’s a challenge to play with him.” He said, “George is a fellow who’s always working on something new and he’s always progressing, and for me to play with him, one of the greatest things is just watching George play, and hear him always reaching for things, new things. When I play with George in the band, it’s always something new. Every time I play with him, he’s always progressed.” Is that still the way you think about things? Are you still trying to find challenges?

GC: Well, not consciously maybe. The things just happen. I just let things happen. But I am trying to think academically when it comes to music. I am always looking at other alternatives. So in that sense…

TP: Would analytically be the word?

GC: Well, somewhat… Things just happen. Sometimes especially with my type of playing, a lot of things are not planned, but we have certain things that we know that we can do. We’re playing “I Got Rhythm,” we’re playing the blues, we have some alternatives that we can do, and we invent those sometimes into the program when we’re playing. We do that. So it keeps things interesting for us. Modulations, so to speak. Because some people shy away from modulations. They said, “Well, you play it in this key. “No, I’m used to playing it in A-flat” or “I’m used to playing it in B-flat” or whatever key. So they don’t want to go to another tonality, but I do. I do. I might take a tune and maybe go to three or four keys. That’s the things I like. That stimulates my mind, my thinking about the harmony and stuff. So what Idris was talking about was probably along that line.

TP: He’s far from the only one.

GEORGE, JR.: What I would say, the interesting thing about… It kind of pisses me off, too. The things that George and Mabern have developed over the years in terms of their ability to take a standard tune with standard changes, and really just reinvent it and look at it in a completely different way harmonically, but not doing it where they’re beating you over the head, like, “Yeah, this is what we’re doing”… It’s just kind of a natural progression and a flow of the great musicality that they have. Part of it, of course, they’ve played these standards a million times, so they want it to be interesting for themselves. But they also want them to be interesting for the musicians they play with and for the people who listen to them. Many times people are like, “Well, these guys are still doing what they did 50 years ago.” But not really. Sure, they might be playing a lot of the same standards, but their harmonic approach to it is different every time. To me, as a person either in the band or experiencing it, it amazes me. I never feel like… I’m not saying this because he’s my father, or Mabern… It just seems always fresh and it’s always interesting, and it’s something you don’t hear from a lot of musicians, even great ones. It’s not something that’s easy to do. They make it look so easy and sound so easy, I think a lot of people think it’s easy to do. But it is not.

TP: Otherwise more people would be doing it, as they say. They also noted that you and Mike played duets at a party celebrating your selection as an NEA Jazz Master at Smoke, and that put the finishing touch on the notion that you’d do a record.

GC: Yes, they had a little press party for me, sort of a little celebration at Smoke. Maxine Gordon organized it. She went to Paul to tell him, “Yeah, we’ll just have a little thing.” A few of my friends came by, musicians and people who had helped me through the years, like Jim Harrison and Matt White and people like that, who had been producers of jazz for many years. So it was a nice little celebration. I enjoyed it, and a number of musicians came by. My son made a nice speech for me, and recognition for the NEA Award and everything. It was nice.

TP: How did you feel about that award? Did it mean something?

GC: It meant something, sort of. But I looked at all the years before, and I saw a lot of other people who I thought deserved as much or more than me, who hadn’t received it. Like Harold Mabern. He’s been over there at William Patterson teaching for over thirty years, and he’s been playing for over fifty years with various artists throughout his history. Wes Montgomery. He was Joe Williams’ musical director. So he has an extensive repertoire.

TP: He played with J.J. for a while.

GC: J.J. A lot of people. I said, “Well, I’m getting it, but Mabern deserves it just as much or more than I do.”

TP: That being said… As we discussed, your discography as a leader is shockingly low for someone of your stature and the respect you’re held…

GC: Well, my personal discography.

TP: Not as a sideman, of course.

GC: There was a French guy who wrote a book about my discography. I’ve got it around here somewhere. But as far as recording with other people, I’ve recorded almost with everybody. There are so many people I’ve recorded with. There’s a lot of material out here, and a lot of material that I don’t even know about that people call me to tell me. “Man, I heard this fantastic recording of you where you were in Italy, you were in Germany, you were in Switzerland…”

TP: There’s a great youtube clip of you in Vittoria with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Billy Higgins. If I could use the word “killing”…

GC: That’s what George says. On that, I played “Dolphin Dance” from that Maiden Voyage thing; I hadn’t played it since the recording.

TP: Let’s talk about the repertoire on  A Master Speaks. As far as I can tell, you’ve only recorded one of these before—“Blondie’s Waltz” on Amsterdam After Dark. Maybe you’ve performed some of these pieces, but they aren’t cited on the online discography I consulted. Was that a deliberate choice?

GC: It was just some tunes we selected that I wanted to do. I figured that it would be good as far as repertoire. That’s how that came about. There was no special thing. I got rushed, because they wanted some original music, and I haven’t written original music in some time. So I had to come up with this original music in a week or so.

GEORGE, JR.: Great stuff, too.

GC: So the stuff I came up with was pretty spontaneous. Nothing really complex. I said, “I’ll just put something together that we can do real quick.”

TP: I think the complexity comes in the interpretation.

GC: That’s just it.

TP: A couple of the tunes made me think of some signposts. Perhaps in discussing them we can touch back on your personal history. “Blues For B.B.”—I guess B.B. King passed around the time you recorded it.

GC: That’s it. Pretty much.

TP: I know you played with him from 1953-55, and I think George, Jr., posted the youtube clip “Woke Up This Morning” on Facebook.

GC: That was his first hit, and probably the first R&B Latin beat, too.

TP: It sounded like a tango in the “St. Louis Blues” tradition.

GC: It was sort of like that, a rumba, whatever you want to call it.

TP: What was B.B. King like before he was B.B. King, so to speak.

GC: Oh, he was a great guy. B.B. was easygoing and very entertaining. He liked the idea of our little jazz concept that we had before he would come on the program. Of course, the people would be asking for him. We’d be playing these jazz tunes. We had a great arranger-composer during that time in Memphis, a guy by the name of Onzie Horne, who later became Isaac Hayes’ musical director.

TP: You’ve also mentioned a guy named Robert Talley, who helped you learn harmony and…

GC: Great piano player and arranger, too.

TP: You said he’d show you things on the piano.

GC: Yes. He’d show you some things that you might learn at Berklee, the chords they call half-diminished chords that he’d call minor 7s or flatted 5s, which is the same thing. That’s the way I learned it back in that day. I didn’t know anything about half-diminished with the slash over the zero. Just minor 7, flat 5, which is a half-diminished.

TP: Did you play piano?

GC: I learned arranging piano, and that’s basically what I do now. But I do know harmony somewhat on the piano.

TP: So when you were learning the saxophone, more or less self-taught…

GC: Same thing with the piano. I was a self-taught pianist. But I was around people during that time when I just started playing, about two years into playing. I was around people who were very learned, and they showed me things. They didn’t sit me down and say, ‘here’s a lesson; we’re going to have a lesson.” I would just sit and… I’d be around them, and if I sat down at a piano with Bob Talley, he would say, “Well, this is such-and-such-such.” So those guys were my teachers during that time. I was teaching, too, during that time. With everything I would learn, I’d show them. Like with Mabern. He wanted to know the changes of “All The Things You Are.” He’d be playing boogie-woogie during that time. This is during the early stages of his development. So I would show them whatever I knew. That’s where my teaching experience expanded to pretty much through my entire career. I was teaching what I was learning.

TP: You mentioned that you transcribed all the Charlie Parker solos you could get your hands on from the 78 records.

GC: Yeah, we did that. Not only me. There were a lot of other people doing that back in that time.

TP: In Memphis?

GC: Yeah. There were some guys in Memphis who did that. But this was all over the U.S.?

TP: Sonny Criss had already split by the time you were playing, right?

GC: Yes. But I met him years later in Paris, when he had moved to Paris. We had a nice relationship. Great player.

TP: But all the saxophone aspirants of your generation and younger were listening to Charlie Parker and forming a style.

GC: Everybody was listening to Charlie Parker. Piano players as well.

TP: And you were initially an alto player.

GC: Yes.

TP: B.B. King bought you your first tenor?

GC: That’s right. It was one of those things where it was a switch. That’s when the switch was made. Prior to that, I was just playing alto.

TP: In an interview I read, you said you had gone on the road with B.B. King and had your first airplane flight when Charlie Parker died.

GC: That’s right. From Memphis to Houston. I arrived in Houston and heard the sad news that Bird had passed away.

TP: Do you feel your approach to tenor is influenced by having played alto so much early on?

GC: Maybe. Probably. The transposition is a fifth. But it’s the same keys. 12 keys is 12 keys. If you’re playing tenor in the key of C, that’s G for the alto. It’s a different sound; it’s a different key from what you’re playing—the two together. It’s like a fifth. Ok. It’s a fifth. Of course, there’s a different embouchure you have to consider when you’re playing alto, and even with the soprano. You’ve got to have chops for all these instruments that you play, if you’re doubling. But since I was pretty well versed in keys, the switch was not that difficult to me.

TP: Keys came pretty naturally to you it sounds like. Obviously you worked hard, but it doesn’t seem to have been that big of a struggle.

GC: Well, one of the things was, we played in these country places where these pianos were out of tune. Terribly out of tune. So sometimes we had to play in the other key. If you were playing in C, you might have to play C-sharp, one of those abnormal keys…I won’t say abnormal, but it was abnormal because…

TP: Unusual maybe.

GC: Unusual. That’s the term. So through that, transposition and tonalities and things like were introduced to me at a very early age through that.

TP: Do you have perfect pitch?

GC: No, I don’t. But sometimes I can hear keys. Right now, I keep a tuning fork right near my bed, and when I hear something on Music Choice on the television I’ll test my pitch to see if I… I’m between 75%-85%.

TP: In those R&B bands when you were a young guy, the musicianship was very high.

GC: All those guys…a lot of those guys could write, and they were writing for some of the R&B people. Like…

TP: Floyd Newman.

GC: Floyd was in the band with me. He was the baritone player. Me and him are the last ones out of those 35-40 people, including the bus drivers, the people doing the booking during that time—all those people from B.B. King’s band, 1955, are gone.

TP: You might have been the youngest player in the band when you joined in 1953?

GC: Maybe the youngest. I’m not sure. I was probably 18 when I did “Woke Up This Morning.” That was the first actual recording I ever did, period, R&B or jazz.

TP: Did you solo on any other B.B. King recording?

GC: No, that’s the only one.

TP: You moved to Chicago in 1956, though. What precipitated your move to Chicago?

GC: It was a rich environment in Chicago. All the great players were there. Gene Ammons. Johnny Griffin. Sonny Stitt would come in from time to time. Of course, Bob Cranshaw. Muhal Richard Abrams.

TP: You played with the MJT+2 for a while.

GC: Walter Perkins’ group.

TP: Muhal was the pianist before Mabern joined.

GC: He was the first one. He was the original.

TP: Wasn’t Nicky Hill the first tenor saxophonist?

GC: Yes, he was. Nicky Hill. He was a great player, too.

TP: But what made you want to go to Chicago? Did you know it would be like that? Did someone suggest it? I think you told me that Chicago was the second stop.

GC: Yeah. From Memphis to Chicago, and from Chicago to New York. That was the geographic transition. The great thing about Chicago, and the great thing about Memphis, too… When I left Memphis, I was fairly equipped to be ready for Chicago. When we came into Chicago, the three of us, me and Mabern and Frank Strozier, they said, “Damn, them guys from Memphis, man…” So we were the rave during that time. All the Chicago musicians said, “Where did these guys come from?” So we were respected. Because we could play a little bit. But we learned a lot from people like Griff and Gene Ammons, all of them. Those were the great talents on the saxophone during those years. Clifford Jordan was there, too, though he’d left before I arrived. I met him later in New York. I think he left probably around the early 1950s, maybe ’53 or something. I got there in 1956 and he’d left.

TP: You had a gig at Budland next to the Pershing. It started at 6 in the morning, with Prentice McCrary on organ.

GC: that’s right. Chicago was 24 hours. There was a place called the Cotton Club that was open… It was Cotton Club first, and then they called it Swingland. They would have a bass on the stand and a set of drums, and guys would come in at all hours of the morning and night to sit in and play. That was the atmosphere in Chicago. The gig on Saturday started at 11 o’clock p.m. and went to 5:30-6 a.m. After that you had a gig that started at 6, or 9. In the Club DeLisa, on 55th and State, all the show people came to the breakfast dance. I’m trying to think of the drummer’s name.

TP: Red Saunders.

GC: Red Saunders had the band there. It was a great scene, man. It was 24 hours of music, polish sausages and barbecue.

TP: All those things that are bad for you.

GC: But it was good for you, too, because the music was so enlightening and rewarding. It was great. I feel very good about that transition I made from Memphis to Chicago. I might have made it from Memphis to New York, too. But that’s not what happened. The Chicago atmosphere prepared me for anything else I might have had to encounter in the New York scene. That in itself was a great experience for me.

TP: Did you have offers to record while you lived in Chicago? I’m asking because John Jenkins recorded for Blue Note, Clifford recorded for Blue Note, Ira Sullivan…

GC: Well, Lee Morgan heard me. He came through and heard me, and he wanted me to come to New York and record with him, which I did.

TP: On City Lights.

GC: Yeah, that was my first recording, along with House Party and all that stuff. All those things were recorded together. I did House Party with Jimmy Smith, and I did City Lights with Lee Morgan. I played alto and tenor.

TP: Are those representative of the way you sounded then?

GC: Heh-heh. I didn’t think I did too well on them. But I got through enough. I just got through. I wasn’t happy with any of the solos that I did. But I was experienced. I could look at a sheet of chord progressions and know how to improvise on that. That’s what happened. Then in the latter years, what I did with Herbie, it was the same thing that happened. On Maiden Voyage we went to the studio, Lynn Oliver’s on Broadway and 70-something, in that area. That’s where all the guys used to go rehearse for Blue Note—two hours. Next day, over to Rudy Van Gelder’s. Pickup at the Empire Hotel and to Rudy Van Gelder’s.

GEORGE, JR.: You told me an interesting story about that record. The first day of the recording, the drummer was different. It was Stu Martin?

GC: Yes. Stu Martin was pretty much under the impression that he was going to do the date. I think there was a little bit of politics involved in this. Herbie had promised him. He said, ‘Ok, Stu, you got…” Stu wasn’t bad, but, you know, he wasn’t Tony. So Alfred Lion, he was very opinionated about the music. “It doesn’t schwing. We can’t do that; it doesn’t schwing.” And if it didn’t swing, shit, he’d cancel the debt, pay everybody off—and that’s what he did on a couple of occasions.

TP: Quality control.

GC: Yeah. If he didn’t like it…ok, you’re finished.

GEORGE, JR.: So you guys just went back to Rudy’s the next day?

GC: We went back to Rudy’s the next day. Stu didn’t even know that he wasn’t on it. There is a cut with Stu playing “Maiden Voyage.” But I can’t remember any other takes on that stuff we did. Once we did the first take, that was it. “Dolphin Dance,” first time. Had to read the changes, because I wasn’t familiar with that harmonic thing. So that’s what happened. Now, “Maiden Voyage” was very simple, but “Dolphin Dance” was not so simple. He had different harmonic structures there that were… To this day… It’s an intricate little tune.

TP: Hard to tell you hadn’t played the stuff before. Sounds like you’d been playing it forever.

GC: I think we got lucky a little bit. What it is, is experience. Freddie hadn’t played this stuff either. We did a two-hour rehearsal, and we rehearsed all the stuff we did on the record. But it’s just two hours. You haven’t had time for that stuff to soak in so that you can really feel you’re in a positive improvisational situation. You’re thinking, “Well, I’ve got to read these chords; I’ve got to play this line.” But it came off ok. If you’ve got a little bit of experience… I didn’t have a helluva lot of experience in recording, but I knew what I could do, and…

TP: You did it.

GC: Yeah.

TP: Max Roach brought you out of Chicago?

GC: Yes, he came through when I was workign with the MJT+2. We were at the Blue Note. Frank Holzfiend was the owner.

TP: Max hired you and Booker Little together. You were very close to Booker Little, like a kind of older brother.

GC: Yes. Well, see, when I joined Max’s band, it was Kenny Dorham in there. When Kenny left, that’s when he got Booker. He called Booker in.

TP: How long were you with Max?

GC: Only about a year.

TP: you’re on 7 recordings with him between April 1958 and January 1959.

GC: Yes.

TP: You’ve called that a “finishing touch” kind of gig. Playing at tempos, odd meters…

GC: Oh yes, that was a really great experience for me. Then with the Slide Hampton Octet was another great experience. These are pianoless groups. But you still had to know your harmony. You still had to know what the chords were. We were playing chords. There was no piano, but we were playing chords. There was a bass there, and the drummer and no one else. So how could you go wrong. Nelson Boyd and Art Davis—great bass players.

TP: Mabern has told me about discovering Ahmad Jamal through Bill Lee.

GC: When I arrived, Ahmad was there. The king of Chicago. It was in a place called Pershing Lounge, right next to Budland, the place I used to start at 6 in the morning.

TP: I’m asking about Ahmad Jamal because you made that wonderful record with him.

GC: Oh, yeah. It was always mutual respect there. I didn’t know him that well, but I knew him somewhat. And he knew about us—meaning the guys from Memphis. Frank Strozier recorded one of his things, a big band thing. He played flute and…

TP: How did that recording with Ahmad Jamal in the ’90s come about? And what was it like playing with someone who comps behind you like an orchestra?

GC: I didn’t get in his way, so to speak. I just laid back and let him dictate. That was the thing when we made the tour. It was just like that. He’d come in and do his thing, then he’d bring me on. I always wanted to stay out of his way. I didn’t want to play while he was doing his trio stuff. But he would call me up, and then we had some special things that we would do with the quartet after he’d call me up. But his thing was… It would have been too complex to try to play with the stuff that he played. Because it was so unusual. Even when I would do those recordings, it wasn’t just straight time patterns… If it was a 32-bar pattern, he might put a tag in there for about 16 bars or so. So it was never anything that was strict. So I had to be listening for all of this stuff. I think that’s one of the things he likes about me, because he knew I could hear all this stuff he was doing.

TP: I guess the last piece here, “Time To Get Down,” a Rhythm piece, has an Ammons-Stitt feel to it.

GC: Yes.

TP: “These Foolish Things,” which you did in duo with LeDonne, makes me think of Ammons, of course, and it also made me think that two of my favorite recordings of yours are tenor-piano duos with Tete Montoliu, on Timeless, and with Richie Beirach on Triloka. Can you talk to me about playing when the drummer isn’t there.

GC: Tete Montoliu was just a fantastic guy. He was blind, but all he had to do was hear something, and then he had it. I don’t care what it was. It was fantastic. He could be all up with the minor third stuff, “Giant Steps” progressions; he could hear that. He could play that. It was remarkable how he would do that. All the double diminished stuff that people play today, he could hear that and play all of that. He was phenomenal. Tete Montoliu was one of the great musicians that I had the great pleasure of playing with.

Richie was great, too. Richie wrote these arrangements for me, for soprano and tenor, and we rehearsed them at his house on Spring Street, and we went to the studio and did them. There was no problem, because we had gone through them somewhat. He had 2 or 3 originals. Then we had a couple of standards that we did, I think. Then we had “Infant Eyes” that I had never played. Wayne Shorter tune. Great tune. I had never heard that.

TP: When you’re playing duo, do you approach things differently when there isn’t a drummer? I guess I could also ask if you play differently when there isn’t a chordal instrument? Those are challenging situations for you?

GC: It’s always challenges. The thing that helped me so much is the fact that, when I used to practice, I’d just pick up my horn, pat my foot, and play like I had a drum there, or everything was in time, in tempo. That’s the way I used to practice. So when it came to playing duos, before I had played solos, nobody but me. I would practice tunes like “All The Things you Are,” with the right tempo, playing all the changes in them. “Cherokee” I would practice with up-tempo, the same tempo, with the changes. So when I got with Max, you know, Max was right there with the time. You didn’t have to worry about the time. He’d bring you back, bring you in and take it out. His sound was impeccable. So you didn’t have to worry about that. In the case of Slide Hampton, of course, he had the octet there. It was six horns that would play backgrounds. So in a sense, you had a bit of harmonic lift there; you had a pianistic accompaniment. He’d play some written backgrounds behind you. But a lot of times, you played the with just bass and drums.

TP: I guess with Elvin Jones, there was no chordal instrument either.

GC: Same thing. Me and Frank Foster had a wonderful time. I had the gig with him in 1968, 1969. I went with Lee Morgan in the early 1970s. Elvin was another great musician. I’ve had an opportunity to be with the greatest!

TP: Well, with Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Billy Higgins, you’re not doing too badly.

GC: That’s the top! For me to come up in that, people like Tony Williams…I mean, that wasn’t no problem. Tony Williams was great, too. But I had been with all of those guys, man. Elvin Jones, Max Roach and Billy Higgins! So time… I was always conscious of time, and they had such a great beat, each one of them, that you could float on their beats. By that I mean they swung so much, to use a better word, the swinging is like a pulse you get from playing the music.

TP: You were never with the Messengers, though.

GC: I was never with the Messengers. But I liked Art Blakey. I think I might have played just one gig with him. Not his gig. We were just on a gig. This was a day when he didn’t have no sticks, so he had to play with a coat hanger.

TP: there’s a tune called “Sonny’s Playground.” Is that Sonny Rollins?

GC: That’s Sonny Stitt. That was one of his signature things, which is a very difficult key to play the blues in—D-flat, concert. Of course, back in the old days, guys…that’s an old thing. “Woodchopper’s Ball,” that was in D-flat, and guys were playing tenor solos. But Sonny Stitt had another plateau with the D-flat blues. He was so technically efficient. That’s what you have to be to play that way in the key D-flat, which is transposed E-flat for the tenor saxophone. But Coleman Hawkins and those guys, like, in that classic “Body and Soul,” that’s D-flat. So D-flat is a key that’s a challenge for any saxophone player, and probably a pianist, too, or any other instrument. That’s why “Sonny’s Playground.” That was his thing. D-flat, fast tempo, very technically involved when it comes to fingering.

TP: There’s a youtube clip of an interview by Brian Pace, I think, where you talk about sitting in with Ammons and Stitt in Chicago, and making sure they knew you could hang with them.

GC: I was on the stand with him and Gene, and I was playing with them, and he tried to trip me up. He went over to Andrew Hill to change the key, and Andrew said, “that ain’t gonna bother him!” So after that, Sonny said, “Ok, look, man, you sit this one out. Me and Gene got it.” That’s the way it was.

TP: After that, you were best friends forever or something like that.

GC: Well, George’s mother used to play with Stitt. She played bass with him and organ. But he couldn’t quite place me. He didn’t know that this is Gloria’s husband. He just thought, “Who is this guy who always comes around and wants to sit in?” But I did one thing with him one night, but he was ok with it.

TP: “Darn That Dream” is another one of those classic ballads that it’s hard to believe you never recorded before. Is “You’ll Never Know What You Mean To Me” your…

GC: That’s LeDonne’s tune. I came and sat in with him one night, and they were playing it, so I heard it from the audience. I said, “Let me try a chorus of this.” So I grabbed Eric’s horn, and the first time I start playing it. He said, “Haven’t you heard this?” I said, “Yeah.” But it wasn’t that hard. [SHOWS ME THE TENOR PART]

TP: To me, it looks hard.

GC: But it’s not! It’s not really that difficult. But it’s got changes in it, and it’s a nice little tune, with a tag on it. But that’s LeDonne’s tune. That was a great little tune.

TP: Has “Shadow Of Your Smile” been part of your repertoire for a while?

GC: Well, back in the old days I used to play it.

TP: But you never recorded it.

GC: No. But Paul Stache mentioned it. He said, “Why don’t you do ‘The Shadow Of Your Smile.’‘ I said, “Ok, sure.”

TP: You’re easy! People think you’re difficult, but you’re easy.

GC: No, I don’t have no problems, man.

TP: “Invitation.”

GC: “Invitation” was something I wanted to play. My wife loved that, God rest her soul—Carol Hollister. So in memory of her I brought a thing out to play it. It’s a good tune.

GEORGE, JR.: It was the last tune we did on the date.

TP: It’s the first tune on the mix on the sequence that I received. I can’t do this piece and not ask you about your time with Miles.

GC: Make that as a conclusion.

TP: You mentioned that apart from Charlie Parker, Coltrane was a big influence on your concept and that Sonny Rollins was someone you were also checking out, but though you listened to many people, there weren’t really other influences.

GC: Strangely enough, I had influences back to the time when I started. People like the R&B players, like Louis Jordan. I think Sonny Rollins mentioned him, too. Louis Jordan influenced me, because I was playing alto during that time, and Louis Jordan was an alto player. There was Earl Bostic, of course, from that era. Tab Smith.

TP: All the lead alto players.

GC: Lead alto players, but great soloists.

TP: Did you hear Hank O’Day, the guy Hank Crawford took his name from, and Sonny Criss dug?

GC: Oh, yeah. I knew him. He was a nice guy. Helluva pool shark, too. He could play all bank, man. Those guys down there, they weren’t playing black ball or rotation. They were playing the whole thing. And five rails in the corner. They could take a ball here, and it would be sitting here, they’d say, “Ok, four rails in the corner.” The ball goes, BING, BOMP, BING, BING, and back, and hit that ball and knock it in, and wouldn’t scratch. Those guys…so they could do more… Slim Waters, my adopted father, who was a trumpet player, he was a pool shark, too. Then there was a guy who was in the barber shop. It was right across the street from the pool hall. I’d be sitting around, looking at them, and then I’d go back to Mitchell’s Hotel and practice. Your horn would be on the bed. It probably never was in the case. I’d take it out of the case and it would be there.

TP: So you were living at the Mitchell Hotel.

GC: I was staying in the Mitchell’s Hotel.

TP: Did you grow up in Memphis proper?

GC: I grew up on the north side of Memphis. Manassas High School.

TP: You had a teacher named Miss Thomas who would play you the Moonlight Sonata and you’d have to analyze it.

GC: See, I had basic elementary music education. I knew what the great staff was. I knew bass clef, treble clef, I knew what the lines and spaces were, and the names. I knew all of this stuff. Because that’s what they taught you in your first elementary education. Then we had music appreciation, where she would play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and you’d have to identify it. What is this? All the basic stuff—whole note, quartet note.

TP: You had a thorough bedrock for a self-taught musician to build on. Then it was up to you.

GC: That’s right. I wasn’t even playing a saxophone during that time when she was teaching basic music, like the lines and spaces and clefs. I was playing a little bit. I could read a little bit. I was playing in the concert ball and also playing football.

TP: Were you a good football player?

GC: Not that great. I could tackle, and I had pretty good hands. Of course, I missed a pass one time that was right in my hands and broke my finger. It’s still bent. [SHOWS ME] I never bothered to have it straightened. I’ve worked with it all these years.

TP: Back to Miles. You sat in with the quintet, I guess, with Wynton Kelly, Coltrane, PC and Philly Joe, and they called something real fast…

GC: I called it. They asked me what I wanted to play, and I called “Lover.” So when they heard me play “Lover,” I think it probably convinced Miles. It was up.

TP: Did Miles or Coltrane know you from Chicago?

GC: No, I don’t think they knew me from Adam, as a matter of fact.

TP: Well, could just anybody sit in with Miles and Coltrane at the Bohemia?

GC: Well, I was there, and I heard them, and I asked to sit in. I didn’t have no horn, so Coltrane gave me his horn and I went up and played. I think they knew a little something about me.

TP: From Max maybe?

GC: Well, maybe. First of all, I think Trane was getting ready to leave, so he needed a replacement. So he recommended me. I never knew that.

TP: But Hank Mobley and Stitt came before you.

GC: I replaced Hank Mobley.

TP: This is what you told me a few years ago, and you fleshed it out more in an interview with a guy called Dan Miller for All About Jazz. The gist is that you were cramping their style because they wanted to mess with the form…

GC: You’re talking about Herbie, Ron and Tony.

TP: Yes. You said to Miller that you’d be out front because Miles would go to the bar for 10-15 minutes, it was cramping their style and it would drive them crazy, and then one night you decided to take your solo outside, and that calmed them down for a while.

GC: Yes. After they heard that, they knew that I could play that shit if I wanted to. But I didn’t want to.

TP: Why didn’t you want to at the time?

GC: Because I was playing the repertoire of the leader, Miles Davis. He was playing his solos and stuff, but we were still playing the standards. We were playing “Autumn Leaves.” We were playing “Walkin’”. All that stuff. But they wanted to take that concept somewhere else when they were on the stand without him. I wanted to continue playing… First of all, as I said (and this is true), people thought I was Miles. When he wasn’t there, they thought I was Miles. Did you know that?

TP: I didn’t know it until I read your remark about that.

GC: Yeah, man, they thought I was Miles. People would come to me at the end of the set and say, “Oh, Mr. Davis, such wonderful music. Really. Thank you so much. Can I have your autograph?” It was something I didn’t like. I didn’t want to be out there trying to be him. First of all, the stature was different. I am 250 pounds, and Miles Davis was maybe, wet, 150 or 160. So they just didn’t know! He wasn’t there. During that time, he was in considerable pain with his hip. And some nights, I guess he didn’t really want to play. He would come in the Vanguard and play one set. After the first set, he’d be gone. So the second set, we’d have to play. Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams.

GEORGE, JR.: He had hip and back problems back in those days?

GC: Well, he had a bad hip, and it would pain him. He was in extreme pain. So a lot of nights he wouldn’t make it. Strange thing about it, though, is the next night when he would come in… The first night, when he wouldn’t show up, there would be lines of people waiting for him. But we’d be in the club, and we wouldn’t show. So the club owner would say, “you guys go up and play tonight, and I’ll tell them that he’ll be here tomorrow night.” So when tomorrow came and he was there, there were still lines of people, probably a longer line than there was originally.

TP: Part of it is, “will he show up or night?” People thought like that then.

GC: Yes, they’d think like that. They said, “I’m going to get there, because I wonder if he’s going to show.” Because he’s like, you know, the high priest. That’s why I decided I couldn’t deal with it no more. Too much friction between them and me. That wasn’t the case off the bandstand. Oh, they were great pals with me off the bandstand, because I would have the girls. See, after the gig was over I’d always have me a girl, you know, a girl who would come to the room, and then they’d be coming, knocking on my door. “Hey, let us in, man.” So it was all pals. But when it came to the bandstand, it was another story. But it was a great experience. Wallace Roney told me (and they all know this), “Man, Miles didn’t want you to leave.” I do remember that day when he called me. “Are you coming back, man? Come on.” I said, “No, Miles.” “Why don’t you come back, man?” I said, ‘you know…” And he knew I was having problems with them. They were trying to get me fired anyway. They wanted to hire Sam Rivers, and after that they got Wayne Shorter.

TP: I guess Sam was Tony’s mentor in Boston, so they were very close.

GC: Exactly.

TP: And then Wayne, I’ve heard, had talked to Miles while he was still with Art Blakey, so politics were afoot in that situation as well.

GC: Sure.

TP: Do you think you’ll record again for Smoke Sessions?

GC: That’s a possibility.

TP: this one is coming out around your 81st birthday. I hope we can have one for your 82nd.

GC: Well, maybe. We’ll see. If this one goes good, and it just might… It might be ok. I’m not crazy about it, and that’s why I’ve been reluctant to listen to it.

TP: Do you have a favorite record?

GC: Some of the live stuff that I did with Wynton Kelly, I think with Ron McClure and Jimmy Cobb in Baltimore, at the Left Bank. Jimmy Heath came over to the house one night, and this guy sent me the transcribed solo of “Surrey With The Fringe On Top”—my solo. I looked at it and I said, “what?” This stuff looked like a classical selection from Stravinsky. It had all kinds of different weird… Jimmy came here, I said, “Jimmy, check this out.” he put the whole sheet on the floor. It was almost ten pages. So we put the record on and he started looking at it, and he said, “man, it looks pretty good to me.” But it was crazy. It was like groupings of 7th with one beast, 5s, 7s… Weird. Did I give you that transcribed…

GEORGE, JR.: No. You showed it to me and I took a look at it.

GC: I’ve got to find it for you so you can have it for the archives.

TP: george, why don’t you tell me what you said about your father at the NEA Party at Smoke, or synopsize it?

GC: Did you record it?

GEORGE, JR.: I didn’t. I don’t know if anybody did. But basically what I said was… This is echoed by anybody who knows George. Besides being…we don’t like to say “unsung,” because there’s plenty of people who love George Coleman. One of the funny things is, I have Facebook… George is not a big social media guy, so I handle all that for him. I remember as soon as I got on, I started getting all these requests, and I’m like, “Who are these people? I don’t know who all these people are.” Then I started getting notes from them, like, “Mr. Coleman, I love your solo on ‘My Funny Valentine’ and I saw you in Italy…”

GC: They thought it was him.

GEORGE, JR.: They thought me was him. I never went to “Junior” or anything. It was “little George” or something like that within the family. So it was interesting to me to see all of these people from all around the world who were touched by what George had done musically, and in most cases didn’t know him, and in some cases they may have saw him live somewhere in Europe or Asia or whatever. So that was really interesting for me.

But the thing I spoke to at the NEA thing was the concept of my dad being a wonderful human being. He’s helped so many people. I don’t know how many times George has had students come over and not taken money from them, basically wanting to share all this great knowledge, or people who were down-and-out and needed help, and George lent a helping hand. I also think that’s a testament to his great playing, that he’s also a great human being. People who don’t know George don’t know that about him. But I think that’s one positive aspect in terms of why he’s always been great with crowds. He’s a very giving person, and he wants the people who listen to music to enjoy themselves and feel like they were really special and part of something, because they are. I feel a lot of the approaches to music these days are less focused on the interests of the people who are actually attending the concert and more about the interesting things that the musicians are doing for themselves on stage, and that’s not what George is about, and that’s the lesson I’ve always gotten.

GC: Whatever you play, you’ve got to entertain.

GEORGE, JR.: You’ve got to entertain. Somebody told me one day “it’s not called ‘show art.’ It’s called ‘show business’ for a reason.” That’s the other thing about George. That doesn’t mean you diminish the sophistication or complexity of what it is that you do musically. It’s just something that you keep in mind. It could be something as simple as feeling the crowd out and maybe wanting to call one particular tune, which I’ve seen George do many times, where we’ll be in the back…I’ll have an opportunity to play with him, I’ll be in the back, and he’ll say, “here’s the set list,” and then we get onstage and we don’t do any of those tunes, because at the moment George feels this crowd just seems different, so this will work better. So it wasn’t like we played any lesser music. We just felt the vibe of the crowd, or he felt the vibe of the crowd…

TP: But he’s describing a very art-for-art’s-sake aesthetic, but then there’s another side that probably comes from playing for people…

GC: Miles Davis liked to play for people, too. All those guys. All the successful guys. Now, you’ve got people like Herbie and Chick Corea…they basically play for themselves. In a lot of instances, the stuff they play is for themselves. That’s their signature. But it might not be palatable to the ears of some people. Now, the staunch JAZZ people…you could take a nickel or a quarter and scratch it on some glass, and people say, “Oh, that’s great jazz.” But for people who really want to hear the people swing and want to hear some nice melody and nice rhythm and things like that…this is what some of the professionals I’ve come into contact with… I’ve been with some of the great professionals, like Lionel Hampton. Now, he was a showman, too. That’s what made them successful.

TP: Talent and showmanship.

GC: Yeah. Not necessarily showmanship… They would play stuff that the people would want to hear, play music the people would want to hear.

GEORGE, JR.: I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been at concerts, especially some of the clubs where a lot of tourists come, not necessarily regular jazz fans or people who live in New York, and they come up to me or come up to George and they say, “I’m not really a jazz fan, I don’t really like jazz, but I love what you guys are doing.”

GC: Yeah, that’s right.

GEORGE, JR.: that says to us that we did our job.

GC: I’ve been with a lot of people in showbiz. Even Max… All the guys I worked with, they played stuff. Max knew the people like “Valse Hot,” and they liked to hear him play 3/4. They knew things… I’m sure when Brownie was in the band and Harold Land, they played stuff that people were anxious to hear. “Daahoud” and all that stuff they recorded, they played that stuff, man, and they swung and it sounded so good, and it was up-tempo stuff. When Sonny was in the band… People liked to hear that. This is back in the day, though, Ted. The ears today, the youthful ears… I think they are somewhat deprived, because they don’t realize what it used to be like.

 

 

George Coleman (WKCR, 4-27-94):

TP: You’ve played so long with Harold Mabern and Jamil Nasser. You must go back at least forty years.
GC: Yeah, that’s true. We’ve been together for quite some time now, and it’s always a great experience playing with these guys.
TP: When did you first meet Mabern? Was it back in Memphis?
GC: Well, we were in high school together. I graduated a little ahead of them — well, him. Jamil was over at Booker T. Washington. We were going to Manassas High, which was on the North Side, and Booker T. Washington was on the south side of the city. Of course, the two schools were rivals. They were the top black high schools in Memphis during that time.
TP: Did they have good band programs?
GC: Yes, they had very good band programs, both of them. Both schools had nice marching bands. Of course, their forte was basically, though, I would say probably athletics. But there were some good musical programs.
TP: There also was probably a lot of work in Memphis for a talented young musician in the late Forties and early Fifties.
GC: Well…sort of. You had the R&B thing during that time. That was the popular music of that day. But of course, there was some Jazz there, too, also.
TP: A few words about some of these early working experiences. A lot of bands either would come through Memphis and would be based in Memphis, and it was a center of a certain aspect of the recording industry.
GC: Oh, yes. Well, during that time we’re talking about the early Fifties, late Forties. We had people like Count Basie’s band coming through. The guys would always come to this little place, which then was known as Mitchell’s Hotel. It’s long gone now. It was right on the corner of Beale and Hernando, and the proprietor was a guy by the name of Andrew Mitchell, affectionately known as Sunbeam. He just recently died, a couple of years ago. But he was very generous to musicians coming through during that time. A lot of times guys would be stranded, and they could always get a meal and a bed.
A lot of guys were coming through during that time. A lot of the R&B bands would come up and sit in. There was just a session. There was always a session there.
TP: It seems to me that having so many musicians come through, you’d learn very quickly how to edit your playing and how to approach soloing and so forth.
GC: Yes. I feel that we did have an advantage coming up in that time period, all the musicians who came up during that time, because there was a lot of exposure to the music — and everybody was trying to get involved with this great music. There was a lot happening. There was a lot happening for young musicians. Not so much today, because you’ve got to search high and wide to try to find a session, a jam session, whereas during that time, man, there was always somebody playing somewhere, or rehearsing some music, some original music or whatnot.
TP: Even so, it must be quite gratifying for an older musician from Memphis to see the talent that’s continued to emerge from there, or the hundred mile area, particularly the great group of pianists.
GC: Yes, there has been quite a talented array of pianists coming from Memphis — Mulgrew Miller, of course Mabern, the late, great Phineas Newborn, James Williams, Donald Brown. So it’s a pianist’s city. There’s another pianist named Charles Thomas who is also from Memphis. And there’s always some younger guys coming up.
TP: Often at the Vanguard you’ve worked with Billy Higgins or Carl Allen, sometimes Idris Muhammad, but I can’t remember you working with Jimmy Lovelace at the Vanguard.
GC: Well, Jimmy, affectionately known as Lace, has been a great drummer for many years. He goes back to that period of the Fifties. He’s always been an excellent player. And although he doesn’t get a chance to play as much, whenever he sits down on the drums, he really gives account of himself. He’s always there swinging and playing with taste and good chops, too. I don’t know how he does it, because he doesn’t play that much. Well, I think he’s playing a little bit more now. Anyway, we’re very happy to have him.
TP: A few words about the two others in the band with whom you’ve been playing for so long, Jamil Nasser and Harold Mabern.
GC: Well, they’re always excellent. They just know what to do at the right time, and their repertoire is always extensive. They know just hundreds of songs, and we have quite a few harmonic devices that we use. We always listen to each other, and that’s how we formulate and really get a groove going, because we listen to each other rather than just close your eyes and just be playing. We’re always listening for something that will help us to communicate.
TP: Will all three of your horns be in evidence this week?
GC: Well, yes, I’ve been trying some new stuff, you know, and hopefully it will work out pretty good. But those are tricky instruments, the alto and the soprano.
TP: Well, you started off as an alto saxophonist, didn’t you?
GC: Oh, yeah. That was my original instrument.
TP: How did the switch to the tenor come about? Because of the function of rhythm-and-blues gigs, you had to play tenor?
GC: Yes, that story was when I went to join B.B. King. That was when I switched to tenor. Because he had an alto player. He didn’t need a tenor player. So I started playing tenor then. That was circa 1955, somewhere around there.
TP: We have a few tracks cued up from recent recordings that you appear on. One is with Hilton Ruiz. There is a partnership there over the years as well.
GC: Oh, yes. Well, Hilton and I have been on tours together. As a matter of fact, he was the pianist on my first European tour as a leader, with a quartet, going back to around ’76 or ’77,.
TP: That was documented on Timeless, an LP called Amsterdam After Dark.
GC: That’s right. Billy Higgins was the drummer on the tour, but Sam Jones wasn’t with us. He was playing with Cedar during that time.
TP: According to the liner notes, you brought this piece in for Hilton’s last date for Novus, A Moment’s Notice, a piece called “Strange” featuring you and Hilton Ruiz as the primary soloists, also Andy Gonzalez on bass and Steve Berrios on drums, dueno and timbales as well.
GC: It’s an old song that a lot of people don’t know about. It was recorded many years ago by Nat King Cole. He was the first artist that I had heard perform the tune. I always liked it. I liked it harmonically, and it had a nice kind of little Latin thing to it. So I thought that would be quite appropriate for Hilton’s date. So I did introduce it, and he decided that he wanted to record it.
[MUSIC: Ruiz-Coleman, “Strange” (1993); Beirach-Coleman, “Flamenco Sketches” (1992); Coleman-Henderson-Pierce-Williams, “Lo-Joe” (1993)]
TP: Are we to assume that “Lo-Joe” is a dedication to your partner on that date, Joe Henderson?
GC: That’s correct, yes, yes.
TP: I was just asking you 30 seconds how long it took everyone to nail that down.
GC: Well, they got it pretty quick, I must say. Of course, when we play it now, we play it very fast. We play it up-tempo.
TP: That wasn’t up-tempo?
GC: No, that wasn’t really as fast as we play it. We use it like for a chaser when we’re coming off. Heh-heh.
TP: People who want to sit in, beware, because George will probably put that one on you and change the key three or four times as well! Preceding that was a duo with pianist Richie Beirach on “Flamenco Sketches” from Kind of Blue. That’s from a date I enjoyed very much that didn’t get distributed as widely as it might have, on the Triloka label, Richie Beirach and George Coleman, Convergence. That brings to mind another duo date you did in the 1970’s with Catalonian pianist Tete Montoliu. And another thing it brings to mind is that George Coleman spent a couple of years with Miles Davis. So I’ll have to ask a question that brings all of that into play. You said that the song itself was new to you when Richie presented it to you.
GC: Yeah, I had no idea of what it really was. I just looked at the chord progressions and just improvised from that. Of course, I’m assuming that that’s basically… The way it sounds, the way I remember it, I might have heard it maybe once, the rendition of Miles Davis. When I heard it, that’s basically what it was. I didn’t hear any kind of profound melody. It was just something that seemed to be a slow ballad-type thing with just changes and free improvisation. That’s what it sounded like to me.
TP: So this one didn’t get played when you were part of the Miles Davis group.
GC: No, that wasn’t a part of the repertoire at the time.
TP: Since we’re on the subject, what were the circumstances that led you to joining Miles.
GC: Well, strangely enough, I think I found out much later that it was John Coltrane who recommended me for the job.
TP: How long had you known John Coltrane?
GC: Well, I didn’t really know him that well. I had met him a couple of times. He was a very, very beautiful guy, always there, very humble, and was just a sweetheart of a person, always there to help you. I remember one time I came down and sat in with the band. This is at the old Bohemia down on Barrow Street. This is many years ago. This is when I first arrived in New York. I was with Max during that time, I think. Anyway, he let me play his horn, mouthpiece and everything. So I sat in and played with Miles, and I guess evidently I had made some kind of an impression on him. Because when Trane got ready to leave, or when he asked him about people, he recommended me.
TP: That must have been an interesting band to play with. Was it different every night? Were the tunes treated in a different way?
GC: Yes. Well, a lot of people oft-times comment about that, wondering if we really rehearsed those things we were doing, or if the rhythm section really rehearsed. No, this was pretty much spontaneous, everything… We had a format, though, of course. I would play counter-lines behind him or some little harmonies, and these were set things. But as far as into the guts of the tune, all kind of things might be happening. There would be tempo changes, or 3/4 in a section which if it was a 4/4 tune it would do. They were very inventive, I must say. The rhythm section was very… They were young guys, and they were interested in doing new, different things. As a matter of fact, I was probably considered the old man, heh, the old post-Bebop player! I was trying to adhere to basic rules of Jazz playing, and they were on another plateau. They were moving out. They were getting ready to do some different things, which they did.
TP: Can you elaborate on that a little more?
GC: Well, yeah. There were times when they felt I was kind of cramping them. Because I was always pretty much a straight player. But one night I stretched out and played a little free something for them, and they were all amazed. All of them including Miles, because he had left the bandstand, and when he heard what was going on and said, “What was that?!” Of course, Herbie and Tony and Ron, they were all very I guess pleasantly surprised — because that was that one night. But I didn’t do it any more after that.
TP: You figured you’d made your point.
GC: I just wanted to show them it wasn’t impossible for me to do that.
[END OF SIDE]
I would love to do something with maybe Ahmad Jamal one of these days.
TP: Were you checking him out when you were living in Chicago in the mid-1950’s?
GC: Oh yeah. He was the house band at the Pershing Lounge for many years. So we would always go there and hear the trio with Vernell Fournier and Ahmad and Israel Crosby, a great bass player. Every night, man, they were there hitting. They were there hitting right in the lounge of the Pershing Hotel, and he was there playing so magnificently every night.
Chicago was such a great place during that time, man. I mean, you had music twenty-four hours a day. I tell people that.
TP: And they say, “What do you mean, twenty-four hours a day?”
GC: Yeah! Well, actually I had a gig that started at six o’clock in the morning at a place called Budland that was adjacent to the Pershing Hotel. They had a little place there, and we used to start at six in the morning. Then there was another place up on State Street…
TP: Who was your band?
GC: There was a guy named Prentice McCrary. Johnny Griffin would know who that is. Most people would not know this guy. But he was the organist, a very good keyboard player. I can’t remember who the drummer was.
TP: What type of people would be going to these six in the morning gigs?
GC: Well, people who have late gigs or early morning. Bartenders and waitresses and people like that, they would be up that early time, at that time of the morning! Just like the after-hour joints that used to be here in New York!
TP: It’s hard these days to conceive of an actual gig that hits at six in the morning.
GC: Well, they had something called the Breakfast Show at the Club De Lisa during that time, the famous Club De Lisa on State Street in Chicago. That started at like 8 o’clock in the morning. Nice show, beautiful show, dancers and singers and whatnot. This guy Red Saunders was the bandleader there for many years. He was a drummer, and he had that gig sewed up for many years.
There was a lot of excitement there in Chicago during that time, a lot of excitement and a lot of opportunities for young musicians to learn the music. There was another place where Johnny Griffin used to play all the time, a place called Swingland on Cottage Grove. He had bands in there. The music was continuous in there. After the regular gig was through, there were instruments on the stand, drums and bass, and people would come in at all times of morning or night. It just never ended.
TP: You had had a lot of experience playing the Blues in Memphis, so I guess Chicago must have been a place where you were able to get gigs and further develop yourself.
GC: Yes, that was a second stage. I had had some experience in Memphis playing with bands and doing a little bit of reading and a little bit of arranging and whatnot. But when I got to Chicago, that really opened up a different thing for me. That really gave me some very good opportunities to learn the music and to continue to develop. And meeting up with Johnny Griffin was one of those inspirational things.
TP: It’s a jam session town, and a tenor player’s town, and it was filled with great tenor players in the 1950’s.
GC: Oh, there was guys there… Also Gene Ammons was there during that time when I was there, and he’s such a wonderful player, and a nice guy, too. Of course, Sonny Stitt would come through from time to time. It was just great. There were a couple of other guys around there that nobody really knows too much about. There was a guy named Nicky Hill, who was an excellent saxophonist, a guy named John Jenkins, who just recently passed, an altoist — he was from Chicago. There was quite a few guys there, lesser-known people, but still great players.
TP: George Coleman is a musician who every time you think he’s topped himself, well, he tops himself the next time, and you can hear him with people he’s been playing with for years at the Village Vanguard this week, Harold Mabern on piano, Jamil Nasser on bass, and Jimmy Lovelace on drums. The next track we’ll hear is from My Horns Of Plenty which you did for Verve a couple of years ago with Mabern, Ray Drummond and Billy Higgins, where you showcase your alto and soprano saxophone.
GC: I like playing these instruments if I can get a comfortable situation with the right kind of acoustical setting. If the mikes are right or if the sound is good, then I feel good about these instruments. But without these things it can be somewhat of a problem, as most people who play these instruments can tell you, especially a soprano. But I’m giving it a try this weekend at the Vanguard. I haven’t been playing them for a while, but I’m going to try to see what I can do this weekend.
TP: We’ll hear “You Mean So Much To Me.”
GC: This is something that I had conceived some years ago, when I was touring with the band that I told you about, with Hilton Ruiz and Billy Higgins and Ray. So I would always be messing around on the piano, trying to figure out what I was going to do with it. So I finally put it together, and thusly that’s what it is. I came up with a title. And Bill Lee, Spike Lee’s father, wrote some lyrics to it. It could be a singer’s tune.
[MUSIC: G. Coleman, “You Mean So Much To Me” (1989)]
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George Coleman (WKCR, 7-26-95):

[MUSIC: G. Coleman-A. Queen, “Soul Eyes” (1987); Coleman-Pierce-Henderson-Williams, “Lo-Joe” (1993)]
TP: You’ve been bringing in different drummers to these Vanguard weeks. Billy Higgins has been in there, last time Idris Muhammad, and this week Alvin Queen. A few words about Alvin Queen, and how you relate to different drummers, how they affect the way you play.
GC: I always try to get the best that’s available, and sometimes that can be difficult because the real good drummers are working. We’ve had Lewis Nash, we’ve had, of course, Billy Higgins, we’ve had Idris Muhammad, Carl Allen — and this week we’re having Alvin Queen, which is a blessing.
TP: How far back do you go with Alvin Queen?
GC: Alvin and I go back a bit. I first became really acquainted with him, so to speak, when I was in Europe touring in the 1970’s, like in 1975, and he came up to sit in with us in Rome. Prior to that, I was not really hip to how well he played. I knew he was a good drummer, but you never know until you play with people and really find out the finer points of what they can do.
TP: What are you looking for in your drummer when you’re playing? Is there a hierarchy of qualities?
GC: Well, there are several things. One of the basic things is keeping time, and then after that, imagination, taste and things of that sort. That goes into being a good drummer. You know, taste is the thing where a drummer can hear you do something, and he’ll dress it up for you. That’s in the vernacular of Billy Higgins and drummers of those dimensions. Of course, Idris Muhammad is excellent for that. But I’ll tell you, the real great drummers tend to be rare. There are a few nice young ones. You have Billy Drummond and people like that (who I haven’t had the pleasure of playing with that much). But the drum chair is a very critical chair. It motivates the structure of everything that’s happening, especially in a quartet situation.
TP: The drummer has to hold it all together.
GC: Oh yeah.
TP: Now, Harold Mabern is known for his very percussive and rhythmic style.
GC: Well, he definitely adds to the rhythmic portion of the band. He sort of anchors everything along with the drummer. He enhances the drummer.
TP: And a great harmonic knowledge as well.
GC: Of course. That’s another one of his fortes.
TP: Has that been there ever since you’ve known him? — I guess going back forty years plus.
GC: Yes, he’s always been interested in doing different things harmonically. And we have sort of a connection there, all of us, including Jamil, whereas we like to do different things harmonically. And sometimes these things turn out to be spontaneous, too; they’re not pre-planned. But that’s the way we think.
TP: Who were some of the good drummers you played with going back to your early days in music, in Memphis, some of the exceptional, strong ones?
GC: Well, there weren’t too many great drummers back there in Memphis during that time. There was a guy named Charles Crosby, who is deceased, who was one of the young drummers during that time who were… There just weren’t that many in Memphis during that time.
TP: I guess they had to keep time pretty well, because they had to play on the Blues circuit and so forth.
GC: Yes. Well, that’s what they were basically involved in. There weren’t many jazz-orientated drummers down there during that time. Only a few, and nobody would know who they are.
TP: Did you start getting involved with big-time, major league drummers when you moved to Chicago?
GC: Yes. Now, that’s when things started happening, because there were quite a few great drummers there during that time. Unfortunately, I missed Ike Day. He was that legendary drummer that Max and Art Blakey and all of the great drummers used to talk about. He was really something. I never got a chance to meet him or play with him. All of the great drummers, Max and Art Blakey and probably even Klook, they knew about him. He was just an exceptional percussionist.
TP: Who were some of the drummers that you did work with? Because when you came out of Chicago, you came out with Max Roach!
GC: Well, I was fortunate enough to have the cream of the crop, see. That was ultimate. And through him, my technique developed, because we were playing fast all night; most of the times, everything we played was fast.
TP: So it’s different dynamics on fast.
GC: Oh, yeah. The emphasis was on fast, really, with him. And of course, he was a pioneer in developing 3/4 in its association with Jazz. Max was the first guy to play 3/4.
TP: How did he link up with you? You must have joined the band in late ’57 or early ’58.
GC: Yes. Well, what happened was, I was playing with a group called the MJT+3 in Chicago during that time, featuring Walter Perkins and Bob Cranshaw, Muhal Richard Abrams, and a trumpet player by the name of Paul Serrano. We were playing a club on the North Side of Chicago called the Blue Note. Max came in one night, and he heard us, and he was very impressed. Then after that he heard Booker Little. As a matter of fact, I think that particular night he heard Paul Serrano, but he was very much impressed with Booker Little, because Booker Little was like what he was looking for in a trumpet player.
TP: What was that? What were those qualities?
GC: Well, he was looking for great technique and an innovative ability, and youth, too. And when Kenny Dorham left the band, that’s when Booker joined. He snatched Booker right away.
TP: You knew Booker Little about as well as anyone.
GC: Oh yeah. We grew up back in Memphis. I was amazed at his talent even when he was just a kid. He had transcribed a Miles Davis solo on “Star Eyes” note for note, and I was very impressed with that. Of course, he was just a phenomenal player.
TP: Can you tell the audience a little bit about Booker Little’s background and what you remember about his first forays into Jazz?
GC: Well, he was sort of like a protege of mine, in a sense, because he was a little bit younger than me, and I was, in a sense, like a teacher to most of the younger players there, like Frank Strozier… Not really a teacher, but I was a sort of a…
TP: …role model.
GC: Yeah, a role model, and I would put them in a catalystic direction as far as Jazz was concerned. I would tell them what to do, and what it was all about, and how to improvise, and what this chord was. And I was still learning, too, during this time. But I have been a teacher… Even during the time when I was learning, I have been a teacher. I am happy to say that and I’m very proud of that…
TP: It probably helped you learn.
GC: Oh, it did. Most certainly. And it has transcended through all the years that I have been involved with music.
TP: But did Booker Little have that incredible sound that we can always identify him with from his early years?
GC: Oh, yes. He always had a great sound, reminiscent of Clifford Brown — very mellow, you know. It’s almost a flugelhorn like sound on a trumpet. He never did have the blare. Even when he would go up to maybe a high D, the note was so mellow. It was not screechy. Of course, that’s a very high note on a trumpet. But he could play up there. He could play high F’s and it would sound so mellow.
GC: Who were the trumpet players that he was really paying close attention to? You mentioned him transcribing Miles’ solo on “Star Eyes.”
GC: Oh, yeah. Well, of course, Miles and Dizzy and Fat Girl and all the great trumpet players, Clifford Brown, that’s the people he was listening to. But he was not copying not one note from any of them! It was amazing, because he was a stylist at a very early age. He was playing like nobody but himself. Which was amazing, you know. If you listen to him, you don’t really hear… I mean, you hear little nuances maybe from different people. But his ideas were his own.
[MUSIC: Max Roach-K. Dorham-G. Coleman, “Parker’s Mood” (1958)]
TP: Right before you came on we heard a track called “Lo-Joe.” You’ve been a student of the tenor saxophone and of other tenor saxophonists for many years. When you came up in the 1950’s, when you started emerging on the scene, who were some of your contemporaries who you were really enthusiastic about at that time?
GC: There were quite a few. Of course, when I arrived in Chicago there was Johnny Griffin and Gene Ammons. Those were really the two that I was most impressed with during that time. Of course, Sonny Stitt would pop in from time to time. There was just quite an array of saxophonists on the scene at that time.
TP: How did listening to them shape your style, if at all? For instance, Gene Ammons.
GC: Well, my style was basically shaped through listening to Charlie Parker. He was the man for me, Charlie Parker. Then later came John Coltrane. But then there were so many others. There was Hank Mobley, of course Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Lucky Thompson, and Don Byas and some of the older players that I was very impressed with — technique and originality.
TP: Did you study their records, check them out live, transcribe solos, things like that?
GC: No, I’ll tell you. Those guys, the solos they played were very difficult to transcribe, man!
TP: Why is that?
GC: Because they were so unique. The stuff that they were playing was really… You’d say, “Man, that stuff’s not even on the horn, what these guys are playing.” Because they were so individual. They knew how to bend a note. I mean, you couldn’t even notate the stuff that they played. Even if you could write the notes, you wouldn’t be able to notate it because of the way they played notes — the way they slurred, the way they would bend the note, the way they would finger. There’s no prescribed way of doing that. Eddie Lockjaw Davis is a prime example of that. He’d hit a note, and it just would sound like it wasn’t even on the tenor, the way he played it. Of course, he was one of my idols, too. I loved the way he played, because he was so unique.
It’s been said in this modern day and age that there are so many young players out there, and they all sound the same. But during that era, everybody sounded different. You had Paul Gonsalves, you know. They were coming from different schools, like maybe Don Byas, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, but they sounded different! All of them sounded different. They played different ideas. Some of them had a tendency to have somewhat of the same kind of sound, so to speak, but even that was different. There was just so much difference in players. It was a challenge for you to come up in that era and not sound like those people. But I never would rely on anybody else’s licks. I would listen to it and analyze it. Like some of the diminished things that Coltrane used to play, all the saxophone players was playing those. And I loved the licks! But I would always turn it around and play it a different way. It would be the same kind of diminished sequence, but I would just maybe invert or do something else with it.
I think all of us have come from somebody. Like, the emphasis of a lot of players, especially the so-called avant-garde ones, they’re saying, “Oh, I don’t want to sound like nobody.” But you know, they don’t sound like nothin’! Most of them don’t sound like anything. They’re not musical. Now, that’s a harsh statement to make, but it’s true in a sense. Because saxophone playing is something that has dated back many years, and the expertise has been handed down through all of these great players. For somebody to just get up and just play meaningless notes without connecting is… But you know, you have the critics, they say, “Oh yes, he’s creative, he’s this and he’s that and he’s that.” That kind of irks me, in a sense. It disturbs me, because they don’t really know. They don’t really know. When I first started playing, I could make a sound, I could make a strange sound on the saxophone. But to put notes in order and to have them mean something, harmonically and rhythmically and melodically, that’s something that requires study, expertise and God-given talent.
TP: In the Fifties, it seems to me you were doing a lot of doubling, alto-tenor. There are a number of recordings with you on alto saxophone at that time. What was the primary reason why you went pretty much exclusively with the tenor saxophone?
GC: Well, I changed to tenor back in 1955, after playing alto maybe four years, because it was an economic necessity. I went with B.B. King, and he already had an alto player; he needed a tenor. So that’s how that came about. The rest is history. But alto was my forte, and was my first instrument. That was the instrument that I first began to play.
TP: What’s the difference between the two instruments for you?
GC: They have different characteristics, you know. Alto is a control instrument. Of course it’s a different pitch. Alto a sixth from Concert and the tenor is like a major Ninth or just a step away from Concert. But transposition-wise, that never bothered me, because I would play in all the keys anyway, even as as kid when I was coming up. So the keys was never a thing that… The transition from one key to another was never any problem with me, because I practiced all the keys on both instruments.
TP: Do you find yourself shaping solos differently on the tenor saxophone because of the different sound?
GC: Yes, that is a possibility that enters into the picture. When you’re playing alto there’s a couple of little things that you might think differently on alto than you do on tenor — and even soprano. They all have their own different characteristics, and it sort of influences as far as what you might play on each one.
TP: Are you playing only tenor this week?
GC: No, I’m struggling with the three! And if I can get some good reeds, that’s going to facilitate my performance a little bit better. But last night I had a terrible time with reeds.
TP: I’ll bet nobody knew but you.
GC: Well, sometimes that’s the case. But if there are musicians in the audience who know, and know about this problem, they can acknowledge the fact when things like that are happening.
[MUSIC: George Coleman, “Father” (1987)]
TP: Are you working on any recording projects right now? Any ideas in mind at the moment?
GC: Well, I am pursuing in my mind… This is something that I have been thinking about for a while. I would really like to do some strings stuff, maybe an album with strings and voices. This is something I would like to do.
TP: What’s the appeal of strings and voices? It seems like every strong jazz musicians wants to do at least one record with strings and voices.
GC: Yeah. Well, with a full orchestra behind you, there’s so much excitement and inspiration, in my mind, that I think I could probably do some things that maybe I haven’t attempted to do before, if I could have that kind of an ensemble, so to speak, behind me, with voices and strings. Because I’ve always liked that. I have some equipment at home now that I just recently set up. I have the music-writing stuff, the Finale and the Encore, and it’s all hooked up to the MacIntosh, and now I have this Roland Synthesizer, and just through that I’ve been hearing some different sounds. It’s inspired me to realize the potential of maybe being involved in a project like that. So that’s what I’m really thinking about doing. I don’t know who is going to help me do it, but…
TP: I’m sure there’s a big pool of arrangers and composers out there to actualize it if the money is there.
GC: Yeah. I’d like to maybe give a stab at doing one myself. That would give me a little more of something different from my octet writing.
TP: How about the Octet? A lot of people miss that group.
GC: Well, we’re going to revive it. Of course, the personnel is different. There’s a lot of younger musicians in it now.
TP: Who would be some of the young musicians you’d use if it were coming down to that.
GC: Of course, there’s Ned Otter, who is one of my students. Adam Brenner, who is another. Of course, Gary Smulyan, an excellent baritone saxophone player; he’s in the band, too. Of course, George, Junior, my son; he’s playing drums. Clint Houston has been playing bass. Of course, Harold Mabern is the pianist. And Bill Mobley from Memphis is the trumpet, another young man who is a great arranger and a great trumpet player. So with all of these ingredients, I think we can really do something. We’re going to start some rehearsals in the near future.
TP: We’ll conclude with George’s interpretation of “Good Morning Heartache,” composed by Irene Higgenbotham and sung by Billie Holiday. I’m sure you heard this one often as a kid.
GC: Well, I had only heard it through the rendition of Diana Ross. That’s the first time I had really heard that tune, and I was impressed with it. The first few bars are kind of strange, you know, but if you adhere to the melody you can get through it and interpret it. But it’s kind of strange. It’s kind of funny in the beginning of that tune!
[MUSIC: G. Coleman, “Good Morning Heartache” (1987)]

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