For the 98th Birth Anniversary of Bass Maestro Israel “Cachao” Lopez, A 2005 interview with Cachao and Bebo Valdès and an Essay About Cachao From 2012

Today is the 98th birth  anniversary of Israel “Cachao” Lopez, the maestro bassist and inventor of the mambo.  His genius is amply demonstrated in this clip from a concert at the Village Gate, Oct. 10,1989, where he joined Manny Oquendo and Libre. I had an opportunity to interview Cachao and Bebo Valdes in 2005, and am posting that interview below, along with an essay that I wrote for the program notes at Carlos Henriquez’ 2012 concert, The Music of Cachao, with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

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This interview was conducted before Paquito D’Rivera’s 50th anniversary in music concert at Carnegie Hall in 2005, which is why he is the subject at the beginning of the conversation.

BEBO VALDÈS & CACHAO (ENRIQUE FERNANDEZ, TRANSLATOR):

TP: Gentlemen, what I want to ask you is less about your lives and more about your relationship to Paquito, and why you’re here. I know that’s a life-long relationship for Paquito, that you’ve known him since he was a baby because of your friendship with his father. What do you first remember about Paquito?

CACHAO: The first experience I had with Paquito is when he was 12 years old, at a concert we did with the Philharmonic of Havana, a clarinet and piano piece by Weber.

TP: But you knew him before that, no, from going to his father’s store? He said you used to buy bass strings at his father’s store.

CACHAO: Yes. I worked with his father with the Martinez Brothers, the Hermanos Martinez. When I was working with Hermanos Martinez, I was just as a sub. I wasn’t working with them for too long. I think Tito was at the time still single. 1934.

TP: So you first played with Tito in 1934.

CACHAO: Yes. At that time, the bass had to play on time, because the way the beat went. [SING STRAIGHT UP INSTEAD OF SYNCOPATED BEAT]

TP: What was Tito like?

CACHAO: He was an incredible person. With the son, he was really correct. He imposed a lot of discipline on him.

TP: What sort of musician was he?

BEBO: [Very good.]

CACHAO: He played all the styles. He also went into the… He was in a military band also called Columbia.

TP: In Cuba in those days, was it important to play all the styles correctly?

CACHAO: Of course. When you were in the band, you played everything. When you played for the dancers, the dancers danced everything. They danced jazz, they danced pasodoble, foxtrot, everything. Then also, the other problem was the racial problem then. The blacks didn’t dance any of those other dances, like pasodoble.

TP: What did the blacks dance?

CACHAO: They danced really tasty, danzons, things like that. Then there was a thing called danza that they would dance also. When the danza would begin, most of the people would take their hats and go home, because they knew something else was going to start happening. I saw one of the dancers, and they took my hat when they left! I had to hang it there, and when they took it, I said, “Hey, wait a second; that’s my hat!”

TP: Did you play for whites and blacks?

CACHAO: Of course. Both of us.

TP: Where for whites and where for blacks?

CACHAO: The regional centers that were for the Spanish. For the Spanish, they had the Centro Studiano(?), Centra Gallego. For the Spaniards, the whites. Then the regular whites had their own places, like Lyceo and Casino, those kind of clubs. The blacks also had their particular societies.

TP: But the musicians weren’t segregated, or were they?

CACHAO: There was a time when there was a separation, but that was way before the ‘30s and ‘40s.

TP: Do you remember playing with Paquito that first time?

CACHAO: Yes. He debuted on clarinet with that symphony, the Weber symphony. Of course I remember that.

TP: Apart from being 12 and able to play like that, a prodigy, what was his musicianship like at 12?

CACHAO: He was complete. He was more dedicated to jazz than anything else, even at that time. He could play anything at that time.

TP: Paquito said his father taught himself clarinet so he could teach Paquito to play clarinet.

CACHAO: Yes, of course.

TP: Bebo, what is your earliest memory of Paquito?

BEBO: [I knew Paquito’s father.] There’s a place called Rivoli. That was at the entrance of Hidao(?). It was a place for blacks-and-whites at the end of the ‘30s. I played there a lot in the ‘30s, and one of the tenor saxophonists who was there a lot was his father. I had another relationship with him, because when I started working with the Tropicana, he used to sell instruments to the musicians who worked there. He was a great person, because when somebody said they didn’t have enough to pay the weekly fee for the instruments, he’d say, “Another week will come; don’t worry about it.”

Another thing between me and him: He was a boyfriend of this beautiful mulata named Silvia, and I was a boyfriend of her sister, so the four of us would go out together all the time. This was way before Paquito was born! Before they got married… She was so beautiful that… Before they got married, she married this Japanese journalist, Kochi-Lan his name was. He was a great Japanese print journalist. And Paquito was born in 1948. The same thing that Tito did with Paquito… I did the same thing with Chucho.

TP: Chucho told me that you told him to learn all the styles, and to start from stride piano and work his way methodically through all the modern styles.

BEBO: [Si, senor.] Yes, sir.

CACHAO: I have an anecdote about his son. I went to Bebo’s house one time, and Bebo said, “I want you to meet this jazz pianist.” He said, “I don’t want you to look at him before you hear him play, so just turn around. Put your back to him.” Chucho was 4 or 5 years old at the time. I heard him, he was 4 years old, and there was genius! I said, “Who the hell is this pianist?” and I turned around and it was his little boy!

TP: When did you both start listening to jazz?

BEBO: The thing is, the first pianists I liked… I was living in the countryside. I wasn’t in Havana like Cachao. The first guy I liked was Eddy Duchin, and after that was Duke Ellington. Then came my favorite, Art Tatum. I have two favorite pianists, Art Tatum and Bill Evans. Those are my gods.

TP: Cachao, you were in Havana. You must have been listening to jazz all along.

CACHAO: I started listening to jazz when I was really small. I was born in ‘18, and in ‘22 I already was listening to jazz.

TP: But the bass didn’t become prominent in jazz until ‘28 or ‘29.

CACHAO: Yes, from that time on, jazz took a different turn.

TP: Who were some of the first bass players who impressed you? Jimmy Blanton?

CACHAO: When I first started listening to jazz, the bassists weren’t soloists yet. The thing is, it didn’t start happening with Duke Ellington until 1930 onwards. There was this one bassist who had that way of playing. He had a bad temper, but I can’t remember his name. He was American. He was a really great bass player? He was a composer, too.

TP: In the ‘30s?

CACHAO: No.

TP: Oh, Mingus.

CACHAO: [Charlie Mingus.]

TP: When did each of you first come to New York?

CACHAO: In 1948. I just came to visit. I remember this really funny thing. I went to the White House. At that time, Truman was President, and Truman was a pianist. He had a great piano in there. At that time, they let the tourists and excursions go into the White House, because there wasn’t terrorism at that time. Then I went and they let me in with the excursion, with the tourists, and they heard me playing Truman’s piano. They let the people play. It didn’t matter if you were a tourist or not. They didn’t let you play. The pianos were protected by 5,000 people. At the time we’re talking about, jazz was really strong. All the guys who are important, like Ron Carter, were of that generation, and all of them were inspired by Charles Mingus. That’s the first guy I think started doing extraordinary things with the bass. Of the guys who are playing now, I think Charles Mingus was the main influence.

BEBO: Ray Brown.

TP: Paul Chambers, too, and Scott LaFaro.

CACHAO: Milt Hinton. He played with me in Cuba. We did a concert together. It wasn’t a formal thing. It was in a home. It was like a jam session. He was there with the Cab Calloway Orchestra at the time, and I was with Orquesta Arcano at the time. So he liked what he heard, and between the two of us, we started playing melodies together. We played the melodies of Duke Ellington. I would do the melody, he would do the bass, then we’d do it the other way, where he would do the melody and I would do the bass. “Sophisticated Lady.”

TP: Bebo, when did you first come to New York?

BEBO: In 1962. I came to New York and then to L.A. I left Cuba in 1960. The 26th of October, 1960. I went to Mexico.

CACHAO: I went in ‘62 to Spain. I went there for a contract for 3 months that was renewable, so I went, and then I could be renewed, so I stayed. And I’m extending it up to now! 42 years. I never went back to Cuba.

TP: You’ve been gone 45 years and not gone back. How does that make you feel?

CACHAO: What do you think? Bad. We’re Cubans. Imagine.

BEBO: But we can’t accept that government. Impossible. [No.]

CACHAO: In Cuba, musicians were never politicians. Because musicians were musicians for necessity, so you wouldn’t die of hunger. The musicians are musicians for the love and for the work. Since we’re not revolutionaries… I went to Buenos Aires with the Tito Rodriguez Orchestra from here, and the Consulate from Argentina asked me, “Are you Cuban?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “You’re not going to go there and form a revolution, are you?” He thought I was going to go with this musical group to shoot up the place and overturn the presidency. That’s the kind of terror that was happening with the government we have there. We were simply musicians, pacifists. We have nothing to do with any of that. When musicians get together with musicians, all we talk about is music!

TP: So even though you’re both a full generation older than Paquito, you share the same experience of exile.

BEBO: [Si.] Of course.

CACHAO: Look at the way he had to leave. Paquito couldn’t live there again. To escape, he had to go up the down escalator, the wrong way. In Spain. Because if he went down, he wouldn’t have been able to come. He had to go up to escape.

TP: He took advantage of his position to record you. He produced an album by Bebo on Messidor, Bebo Rides Again.

BEBO: [Si.]

TP: And also you and Chucho a year or two later, and he produced the album 40 Years of Cuban Jam Sessions as well.

CACHAO: Of course. In Miami.

TP: Apart from your warm personal relationship, talk about Paquito as a musician. What dynamics enable him to pull off a concert of this scope?

CACHAO: Imagine the admiration we both have for him. Especially with his father. Bebo especially, because Bebo was all the time with Tito.

BEBO: My opinion about Paquito is that he plays divinely the saxophone. He has a really high range; he can go really high on the saxophone. As a soloist… In any kind of genre or style, he’s a great soloist. But now comes the best that he has. The thing is, the clarinet is a thousand times more difficult than the saxophone, and I consider Paquito as one of the best in the world in all the genres, in all the styles. There’s jazz players like Benny Goodman, but I consider Paquito extraordinary; his execution on the clarinet is one of the best I’ve ever seen in my whole life.

TP: What about his conceptual range? That’s a very Cuban quality, the ability to play all the styles on their own terms in an immaculate way.

BEBO: He knows all the genres, all the styles. Also, he knows very, very old traditional music from Cuba. I heard something from him of danzas and contradanzes from the 1800s. So his range is formidable.

TP: He did an album called A Hundred Years of Love Songs.

BEBO: He’s really concerned and focusing a lot on the music of South America, it seems to me. He’s really involved with things that are happening in Brazil and Argentina now.

TP: He calls it the music of the New World.

CACHAO: It’s his opinion as well as ours that the musician doesn’t have any borders. Nationalities are not important. We’re in agreement… There’s a saying from Spain that says [something like “the distance brings you closer.”

TP: It brings you to your roots. You share your common cultural roots.

CACHAO: Let’s put it this way. He’s in Sweden and I’m in Miami. It’s like if I’d be living next to him in Sweden and he lives next to me in Miami, that distance makes us close.

TP: And Paquito is in New Jersey…

CACHAO: The thing is that he may be in New Jersey and I’m in Miami, but I feel like I’m (?). The distance that separates us makes us feel even closer. We’re brothers.

TP: What do you think was the essence of the culture in Cuba, in Havana, that gave you the breadth of interest… What’s the essence of that cultural root that gives you the artistic expansiveness? I’ve heard both of you play every type of music. I’ve heard Cachao at the Village Gate with Tito Puente and with Libre, and you solo like Mingus times two! I’ve heard you play exquisite danzons. It seems the culture imparted to you a true artistic freedom in your musical expression.

CACHAO: You’re asking how is it possible that such a small island could give such an expansiveness…

TP: Something like that. We can go with that.

CACHAO: I don’t know. The thing is, it’s the tropics. The cold climate is not the same as in the tropics. It’s cold out there, and at 50 years old you’re dying already! The heat is so much that all you’re thinking of is hot things, and it keeps you hot. It makes you move from the hips to the top of your head! That’s a problem there.

TP: You were both playing dance music, all sorts of dance music. You were playing art music. You were playing jazz.

CACHAO: We have a facility in general in the Cuban mind. The example of that is the clave. [CLAPS IT] The thing is, Bebo and myself can’t stand a clave that’s crossed. We can hear a melody, and somebody is counting against the clave—we can’t accept that at all. You’ve got to shoot the guy! If that would happen, even the dancers would stop. You can’t dance if you cross the clave like that.

TP: A lot of the younger musicians I speak to say that the most difficult thing is to learn to play in 4/4 swing as opposed to clave. Was that ever an issue for you 50-60 years ago?

BEBO: First of all, I can’t say anything about the musicians in Cuba now. I haven’t been there, I haven’t heard them, so I don’t know what would be their particular problem.

TP: They just say it’s a difficult mental adjustment.

BEBO: It wasn’t a problem at all for us. Since the swing was close and the rhythm was so precise, as our music, we didn’t have a problem with swing.

CACHAO: You’re going to laugh now. The thing was, we had the music with the clave. A lot of our composers, because of the clave, they suspended the clave, so then they would change the songs, and then anybody could compose then and now. There are compositions now that they write where they suspend the clave. Even the singers don’t know where they have to be. This is a bass player, and they’re playing a 6/8 melody. The singer takes note that the bass player is lost and doesn’t know where he is. So she goes professionally, getting close to the bass player… She took advantage, that when the bridge was coming, she went discreetly over to where the bass player was on the bridge, because she was not singing it… She said, “Hey, man, what’s happening? Where are you?” He says, “What’s up?” She says to him, “6/8. We’re playing in 6/8.” But the bass player doesn’t understand what she means by 6/8. She says, “Don’t you know what’s 6/8?” He says, “Yeah, 48.” They don’t understand anything. Because we don’t say 6/8; we say, “6 by 8.” So he was thinking it was a mathematical problem, so he answered 48. So he really didn’t understand anything that was happening.

TP: You said you don’t hear the musicians in Cuba, but you know the younger musicians who left Cuba.

BEBO: Of course. Look at my son. There are some things that I am not in agreement with, but I can’t really blame the musicians over there for that. The musicians are really great instrumentalists and have a great technique, but the government forces them to study so many hours and practice so much that… When it comes to playing a montuno, there’s what the difference is. Most people anywhere can play a montuno, but that’s a characteristic of the music, and it’s been lost a lot. For example, there was a pianist who played with Cachao. He was a mambo player, and he played that montuno style that nobody else could play, and it was really typical. That part is what I’m talking about.

There are some virtuoso musicians who have come out, but when it comes to the traditional folkloric music, they’re not up to the job, not up to the standard. The thing is that those things are not shown in the schools. They can read anything you put in front of them, but those things, the personal inspiration of the folkloric, they don’t have that any more. If you go down to the countryside, maybe you can still find that. In Oriente, in the eastern part of the country.

CACHAO: In Oriente they say there was a bird who invented the clave, because the bird couldn’t sing. The bird couldn’t sing like the rest of the birds, so he sang the clave! The birds are singing da-da-da-da, and duh-de-duh-de, singing this beautiful melody, and then there’s a bird in the background going BATT-BUTT, BATT-BUTT-BATT. That’s why they don’t know where the clave really comes from. The biggest thing about it is that the bird this guy was talking about is extinct now. The bird is gone, but there are still eggs from that bird around. The egg is in Greece, in the mountains of Greece. So now they’ve got to go to the mountains of Greece to find the egg and incubate it to find out if it’s true about the clave bird. Because how could something like that happen? It’s possible. For example, somebody takes a train. A train has a rhythm, too. For example, if you stand between the two wagons on the train you hear that rhythm. If you listen, you hear what the engine is doing and what the wheels are doing, and when you least expect it, there’s a great rumba happening there!

BEBO: There’s a story that Beethoven was an abacua, and the story is he passed through Cuba. Have you heard the Fifth of Beethoven? It’s a rumba!

CACHAO: But it’s true about the train. I’ve stood outside the train, and you listen what’s happening with the wheels. And when you hear it coming out, it sounds like there’s a quinto and there’s a tumba—there’s a rumba happening.

TP: Duke Ellington also listened to the train. In the U.S. all the blues and jazz musicians listened to the train.

CACHAO: “Night Train,” for example. [CACHAO’S DAUGHTER ARRIVES]

BEBO: Everything that happened between 1910 and 1920… There’s a person I admired, he was my idol, and he was an idol of many people even at that time. That’s the person sitting next to me, and that man is Cachao.

There’s a story that Beethoven was an abakua, and the story is he passed through Cuba. Have you heard the Fifth of Beethoven? It’s a rumba!

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The Music of Cachao
By Ted Panken ©2012

His name was Israel “Cachao” López, he came from Havana, Cuba and during his 90 years on the planet he played the contrabass with the imperial authority of Koussevitzky, the Russian-born, music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1924-1949), the kinetic precision of a Yoruba drummer, and the unbridled creativity of Charles Mingus. His old friend Bebo Valdés, a fellow 1918 baby, called him “the king of rhythm.”

As a child, Cachao played bass for a theater orchestra that accompanied silent movies. At 13, he began a 30-year run with the Havana Philharmonic. He moonlighted in dance bands, including one called Arcaño y Sus Maravillas that included his older brother, the pianist-cellist Orestes López, with whom, in 1938, he composed “Mambo,” introducing a swinging groove (nuevo ritmo) for the final section of danzón, an elegant, ritualized form—and Cuba’s national dance from the latter 19th century through the 1950s—that involves composing four separate episodes, each in a different tempo. Bandleader Damaso “Perez” Prado popularized the rhythmic weave, and it exploded onto the international stage, including the dance floors of New York City, where it evolved into the lingua franca beat of Latin Jazz.

Cachao’s mambo also propelled a series of recorded jam sessions (billed as descargas, after the Spanish verb meaning, among other things, to discharge electricity and speak one’s mind) with the best-and-brightest—and jazz-aware—Cuban dance musicians employed by the nightclubs and casinos of Batista’s Havana. They directly influenced the evolution of salsa as articulated by Tito Puente (Cachao composed “Oye Como Va”), Tito Rodriguez, and Eddie Palmieri, all of whom hired Cachao after he migrated permanently to the United States in 1964.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, directed by JLCO bassist Carlos Henriquez, will address both the danzón and descarga on this evening’s celebration of Cachao’s legacy. Now 32, Henriquez is a thoroughly 21st century musician, able to navigate the multiplicity of idioms that fall under the jazz umbrella, among them the clave and swing dialects, “without an accent.”

That this is no small task was made clear by the great jazz bassist Ron Carter himself. Speaking on WKCR in 2001, he analogized the jazz feel to “four beats straight up and down, like a picket fence,” while describing clave as that “picket fence leaning over to one side so all the beats move at 45 degree angles from the straight line.” Carter continued: “Jazz isn’t so filled with counter-rhythms, but Latin music has four or five rhythms going all at once in one tune, enough rhythms to last you for a week, held together by the clave beat. All the choices can overwhelm you. I’m amazed that they always pick the right ones.”

Cachao himself was no stranger to jazz. “When I first started listening to jazz, bassists weren’t soloists yet,” he told me during a 2005 encounter. He recalled an informal encounter with bass pioneer Milt Hinton, in Havana with Cab Calloway, perhaps in the late 1940s, at which they “played the songs of Duke Ellington together, one doing the melody and the other doing the bass.” Still, he “spoke jazz” in an accent infused with the infinite permutations of clave.

For Henriquez, the son of a trombone player and a dancer—both of whom were connoisseurs of swing and salsa—the “accent-less” approach is his birthright as a product of the South Bronx “melting pot.” It didn’t hurt to receive hands-on mentoring from the likes of clave wizard Andy Gonzalez and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra predecessors Reginald Veal and Rodney Whitaker, as well as such distinguished prior employers as Danilo Perez, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Tito Puente, and Eddie Palmieri.

“I use Cachao’s concepts all the time,” Henriquez states, noting that the maestro, who learned the bongos even before the bass, extrapolated the rhythms of each component of the Afro-Cuban bata drums, but most notably those associated with the low-range tumbador, and incorporated them into his bass playing. “He learned the instrument with finesse and style, with accuracy and technique. But he also incorporated his life into the music. There’s a side that’s very street-oriented, ferocious, strong, dark, and powerful, which I love, but there was a sweet, beautiful side, too.

“The concept of tumbao [a syncopated, repetitive rhythmic pattern], of playing a fundamental part that becomes a leading part, is widely misunderstood. In African music, the bass is actually the moving line—focusing on the root rhythm and creating that as a solo. That attracts the whole band to you. Cachao was a magnetic force; he was the core of everything.”

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For Harry Connick’s 49th Birthday, a Jazziz Feature Article From 2002

For the 49th birthday of Harry Connick, here’s a “director’s cut” of a feature piece I wrote about him for Jazziz in 2002, on the  occasion of his CD Songs I Heard and the Broadway musical Thou Shalt Not, for which he wrote the score. I was given quite a bit of access to him, and he was quite open and self-aware — a very interesting subject.

 

Harry Connick (Jazziz Article):

“Well, I made me a fortune, that fortune made ten; I’ve been headlined and profiled again and again,” Harry Connick murmurs to a languorous triplet groove over a plush magnolia carpet of slow-moaning strings and woodwinds. The Marvin Charnin verse is self-descriptive; like cartoon tycoon Daddy Warbucks, who delivers the lyric in Annie, Connick has the Midas touch. A bona-fide Pop Culture celebrity with a high recognition quotient, he packs arenas singing songs he wrote and dancing steps he devised in front of a well-oiled 17-piece big band that plays arrangements he composed. He has two Grammies to go with four multi-platinum, three platinum and three gold albums. He is an increasingly visible presence in film and television, and models clothing by Tom Ford (Yves St. Laurent and Gucci) and Prada in the pages of Esquire and GQ. Last summer he made his first foray into big-time theater, composing the score and lyricist of the Broadway musical Thou Shalt Not.

Connick strikes a chord on the piano, changes the key, and croons: “But something was missing. I never quite knew that something was someone. But who?” Daddy Warbucks’ existential ache for family, fatherhood and reciprocal love is emphatically not an autobiographical reference. Connick, 34, and Jill Goodacre, the model-videographer who is his wife of eight years, have two young daughters, and he remains close to his father, Harry Connick, Sr., the incumbent District Attorney of New Orleans since 1974.

Connick’s gnawing question might more appropriately be phrased, “But what?” Perhaps the answer is respect — from hardcore jazz observers who dismiss him as a lightweight — and comprehension — from fans who dote on his chiseled image and charisma and are clueless about his craft. The content of Songs I Heard [Columbia], the two-time Grammy winner’s recent release from July 2001, won’t help matters; including “Something Was Missing,” it contains 16 “children’s songs” from Annie, Mary Poppins, The Sound Of Music, The Wizard Of Oz, and Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, few of which hold much cache among art-oriented jazz musicians.

None of this deters Connick, who displays his passport — as the lyric goes — to “the world of pure imagination, traveling in a world of my creation” as a conceptualist, singer, entertainer and pianist. Without condescension, he arranges each bar with painstaking detail, cherrypicking ideas from the imposing cliffs of tradition to sculpt his own contemporary hybrid. Having absorbed the instrumental personalities of his musicians over a decade of proximity, Connick the arranger deploys them as extensions of his mind’s ear. His timbral palette draws from Duke Ellington, Billy May, Nelson Riddle, Claus Ogerman and Quincy Jones; his pulse, which distinguishes Connick from his influences, partakes of a savory menu of New Orleans streetbeats. Connick the singer references the storytellers — Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra for elasticity of phrasing; Carmen McRae for clarity; Nat Cole for tone — and is now fully his own man. Connick the entertainer knows the craft of serious fun, how to convey to his audience the illusion of intimacy and spontaneity. Connick the pianist remains primarily in the background, notably excepting “Oompa-Loompa,” on which he creates a dramatic triologue between his voice, right hand and left hand in a manner singular to him.

“Living there,” he continues, “you’ll be free if you truly wish to be. And the world tastes good ’cause the Candy Man thinks it should.”

[BREAK]

Cool and focused in a white polo shirt, blue jeans and white Nikes, Connick faces his orchestra in an enormous studio at Manhattan’s Hit Factory. They are recording the brass and woodwind section for Connick’s chart of “America The Beautiful,” to be heard three weeks hence at the closing ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Connick wants them to put a Louis Armstrong feeling on the reharmonized, racehorse line. “Would it be possible to do the down-notes on the second beat and do a lip thing instead of a valve thing?” he asks quietly and firmly.

After the take, Connick grabs a bottle of water and strides into the control room. Buff and physical, he punctuates jivetalk to his musicians with sharp forearms to their chests and biceps, then flops into a chair next to drummer Arthur Latin to listen to the playback. As it rolls, he and Latin follow the score to a walking bass section that will accompany a tap interlude from Savion Glover. Latin suggests a rhythmic figure, and Connick assents. He leans toward Latin, grips his shoulder, stares into his eyes, and chants precisely how he wants the drummer to execute the beats on the kick cymbal. The band files back into the studio. They nail the take. “Beautiful playing,” Connick says. “Let’s do it a little slower. Keep it in that pocket. Big pocket.”

[BREAK]

Connick has marched to the beat of his own drummer since he was a small child in New Orleans. The son of a politically ambitious Catholic New Orleanian father and an artistically-inclined Manhattan-raised Jewish mother, each a lawyer and a jazz lover, he heard jazz music, as he puts it, “from the womb.” Gifted with perfect pitch, he took quickly to his classical lessons, assimilating the European and African-American canon in equal measure. With his father’s blessing, he learned the latter at the side of maestro James Booker, whose scope encompassed Jelly Roll Morton, Huey “Piano” Smith and Frederic Chopin, and whose lessons Connick applied at various trad clubs on Bourbon Street, where, under the gaze of his parents, he would be invited to sit in for a tune or two. By 14 or 15, Connick was doing whole gigs, observing such highly skilled local entertainers as Johnny Horn and Thomas Jefferson, and finding his own public persona in the company of such world-class Crescent City drum-masters as Smokey Johnson, Zigaboo Modaliste, Freddie Kohlman, John Vidacovich, Herlin Riley and James Black.

“Booker to this day is the greatest musician I was ever around,” says Connick the following morning in a suite at Sony Music Studios. “He was an inventor, and at this late date, to be able to invent something on an instrument as old as the piano is pretty impressive. He played things that were incredibly hard, and he was able to use the piano to communicate with people, much like Chopin used to do. I’ve always felt I have the ability to do that. I feel very at-home in that situation because I did it in my most formative years.”

Connick is about to mix the cast album for Thou Shalt Not, a musical adaptation of Thérèse Raquin — an Emile Zola novel of love, betrayal, murder and ensuing spiritual decay — that received almost uniformly negative reviews during its two-month run. Lifted from 1860s Paris to 1940s New Orleans, the production boasted a pithy book, visionary choreography from director Susan Stroman, state-of-the-art sets spanning vivid naturalism to hallucinatory abstraction, and idiomatic costumes representing a broad swath of postwar Crescent City social strata. It lacked, however, lead actors of sufficient skill to represent credibly the passions and customs of their characters, or phrase Connick’s two dozen nuanced songs, or even sing them in key. Many critics cited Connick’s inexperience with or unwillingness to follow Broadway conventions as the main reason for this debacle. But it occurs to me that it’s the world that needs to catch up with Connick.

Maybe Connick agrees, maybe he doesn’t, but he’s diplomatic when I offer these impressions. “It’s very difficult to find people who can really sing and act and move on stage,” he remarks. “Would I have cast differently for the main characters? I don’t know. It’s give-and-take. This theater thing is a living, breathing organism. What if you find an amazing singer who really understands this stuff, but can’t act? Or a great actor or actress who just can’t sing?

“I wanted to act in it for a minute, but Stroman talked me out of it. I enjoyed performing on stage in high school, but I didn’t much enjoy the constraints. By then I was playing gigs in jazz clubs, which is a completely different way of thinking; as an actor in a show, you’re locked down, and with some small exceptions you pretty much can’t change anything. Playing a solo and doing a scene are similar experiences, though. It can be like going very fast on a boat through the water, moving forward, forward, forward, everything falling away behind you. If you can get to that very specific, special place, oh my God, there’s nothing like it. Acting requires a certain way of thinking about life and about the world, I think, in addition to having certain skills or inclinations to perform. A person who just walks off the street could be a great actor. But you need skill to be a jazz musician. However talented the person is, they have to understand the workings of it first.”

If Booker passed on to Connick a sort of Platonic ideal of how music should sound, pianist Ellis Marsalis and his sons — who introduced him to the complex tributaries of modern jazz — laid down the Aristotelian mechanics. “Wynton and Branford were five or six years ahead of me, and those guys weren’t messing around. They could tell in two seconds if you knew what you were doing. They’d come in and completely shut you down! I’d sit in with Wynton’s band, and during my solo Jeff Watts and Charnett Moffett would play the whole thing on upbeats. If you didn’t strongly believe that what you were doing was right, you’d go with them, and then they’d screw you up and get you lost in the form.

“Those guys were HARSH, man! They would verbally cut me down. I’d show up backstage, and they’d say, ‘Man, who you checkin’ out?’ I said, ‘Oh, man, I’ve been checking a lot of Errol Garner out.’ They were all into different stuff. ‘You sad, you can’t play.’ They would beat you up emotionally. At the time it was tear-inducing. But I knew they were being unfair, and I knew I was going to ride through that storm. When you’re in bed looking at the ceiling at night, you know whether you can play or not.

“Wynton’s approval still means a lot to me. I really wanted him to see Thou Shalt Not, and he called me after the show and quoted specific things I did with melodies or orchestration or whatever. That meant the world to me. I can talk to him purely on a philosophical level about the art, which thrills me. I know that he and Branford are listening to me and understand what I’m trying to do. I won’t say Wynton’s a big brother, but he is in a sense. He and Branford and Ellis are my” — Connick searches for a word — “family. I grew up with them.”

[BREAK]

Connick notes, “One thing I can do even better than anything I can do musically is hustle.” At 18, Connick moved to New York, took a room at the 92nd Street Y, and hit the streets, using every ounce of charisma he possessed to conjure gigs and persuade Columbia honcho George Butler to deliver on an oral commitment to give him a contract. Moving to Greenwich Village, he landed a weekly gig at the Knickerbocker, a well-established neighborhood piano bar, where he began to blend his predispositions — vernacular New Orleans romantic blues piano, the McCoy Tyner-Herbie Hancock-Kenny Kirkland branches of modern piano gleaned from the Marsalis apprenticeship, and a nascent appreciation of Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington — into a recognizable, idiosyncratic style.

“Back in New Orleans, when Wynton was playing with Herbie Hancock, all I listened to was Herbie,” Connick says, with a short laugh. “Then I remember one day, around the time Monk died, Wynton came home and told me not to listen to Herbie any more. He said, ‘Listen to Monk.’ I didn’t understand it at all, but if Wynton was listening to it, I had to listen to it; I basically did what Wynton did. I started trying to transcribe and play Monk, and realized it was more complex than I thought. When I got into Duke, I started to understand my place on the planet as a piano player.

“At the Knickerbocker, since Wynton wasn’t around, I could play what I wanted. I started pulling out my traditional jazz tunes and my Booker stuff, which was very left-hand-heavy, and I felt, ‘Hey, this is home.’ I loved to play tunes by McCoy and Herbie, too, but I thought my left hand was dormant in the mid-range of the piano, and that didn’t cut it on a solo gig in New York City. I started studying the great left-handed piano players — Fats Waller and James P. Johnson, and then Art Tatum and Earl Hines, who played a different kind of stride. It was extremely intimidating, because these people just did not miss notes. It was perfect playing. I never wanted to be less than that technically. So I practiced a lot. My technique got where I wasn’t even thinking; I was playing so fast that it was silly. I started to slow down after I started listening to Monk and Duke. Dexterity became less important. If I’m losing a crowd, I’ll play some stride to get them back, but it’s a trick. Now I’m interested in playing notes that sound right to me at the time. It seems that musicians in their mid-thirties start to become who they are. It’s liberating.”

[BREAK]

On the road three to four months a year with his big band, with large chunks of time devoted to film and television projects, Connick these days has scant time to practice his scales. He writes incessantly, a complete arrangement every day, relying on the sounds in his head and Finale music software. He keeps about 100 tunes in his working book, of which about half are original compositions.

“I’d be helluva lot better pianist if I practiced,” he says. “I’ve been blessed with a natural ability, and I’ve been able not to play for a while and then jump back into it.”

“Harry isn’t a great jazz pianist any more, but he could have been one of the best ever,” Branford Marsalis says. “To get back where he was, he would have to start from scratch, like he did with singing. He would have to play jazz more than sing, which makes no sense at this point of his career. Maybe when he’s 50, and has all the money he needs and doesn’t feel like doing that shit any more, he could start playing jazz in some little club somewhere, and then in another five years he’ll just kill people. The talent is not in question.”

Well, not to everyone. The Third Penguin Guide To Jazz on CD described Connick as “a rather pointlessly eclectic pianist; his solos an amiable but formless amalgam of Monk, Garner and Hines influences,” noting that “any good piano trio record will outdo” Lofty Roach’s Souffle from 1990. But Connick’s talent shines throughout 30, recorded a week before his September 11th birthday in 1998 and released last fall. It’s the third in a quintennial series documenting Connick’s evolving take on the solo piano function, refining a lived lineage that links him to such fin de siecle bordello entertainers as Tony Jackson and Jelly Roll Morton. He commingles perpetual motion stride and modern harmony on “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” weaves dense angular chords through a Bookeresque prism on “Somewhere My Love.” He cushions a declarative vocal on “The Gypsy” with Ellingtonian pads of color, precedes an Armstrongesque chorus on “I Were a Bell” with an expansive six-minute duo with Ben Wolfe, his off-and-on bassist since 1988.

“When I heard Harry at the Knickerbocker, he was singing and playing a lot of stride piano,” Wolfe recalls. “I’d go to his apartment on Mulberry Street, and we’d work out these intricate, challenging arrangements. We played with a lot of exuberance, real hard, with a lot of swagger. The week after he hired me, we played the Bottom Line. Then we went on the road, to Blues Alley in D.C., a week in Seattle, a week in L.A. Then we recorded When Harry Met Sally. It was very fast-moving, very exciting. We played duo for about 18 months, and had a lot of fun.”

Springboarding off the success of When Harry Met Sally, Connick toured the country with Wolfe, propulsive New Orleans drummer Shannon Powell, and conductor-arranger Mark Shaiman, picking up a different orchestra in each city. The public responded, and Connick, armed with only a couple of charts from When Harry Met Sally, decided he might as well write a few of his own for a forthcoming world tour. “Man, they were pathetic!” he says. “I hustled the audience, made them think we had a jam-packed show of big band music.” Applying his customary persistence, he wrote all the charts for Blue Light, Red Light [1991]. “I’ve written them all ever since,” he says. “You learn.”

“Music seems effortless for Harry,” Wolfe says. “There are a lot of musicians who have perfect pitch and great ears, but he has great ears that are functional. If you hum him a melody, he will naturally hear the good bass notes. So when he started arranging, his brain would tell him the right things — good-sounding chords, good harmonic movement, good voice leading, nice melodies. He hears that way naturally, and that’s how he always played. He’s a complete perfectionist, real clear on what he wants.”

“Harry is not afraid to sound like shit for a while,” says Marsalis. “His early records weren’t very good, singing-wise. But Harry is a consummate musician, and he understood what he was doing. The only way to get good is to sing. I guarantee you, when he was growing up, big band was not in the picture. Singing was, but as a cute extension of his playing, not as a career. One aspect of growing up in New Orleans that helped him is that he’s a great showman. He’s charismatic — funny, can do a soft-shoe, can do his version of Louis Armstrong. So he’s very popular. And no matter how much critics wrote bad things about him, people continued to go to his concerts — which made him essentially critic-proof.

“He’s a student. He’s xeroxed it all, and now he doesn’t have to do it any more. His ability to write lyrics the way he does comes from years of studying the shit that he used to be criticized for! ‘Oh, he sounds like Frank Sinatra.’ ‘Oh, he sounds like he’s doing a Broadway movie.’ ‘He sounds like 1940’s retro.’ Blah-blah-blah. Yeah, and now what? Now he’s found a way to make that sound completely contemporary, yet be firmly immersed in the tradition. He was willing to say, ‘Damn, I can do this,’ and change his direction mid-stream.’ He bought old Broadway records and watched every old movie. Bring up the most obscure piece of one song from Guys and Dolls, and he’ll finish it for you. He’s a completely relational database.

“He did a record called To See You, where he wrote all these thoroughly modern, badass love songs. Nothing that sounds cliched, nothing that sounds like it’s from the ’40s. I told our manager, ‘This record ain’t gonna sell; it’s too good.’ I brought the record to my father, who never really approved of Harry singing in the first place, and he put it on. All of a sudden he understood. The light went off in his head and he says, ‘Oh, that’s what the motherfucker’s been doing.’ Then he called up my manager and said, ‘Man, Harry’s playing some shit now!'”

[BREAK]

“The whole Duke-Monk thing has been getting kind of old for a while,” Connick says. “I studied it, did the homework, and have my own perspective on where they’re coming from. I think it’s going to go somewhere different. I don’t know where, though.”

Connick hopes to find some answers by reviving his quartet, which will perform publicly the next evening for the first time in several years. “Last night we rehearsed for the first time in I can’t remember when, and it was awesome!” he says. “The notes were just flying out. The last time I did it, I was deep within influences, but this time I didn’t feel indebted to anyone. I woke up this morning, and I called my wife and I said, ‘I had a quartet rehearsal last night.’ She said, ‘How did it go?’ I said, ‘The first thing that came to my mind is we were all smiling.’ It felt great, man! It didn’t feel like we were some young lions trying to go out and kick some ass, but just playing some tasty, soulful music.

I wasn’t going to heed my editor’s instruction to think like the establishment media, but Connick’s comment is too good an opening to pass up. So I inquire in what ways marriage and fatherhood has inflected who he is as an artist.

“One thing having kids did was make me think that this whole art thing is pretty silly,” he responds. “It’s less important than I may have thought. Which made me a better artist, because it wasn’t life or death. I’m enjoying it a lot more.”

Has marriage grounded him? Connick bristles a bit, interpreting the verb in the sense of “not flying.” “No, Jill doesn’t ground me. She’s just grounded. I don’t want to be grounded. And I don’t think she can ground me. What’s the fun of that? But she doesn’t try to do that. She’s infinitely stronger and more secure than I am, and highly intelligent. I’m fascinated by who she is. I’m still trying to figure her out. Maybe that’s why she still digs me. It’s a really perfect match. I mean, eight years is nothing, really. But I don’t see us going anywhere.”

Connick radiates such unshakeable confidence in his talent that it’s hard to imagine him feeling any insecurity of any kind. He demurs. “I’m as insecure as the next guy, and I think you can hear that vulnerability in my voice. Most people don’t present their insecure side in an interview.” That being said, he articulates his sense of place in the grand narrative with such transparent objectivity that anyone would think him downright arrogant if his deeds did not so palpably back up his words and if his manners were not so perfect. I ask him about the source of his instincts.

“I think it’s genetic,” he states. “My Dad is great like that and my mother was, They instinctively know what to do and say, and be truthful about it. I think watching my father give speeches… Or if I had to fire somebody and didn’t know how to do it, I’d say, ‘Dad, how do you fire somebody?’ My parents just understood how to do it. Not to say I do, but I feel like I do.”

Then he makes an astonishing self-comparison. “Young guys like Kobe Bryant are going to have their chance at being Michael Jordan,” he says. “I’ll have my chance. It’s not quite time yet. If anything, I’ve learned to respect the elders — especially the ones who can play. Like Ellis. Yeah, it’s Ellis’ turn right now. I’ll get my turn.”

“It will be your turn for what?”

“It will be my turn to walk into a room of knowledgeable people who are outside the inner circle, and they’ll say, ‘That’s the guy who wrote 20 shows and orchestrated all of them himself, wrote and conducted every note.’ It’s a time thing. In 20 years I will have done 20 shows, 20 more records and 20 more movies. I know that’s going to happen. Then it will be my turn to feel good about what I’ve done. But I don’t want to feel good about it yet, because it ain’t that time.

“When Michael Jordan steps out on the court, he pretty much knows he’s going to score some points. There’s no way to measure art statistically. But I pretty much know that I’m going to score some points. I say that as modestly as I can. Now, I don’t know if I’m going to have the opportunity to do 20 shows. That means you have to have some kind of success. That’s something I’m not secure about at all, is whether I’m going to be selling out houses or have a record deal five years from now.”

[BREAK]

Given the scope of Connick’s ambition, it seems improbable that he would ever scale down any component of his career to fulfill his pianistic destiny. “Let’s be very honest,” he states. “The most hardcore jazz purists still love to make a living. You can be artistic and inward and introspective and brooding — but it sure is a lot better when people are watching you. That’s just the bottom line. My first impression of music was smiling and giving people a show. It took years for me to finally believe that that’s really who I am. I played in contemporary jazz clubs in my teens, when I was studying music with Ellis that was not appropriate to play on Bourbon Street, and when a tenor player would solo for 20 minutes, somewhere in my head was this restless voice saying, ‘God, I hope these people don’t leave.’

“I know what the people are coming for, and I know instinctively how much to give them. And I’m playing jazz to win them! It’s big band with singing. They’re snapping their fingers and tapping their feet to notes I wrote, and some’a them charts are hard to play. Sometimes what looks like some lame Sinatra impression is a definitive instruction to the trombone section!”

Connick’s concluding comment is a tantalizing carrot for the hardcore purist in me. “I was driving around yesterday, talking to my Dad, and told him I was rehearsing with this quartet. That took him totally by surprise. He said, ‘You’re kidding. That is great.’ I wanted to talk about something else. He said, ‘You know, that’s what you do, son. All this other stuff is awesome and great, but you’re a jazz musician.’

“And you know what? He’s right. That’s what I am. I’ve done this for so long, and I’ve absorbed an unbelievable amount of history. I didn’t start in some high school band in Peoria. I started on Bourbon Street as a kid, playing with people like Danny Barker and other guys who played with people at Congo Square. I played with Eubie Blake when that dude was 95 and I was 9 years old. Buddy Rich gave me a drum lesson in my living room! I was talking with my producer about a three piano player thing with Mac Rebbenack and me and Allen Toussaint. I didn’t feel like a youngster. I felt like I’ve been around for a little while.

“I love everything I’m doing. I say what I want. I play what I want. I do what I like. And I give the people what they want. That makes me feel very confident and secure on the stage and when I go to bed at night. And I think people respond more than anything to an artist who is very confident. But at the CORE of it is jazz.”

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Filed under Harry Connick, Jazziz, New Orleans

For Tenor Saxophonist David Sanchez’ 48th Birthday, an Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test From 2003 and a WKCR Interview From 2008 that Ran on WWW.JAZZ.COM

A day late for tenor saxophonist David Sanchez’ 48th birthday, I’m posting the complete proceedings of a Blindfold Test that we did in 2003 and a WKCR interview in July 2008 on the occasion of his Concord CD, Cultural Survival, that later ran on the much-missed web ‘zine jazz.com.

 

David Sanchez Blindfold Test (12-1-2003):

1. Michael Brecker, “Timbuktu” (from WIDE ANGLES, Verve, 2003) (Brecker, tenor saxophone, arrangement; Gil Goldstein, orchestration; Steve Wilson, flute; John Patitucci, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums; Daniel Sadownick, percussion) (4-1/2 stars)

This is a very interesting introduction. I love the instrumentation. Oh…wait a minute. The saxophone player definitely has a Mike Brecker. But until he starts playing, the blowing, I’m not going to… It definitely sounds like Mike. I love the orchestration. It’s really interesting, and I love what the flute player was playing at the beginning. He doesn’t play like how many flute players conventionally would play. In a way, I think he’s maybe not strictly a flute player, and he plays other instruments, like woodwinds. I might be wrong, but that’s how it sounds to me. Logically, the way he’s playing tells me this guy plays some other stuff. He isn’t the tenor player, though. But I’m convinced that he plays other woodwinds — saxophone, clarinet, other stuff. The saxophone player sounds a lot like Mike. If it’s not Mike, with all due respect… It just reminds me of Mike playing. I’m sure in other contexts, maybe he sounds a little more like him. But to me, right now, he’s sounding like Mike. [He is Mike.] That makes sense! It’s funny. A lot of people try to copy Mike, but when it’s Mike playing, 98% of the time I’m always right that it’s him. Because he plays certain ideas, certain intervals in a certain way that you say, “This is Mike.” With a certain attitude. That’s what I’m trying to say. He plays certain kind of intervals with a certain attitude, and he has a certain phrasing that’s very clean. So when he plays a phrase, I know when it’s him. He sounds great. I like hearing him in this type of context. It has that world music type of thing. At the beginning I think I heard some kalimba. I’d be lying if I told you I know which record it is. But it’s definitely Mike. I cannot tell you who the flute player is. Steve Wilson? Whoo! He was killing! I haven’t heard him play flute in a long time. I knew something about the ideas he was playing. Incredible. 4-1/2 stars. [AFTER] I liked the orchestration a lot. I’ll be buying this record for sure. I was going to say something about the percussionist, and I didn’t have time. But I was going to say that it sounds like he plays a bunch of different genres, so it’s not strictly a Latin guy. You know how there’s percussionists and there’s congueros, and I was going to say this guy sounds like he’s a percussionist, but at the same time, the people playing know how to keep the feel. Of course now that makes sense — Antonio Sanchez is playing drums, Patitucci is playing bass. Patitucci has great awareness of how to put the Afro-Caribbean vibe and Latin in there, but at the same time he makes it sound open. I’ll be buying this record for sure.

2. Mario Rivera, “La Puerta” (#3) (from EL COMMANDANTE, Groovin’ High, 1993) (Rivera, tenor saxophone; Hilton Ruiz, piano; Walter Booker, bass; Ignacio Berroa, drums; Alexis Diaz, congas) (3 stars)

That’s a beautiful song, “La Puerta Cesaro(?).” The first time I heard that song was by Elis Regina actually. I’ve never heard the record before, but I think I have a sense of who’s playing. I think I know, but I’m going to wait. The bass player has a very good sense of playing Latin music by the way he’s playing a bolero. It’s hard to tell who he is. The piano player reminded me of Hilton Ruiz. Ah, that makes sense! He reminded me of him because he’s him! I was going to say it’s Mario Rivera playing tenor. At the very beginning, he did something with the phrasing and his sound that made me think of Mario, but now, after I’ve heard the blowing… There’s something in the sound that reminds me a bit of Mario. It’s just the sound, but then when he plays, I’m like, “That sounds a little different.” Maybe it’s because I’ve heard Mario so many times playing songs at a pace that is not this; it’s not a bolero or anything. It’s been a long time since I heard him. Sometimes he has a tendency to play a little more, more notey, but now I’m not so sure. I liked the performance. It was Hilton on piano. The bass player could be Andy Gonzalez or… I don’t think it’s Benitez, though. Walter Booker? That makes sense, because he played sometimes with Fort Apache, and the feel he put in there shows he knows how to play the bolero. But you’ve got me on the saxophone player. At first I thought it was Mario. I’ll give it 3 stars. [AFTER] It was Mario? At least I was close. Mario is an incredible musician. He’s one of these musicians who can do anything. He can play any genre, instruments like crazy; this guy can go so many directions. And here, he was really using very well the sense of space. And he can play a lot. Because I heard him playing like incredible. I said, “No, maybe this is somebody else.” But definitely the sound reminded me of Mario.

3. Ted Nash, “Point of Arrival” (from STILL EVOLVED, Palmetto, 2002) (Nash, tenor saxophone, composer; Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Frank Kimbrough, piano; Ben Allison, bass; Matt Wilson, drums) – (3-1/2 stars)

It’s an interesting composition. It’s going to be a little hard to tell you who the tenor player is. I can tell right now, by listening to his blowing. I hear many influences. I hear a little bit of both Joes, Joe Henderson and Joe Lovano. I can tell you the trumpet player, though. That’s Tom Harrell. It sounds like Tom Harrell to me. No? You got me here. See, I should have listened a little longer. That trill that he did, it’s so accurate. Tom doesn’t play that. Tom plays some beautiful ideas, but accuracy is not his thing. He plays some notes that take your breath away, but accuracy is not his thing. I take that back. The tenor player, there’s no way I really could tell. I could guess, but I’m not sure because I hear so many influences. I even hear a little bit of the Mark Turner thing in the upper register. Is that Clarence Penn on drums? No? Well, at least I’m being consistent. I’m getting everything wrong! [LAUGHS] [You’re saying you have to know the record to know who’s playing.] That’s not Roy Hargrove. No. He doesn’t play like that either. At first, I thought two things. When the composition started, while the tenor player was playing, I was thinking maybe this is Tom Harrell’s record. But once he started blowing, I realized I’d made a mistake. The other name that came to mind — when I heard the head especially — was Dave Douglas. But obviously it’s not him. 3-1/2 stars. [It was Wynton. I’d like to state for the record that David is putting his head in his hands.] When he played that trill, I thought, “That’s not Tom Harrell.” I said Tom Harrell too fast because when I heard the composition… Then I thought, “Is this Greg Tardy playing tenor with Tom? It could be. So maybe this is Tom.” Then I said Tom too fast. Greg plays with Dave Douglas, too. But I was thinking more in terms of how the composition sounded and the instrumentation. But once he started blowing, he started doing some things that were very accurate. So then I knew it was definitely wasn’t Tom. But you got me. I’m very surprised it was Wynton. I would have never guessed Ted. First, I’m not familiar with his stuff. Second, he has a beautiful thing going, I like his sound a lot, but he has so many influences that I could not put it together.

4. Eric Alexander, “I’ll Be Around” (from NIGHTLIFE IN TOKYO, Milestone, 2003) (Alexander, tenor saxophone; Harold Mabern, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums) – (3-1/2 stars)

That’s a nice intro. The piano player put some very nice stuff on there. It’s a beautiful song, “I’ll Be Around.” I recorded this song. The tenor player has a beautiful sound. George Coleman, man! No? I said that very loud into the tape recorder! [LAUGHS] It’s definitely not George Coleman, but he definitely has a little vibe on the top register of the horn, a George Coleman thing. It reminds me, at least. I don’t know. It’s amazing. He reminds me of that vibe. I really liked what the piano player did at the beginning. The piano player is not a younger guy, right? I know by the attitude. I like the sound. The tenor player has a beautiful sound. But I can’t help it, those notes in the top register remind me of George Coleman. The only way I could guess is go to all those guys who have some kind of influence from George. Maybe I can tell on the cadenza. You can tell it’s a newer record, because for my taste, it has a lot of compression. You can hear a lot of echo. It sounds like most records sound now. In the studio, they put on a lot of compression, the sound sounds huge, but you can tell it’s fake; they use all these effects and compression and echo, a lot of reverb. You got me, man. [AFTER] You’re going to say that I’m jiving, but I was going to say Eric, but Eric has a lot of George influence. How old is this record? I’m surprised. Often there are some ideas he plays that sound like George Coleman’s stuff, but here some of the actual sound is the same vibe — the same approach in the higher register of the horn. That’s a compliment. If somebody told me I played like George, I’d be really happy.

5. David Murray, “Aerol’s Change” (from NOW IS ANOTHER TIME, Justin Time, 2002) (Murray, second tenor saxophone solo, composer; Orlando Sanchez, first tenor saxophone solo; Tony Perez, piano; Changuito, percussion) – (3 stars)

There’s definitely a Latin vibe going on. [LAUGHS] I’ll tell you that for sure! The timbalero is not an old guy. He’s playing too many notes. It’s definitely not Manny Oquendo. It’s kind of desperate, like “let’s get this…” The tenor player is doing things that remind me of Steve Grossman! I have no clue who it is, but he did a few very subtle things like Steve Grossman. The timbal is so loud that I would think it’s his record. Why is it so loud? It’s incredible. You hear every… The nature of that instrument is that it projects. So I don’t know why it’s so upfront in the mix. This tenor player reminds me of this other guy… I hear little things by other people, but something I’m hearing in this particular moment reminds me of David Murray. Okay, so that’s what this record is. [LAUGHS] Was he playing also at the beginning? So let’s put on the record that this first guy reminded me of Steve Grossman. There was no way I was going to guess him. [AFTER] By logic, I heard that David Murray had made something with a big band, a Latin thing. He did it in Paris? Oh, in Havana. That makes sense. I’m going to be honest. There’s different ways of playing Latin jazz. There’s a way of playing just like you play when people dance, like playing in a club. In all these salsa clubs and mambo clubs, there’s one way of playing. There’s the way of playing Latin jazz exactly like you’re playing for a salsa band, and then you put a solo on top. And the other way is that, yes, you take elements from that and go with the flow at the moment, and you’re very careful in how you interact with each other. In order to do that, you have to leave a considerable amount of space to be able to listen to all the other musicians surrounding you so you can interact and find your spot. At the same time, you’re going to add all those elements in the music. Here all I’m hearing is a steady rhythm, no matter what the solo is doing, and it seems to me a little frantic, like they’re in a hurry, an urgency to say “I’m here” instead of taking your time and getting there. That’s why I said this timbal player is not one of the old guys. Maybe I’m wrong. His solo is almost as though he doesn’t have enough time; he wants to say everything at the same time. But it’s only opinion, and my opinion doesn’t really matter. To my taste, I don’t like it that much. But that’s only my taste. [And that being said…] Oh, how many stars! [LAUGHS] I’ll give it 3. [That was Changuito on timbales.] Well, let me say something. It’s contradictory, because Changuito is one of my favorite timbal players in the world. So for me, it’s weird. But you never know. Different dates do different things. So maybe the way he reacted to this particular day was like this. But Changuito is actually one of the masters. I take everything back that I said, because he’s a master. I will say that for me, for my taste, first of all, the mixing…once again, it’s the compression vibe. This is the era we live in; everything is compressed. You hear every single detail of everything. And you know that when you’re at a concert, that’s not the way you hear music. The compression kills the natural overtones of the music for me. You hear even the sticks hitting the metal. For me, if I’m in a dance club and dancing with my girlfriend or something, it’s cool. But if I’m in my house listening to a record, it could bother me. But that’s only me.

6. J.D. Allen, “Pharaoh’s Children” (from PHARAOH’S CHILDREN, Criss-Cross, 2001) (Allen, tenor saxophone, composer; Orrin Evans, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Gene Jackson, drums) – (4 stars)

I like the atmosphere. I like the communication they get. Playing music that way is a different approach, and I like it. At first, I thought of Charles Lloyd, but then immediately I knew it wasn’t. And for a quick second, I thought of Dewey, but I immediately knew it wasn’t. [Does he sound like a guy that age?] I don’t know if I would put it that it’s this age or another age. But he did a few things that reminded me of them, but it wasn’t immediately obvious that it isn’t. I liked he was doing. He utilized a great sense of space. And I liked the piece, which helps, and his communication with the pianist was very good. They were really hooking up, and that’s what I appreciate most in any genre of music. 4 stars. [AFTER] I don’t know him. It’s a great record.

7. Dexter Gordon, “Scrapple From The Apple” (from OUR MAN IN PARIS, Blue Note 1963/2003) (Gordon, tenor saxophone; Bud Powell, piano; Pierre Michelot, bass; Kenny Clarke, drums) – (5 stars)

That’s great! You can’t go wrong with that one! You play it every day. Whoo! Mmm! It’s Dex. Big Dexter. “Scrapple From The Apple.” I’m trying to remember which record it is. But I knew him from the first note. It’s that way with all the older players The funny thing is that Coltrane sounded so many different ways throughout his career, but he always sounds like Trane. Sonny, too. Even Stan Getz. I have some really early stuff by Stan, but you always know he’s in there. This is not “Doin’ All Right.” Is this “Go”? I’m trying to remember the actual album. I haven’t listened to it for ages. Dexter’s the only guy who could do that quote and make it sound great! He plays all over the horn, great sound, great sense of time. 5 stars. Is the pianist Kenny Drew? Tootie Heath on drums? Oh, Kenny Clarke. Ah, definitely Bud Powell. The thing with Dexter is that in terms of sound he’s obviously got a lot of Prez, but you can tell that a lot of stuff came from Charlie Parker. He’s really playing the bebop shit incredible, but he has a whole other element of laidbackness that’s Prez-oriented, but also has his own vibe of the sound. That’s what makes him sound completely different, because the way he laid back is not the way Prez laid back. It’s a different thing. The real weight is in his sound. Another guy who plays a quote like [sings “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”], it’s like “come on, man!” But Dexter makes funny quotes. He has a sense of humor, and still sounds so great. Probably I wouldn’t like it so much if I tried to play those licks, Charlie Parker shit, that incredible stuff. I would sound sad! But he delivers the phrases in a certain way that make it sound so hip and so personal at the same time.

8. Papo Vasquez, “Vianda con Bacalao” (from Papo Vasquez, CARNIVAL IN SAN JUAN, Cubop, 2003) (Papo Vasquez, trombone, percussion, chorus composer; Willie Williams, tenor saxophone; Arturo O’Farrill, composer; John Benitez, bass; Horacio Hernandez, drums; Joe Gonzalez, congas; Roberto Cepeda, chorus)

Nice. This is what people call Latin Jazz, but it sounds like New York Latin Jazz. It’s got some New York shit in there. It has some New York attitude to it. It’s really hip. It has a lot of content, but at the same time the groove is there. I like this. This reminds me of Papo Vasquez’ stuff, the arrangement. He’s one of these guys who writes music, like the in Fort Apache also, and he makes very good use of the bass, contrasting motion in phrases with the percussion, and then the horns are doing something different. That was a very interesting arrangement. Did you notice that the drum was not so much in your face? The clave was a little up-front; I wish I didn’t hear it so clear. Anyway, it reminded me of Papo, but I could very well be wrong. 3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] I knew it. He writes some really hip stuff. I think the tenor player was Willie Williams. He sounded good. But sometimes, when you put cats in a certain context, I guess the natural thing is that you change a little bit your playing, but just to that particular way of playing. Here it’s a Latin thing, but it’s a really hip Latin… It’s not like the Latin jazz where you just play for people to dance, and okay, let’s have some fun and background music. This is a really hip arrangement. You could tell the interaction was a little different also. It has that New York attitude, like I said before. But somehow, because the Latin element is there, I feel sometimes guys try to change a little bit and adjust and try to play a little bit more rhythmic and so on. And sometimes… I know Willie’s playing, and I know he’s a great player, but on this particular occasion, for my taste, I’d rather hear him play the way he really plays. Was that Negro on drums? I liked it a lot. It sounded great, and Papo wrote some beautiful music, as usual.

9. Warne Marsh, “Rhythmically Speaking” (from BACK HOME, Criss-Cross, 1986) (Marsh, tenor saxophone; Barry Harris, piano; David Williams, bass; Albert Heath, drums) – (3 stars)

That sounds like someone who is influenced by Lester Young, but the rest of the band sounds really bebop-oriented, very tradition. But the tenor player is playing kind of over the bar lines. I’m not sure I’m so much into this… Believe me, I love the bar lines. Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker are the two greatest people to play over the bar line to me. They could play so elastic, but then, when they came back, WHOO! Monk, too. He had a very special way of playing over the bar lines. This one has a different way of doing it. The tenor player reminded me of the Tristano school, that perhaps he had some influence from Warne Marsh, that type of playing. I like that type of playing, but you’ve got to play a certain way. I thought it was cool, but I’m not going to tell you it was great. 3 stars. [AFTER] [LAUGHS] Well, at least I was on the right track. I was never going to guess it was Barry. But the other guys were more bebop, more traditional-oriented. This is a late recording of Warne Marsh. Because he had a way of playing over the bar line which was different. This reminded me of this Tristano counterpoint type of thing. But earlier in his life it was a little more accurate. On this, it sounded like he was playing over the bar line, but then after that, what? It’s falling over anything, basically. It doesn’t have the continuity after the fact of going over the bar line. This is a late recording. It sounds like it. I’ve got a great record with Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz, and they play all these incredible heads. They sometimes will take a standard song and put on a whole other head with a Tristano vibe. This reminded me of him, and it was him, but it was another period of him, I guess.

10. Frank Wess, “Rockin’ Chair” (from Bill Charlap, STARDUST, Blue Note, 2002) (Wess, tenor saxophone; Charlap, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Kenny Washington, drums)

I hear some Ben Webster. But it’s not Ben Webster. That phrase definitely sounded like Ben. The inflection is right in there. Swing. This is a tricky one, because I know it’s not Ben. Sometimes I hear a little bit of Houston Person, but I know it’s not him. I don’t recognize the song. Is this a younger guy…not a younger guy, but definitely not the generation of Ben Webster. This is a guy who was after the generation of Ben Webster. [Is this an older recording or a newer recording?] I think it’s a newer recording. Maybe not new-new, but not even from the ’60s or ’70s. This is maybe ’80s or ’90s or something? I don’t know. Is it Scott Hamilton? Nice performance, right in the pocket. I liked the feel of the drums, the ride cymbal. It was definitely swinging, right in the middle of the beat, and the tempo was very precise. The piano player actually played very beautiful. When you play that kind of style, you’ve got to be careful not to overdo it, and I liked the way he was economical, but at the same time had some stuff going on. The tenor player has the Ben Webster thing, he has the old thing, but I know it’s none of those guys, like Gene Ammons or Ben Webster. I would give them definitely 4 stars. It was right in there and it had some beauty. I liked it. [AFTER] Oh, wow! No wonder, man. I should have guessed Frank. He plays with such a beauty. I was hearing the influences. I knew it wasn’t Ben, but at the same time what I liked is that it was very mature. I knew it had some level of maturity in the way he was playing, and I suppose I should have guessed it.

11. Wayne Shorter, “Orbits” (#8) (from ALEGRIA, Verve, 2003) (Wayne Shorter, tenor saxophone; Brad Mehldau, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums) – (5 stars)

I know this record, and it’s one of my favorite records. It’s “Alegria” by Wayne Shorter. I don’t remember the name of this particular composition, but this has been my inspiration record for several months. You know how you have an inspirational record, “let’s get the day started” when you’re on the road, and it inspires you. I love anything Wayne Shorter ever did. He’s so profound. There’s so much in every single phrase he plays that it’s unreal. English is not my first language, so I don’t have enough words to describe how deeply anything he does and anything he puts into it. I know some of the orchestrations on this record are his. It’s amazing. You think the voices are going to move in a certain direction, and they move another one, completely unpredictable. The funny part about this is that a number of people, as usual… For me, it’s been like this for years. They always have missed the point with Wayne. Some guys talk about Wayne’s compositions. I think he’s one of the deepest and heaviest composers ever. EVER. This is just my opinion, and it’s only mine and it doesn’t matter. But it’s not only his compositions, but his playing is at a level… The only word that comes to me in English is eloquent. All the phrases are eloquent, with soul, with heart, but very well thought at the same time, very well executed. The ideas are very wise and warm, but at the same time with a very precise way of doing things structurally. Meaning the way he writes, the way he develops a solo… He’s completely accurate. You talk about having accuracy in playing, that’s accuracy for me. For some people, accuracy is hitting all the notes and you can hear them all clear. But for me, that’s only one way of accuracy. Mental accuracy is what he does, that he takes one idea and connects to the next one, the next one, and builds up and just comes down. It’s a very impressive way of doing that. He’s unique. When it comes to that, there’s nobody like Wayne. And this record is great. It has the structure, the very well-formed structure vibe, everything is very well-formed, but it has some sections that are completely open. It’s fascinating to hear somebody going forward with something no matter what. No matter what, we’re just going to go forward. I was in London and I heard him being interviewed, and he said he was willing…his degree of commitment is at such a level that he’ll go down with the ship. To me, that was a deep statement. If he means to go down with the ship, that’s… Are you willing to commit for the moment? I got this recording several months ago, and since then I carry it everywhere. I get inspired by people who are willing to… It has a very high degree of honesty in terms of how they interact together. Danilo is very special like that also, because he has great ears, but he commits also to listen and sing with John. Outside of the fact that John can play different genres and has an understanding of playing different ways, musicianship-wise, he also has some great ears. Anywhere you take him, he can go. And when you put him together with Danilo and Brian, who has these huge ears and plays beautiful things on the drums. He gives you the energy, but it’s like martial arts energy. He has that power, but it’s not blasting. He has power and it has some depth. That’s why I love this particular group, especially with this kind of chamber ensemble. In my book, it’s 5 stars.

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David Sanchez (WKCR, July 24, 2008):

It is hard to fathom why tenor saxophonist David Sanchez, who turns 40 next month, draws scant attention from the jazz press. It can’t be for an insufficiently distinguished pedigree. After apprenticing with Eddie Palmieri and Dizzy Gillespie in his early twenties, Sanchez continued to be a first-call sideman with top-dog jazzfolk like Hilton Ruiz, Kenny Barron, Roy Haynes, Charlie Haden, and Pat Metheny while developing a tonal personality as individualistic as any musician of his generation. Thoroughly conversant with tenor vocabulary stretching the timeline from the ‘40s (Dexter Gordon) to the hypermodern (John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter), Sanchez began to articulate his experimentalist bent—recontextualizing the folkloric rhythms and melodies of his native Puerto Rico with the harmonic and gestural tropes of jazz, and articulating them with a heroic, ravishing tone and command of dynamics at all tempos —on three Grammy-nominated recordings for Columbia/Sony (Melaza, Obsesión, and Travesía), all Grammy-nominated. He revealed himself a full-fledged master on Coral, on which arranger Carlos Franzetti framed his sextet against the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra on a suite of repertoire by Latin American classical composers. Although Coral earned the 2005 Latin Grammy for “Best Instrumental Album,” it marked the end of his 7-CD relationship with Sony.

In late July, Sanchez came to New York for a four-night run at the Jazz Standard with his new quartet—guitarist (and 2005 Thelonious Monk Award winner) Lage Lund, bassist Orlando LeFleming, and drummer Henry Cole. He joined me on WKCR-FM to talk about it.

TP: Your new CD, Cultural Survival , is your first in four years.

SANCHEZ: It’s been a while. Sony was my only label since I started in the mid ‘90s, so it took me a minute to see what was the right fit and what direction I should take this time. I needed to feel comfortable for real to do whatever I wanted. I knew this recording would be a series of firsts—the first time recording with Concord, the first time recording with a quartet with guitar, after always using piano before. So the compositional vibe is different, both from that configuration and the fact that I’ve been checking out a lot of African music, especially southeast Cameroonian music and the Ari people from Tanzania, polyphonic music from Ethiopia, music from Mali. The essence of what I’d been doing is still there, but it does sound different.

TP: Melaza in 1998 was the first project on which you delved deeply into the folkloric music of Puerto Rico, and you worked with that repertoire for the next several records. Did your study of African music emerge from your explorations in Puerto Rican idioms?

SANCHEZ: It’s sort of an extension, to be honest with you. I’ve been listening to that [African] music already since Coral. All of a sudden, everything started making a lot of sense. You often think that something is from you, where you come from. I was listening to all these pygmy communities, to something that was way before, and all of a sudden I realized, “Well, this is kind of ours, but not really.” Listening to that music gave me a bigger picture. It definitely changed my perspective. We developed it this way in the Caribbean, but then again, the roots are very strong all over Africa.

TP: Your own development has followed a path of formal saxophone training, salsa, hardcore jazz. Your first gig in the States was with Eddie Palmieri. Once you started making records, you did Latin jazz dates and hardcore jazz things, as well as exploring your own vernacular. So it’s a long, ongoing journey.

SANCHEZ: Indeed. You have to bring the New York City experience into the equation, too. In New York, if you let your mind be open to those different influences and cultural backgrounds, then it’s available for you. But you have to be open. Everything is available. Whoever plays in a unidirectional way, or thinks or hears that way, it’s because they want to. Once I came here, I was exposed to all these different people coming from different places. That helps, too. A lot.

TP: You’ve been living in Atlanta for the last few years.

SANCHEZ: For the last four years, almost.

TP: How is it not living in New York any more?

SANCHEZ: Well, it’s interesting, actually! I do miss it a little. Especially my old neighborhood in Brooklyn, Park Slope, which was pretty hip. Then again, I have the blessing to come here three-four-five times a year, which is a lot. Also, Atlanta has its own musical scene. The gospel thing is huge. The R&B—as you know, all the studios are there. Everyone goes there to record. The movement of underground hip-hop mixed with jazz, the real underground (the other one, too, the one that you hear on the radio) is a very strong movement there. The jazz scene is tiny. But the bottom line is that, culturally speaking, when you analyze it, Atlanta is a cultural center. It has some kind of traditional something. It might not be jazz, but it’s something else. And the Atlanta Symphony is a really decent symphony orchestra.

But New York is unique. No other city in the United States is going to be a match for it.

TP: In the past, we’re used to hearing you in a more polyrhythmic setup, with Adam Cruz or someone else playing drumkit and usually Pernell Saturnino, but occasionally someone else, playing hand drums and percussion. Is this a different concept? Is the paredown for economic reasons? Aesthetic ones?

SANCHEZ: Both. Today it’s very hard to go out there with a larger configuration. But at the same time, I saw it as an opportunity. I was a percussionist before I was a saxophonist. I was really deep into the rhythms. My brother used to play with a folkloric group in Puerto Rico, with one of the masters in Rafael Cepeda. So I saw it as an opportunity to write music, as I did on Melaza, in a way that my percussion influence is very present, but you can either have the percussion or not have it. It’s going to be implied in the bass lines, or on the piano—in this case, on the guitar—and on the saxophone itself. Then you say: “What is this? This sounds different. This is not straight-ahead jazz, but this is not Latin Jazz either. What is it?”

TP: Continuing on your remarks about the multiplicity of musical languages that are available to any musician who comes to New York, and how the intersection of those languages creates exciting possibilities for R&D, it occurs to me that people like you, Danilo Perez, and Edward Simon, were in the forefront of a generation that arrived in New York from all over the world with a mastery of jazz language, which they used in elaborating their own vernaculars. Were you thinking about any of those things twenty years ago? Was it simply a matter of the gigs as best you could as they came up, and things just happened?

SANCHEZ: It was a little bit of both. As I said before, once you come to this city, the opportunities are out there. Don’t get me wrong. There are other cities in the world where the same dynamic takes place, like Paris. You meet colleagues who are roughly around the same age, a little older or a little younger, and you share ideas. You view the ideas and you think, “Wow, I never thought of this in this way.” If you have enough flexibility to accept and be receptive to those ideas, then it would help you and it would help the music to evolve in a different way, in a way that you’re no longer thinking of these categories, like: “Well, I play bebop.” “No, I’m post-bop jazz.” “No, I play free jazz—that’s my period.” “I’m a Latin Jazz guy.” “No, I’m a salsa guy who plays a little bit of jazz on top.” After a while, when you experience a city like this, all of this is irrelevant! It’s just the music, and you have all these ways of playing music, all these people coming from different parts of the world, different parts of the United States. It’s up to us as artists to take whatever we think can help us and enrich our own vocabularies.

TP: What was your path towards jazz? Coming up in Puerto Rico playing percussion, folkloric music, how did jazz enter your view?

SANCHEZ: I have to say a great part of it was because of my sister. She’s not a musician. She’s still into comparative theology and comparative literature.

TP: Serious stuff.

SANCHEZ: Serious stuff! [LAUGHS] She was open to so many different styles of music. I’m talking about not only jazz, but music from Johan Sebastian Bach, or Stravinsky, or Milton Nascimento or Elis Regina in Brazil.

TP: This is an older sister?

SANCHEZ: Yes. There’s twelve years difference. When she was a teenager, I was a kid. I was exposed to jazz and all the other genres because of her, although obviously I didn’t know it back in those days. . I had a dilemma when I was 10-11-12, and I went to the performing arts school. I really wanted to study drums and percussion. You had to pass these exams, and I did, but they said that there were too many drummers. I chose saxophone because I liked the sound—it was the only other instrument I liked. Somehow, I was sitting in with the percussion and doing the saxophone classes also. But not until she brought me a recording called Basic Miles, an LP with a green jacket, which was a compilation of different periods of Miles Davis’ career… I was already playing classical foundation-oriented music; which is what they were teaching—no jazz or anything. But I immediately became curious. I was like, “Wow, this is weird, introspective, and kind of dark,” but at the same time something attracted me. Then all these questions arose. “What is that?” “Was that written?” “This is unbelievable.” Then a friend said, “No, that’s improvisation.” “Wow.” That was a turning point for me to be really serious on my instrument. My sister also brought Lady in Satin, Billie Holiday and the Ray Ellis Orchestra, her last record. That was my introduction to jazz. Weird. I was growing up in the Caribbean, and I’ve got to be honest with you—not many people were into that.

TP: For one thing, the rhythmic feel of jazz, the 4/4 swing, is pretty different than the polyrhythms you knew from folkloric music, or the time feel in classical music. A lot of people from the Caribbean say that’s the biggest adjustment they need to make in playing jazz. Was this the case for you?

SANCHEZ: There are a lot of similarities at the same time. Feeling the beat on 2 and 4 is something really basic in Caribbean music generally. In Cuban music, if you listen to the conga, or we call it bacateo, and the references when they’re dancing is 2 and 4. It subdivides into that. The triplet feel, too. That 6/8 or 12/8, however you want to call it, against four, is very present in both. When you listen to jazz, that triplet feel must be there in order to swing. If you listen to Duke or Count Basie, all those people, you hear it. It’s that really African thing, going back to that subject. The European is there also, but the rhythmic foundation… You would be amazed how many similarities.

For me, the biggest adjustment was phrasing, and that has to do with language. The way you deliver the accents, the inflections. We speak open in Spanish, and in English you utilize vowels that are more on the inside of your mouth. The same thing with the music. I found that very challenging. Just the way people from the jazz world need that downbeat thing to feel more comfortable—they find the upbeats challenging. The upbeats happen in the Brazilian world, too. Still, when you really look at it, from all the different angles, there are a lot of similarities, and that comes from the African side. It’s African roots.

TP: So many tributaries, according to the particularities of each place where African slaves were brought.

SANCHEZ: There are definitely some very strong ties. But it’s still challenging.

TP: In your formative period, how did you approach assimilating tenor saxophone vocabulary?

SANCHEZ: Back when I was growing up, especially coming out of the performing arts school that did not teach jazz at all, and then entering Rutgers, it was a little less academic. I was very enthusiastic about it. For a certain period of time I’d be checking out Charlie Parker; for another period of time I’d be checking out Dexter Gordon. It wasn’t like an assignment. It was just enthusiasm and out of love at that particular time for what Dexter was doing or what Sonny Rollins was doing. I had this strong tie with Sonny, because somewhere you feel that Caribbean experience, and his way of delivering certain phrases was very percussive. I felt, “Wow, this guy is almost playing the drums at the same time he’s playing the saxophone, too, but with an unbelievable sound.” Those were some of my heroes. I got to Joe Henderson much later. Wayne Shorter, too. When you’re ready, life takes you to where you need to go. But at first, it was enthusiasm and passion for what I was listening to. It wasn’t like a report or work. Later on, at Rutgers, of course, you needed structure, and they’d tell you to check out certain records and certain tunes, and learn harmony. I owe that to Ted Dunbar. He said, “Man, you’ve got to play the piano. You’ve got to match your ears with your technical abilities on the instrument.” He pointed out all those things to me, which were priceless lessons. Kenny Barron as well. So definitely there was a structure, but before the structure there has to be that passion and willingness to be curious about something you don’t know.

TP: You worked with Eddie Palmieri as soon as you arrived on the mainland, and you’ve maintained your relationship with him over the years. Recently, you’ve performed with him in duo, and he himself has been expanding his concept since the time you first joined him. Talk about that relationship.

SANCHEZ: Without Eddie, nothing else would have been possible. First of all, he was one of my heroes. Eddie Palmieri was huge back in the ‘70s. He did some compositions in the salsa genre that became classics. And he would not settle for this. He would move on. He clearly had the New York experience, too. So did Tito Puente. You could feel it. Okay, it’s the salsa genre, but it doesn’t sound like the conventional variety—this has something else going on. I don’t know exactly what. My relationship with Eddie from the beginning was very special, because he embraced me. Just like Dizzy, too. He embraced me in a way that he knows, “yeah, this guy has a lot of potential; he has to work on this and that.” They were aware of those things, but they still embrace you.

TP: What sorts of things did Eddie Palmieri tell you and what sorts of things did Dizzy Gillespie tell you?

SANCHEZ: For instance, at the time, Eddie would always be working on how to flow rhythmically and be open and free within the clave structure. We had a connection in there right away. It might have something to do with the fact that I was very familiar with that way of playing drums. It became like if you put a hand in a glove, and it fit. Also, I’ve got to be honest with you, there is no way I would have gotten to Dizzy if I hadn’t been playing with Eddie Palmieri. I was so blessed. I was a kid still at Rutgers University, trying to learn more music and be exposed to all these ways of playing, and here I’m already playing with Eddie Palmieri, making a little bread to go back to school and buy some books and records, which was extremely hard for me to do in Puerto Rico. Then maybe a year-and-half or so later, I had the blessing to be able to play with Dizzy.

TP: Who himself knew a lot about drums and rhythms and passed on that information to several generations of drummers.

SANCHEZ: There you go. Once again, there’s a connection. I owe a lot to my very early musical development, which had nothing to do with learning to play the piano or sounds or anything. It was just feeling the rhythm and playing the drums. It actually was an access that I didn’t know I had at the time, but it tied me to great artists like Dizzy and Eddie and helped me relate to them.

TP: Now, you toured with Pat Metheny a couple of years ago. Did that experience factor into using guitar in your groups?

SANCHEZ: He called me at the last minute to be the guest with the trio for a two-month tour. I was very flattered. It was the first time in my life that I played with a guitarist on a consistent basis. It was a great learning experience. Because it is different.

The way I approach music, I can play a solo over any comp, over anybody comping—just play all my ideas on top of it. But I’ve reached a point that, in some ways, I hate doing that. I want to be receptive and try to take a risk as to how I can relate my idea to what the person is comping behind me. I’ve found that more challenging with guitar players than with piano players. It’s funny, because with guitarists you have more space in some ways, but the strings, the textures, the sound, the sonorities can also take you elsewhere. So I find it very challenging, and I take my time. I leave the space. Some people take that as tentativeness. Some writers get a little confused by that. They think that you don’t know. But what you’re doing is, you’re waiting to have a conversation with somebody. You’re not talking all the time. You take your pauses. Or if you’re writing, you have your commas.

TP: You might spend six hours looking for the right place to put that comma.

SANCHEZ: As long as emotion is happening, that’s all that matters. It’s a collective. You’re making music. It’s a composition. The only thing is that we’re improvising, so the composition happens at the moment. When you’re writing for an orchestra, the saxophone section is not playing all the time. Maybe the trombones are doing a rhythmic figure, and then, BAM, the saxophones jump in and reply to that. The same thing with the smaller configuration. Maybe he has an idea, and if I’m not listening well to that idea, I cannot take that idea elsewhere. That’s the challenge. You can approach it so many ways. You can approach the guitar as another horn, meaning you play the head, and then he lays out and you play like a trio. Then he comes and plays his solo—you could approach it like that. You could approach it as a piano or any other harmonic instrument behind your solo. You can go on and on with different ways of approaching the instrument. It’s fantastic. As I said at earlier, there’s a lot of first-times with this recording, and that’s one—never, ever before had I had a guitar on my records.

TP: So this in some sense stems from hearing it for two months with Pat Metheny, and also your investigations into string music from different parts of Africa.

SANCHEZ: I have to say that before Pat, I listened to many recordings with the kora, and also a wooden instrument called the ieta—it looks like it’s going to be a percussion instrument, but no, it has the 7 strings—as well as an 8-string instrument called the ngombi. That had a lot to do with my decision to see what sound the strings would give me. Then when I played with Pat, it confirmed everything. I was like, wow, we’re only doubling the melody, and it sounds so full. The tenor and the guitar complement each other very well. Something about the timbre.

 

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For Bruce Barth’s 58th Birthday, An Uncut Blindfold Test From 2002, the Proceedings of a WKCR Musician Show from 1998, and my Liner Notes for the Double-Time CD, “Hope Springs Eternal”

Pianist Bruce Barth, an “unsung” master, turns 58 today. For the occasion, I’ve posted a an uncut Blindfold Test  that we did for Downbeat in 2002; the complete proceedings of a Musician Show that we did on WKCR in 1998; and my liner note for his 1998 recording, Hope Springs Eternal, on Double Time.

 

Bruce Barth Blindfold Test (2002):

1. Harry Connick, “Somewhere My Love” (from 30, Columbia, 1998) – (Harry Connick, piano) – (5 stars)

I’m stumped on that one. I liked it very much. Who would have thought of playing that particular tune in a jazz style? It’s a very personal, fresh approach, a definite Monk influence, maybe a bit too explicitly so for my taste. But it’s done in a personal way in terms of the harmony and the real interesting use of the time, and just the colors of the piano. I enjoyed it very much. 4-1/2 stars. It’s really creative, thoughtful playing.

2. Peter Madsen, “A Crutch For The Crab” (from Mario Pavone, MYTHOS, 2002) (Madsen, piano; Mario Pavone, bass; Matt Wilson, drums) – (2-1/2 stars)

I found the melody very interesting. I liked the use of that triadic figure very much. I didn’t recognize the tune. [Oh, I don’t know it.] I thought it was a very interesting piece, but the soloing really didn’t have a sense of narrative flow to me. It didn’t sound that thoughtful to me, what was being played, in a certain way. There was a lot of playing, but it didn’t gel for me as a group. There’s a certain busy-ness to it, and it didn’t feel like there was a certain kind of empathy for me — or it’s just an empathy I can’t relate to. I’m sure they have an empathy. 2-1/2 stars.

3. Jaki Byard, “Diane’s Melody” (from SUNSHINE OF MY SOUL, Prestige, 1967/2001) (Byard, piano; David Izenson, bass; Elvin Jones, drums)

I hear certain elements of pianists I recognize, but I don’t recognize exactly who that was. It sounds like an older recording. I liked the rubato playing in the introduction and at the end. The solo had some nice ideas. Some of the flourishes, the very virtuosic moments, for me didn’t completely work so integrated into the line of the solo, in terms of as a statement. There’s a bit of a pastiche element. On the other hand, I can appreciate the playing. There’s a lot of nice ideas. I heard flashes of Jaki Byard, but it’s not Jaki. [It IS Jaki.] Wow… It’s interesting, because Jaki… I loved a lot of Jaki’s playing. That’s not one of the favorite things. [What qualitatively makes this differ from the things you like by him?] The story line of the solo, so to speak. [Does it have anything to do with the accompaniment of the rhythm section?] I thought it might have been Richard Davis on the bass, but I’m not sure. [AFTER] Wow, that’s interesting. Jaki could be eccentric in his playing. 3-1/2 stars.

4. Renee Rosnes, “My Romance” – (from The Drummonds, PAS DE TROIS, True Life, 2001) – (Rosnes, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Billy Drummond, drums).

That’s “My Romance.” I didn’t recognize the pianist. I enjoyed the reharmonization. I wasn’t moved by it really. It’s pretty piano playing, but it wasn’t for me…that tune in that setting… Again, I talk about story line or melodic development; in some ways I didn’t get a sense of a strong melodic statement. A couple of things sounded like a little pastiche element — one idea, another idea. 3 stars.

5. Peter Beets, “First Song” (from NEW YORK TRIO, Criss-Cross, 2001) (Beets, piano; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Willie Jones, drums) (3-1/2 stars)

I enjoyed it. It sounded like an original tune; a tune by the pianist, I’d imagine. A nice arrangement and nice energy in the trio. I didn’t recognize the pianist; I enjoyed the performance. 3-1/2 stars. Nice sound, nice energy.

6. Mulgrew Miller, “Body and Soul” (from YOUNG AT HEART, Columbia, 1996) (Mulgrew Miller, p; Ira Coleman, b; Tony Williams, d) – (5 stars)

That’s Mulgrew Miller playing “Body and Soul.” Mulgrew is certainly one of the great pianists alive today. He’s a personal favorite, and hearing him play the solo, he has such a personal language, a very rich harmonic language that’s very much his own. I love his touch on the piano. A lyrical, beautiful performance. 5 stars. [AFTER] Now I get to chastise myself in print for not recognizing Tony. I think I would have recognized him more immediately with the stick playing and not the brush playing. But they had a very nice trio sound. They played together beautifully.

7. Fred Hersch, “Work” (from SONGS WITHOUT WORDS, Nonesuch, 2001) (Hersch, piano) – (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Fred Hersch playing “Work” by Thelonious Monk. Fred Hersch is one of my favorite living solo pianists. He’s a master at treating the piano orchestrally and creating… Listen to the integration of the two hands and the variety of textures he creates on the piano. That sounds like really on-the-edge playing. He likes to take chances, really putting himself out there on the edge. He can take a song in many different direction. A beautiful piano sound and touch. 5 stars.

8. Bill Charlap, “The Nearness Of You” (from STARDUST, Blue Note, 2002) – (5 stars)

This is “The Nearness Of You.” I’m not sure who it is yet. But it’s very pretty… I really like the way he or she is taking his or her time, letting the melody unfold in a very lyrical way. The performance had a very… It was a nice, slow tempo — and I really enjoy hearing ballads played at a slow tempo — but with space. But he certainly sustained the intensity. At one time they went into double-time feel, but they sustained a very lyrical feeling in terms of the ballad tempo. I was going to guess Larry Willis. No? I’m really a bit stumped on this. 5 stars for beautiful playing.

9. Jean-Michel Pilc, “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good” (from WELCOME HOME, Dreyfuss, 2002) (Pilc, piano; Francois Moutin, bass; Ari Hoenig, drums) – (4 stars)

That, of course, is Duke’s “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good.” I loved the reharmonization, and in some ways he or she changed the melody also. A very personal and imaginative reharmonization on the first two choruses of the melody. The actual improvisation section didn’t strike me as strongly as the statement of melody. I like the idea of a dialogue passing back and forth, but I felt particularly strongly about the way the pianist stated the head. If this were a magazine article, I’d say the solo didn’t kill me. Some of the harmonic approach sounded like Jason Moran, who I’ve never heard play a standard, but then I knew it wasn’t. It’s interesting because I’ve never heard Jason play a standard… I had a suspicion for a minute, because some of the harmonic ideas and the approach to the piano. [You’re saying that you thought in the beginning, in the melody statement that you complimented so highly that it might be Jason Moran, although you’d never heard Jason play a standard.] Exactly. [However, you realized it wasn’t once the improvisation began.] Exactly. That popped into my mind. [I can phrase that in the first person. Anybody else pop into your mind?] Not offhand. I would give it 4 stars, because I liked the statement of the melody so much.

10. Martial Solal, “You Stepped Out Of A Dream” (from JUST FRIENDS, Dreyfus, 1997) (Solal, p; Gary Peacock, b; Paul Motian, d) – (2-1/2 stars)

Some very virtuosic piano playing on “You Stepped Out Of A Dream”. A lot of interesting ideas. I’m not really comfortable with the way the rhythm section feels in the way they’re playing together. I wouldn’t venture a guess. There were interesting ideas. I didn’t like the feeling rhythmically, the way the trio played together. [Did it sound like a working trio or a one-off?] It’s hard to say. I can’t really judge. 2-1/2 stars. I respond to the emotional content of the solo, the story-line, the narrative flow — however you want to say it. I’m not talking necessarily about motific development, but a way where you feel things happen in an organic, natural, flowing kind of way, and I can’t feel it here.

11. Eric Reed, “Round Midnight” (from FROM MY HEART, Savant, 2002) (Reed, piano; Dwayne Burno, bass; Cecil Brooks, III, drums) – (3-1/2 stars)

Very virtuosic piano playing. I like the quote of “Four In One.” A couple of other quotes. Stanley Cowell? No. It’s not Rodney Kendrick? For my taste, it was a lot of notes. There were a lot of ideas and a certain virtuosity, but the content of the solo didn’t move me. The way I felt, the solo was pretty much at one level. It was pretty dense in terms of notes. 3-1/2 stars.

12. Oscar Peterson, “Sweet Lorraine” (from FREEDOM SONG, Pablo, 1982/2001) (Peterson, piano; Joe Pass, guitar; Niels Henning Orsted Pederson, bass) – (5 stars)

“Sweet Lorraine.” I’d like to say on the record that, Ted, you’re a tough Blindfold Test giver. It sounds like Oscar. Yeah. Oscar Peterson. During the intro it didn’t… It is. Right? Of course. It’s very pretty playing. With Joe Pass. It’s very relaxed and lyrical. I haven’t heard this particular record. 5 stars to my first favorite jazz pianist, when I was first learning to play. A very beautiful piano sound, great rhythmic feel, a nice swinging feeling. A lot of people talk about his virtuosity, but there’s some very pretty melodic playing that’s part of him, too.

 

*-*-*-*-

Bruce Barth Musician Show (WKCR, May 13, 1998):

[MUSIC: BB-3, “Don’t Blame Me”, BB-5, “Morning”]

TP: Let’s talk about the arc of the program of today’s show, the reasons for going in the direction you’re going.

BARTH: When you asked me to do a Musicians Show I was pretty thrilled, and also a little bit daunted at the prospect of having to pick my favorite records, because I have so many favorite records. But I thought of it in terms of groupings of music. I wanted to talk about some influences, some of the first records that I love, many of which I still love today, and also about some of the great pianists and other musicians I grew acquainted with later on. Also I thought it would be nice to play some other contemporary pianists I like who are on the scene now. And I love the whole tradition of jazz composition, so I brought along some records by different composers whom I admire.

TP: To what extent when you were coming up were records and the process of emulation with records part of your developing a style as an improviser or a sense of an individual voice that could come through the instrument?

BARTH: I think that these days records are more and more important…

TP: But for you.

BARTH: Oh, especially for me when I came up, because it’s not that I really grew up in a thriving jazz scene. I grew up in a town — Harrison, New York — a little bit north of the city. And I could get into the city sometimes to hear music, but it’s not the kind of thing… You read about jazz greats of the past who grew up completely surrounded by the music, people who grew up in many of the jazz cities, jazz musicians coming to their house. I talked to Stanley Cowell, and he told me how when he was 6 Art Tatum came over to the house. I didn’t really have those experiences growing up, needless to say, so I relied on records a lot. I started to meet some musicians when I was in high school doing some jamming, but so much of it was on the phone, “Oh, did you hear such-and-such a record?” It was a very exciting time, because I was often being introduced… People would tell me about musicians I hadn’t even heard of. I remember one day somebody said to me on the phone, “oh, I hear Oscar Peterson; he plays so fast, you wouldn’t believe it,” and at the time I was saying, “Really? I’ve got to check this guy out.” But the same thing with other people like Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Erroll Garner. A lot of times I would go down to the jazz department at the local record store because I had heard the name, and ask the guy, “Hey, could you recommend a record by Monk or by Bud Powell?” I’d take it home, the first time I’d ever heard a Monk or a Bud Powell record. It was a very exciting time.

TP: A two-part question following onto that. You grew up not only not in a jazz bad, but when you were coming up was a time when a classic era of jazz was kind of winding down, or entering a transition, or taking very a different form. How did the jazz bug hit you? What kept you with it in terms of the type of music you play in the early or mid ’70s when things weren’t necessarily going in that direction?

BARTH: I started playing the piano when I was very young, and I started with Classical lessons. But from the time I first started playing the piano, I loved always loved to play by ear and to improvise. So when I was let’s say younger, like 10-11-12, I was always figuring out tunes. A lot of it more Pop tunes-Rock tunes, figuring out tunes by ear, figuring out at the piano. But I really hadn’t heard a lot of jazz growing up until the high school years. Actually, a big influence was my older brother bought me a Mose Allison for my birthday, I think my 15th birthday — and I just flipped over it. Several of those tunes I figured out by ear. Again, I didn’t have a jazz instructor. So I just figured things out, and I probably gave half of the chords the wrong names at the time. But I was able to figure things out.

TP: But simultaneously you were reading and playing Classical music?

BARTH: Yes, I was. I was practicing a lot of Classical music at the time. In some ways, I think it’s a good thing that I figured out a lot of things for myself. I later did study jazz; I had jazz teachers later on. I studied with Norman Simmons, Jaki Byard and Fred Hersch. But by then, even by the time I hooked up with Norman, who was really my first jazz teacher, I feel I’d already learned a lot of the basic things about playing, pretty much by listening to records, and then later on into high school I started playing with some friends and that kind of thing.

TP: Did you have people to play with in Harrison, or were you a solo pianist?

BARTH: A lot of stuff just on my own, fooling around on my own. Then later on, I started hanging around SUNY-Purchase. I remember one summer I took a jazz course with Lou Stein, and I met some musicians there. Then I met some of the jazz students who were going over there and started to play some jam sessions with them.

TP: What component of improvising in a jazz sense, if any, would you say was the biggest hurdle for you, that one you got past it you felt reasonably comfortable?

BARTH: I’d say it was just a matter of learning the language. I don’t think of myself as a super late starter, but it’s interesting… Nowadays I teach some, and just being around the New York scene where there are so many talented young players, now, of course, it’s a time with I’d say a lot more interest among young people, among young musicians in jazz than when I was coming up. But I certainly didn’t have it all together. I sometimes meet 19 or 20 year olds who are already playing great now. For me I think it was a little bit more of a gradual process to really get my playing together. I can’t say the main hurdle was a rhythmic thing or a harmonic thing. I think it was just needing the experience, playing with other people and then finally getting on gigs.

TP: Mentioning Fred Hersch and Jaki Byard, did you go to New England Conservatory?

BARTH: Exactly. I studied with both those guys up there.

TP: Let’s talk about that experience. The idea of studying jazz in college, which is a fairly new phenomenon… Not that jazz musicians didn’t have thorough music educations, but the idea of a specific jazz curriculum. And just going from that to the idea of music as your life, as not just your avocation but your vocation.

BARTH: By the time I went to New England Conservatory I’d already had a fair amount of playing experience, and I didn’t feel quit… At one point I did live in New York City, for about a year, when I was 20, and I was studying at Manhattan School, but in some ways I didn’t feel ready for the whole scene back then. The pressures of living in New York, partly the financial pressures also. Boston was a good place in that there was a little bit less pressure, and I was actually able to work more — which was the other thing. It’s kind of a tradeoff. Sometimes you go to a place like New York when you’re young, and it’s great being in that environment. I think that that’s the way to really improve the fastest. On the other hand, young musicians who go to New York aren’t really going to work too much, given the level of music here. So being in Boston, I think I was able to be a little bit more active. I was pretty active on the Boston scene.

TP: A little bit about what you did in town.

BARTH: Really briefly: I think the first month in town, I had a gig with Jerry Bergonzi and some other excellent Boston players. And I met some fine players up there. Teddy Kotick was still up there, and I had the chance to play with him. Joe Hunt. Of course, Bill Pierce and Garzone, two other great tenor players in addition to Bergonzi. And also I did some gigs with Grey Sergeant, the guitarist. So I actually had some very nice gigs in Boston. I had a steady trio gig Friday and Saturday night that lasted for two years. That’s something you don’t see around New York too much.

TP: I’m trying to get back into your head as a young aspirant who has something together. Would you use a gig like that as a way of, let’s say, strengthening things that you felt unsure about? How would a gig like that proceed for you?

BARTH: It was a great learning experience on a couple of levels. In terms of my own musical development, I was constantly learning new tunes. Again, it just gets back to doing things yourself rather than… I sometimes joke about taking all the real books and putting them on a big bonfire and burning them. Because I think musicians, especially young musicians, rely a little bit too much on the written music. So back then I would figure things out. Tunes I wanted to play, I would figure those out off records. So having a steady gig was a chance to try out new material, and I learned a lot of tunes in those years. It was a chance to stretch out, and also to play with a lot of musicians. Rather than having a steady trio at that time, since there were a lot of excellent bassists and drummers in Boston, I thought it would be better for me just to play with different people. One bass player I worked a lot with was Richard Evans, a Chicago bass player, who actually lived in Boston and played some gigs up there. At the time, he was one of the greatest bass players I’d ever worked with. He has that great beat, a beautiful sound.

TP: A post Israel Crosby-Wilbur Ware kind of thing.

BARTH: Exactly. He’d worked with Jamal and Dinah Washington, and of course, he worked with Sun Ra, which was one of his first gigs.

TP: Well, that must have been an education, drawing on that body of knowledge with someone like him. It must have done wonders for your time as well, playing with someone like Richard Evans.

BARTH: Very much so.

TP: Who were some of the older musicians you encountered in Boston?

BARTH: Teddy Kotick, of course, who had played with Bird; I was glad to have the chance to play with him. Bill Pierce isn’t in that generation, but certainly at the time had a lot more playing experience than I did, so the chance to work with him was educational as well.

TP: So you were simultaneously attending New England Conservatory and gigging around the Boston area?

BARTH: Exactly. Then after school I stayed up there for a few more years. I’d say I was gigging more… I was doing some gigs during school. I also had the opportunity of working with Gil Evans and George Russell. That was partly through being in the school. Gil brought in his arrangements to play with the big band at the school. It was a thrill to meet Gil Evans and play his music.

TP: He was conducting?

BARTH: He was conducting, and he also played great piano. I guess the cliche is “arranger’s piano,” not necessarily having the technical fluency you’d expect from a full-time pianist. But very interesting ideas.

TP: Did you also have an interest in electric instruments and synth and that whole sound palette expansion you can do on them? Is that part of your arsenal?

BARTH: You know, a little bit. And actually on the Gil Evans concert I played some synthesizer. Same thing with George Russell… Well, George Russell I played Rhodes and piano. But I realized early on that some people have a knack for just jumping right into it. Because so much of it is learning the technology, dealing with the manuals, fooling around with it — kind of the extra-musical aspects of it. And early on, I felt that I’d better concentrate on the piano. I felt it was enough of a challenge to try to get my piano playing together. But I’m interested in doing it; I just haven’t really been doing it in recent years.

TP: Speaking of jumping in, let’s jump into the other-music portion of the show. We’ll start with Wynton Kelly. In the liner notes to this CD, there are interviews with McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Benny Golson, Hank Mobley, Philly Joe. Bill Evans says he was almost the perfect piano player of the ’50s and ’60s.

BARTH: Wynton Kelly was my first favorite pianist. I had a friend who I bumped into who I hadn’t seen for about fifteen years. He said, “Wow, I remember you turned me on to Wynton Kelly.” I think recently there’s maybe been a lot more attention given to Wynton Kelly. At the time people weren’t talking to him that much, but of course, musicians always have admired him. What really struck me about Wynton was his beautiful sound, that really crystal-clear articulation, and the swing, a beautiful swing feel, and just great rhythm, and just the Blues, too — the bluesy aspect of his playing.

[MUSIC: WK/Burrell/PC/Cobb, “Strong Man” (1958); Bud Powell, “Cherokee” (1949); Monk, “Just A Gigolo” (1954); Erroll Garner, “Just A Gigolo” (1964)]

BARTH: Erroll Garner had a beautiful rhythmic feel, and he had a way with melody. He was such a lyrical pianist. A happy feeling, a very deep feeling all the time.

TP: You were talking about ear playing before. I think the thing about Erroll Garner that amazed all his contemporaries is that he was a self-taught player who seemed to have a natural way of harmonizing anything and could do anything in any key.

BARTH: Absolutely. Sometimes his bandmates would not know what key he would play it in. He would play things in different keys on different nights, just basically playing it the way he was hearing it.

It’s interesting hearing the same two pianists playing the same tune back to back. That’s always very instructional. Erroll Garner, you get a sense of just this rolling rhythm. People called it a guitar-like left-hand; he was strumming the left hand on every beat. Of course, Monk played it more as a ballad; Erroll Garner played it more at a medium swing tempo. But Monk you get a sense of his very unique harmonic language, very dissonant chords. Just chords that you would not really find in other pianists. He really had his own harmonic language. Not to say there weren’t influences. I think Duke Ellington was a big influence on Monk. We’ll be hearing some Duke later that had some of the same chords. But Monk very much created his own little musical world, not only in terms of the note choices in the chords, but certain effects on the piano he would use. For instance, he’ll play several notes and then release some, and you’ll be left with maybe a cluster of notes that are sustained after he had released the other notes. A very unique approach to the piano.

TP: Bud Powell was Monk’s protege.

BARTH: Very much. I very much feel I learned to play jazz from a couple of Bud Powell tunes, one of which is “Cherokee.” Just the beautiful line of the bebop musicians, like Bud Powell and Charlie Parker. These musicians brought the art of line playing to such a high level. I think of it as the Bach of the jazz world (I know that’s also been said before) in terms of the most intricate relationship between the line and the harmony that underlies it, doing it in a very graceful way and a very interesting, creative way. Of course, there’s also an element of virtuosity, in that not many people played the kind of tempos that Bud Powell could play.

TP: Bud Powell swings in a very particular way as well. Is there any way you can put words on that?

BARTH: It’s very hard to put into word. It’s harder to say on an up-tempo tune. On a medium-tempo tune, somebody like Wynton Kelly, the eighth notes are a little crisp., while Bud Powell’s eighth notes would tend to be a little more even. So less of a long-short feeling in the eighth notes. Then Bud Powell will lay back a little bit on those medium tempos.

It’s interesting you bring up the idea of the swing feeling. We just heard four pianists, and each has not only a very unique rhythmic feel, but a very unique articulation. I think when you’re talking about pianists on this level (these are clearly some of the great jazz pianists), they are such individualists… Of course you can sometimes point to their influences. But each of these musicians has really carved out his own approach to the music, and I think that’s in a way the thing, even apart from the wonderful elements of their playing… You can talk about their great rhythm or their great harmony. But just the fact that they are such consummate artists in the way that they have created their own approach to the instrument and their own approach to the music.

TP: Well, maybe the mega-influence of jazz piano, maybe even to this day (and not just piano, but Charlie Parker and Don Byas), is Art Tatum, who was playing things in the early 1930s that people still have to grapple with. Talk about how you discovered Tatum, and how a contemporary pianist can usefully assimilate the information drawn from him.

BARTH: Tatum is such a monster of a pianist that for me it’s a little bit daunting to say I’m going to try to assimilate these aspects of Art Tatum. I’ve grappled with a couple of these tunes. Of course, people talk about his amazing technique, which has been pretty much unsurpassed in jazz — his left hand which is faster than most people’s right hand. Also, apart from that is Tatum’s incredible imagination, especially harmonically. He does things that sound so modern. Things he recorded 50 years ago sound like they could have been recorded yesterday. A very adventurous harmonic spirit. And I think finally, in more recent years, he’s starting to get his due as one of the great influences. People often talked about the innovators of Bebop, they talked about Monk, Bird, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie. But like you say, Tatum back in the ’30s was doing a lot of things that the Bebop players later assimilated. The use of sharp 11 chords; harmonically very rich, very dissonant things.

TP: [START OF SIDE B] …being, as they might put it, not imaginative enough, saying that he would play set pieces and have his own set thing, and would rely on some of these incredible virtuoso turns that he invented as licks. It brings up an interesting thought on the nature of improvising and what actually it entails. I don’t know if that’s a question or not, but do you have any thoughts.

BARTH: One thing before I get to that, that’s interesting, which is a little hard for us as Jazz musicians in the ’90s to relate to: Back then, a lot of these jazz tunes, jazz recordings were big hits on jukeboxes. Horace Silver once told me you could sometimes tell when something was going to be a hit, and then it would get played in jukeboxes all over the place. Of course, now popular records will get played a lot on the radio, but it’s maybe not quite the same as things being in the jukeboxes. I think it has the same relationship to its audience as Pop tunes have these days, a Pop hit. So in those days, people would come to the club and they would know Tatum’s recording of a certain piece, and they’d kind of expect to hear that. Not that they didn’t want to hear him improvise, too. But there were certain tunes Tatum had had hits with, and he would actually play them the same way. Which is a little hard for me to imagine, because I don’t know how he played it that way in the first place.

But in terms of the things he came up with, it’s sometimes interesting to hear a well-known standard, even a tune… We could listen to, say, Tatum’s “Jitterbug Waltz,” which was a Fats Waller tune, and Tatum would often say that “I come from Fats” in terms of his influence on the piano, and then hear Fats’ version. Just the wonderful things he does with the harmony and the form. It’s hard to imagine someone saying he’s not creative.

TP: On a more general plane, and again dealing with the process of a contemporary improviser assimilating information: What do the older piano players have to offer? Everybody acknowledges that the older musicians were great. But you rarely hear contemporary improvisers on any instrument really taking them as source material for the way they’re functioning right now. Any thoughts on that?

BARTH: Could you clarify that?

TP: Well, when saxophonists come up, you won’t often have someone bring in Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young or Ben Webster as an influence per se. If they’ve heard them, it’s sort of through someone else who had heard them as an influence. I’m interested in the assimilation of information from the older musicians particularly pre-war, on a contemporary improviser.

BARTH: I think one big element, even… It’s interesting speaking about the sax players. A lot of younger sax players are very drawn to the harmonic innovations of Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, that kind of thing. So a lot of times they’re looking to those musicians for inspiration. But of course, there are those elements you get from the older players, the melodicism, the warmth… Not only the warmth of the sound, but something about the whole manner of playing. I’m speaking in really general terms, but there’s a certain warmth that often you don’t find in younger players. It might be just the society they came up in. It was a different world back then in a lot of ways.

In the case of Tatum it’s interesting, because he goes back to… When you talk about let’s say some of the early tenor players, people like Trane definitely brought the language to a modern state. In the case of Tatum, it’s interesting, because he played back then, but he sounds so modern today. So maybe the pianist equivalent would be somebody like Teddy Wilson, who was from that period, had that approach, didn’t play necessarily the modern things that Tatum played. I’ve listened a lot to Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller… The thing about pianists from that period, they really played the whole piano. A lot of the Bebop players concentrated more on the right hand. I think what happened is that a lot of the more modern pianists have gone back to that whole piano way of playing.

TP: Which Ahmad Jamal seemed to help bring back into a modern vernacular in certain ways.

BARTH: I think so.

[MUSIC: Tatum, “Tenderly” (1952); Fats, “Russian Fantasy” (1935); Duke/Strayhorn, “Tonk” (1950)]

TP: You can’t do a Musician Show without including your own favorite by Charlie Parker. Bruce is choosing Bird with Strings, “Temptation.” Talk about the role Charlie Parker played in the development of your aesthetic.

BARTH: For me, I would say that Charlie Parker is one of my very favorite jazz musicians. I love him as much as I love any pianist. Bird had it all for me in terms of… I guess the basic thing is such a depth of feeling, which came out even more so with some of the string recordings, which he loved. He said how much he was thrilled to play with strings and hear that accompaniment behind him. Charlie Parker had a great way of phrasing. Of course, he’s one of the innovators of modern jazz. He created his own language. For me it’s a matter of the phrasing, the great rhythm and the creativity. It’s interesting, too, when you hear alternate takes, and you really see… Talk about a creative player. Playing different things in different versions. Always fresh, always creative.

TP: You were talking about things Art Tatum played in the ’30s that still sound modern. There’s a school of thought, and as I continue to listen to music I agree with it more and more, that says Charlie Parker has never been surpassed in the originality of his concept, particularly in the rhythmic aspect of what he did. Any comments?

BARTH: There is a real rhythmic freedom and a real looseness, and he’ll play some wild rhythms that really make you turn your head. The same thing harmonically. He was playing certain substitutions that I don’t think anyone… Well, Tatum, of course, like we were saying, played really innovative harmonic things. But in terms of horn players, I think at the time no one had played the kinds of things that Bird played, in terms of some of the harmonic substitutions. I guess it almost goes without saying he’s been such a huge influence on all the subsequent…not only horn players, but pretty much musicians of all instruments, all jazz musicians who’ve come after him.

[MUSIC: Bird, “Temptation” & “April in Paris” (1950)]

BARTH: To me, it’s like listening to Bach for me. Brilliant, creative and beautiful — lyrical. He had it all.

TP: We’ll enter some more modern, or post-Parker players, we’ll call them, beginning with Herbie Hancock, who influenced just about every pianist of your generation.

BARTH: Yes.

TP: You as well?

BARTH: Yes. Again, the element we were talking about — creativity, spontaneity. You never know what Herbie will do. Once again, he’s a musician like Bird in that there are so many facets to his playing. Great rhythm, great swing feeling. Again, in terms of the sophistication of his harmonies and his rhythms. Another two-handed pianist. Way beyond just right-hand line, left-hand comp, but a wide variety of textures and rhythmic devices on the piano. He’s been a huge influence. Many of these things he came up with. He’s a real innovator of the modern piano.

[HH/RC/TW, “Dolphin Dance” (1977); KJ/GP/JDJ, “Prism” (1983); Bill Evans solo “Here’s That Rainy Day” (1968); McCoy, “Peresina” (1968)]

BARTH: Four great pianists. Again, we’re talking about musicians who aren’t just great pianists, but very unique musical personalities. All four have been very influential pianists and all four pianists that you can pretty much instantly recognize.

McCoy Tyner has been a huge influence for me. Not that I try to play like him, because I can’t. Who can? But he’s an example of a musician who created completely his own language. Great innovator. His whole manner of dealing with the harmony, using the pedal points. Just a big, powerful sound. But also, as we heard on “Peresina,” there’s a very lyrical, tender side to McCoy also. It’s a very lyrical melody. McCoy has been a great influence, as much the things he’s played… He once told me that it’s a matter of trying to take a chance, not being afraid to just try something different. He has very much created his own way of playing, and he’s been immensely influential on many people.

Before that we heard Bill Evans. Beautiful touch on the piano and great solo player. It’s nice hearing the freedom of a solo pianist because they can change keys. In this case he actually played the melody in one key, soloed in another key, and then took the melody out in yet another key. I’m not saying that not only from the point of view of understanding the technical aspect, but each key has its own color and its own feeling. So I always have very much admired Bill Evans, his harmonic language and his touch on the piano.

I think harmonically he influenced Herbie Hancock, whom we heard earlier on the set, and who I think is one of the great pianists, who also influenced me quite a bit. That’s a particularly free-blowing version of “Dolphin Dance,” the trio stretching out and playing with a lot of energy and getting into some great stuff.

Sandwiched in there we also heard Keith Jarrett, a very lyrical pianist. “Prism” is a very lyrical piece, with interesting harmonic changes, too.

TP: What are your feelings about playing solo piano for yourself, the special challenges and daunting qualities of the form?

BARTH: I think the big challenge is keeping it interesting. You don’t have a rhythm section, so you have to keep it going. That’s one thing. For me it’s not as much a problem of keeping it going rhythmically as just having something that is interesting and multi-faceted enough to sustain the interest. There is obviously such a history of great solo playing. On the other side, the rewards of solo playing are, of course, the freedom. You can do things that are difficult to do with a rhythm section. You can go out of time, you can suddenly decide to stay on a chord, you can go to a different key. It’s that kind of freedom that I think all the great solo pianists have taken advantage of quite a bit. We heard Tatum before; hearing Bill Evans now. Some of it is in tempo, some of it’s rubato. He started that melody pretty much at a very deliberately slow, steady tempo, and he soloed in kind of a double-time feel. Then when he took the melody out, he went to a third key, as I mentioned, and then it’s rubato but moving the tempo along. People often think of rubato playing as having to be solo playing, but rubato can be fast as much as slow. It can very much be faster than the original tempo.

TP: I’d like you to elaborate on McCoy Tyner’s comment about taking a chance, not being afraid to fail. Again, there’s a commonly expressed school of thought about, let’s say, post-Coltrane music, that jazz hasn’t gone past the information that Coltrane laid down, that it’s all been laid down in such a compressed space of time that people are still dealing with the implications of it.

BARTH: I think that’s a really good point. It’s interesting, because we played the Art Tatum solo piano, and I feel I could spend a lifetime trying to understand what Tatum was doing. Apart from the challenge of trying technically to play the things he played, just to understand what he was doing harmonically — his kind of voicing his kind of chord substitutions. The same thing with someone like McCoy. People talk about McCoy in a basic sense, the kinds of fourth chords he uses in the left hand, the pentatonics in the right hand. But it’s a very-very-very sophisticated language that he created. You could superficially say that McCoy uses pentatonics, he uses these voicings. But the relationship between the hands is so subtle, and the way he goes in and out of different tonalities, it’s just very complex — it’s brilliant. So it’s an example of a lot of harmonic information to try to understand. For me, it’s basically a process… You could, in fact, spend a lifetime studying one figure, one musician like McCoy.

For me, the challenge is pretty much taking a look at some of these things, but also trying to find out what I want to say about something. I’ve done a lot of listening. But then a lot of it is just a matter of trying to create something that’s personal, and take these influences and hope that they somehow churn around inside of you, and then you’ll play something that sounds like yourself. The way to do that, of course, is just to spend a lot of time exploring… For me, I spend a lot of time exploring my own ideas. If I might be practicing or playing, and I’ve come upon a certain chord that I like, I’ll explore that, see where I can go with that.

TP: Will you do that on the bandstand as well?

BARTH: Definitely. My approach to playing, I really like to keep things spontaneous. There are many different schools of thought. Some musicians like to play on solos. Of course, you can hear that if you hear a musician on a few different nights playing on some of the same material. For me, one reason I like some of these pianists… Herbie for me is an example of a very spontaneous trio player. He might have a head arrangement or something that happens, but in general, once the head is over, you have no idea what he will do. So I really try to keep things open-ended personally when I start soloing, not having an idea, “Oh, I might do this, I might go into this area,” but more try to keep a wide-open mind and see what develops.

The other big aspect of that is listening to the players, especially… I’m going to have the pleasure of playing with Al Foster next week, and when you’re playing with someone like Al, it’s so inspiring to hear the kinds of things he’ll play on the drums. For me, being on the bandstand, listening is a big part of it. Because really, the main thing about music is communicating with the people you’re playing with.

TP: I’d imagine that playing with someone like Al Foster would make you feel like you could go absolutely anywhere and still stay cohesive, because his reflexes are so instantaneous, like a great hockey goalie almost.

BARTH: That’s a great image. That’s the kind of drummer that he is. He’s very wide-open. He’s got a great groove; at the same time he’s wide-open. He’ll do all kinds of things that you’re not expecting. I say “you’re not expecting,” but yet they all fit the music. He’s a very musical drummer. He’ll never do things for the sake of doing them.

TP: In your recent session, Don’t Blame Me, did you follow the dictum you just stated of open spontaneity. It doesn’t sound quite arranged, but has a very thoughtful quality, which I find in your playing always.

BARTH: I try to basically have an approach for songs. So in a sense, I do think about… It’s not necessarily wide-open. In the case of my recordings, I’ve never gone into the session and said, “Okay, let’s play this tune.” That would be interesting to do. I tend to record tunes that I’ve developed an approach to over time. It might be, in the case of “Don’t Blame Me,” some reharmonization and some rhythmic things, some changes of groove throughout that we kept for the solos. So it’s basically having, you might say, an angle or a general approach to the tune. But within that framework, I really like to keep things fresh. I don’t really practice things. I don’t go into the session knowing that… Sometimes, of course, there would be security in knowing, “Well, this would work here, this would work there.” You could get security from that. But it’s a little scarier to go in there as a kind of blank slate. But that’s really the way I like to work, because then I feel that I’m more in the moment in terms of seeing what might occur to me and also being able to react to the other musicians. I think if you go in there with an agenda, it’s harder to really be fresh, to respond. Because you may have an idea of what you might like to play, but the drummer or bass player might do something that suggests a different direction. I think if you can be open to that possibility, you’ll end up with music that’s a lot more interesting and more vibrant. Because it’s more what’s happening in the moment.

[BB, “Evidence”]

TP: Coming up is a Wayne Shorter segment.

BARTH: I thought it would be interesting to hear records several years apart. Wayne is one of the great jazz composers, a brilliant composer who not only has created his own language harmonically and is a great melodist, but also in his work over the past several years he’s created large forms and rich, multi-faceted work bringing in several elements. The best analogy I can think of for some of Wayne’s recent work is that it’s like a Classical symphony. The compositions, for instance, on his last record, Highlife, involve some of his most elaborate compositions to date. We’ll start with early Wayne from his first date as a leader on the VJ label. This is typical Wayne, in that even though it’s in some ways more conventional than the compositions he later developed, it’s already very unique in terms of his approach to harmony. It’s the kind of tune where you think you’re starting in one key, but you’re actually in another key. A beautiful lyrical melody, “Pug-Nose.”

[Wayne-LM-WK-PC-JC, “Pug-Nose” (1959); WS-FH-HH-EJ, “Wildflower” (1964); “At The Fair” (1995)]

BARTH: The music on Highlife leaves me speechless. As I said before, the only analogy I can really think of is a symphony or a complex orchestral work. In this case, this tune, “At The Fair”… First of all, the whole record, which is mostly new compositions, but then reworkings of “Virgo Rising” and “Children of the Night”… But the whole record works as a suite, where certain themes might be introduced in one composition, and then come out in a more developed form later on, and then certain instrumental combinations recur throughout. Even in terms of this first tune, it’s basically two themes. On the first tune we first hear it on guitar and tenor, then the second theme is brass [SINGS REFRAIN]. Those are the two basic themes, but then with a lot of motivic development, other thematic material also. Even the way Wayne deals with those two themes, there’s such a rich variety of orchestrations, his ear for color. And it’s very contrapuntal music. There was one section where a lot of the ensemble dropped out, and the music became highly contrapuntal, different lines being woven together.

Another thing that’s fascinating to me about the way Wayne developed the music for this record is the use of the sax as a solo instrument, very much interwoven into the texture of the composition. This is such an extreme departure from the idea of head-solo-head format. Even with this intricate writing, there’s not really one pronounced solo section, but several short places where Wayne might take 8 bars, 16 bars, or there might be a solo section put in between two more composed sections. On this tune, like many of the other tunes on the record, he solos on the same tune on both tenor and soprano. So there we hear him just playing beautifully and really soloing like a composer, the solo being another element of the composition. It’s so well-integrated and it’s so rich and multi-faceted that it kind of leaves me in awe. The way Tatum might leave a pianist in awe.

TP: Has anything like what Wayne Shorter is doing orchestrationally been done before in jazz?

BARTH: I think there are great orchestrators. Mingus… Unfortunately, we didn’t hear Mingus’ music because we ran out of time. Mingus’ tunes are very interesting harmonically, with many sections. Mingus did not really write as much for a big band. Epitaph was for a larger ensemble, which was reconstructed by Gunther Schuller after Mingus’ death.

TP: His music certainly lends itself to ingenious orchestration, as you know first-hand from playing a fair amount with the Mingus Big Band.

BARTH: Yes, very much so. It’s great big band music, and there are a lot of nice arrangements. The music is perfect for big band music because there are so many elements to it — interesting bass lines, interesting counter-melodies and different things. And of course, some of the great things of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn have many things going on. So I’m not saying Wayne created this stuff completely out of thin air.

TP: As a composer, would you say that Shorter, Mingus, Ellington-Strayhorn are the main influences for you?

BARTH: They’ve been big influences for me. I’ll just mention that something I’d like to do more… Some of the recent pieces I’ve written have had two themes, and I’m very interested in the idea of not everyone necessarily soloing over the same set of changes. I’ve written a few things recently (which I don’t think we’ll get to hear today) that have two themes, with one section that one soloist plays over, then another section the other soloist plays with. I’d very much like to have the opportunity to do more writing for larger ensembles, and again to try to write more contrapuntally and find different ways of having the solos more integrated into the composition, rather than just the head, then the solo.

[MUSIC: Strayhorn-C. Terry, “Chelsea Bridge” (1965)]

TP: …that was a different tempo than we’re used to hearing “Chelsea Bridge.”

BARTH: Yes. And Strayhorn, as you heard, was doing some very interesting comping things, little rhythmic things. He was a great pianist, very original.

[MUSIC: BB, “Days of June”]

*-*-*-

 

Liner Notes, Bruce Barth, Hope Springs Eternal (Double Time):

“I practice and study music by a philosophy of preparing myself to play in the moment, to be at-ease at the piano, to be able to go in different directions,” is how Bruce Barth summarizes his aesthetics. “When I start a solo, I like to have a clean slate, see what develops, react to what the other players are doing. I think of it as playing without an agenda, with nothing to prove.”

It’s an optimistic credo, to which Barth hews throughout his remarkable new recording, Hope Springs Eternal. Barth doesn’t need to prove a thing to New York’s demanding community of improvisers; he’s one of the jazz capital’s most respected pianists, equipped with capacious technique equally applicable to spontaneous combustion and introspective cerebration, an encyclopedic range of rhythmic and harmonic tropes at his disposal. He’s a consummate listener, a probing comper behind a soloist or singer, a warm melodist who deploys the entire piano with precisely calibrated touch. Conversant with the full tradition, he knows how to draw from it to tell his own story — no mean feat in an age when improvisers must assimilate enormous chunks of information just to keep head above water. “I feel I could spend a lifetime trying to understand things such as Art Tatum’s voicings and chord substitutions, McCoy Tyner’s interrelationship between the hands, the way he goes in and out of different tonalities,” the pianist comments. “I’ve tried to understand some of the musical principles that work and to use them as inspiration for developing my own ideas.”

Now 40, Barth has relished the challenge of individuality from his earliest years in music. “I began playing piano when I was 5,” recalls the Pasadena, California, native. “I always loved to play by ear and to improvise, to figure out Pop and Rock tunes at the piano. I didn’t hear a lot of jazz until my high school years, after my parents moved to Harrison, New York. My older brother bought me a Mose Allison record for my fifteenth birthday, which I flipped over. I probably gave half the chords the wrong names at the time, but I figured things out. I started to buy records by Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Erroll Garner, and learned a lot of the basics of playing. Later I started hanging around the SUNY-Purchase campus nearby, took a jazz course, and jammed with some young musicians I met there.”

After attending several institutions of higher learning, Barth wound up at the New England Conservatory in 1982. He studied with Fred Hersch and Jaki Byard, and became active on the Boston scene, landing a two-year weekend trio gig, and getting major league experience on jobs with the likes of Jerry Bergonzi, George Garzone, Bill Pierce and Grey Sergeant. “I didn’t feel quite ready for New York back then,” Barth confesses. “In Boston there was a little less pressure, and I was able to work more. I constantly learned new tunes, taking them off records and working them out on gigs. I had the chance to play with bassists like Teddy Kotick, who’d been with Bird, and the Chicago bassist Richard Evans, who had played with Ahmad Jamal and Dinah Washington, with a great beat, a beautiful sound.”

By 1988, when Barth took the New York plunge, he was a mature, focused musician with a keen sense of what he wanted to do. He jammed extensively with peers, worked with Nat Adderley and Stanley Turrentine, and landed in Terence Blanchard’s steady-working unit in 1990. “Terence was dealing with certain modern concepts that I wasn’t so conversant with, unconventional chord motions and rhythmic groupings of fives and sevens,” Barth states. He left Blanchard in 1994 “to concentrate on working with my own bands.”

Barth’s Enja recordings Focus (1992) and Morning Song (1994) reveal an expressive writer with a penchant for conjuring melodies that stick in the mind, exploring interests as diverse as his improvisation. The material included spirited song-book reharmonizations, compositions whose moods spanned angular Monkish grit to flowing post-Hancock sophistication, incorporating extended forms with different themes for each soloist. On Hope Springs Eternal Barth digs deeper into multi-thematic writing and rhythmic variation. The music sounds lived in, organic, improvisations emerging inevitably from the warp and woof of the writing.

“In addition to experimenting with form, I’ve explored a wider variety of grooves on this record,” Barth reveals. “I’ve checked out Latin music on my own for the past 15 years, I’ve worked a lot with Leon Parker, and in 1996 I played several months with David Sanchez. Out of the eight tunes on this date, six have some straight eighth elements.”

Given the difficulties of maintaining a fixed band, Barth relies on an elite circle of New York improvisers with whom he enjoys long-term musical relationships — “I’m never disappointed with the people I call, that’s for sure.” For the week at Manhattan’s now defunct Visiones that generated Hope Springs Eternal, Barth employed a top-shelf quartet of young masters.

In-demand soprano and alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, currently with Chick Corea’s Origin, appears on his third Barth record. “Steve is constantly creative and surprising,” Barth enthuses. “He puts so much of himself into interpreting other people’s music that he’ll find creative nuances, things that actually improve the music that you hadn’t imagined.”

Of Ed Howard, bassist of choice for the likes of Roy Haynes and Victor Lewis, Barth comments: “Ed’s an earthy, versatile bass player who will experiment and take chances.”

Howard locks in with drummer Adam Cruz, whose recent credits include Eddie Palmieri, David Sanchez, Brian Lynch and Chick Corea. Barth enthuses: “Adam is a very well-rounded musician, and plays piano well. Being the son of percussionist Ray Cruz and having grown up on the New York jazz scene, he can play a wide variety of grooves, which we took advantage of on this gig.”

The upbeat lead-off title track “is in two contrasting sections,” Barth says, “the first section with a sustained melody and the second vamp-like section with a more rhythmic, fragmented melody. This second section includes a few 3/4 bars and a 2/4 bar that give it an off-balance feel.”

Barth’s lyrical “Wondering Why” features Wilson on flute. The soulful slow-medium swing tempo number “starts out with a straight eighth introduction, and the kind of chords you might hear in Aaron Copland’s music.”

Barth’s fast Latin line,”Hour of No Return,” featuring Wilson’s alto, “is basically in F-minor, with a double-time Samba feel, but a very open-ended groove,” says the composer. “My idea was to have the rhythm section groove while Steve and myself float the melody over the top, rhythmically very free, almost out of tempo, followed by open solos for Steve and myself.” It’s a groove sustained by Cruz and Howard’s hard-won mastery of metric modulation; Barth’s dazzling solo echoes the mercurial spirit of Herbie Hancock’s playing on Inventions and Dimensions, a Barth favorite.

Barth showcased his command of the elusive art of the piano trio in no uncertain terms on Don’t Blame Me, his Double-Time debut; here he puts in his three cents with “Darn That Dream.” “The challenge of playing in a trio setting is utilizing the piano’s sonic resources, thinking of it more orchestrally for variety,” Barth comments. “The piano can sound like a lot of different things, and you need to use your imagination. Rather than ‘I’m going to play a G7 chord,’ you think, ‘I want to sound like a big band’ or ‘I want to sound like a waterfall’ or ‘I want to sound like bells chiming.’

“I’m a stickler about tunes. I almost always buy the original sheet music so I can see the exact melody the way it was written, and I do like to see the lyrics. I played this song for many years before I checked the melody and realized I’d been playing one note wrong — but I was so used to it, I kept doing it!”

The quartet returns for “The Epicurean,” a Wilson original. “It’s classic Steve,” Barth enthuses. “I’ve heard him describe it as coming out of an Eddie Harris-Les McCann funky straight eighth vibe. It’s a through-composed melody with some variations, and a vamp figure at the beginning and end of each chorus. Steve’s writing is very personal and recognizable, with melodies that have intriguing twists and turns, interesting chords — like his playing.” Barth’s bluesy solo conjures Wynton Kelly (“he’s my first favorite pianist”) in its propulsion and articulation, and Herbie Hancock in its variety of textures and rhythmic devices.

The Monkish “Up and Down” is Barth’s only original in standard AABA, 32-bar song form. “For me it’s just a nice relaxed tune for blowing, using some major 2nds and a melody based on arpeggiated figures, differing from the melodies I usually write,” says Barth. “I used some wider intervals. The melody goes up and down, while the last A is a somewhat inverted version of the first two A’s.” Barth’s ebullient declamation shows he’s idiomatically assimilated the High Priest’s rituals; Wilson on alto hurdles the changes like Charlie Rouse at his most expoobident.

Adam Cruz contributes “Full Cycle,” rooted in an evocative bass ostinato handled resourcefully by Ed Howard. “It’s a Latin tune with a peaceful, tranquil feeling and a lot of rhythmic interest in the melody, and we improvised collectively on it,” says Barth. “I like very much the combination of piano and soprano together. First, Steve and I play the melody in unison, then as a canon, which I think works nicely.”

“Revolving Door,” the set closer, is a two-section eighth tune featuring a Wilson alto solo that builds from simmer to full-boil, followed by a dancing piano solo that’s ûr-Barth, juxtaposing delicate chords with fleet lines so subtly that you might overlook the leader’s devastating chops if you’re inattentive. “In the first section,” Barth says, “Steve plays the strong melody over a minor key with descending chords. Then there’s a short piano interlude, almost a kind of question mark or something a bit more plaintive. The second part of the tune is a more lyrical melody in a major key. Again, rather than have one instrument play the melody all the way through, I divided the melody between the alto and the piano, just for a little variation of color.”

To the observation that on Hope Springs Eternal Barth’s morphed antecedents into the most evolved Barthian vision we’ve yet seen, Barth responds: “I feel more and more that influences aren’t as explicit. I think composing and leading a band makes it easier to develop a unified musical vision. I’m writing tunes that involve the kinds of elements I’m exploring in my playing, and the composing-arranging and the playing become of a piece. Particularly within tunes that don’t have standard chord progressions, it’s easier to explore your own way of playing, and you’re challenged to reach for something that’s your own.”

Each player on this vibrant, in-the-moment date is more than up to the task.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Bruce Barth, DownBeat, Piano, WKCR

For Dave Liebman’s 70th Birthday, a Downbeat Article from 2010, an Uncut Blindfold Test, and a Conversation from the Jazz.Com ‘Zine

Best of birthdays to the master saxophonist-composer-improviser-educator-author Dave Liebman, who turns 70 today. For the occasion, I’m posting the text of a DownBeat article I had an opportunity to write about him in 2010 (see a .pdf here), most of the raw proceedings of a Blindfold Test we did in 2013, and a 2006 WKCR conversation that ran on the late, lamented jazz.com website in 2008.

 

Downbeat Article, 2010:
Right after the Dave Liebman Group’s first set at the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village on the third Friday of September, the leader stepped to the bar and ordered a shot of Stoli, water back. Coffee might have been a more predictable beverage of choice—Liebman had just arrived from Boston after a seven-hour crawl along I-95, with only a quick bite and shave before hit time. He observed that at 64 his famously kinetic personality remains Type A. “It’s the reverse of most people—coffee slows me down,” Liebman said.

Liebman was supporting a new DLG release, Turnaround: The Music Of Ornette Coleman (Jazz Werkstadt), which earned a German Jazz Journalists’ Best Record of 2010 award, but on this evening he offered no Coleman repertoire, instead presenting a plugged-in set comprising originals by guitarist Vic Juris, electric bassist Tony Marino, and himself, from an 80-tune book accrued over two decades as a unit. The tunes were heavy on sonic texture, straight eighths and odd meters, stroked declaratively by drummer Marko Marcinko; playing only soprano saxophone, Liebman darted through them like a trumpeter, placing his phrases carefully, surefootedly inserting polyrhythms into his line, projecting an array of tonal attacks while retaining precise pitch however extreme the register or interval.

Liebman remarked that the previous evening’s program, at Sculler’s, before “an older audience, not quite suit-and-tie” who had paid a $20 cover ($58 with dinner) for the privilege, contained three Coleman tunes. “This is a $150 door gig,” he said, noting the 55 Bar’s $10 admission and narrow confines. “I’m going to play whatever the fuck I want.” He fleshed out that sentiment over the phone 36 hours later, refreshed from sleeping in after a third consecutive one-nighter, also a door gig, at the Falcon in Piermont, New York, 25 miles up the Hudson River.

“The audience at a place like Sculler’s knows me from Lookout Farm or Elvin Jones,” Liebman said, referencing his popular mid ‘70s ensemble and the 1971-72 sideman gig that launched his name into the international jazz conversation. “I’m not going to hit them with our strongest, most obscure stuff—you don’t gather that many more people over the years unless you have a machine, which I don’t. The Ornette tunes are a hook and there’s a certain cache to getting that prize, but we’re done with it. The truth is that nobody knows the record, and nobody ever will.”

It was observed that Liebman, a 2011 NEA Jazz Master and, as of December 2009, Officier in France’s Order of Arts and Letters, had gone to considerable pains to play a pair of door gigs.

“It’s below me,” he acknowledged. “But I can’t get this group a five-night gig in a New York club because they think we won’t do enough business. I believe in longevity—loyalty to the guys, and vice-versa, loyalty to me as a leader. To keep them together, I’ve got to keep them busy and interested, which means music that keeps them challenged. At 55 Bar we played a new regime of music I settled on three months ago when I saw the next bunch of work coming.”

Four days hence, piggybacking on the NEA honorific, Liebman and crew would embark on a nine-day, six-gig San Diego to Portland van trip—no door gigs—to be followed by a final East Coast leg comprising a celebratory concert at the Deer Head Inn, a few miles from his eastern Pennsylvania home, and weekend one-offs in Vermont and Maine. Between then and December, when the Group was booked for several weeks in Europe, Liebman, who had spent the summer participating in various master class workshops and 20th anniversary festivities for the International Association of Jazz Schools, which he co-founded and artistic-directs, would resume his position at Manhattan School of Music, where he teaches chromatic harmony. Midway through October, backed by MSM’s Chamber Jazz Ensemble, he’d perform original music composed for the concert attendant to his Officier designation, sandwiched by two appearances by the Dave Liebman Big Band in support of As Always (MAMA), a 2010 release on which he fronts an ensemble of various New York best-and-brightests, playing their charts of tunes that span his entire timeline as a professional musician.

These events comprised only a small portion of an exceptionally prolific period of musical production in which Liebman intersects primarily with associates of long acquaintance. “I’m pretty good at adapting myself in a lot of situations,” Liebman remarked. “If I can do something once every 18 months to two years, there’s continuity.” He could now retrospect on a post Labor Day week at Birdland playing tunes with an “all-star” quartet—pianist Steve Kuhn, electric bassist Steve Swallow, and drummer Billy Drummond. He’d return in February, beginning the month with Saxophone Summit, the collective sextet in which he, Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane, propelled by pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Billy Hart, refract repertoire from the various stages of John Coltrane’s career; ending it with Quest, the collective, open-ended quartet that Liebman describes as “Miles and Coltrane—the ‘60s, basically, distilled down,” with pianist Richie Beirach, bassist Ron McClure, and drummer Billy Hart, that began a fruitful second run in 2005, after a fifteen-year hiatus.

Four encounters with Beirach (“our relationship is probably the closest I’ve ever had in my life,” Liebman says) figure prominently in a suite of just-issued or imminent additions to his voluminous discography. including an inspired Quest radio concert titled Re-Dial: Live in Hamburg (Out Note), and Quest for Freedom (Sunnyside), in which Liebman and Beirach, supported by the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, navigate a suite of Jim McNeely’s ingenious constructions. Also on Out Note are Unspoken, an 11-tune Liebman-Beirach recital that exemplifies their expansive harmonic simpatico, and Knowing-Lee, a melody-centric triologue with Lee Konitz.

Coltrane is the explicit subject of Compassion, a forthcoming RKM release of a high-energy 2007 BBC concert by Liebman and Lovano with the Saxophone Summit rhythm section, and of Liebman Plays Coltrane Blues (Daybreak), on which Liebman blows with a Flemish bassist and drummer. He’s the implicit subject of Relevance (Toucan), documenting two extended improvisations by lifelong Coltranephiles Liebman and Evan Parker, prodded by drummer Tony Bianco, and of Air [Finetunes], a solo saxophone-plus-effects recital that Liebman calls “my solo kind of out shit.”

Liebman, Swallow and drummer Adam Nussbaum achieve equilateral triangle interplay on We Three, still label-less, following their excellent 2006 session Three For All [Challenge]. On 2010’s Five In One [Pirouet], Liebman, John Abercrombie, Marc Copland, Drew Gress, and Billy Hart navigate repertoire by the members, while 2009’s Something Sentimental (KindofBlue) is a “B-flat” standards date with Liebman, Abercrombie, Nussbaum, and bassist Jay Anderson.

“I like the challenge of playing in different situations,” Liebman said. “Your musical DNA is what it is; how I hear harmonically and rhythmically will permeate the context. All my basic currents of development were on my first record, Lookout Farm, and my records are basically the same thing over and over. I also like a menu with a lot of different things. My wife once said, ‘It’s like you see music as a big picture show.’ That’s true. I conceive my sets as a voyage—up-down, left-right, thick-thin, dissonant-consonant, happy-sad. If a listener hears a funk tune, and then a beautiful tune with chord changes, and then a free energetic tune, they’re going to like one of them.

“I don’t have a contract, so I don’t do one thing a year for a record label, and I travel, so I find a label that enjoys one thing, another that enjoys something else. From the business side, there’s always the difficulty of having too much product competing against your other product, which the labels hate. On the other hand, more is always better in the sense that at least people who are listeners will hear more music that you’re part of. If I can find a way to express myself and someone is interested, I’ll do it. If it’s crowding the other thing, what can I do about it?”

[BREAK]

Liebman describes himself as “pessimistic by nature,” and it is tempting to attribute the fatalistic, glass-half-full and half-empty assessments of his protean activity that are a frequent trope of his conversation to what the Flatbush native describes as his “Jewish shit.” In addition to such morphological signifiers as Liebman’s facial profile, and pattern baldness, not to mention his Brooklyn accent, there’s also the admixture of pedagogic rigor (he graduated from NYU in 1968 with a B.A. in American History, and cites 22 published works on his website) and the spiritual, pipeline-to-the-Creator intention that marks his most personal music.

That “Jewish shit” may also inflect Liebman’s ambivalence about Ornette Coleman’s compositions. “Ornette was nowhere near Trane or Sonny or Wayne as a saxophone player,” Liebman said. “Apart from his melodicism, his music never got to me emotionally. It’s so joie de vivre; even when he plays sad, it’s kind of happy and life-giving. For me, that’s not enough! Coltrane is the complete opposite. Even when he plays a major tune, there’s a sense of melancholy. It’s his sound.”

Liebman also projects identity through his soprano saxophone tone, which, without being too essentialist about it, often projects the keening, ululating quality of a shofer. “I love the tenor, and I’ll probably always play it to one extent or another, but in the end I’ve found my voice with the soprano,” he said. “It’s something about my Bedouin, Semitic desert roots. I don’t feel that on tenor. On tenor, it’s Trane, it’s Sonny, it’s Wayne. It’s jazz! The soprano is a world instrument for me. It’s a vocalist, a singer. It’s Miles. It’s Indian. It’s ethnic. It’s the On The Corner screeching shit. It’s got everything. It’s made my personality. Thank God I found it. The tenor would have been me hitting that nail I can’t get in the wall, because there were too many great people ahead of me. After Trane, there ain’t nothin’ else to play on that instrument.”

Ergonomic considerations also influence Liebman’s instrumental preference. “I’m not a big guy,” he said, adding that the weight of the tenor around his neck was “like towing a truck,” whereas the soprano “fits my physique better—it’s like my toothbrush; it feels like an extension of my arm.” In speaking of physical limitations, he inferred another source of his pessimism and also his constant determination to transcend it.

Stricken with polio at 3, Liebman walks with a pronounced limp. “Going to the doctor was like going to see Moses,” he said. “My mother kept taking me to the next guy who was going to fix my leg and get me out of this shit. It definitely gets in your way. I can’t run. I have trouble walking now. But it builds a character that otherwise you probably wouldn’t have. You’re not given a choice but to build an inner core of strength and compensate if you don’t want to die and crawl into the hole. That’s maybe where the extra shit comes from.”

It is Liebman’s opinion that Elvin Jones and Miles Davis, who both received considerable flak for hiring him during an era of deep black-on-white racial mistrust, took notice. “I can’t tell you that the leg didn’t have something to do with it,” he said. “Guys like that listened to the way you play, of course, but they also knew about character, and about lack of character, and I guess they thought, ‘He’s got what it’s supposed to be.’ I can’t tell you that everything was lovely with Miles. If you look at videos of Miles’ band on youtube, you see the Black Panther flag—the three stripes—on the equipment, and I’m there, the saxophone player…like, not that happy. But Miles was very clear about it. This was during the period when his legs were screwed up. He said, ‘I don’t know how you do what you do. You carry three horns, nothing stops you.’

“Certainly, Elvin and Miles addressed everything they did with complete seriousness. Before and after the bandstand, everything could be completely out—and sometimes was. But when the horn is in your mouth, it’s the most important thing in the world. It is business. You owe it to the music, to the tradition, let alone your audience. And DO NOT fuck around, and do not treat it with anything less than total, 100 percent seriousness. Being in that culture helped me be who I am, and I’m very proud that I was able to do it. I had been sitting at Coltrane’s feet, and now I’m playing with his engine, and then with the guy who hired him and made him famous, and then hired Wayne Shorter. With the weight of the tradition and how good these guys were, how could you not be self-conscious and a little uptight? I wasn’t THAT good, man. I was ok, I guess, and I was like, ‘How can I be here?’”

Like many of his saxophonist contemporaries, Joe Lovano—who listened intently to Liebman and Steve Grossman on the 1972 Elvin Jones recording, Live at the Lighthouse—considered Liebman well beyond ok. “The energy and attitude that they played with was so strong and real,” Lovano said. “It felt like my generation. It was clear that here were two incredible, inspired players, and I had to reach for that level of energy and sound. After that, the way Dave channeled his ideas into that real electronic period of Miles’ music was amazing—he was the sound Miles needed at the time.”

Indeed, by the end of 1974, when he launched Lookout Farm with Beirach, bassist Frank Tusa, drummer Jeff Williams, and tabla player Badal Roy, Liebman was, as he puts it, “on the front line of the first younger post-Coltrane generation,” a highly influential figure. By 1980, he recalls, “I became cognizant that guys were copying me and Steve copying Trane. Elvin and Miles put us in the sun, and that’s how we played. We didn’t think about it. What else were we going to do?”

[BREAK]

A few hours before hit time on his final day at Birdland with Kuhn, Swallow, and Drummond, Liebman sat on the balcony of a 21st floor suite in the midtown time-share building that he purchased several years ago in order to sustain a New York presence, and reflected on the implications of an early Baby Boomer joining the pantheon of NEA Jazz Masters.

“It’s significant in that I’m able to tour, but it’s also a personal thrill to be in the same company as my idols and mentors,” he said. “It’s the old adage that if you’re on line long enough, eventually your time comes to get whatever rewards there are. It’s interesting I’m getting the award with Wynton Marsalis, who embodies the opinion that the ‘70s was the time when we lost our way. Perhaps the Establishment is finally recognizing that the ‘70s wasn’t such a waste. It will always be called the Fusion Era, and rightfully so. But that shouldn’t be a black mark, because it was a great period.”

“To me, ‘fusion’ doesn’t mean a rock beat or an Indian drum. It’s a technical word which means to put together. The word ‘eclecticism,’ which also used to be a dirty word but is now completely kosher, definitely represents my generation; we had easy access to so many idioms and styles in the ‘60s, our teenage years, and our interests were spread very wide. We were of a type sociologically—mostly white guys, middle class (we didn’t have to do this), formally educated. And we had rock-and-roll—James Brown, Sly, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix. Of course, all music is a fusion. But this was an acknowledged mixture of styles that seemed incompatible or unlikely. Before that, jazz was a blues, a standard, II-V-I, with more or less a common vocabulary that existed from Armstrong to Coltrane, played by musicians who came up in the same root. Now, of course, it’s commonplace to put together styles; everybody does this every day.”

As Liebman intends to do at full tilt for the foreseeable future. “I’m going to keep this energy going until the gas runs out,” he said. “In my case, it’s inevitable that I will not be walking so easily in ten years or so. I know it will not go on forever. I mean, Roy Haynes is unbelievable. Sonny, too. But they’re rarities. Most guys don’t. Maybe I will. But I don’t count on that.”

*-*-*-

Dave Liebman Blindfold Test (Raw) — 2014:

The Cookers, “Believe, For It Is True”  (Believe, Motema, 2012) (Billy Harper, tenor saxophone; Eddie Henderson, trumpet (solo); David Weiss, trumpet; Craig Handy, alto saxophone; George Cables, piano; Cecil McBee, bass; Billy Hart, drums)

First of all, it sounds like Billy on drums. It sounds like Jabali. I’ve been with him all week, and I recognize these rolls across the drums. An admirable job on keeping the rhythmical hits in place during the solo. From the standpoint of the tune, a long head, a little involved. Nice. It’s kind of a convoluted Lee Morgan type of head, with a “Maiden Voyage”-type harmonic thing going on in the background. Really nice. A little long for me, but… Then the fact that they keep the figure going so long… I would have abandoned it by now, or asked the rhythm section to go into something a little smoother. But the tenor played very well on it, got a really good bottom register, full-throated. That’s the kind of playing that’s like…I don’t know, what’s a good word… Full-throated. All out, all the time. The tune kind of demanded that, but I would have to hear this gentleman or lady, whoever it is, on another track to see. But it’s that kind of playing where it’s… I don’t want to say “double forte” all the time. It’s like that movie, Full Metal Jacket, like go the jugular right away. Not much nuance in that respect. But again, it could be the nature of the tune, but it also could be the style of this particular player. I think of somebody… Who’s like that? Azar is like that. Maybe Billy Harper to a certain extent. They just go for it all the time. I’m sure on the ballads, not quite the same. It’s a certain way of playing. But nice playing, and he played kind of in the changes and out of the changes, nice rhythmic ideas, and he played off of the vamp which was pretty tricky. So whoever that is gets definite support from me. I don’t think the trumpet player is Lee Morgan, but it’s got a vibe like those guys. Excellent player. Trumpet’s on another level. He’s up a level, the way he’s playing. But they keep that vamp going; I guess that’s the way the tune is. This is a good trumpet player. A very good track. I can’t tell what 5 stars is until I know what 3 is. Maybe I’ll go back later for judgments, because everything’s relative. But that’s a nice track. I definitely like it. [AFTER] So it’s Eddie Henderson. Oh, he sounds good. I worked with him in San Francisco, and always enjoyed his playing. He knows the tradition and he’s well-versed in everything. It’s nice to hear him. I had never heard the Cookers live. So that’s Cecil, too. That’s half of Saxophone Summit right there. I enjoyed it. I’d hope I get Billy Hart after 25 years, hearing him take a roll across the drums. 5 stars.

George Coleman-Richie Beirach, “Flamenco Sketches”  (Convergence, Triloka, 1990) (Coleman, tenor saxophone; Beirach, piano)

I think that’s Richie and George Coleman, their duo record. It’s in the recesses of my mind; it must be 20 years ago. Is that “Flamenco Sketches.” Of course, you have my main man there. Richie has a way of… At this tempo, in this mood, he’s one of the kings of establishing an ambiance, harmonically and rhythmically. This is one of his big strengths. George sounds so melodic and so great. He’s always great. I think George got much maligned by this whole thing with Miles, and that supposedly…again, this is myth, I don’t know…he was practicing too much in the room or something, and Tony told Miles, and Miles canned him for Wayne. I don’t know if this is all true. But George is a very melodic player, very good technician. He tends to play patterny sometimes, and let the fingers do the walking. I caution students… You’ll be hearing me say a lot of this, because the way I teach is a reflection of my aesthetic. I caution students not to have “fingeritis” and let the fingers do the walking before they’re really doing the talking, so to speak. George can sometimes be a little mechanical like that. And he’s a little sharp, a little out of tune here, but that’s part of playing in the upper register in the tenor sometimes. But he sounds great. He’s very melodic, and he’s great to hear with Richie. They had a short relationships. Of course, it was last year or the year before that George came down and sat in. I know he’s a little ill now, or not well, but he came backstage and I had a nice time talking to him, too. Total respect for him. He’s a complete master. And he has a certain sound that’s… Talk about different from Billy Harper. It’s almost the opposite. It’s light, airy, towards the high side. Probably not a very large mouthpiece, or if it is, it’s a small opening with a hard reed. He’s got a lot of agility, a lot of technique, and I think the mouthpiece enables him to do that. I would have to ask what his setup is. But he’s got a real smooth thing, a buttery, watery kind of thing, and he’s been consistently like that since the ‘60s, or since the time with Miles. Just to reiterate, Four and More is a classic for a variety of reasons, but George’s playing on it is masterful. I don’t know what happened, I don’t know why he didn’t stay, I don’t know what happened with being aced out of the band, but he was great with Miles. This is on the top. 5 stars. These guys know what they were doing. The way I look at things is, if what they do, they pull off,  then they’re good at it. Whether it’s my taste or not is a separate story.

Branford Marsalis, “Pursuance/Psalm”  (Footsteps Of Our Fathers, Marsalis Music, 2002) (Marsalis, tenor saxophone; Joey Calderazzo, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Jeff Watts, drums)

I think that’s from the Bimhuis, live from Amsterdam. Oh, they did a video there maybe. I remember hearing this, or maybe I saw the video. So the video is different than this, a different performance. [Yes.] This is studio. Pretty good for studio, because they had a lot of energy. I mean, it’s a tour de force, no question about it. They all play full-throttle. I can’t tell the bass from the way we’re listening, but Joey and Branford, of course, and Tain—they’re killing. They’re burning it up, playing in the Trane thing, keeping almost the curve of Trane’s solo, except a little bit longer, maybe more like the Antibes version that Trane did after the original recording of Love Supreme. Having played with Joey and having enjoyed him over the years… He’s got impeccable time. He burns from getgo. Pretty much, that’s what he does. Branford, of course, has a lot of facets to his playing and he sounds good. It’s a great track. There’s nothing missing. They played great. They keep the time going; they keep the energy going.

One specific thing. When you’re playing in that, again, fast, fingers-type style, pentatonicky, chromaticky, and so forth, I still miss sometimes the sense of a melodic motif. I think two or three choruses he went up in the higher register, which is where you would most likely do the repeated note, maybe ornament that note, play a motif around that note, repeat it over the length of 2 or 3 choruses. He sort of did that. Playing at that tempo, with that kind of energy, is pretty hard to pull off, but it’s a real art to be able to be somehow melodic besides…what’s the word…harmonic. I don’t know what to say. I mean, he covers his bases, but I miss that little sense of sometimes a melody coming out of that. But you have to have real control to be able to do that, and you’ve got to do it every night, too. That notwithstanding, it’s a great track. They played their ass off. They played great on it. [Anything to say about playing this sort of repertoire?]

I remember when I first heard it… I’m not sure if I heard this version or the Bimhuis version, which is why I asked. I wasn’t that happy with it, and I thought it was a little…what’s the word…I don’t want to say disrespectful, but taking that on and doing it is a little ballsy. But that’s the way he is. But hearing this, either I didn’t hear it right or I’m hearing another version… But this is definitely on fire. I mean, they’re burning. You can’t contest that. And to do that in the studio at that tempo is difficult. That’s not easy, with headphones on and distance, you’re not on top of each other. To get that kind of power in the studio for that length of time is an accomplishment. I can tell you it’s hard to do that in studio. Live, you do it because you do it, and if it’s taped and it’s happening, fantastic. But I have a lot of admiration for what they did.

To my taste, Jeff Watts is a overplaying a little bit. He’s really drumming-out, and a lot of toms and flow stuff, and it’s great—and he’s great, of course. Maybe I’m stuck on Trane, that rhythm section. But the sense of fire, yes. Building, yes. Action, yes. But there has to be some leveling off to allow the stuff to breathe a little bit, and then you can rise. I call it plateau playing, where you go up, you level off; you go up, you level off. There’s a lot of curves in playing. The Miles Quintet was peaks and valleys, hills and mountains, and other groups go up, down, in the middle, whatever. But Trane’s thing, when they really burned on “Impressions” or something like this, there would be plateau. I miss that here in the sense not that the energy goes down, but there comes a chorus or two where it’s just time without a lot of action. It allows the ear to rest, it allows the listener to rest, and it allows the artist not to rest, but to re-collect and then yet go further. This just was on a path of upward trajectory, as upward as they could go for that long, and that’s not as interesting to me. That’s why I asked for the melodic thing that I discussed, or a leveling-off of the rhythm section to enable Branford maybe to be more melodic instead of having to kind of, I don’t want to say catch-up…to either catch-up or leave…but to keep that energy going… That sometimes is a liability, I think, to the artistic-ness of the project. To the playing, it’s great. Wow, look at the technique and the energy, and it’s astounding and all that shit—that’s definitely true. And I think maybe Tain playing the way he did is… But again, if it’s in the studio and he did, that’s amazing. They were definitely young cats hitting hard. That’s for sure. 5 stars. They played their ass off.

Anthony Braxton, “Composition 40 (O)”  (Dortmund (Quartet) 1976, Hat Art, 1991) (Braxton, soprano saxophone, contrabass saxophone; George Lewis, trombone; Dave Holland, bass; Barry Altschul, drums)

If it’s not Anthony Braxton, I don’t know who it is. And that’s maybe George Lewis? Only because I don’t know who else… Steve Swell plays like that. These guys are masters of this shit. That head! It’s absurd, how much practice they must have done to get that head together. It reminds me of Lee and Warne 80 years later, how much Lee and Warne Marsh must have worked on their heads. This has to be similar. I mean, they’re amazingly together. Then the bass joins in. It’s unbelievable. And the rhythms, the choice of notes… From a saxophone standpoint, the articulation that Anthony is capable of, single-tonguing…it appears to be single-tonguing… I can’t speak that fast, let alone play that fast. I can’t say tatatatata as far as he was doing. Of course, he went from I guess soprano or sopranino, some weird thing, to that contra-contra, whatever the hell bass-something-or-other that he got. Then they go into the texture stuff, with the mutes, with the trombone, and then all the farting and shmooching and stuff that’s going on… These are guys are experts at sound sources, at colors, at wide intervals, difficult intervals, and odd rhythm…I don’t mean odd rhythm in the sense of the modern guys…I mean, odd, up-and-down, weird, amazing stuff.

I totally supported and was part of the decision to give Anthony the NEA. I was so glad that he was there. He did talk a lot at the ceremony… But he is a great guy, and definitely has made a contribution. There’s no question about it. Once we had a repartee at the Banff Institute when he was a guest, and he said to me, “Would you tell me how you play on ‘Impressions?’” Because I’m like post-Coltrane stuff and everything. So we had a little session. I usually play drums and then I talk about what you’re playing, etc., etc. Then he said, in that scholarly way, in the way he has of speaking, and the expression on his face was classic… He said: “You know, we had the same problem. The same challenge. We’re from the same generation.” I said, “What was that, Anthony?” He said, “John Coltrane. And we handled it in two very distinctly different ways. I went to Stockhausen and you went more inside it. Very curious. Very interesting.” I’ll never forget that, because it’s absolutely true. Being from that generation and having grown up in the ‘60s and heard Trane, seen Trane, tasted Trane, you had to deal with him if you played anything close to that instrument, let alone music, just like they had to deal with Charlie Parker. So that was very interesting.

One last thing is, once I remember he gave me a list of what he called “sound sources” on the saxophone, and 75 things from attacks to delays. Some I had no idea what he was talking about. But it goes to show his immersion in using the many woodwinds he plays in, let’s say, extra-musical ways—meaning as sound sources. Things that would not have been thought of. Now, of course, you’ve got to go back to the original avant-garde, the ‘60s, Archie and of course Albert, to find the sources of using the instrument in ways that were not orthodox. But Anthony definitely took it to another level, and he’s been doing it for 40 years. I give it to him. This is 5 stars because of the way they played, man. They played unbelievable. [Were you listening to this when it was happening?] No. I was aware of it, and I’m aware of him, but I can’t say… He’s very prolific. Like in my case, he does so much, you don’t know what years… But it’s live, too. It’s unbelievable. It’s live. [This is 1976.] That’s at the height of this stuff. That was the second-generation free guys. By the ‘70s, it had been distilled down to…the basic elements were already present by then. They were being experimented with from Cecil and Ornette on, and of course with Trane, late Trane and his inclusion of everybody on Ascension. But by the time we get to the ‘70s… The ‘80s is a different story. Then you have the next generation distilling it even further.

The other thing about this is that composition becomes equally prevalent to the improvisation. Which now is very much on the map. Oh, everybody writes long heads; boy, oh, boy, it’s composition. But this is 1976, and those guys are playing the heads that go on for 2-3-4 minutes, and it stays on track and sounds so TOGETHER, man! And it’s live. You would say it was edited. But it’s live. It’s unbelievable. I love it. Was that Dave Holland? Barry? Nice. [George and Dave Holland have said that Braxton would write 50 pages and present it at the soundcheck.] Well, they did their job. They could all read and play great. I really enjoyed the way they played, and where they went group-wise and how they went into different areas. Again, the color. Color as an element of music. Look, it starts from the first aboriginal guy. There’s a color. He’s hitting on the ground. But the use of color as a device for composition, let alone improvisation, is basically something that is a 20th century phenomenon. The color of an orchestra in the 1700s and 1800s, and Bach on an organ…yes, of course. But the use of color as color, like Varese and Stockhausen, just that…we’re going to go to that texture and use that… That’s what Anthony copped. He copped, “We can make color.” Just the mute in the trombone and the staccato in the soprano is a color, even beyond what they’re playing. It becomes the prevalent thing you hear. You’re not hearing harmony. You’re not hearing melody. You’re hearing rhythm to a certain degree, of course. Everything is rhythm, if it’s two notes. But you’re really hearing color as an absolute, on-the-map, top… Melody-harmony-rhythm, it’s a great triumvirate. Color, right up there. These guys know how to do that.

I’ll tell you one last story about Anthony. When Bob Moses and I tried to form a cooperative, because we felt it was time for us to get out of the lofts and play for people (this was 1970), we called a meeting of all the cats who had been hanging at my loft and his loft. Among them was Michael Brecker and Bob Berg…there were 30 guys sitting on the floor of my loft on 19th Street. Moses invited Anthony to come up and talk to us, and Leroy Jenkins—two different occasions. Leroy came at 7 o’clock, and Anthony came at 10 o’clock. Leroy was on the verge of racist. He was like, “You have to have grass roots and meaning…” I don’t know what the hell he came up there for, to basically say, “You can’t do it because you don’t have a raison d’etre. You don’t have no political…” Remember, this is ‘70, this is the height of the shit. Then Anthony comes up at 10 o’clock, peace-and-love, do-your-thing, go-for-it… I’ll never forget. He was so positive. We’re all 22 years old, basically trying to get our lives together and find a way to play in a very bad period of jazz, which was the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, as you know, before the fusion thing hits. Business is bad, and here we are playing that kind of stuff, or trying to. And Anthony is completely supportive. I’ll never forget that from him. We reminisced at the NEA about these things. I’m very glad he got the award.

Charles Lloyd, “Ruby My Dear” (Mirror, ECM, 2010) (Lloyd, tenor saxophone; Jason Moran, piano; Reuben Rogers, bass; Eric Harland, drums)

Charles Lloyd. One of my great influences, of course, because he was my teacher for a year, in 1966. I don’t know all his records. I know he has a million records on ECM. I can’t believe the piano is Bobo, because the piano playing is a little…not… I have some comments on the piano playing. That could be Anders Jormin, who is incredible. That would then be Billy. I’m not sure, because Charles had so many rhythm sections, and I’m not sure if it’s Jason Moran or Bobo or who the heck it is. But in any case, Charles, who I just saw last April, I believe, in Helsinki or somewhere in Finland, for the first time since 1966. I went down for dinner, and he was sitting there with his wife, and he said, “Dave?” We had a wonderful 2 hours together. The next night I went to hear him; sat on the side of the stage and went to hear him. We had a wonderful time together. It was great to see him. He’s in great shape. He looks the same basically, and he plays the same basically. That’s not necessarily a derogatory or a criticism. He plays the way he plays. He basically played the same way that he played in the ‘60s.

Of course, Charles’ thing is that water thing. I still have a little bit of that in my playing. There was a time when I really had a lot of it, because I was affected by him. His thing is, he took early Trane… We all took a different aspect of Trane and developed it. He took early Trane (kind of Benny Golson did also, but in a different way) those flurries and fast runs, and he put that kind of airy, almost Stan Getz sound to it. It’s like we do. When you try to find something that’s you, you see it coming from different angles and you mix it together in a bouillabaise that only you would mix because of your seasoning and your taste. So he’s got a Stan Getzish, light sound, a Paul Desmondy, even Warne Marshy sound on the tenor, with a kind of Trane sheets-of-soundy type thing. Not quite that deep, I wouldn’t give it that, but happening. Usually a little out of tune. That’s just the way he is. He’s got a Conn tenor that he still has, and it has a certain kind of distinct sound to it, a certain thing.

Charles got over, man… Besides that, he took a 20-year break or whatever he did. It’s incredible that he just came back and became a hit. I’m sometimes a little mystified, but I must say, he does evoke the hippie time. He evokes that spirit in his playing, when LSD was basically a nightly experience, and for that I give him a lot of credit. He is who he is, and look, he’s had obviously a successful life. He was a real estate mogul, from what I understand, on the West Coast, and the Beegees and Petrucciani and so forth—it’s all that. But just seeing him last year and hearing him, it was like memory lane for me, because he was obviously a big influence.

The reason I went to Charles Lloyd in 1966 was, Bob Moses, again, who was my first true friend who knew more than me, who knew the stuff… I said, “It’s time for me to go to somebody and get some lessons.” I was seeking in those lessons in those days, and nobody was teaching. “Who sounds the most like Trane?” I didn’t really have my history together at that time. He said, “Go see Charles Lloyd; he’s with Cannonball.” I went to the Half Note. He was dressed in a tie and suit. They were dressed so well. They were doing Fiddler on the Roof. I went up to him in the break at the Half Note. Where I’d been. Of course, I’d seen Trane, so I knew the scene there. I said, “Hello, Mr. Lloyd, do you teach?” He said, “No.” Then he looked at me over those spectacles, he looked at me deeply, and he said, “But you can come over tomorrow; here’s where I live.” Actually, it was across the street from Blue Note, above the firehouse.

I spent the next year, literally, almost every, if not every Sunday from noon til 8, if not later, with him, in his bed watching the Giants or the Yankees, probably smoking a joint or whatever, more…I don’t remember. But I was around a true jazz musician. He taught me very little. He didn’t really teach. He had some comments, which is another discussion. But just being around the real deal… He was just about the cover… I remember I walked in one day, he said, “Look, I’m on the cover of ‘Deadbeat.’” (As we do this interview.) He had a sardonic kind of humor. He was a very interesting guy. And he was an intellectual, really. He was a teacher. You could see he was another kind of level. And he figured the hippie thing out, and the good-looking suits and everything, and of course, he stole Miles’… Not stole. But he would start everybody, and Miles would take them. Because Charles was fashionable. He was on the scene. He was kind of a fashion-plate. He was playing that Forest Flower thing. This is before anybody knew who Keith and Jack were, and of course (here we go), Ron McClure, my bass player this week, playing with Charles.

I went to him and I spent that year with him, and the highlight was when he asked me to take Keith, Cecil and Jack to the Newport Festival. Because I had a car, in those days of bigger cars. He said, “would you drive my guys up there?” I said, “All right.” I picked them all up in the morning, different parts of Manhattan, drove for 6 hours, got to Newport, there was a line of cars. They got out and walked. They didn’t know me. I had my girlfriend with me; they didn’t owe me anything. But I remember hearing them, and then seeing Trane, which now just finally got release, live at Newport in ‘66… Seeing him in the afternoon.

So I was like his go-fer. He played a lot at Slugs. He had Tony Williams in the band. He had Gabor, of course. Sometimes he had Herbie. He had Ron Carter. He had Albert Stinson. He was the kind of hot cat on the scene in the mid ‘60s in New York, and I was attached to him. He was my idol. It was great to see him again.

This particular “Ruby” is a little drawn out. The piano player, I don’t know, it’s kind of a reharm but not really, and it’s the chords… I get a little disturbed as the piano solo is progressing, and then Charles comes in and he’s kind of floating. I’m not sure the performance is the greatest one. I don’t know if it’s live or in the studio. But Charles has that kind of casual manner about him that sometimes can be a little disconcerting, I think, musically. I must say, when I saw him and he went into a spiritual rap, he had a whole 10-minute rap, I just went and said, “Boy, it’s 1966 again, man; it’s unbelievable.” We all represent something, because we’re all part of history. But that’s his little slice. But I love the guy; he’s a great guy. 4 stars. Maybe 3.

Evan Parker-Matthew Shipp, “Rex 2”  (Rex, Wrecks & XXX, RogueArt, 2011) (Parker, tenor saxophone; Shipp, piano)

That could probably keep going. I have no idea how long that will go on. One thing about these guys (same with Anthony), they’ve got stamina. I’ll tell you that! They stay on course, and they will stay there, and I bet they can go on for another three hours. Very nice little conversation between the piano and the saxophone. I have no idea who it is. It sounds like it was done in their home or living room. It sounds like they were feeling no pain. The piano player is excellent. I like him. A lot of ideas. The saxophone player was pretty quick at picking things up when he was thrown a bone by the piano player, meaning the piano player would do something and leave a space, and give the saxophone player a chance to respond.

This kind of duet conversing, again coming out of…again, back to the avant-garde… It’s interesting up to a point, and then it loses… I don’t know. It sounds like guys just playing. If you’re in that mood, that’s the kind of thing, you go right in the zone. It’s like Cecil stuff, and you go right in there and stay there. Bukt there’s no up-and-down, there’s no curve. It’s just, again, one unidynamic…it’s mono-dynamic… It stays the same. It gets little busier and less busy; as they go on, probably more busy. Maybe by the end, they get less busy because they’re ending the tune or whatever they feel like is enough. But playing like this (which I’ve done quite a bit of, of course) is very good for your playing, because you do things you wouldn’t normally do if you’re playing in a more contained environment. On the other hand, it’s music for musicians only, basically, and people who are in that zone, and if you’re in that zone you probably had a great smoke or something, because this will definitely help that ride. [LAUGHS]

But it’s a great way to play to really get the kinks out of your horn, in a way. I like doing this, because you wouldn’t play that way in another situation. Initially I thought it was Archie Shepp, and then I thought it might be David Ware. It’s one of those kind of tenor players. I don’t think it’s a young guy. I think it’s someone who’s been doing this for a long time. It could be one of the Chicago guys, Roscoe… I can’t name who it is stylistically. If it was Archie, he would been in the upper register a little more, he would have done those kind of things he does with sound. He has a very particular style. He sounds like himself. And David Ware, when I saw him, he did, too. But I was premature in thinking it was Archie, because he has a tone and sound you’ll know pretty quickly. As far as this guy goes, I won’t say it’s generic. I don’t want to be derogatory or condescending. But it’s another free tenor player from, I would imagine, that era. If it’s a young guy, one of these cats like an Ivo Perelman or somebody that I don’t really know their style. Who is it? [AFTER] Oh, it’s Evan. I don’t know Evan on tenor that well. The piano is Matthew Shipp. I enjoyed him. I just did notes for Ivo and Matthew last year, that Ivo asked me to write. I’ve seen Matthew play, and as I said, he’s excellent. I always identify Evan more on soprano. He’s like revolutionary on soprano. He’s very good on tenor. I don’t know enough about it to know the distinct style… We did a live recording at the Vortex in London with a drummer. I don’t know if he played tenor. Maybe he did, and I don’t remember. [Why is he revolutionary on soprano?] He really set the ground for an avant-gardy type thing. Another guy is John Butcher, who is unbelievable. But I recently heard this guy, Michel Donato. Send me your address, and I’ll make a copy of this. Somebody came up to me in New Haven a few months ago. He was a producer; I don’t know his name. He said, “there’s a soprano player from Europe; maybe you don’t know him, but I’m soliciting remarks from soprano players; would you listen and give me a statement?” I never heard a cat play the horn like this. It’s WAY out there. As I’m doing research, in fact… Dalachinsky came last night, and he’s going to find his contact. I want to contact this guy and just say how much I enjoyed him. He lives in south of France. He’s like our age. He’s made a million records. He’s completely underground. But Evan has made a great contribution on soprano. But I must say these other guys are hot on his tail.

[Isn’t he coming out of Coltrane also?] In his own way, he is. But Archie did and Pharaoh did and Albert… I put them all in one place. They all extended the way the tenor was played in the ‘60s, coming from Coltrane or leading to Coltrane, or Coltrane followed him. I think Coltrane had his ears open and he was listening to them. I think Albert was a big influence on Coltrane. I think it would be, like, “I need to use some of that in my playing.” I would imagine. Of course, Coltrane also had that he could play “Giant Steps,” which separated him from the pack. When you heard Coltrane play late Coltrane, it still made incredible sense. I mean, it made harmonic sense. He didn’t just go… I can’t say this makes harmonic sense. This is about texture. We’re back to color for color sake. And here, rhythm. Absolutely, because of Matthew. Because remember, piano is a percussion instrument. When you play it this way, you’re being true to its percussive nature. Is Bill Evans a percussive player? Not really. I mean, you could call it playing cymbals if you want. But this is really using piano that way, which has been in front of everybody since the invention of the piano. And these guys, coming from Cecil. Cecil is responsible. Unless he might have heard some guy do it that we don’t know about. But Cecil made it a percussion instrument, almost to the extent that it’s not anything else. There’s no real melody, there’s no real harmony; it’s texture and it’s rhythm. For that, I give them 5 stars for what they do, because that is what these guys do. They do it well, too.

Pharoah Sanders, “Crescent”  (Crescent With Love, Venus/Evidence, 1994) (Sanders, tenor saxophone; William Henderson, piano; Charles Fambrough, bass; Sherman Ferguson, drums)

You can’t have Dave “happy man” all the time. You’ve got to have “Dave dark.” So far I’ve been very positive.

Wayne Shorter Quartet, “Orbits”  (Without A Net, Blue Note, 2013) (Shorter, soprano saxophone; Danilo Perez, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums)

That’s Wayne, of course, live. The thing that’s great about it is the interaction. They’re a live group that’s now ten-years-plus old, that a whole generation can see, that’s successful, playing the big gigs, that’s really improvising. That’s my bottom line for this group. They really improvise. Wayne sounds fantastic on soprano. The runs are great. The high notes are fantastic. He sounds a little more exuberant than he sometimes does. It’s a good take in that respect. There can be a tendency in this group for overplaying. Possibly, maybe the up-and-down-ness of Brian’s playing can be sometimes a little disconcerting, and Danilo can get a little caught in banging on the piano a little bit. But it’s the nature of the rhythmic thing that they do. Part of my aesthetic as we talked about before, and we said it with “Pursuance,” I like the leveling-off not because of looking to die down, but because contrast is so important to me, and that the story line keeps the tension-and-release going. It doesn’t just stay in tension, or, equally, in release. I miss that sometimes with this group. I mean, they can do it, and then they go from very soft sometimes, very quiescent, to burning right away. There’s not a lot of middle ground with this group. They don’t cover that live at least. Of course, writing-wise, Wayne… My bottom line on Wayne is always this. Wayne is an example (and there aren’t many in jazz; Horace was, Monk was—piano is a little easier) of composer as improviser. Most of us are improviser-composers. We take “Donna Lee” because we would have played what we wrote. “Impressions” is what we would have played. But Wayne writes, and then plays from the writing, and he keeps a compositional context to whatever he does. Not particularly on this particular track, but in general he thinks of space, thinks of tension-and-release, and really has it together. I just recorded two weeks ago, with my big band, Wayne Shorter, ten tunes from the ‘60s. A Swedish arranger. It’s going to come out on that same label I did my last one—Summit Records. Of course, this is “Infant Eyes” and “Nefertiti” and “Speak, No Evil,” “Iris,” all the stuff from the ‘60s—all those great tunes. Of course, those tunes are pristine, because they are so clearly what they are of what I’m talking about—his up-and-down, his tension-and-release, his choice of chords, his melodies. He was a guy who was an architect and then improvised. That’s not the normal thing in jazz. Again, Monk is also a great example of that, where you have a structure and a compositional view that is so ensconced that, when you improvise, you sound like you’re writing. That’s not true in much jazz, and for me, Wayne is the most important writer of the last 50 years, because he contributed that. Plus, harmonically (with Herbie, of course), he suggested chords that in the ‘60s were not being played in the ‘60s to improvise over, and made us, my generation, have to really reexamine how we improvise on chord changes. What we were used to was the II-V cycle and Bird and Bebop—basically Blakey and the whole thing like that. Here comes a guy with different chord qualities and places that modulated, that made you not able to use your cliched shit. Even though you would see the bar, you’d see a II-V, his II-V was going somewhere distant. You couldn’t go in with your little thing you’d learned from so-and-so and put it into that context. It didn’t sound right. You couldn’t play it. You had to play more horizontal. In that respect, Wayne is very Lester Young-oriented, because he really brought horizontal in, whereas Trane is much more vertical, more up-and-down. Coleman Hawkins and Prez is the same dichotomy, and basically you’re either one or the other. Basically. But that group…that’s 5 stars, of course. They’re improvising, man! They’re without a net! Well-put. Good title.

One last thing is that at the beginning, he plays something… I thought it was an avant-garde guy again. I was going to say to you, “Well, Ted, it looks like we’re in that direction today.” Because the beginning was really some free, crazy shit. I thought, “oh, here we go with another one of these tracks. I’ll have to see who this is. Is this Lol Coxhill or one of those guys?” Then they start, and it’s Wayne, and I didn’t know it. I forgot that little intro. That intro was the seed of something they don’t do that much. Am I right? That little free intro. The way he’s playing, they’re playing very, very free. So that particular episode in the beginning made me think of… That introduction…I would like to hear Wayne do more of that, because that’s definitely different than his usual m.o.

Yusef Lateef and Von Freeman, “South Side”  (Tenors of Yusef Lateef and Von Freeman, YAL, 19920 (Lateef and Freeman, tenor saxophones; John Young, piano; John Whitfield, bass; Terry Morrisette, drums)

I have no idea. It could be old cats trying to play like new cats. It could be some neo guys. I don’t know. A lot of patterns. Nothing that interesting to me. Both of them had this old sound vibrato at the end of the note that makes you think they definitely listened to or are older cats. It’s like older cats trying to play avant-garde, in a way, trying to be… They have language and they’re playing, but it’s kind of misplaced in a way. The time is kind of scattered. And the sound…it sounds like they’re shaking a lot. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s that way of playing saxophone where your embouchure is just so loose that everything is kind of shaking. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s a particular way of playing… Again, I couldn’t tell if these are avant-garde guys playing inside or inside guys playing avant-garde, or old cats with young cats (the drums and piano, not much happening). It’s a blues with a bridge. The way they handled the bridge was a little more modal. It shows that they weren’t really, to me, that adept at that kind of playing, which places it as a little bit older style. In other words, guys playing on modal things who come from the bebop period, you can usually tell they’re not like the… It’s like me playing on “Donna Lee” rather than playing on “Impressions.” That’s not my strength. I do it, but it’s not my strength. This is like the reverse of that. I always tell a story of when I was with Elvin. When Joe Farrell left, and before Steve Grossman came in the band, it was either Clifford Jordan, Frank Foster or George Coleman. Elvin liked two saxophones. It was interesting to hear these guys play when we did modal material. Because some of Elvin’s material was A-minor—go. They would try to play like a II-V-I progression, and it was, like, misplaced. This made me really see that what era you come from, in a way, is one of the biggest determinants, at least in this music, of your modus operandi. You can’t deny that. You may change and evolve. But you come, like Charles does, like Branford does, like I do…you come from that period, and that period is, like, they see D-minor-VII, that’s going to G-VII, brother. They don’t see D-minor-VII lasting them 16 bars, like “So What.” That’s why “So What” was such a revolutionary thing, because they didn’t have cadences. They had only that one chord, that one scale. In any case, I’m not sure who these guys are or what they were doing. But it was a little strange. It sounded like a jam session or some festival they put together, cats at the end to play together, like one of these Bruckner House type things in Europe. [AFTER] Von is the first guy? [Second guy. Yusef was the first.] Von always had some little experimental stuff in him. But Von… Now, you’re not allowed to talk like, but there’s a lot of finger stuff going on. Patterny. A little bit “Giant Step-y” there, the II-V-I, like a mini-scale… The things we all learn as saxophone players. We’re so guilty of this “fingeritis.” We’re all guilty of it. Because the saxophone is a pretty easy instrument to move your fingers. And you do. If you can, you do. That’s Yusef? I don’t know. I’m a little puzzled. I can’t tell you that I heard Yusef much in the past 20-30 years. I just know all the recordings, the oboe, the flute, of course when he was with Cannonball. He was a really solid player and a great blues influence. This to me, sounds a little hackneyed and a little bit…not staged… As I said, they’re like old cats playing modern. Or trying to play modern. Though the piano player was not really modern. It suggested to me guys trying to stretch out with the language that they learned basically from Coltrane. But their sound is a giveaway that they’re older, unless it’s some young cat playing like that. Which is possible. That’s the neo shit. But in this case, it sounded like older cats playing modern, or trying to play modern, which is admirable and all that. But when you hear somebody like Wayne Shorter, it kind of puts the rest to dust, in a way. Because he’s 81 years old. He’s not supposed to play modern. You know what I mean? He’s one of the most modern players of all time still. That means it can be done. By some. That’s the point.

Ornette Coleman, “Feet Music”  (In All Languages, Harmolodic/Verve, 1987/1997) (Coleman, tenor saxophone; Don Cherry, trumpet; Charlie Haden, bass; Billy Higgins, drums)

I don’t know who it is. But it’s so Ornette-ed out, it’s amazing. Even to the sense of the trumpet missing notes like Don would. It’s to the tee. Of course, the tenor is a little Dewey-ish, of course (Dewey Redman). But what’s missing is a real personality from the tenor player. I didn’t feel any up-and-down, not much use of nuances, and, in a certain way, the solo was kind of flat to me. It went just like in a straight line. It didn’t go anywhere. It could be the rhythm section, which sounded a little dead. It could be the mix; I’m not getting the drums that good sound-wise. But I didn’t hear much. The bassist was doing his job. It’s an Ornette type thing. But the thing about Ornette that you have to always understand, it’s just like with Trane… If you’re going to do classic stuff, you’ve got to get somehow to the spirit and then make it yours. In this, the spirit of Ornette is buoyancy. Not uplifting; I’m not going to go spiritual. It’s uplifting… A revival meeting. It’s Texas, man! It’s just up. Even when he plays “Lonely Woman,” it’s up. The guys evokes a period. Like, Lovano plays good like that, because Lovano has that in him. It’s a certain thing it’s a joie de vivre that you hear in the cat’s playing that I don’t hear in this saxophone playing. So therefore, playing that style, which I can’t help but say it’s going to ignite a certain thing in me, because stylistically, I’m sorry, it sounds like Ornette. So you’re gonna go there? Well, ok. Then we need something of that spirit. Or we completely transform it. Do it completely different, which they didn’t. Which is absolutely valid. But to take something and play in the style of, and not get somewhere near the spirit of the original or something akin to it, to me is… I don’t know why you even do it. [AFTER] It was Ornette? On tenor? Don’t like it. Sorry. I’m completely wrong. Is that when they came back and played again? Old Dreams. He didn’t sound comfortable on the tenor. I’ve got to tell. Certainly nowhere near the alto. I’m sorry. It’s not Ornette. The sound is a little dull. I don’t get it, even with that. That’s Blackwell? Billy Higgins? But it’s the nuance. I don’t want to say he’s not familiar with the instrument, but it’s not his voice—now that you tell me it’s Ornette. But even without saying it’s Ornette, I don’t feel that the tenor was the player’s voice. Maybe you should play another instrument. It’s not coming across. Well, I’m completely wrong, and I will go down in history for accusing Ornette of not being Ornette. I’m embarrassed, because I said, “how could it be Ornette?” and it fucking ends up being the motherfucker. I’m sorry, but in any case, you get my point. I just don’t get it. This is when they… [They reunited for a tour, and they recorded this and they recorded Prime Time.] I must say on the side here… Maybe Quest is guilty of this, too. But this getting-together-again thing presents a bag of problems that are insurmountable. It’s based on history. It’s just not 1975 any more, or 1965, or 1985. [Or 1960, for that matter.] Well, in this case. It’s great to see the cats together. It’s great to evoke the memory of the great period in history. Usually, these little reunion things fall a little flat. I try with Quest. We play once a year, so it’s no big deal. I’m on it with Richie, and we’re very vigilant to try not to…we play the same material, but to try to be in present time. I don’t know how to explain it. I’m not sure we’re successful at it. That would be the listener’s judgment. But when you do come together, you have the danger of it’s not what it was because it is not what it is. It’s just history. We’re older. Older is not the point. We’re just different. It’s a different time. Tomorrow is different. But this is REALLY different. 40 years’ different. Sometimes… I can’t tell about when the Modern Jazz Quartet got together, or VSOP because they had Freddie instead of Miles. Some of that was great. But somehow… I guess it’s also in the ears of the beholder. You remember when it was fresh and really happening, and then you go, “Well, it’s not that.” So maybe it’s a little prejudiced because you were so hooked on it, and now they come back and they go, “Well, it’s not as good.” [He did write new music for this project. On the record, both the quartet and Prime Time play the same tunes, so the context is quite fresh.] I liked it. In fact, when I came on, I thought this is an attractive thing, that Ornetteish thing he does so well, which is great melodies, man. He’s the melody-maker of of all time! He will go down in history as the greatest melodic player-composer in the history…maybe in music. You want a little 6-bar melody? Nobody does it better. Triadic, memorable, you can sing it, you walk away remembering it. Forget about the improvising and the rhythm and what they do, the way they mix it up. His melodies stay in your head. That’s what makes Ornette, Ornette. And he plays like that, when he plays. But I’m used to the alto, and the tenor sounded kind of flat. [Did you hear Ornette on Tenor when it came out in the ‘60s?] Yes, and I liked it. It’s a great record. I think it had a lot of life to it. And it sounded like alto. This didn’t sound like alto to me. I did a record with Lee and Richie. The third track, “Universal Mind,” soprano, I never heard anybody play another instrument and sound more like his main instrument. I mean, the soprano sounds like an alto. That was the case on Ornette On Tenor, I believe. But not on this particular track for me.

Sonny Rollins, “More Than You Know”  (Road Tales: Volume 1, EmArcy-Doxy, 2008) (Rollins, tenor saxophone; Clifton Anderson, trombone; Bobby Broom, guitar; Bob Cranshaw, bass; Victor Lewis, drums; Kimati Dinizulu, percussion)

That sounds like an older cat who’s got a real personality. That’s a personality. That’s the thing about saxophone, man. They’re so individual. You get 50 guys and 50 different ways of playing. It’s amazing. We’ve heard a lot of them today. It’s a little similar to the one with Yusef and Von. An older cat, it would appear, coming a little bit out of the Ben and Coleman Hawkins thing with that sound, full-blast all the time, like that first thing you did with the Cookers, Billy Harper… It’s full-throttle, even on a ballad. Tenor. Deep. But he plays all over the horn. And he’s got some good lines. He plays very well. The guitar player, when he double-timed, was really great. It was very accurate and really good going. Bass and drums sounded a little sleepy. But again, it’s a ballad and it sounds like it’s late at night. It sounds like it’s the last set. But the tenor player will not give it up. He’s going straight for it. He’s going to put his shit on the table, and he’s very forthright about it. Again, not… Much of today, many of the guys… One general comment I’ve been making (Wayne is one of the few we’ve heard who breaks the rules) is of nuances, and of personal expression that makes the conversation alive. It’s like speaking. You don’t speak in the same tone of voice. You do accents and dynamics. You talk. You speak. It’s speaking. Sometimes guys just blow. Blowing is one thing. Speaking is another thing. Coming out of the voice and coming out of the way you would talk, let alone if you would sing. Then this guy, he’s just going straight through. He’s got that one sound, and he’s going to keep doing it, and it’s very predictable. To me, it takes away a little bit of magic when things are so predictable, that you know he’s going to play in a certain way. Your ear says, “oh, I’m used to that…oh, ok, that.” That shuts off part of the mystery. I like hear to somebody with more nuance. It’s like the way Herbie plays piano. Nuances on an instrument. This guy was pretty straightforward. I don’t have any idea who that its. [AFTER]

As far as I’m concerned, ‘60s Sonny, everything from Alfie to live at Ronnie Scott’s, to the live with Alan Dawson… From ‘60-‘61 to ‘67-‘68, nobody has ever played the saxophone like that. It’s even beyond Coltrane as far as the saxophone playing goes—what he does. Of course, the material is standards, so no problem. That’s a little bit what it is. But the way he plays it is great. He just never had a rhythm section, except Our Man In Jazz and Herbie with Standard Sonny Rollins, that would enable him to have more to say. What’s the point of a rhythm section for a saxophone player, for a horn player? In general, my feeling is, a guy of that amazing talent and vocabulary, if he would play with good guys on a steady level, guys that he lets them go, his game would have been raised. But Tristano was the same way. He didn’t want the bass and drums doing anything but keeping time and pulse. Dexter did it. Sonny. Stan Getz… Talk to Billy. Stan Getz had the best drummers in the world and he would handcuff them, because “it’s my show; I’m the soloist, you support me.” Dexter never said anything, but you played straight behind Dexter. You just did the job. That was that era. Those guys did the job. That’s a given, that they’re going to swing. We know they’re not going to get lost in the blues. But there’s more to it than that. That’s not enough, not by 1965-1970. Miles made that very clear. When Miles got the quintet… Even with Philly Joe, he was already doing shit, with Philly and Red doing those kicks and stuff like that. Miles was smart enough to realize, “I am more if the rhythm section is doing stuff. I sound better. I can rely on them. I can leave a space, and something beautiful and amazing and creative is going to happen, and give me something to do.” Instead of me being responsible. I always say, “Are you such a genius that you can carry 20 choruses in a row and come up with good shit? I’m not that good. Are you that good? Don’t you want some help from your friends? Isn’t that what we’re talking about?”

But since you played Wayne, there’s a guy who, everything I’m talking about, he does, in his playing. I’m not talking about the group. I’m not talking about the compositions. In his own playing, there’s nuance, there’s stop-and-go, there’s ideas, there’s color and texture and harmony and melody. He covers the gamut. And a lot of the guys I heard today don’t cover the gamut. That’s all. They’re individualists, they have a particular thing they say, and on that level it’s absolutely valid and they’re all 5 stars. Everybody is 5 stars, because they are who they are. But as far as variety of using the language in a wide scope, I didn’t hear too much of that today.

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In Conversation with Dave Liebman (www.jazz.com):

In September 2006, Dave Liebman, the saxophonist-educator, celebrated his sixtieth birthday musician-style, with a four-night residency at Manhattan’s Birdland, intending to represent, as Liebman put it, “a wide spectrum from among the things I’ve enjoyed doing over the last ten years.” Towards this end, Liebman presented a different band each night, all but one of them documented by a contemporaneous recording, and each navigating a distinct sonic environment.

Night one featured a to-the-outer-partials two-tenor quartet with Ellery Eskelin, a Liebman student during the ‘80s (Renewal, Different But the Same [Hatology]), while on night two, Liebman led his working quartet of the past decade with guitarist Vic Juris, bassist Tony Marino, and drummer Marko Marcinko (Blues All Ways [Omnitone] and Further Conversations–Live [True Azul]). On night three, Liebman presented his big band music, and on night four he performed the music of Miles Davis, his one-time employer, and John Coltrane, his seminal inspiration, with an all-star sextet comprising trumpeter Randy Brecker, tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Adam Nussbaum.

Although the program provided a consequential snapshot of Liebman’s intense activity as he approached his seventh decade, it only captured a fragment of his total musical production. To wit, during the months preceding the festivities, his itinerary included duo concerts with Markowitz and pianist Marc Copland; trios with Nussbaum and electric bassist Steve Swallow (Three For All) [Challenge], a week at Yoshi’s in Oakland with Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis; a week at Manhattan’s Blue Note with McCoy Tyner. There were also European tours with a quartet from the Continent (Roberto Tarenzi, Pablo Bendettin, Tony Arco—Dream of Nite, Negative Space [Verve]); with the collective all-star quartet Quest, with pianist Richie Beirach, bassist Ron McClure, and drummer Billy Hart (Redemption,  Quest Live in Europe [Hat Hut]), recently reconvened after a two-decade hiatus; and with Saxophone Summit (Seraphic Light [Telarc]), a Liebman-organized unit in which he, Joe Lovano, and Ravi Coltrane—who replaced Michael Brecker after Brecker contracted his fatal illness—played music composed by or vibrationally akin to the spirit of John Coltrane.

Which meant that Liebman, as articulate with the English language as the language of notes and tones, had much to speak of while visiting WKCR to publicize his birthday run.
Am I mistaken that you’ve been emphasizing tenor saxophone more in the last few years than you had in years previous?

DL: Yes. It’s back in the arsenal since 1996, after a fifteen-year hiatus.

What was the reason for that hiatus?

DL: To get really good on one instrument rather than be ok on a few. The soprano was the choice for a few reasons. One was that I felt a little bit closer to it as far as individuality. Also in 1980, as far as the water-under-the-bridge aspect of how many people had left a voice on the instrument, there weren’t that many at the time—now it’s a little more crowded. Those two reasons made me think that it was time to put down the flute and the tenor, and concentrate on the soprano, and get it to a higher level. It took me 10-15 years to get it up to wherever it is now. It’s a hard one. But just when I was approaching 50, I decided it was time to bring back the father horn and own up to it, and to try to find a way to play it that made sense to me. I felt that I didn’t want to go so much into the Coltrane thing, all my roots that I had played so much, and to find another way of playing it.

Someone remarked that your approach to tenor saxophone is almost like an electric guitar, to which you responded that if you hadn’t heard Coltrane at 15, you might indeed have played electric guitar.

DL: I might have, yes, because of the expressive possibilities. Of course, I loved Jimi Hendrix. Those were all around the same time. But sometimes I hear… Especially on soprano, sometimes I think like that, even moreso than the tenor, because of its lightness and speed. But the way I play both instruments is marked with a certain kind of intensity, and there’s an immediacy that may be reminiscent of the way electric guitar is played.

Hearing Coltrane when you were 15 would place you in 1961, when he signed with Impulse and was starting to elaborate and extend his concept. Can you describe that first hearing?

DL: That first hearing was Birdland, and it was the second or third time I’d gone there. I’d gone with some of the older people in my school. I went to Lafayette High School in Brooklyn.

Sandy Koufax’s alma mater.

DL: Yes, and Larry King.

 Joe Torre and John Franco. Bensonhurst.

DL: Well, first of all, six thousand people in the school, and my class, being 1946, was 2500 people. It was quite a large school. Anyway, I went to Birdland, and I didn’t know really who Coltrane was. It was the Bill Evans Trio opposite. Coltrane was with Eric Dolphy, as it ended up, and they played “My Favorite Things,” which I couldn’t believe. I said, “How can they play a song from The Sound of Music’? This is not possible.” In any case, I was compelled to go back every time I could, dozens of times until his death. That’s the main experience of my life, really. Outside of anything personal or family oriented that has happened to me, to see that group live was the big event. It was beyond words, the way they communicated, the way they played, their attitude, the atmosphere, the way it sounded. I was a teenager just starting to fool around a little bit, but I had no idea of the depth of this music, or what it could be—or what MUSIC could be, let’s put it that way. Nothing had ever gotten to me like that at that point. It made me see that there’s something in this music that I didn’t know.

You were playing saxophone by that point?

DL: Yeah, I was playing piano and clarinet.

So you had the music bug.

DL: I liked music, and I was trying to play jazz and pop and so forth. The first music I loved was rock-and-roll, ‘50s rock. I was an Elvis Presley freak. I loved the tenor in rock-and-roll, which is how I got to the tenor. I took music lessons like a high school student does—you’re in the dance band, you do shows, it’s an activity. I enjoyed it. But when I saw Coltrane, and then subsequently Miles…all the different people… I would go see jazz every weekend, and they made me see this as a very serious thing. Of course, in my case, getting a chance to play with Elvin and Miles eventually opened the door, and then, of course, it went to another level. But I had no idea of that in my teenage years—just that it was very, very strong music.

When did you start to get involved in the New York scene? There was a group of people about your age, a little older, a little younger, who started a loft movement before loft jazz, in ‘67, ‘68. How did those attachments start to form?

DL: [Drummer] Bob Moses was my very close friend when I was 16. In fact, we went to the Catskills and played a hotel there. I actually ambushed him for a gig. We played merengues and such. I was in the lofts already at 16 years old, trying to play. That part of whatever the scene was… The amount of musicians in New York was very small. There were dozens, maybe, as compared to hundreds. So you kind of knew everybody. Say, you could see Hank Mobley, and he might know you because he knew your face, because you’d been around and you were hanging. It was a small community. It was easy to go into a club, you had a beer, you sat at the bar, and you could go night after night. By the time I got to college age, and was on my own at NYU in Greenwich Village, I was there a lot. We had quite a scene, a loft scene back in ‘69-‘70…

You moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

DL: Yeah. When I was done from high school.

In those days, that was a big move.

DL: You were going to another country. But of course, I had been familiar with Manhattan, and I had been playing already—club dates, but also trying to play jazz as much as a young person could in those days. Looking for jazz on Bleecker Street with my horn. Seriously going out in the street and thinking there were sessions in the middle of the street! This was what I thought. But we actually organized in the late ‘60s. We put together an organization called Free Life Communication, which I was the head of, and Moses and Chick Corea and Holland, Mike and Randy Brecker, Lenny White, a lot of guys. We put on about 300 or 400 concerts in the first year. We saw that this was a thing we had to do on our own, because jazz actually was pretty low-down in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s as far as places to play and opportunities. So we decided to take matters into our own hands, and got funding from the New York State Council of the Arts, and so forth. So there was some organization and some activity, but we were basically playing free jazz. The avant-garde movement was very strong in New York in the late ‘60s, and that was all that young cats like me wanted to play. Our model was Ascension. We never even played a tune or a blues or anything straight-ahead.

So were you also involved in listening to Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp…

DL: This was our favorite stuff. That’s what you saw. You’d be on the Lower East Side, and that’s what was happening. It was the current thing, and it seemed to be exciting, and it seemed to be something that you could do—get up and just start playing, basically. There were no schools then. Remember, there was no formal schooling. Some guys went to Berklee, but I didn’t, and we didn’t learn in any kind of formal way. We all learned from each other, from watching and listening and hearing and asking questions, and just hanging out.

Was it 1970 that you joined Elvin Jones?

DL: I was with Elvin in ‘71-‘72, and then ‘73-‘74 with Miles.

Seminal relationships, obviously, and very exciting. How did it happen?

DL: Gene Perla was the bassist with Elvin, and he got the gig in late ‘70 or early ‘71. He was part of our community. That was a big thing for us, because we saw one of our own, so to speak, getting with a heavyweight—a real heavyweight. He said, “I’m going to get you in the band and then I’m going to get Steve Grossman in the band—I’m telling you now.” Sure enough, slowly, Joe Farrell, who’d been with Elvin for those years, the late ‘60s, eventually was leaving, and I took his place, and then within 4-5 months Steve was in the band. That was the unit that recorded Live at the Lighthouse and so forth. It went on for that two-year period. We had a wonderful time. First it was the quartet, and Don Alias was with us for about a year with the congas.

How had Elvin Jones’ playing evolved from the time he stopped playing with Coltrane until then?

DL: I’ll be honest with you. Of course, having seen it so many times and knowing Elvin’s playing intimately, I was hoping and expecting and thinking that it would be like Coltrane. Of course, the one big thing that was missing is that I’m not Coltrane! That took a minute to realize. But in essence, Elvin was much more controlled. His timing was much different. He played soft for many, many choruses. He played a lot of brushes. He basically orchestrated the energy, which wasn’t true in Coltrane’s case, where it was Elvin and Coltrane and McCoy, all at the same time. But in this case, it was Elvin’s band, he had young guys with him, and he basically orchestrated the whole thing—without saying anything. When he went up, you went up. When he went down, you had to go down. I spent the first few months with my neck bulging, playing intensity, and he’s playing brushes and saying, “Where are you going? What are you doing there?” The vibe was I’m pushing. He knew that. I was a young guy, I was excited, and that’s what I wanted to try to do. But he matured me slowly, and he was in great control of his drums.

The other thing was that he took a major solo every set, and a long solo. You got to hear a long, expansive drum solo, which you didn’t hear so much with Coltrane.

During those years, how interested were you in changes playing? You were incredibly into Coltrane. Were you as into Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson…

DL: Oh, definitely. The two were always Sonny and Trane. For our generation, they always coexisted, always the half-and-half. Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson were on the second line. Those four were the main influences. Then Pharaoh and Archie Shepp, and the people kind of on the fringe who had a particular thing that you liked. We always had these debates. You’d go up to guys on the street and say, “Trane or Sonny?”—this ongoing joke. It meant, “Who’s your strongest influence? Where’s the real deal?” In a way, I was caught between both, because if I played a certain kind of tune, I’d be in Trane’s bag; if I played a certain Sonny kind of tune, I’d be in Sonny’s bag.” That ended up to be a little bit of a challenge to get over.

But with Elvin, we played a combination of chord change tunes, regular standards, and, of course, modal type tunes. There was no piano, so it was very open—just trio, really, with the other horn. I was able to explore both things at the same time, sort of. When I got to Miles, Miles was completely one chord. It was just rock-and-roll, one pedal, E-flat for 45 minutes, let’s say. There it was completely modal. So between those two leaders during those four years, I was able to go harmonically and non-harmonically—or, let’s say, chord changes and also modal and pedal point. Which of course, ended up being what I do. That set the stage for me.

Under what circumstances did you join Miles Davis?

DL: Well, I did On The Corner, and Miles asked me to join, and I said no, because I wanted to be with Elvin.

You were contracted to do On The Corner? You weren’t part of the band.

DL: My mother found me at a doctor’s office in Brooklyn and said, “Teo Macero, whoever he is, said ‘Come NOW’ to 52nd Street and Madison”—I knew exactly where it was. I got in and played on “Black Satin,” the first track, and I did another overdub maybe. Then Miles said, “Join my band,” something like that, kind of offhand. I don’t know if he meant it or what. I said, “I’m with Elvin, and Elvin’s Daddy,” that was my vibe. He didn’t say anything. Then six months later, in January of ‘73, we were playing the Vanguard, and he came down Tuesday night and Wednesday, and by Thursday he was on my case big-time to join. I told him, “You’ve got to talk to Elvin.” And he did. He called me in the middle of the night and he said, “Elvin said you’re fine, and tomorrow night you play with me at the Fillmore, then you go back and finish the week with him and go to the Workshop next week, and then you’re with me.” That was one night where I played with both, actually. January 12, 1973. It was amazing. I played at the re-opening of the Fillmore, which had been closed for a year, and only was open that one night for Miles and Paul Winter, and then closed and never opened again! That was 8 o’clock, and by 10 o’clock I was back playing “Three Card Molly” with Elvin and Steve at the Vanguard. I will never forget that night musically. Of course, it also felt good. But the music was from the 21st century to…well, I walked into the Vanguard, got down the steps, and they were playing a blues, something with that feel, the complete opposite from Miles’ thing, which was all-electric. I couldn’t hear a note I played. That morning I had just had holes put in my horn to put a pickup in. I had no idea what he was playing. Anyway, this was the beginning of that stage, and that went on for about 18 months with Miles.

What was new for you in that?

DL: It wasn’t the rock-and-roll, which I was familiar with—or whatever you want to call it…funk. It was the volume and intensity. It was a loud band. Miles, of course, was playing electric trumpet and wah-wah pedal, and there were no real heads. There were no chord changes. You had to watch him for everything. He pointed to you, he cut you out, he cut the band down—you’ve seen the tapes from there. It was his band all the way. He didn’t want anybody else’s tunes. You didn’t bring anything to the plate. You just were there. The main thing with Miles was the chance to be next to him and hear him play every night. Regardless of the style, the way he played was classic Miles. To be able to hear it from five feet away is different than being on the other side, listening from the audience or listening on a recording. You can’t really get it until you stand next to somebody. That was a big lesson in phrasing. Of course, the way he led the band. The way he nuanced everything, the way he brought the energies to him, and the way he controlled the rhythm section in a music that wasn’t necessarily a give-and-take rhythm section like the jazz era. This was a background. They played more or less the same thing. But the way he controlled things was, of course, a major lesson.

So it was a spontaneous orchestration every night.

DL: Very much so. I mean, it got into patterns, because we did night after night, but it was really on him, what he wanted to do. Of course, he was playing keyboard then. At first there were keyboard players, but he fired them eventually, and then it was just him on the keyboard. He’d play weird voicings with his elbow, and I’d play the alto flute, not knowing what key we’re in! We had some good fun. I enjoyed it, and I enjoyed him. He was a complex person. In a lot of ways he was a Jekyll-Hyde personality, it’s true, and he had a lot of drug problems at that time, and a lot of physical problems. But in his heart of hearts, music was everything. It was all music.

Your subsequent career seems marked by an interesting approach to eclecticism. You’re pragmatic, you keep working, and you also put yourself in creatively stimulating situations.

DL: I enjoy a lot of kinds of music. I certainly enjoy my band most, but we play about five different kinds of music in the band. I like the challenge. You are who you are, and the idea is you within a context—you being whatever your style is and how you hear. I hear harmonically a certain way, rhythmically a certain way, etcetera, and that will permeate, whether it’s Puccini or Coltrane or my own tunes. To me, that’s an obvious thing. Of course, I come from this era, the ‘60s, which was the beginning of widespread eclecticism. Now, there were certainly eclectics before, but by the ‘60s you could hear a lot of musics much more readily. It was not unlikely that a listening session could be Bartok, Ravi Shankar, the Bulgarian Girls’ Choir, and then Coltrane or Cecil Taylor or something like that. There could be four or five hours of listening and hanging. All those things affected me—rock-and-roll, world music, classical, especially 20th century classical. I enjoy all of it. On the pragmatic side, I don’t have a contract, so I don’t do one thing a year for a record label. I’ve done a little travel, so you find a label that enjoys one thing, another that enjoys another thing, and so on. I like that.

Lee Konitz has been doing that for about forty years now.

DL: Paul Bley. David Murray. Steve Lacy. It’s not unheard of. From the business side, there’s always the difficulty of selling, because you have too much product competing against your other product, and the labels hate it when you do that. On the other hand, more is always better in the sense that at least people hear more music that you like, that you’re a part of. I’m really thinking about people who are listeners. Selling is not going to happen anyway, in this day and age. So to me, if I can find a way to express myself and somebody is interested, I’m going to do it, and if it’s crowding the other thing, what can I do about it?

You were saying that you’ve concentrated more on the tenor saxophone over the last decade, since you hit 50.

DL: It has come back in, yes.

What other things have you been working on?

DL: Outside of a little envelope when I had a band with John Scofield for four-five years in the late ‘70s, much of my work after Miles was with Richie Beirach in Quest and Lookout Farm and Duo. My relationship with Richie was based on heavily on harmony, and the tradition coming out of Miles and Coltrane. He took care of the rhythm section and I was the soloist. That was our thing. By 1990, I’d had enough of that, and I really wanted to explore rhythm, to get myself more sophisticated rhythmically. Of course, rhythm is the main thing that’s on everybody’s plate in the last 10-15 years. I’m about to go to Manhattan School of Music and start my course, which is based on my book, A Thematic Approach to Harmony and Melody. But of course, it’s so arcane. It means nothing now, because nobody really uses harmony any more. What we have is a world of rhythm; everything’s not in four any more. In 1991, I felt there was a need for me to get familiar with it. Hence, I hired Jamey Haddad as my drummer, who is an expert on hand drums and an expert on rhythm. That was the band’s focus. Also synthesizer—Phil Markowitz played a lot of synthesizer. And I had Vic Juris there. I wanted more color and more written material than I had with Quest. Quest was really an improvising band. It was four master guys who could play. Not that these guys can’t. But in Quest, we were all from the same generation.

But now, in the last five years or so, I’ve been getting back to harmony, playing with Marc Copland or playing duo with Markowitz. Also, Quest was been reawakened, for our first tour in fifteen years. What happens as you get older, in a certain way, you really don’t care about what anybody thinks (if you ever did), you don’t care about categories, and it really doesn’t matter, because you do what you have to do. Also, time is limited. I’m not being morbid, but 60 is not 40. I’m just going to keep going until I can’t.

You were describing your sense at the top of the ‘90s that nobody plays in four any more…

DL: I’m exaggerating.

But the beginning of the ‘90s is when that approach started to become more mainstream instead of an exotic thing.

DL: Yes.

You’ve been an educator over those years. Could you give us a bird’s eye view of what’s transpired over this period?

DL: Well, it’s the computer. It’s world music. The influence of odd rhythm has permeated the West. That’s what it comes down to. Which it should have. It’s been there for thousands of years. Playing odd rhythms puts you in a situation where you’re not playing the same thing. You can’t phrase the same way. The generation that came up in the ‘80s, or certainly in the ‘90s, heard everything from the past played so well from the past. How could they find something fresh? We’re graduating so many students from these places who are so well-equipped, are such good musicians, that doing things in odd meter is one way to make things different—at least at the surface. At least you start with a different premise than if you’re playing 4/4 and playing rhythm changes. I think the odd meters have become endemic. It’s everywhere. My students don’t write anything in 4/4! Which is fine. It’s very interesting. The dust is already beginning to settle a little bit, and things will get to where the distinctions are not so… It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

As far as education, the last ten or fifteen years are an amazing period, with hundreds of students who make my generation look like we couldn’t play at all at that age. I certainly can’t compare myself at 21 or 22 years old to these guys. They’re unbelievable. I mean, they’re not mature men and women yet, but they know everything. They know tunes. Their tools are just ridiculous. What we teach them at Manhattan School of Music and what they have to do is so high-level—I tell you, I can’t believe what they turn into. I’m very impressed. What they’re going to do with it, how they’re going to make out, that’s another story. In some ways, the music is as healthy as it’s ever been because of this influx from all over the world. Business-wise, it’s the worst it’s ever been. It’s a complete dichotomy.

I guess there’s a mix between fresh new repertoire and playing… Well, it’s hard to say that playing “Peace on Earth” and “Meditations Suite” is dealing with older forms, but this is music that’s forty years old.

DL: Yes. That’s a very fair comment. First of all, there’s such a wealth of material. Just in general, because something was played once doesn’t mean it can’t be touched again and redone. Everybody knows that, and that’s why they go back and do it, and do it in ways that aren’t recognizable—“deranging” tunes, as it’s called now. An iota of “My Funny Valentine,” they call it “My Funny Valentine,” but it has nothing to do with it. It’s very interesting in a lot of ways. The students don’t really know past-present. They have so much material. With the iPod, they have hundreds of years of music right in their hands. History doesn’t mean the same to them as it does to us. So the little that we can do, somebody of my generation…

It’s all information. Decontextualized information.

DL: Yes. And it’s hard to find a way into it. As somebody who has a link to this, through my roots in Trane and Elvin and Miles, which was my school of learning, I feel a responsibility to play the older material. Not only, not exclusively, but to play it and reinterpret it and make it present. It’s part of what we’re supposed to do. This is the tradition. I believe in it. I don’t have Lincoln Center as a soapbox, but I believe exactly the way Wynton Marsalis does in that respect. We have a strong tradition. I’m very proud to be part of it. I feel like we have to continue it. I think it’s a good thing for somebody to see somebody in my position playing it—mixed with my own material, of course.

You mentioned recording for many different labels in recent years. Organizing all that activity and keeping the contexts separate must also be a bit of a challenge.

DL: I’m also an educator, and writing books. I can only say I’m very happy that some people enjoy and respect what I do. There’s no real money in it. In fact, in some cases, recording you ends up costing people. To me, records always have been basically a calling card. It’s a means for you to classify your material, and then once you do it, and it’s on the shelf, you can move on. From an artistic standpoint, it’s a necessity, if you can, to close the door on a certain music, or a certain tune, or a certain idiom, or whatever. Also, it’s a way for people to know you’re around. To me, it’s a way for those people who enjoy my music, for fans (I have a couple here and there, not thousands) to know I’m still active, still going. I’m always inspired by older musicians who continue to evolve. When you have 30-40-50 years under the bridge, it’s not easy to find new ways of doing things. For the first ten or twenty, you’re supposed to find new stuff. But when you get past 20-25 years, you’ve done a lot, heard a lot, been inspired a lot, you’ve written those amazing tunes based on your experiences and all that stuff. You’ve had your political awakening, your love awakening, your social awakening. Not that it ends, but you can’t repeat what you’ve done. Being creative… It’s one thing to die early, but it’s another thing to keep going! I got to tell you, it’s not easy, man, to keep going and be creative and have self-respect. It’s a matter of having respect for yourself. If other people see it that way, that’s their business. But I know I need to feel good about what I do. So I need to not repeat, if I can help it, and try to move on—and it’s not easy.

You made a classical music duo recording not long ago, called Vienna Dialogues [Zoho]. Has that been more of a preoccupation over the last decade?

DL: Not really. I’ve always been interested in 20th century classical music because of the harmonic content, for obvious reasons, but I’ve been less interested in pre-20th century. I was doing something in Vienna, where the tradition is very strong, and I was inspired by the songs—just piano and voice (or in this case, soprano). I found a young pianist, Bobby Avey, who was willing to put in the time to help me find the tunes and arrange them. This is a very straightforward, lyrical recording of songs by Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, Mahler, celebrating the great European tradition. I didn’t take the songs apart, or change too much—we just played on the songs. That music is what forms the basis of the harmonic music of our time. These are the guys who laid it down.

In the program notes you wrote: “There are several unique challenges. Accuracy of pitch, of course, is crucial, but more important from the aesthetic side, the challenge is to convey an emotional attitude culled from the written music while infusing it with one’s own personal set of inflections, guided above all by good taste. The balance between too little and too much is very precarious.”

DL: Yes. It’s one thing to take a Duke Ellington tune, as on a gig I did at Yoshi’s in 2006 with Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis and Nicholas Payton, where we played “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” every set, and then phrase it and work with it the way you want At least to me, that’s what you’re supposed to do. But with Chopin and Schubert and Schumann, you have to watch yourself that you don’t go overboard—and I definitely can easily go overboard. One thing I’ve been guilty of has been in excess. I know that. That’s part of my M.O. But when you play a delicate, lyrical song with piano and soprano, it’s important to have good judgment and good taste—to try to be underneath rather than over. That objective-subjective line is an interesting thing. How much of me is in it? How much of It is it? When do you detach yourself from the art? When is the art strong enough that it conveys itself by you being the messenger? All these questions are posed when you are interpreting classic…not just classical, but the classic material. How much is you? How much do you let the music take itself? Etcetera. Of course, every man and woman has a different view on those questions, from a listening standpoint, But from a performance standpoint, you do have to take an interpretive stance. That’s what that paragraph is about.

What do you want to be doing in ten years?

DL: Keep doing it, man. Getting on that plane is getting tough. I’ve got to figure out what to do, because it’s getting harder and harder to get to where you’ve got to get. I’m not even taking the horns. I bring my mouthpiece. But I’m afraid I’m going to get to an airport and they’ll say, “Put the soprano underneath.” That’s the end of that. Things like that are happening. But I hope to continue doing what I’m doing and continue with the music.
Interview notes: Dave Liebman was interviewed on WKCR by Ted Panken on September 7, 2006

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For John Surman’s 72nd Birthday, a Jazziz Feature Article from 2009

For the 72nd birthday of the master saxophonist/woodwindist John Surman, here’s a feature piece that Jazziz gave me an opportunity to write about him in 2009, when he was gigging behind the ECM release, Brewster’s Rooster, with John Abercrombie, Drew Gress and Jack DeJohnette. (For an informative contemporaneous interview with Surman that takes a different angle, link to this on Larry Applebaum’s fine website.)

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On the last day of August, John Surman, baritone saxophone in hand, stood stage left on Birdland’s bandstand, preparing to introduce his band. Surman had just blown the last note of the opening tune — an original called “Hilltop Dancer” — during the opening set of a week-long engagement. He launched the song with a lyrical, unaccompanied baritone intro, caressing every note. Then he goosed a subtle, open-ended solo from guitarist John Abercrombie with a roaring, hypnotic vamp before winding down the flow with a melodic variation of his initial statement

Surman looked across the stage at Abercrombie, shifted his glance to drummer Jack DeJohnette, and then gazed at bassist Drew Gress, standing to his left. Then he said, “The only person who actually needs an introduction here is me.”

Although Surman, an Oslo resident since 2004, was making his first-ever appearance as a leader in a New York City venue, this piece of self-deprecation was not precisely true. As the crowds that packed Birdland all week were well aware, Surman, 65 and well into his fifth decade in the music business, has long commanded deep respect amongst his peer group for his virtuosic command of the baritone and soprano saxophones and bass clarinet, and for the high quality of a discography that includes 17 leader dates for ECM since 1979. These include Surman’s meticulously crafted compositions and orchestrations that have framed his horns with string quintet, a brass ensemble, a free-boppish piano-bass-drums British quartet, various synth-driven soundscapes, and the lute-song music of Elizabethan composer John Dowland. Other recordings include a collaboration with singer Karin Krog, intuitive free improv projects with Paul Bley and Tony Oxley, and two documents of his ongoing electro-acoustic duo with DeJohnette, on which both trigger real-time grooves and textures within the flow.

The raison d’etre for this belated debut was Surman’s most recent release, Brewster’s Rooster (ECM), for which he convened DeJohnette, Abercrombie and Gress to interpret a suite of nine original tunes. Late afternoon on the following day, Surman sat in ECM’s well-appointed conference room in World Wide Plaza, a skyscraper six blocks north of Birdland, to discuss the disk.

“Manfred Eicher proposed it,” he said, crediting ECM’s founder as the ur-source of Brewster’s Rooster. He related that, during “a casual moment between takes” of his previous project, a duo with church organist Howard Moody issued with the prototypically ECM title Rain On the Window, Eicher said, “It’s about time you made a real jazz recording. We should do it in New York. What would you like to do?”

In Surman’s view, “real jazz recording” meant recording with a rhythm section, something he hadn’t done since 1993, when he made Stranger Than Fiction with his British quartet, although such work is a regular component of his professional life. “I can only put out a limited number of CDs,” he said, “and I want them to be specific, personal statements that reflect what I’m into at a particular time or to document a corpus of music I’ve written.”

That those “specific personal statements” primarily reference European art and vernacular music is in keeping with the fact that more than 95 per cent of Surman’s massive sessionography, which dates to 1965, has transpired either in Britain or on the European continent. “I stayed where the work was,” he said. He noted that in 1973 he had “followed in the footsteps” of fellow Englishmen Dave Holland and John McLaughlin with a six-month stint in Woodstock, New York. “The thought had crossed my mind that maybe it was important to be over here. But the fact was that, as John Abercrombie often says, ‘I’m a commuter; I live in America, but I work in Europe.’”

“It’s easier for an American musician to come to Europe, because of the tour support subsidized by European taxpayers,” Surman said. “Coming here was, ‘Yeah, could do it,’ but after calculating all the costs — the airfare and fees and all — somehow we never got around to it. It’s been even more difficult since 2001. I’ve done some duo things here with Jack, but then it’s the case of Jack DeJohnette and John who? If you’re not here and you’re not known, then club owners say, ‘Who is this guy?’”

BREAK

Brewster’s Rooster contains no end of admirable qualities, not least the opportunity to hear a suite of Surman’s well-proportioned tunes interpreted by a unit of virtuosos who enjoy, as DeJohnette puts it, “playing what we don’t fuckin’ know!”

“We lay in wait for those moments when one thing sets off another,” said DeJohnette, who is Surman’s brother-in-law. (Surman’s son, Ben, is married to DeJohnette’s daughter, Minya.) He and Abercrombie had joined the conversation as afternoon turned to early evening. “That seems to happen a lot in the improvisation, and that makes it fun. Music has seriousness, but the main thing is, it should be fun.”

Surman chimed in. “It would be important to point out that we worked together in a radio show when I lived in Woodstock.

Abercrombie picked up the story. “It was called ‘Harry Lovett: Man Without a Country.’ There were several episodes. We would take these different parts.” Abercrombie switched into a nasal, Truman Capote voice. “My part in it was Donald Dastardly, and I was evil.”

“I was the Reverend Right Time,” DeJohnette remarked, adding that he and Surman shared a deep affection for The Goon Show. Surman raised his voice to a falsetto. “Ah, he’s falling into the water now!!” The brothers-in-law responded in unison, “Who-oooaaa…”

“We so much bonded over the humor,” Surman stated. “I immediately thought of each of them when Manfred brought this up, but I never thought that we would actually do gigs. The idea was to have a day’s rehearsal, and record, so I looked for material open enough that everyone could be comfortable. There was no intention to pretend that it was a hot, tight band. In fact, the very looseness was the joy of doing it. That’s a statement, because this improvisational element, the fact that the music is shifting and mercurial, is important to me. I am not ithati interested in putting together a tight quartet playing tight stuff, because that’s what I do when I write for strings.

“What’s important in improvisation is give-and-take, to know your moment to get out there and pull the cart along or, when you hear someone else emerging with something, to step back and let that go through. That interests me more than chops, which result out of necessity. You’ve got to play high on a baritone. Once you get down in the lower-middle register, it’s hard to cut through. So sometimes, just to say ‘Yeah!’ as a baritone player, I’ve got to get up there and scream. That’s probably why I play the soprano, so I can soar above a lot of it.”

The improvised context is a familiar point of contact for Surman and DeJohnette, who first recorded together on guitarist Mick Goodrick’s 1976 ECM date, In Pas(s)ing. By DeJohnette’s account, they first met in August 1968, while DeJohnette was in London with Bill Evans for a one-month engagement at Ronnie Scott’s, the top-shelf club where, as Dave Holland said in a separate conversation, “young musicians could pretty much play all day and all night.” Holland was playing bass with the opening act, singer Elaine Delmar, whose accompanying trio also comprised pianist Pat Smythe and drummer John Marshall.

“I was sitting in with them with my melodica every night,” DeJohnette recalled. “I told Marshall and Pat to get some of their guys to come down and jam. So the word went around, ‘Jack DeJohnette wants to play some jams.’ At that time, a lot of the American musicians who came over were not interested in hooking up with the British musicians. That’s where I met John and Dave, and some of the other great talent there.

By 1968, Surman was one of London’s busiest jazzmen, paying the rent as a professional journeyman in high-level trad, blues, hard bop, and Calypso settings. He also played in John McLaughlin’s pre-Mahavishnu Indo-jazz-rock hybrids, as well as with a diverse set of big bands and orchestras. Toward the fulfillment of his own creative muse, Surman led a post-bop octet, a plugged-in quartet with pianist John Taylor and Marshall, an open-form trio with Holland and drummer Alan Jackson, and a subsequent one with bassist Barre Phillips and drummer Stu Martin, both American expats..

“My phone rang one day, perhaps in 1965, and it was John, asking me to sub that night for Harry Miller, a bass player he often worked with,” Holland recalled. “Before we went on, he gave me some music to look at. On the first tune, he’d written the theme, and at the end it just said ‘open.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, open?’ John said, ‘We’re going to play whatever you want after we play this theme. Play whatever you hear.’ It was the very first time I’d played in an open-form setting. A whole new world opened up.

“John and I became very close friends,” Holland continued. “We’d stay up all hours listening to music, checking out new records, talking about developments. We were all listening to Coltrane’s music and Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins, Miles, Ornette and Cecil Taylor — all these influences were coalescing. A lot of mixtures of music were occurring in London then, and I had a chance to work in many situations with John. I think I wrote my very first song for that trio with John and Alan, who played good time and swung but also could open up the music and take it in new directions. A lot of what we did was very open-ended and exploratory, and we’d land on different fields and grooves and tonalities. For me, it was a precursor to the Sam Rivers trio that I was in during the ’70s.”

Speaking of the British music scene in the ’60s, Surman noted, “Part of the excitement was a general feeling of ‘It all works. Whatever suits you, bring it on.’ I don’t think it was just confined to the U.K., but the U.K. certainly was a hotbed. It was a melting pot. The South Africans and guys from the West Indies were there. A huge blues interest was coming up through blues musician Alexis Korner; it was all the buzz because Clapton and the Stones were emerging and going out — although they were playing closer to copies of the blues stuff. European musicians had inhibitions about jazz, like, ‘Well, it’s a beret,’ ‘It’s a goatee beard,’ ‘We’ll never be as good as the Yanks at doing that.’ Suddenly it was like, ‘Well, hang on. All this stuff works, doesn’t it?’ Then people stopped worrying and got on with it. Americans like Barre and Stu passed through, and said, ‘That sounds good to me; I’ll have a piece of that.’ Miles and Tony Williams were saying, ‘Hey, I like that bass player.’ Suddenly, a lot of confidence. We all thought, ‘We can’t be so bad, then. We have something to offer.’”

Over the ensuing decade, Surman, a son of Devonshire, actualized this proposition by drawing upon his English heritage, incorporating folk songs and also vocabulary contained in the choral music he’d sung as a boy soprano. Synthesizer first appears in his work in 1972 (“I bought one as soon as I could afford to”), after which he increasingly immersed himself in electronic music, using synth to dialogue with British saxophonists Alan Skidmore and Mike Osborne in the group S.O.S., and weaving sonic tapestries for a Parisian dance company between 1973 and 1978. By 1979, when Surman debuted for ECM, he had morphed from the conventions of free jazz and fusion toward a more consonant harmonic context.

“During those early years, I was learning to play,” he recalled. “Technique was developing, ideas were forming and brick walls were being run into. ‘What am I playing? I’d like to play like Sonny, but it’s not like that. Is something wrong?’ Then suddenly, “No. That’s actually me. That’s what I sound like. Well, you’re going to have to live with it. Just carry on.’

“When I was starting out with this traditional-jazz business, I had a go at the trumpet, the trombone, the banjo. Anything that played, I wanted to know how to play it. So here came the synthesizer, this other sound source that made very interesting noises. I wanted to get a piece of that.”

However far-flung his investigations, Surman “never experienced the feeling that I want a purely European sound,” in contrast to the aesthetic evolution of such European contemporaries as Evan Parker and Peter Brötzmann. “For me, finding jazz opened the door to music-making, so I always think of myself as a jazz musician.” Surman traced this attitude not only to his collegial partnerships with American jazz musicians, but also to his early fascination with Duke Ellington’s contrapuntal section writing — he channels baritone-sax icon Harry Carney on Brewster’s Rooster with a gorgeous “Chelsea Bridge” — and Ellington’s emphasis on the idiosyncrasies of each of his musicians. He also notes that his apprentice years coincided with the migration to Europe of such individualistic saxmen as Don Byas, Dexter Gordon and Johnny Griffin, all of whom he witnessed close-up in London.

“You could recognize all of these guys right away — even the ones who weren’t so well-known, like Booker Ervin,” he said. “This individuality of sound was one of great joys for me of jazz music, and that feeling of wanting to find one’s own sound—to not be afraid to be different—was important to me.”

In all the various idioms that he renders, Surman actualizes this notion both in his penchant for melodic expression and his ability to emulate the quality of the human voice on each of his horns. “That’s me, the man with the melodies,” he said ruefully. “Sometimes I wish I could do more. When I heard Michael Brecker play as he did, inside the harmony, I’d think, ‘Christ, I wish I could do that.’ But that’s not what’s happening.”

“John gets such a beautiful sound on all his instruments,” Abercrombie said. “He plays soprano so differently than other people.”

“It’s a full-bodied sound,” DeJohnette added. “He can play adventurously and rhythmically, but there’s always a song. It comes from his heart. He’s got the head, too, but it always communicates. It makes me feel great. There’s also his ability to listen. That’s what we have in common, an ability to listen, which keeps us from getting stuck in some of the clichéd kinds of playing.”

To avoid cliché, of course, is the default aesthetic of this cohort. “I don’t think any of us have unidirectional feelings about music,” Surman noted. “We’re dabblers. We’ve had a bit of a fool-around here, had a go at that, looked at this. John’s group is by no means your typical jazz quartet, and goodness knows what Jack is going to be doing next. We share a curiosity about the different paths music can take.”

Which raised the question of whether John Surman’s new quartet might have legs.

His mates left the door open. “That depends on what everyone is doing,” DeJohnette said. “But we’d be happy to do it, sure.”

“I like the idea of cycling back and doing something organic with musicians you’ve played with before,” Abercrombie responded. “I’ve tried to keep all my own groups going, at least the current ones. Maybe 18 months down the line, John gets in touch with us again. ‘Want to do volume two? Here are some ideas.’ Maybe the newer one would be more free music, or maybe contributions from all of us.”

Embarrassed, Surman lowered his head. “I haven’t even asked them if they want to do it ever again,” he said. “But all of us are interested in putting ourselves in different contexts. You’re forced to come up with something.” He laughed. “What else can you do when you’re on the bandstand with those guys?”

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For Jack DeJohnette’s 74th birthday, a Jazziz Article/Celebration from 2012, a Long Interview with jazz.com from April 2009, a Mid-Sized Article for Downbeat from 2005, and the Interview Conducted For the Downbeat article

For master drummer-bandleader-pianist-composer Jack DeJohnette’s 74th birthday, I’m posting three separate pieces — at the bottom is a mid-sized article for Downbeat in 2005 on the occasion of his Readers Poll victory for “Best Drummer”; above it is an exhaustive Q&A interview that appeared in 2009 on the now-defunct and much missed http://www.jazz.com website (it contains a lot of information about his formative years in Chicago); above that is a piece for Jazziz in 2012  in responsed to his NEA Jazz Masters Award that year that is primarily focused on appreciation-testimonies from 6 colleagues and friends from different generations.

 

Jack DeJohnette (Jazziz Article, 2012):

Calls of “Happy Birthday” rang out from the sardine-packed house at Manhattan’s Blue Note as Jack DeJohnette positioned himself at the drumkit for the first of two sold-out sets on January 8th. Rather than inform his fans that their salutations were premature (he turns 70 on August 9th), DeJohnette opted for inclusion: “Say it as many times as you like.”

Two days hence, uptown at the Rose Theater, DeJohnette would receive an 2012 NEA Jazz Masters Award. But on this evening, the iconic drumman-pianist-composer was celebrating that honorific—and a new self-released CD, Sound Travels [Golden Beams]—with his working quintet of the past two years (Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; David Fiuczynski, double-neck electric guitar; George Colligan, piano and keyboards; Jerome Harris, electric bass) augmented by saxophonist Tim Ries and percussionist Luisito Quintero. Reacting to Quintero’s imaginative postulations of the beat, DeJohnette uncorked a symphonic array of organic grooves that touched on swing, salsa, tango, calypso, funk, drum-bass, Indian, and open rubato feels. The unit cohered from the jump, listened closely, self-orchestrated instantly, shifting on a dime from one feel to the next while reimagining such DeJohnette standbys as “One For Eric” and “Tango Africaine” and fleshing out new jewels from  Sound Travels.

Centered around DeJohnette’s intense simpatico with Quintero, a steady partner since his clave-centric Latin Project from 2005, Sound Travels is a succinct, interactive date on which DeJohnette—who plays piano on all but one track, joined by Esperanza Spalding on bass—distills a lifetime’s assimilation of musical dialects, while embracing experiences on a cohort of more recent projects. Bruce Hornsby, who partnered with DeJohnette and Christian McBride on the 2007 instrumental date Camp Meeting, contributes lyrics and vocals on “Dirty Old Ground,” a 7/4 line that DeJohnette describes as “Levon Helm and the Band meets New Orleans.” On “Luisito Serena Salsa,” Spalding’s elegant vocalese, a spare solo by guitarist Lionel Loueke, and a clarion wrap-up by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire transpire over the DeJohnette-Quintero connection.

Sound Travels took shape while DeJohnette and his wife, Lydia, were in England last summer. “She’d been thinking we should plan something special for my 70th year,” he relates, noting his participation in the 70th birthday celebrations of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. “Then the NEA called.” They approached jazz impresario Chuck Mitchell to work with them on “a record that encapsulates my musical taste,” with “a focus on groove and beautiful melodies.” Mitchell assented, requesting only that DeJohnette play piano. Based in Nice during the Keith Jarrett Trio’s annual summer tour of Europe, DeJohnette took advantage of off-days to write the tunes on a Korg M3, playing the pieces over the phone to album producer Robert Sadin.

Like DeJohnette’s entire oeuvre, Sound Travels embodies, as DeJohnette puts it, “the spirit of playing with Miles Davis, the Gateway Trio, and Keith Jarrett—open, prepared for the unexpected, and willing to follow that where it takes us. It’s easy to say ‘come up with something different,’ but the challenge is to come up with something that’s different and also makes sense and communicates.”

Asked to self-assess his accomplishment, DeJohnette focused on collective imperatives. “I’ve always come to the table with an intention to help—to add my creative input and make someone else’s music be the best they want it to be. I do this with love and passion. I was thrilled and touched to be recognized as a ‘jazz master’ for what I love to do, to be in the category of those who laid groundwork for me to build my music vocabulary on. But I hope that I am doing something to inspire the younger players, too. It’s important to have that exchange. It keeps everybody connected. You’re learning on both sides.”

TESTIMONIES

TERI LYNE CARRINGTON:

I see Jack as a natural extension of Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones, a perfect combination of the two—of course, with his own sound and style. You can hear Roy’s influence in the crispness of his touch and articulation; you can hear Elvin’s influence in the elasticity of his beat. I fell in love with Jack’s drumming when I heard him playing with Charles Lloyd on Forest Flower. That’s what I wanted to play like, so I spent a lot of time with his jazz style. I appreciate all of his recordings, but one of the more inspirational things for me is the way he plays standards with Keith Jarrett. I always keep one of those CDs in my car; sometimes, in my brain, I’m still trying to get to that.

Jack and Lydia have been like my second family. When I was 18 and able to drive, he invited me to his house in upstate New York, and I’d spend weekends, leaving Monday at 6 a.m. to make a 10 a.m. class at Berklee. I was a jazzhead, closed in my personality and playing, and they helped open me up. They were listening to all kinds of things—reggae, music from Africa and New Orleans, ECM style music. Jack calls his music multidirectional, which I think is a more accurate description than jazz—he let me know that you define who you are. Sometimes he’d play piano and I’d play drums; once he told me I didn’t have to repeat he rhythm he played, but could complement it with my own idea. Jack understands the importance of passing on his knowledge more than anyone else I’ve encountered. He made himself available for me and other younger people, which is a lot of work. The older I get, the more I recognize how special that is.

GREG OSBY:

Jack seeks out eclecticism in players who are proverbial diamonds in the rough, and nurtures and hones them to fit his purposes as a bandleader, like a musical chef, using a jigger of this, a pinch of that. Then he lets the dogs loose. His philosophy is that if you have to make too many statements and judgments and modifications, then obviously you’ve hired the wrong people. He expects nothing other than experimentation, people walking the tightrope, having open ears and being responsive to what’s going on around them. Playing with him is like playing with an octopus, a multi-tentacled drummer-percussionist. You get so caught up in the vortex of what he’s doing that you have to slap yourself back into the moment. You just can’t believe you’re that secure. He’ll do what he calls ‘elastic time,’ playing cycles within the cycles, like a metrical embodiment inside this rhythmic rush.

When I played with him, he was very open to the experiments we were doing with the M-BASE Collective. His band was the best laboratory for me. Gary Thomas or I would make what we thought was a mis-step, but Jack would say, ‘That was some bad shit; keep that in there.’ That let me know he was listening, and I had license to stretch. He embodies the spirit of somebody who wants to know about everything; he’s probably the most curious person I’ve ever met. We’d be out on the road for six to eight weeks, and he’d carry a suitcase filled with hardcover books and cassettes. He’s always checking out different languages and cultures and folklore. It was like a furthering of my academic education, on-the-job training with somebody who was a professor of life and information.

JOHN ABERCROMBIE:

Jack sums up everything for me about jazz drumming—or just drumming in general. He can play audacious rock-and-roll; and he can play great open, free music; he can swing like mad; and when he feels like it, he WILL just lay down a beautiful time feel—there’s nothing that sounds and feels quite like that. To play with him is challenging and very abstract sometimes, but it always feels great, because he comes from how it feels and how it sounds, and not so much worried about WHAT he’s doing. When we recorded together in the ‘70s, his pieces were often very loose, but he also wrote very pretty songs that he liked to play on the piano, which became structured, with dense harmonic material, like things that I or someone like Ralph Towner was writing. I think we got along so well because we both liked to listen to everything. That’s why he can fit into any situation—he’s able to respond and get into what the music calls for, rather than just superimpose his thing on the music. Jack is very accepting. You don’t have to be the most killing musician, but if he hears something in your playing that he likes, he’ll play with you and make something out of it. I was a totally green kid when he found me, but he was open and brought me along into his little world.

DAVE HOLLAND:

In 1967, when I was still living in London, Jack was in town with Charles Lloyd. At the time, young musicians were using Ronnie Scott’s old place to do late night sessions, and I was there playing at 2 in the morning, my eyes closed, when suddenly I heard a change on the drums. It was Jack. It felt so easy, comfortable and familiar. We did a lot of playing together that month, and we’ve enjoyed it ever since. Both of us had listened to and practiced with similar records—Coltrane’s Crescent and “Chasin’ the Trane,” We were working on the same ideas—the fast tempos, the relaxed, beautiful grooves that Elvin and Jimmy Garrison would set up. Perhaps that’s one reason why we hit it off so quickly, Jack brought his own set of parameters to the table. His understanding of harmony and melody helps him assimilate new music; I’ve seen him learn complex songs so quickly on recording sessions because he can recognize the form and changes right away.

When I came to New York in the summer of 1968 to start working with Miles, Jack and Lydia accommodated me at their small apartment in Manhattan, and introduced me to all kinds of people, which gave me a chance to get a foothold. He gave me a big opening in 1990, when he asked me to be part of the Parallel Realities tour with Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny, which was a turning point in my career. We grew up in a time where we were inclusive about music, and both of us have stayed that way. We don’t consider categories to be limiting. Music is music, and we can use any aspect of it that feels creative.

ERIC HARLAND:

When you go to various drum festivals, Jack is the one drummer who brings something different every time, who isn’t afraid to have another drumset on stage and make music instead of a drum battle. He’s willing to play less for the sake of the music. Jack definitely has amazing technique, but he didn’t bog himself himself down with trying to be technically efficient. He’s not a classically-trained drummer, who uses a lot of finger technique, a lot of wrist, minimal arm movements. Early on, the way he held his sticks was unorthodox; I always wondered, “How is he playing that way?” But that’s how he taught himself. His musicality behind the piano and other melodic instruments helped him hear things that he forced out at the drumset. Drummers were always taught that in playing swing you need a washy cymbal, a loud cymbal that drives the band. Jack’s approach is closer to African music, where the cymbal is very dry, so it functions with the drums more like a unit. It’s like a mix between the rumbles of Elvin Jones and the clarity and back-and-forth skip from snare-to-bass drum of Roy Haynes, but more relaxed.

When you try to mimic drummers, you have to get into the body style, try to feel them as a person. When I try to pull off a little Jack, I notice that I have to become almost like a child. Which proves the innocence that you hear within his playing. He’s playing from a space that Herbie and them call ‘Why not?’—there is no right or wrong in music, and you can do anything you want. You can be supremely technical, or you can just be you.

GARY PEACOCK:

Playing with Jack is always an adventure. It’s always fresh. I love playing with him. There is this element called swing, which is undefinable, in some ways a lost art. Jack would refer to it as “lock”—when a bass player and drummer have a lock. It requires a total surrendering of whatever you think you are or whatever you think is going on, and you’re just there with a pulse of some kind—and when it’s swinging, the hair on the back of your neck comes up. He’s one of the few drummers that I can do that with forever and ever. There’s never a question about where Jack is when he’s playing. He’s always present. So many interesting nuances come out of that. He doesn’t trot out what he knows. He’s just there with the music, and he uses his array of drums and cymbals in a unique, intuitive way that’s always musical. He’s always adding something, playing the harmony. It’s amazing how he can bring a ballad to life with one little sound, You’re like ‘how the hell did that happen? How did he know?’ I don’t even think he knew. He was just responding. But it was absolutely perfect. You can’t learn that. You have to forget about yourself altogether. You have to be totally committed to the music. Can’t be about anything else.

SIDEBAR:

The piano is Jack DeJohnette’s oldest musical friend, but it’s been a while since he played it as much as he does on Sound Travels—he bookends the recital with two unaccompanied improvisations, uses it to dialogue with Bobby McFerrin and Quintero on “Oneness” (from the 1996 ECM date of that title), and both coheres and blends into the flow throughout.

DeJohnette began taking lessons at five from a private piano teacher, got more serious in mid-teens, and was working with a trio around Chicago’s South Side by the end of high school. He cites Ahmad Jamal’s famous Live At the Pershing: But Not For Me as a seminal influence, both for Jamal’s orchestrative approach to the piano, but also for Vernell Fournier’s brushwork. He also dug Erroll Garner, Wynton Kelly, and local pianists Jodie Christian, Billy Wallace, and Muhal Richard Abrams; as the ‘60s progressed, he also got into Herbie Hancock, a neighborhood friend from teen years.

“I had a trio [Scotty Holt on bass; Harold Jones, Steve McCall, or Arthur McKinney on drums] that played tunes like ‘Empyrean Isles’ and ‘One Finger Snap,’ and the pieces off of But Not For Me,” he says. “I did standards and originals, and learned how to interact with a rhythm section. It was good for me, because as a drummer, I knew what it felt like to be the soloist. The piano is a percussion instrument as well as a melodic instrument. It’s like an orchestra, and I can translate that to my drumming—the way I tune the instrument, the way I hear cymbals.”

On Sound Travels, DeJohnette observes, “I’m using the piano to be of the fullest service to the music, not to show off what I can do. I’m not in competition with all the great piano players I play with. I don’t get to play it as much as I’d like. In the future, I’d like to study and get some more knowledge and theory and harmony—get that done.”

 

In Conversation with Jack deJohnette  (April 18, 2009) — http://www.jazz.com

“I’ve always been curious about mixing different things, like an alchemist,” Jack DeJohnette told me several years ago. “Different genres of music have always cross-pollinated, but the rate is speeded up now.”

At 67, DeJohnette continues to add consequential pages to a career c.v. that exemplifies what it is to be a musical explorer, most recently on the CD Music, We Are [Kindred Rhythm], as pianist Danilo Perez, and bassist John Patitucci title their equilateral triangle-oriented trio, which performed in April at Manhattan’s Blue Note. Seated before a gigantic drum assemblage that incorporated an electronic sampler and his own customized bells, and also playing melodica, DeJohnette propelled the flow with an assortment of driving grooves and precisely calibrated timbres, engaging in extended call-and-response with Perez.

This endeavor was an extension of a 2005 quartet project, with Jerome Harris on guitar, for which DeJohnette had composed Andalusian-influenced music “that needed guitar and six-string banjo,” Over the last several years, DeJohnette has focused on other hybrids informed by various flavors of the Afro-Iberian diaspora—several concerts with nuevo flamenco pianist Chano Dominguez, and Gitano singer Blas Cordoba, and a unit called the Latin Project, a clavecentric unit (Don Byron, Edsel Gomez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Luisito Quintero) devoted to elaboration and abstraction of the groove. Other DeJohnette offerings over that period include collaborations with the Mauritanian singer Dimi Mint Abba, the South African singer Sibongile Khumalo, and Ghanaian griot Foday Musa Suso; improvised electronica with son-in-law Ben Surman, and brother-in-law John Surman; and a group called Trio Beyond, on which guitar hero John Scofield, organist Larry Goldings, and DeJohnette reimagine the travel-the-spaceways musical production of Tony Williams and Larry Young in the cusp-of-the-‘70s group Lifetime.

Indeed, like Chick Corea, his 1969-70 partner with Miles Davis, DeJohnette in his golden years seems to grow ever more hungry for new sounds, which he assimilates, digests, and incorporates into his next step, which always appears to be imminent.

“I’m more refined now, but much looser in another way,” DeJohnette reflected in 2005. “I’m taking in much more. My heart is more open, and I’m free to do whatever I want. So playing music is more joyful to me.”

 

TP: We were speaking how you handle this group. Have you been playing at all since 2005, when you did the Birdland gig that inaugurated this band?

JDJ: We played for the first time as a trio in Panama, the Panama Jazz Festival.

TP: Right. At Birdland, Jerome Harris was playing guitar.

JDJ: We’d played as a group with Jerome in Europe. So we had the experience of playing the three of us together. This kind of thing, with the grooves we get, was happening, and we wanted to get more into it as a trio. So we talked about it, and put aside some time, and last February everybody came up, and we recorded in RS Studios in the Catskills, which is not far from my house. We spent three days there. Of course, we had a great producer, Mirav Ozeri, who we asked to come and film the process. She did a great job—the interviewing, and asked great questions, the editing, and putting it together. We worked together on that.

TP: That’s the DVD that comes in the package.

JDJ: Yes. I think Danilo and John both talk about when how we all play together, the music has a level of quality, and also a risk-taking thing. They feel like they can take off and do different things that they don’t do in other situations than with me, because I’ve kind of got their backs. They have mine, too! So we support each other. But grooves! All of us like to groove as well as play abstractly. So even when you play abstract, there is some kind of connection. There is some kind of groove even you can’t kind of 1-2-3-4. There is some melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic connection.

TP: There’s also a lot of color.

JDJ: Absolutely.

TP: You don’t usually hear Danilo playing synth-keyboard.

JDJ: Yes. Then I have an electronic percussion unit incorporated into my set. So we’re not the average jazz trio. We use the colors, which is a good term. We use the percussion…

TP: John Patitucci also uses the six-string electric bass. A few years ago, you told me that you’d written some music with an Andalusian-Spanish sound, and you were hearing John and Danilo’s sound with that. Is that the base on which the next…

JDJ: No. It’s taken on its own identity. It spotlights everybody, without overshadowing. There’s plenty of room, even when it’s busy. So there’s lots of space, and each night the music is totally different, so we take different approaches to it, and we’re not afraid to follow where it might go, and we have a great time! The other thing about the group is that it connects with its audience, in the sense that we can connect with each other facially, and also our audience. So there’s this rapport that connects the audience. Danilo is very outgoing, John is very visual, there’s a lot of smiles and stuff going on between us. So it’s like an intimate thing that’s shared, and it comes back from the audience.

TP: You played on Danilo’s first record. Is that where you and he met? Did you know him before?

JDJ: I knew of him, but that was the first time we played. That was the first time I heard him. He had his own voice. He was doing something different. There are quite a few Latin pianists who have incorporated the Latin aspect to jazz—Gonzalo, Michel Camilo, and some others. But Danilo is unique. He has a sense of drama, orchestration—very orchestral. Both he and John have grown tremendously in that sense from being with Wayne Shorter. I think that translates into this situation, with this trio, where it comes out in a more accessible way—I feel that anyway. We immediately got a rapport, but I think it took Danilo some time to get used to how to play with me.

TP: How do you mean that?

JDJ: Well, rhythmically, dynamically, the colors and all of that. But it inspired him, in a way, to develop certain things. Certain things that he’s playing now came about when we were touring with Jerome in Europe, this way of… This sort of multi-directional pulling, with John playing in one direction, I’m playing in another one, and Danilo pulling two or three ways, but we all know where are with it, and then we all of a sudden come back together and hit a point.

TP: Compression-and-release.

JDJ: Yeah. It’s like breathing. It’s fun. The music should have dynamics. If it stays on one thing all the time, it’s boring.

TP: I seem to recall you remarking that you first played with John in ‘96 or ‘97.

JDJ: The first time we played together was with Eugene Pow, a Chinese guitarist from Hong Kong. Nice guitarist. I was familiar with John through his work with Chick Corea, so I was excited to get the opportunity to play with him. I said to him, “Hey, man, you and Danilo sound good together; you guys have to meet each other.” I told Danilo that, too. And both of them, fortunately, did join Wayne.

TP: Before that, they played with Roy Haynes.

JDJ: Yes, they did. And again, that in situation, they played totally different. Roy likes to play traditional stuff.

TP: In 2005, when this group launched, you were in the middle of presenting a lot of different projects. The Golden Beams label was new. You had a Latin Quartet, with Don Byron, Giovanni Hidalgo, and Edsel Gomez… I’d like to ask the present status of these projects. There was the duo with Foday Suso. There was the Brass Project with your brother-in-law, John Surman, and the remix thing with your son-in-law, Ben Surman. Last November, you did a month with a group of…was it African musicians?

JDJ: Yes. I actually did it at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. That actually came about through Dave Liebman. Apparently, for his sixtieth birthday, Dave went with the saxophone player Jean-Jacques Quesada to Mauritani, just to hang out. When they got there, they were in a car, and the guy was playing this music of Dimi Mint Abbar. She’s like a griot there. Mauritania is a small country. It has 3 million people maybe. It has a city, but most of the time it’s a desert, it’s very hot, no electricity… At any rate, he met Dimi, and wanted to bring her back. She had performed in France before, but next time they tried to bring her back she refused, but then this time she decided to come. Unfortunately, Dave had another commitment that he had to fulfill, so he couldn’t do it, and he asked me to come in. So she brought five of her musicians. She had a son and a daughter who are singers, and an electric guitar player, and a bassist and percussionist. Rick Margitza played and filled in for Dave and Jean-Jacques. She’s amazing. She’s like a goddess there. This soulful African-Moroccan-sort of Mali-ish… She’s got a lot of things. She’s powerful, man. She’s got a spirit about her. So we played her music, and I did some duos with the drummer. We played for three nights there at the museum.

TP: That’s great to hear about. I was thinking of a month-long tour in Europe last November that’s on your website.

JDJ: This performance with Dimi Mint Abbar happened in March. The project you’re talking about has been ongoing for the last couple of years. It first started out with Mino in it, Jerome Harris, a couple of British horn players, Brian Waller on trumpet and Jason Yarde on saxophones. Both of these guys worked with Andrew Hill before he died, in his big band and small groups—Nasheet Waits was in some of those bands. Anyway, it was with Sibongile Khumalo. She’s from South Africa, from Johannesburg, and she’s amazing. I heard her in London. We have a booking agent who works there, John Cummings, with Serious Production, who does a lot with the younger musicians of Britain, and world musicians, too, from other places. So I heard Sibongile at the London Jazz Festival, and when I heard her I thought, “Oh, man, I want to play with her.” She’s amazing. She has this classically trained voice, but she uses another voice when she improvises, sings pop tunes. She is an improviser. Amazing. It’s like playing with a horn. It reminds me a little bit of playing with Betty Carter. Betty was like a horn. She’s very much into dynamics. She’d written some pieces. That first band had Danilo in it, but the second time, last November, we took Billy Childs on piano, and it was fabulous. As far as keeping that going, I’d like to do it at some point. It’s a matter of making it financially worthwhile, especially in America, because she’s going to have to come all the way from South Africa, which is a long trip, and these guys would have to come from England. But musically, it was great. Phenomenal.

We hope to continue the trio as soon as we get a real clear window on everybody’s availability. Of course, I’m still doing the stuff with Keith Jarrett, and I’m working on a next project, which is kind of looking back and moving forward at the same time, doing some of my music from earlier CDs—music from the Fifth World, some from Special Edition. It would be Jerome Harris, David Fiuczinski on guitar… In the horn section, I’d have Don Byron here, but if I go to Europe I’d have Jason and Byron. Also here I was thinking about adding someone who plays piano and keyboards.

TP: Three years ago, you said you were less interested in leading bands.

JDJ: That’s changed. I want to play some more of my music. That’s something I feel the need to do. Also, I want to write some new music. It’s fun playing my music! That’s the other part of it. I haven’t been writing prolifically for a while, so that’s coming back. The juices are flowing for that.

TP: In the ‘90s, you were doing a lot of sideman work in addition to being a leader. You were sideman-for-hire on a lot of one-off dates. That’s not so much in the picture these days, is it.

JDJ: Well, I think economics plays a big part in that now. A lot of people, for better or for worse, have their own labels, and they’re struggling with that.

TP: As are you.

JDJ: Yes. Well, Golden Beams is actually doing ok. This release is really… We knew it was going to be pretty strong. I hope to follow it up with some more.

TP: This group?

JDJ: Yes, but also a group led by me. Hopefully, we’ll do some more things with the Music, We Are Trio.

TP: As you expressed it to me, the idea of Golden Beams was to do projects that were financially feasible, i.e., the various duos with Suso and Frisell, and your New Age record, which you received a Grammy nomination for. I’m sure you’ve sold a ton of units…

JDJ: No, not yet. But it’s definitely helped the profile of the label. Hopefully, that will pick up.

TP: But one thing that occurred to me in observing how John and Danilo interact with you was what sort of people are best-suited to play with you. You’re a very dynamic, assertive, strong player, apart from everything else. You’re a force. What sort of people are you looking for to play with?

JDJ: I’m looking for people like Dave Fiuczynski, Jerome Harris, people who are not afraid to take chances and are very comfortable on their instruments and comfortable with taking chances, and like to interact. Because I always need…I provide a base for musicians who have those abilities to experiment and find out what they don’t know about themselves. That’s the kind of musician I like to play with. And those who have their own voice, too. For me, that’s stimulating, and it gets my juices flowing. Then, certain music in certain circumstances that will create musical soundscapes, environments. I experiment with different things. Type of colors, different types of concepts.

TP: I’d like to ask you about your drumming, aspects of your personality on the drumkit. When drummers talk about you, they talk about your timbre, what they call your “dry” snare sound that’s your trademark. Could you talk a bit about the process by which you conceptualized a sound on the drumkit, how your identity developed, how it’s evolved over the years. It could be very specific or very broad. Any way you’d want to respond.

JDJ: Having played piano first, I think of myself more as a colorist. I’m a drummer, of course, and I create rhythm, but the drumset is an orchestra, and I tune each drum to different pitches. In the process, I design my own drum heads along with Roy Burns, who helped develop my signature drum head. But touch, tone, and cymbals—those are some of my signatures. And I develop my own cymbals also, and the bells you saw that were there. So I’m always searching for ways to enhance the color. One of the things I like to develop, and I’m still working on it, is touch. No matter how light or how strong I’m playing, there’s a touch, a lightness to it, an uplifting spirit that happens. So the cymbals, again, are like the icing on the cake basically. I hear all kinds of colors and tones. And the sticks… The sticks create these different shades, depending on how I touch the cymbals and the drums themselves. A lot of times lately I play with the snares off, because that gives more of a tribal sound to the drum—you just hear a tom-tom. The snare drum sometimes can overshadow the rest of the band, because it’s got these wire snares underneath, and they just resonate when you put them on. So it gives more clarity when I don’t use the snare drum. But when I do use the snare drum, it’s pretty crisp. I just the hear the instrument as music, as a musical instrument, just like you use the piano or a guitar…

TP: At least this week, you’re using a huge kit.

JDJ: That’s the kit I always use.

TP: How many pieces?

JDJ: An 8-piece kit.

TP: Not including the cymbals.

JDJ: Yeah, I wouldn’t count those as a drumkit.

TP: So it’s drums-and-cymbals.

JDJ: Yes, I’ve been doing that for a while. But the bells are a new addition for the last four or five years.

TP: How did that evolve? In the ‘60s you weren’t using so many components.

JDJ: No. But that came maybe in the ‘70s. Drummers just started adding more drums to the palette. To me, it’s just more colors. There’s just two smaller drums, an 8 and a 10, and I tune them up in bongo range. So it gives me a pretty wide palette of colors in terms of pitches for the drumset. So yeah, I love having those extra colors?

TP: Are beats colors as well as pitches?

JDJ: Yeah, beats can be that, depending on how fast or slow they’re played.

TP: I also wanted to ask you a bit more about your tuning system. How did it develop, and why did it take the shape it did?

JDJ: I try to tune the kit so it’s in a range that doesn’t clash with the bass or the piano. I tune my bass drum up high. As I said before, the two mounted tom-toms on my left, the 8 and the 10, are in the bongo range, which is a higher range. So if I want to make a point, make an exclamation, I can go to that, instead of a lower tom-tom. It gives me a comfortable range that can work with most any genre of music. Sometimes I tune to chords. Like, when I worked with Dimi Mint Abbar, I actually had tuned to a G dominant VII scale, so that it would be tuned… Because they sing in the same key all the time. So I’ll change the tuning for that. Other times, depending on what the music is and what the harmonies are, I’ll change the tuning again to work with the situation. Otherwise, I keep it in a general range.

TP: How much piano do you practice these days? Do you always keep up on your keyboards?

JDJ: Not enough. I haven’t been doing that enough. Although with this group, I’m playing melodica, which gets me back into keys. I plan to be doing more of that in terms of writing, for writing new compositions, and I use the piano to write.

TP: Now, piano is sort of your oldest musical friend.

JDJ: It is. It’s still my friend.

TP: Your bio states that you started playing it at 5?

JDJ: Around 5, yes.

TP: What were the circumstances? You had a piano at home?

JDJ: I had a piano teacher come by.

TP: You had a facility for it?

JDJ: Well, I had a piano.

TP: Well, some people might have a piano and not develop their facility.

JDJ: I didn’t get more serious about it until I was a teenager.

TP: I’d like to talk a bit about your roots in Chicago, and discuss some of the information that’s on your site, which I can link to. There’s a photo of you as a little kid with a toy saxophone. Can you tell me where that picture is from?

JDJ: That was at the Pershing. That’s the famous Pershing where Ahmad Jamal did “But Not For Me,” Live at the Pershing. The guy holding the microphone is T-Bone Walker, who was playing. My uncle, Roy Hill, loved jazz, and he liked to go out to clubs and cabarets, and I used to listen to all of these records when I was around that age. I believe I was 7 or 8, and this was one of these little plastic saxophones with cellophane in it, where you sing through it. I was playing…I forget who the artist was, but I was playing this melody [SINGS IT], and the band came in right on it! They knew it. I remember being scared to death. I’m 7 years old. “How the hell did they know that?!” I knew the solo, and I was playing this solo, so now I think back, and they must have thought, “Look at this kid, he’s 7 years old, and he’s playing—he’s listening to the record.” So that’s what that was. I sat in with the band. That was phenomenal.

TP: Getting that feedback from grownups.

JDJ: Wow. They must have been like, “Wow, this kid is 7 years old and he knows this stuff.”

TP: You also wrote on the site that your mother is the author of “Stormy Monday.”

JDJ: So she says. She sold the tune for 50 bucks, or whatever it was. In those days, people did do that. The jazz musicians used to do that. “Hey, man, give me some tunes. Give me five tunes.” Then they’d put their name on them.

TP: Was she involved in music at all?

JDJ: No, she wrote poetry. My father had nothing whatsoever to do with music. Not at all.

TP: So your uncle was the inspiration.

JDJ: My uncle. And my mother wrote songs and poetry, and I used to put tunes to her words. She had music and she liked music.

TP: At what point did it seem to you that music would be what you were going to do?

JDJ: When I was a teenager. About 16.

TP: What was making you think that?

JDJ: I was naturally drawn to it. I knew I had abilities, natural abilities. At the time, I was working as a pianist, and then I got into drums, and I started working on both instruments. Then I knew… It was something I was really good at it, and I enjoyed it, and I had a passion for it, and I said, “Oh, this is what I want to do.”

TP: As a pianist, were you playing in the Ahmad Jamal style? Were you emulating him primarily?

JDJ: When I started, he was one of my first influences. I liked Erroll Garner. He was amazing. I wish people would reissue some of Erroll Garner’s stuff so we can hear how phenomenal this guy was. There were some Chicago pianists, too. There was Jodie Christian, a legend who’s still around. Billy Wallace.

TP: He played with Max Roach for a while in the latter ‘50s.

JDJ: Yes, he did. Then Muhal Richard Abrams was a great influence on me, not only musically, but as a male role model. I liked Wynton Kelly a lot.

TP: Did you know Andrew Hill in Chicago?

JDJ: Yes, I knew Andrew. I knew Chris Anderson, too.

TP: Did you know Herbie Hancock in Chicago?

JDJ: Yeah, I knew Herbie. Herbie lived down the street from me. But Herbie was definitely an influence, especially when the Empyrean Isles record came out. I had a trio which used to play tunes off of that, like “One Finger Snap” and “Empyrean Isles.”

TP: Stylistically, what sorts of things were you interested in presenting in your piano trio?

JDJ: I did standards and originals, things like that. Interacted with the rhythm section, learned how to use the rhythm section. It was good for me, because as a drummer, I knew what it felt like to be the soloist, and I’ll play a melodica in front of a rhythm section also. It gave me insights into how to be a better drummer—and listener also.

TP: Was your trio Scott Holt and Steve McCall?

JDJ: Yeah, actually it was. That was one of them. Then I had another drummer with Scotty, Arthur McKinney. Then actually, Harold Jones played with me and Scotty also. You know Harold, right?

TP: He played with Ellington.

JDJ: Yes, but he also was the drummer on Eddie Harris’ Exodus To Jazz, and he worked with Eddie. In fact, I filled in for Harold because he was a teacher at Roosevelt in Chicago, and he had some graduation stuff to do. I went on the road with him. The first time I went on the road was with Eddie Harris. I went to Kansas City, and then played Pep’s in Philadelphia. It was interesting, too. When I went to Kansas City with Eddie, we played a double bill opposite an organ trio led by Eddie Chamblee, and Aretha Franklin was on the bill. She had just made her first record for Columbia Records, and she was there with her mother.

TP: Eddie Chamblee was a tenor player. One of Dinah Washington’s husbands.

JDJ: He could have been. Anyway, we were in this club for a week. It was a famous club, one of the last clubs in Kansas City. Count Basie had played there. And the hotel was down the street from it. I remember it very well, because they wanted Eddie’s band to play for her—she came with no band. So Eddie said, “Well, yeah. Cough up some more bread.” The guy didn’t want to cough up what he had. Some Eddie Chamblee, the drummer, and the organ player wound up playing with Aretha. She was doing, “Yeah, by the railroad tracks…” — she was playing piano for herself. It was interesting. We talked. At the time she said, “I might get a band together; maybe I’ll call you.” But she never did!

TP: So you were on the fence during those years between piano and drums, and as you’ve put it, Eddie Harris steered towards concentrating on drums.

JDJ: He thought I was a natural drummer, and he thought I’d be more successful at it—and as it turned out he was right. When I came to New York in ‘64 or ‘65, I went up to Minton’s, and Freddie Hubbard was there, and I sat in with him. John Patton was there, he heard me play, and he said, “Hey, man, you got a set of drums.” I said, “Yeah.” “Well, you got a gig.” That’s when I decided, “Ok, I’m going to make drums be my main instrument.”

TP: What brought you to New York?

JDJ: Of course! It was the mecca.

TP: Of course. But a lot of great musicians from Chicago stayed in Chicago.

JDJ: I exhausted every other avenue of places to play. At that time, disco was coming in, so a lot of good places to play jazz were drying up. So I just said, “Ok, let me out of here.” Of course, some of it dried up here. I just caught Minton’s before it closed, and Birdland was still going. A few years later, it closed. I got a chance to hear Al Grey and Billy Mitchell at Birdland, so I sat in with them on piano and then on drums.

TP: Also regarding Chicago, you mentioned Muhal as an influence, Steve McCall was one of your drummers, and you knew a lot of people in the AACM. Can you speak to what your level of involvement was with those musicians? Were you sort of on the outskirts of it, occasionally doing a gig…

JDJ: No-no, I was right in it. I was right in it. I was there when Muhal formed…he got a charter to form it. I was there when the whole thing started, and he found the building. We had the AACM Orchestra. Out of that orchestra… First of all, Roscoe Mitchell and I were close friends. We went to college together. Malachi Favors went there, Joseph Jarman was there, another guy named James Willis. We used to actually go… Joseph said I broke up his marriage because I convinced him to have whole concerts in the attic of his house. I guess his wife didn’t like jazz that much. But we used to charge some money and put on concerts up there. But Joseph and Roscoe and Malachi would play together. Roscoe and I used to play at each other’s house every day. I’d go to his house, or he’d come to my house, and we’d play for hours—just improvising. So that was the freer aspect. But when I say “free”… I mean, these guys were serious composers as well as playing improvised music. They were coming at it in another direction.

TP: They were very involved in structures and incorporating a broad range of vocabulary and ideas.

JDJ: Oh yeah. But at the time, we also were involved in creating structures for improvisation—just go up and play.

TP: You’ve also related a certain time when Coltrane came to Chicago and you were able to sit in.

JDJ: Yes. I’d been coming almost every night to see him at McKie Fitzhugh’s, on Cottage Grove. Elvin didn’t return for the last set. I was there. The place was packed. People were outside; there were lines outside. I’d played some of the jam sessions on Monday night, and McKie said to John, “Man, we need to play the last set. Let Jack come up; he’s a good drummer.” John said, “Ok,” and I went up and played three tunes with McCoy and Jimmy. It was one of the highlights of my career. It was fantastic.

TP: Had you ever dealt with that sort of energy on a bandstand before?

JDJ: No. It was the first time for that.

TP: Was it a transformative moment for you?

JDJ: Absolutely. John was a very spiritual guy, but he was also very magnetic. So I understood why Elvin had to play the way he played. Because whatever you could throw at John, John was like a sponge—he absorbed it. So I realized on an energetic level how amazing John Coltrane was. So I’m happy that I was developed enough as a good drummer to hold my own in that, playing those songs. Later on, around 1966, I had the opportunity to go back to Chicago with John at the Plugged Nickel, when he had the new band with Alice and Rashied and Pharaoh and Jimmy. That was even more phenomenal, because we had two drummers, two saxophone players. I remember one night, Roscoe came and sat in. So musically, mentally, and spiritually, it was one of the most challenging gigs I ever did.

TP: It’s interesting, because of all the really major AACM musicians of your generation—Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Leo Smith—you’re the only one who went to New York at the time.

JDJ: Yes.

TP: Which is apropos of nothing. But as a speculative question: What do you think would have happened had all those people gone to New York in the mid ‘60s? Would they have been influenced in different directions? Would history have taken a different course?

JDJ: Maybe. I don’t know. But it might have been possible, considering the climate in New York. By the way, in New York I worked with Sun Ra at the Vanguard and up in Harlem.

TP: You spoke a bit about first establishing yourself in New York—you sat in at Minton’s, John Patton offered you a gig. In 1965 and 1966, you recorded with Jackie McLean, and then in 1966 you go out with Charles Lloyd, which brings you onto another level of visibility. But what scenes did you become part of after moving to New York?

JDJ: Well, I moved to the Lower East Side, as they had been renovating buildings, and that’s where a lot of the musicians were. They had just opened up a jazz club around the corner, on East Third Street, called Slugs, which was a bar, a pretty good club with sawdust on the floor, smoky. I started freelancing. I did various gigs. I worked with John Patton, and Freddie Hubbard called me to do one of those boat ride things out on the Hudson. I also hooked up with Charles Tolliver. The musicians around at the time were Henry Grimes, Cecil McBee lived on 10th Street… It was definitely an East Village thing. Herbie Lewis had a loft, and we used to go over to his house and play night and day. Charles Tolliver was very influential; we became close friends and musical constituents. Charles was playing with Jackie McLean, and Jackie had been away, and then he came back to the city. He said, “When Jackie comes back, yeah, man, you got to be his drummer; you’re going to get a call from Jackie.” I’d gone to sessions, the Blue Coronet, and played with musicians like Charles Davis and Pat Patrick, who is the father of Deval Patrick. I knew Deval when he was a little guy. He probably doesn’t even remember me…

Anyway, it was great, man! There was just music happening everywhere, and I just lived, breathed, and slept music in that period. But I was freelancing. I think I worked some with Betty Carter, with John Hicks and Cecil McBee. I remember we played a concert at Harout’s, and then I played a concert with Charles Tolliver and Gary Bartz and Hicks and Cecil McBee.

I heard Charles Lloyd when he had Gabor Szabo and Ron Carter…was it Pete LaRoca on drums… But anyway, somehow Charles was looking for a drummer, and he called me. Then I was playing with Charles, and Reggie Workman was playing bass, and Gabor was playing, and Gabor was getting ready to leave, and we wanted to get another bassist. Since I’d worked with Cecil with Jackie McLean, I recommended him. He asked me about pianists, and I’d heard Keith Jarrett with Art Blakey. So that became the Charles Lloyd Quartet.

Let me backtrack to Jackie. We did do some gigs, and we did the Jacknife album, with Lee Morgan, and Demon’s Dance. Anyway, we played in Connecticut, we played the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore, and Pittsburgh. The band had Larry Ridley on bass, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Tolliver, and myself. It was a pretty exciting band.

TP: Being in New York, you’re all of a sudden in first-hand contact with all the drummers you’d been checking out on records for years and seen occasionally in Chicago. There was Tony. Through Charles you probably got to meet Max Roach. You got to know Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones. You’ve mentioned that you liked Arthur Taylor a lot, though he was probably in Europe by then…

JDJ: No, he was here when I got here. You could see him at the Five Spot. I got a chance to go to the Five Spot before it closed, where I saw Roy Haynes. At that time, groups used to go in and play for two weeks or a month, so they could really get tight. Coltrane worked there with Monk, and then Johnny Griffin, and then Roy Haynes was there with Wayne, and pianists like Albert Dailey, and Tolliver. I used to see A.T. there. Like I said, New York was a mecca of a lot of creative music. We can talk about the electric movement later.

TP: When you were accumulating drum vocabulary and making the decision that drums would be your main performance instrument, were you a drummer who was someone who deeply analyzed and emulated what other drummers did, or were the kind of guy who would hear what people were doing and tailor your approach to incorporate this, eliminate that…

JDJ: More of the second. I adjusted what I played to what the musical situation was. You can hear… I had influences. I had Elvin, or I had Tony, Roy, Max, and all those, but I also knew very consciously that I had to develop my own voice. So I took what I liked from the other drummers, and tried to turn it around into Jack DeJohnette, and basically had the good fortune to be in situations… The best situation is where musicians are taking risks and trying different things. I had a chance to experiment. And through those musical associations, I developed my own voice and my own concept around utilizing drums as an integral part of the ensemble as well as solos. I’m not an analytical player. I’m more an intuitive player, really.

TP: But your playing is so precise. There has to be some sort of analytical component to your personality.

JDJ: Well, yeah. But the process is… That sort of happens in the instant that I’m creating something. I’m not sitting down and saying, “Well, I did so-and-so and so-and-so.” I just take it in.

TP: Were you a big practicer?

JDJ: Oh, yeah. But I tailor-made my practices, to have the speed and the touch and the dexterity, playing time, different kinds of feels. I practiced a lot, to the point where I could…you know, with a tune-up at home, playing around, I’m ready to go. But I didn’t study a lot of drum books and all that kind of stuff, but I practiced rudiments and did a lot of listening—listened to the different drummers and listened to things I liked, and the feels that I like. I listened to a lot of the Blue Note records. I took some of that, and became one of the drummers that was called a lot for gigs. Fortunately, it’s kept me working all of these years.

TP: You always seem to have had the ability to generate a lot of velocity and energy without playing loud.

JDJ: Yes. That’s something I constantly worked on. The drum by nature is a dominant instrument, and it’s very easy to overpower a band. But having a lot of experience of playing with Keith… If you look at my history, I’ve done a lot of things with piano trios. So I learned a lot about dynamics, but playing with singers, like Betty and Abbey Lincoln, and playing with singers in Chicago. I learned how to support people. As well as being a leader, you also have to learn how to support and encourage, without obscuring the other musicians in the ensemble.

TP: You joined Miles Davis in 1969, and you played with him for two years—‘69, ‘70, and ‘71.

JDJ: Well, ‘70. I came back in ‘71 to play one or two gigs with him.

TP: Did playing with Miles affect the way you thought about playing drums?

JDJ: Well, before I played with Miles, the way drums are played, especially when Tony joined the band, yeah, that changed… It changed before I joined him, really. So I was already set up for that, between Elvin and Tony. Miles and Jackie McLean both had similar taste in drummers. Jackie always said to me, “Miles is going to hire you, because Tony was with me before Miles hired him, and we have the same taste in drummer.” Sure enough, one night I was in Slugs, and Miles came in to hear me. He’d heard about me, so he came.

Yeah, it was great to play with Miles, because Miles loved the drum. Everything came from the drums. He liked boxing, he was a big boxing fan, and he saw drums in jazz as having similar aspects. The drums and the horn player have to set each other up. He would talk about that, they had to set up. “Ok, now you’ve got to set this way…” If you play a phrase, you have to know how to set a guy up. The same thing with boxing. You set a guy up, you feint with a left hook and then catch him with an overhand or uppercut right. It’s in the rhythm.

TP: Did you box yourself?

JDJ: No. I love boxing, though. I have punched a bag a bit, but I didn’t want to get into it.

TP: You have to keep your hands safe.

JDJ: Yeah. No-no, I don’t want to mess with that. But I’m big boxing fan. I love boxing. But I love the art of it, not the… When guys are evenly matched, I like that. There’s a good match coming up, actually, with Manny Pacquiao and Ricky Hatton. Coming up on May 2nd. If you wait a week, you can watch it on HBO.

TP: Correct me if I’m wrong here. But the way Keith Jarrett put it, it seemed to him that you helped Miles—and Keith as well—move into the new area of music that he wanted to explore, in bringing contemporary dance rhythms into the mix, and that he was not happy when you left. He wanted you to stay, and Keith felt that things in Miles’ music got more chaotic once you left the band. I think I’m paraphrasing it correctly.

JDJ: Yes.

TP: Can you speak to what you consider to have been your impact on the direction of Miles’ music? That would also extrapolate into having an impact on the direction of creative improvised music in general.

JDJ: One of the things Miles was trying… I think Miles was at the pinnacle when he did those Cellar Door sessions, and I’m glad that they released the different nights.

TP: You mean the nights John McLaughlin wasn’t present for.

JDJ: Yeah. Because you can hear the development of it. Each night it was different. But Miles liked it because I knew how to anchor. I could be as abstract as I’d want to be, but I knew how to lay out a groove, and Miles loved to play with the grooves I laid down. So I had the technique and imagination that he wanted, but he also wanted something that was going to be rock-steady. One of the reasons I left is because the music was getting more restricted and more predictable. I left, because I wanted to keep doing freer, exploratory things. But that’s what Keith and I brought to that. Keith, like myself, can lay down and get in a groove and just sit with it, and that’s what Miles loved, was the ability to sit with that. Keith and I both had played at the Fillmore with Bill Graham. We had that done that circuit with Charles Lloyd before. So we’d already experienced that. Miles came after that, and he went out to the Fillmore. So you get the Fillmore recordings as well. So it was done twice, with two interesting bands. The Charles Lloyd Quartet was a crossover band even before Miles decided to move and more in an electric direction.

TP: there’s a difference in a music as nuanced as jazz between playing in an arena or theater and projecting those kinds of ideas and energies vis-a-vis doing it in a club. With Charles Lloyd, you really developed a way of projecting those qualities on a large scale.

JDJ: Yes. That group could have been really huge. But it reached its pinnacle, and we moved on from there. Charles is doing ok now. He made a comeback. I heard him a few years ago in Turkey doing something with Zakir Hussain and Eric Harland. And his group now with Jason Moran is nice.

TP: What’s also interesting is that you were so known for your deep grooves and energy, and then as the ‘70s progressed, a lot of your activity—though by no means exclusively—was with European musicians on ECM, and you became an influence on a European sound through people like Jon Christensen and people who were influenced by him. What kind of transition was that for you? Was it a natural evolution? A different side of your personality that was waiting to come out?

JDJ: I think it was… Manfred Eicher had this vision; he’s a visionary producer. His deal was that you could be successful recording artistic music, whether it be jazz or classical music (he was a classical music producer at Deutsche Gramophone before he started his label). He had a vision about sound and recording not just being a session, but a production, like in a movie sense. He encouraged me to be more artistic, but through packaging and promotion, ECM has been one of the most successful independent labels in the world…

TP: You were on so many sessions in the ‘70s that their interpretation of your sound on the drums became a sort of signature for the label, it seems to me, at least initially.

JDJ: Those recordings with Miles… Manfred was very interested in getting those musicians, like myself, Gary Peacock, and Keith, and extended that kind of creativity. He really heard the nuances in my touch, my cymbals—he had another kind of sensitivity about that. From being a classical music composer, he paid attention to detail. So he brought out my cymbal work, and encouraged that. He always took great care for the sound of all the instruments, really. But as a consequence, I got a chance to play with a lot of European musicians, and get this sort of cultural exchange, musical exchange. It’s been very valuable, even to this day.

TP: Talk about the ways in which it’s valuable.

JDJ: Well, it’s left a legacy of recordings that I did there, that are still relevant, still important recordings and…

TP: Did the experience refine your sense of playing the drumkit? Sometimes there’s a feedback loop with your production. As a musician or as a writer, you produce something, you see it, it might have some residual impact on what you do the next time, and you build on things incrementally. I’m wondering if the process of making those ECM records then had any sort of impact on your conception both of the drumkit and yourself as a musician, a composer or pianist. I’d also like to talk a bit about the evolution of your identity as a leader.

JDJ: I would say in that sense, yes, hearing the drums and hearing the production definitely fine-tuned my ears to what I was doing, how I was doing it. I guess on a subconscious level it became more refined, not only by the sound quality, but what the musicians…the music that we were doing. People like John Surman and Jan Garbarek and, of course, the trio, plus Abercrombie and the Gateway Trio—those kinds of things. Then my records as a leader, Special Edition, Directions, and New Directions. So it was a place to build upon refining. The combination of making recordings and touring, making music, touring-touring-touring, playing for audiences, adjusting to different acoustic circumstances, all that works… To learn how to play the drums in concert halls. You really have to adjust your playing and make some adjustments to the drums so that they don’t ring a lot. Because concert halls can tend to be very reverberating places, even with audiences in them, depending on what materials they’re made of, what type of walls and so on. So that also had an effect on me. I took consciously the idea of playing music in concert halls and bigger halls like that, learning how to adjust my playing. You asked me about being able to play intensely without overpowering the musicians—that’s something I worked on and developed to a fine craft.

TP: Your earliest bands had guitar, saxophone, with a kind of jazz-rock vibe, and as the decade progressed, it changes tonally—Lester Bowie was playing with you, and it became more abstract… I’d like to talk about why different groups took the tonal identity they did? Do you hear possibilities maybe a few years ahead and work towards them? Do you react to circumstances and respond to that with different personnel? I’m just trying to get to why different bands take on the personalities they take on.

JDJ: Well, they take on that personality because of the personalities. The first Special Edition album I did with Arthur Blythe, David Murray and Peter Warren—I consciously hired those guys because they were the new guys on the scene, and they had individual voices, and their styles were so the opposite of each other that they complemented really well. So those personalities came across.

TP: I seem to remember a concert at the Public Theater that Julius Hemphill played.

JDJ: He filled in a couple of times. Hemphill was amazing, man. I miss him. This guy was a great composer and arranger. He arranged some 16-piece orchestra things for me, for some of my compositions, which when I go to universities and do orchestras, I take these charts. He really did a beautiful job. But the various groups, I’ve had Chico Freeman, had John Purcell, had Howard Johnson. Then later on, Greg Osby, Gary Thomas and Mick Goodrick, who was phenomenal.

TP: A very different sound with that band.

JDJ: Well, those were younger guys, and we got to electronics, using electronic keyboards and sequencers—experimenting with sound and colors. We did a few albums. We did Irresistible Forces, then Audio-Visual Scapes, Extra Special Edition. I had Marvin Sewell replace one of the horn players, and then Michael Cain came along, and we had a long, very beautiful association.

TP: It’s interesting how you’ve stayed on top of technology and incorporated new rhythmic developments into what you do. You always seem to be assimilating new information and enveloping it into your production. An interesting process.

JDJ: Yes. We can talk about that on my label, Golden Beams, on which we’ve got Foday Suso, and then had Ben Surman, my son-in-law, to remix some of the stuff. We had the DeJohnette Golden Beams Collected, which are remixes and re-remixes. Ben is just light years ahead of anybody else I’ve heard in terms of knowing how to remix. He’s a great sound engineer, and he took material that was recorded and totally reinvented it. We also have the group called Ripple Effect, which has his father, John, me, Jerome Harris, and Marlui Miranda from Brazil. We’re going to be doing some gigs in the fall. So that’s a combination of acoustic jazz, world music, and remixes, and doing improvisations on the fly, too.

TP: When did the world music element start to become a serious part of your palette?

JDJ: Well, world music has always been there since the ‘60s. I was into the Beatles, I was into Ravi Shankar, I was into listening to the Nonesuch and Folkways records. Hamzel Al-Bin(?). I was listening to that.

TP: Did you listen to Afro-Cuban music when you got to New York? On the Lower East Side…

JDJ: There was a lot of it going on. But I didn’t get into it til later, when I went to Africa and started doing things with African musicians. So that came a little later. But the Afro-Cuban thing, I really got into it, like Eddie Palmieri and Pancho Sanchez. I love the grooves with the son and the salsa and the merengue. That’s what I like about playing with Danilo…or also Gonzalo…but Danilo and John. Because John understands the clave rhythm. So we go into those feels, but we extend them. Because I like to dance. We like to move. That’s why when we play the grooves, the grooves have such an insatiable tinge to them.

TP: Danilo himself has taught a lot of musicians younger than he a lot about rhythm, showing them ways to phrase music in new directions.

JDJ: He’s a great teacher.

TP: But you’ve told me that you more take those ideas and beats more by osmosis than through an analytical process.

JDJ: Well, I guess it goes into my creative conscious brain and comes back. Because I do things which, independence-wise on the drumset, influence Danilo. Danilo says, “Man, you were doing that.” I said, “Well, because you were doing this-and-this-and-this in your left hand, so it set me off to do this.” In other words, we’re feeding each other creatively. I guess in an analytical sense, we’ll discuss it, we’ll talk about it afterwards, or sing what we did. So in that sense, the process is looked at and talked about and commented on. “Oh, man, that was a great hit, but let’s try this and this.” So we build on it in terms of the interaction musically and the interaction of talking about it. It doesn’t get intellectual. It identifies a specific thing that…

TP: Well, it is intellectual, but it’s intellectual because of the nature of what it is, not out of some intention you place upon it.

JDJ: Well, yes.

TP: Perhaps I can make a summational statement. Throughout your career as a professional musician, which spans about fifty years, you’ve been able to pull off this rare trick of being able to function as a creative musician, to incorporate all of this new information, but also be a highly visible, commercially pretty successful guy. You can fill the Blue Note for a week, you can fill larger venues, and command large fees as a sideman on arena tours by dint of your identity. So you’ve been able to balance these two very crucial aspects of a satisfactory career as an improviser, both to be creative and to be commercially successful, and live the way you want to live. Presumably you like the lifestyle in Woodstock…

JDJ: Oh, I love it.

TP: Has it ever been a difficult proposition for you to stay on that aesthetic course?

JDJ: No, I chose to do that. I consciously chose to do that. Because that’s what I love to do. It’s my passion. So I continue doing that. Now, with the climate today, the way it is, I expect there will be some challenges in the years to come. But I’m trying to stay positive that somehow the music and the environment will change to a more favorable and more balanced and more caring society. But we will see. That remains. There are a lot of challenges ahead.

TP: But with your own label, you’ve also made the transition to being an entrepreneur, as many musicians have done, and you seem to have put together a pretty good business model.

JDJ: Well, the business model is the result of my wife, Lydia, and her ability to… She’s a better business person than I. I’m very grateful to her, and also for her ability to pick the right people to run the label. Jane Chun and Doug Yoel from Now-Forward Music have been great as label manager. Jane is now a co-manager as well. So we’ve all developed and created a business situation which we feel very good about. We’re still learning how to make it be more successful, and I plan to work towards attaining that goal.

TP: Could you give me a couple of minutes to talk about the Creative Music Studio and your experiences with it? Were you pretty involved in it in the ‘70s?

JDJ: Well, yeah. I mean, of course, because I had a name, and so it drew students to it. That’s one of the good things that came out of it. Sometimes it was kind of loosely put together. But it brought together some very interesting musicians. People like Cecil Taylor came up and did concerts, and we had people like Aïyb Dieng, Trilok Gurtu, Colin Walcott…

TP: Did that influence your own absorption of world music and beats and grooves from different cultures?

JDJ: Well, yeah. Oregon, which was on the label. Oregon still is quite a world music cooperative group. It was up near Woodstock, and Karl Berger and his wife had this idea for a school, and a lot of people came from all over the world. Since then, a student has written a book about it. It was really very interesting. I think it set up an environment to bring a lot of musicians together from different parts of the world, to work together and also pass on their knowledge to students. It’s become sort of a cult icon, you know, or a cultural situation that people look back on like something special. There were times when they were struggling financially, so my wife, Lydia, and a group of other people put together a benefit concert, which I think came out as a DVD, a Creative Music Festival with Braxton, Chick, Colin Walcott, me and John Abercrombie, Miroslav Vitous, Lee Konitz.

[PAUSE]

JDJ: Chicago used to be a very stimulating musical place. In fact, people who were going to New York would come up from St. Louis, or Indiana (like Freddie), would come to Chicago, and then go to New York. There was a lot of music happening. It was a music town. There’s still a lot of music there. Joe Segal is doing his Jazz Showcase.

TP: But it seems that Chicago had a certain musical personality of its own apart from New York. It didn’t seem to rely so much on New York for musical models.

JDJ: Well, yeah. First of all, you’ve got to talk about the environment and the city’s rhythm. Chicago rhythm, Midwest rhythm is more laid back than New York. So you had more spaces, it’s more laid-out. But it doesn’t mean that the musicians who came out of there were all necessarily laid-back. Johnny Griffin, Herbie, me, Ahmad Jamal, to name a few. Ira Sullivan, who spent a lot of time there. Ira was a pretty phenomenal guy. I played with him when I was a youngster, then I went back to the Showcase and played with him. In fact, I have recordings of the Showcase with him and Von, with Jodie Christian. In fact, now that I think about it, those are historic recordings, because Jodie now has MS and it’s hard for him to play. He doesn’t go out much. But I have these recordings of Ira and Von—we’re doing standard tunes.

Now, we should talk about Wilbur Campbell, because he’s one of the legends of Chicago.

TP: Four years ago, you mentioned that he influenced you greatly, and Miles made the comment about you falling up the stairs.

JDJ: Right. Wilbur was that kind of drummer. I mean, he was a swing drummer. He played bebop really, really well, and he played marimbas—he knew harmony. Wilbur was an influence on me, in what they call…Danilo calls it “the washing machine.” Don Byron calls it this swirly, rolly kind of thing that’s not necessarily metric, but it’s really very abstract. Wilbur was the first cat I ever heard play that way in Chicago. He’d play some fours, he’d play this concept and you didn’t know whether he was going to get out of it.

TP: People say that Ike Day played like that.

JDJ: I never heard him, and there’s no recordings of him playing full-out.

TP: That stacked-rhythms approach seems to be the way he approached it, though.

JDJ: Fortunately, there are recordings on Delmark with Wilbur on them. There was another drummer named Dorel Anderson, who’s on Live at the Birdhouse. But Wilbur was special. Wilbur was like the Edgar Bateman of Chicago. Edgar’s another one who was a really unusual drummer. The same with Donald Bailey, who played with Jimmy Smith. Had some totally different stuff happening. So Wilbur I’d say was a real big influence on me in the sense of what you could play, how you could stretch 4 bars or 8 bars. I’d advise anyone to listen to those Delmark records by Ira Sullivan and Nicky Hill.

Then there was another great guy from Chicago, who if he’d left Sun Ra might have given John Coltrane some problems, was John Gilmore. Gilmore had that ability, if he’d been in another situation and not stayed with Sun Ra, and been pushed and taken on being a leader… He obviously didn’t want to be a leader, because he stayed.

TP: It didn’t seem to be his personality.

JDJ: No. But he had something special..

TP: Then there was Wilbur Ware, another one-of-a-kind…

JDJ: Yes. Then the other bassist was Raphael Garrett, who had this unique way of playing rhythmically—and soulful. He was great. He moved to Seattle later, and he started making flutes and playing the bass.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

*_*_*_*_
Jack DeJohnette (Downbeat Readers Poll 2005 Article):

“I’ve got just one more project to tell you about,” says Jack DeJohnette, capping a conversation about the staggeringly diverse activity of his seventh decade.

At 63, DeJohnette continues to add consequential pages to a career c.v. that exemplifies what it is to be a musical explorer. He intends to document as many projects as possible on his imprint label, Golden Beams, which he launched in early 2005 with Music In The Key Of Om, a solo drums, cymbals and tuned bells recital intended, in DeJohnette’s words, “to do something to make it nice for a person to relax and get rid of stress.” In short order, he released Music From The Hearts Of The Masters, a set of improvisations with kora virtuoso and griot singer Foday Musa Suso. He followed up in October with Hybrids, on which sound engineer Ben Surman, DeJohnette’s son-in-law, layers Techno, Reggae and African grooves onto four Suso-DeJohnette tracks and three tracks by Brazilian singer Martui Miranda.

“Foday and I mix Africa with the African-American jazz sensibility,” DeJohnette says. “It’s light and buoyant, not weighty. We’re interested in breaking out of the groove while still respecting it. We inspire each other, and our chemistry grows every time we get together. Foday gets free, and starts flying; a lot of traditional kora players would have no idea what he is doing. He has his own technique, which borders on jazz improvisation.

“Ben kept the integrity of the original tracks and made new stories out of them. Hybrids moves us into areas like remixes, special club mixes, and outlets like electronica. But where a lot of remixes are looped and repetitive, these are soundscapes that tell stories and change in surprising ways, with a great balance between acoustic and electronica. I think it raised the bar of artistic meaning.”

To raise the bar or push the envelope—choose your cliche—is the mantra of Golden Beams, which has in the pipeline a 2001 duo concert with guitarist Bill Frisell and a percussion discussion with Don Alias. These are the latest in a distinguished line of DeJohnette duos that include Ruta and Daita [ECM], a now-classic 1971 encounter with Keith Jarrett; Zebra, a 1985 worldbeat dialogue with Lester Bowie; and Invisible Nature [ECM], a hair-raising 2002 virtual concert with DeJohnette’s brother-in-law, John Surman, the English baritone and soprano saxophone master.

“You’re exposed in the one-on-one setting, and you hear differently,” DeJohnette says of his fondness for the format. “As with John, Bill and I used electronics—pre-recorded ambient things and my Roland Hand-Sonic percussion module—to get a bigger sound. Even though it’s two people, you’re still an orchestra.”

Recording duos is an efficient way for DeJohnette “get the label off the ground with projects that are doable both artistically and financially.” However, he emphasizes, “the label is meant to document new directions—although people who are familiar with me may say it’s Jack following his path. I’ve always been curious about doing different things, like an alchemist. Different genres of music have always cross-pollinated, but the rate is speeded up now.”

Speaking of hybrids, DeJohnette recently has focused on grafting various Afro-Hispanic strains. As an example, he cites a quartet with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Jerome Harris, who first convened in January 2005 at Manhattan’s Birdland, and will tour for a November fortnight. “I wrote some Andalusian-influenced music that needed guitar and 6-string banjo, which I thought would be perfect for a quartet setting,” he relates. “We’ll record the live gigs and see what comes out.”

A member of DeJohnette’s late ‘90s ensemble with Alias and keyboardist Michael Cain, Harris, who will triangulate DeJohnette’s 2006 performances with Suso, performed on two DeJohnette concerts this year with nuevo flamenco pianist Chano Dominguez, and Gitano singer Blas Cordoba, an association which DeJohnette plans to nurture. Also to be released on Golden Beams is the Latin Project, a clavecentric unit (Don Byron, Edsel Gomez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Luisito Quintero) devoted to elaboration and abstraction of the groove.

Uniting DeJohnette’s flights of fancy is a “universal one” concept that he began to codify while playing drums with Miles Davis between 1969 and 1971. He draws beats from African, Afro-Cuban, Indian, aboriginal, and Near Eastern sources, processes them from the perspective of his own deep roots in jazz and funk, and incorporates them within the flow of his compositions and improvisations. He emphasizes that he doesn’t study the metric systems in a systematic manner. “I can certainly analyze, but I pick things up almost through osmosis, from listening, from the feeling,” DeJohnette says. “I tune the drums to different pitches of the intervals—thirds, fourths, fifths, maybe a chord—so that whenever I’m accompanying or soloing I can build a motif or a melody.”

DeJohnette recontextualizes more familiar territory—specifically cusp-of-the-‘70s fusion a la Tony Williams, Larry Young, John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis—on a forthcoming recording by Trio Beyond, a partnership with John Scofield and Larry Goldings that formed during a week at Yoshi’s in February 2004. For an-depth look at how DeJohnette found fresh solutions to merging populist and esoteric vocabularies back in the day, hear the crisply executed machine gun shuffles, polyrhythms, and rubato sound-painting that he contributes to a series of never-issued performances by Miles’ blues-fueled, psychedelic jukejoint band with Gary Bartz, Michael Henderson, and Keith Jarrett on The Cellar Door Sessions, 1970. DeJohnette and Jarrett play with uncanny intuition and sensitivity, as they have done for the ensuing 35 years, not least during a 22-year association in Jarrett’s acoustic trio with Gary Peacock.

“I’m more refined now, but much looser in another way,” DeJohnette reflects. “I’m taking in much more. My heart is more open, and I’m free to do whatever I want. So playing music is more joyful to me.

“The ability to stay open and be ready for the unexpected keeps Keith’s trio interesting. Usually we just sit down and see what happens. That’s the whole idea of improvisation—always be prepared to play what you don’t know.”

 

Jack DeJohnette (Sept. 27, 2005) — Downbeat Readers Poll:

TP: Let’s talk about why you formed the new label.

JACK: I’m involved in lots of musical projects. One specifically that I’ve been involved with, and it just turns out that it comes up that way, is duo projects, which consequently I’ve done some duo projects for a number of years with John Surman. Over 15 years, we’ve done 2 CDs — well, three. Two duet records, and one bigger…

TP: One is London Brass from 2003, and the second duo was from 2000, Mysterium.

JACK: Right. At any rate, then I did a duet project with…a concert with Bill Frisell, which we’ll get into later. And Foday Musa Suso.

TP: I’ve just been watching the promotional DVD for that from Montreal 2003. Very inspiring.

JACK: Thank you. Foday is very inspiring and a very innovative kora player and griot and singer. I first became aware of him with Herbie’s duo project with him in 1984, on a record called The Village. Over a period of time, I’ve followed Foday’s development. He had his own group, the Mandingo Griot Society, and did some things on Bill Laswell’s label, Axiom. I always wanted to hook up with him, and the opportunity came when we met in London. He had this idea of just doing kora and jazz drums. He didn’t want to sing, because he really wanted to put the kora as a lead instrument. That in itself is unusual, but then with me he came up here to the house a few years ago, and we spent four days, I think—a couple of days jamming, and then went in the studio. In two days, we had all this material. Right away, we had this rapport like we’d been playing together for a few lifetimes. Since then we’ve done a European tour, and we did some playing at Joe’s Pub, and we’re going to be doing a tour next year. But at any rate, the art of the duo—there’s that project, the Hearts of the Masters. Then I have a little project that will be coming out sometime next year which is with percussionist Don Alias and myself.

TP: You did a video with him as well.

JACK: Yes. That’s called Talking Drummers. That has a forward by Dave Holland and Michael Brecker. It’s on Homespun. But we’re going to tie in these…

TP: How do you see this label vis-a-vis the other recording projects that you do? Is this for special things that might not otherwise find an outlet? For particular areas of your activity?

JACK: It’s doing projects—closer to your first point. Closer to projects that are artistically doable and financially doable. That’s why we’re doing smaller projects, just to get the label off the ground. But it’s also a unique thing, doing projects that are just different… Or different in some ways to me, although people who are familiar with me may say it’s Jack following his path and doing interesting and different things. But I like to do things that captivate the listeners and inspire them, as well as other musicians.

TP: It seems to me that these projects take you in a different space than your jazz projects — to use the term broadly. Just these few. It’s not the way you play with the Keith Jarrett Trio or the way you played with Special Edition or with Danilo and John Patitucci. It’s a different orientation towards the beat and the groove and so on. It seems so to me, though it may be a superficial impression.

JACK: Well, the Foday duo is definitely interested in the groove, but also breaking out of it while still respecting the groove at the same time.

TP: That’s sort of what you did with Miles, too, isn’t it.

JACK: Mmm-hmm.

TP: You make that comment on the DVD.

JACK: Yes, it’s a similar thing. It’s a way of honoring tradition but also moving out of the tradition to something totally new and different.

TP: That’s really been your focus since you emerged on the scene, from the records with Jackie McLean and Charles Lloyd, and Miles, of course… You’ve been able to find spaces in which to apply that notion throughout your career. It’s either luck or circumstance, but something tells me it’s not just luck.

JACK: No. [LAUGHS] It’s just always interesting… I’ve always been curious. Curious about doing different things. Like an alchemist trying different things. The music seems to be… Different genres of music seem to be cross-pollinating more now than they have been before. I mean, they always have been, but I think the rate of that is speeded up now.

TP: Do you think there are more people oriented to that now?

JACK: Yeah, I think so. I think that it isn’t jazz musicians. It’s much broader than that. I think a jazz sensibility… For instance, what Foday and I bring to this music is the African and the African-American jazz sensibility. You know what I mean? I think it’s stated in a clear way between us. It’s not straight-ahead, but it has elements of funk in it and grooves in it. But it’s light. It’s not weighty. It’s buoyant.

TP: You get that counting and not-counting thing at the same time. The groove is so stated, but he also talks about how when he’s in Africa he doesn’t count. And somehow, the two of you are able to able to access both qualities.

JACK: Right. He trusts me. He knows that I’ll come up with something and play something. If he plays something, I’ll find something to play with it. And when we improvise, man, I tell you, when we played at Joe’s Pub… Foday surpasses himself and we both kind of inspire each other. I mean, he comes up with things that he really gets free, and he just starts flying. I’ll tell you, some of that stuff a lot of the traditional kora players would have no idea of what he is doing. But he’s got his own technique, and it borders on jazz improvisation.  So the chemistry between he and I grows tremendously every time we get together. The beautiful thing about it is we don’t have to go into deep discussions about it. We can get right to the core of it.

TP: You’ve utilized African beats, you’ve utilized Afro-Cuban beats, you’ve utilized Indian beats, you’ve utilized beats from all over the world within the flow of your compositions and your groups. Have you studied those beats and metric systems in a systematic manner, or do you kind of improvise-learn them, pick things up and react intuitively?

JACK: Exactly. The second statement is more accurate.

TP: Sorry to give you these multiple choice questions.

JACK: No, it is more like that. I pick these things up almost through osmosis, from listening to the music, not by trying to analyze it. I can do that, but it’s the feeling of it. What does that feel like? I use my jazz sensibility or broad perspective of jazz sensibility and apply it to a composition or an improvisation.

TP: Another project, which you’ll be touring with in November, is the band with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Jerome Harris. How did that one come together?

JACK: Well, Danilo, as you know, is one of the premier Latin artists who has really made a stamp from the Latin American expression on the jazz scene. He hasn’t been afraid to use his roots to expand the jazz horizons or capabilities of music. But he’s also able to stay in tune with the tradition and move outside of it. Jerome has played with Danilo and I, and the trio, and basically Danilo… So we have a rapport with Jerome and Danilo. Then I had this idea. I’d written some Spanish-influenced music, or Andalusian music, and I wanted to have guitar and 6-string banjo, and Jerome plays guitar and he plays a few other string instruments, and he got a 6-string banjo. So I wrote this music which I thought would be perfect for a quartet setting. Then John Patitucci, who is really well-versed in Afro-Cuban music and funk music, and is very broad, as well as having a really great feel and is a joy to play with… I wanted to do this with this quartet, with this group, because I felt the chemistry would come out and generate the vision I had for the music. We did a week at Birdland last January, and that was so good.

TP: How did the music evolve over the week? It’s such an interactive trio, and I suppose John and Danilo after four years with Wayne Shorter have the notion of exploding form in their bones!

JACK: Yeah, there’s a natural affinity we have. Each night got better and better actually. So now we’re going to be going for two weeks, playing pretty much every night. We’ll record the live gigs and we’ll see what comes out.

TP: Now you have the flexibility because of the label, should…

JACK: Yes, I have that. Whether it’s become a case of bigger projects… A case in point. There’s this cooperative project that I have with John Scofield and Larry Goldings, which we call Trio Beyond. Originally it was to celebrate Tony Williams, but we decided that Trio Beyond would… You know, I don’t want to be stuck with it having to be just Tony. But it was a good launching pad, because we all had an affinity and love for Tony, who was a great master drummer and composer…

TP: Did it start as revisiting and reinterpreting the Lifetime repertoire?

JACK: Yes, it did.

TP: How did it evolve?

JACK: It came together because the wonderful Montreal Jazz Festival every year has an artist-in-residency, and a couple of years ago I was called for an artist-in-residency — actually the first percussionist to be called for it.

TP: Was that 2003, where the Foday Musa Suso performance DVD comes from?

JACK: Yes. So I did four nights there with different groups. One with Herbie, Dave and myself, another with Foday and myself. I actually wanted to have John and Larry, but they were busy! But everybody got so excited about the idea of it that I said, “Okay, let’s go into a club.” So in February 2004 we played a week at Yoshi’s, and the place was sold out every night. The music evolved and evolved, and got better and better. Then last fall we did a European tour, and that was amazing, just playing this music all the time. By the way, we’re not just playing Tony’s music. We’re playing Wayne’s music, Miles music, some of Larry Young’s music, and John McLaughlin’s music, and some of our own music as well, our own originals. So it’s pretty broad. But on that tour, we made a recording in Europe, and we hope to put it out next year, and we’re going to do the summer festivals in late June-July.

TP: It’s interesting, because that’s a project that takes you back not to your earliest roots, but to your first mature professional roots.

JACK: Oh, yeah.

TP: How does that feel from this perspective, 30 years later? You never really left it, but that’s a particular time and space you’re articulating there.

JACK: Yeah, except that the space we’re articulating is in the present, not in the past. So that’s the difference. So I’m looking at it from fresh eyes. I’m not looking at it from looking back.

TP: But let’s look at how the fresh eyes differ from looking back. I’m assuming you’ve probably spent some time listening to the Cellar Door recordings, as you gave some public commentary on it. How has Jack DeJohnette of 2005 evolved from the player of 1970-71?

JACK: Well, from there to now I guess I’m more refined to some degree, on the one hand, and much looser in another way. I’m having more fun with the music.

TP: More fun?

JACK: Yeah, more fun. I had fun with it then. But it’s being older. I’m taking in much more. My heart is more open. So it’s more joyful to me, playing music.

TP: That’s a wonderful thing. Has that been a continuous process? Have there been ebbs and flows with your enjoyment with music? Has there ever been a time when music wasn’t fun for you?

JACK: Not too much. But there were times when it was better than others. which is natural in the course of life, to have these ebbs and flows.

TP: What makes it more enjoyable now? Is it that you have more freedom to do whatever you want?

JACK: Yeah. Also, the kinds of things… Yes, that’s a good answer for it.

TP: May I quote myself, then? “I have more freedom to do whatever I want.” Was Tony Williams a very inspiring figure for you when you were a young guy? You’re actually older than him.

JACK: Yes, but we’re still contemporaries, about a three year difference. But yes, he was very inspirational.

TP: When did you first see him play?

JACK: I saw him in Chicago right after 7 Steps to Heaven came out. The things he was doing — his touch, his concept, it all was different. And his drive, the way he could drive the band was different. Also some of his sideman recordings and also some of his leader recordings — his compositions were happening. I saw the Lifetime band when they did their first gig at Count Basie’s in Harlem, and that was really incredible, to see the band playing that material live. It was fantastic.

TP: Who were the people you were paying attention to before Tony? I gather you weren’t fully decided that you were going to be a drummer until fairly late.

JACK: Yes. Well, I had at some point played both of them, and then I decided to make drums the main instrument. I was listening to Elvin and Roy Haynes actually, who is still one of my favorites, who is still, I’m happy to say, going strong in his eighties, getting more attention than ever — and deservedly so. Philly Joe Jones. Art Taylor was a guy I really liked, although I never tried to imitate him, but I loved what he did on a lot of those Blue Note and Prestige records.

TP: Any local drummers?

JACK: There was a drummer in Chicago named Art McKinney who was an influence on me. Vernell Fournier was also a big influence when I started playing drums as far as brushwork was concerned. And Wilbur Campbell. Wilbur was one of my mentors. I used to hang out and watch him play all the time coming up. Wilbur had this way of playing, filling up when he took solos; it felt like somebody was cleaning out a closet and everything was falling out all over the room. That’s one of the things that kind of inspired my concept when playing the drums. I remember Miles said to me that my way of drumming reminded him of a drunk falling upstairs. Up stairs. Not down.

TP: In some of your own publicity, you very much emphasize that you never put music into categories and are fascinated by diversity. It seems so characteristic of so many musicians who came out of Chicago, particularly during that post-war period up through the ’60s. Any speculations on why that is?

JACK: Well, I don’t know. I can speak only for myself. I was just drawn to all kinds of music as a kid. I listened on the shortwave radio we had to music coming from Europe. I didn’t know what it was, but I used to listen to County-and-Western music, Grand Ole Opry, gospel music, I listened to soul music… I was curious about it. I just never put it in the category. Of course, I was listening to jazz when I was 4 or 5 years old.

TP: Was the scene in Chicago conducive to nurturing that sort of attitude?

JACK: Yeah, it was pretty broad. There were all kinds of people. We had the AACM, and then you had the regular gigs that you did, and the outlet of the AACM… In fact, I was in Chicago for the Jazz Festival there, and the AACM Orchestra was there, which had a big group of musicians — three drummers, two bass players, singers, woodwinds, brass. Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman were there as guest soloists. I was in it at the beginning, with Muhal Richard Abrams, who was also a great mentor to me and still is… He got the idea to create a viable outlet for musicians who were thinking differently and wanted to create a different language. That’s what came out of that, musicians who totally knew the tradition, but wanted to find another language to express their creative views. This was perfect for that. So Joseph, Malachi Favors, Roscoe, Henry Threadgill, Braxton, all those people were around then, and it was a very exciting time.

TP: Do you see yourself as in the same line of sensibility as those people? Do you see yourself as an AACM musician? Or did you go past it, in a way?

JACK: I think that’s all just part of who I am, part of my experience. I also was a member of Sun Ra’s Arkestra in Chicago, and also very often played with him in New York. It’s very broad. You could say I’m a potpourri of all of that.

TP: Eddie Harris was the one who convinced you to stick with drums and make it your main focus?

JACK: Yes, he suggested it. Then it was later that I decided to do that. He thought I played good piano, but he said I was a natural drummer, and that if I would stick with it, I would be more successful.

TP: He was a smart guy, wasn’t he, Eddie Harris.

JACK: Oh, he was a genius. Great guy. He played all the instruments. That’s what he said. “I play all the instruments, but I had to make saxophone my main instrument.” He had to do the same thing for himself. You have to decide.

TP: Let me ask about a few other collaborative projects. One is the Ivey-Divey record, which had a lot of acclaim, although I gather you’re not playing that gig any more.

JACK: But that doesn’t mean that if something comes up and I’m available, I won’t go out and do it.

TP: What was that project like for you?

JACK: Don and I are good friends. I love Don. He lives nearby. When we were talking about coming from that lineage, Don is extremely broad, and he has a penchant for investigating all kinds of genres of music and juxtaposing his spin on it, which is very interesting. He talked to me about this project in the sense of a great jazz trio, which was an original recording with Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich and Lester Young. He wanted to do something based on that, without a bass — although he did add a bass, Lonnie Plaxico, on a couple of tracks, and Ralph Alessi on a couple of tracks. But the primary premise was to do some of those songs that they did, but do them in the present. I think one of the reasons that came off so great is that Jason had planned to listen to that recording, but he never got around to it. Well, I think he listened to it afterwards. But it was good, because then he wasn’t pre-frontloaded about how to approach this concept. So when he got there he was fresh, and approached it with a fresh concept — his concept. As a result, it was a surprising feeling that took over the music, and it was received really enthusiastically by the critics and by the public.

TP: Now, you knew that Prez-Nat Cole-Buddy Rich record.

JACK: Yes.

TP: What was it like for you to deal with material that’s iconic? But I suppose it’s old hat for you to find fresh ways to deal with received information.

JACK: Yeah, but there are some nods to the way the drums were played in the period. Like, in the introduction, the solo I played on I Want To Be Happy, you hear that nod to that type of playing, the 4/4 on the bass drum, and playing the solo on the snare exclusively. So you’ve got to move in and out of it as the music calls for it. You have to be there right in the present with that music, and not try to duplicate what it came off before. Sort of somehow it’s going to come out anyway, the past, the present and the future, all in that instant.

TP: And you’re still touring with Keith Jarrett and Gary Peacock, so I suppose that’s another major part of your activity, at least for when the band is touring.

JACK: Yes, it is.

TP: It’s scheduled for later this year and 2006, too.

JACK: There are some things scheduled for that. I’m going to be touring with Foday in the fall of next year — October. The duo now has actually become a trio, with Jerome on bass.

TP: Do you know Jerome from Sonny Rollins?

JACK: Yes, actually through Sonny and through him playing with a lot of other musicians around New York. He’s such a versatile player and creative musician that he’s in demand all the time, and I’m fortunate to get him in quite a few of my projects. I also have a Latin project which involves Jerome and Don Byron and Giovanni Hidalgo, Edsel Gomez, and Luisito Quintero. I’ve recorded that band professionally, and I just haven’t… It’s great. I have an abundance of projects. We have another one, but before I get to that, in regards to Jerome: He just is so supportive and great as a person. He adds so much to the music. So it’s always a pleasure to work with him.

TP: Does the Latin Project have a different book than your quartet with Danilo and John Patitucci?

JACK: The Latin Project involves music written by Don, Jerome, Edsel and myself.

TP: So it’s a more cooperative band?

JACK: In a sense. I mean, it’s my band, my project.

TP: Are you concerned with playing idiomatically on that band, in other words, with not breaking clave, or are you bringing your typical expansive approach to that music?

JACK: We’re doing both things. Somebody’s always holding it together. There are grooves going in there. What breaks that is when I’m soloing behind anybody else, or if Giovanni is soloing he’ll break out of just playing steady rhythms and get abstract. I’ve noticed that… We did 8 dates for Artist Presenters concerts earlier this year, and as the band progressed, the percussionists got looser. So we do work off of the clave, but a lot of the music is written as Latin, but no straight-ahead swing stuff. It’s more or less in the Latin vein, but the way we treat it is very different.

TP: Again, we have the serious deep groove and then the elaboration of that groove. It occurs to me that you’ve played with Keith Jarrett now for about forty years.

JACK: No, it’s about thirty.

TP: With Charles Lloyd…

JACK: It’s about 30 years. A little over 30.

TP: Miles at the Cellar Door was in ’70, and you played with Charles Lloyd before that.

JACK: That was the late ’60s.

TP: So 36-37 years. It’s in my mind because I’ve just been listening to the Cellar Door recordings, particularly the ones before John McLaughlin joined in, and checking out the interplay between you when he was playing those keyboards and how open and intuitive it was, and how imaginative it was. I’m wondering how the relationship has evolved and your mutual impact on each other. I don’t know if there’s anything to say about it…

JACK: Well, there’s not a lot to say about it except that you hear it in the music. It’s a trust of each other. It’s a continuation of… I guess it’s experience that we bring together… Also with Gary, too. But the experience that we bring to the music, no matter what it is we’re playing, and the ability to stay open and be ready for the unexpected, that keeps it interesting for Keith and I and Gary to play together. We don’t have to talk a lot about the music. Maybe for tunes or about an arrangement for a piece. But most of it is we sit down and see what happens. That’s always the way it’s been?

TP: Is that what you like to have in all your projects, a sit down and see what happens kind of thing? After due preparation, of course.

JACK: Yes. Absolutely. Well, that’s the whole idea of improvisation, to be prepared to play the unexpected. Always be prepared to play what you don’t know.

TP: It sounds like you’ve really been able to move yourself towards a one-sound concept, bringing everything you know into all the projects you’re doing. It’s a very nice position to be in.

JACK:  I’ve got a few other projects I want to tell you about. There’s a project which is coming out next month which involves remixes.

TP: I just listened to it this morning, before this conversation.

JACK: Good. My son-in-law, who is Ben Surman, who is a good musician and technical sound-engineer and a great remixer… We wanted to work together, and we decided to do a project called The Ripple Effect—and of course, the title of the CD is Hybrid. Ben and my daughter, Minya, on our website who does some of the covers, came up with it. But the idea for this, as Ben puts it on the back, is to take previously recorded tracks – duo tracks I might add (I call this the Art of the Duo series) – and to be able to keep the integrity of the original tracks but make new stories out of them. This is what Ben has done so incredibly well. He’s taken four tracks from Foday and I from The Hearts of the Masters, and remixed those, and three tracks from a very gifted and talented Brazilian singer and musician, Martui Miranda, So those have been remixed. And we have one track that Ben and I did together. I’m real excited about the results of that. This is moving into different areas, when you talk about remixes, special mixes for clubs, and different outlets, like electronica. But Ben’s ability to remix in such a way that it’s not like a lot of remixes, where you put on a loop and it’s repetitive, it runs on for a long time. These are soundscapes that tell stories, and they change in surprising ways, and there’s a great balance between acoustic and electronica, and I think it raised the bar of artistic meanings.

TP: Do you listen to much electronica? Have you been?

JACK: I’ve listened to some, yeah. Some chill music. I don’t listen a whole lot, but there and then. Will Calhoun comes up and he’ll keep up to date on what’s happening.

TP: There’s also the meditation record.

JACK: Yes, the meditation is the first of these Golden Beams. Again, that’s something I did for my wife Lydia. She does healing work.

TP: So this was her commission for you.

JACK: Well, yeah. I wanted to do something to make it nice for a person to relax and just get rid of stress.

TP: Do you use it for yourself?

JACK: Yes. When I’m on the road, I use it. It grounds me and soothes me. A lot of people do that. It turned out that I passed it out to friends and people said, “Oh, this is nice,” and I thought, “Well, maybe I should put this out.” The person who took the cover photograph liked it so much, he used it for yoga. People use it for healing work, to ground people. So it’s taken on a life of its own.

TP: It might be the most personal of all the records, then, if you’re using it to relax like that. Are you spending much time on the road now?

JACK: Yes, I’ve been on the road a lot. But before we get to that, I’ve got six weeks off, which I have a lot of work I have to do. Actually, another project that’s coming out by the end of January next year is a project that Bill Frisell and I did. While I was out with Keith at the Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle in 2001, he and I did a concert together.

TP: You’ve done a couple of records with him on other people’s projects, right?

JACK: Yes. And I did something with Tim Ries as well. Anyway, now I have to get this together by the end of next month. That will come out next year on Golden Beams, because there’s a quick window to get it in there and get it out. The label is allowing that to happen.

TP: So it just doesn’t stop for you, does it.

JACK: No, it’s great stuff. It’s just a lot of work for all of us.

TP: A musician these days has to be an entrepreneur, I suppose. You have play, you have to practice, you have to set up the gigs, you have to set up the technology, and you have to find people help you who know what they’re doing.

JACK: Koch Music will be our distributor here in the States, and in the next couple of months we’ll have European distribution. So we’re moving slowly. One other thing about the label which I think is important to mention. You’ll notice that within a span of a year, maybe 18 months into next year, there’s a lot of releases being released on this label. Normally, an artist wouldn’t do that. But the different CDs I’m doing seem to fit different areas. So we feel strongly that they don’t conflict. The electronica is one thing, the Hearts of the Masters is another, the duo with Frisell is another, the project with Don Alias will be another. The DVD with Don is about the making of that. It’s called Talking Drummers, but the CD will be called Welcome Blessing. We’re going to put that out a little later.

TP: Why do duos appeal to you so much?

JACK: They just seem to pop up that way! It’s a one-on-one, so therefore, you’re really exposed in that setting. You hear in a different way when it’s just two people playing. Like, with Bill, there’s some electronic stuff that we use that enables us to get a bigger sound, the same as it was with John Surman in the live performance, where we have pre-recorded ambient things, and I have my Roland (?)-sonic percussion module. So it gives you… Even though there’s two of you, you’re still an orchestra.

TP: I have many more things I can ask you, but not enough room to print it. We’ve covered your projects, which is what this is about.

JACK: Oh, one more project. This one is a Spanish project with Chano Dominguez. I’ve been a fan of his for quite a while. I first heard him in Cuba at the Free Jazz Festival, and Danilo Perez introduced me to him. This year I was able to do something with him, Jerome Harris, Luisito Quintero, and a flamenco singer named Blas Cordoba who sings with Chano. We did a few dates in Europe this year – one in Germany, one in Italy. We’re doing some of Chano’s pieces and some of mine, and I’m looking forward to hearing some more of that. Hopefully, I can bring Chano over to do some things in the States. So that’s another project I’d like to pursue in the future.

I’m also may be doing a project with Nigel Kennedy which may feature Herbie and Ron Carter. I’m also producing a project with Igor Butman, tentatively next year…

TP: Will that be a straight-ahead jazz project?

JACK: Yes. It’s a project of his arrangements of a Russian cartoon that was famous, and the music for that. He’s got somebody interested in seeing him record that music. Also, next January I’m going to be doing something with Chick Corea, John Patitucci, myself and a couple of guest artists. We’re going to go to (?).

TP: We need a book here, or at least a full website.

JACK: Well, that we’ve got.

TP: On your website, you make reference to your melodic concept of the drums, but you don’t elaborate on what the melodic concept of the drums is. How do you mean it?

JACK: First of all, tuning the drums, tuning them to different pitches of the intervals. In other words, fourths, fifths, thirds, or a chord maybe. It depends. But they’re tuned so that whenever I’m accompanying someone or playing a solo, I can build a motif or a melody that I can follow and somebody who’s listening can follow, so there’s always music happening on the drumset.

[—30—]

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