For Miguel Zenón’s 43rd Birthday, an Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test from 2005

For virtuoso alto saxophonist-composer Miguel Zenón’s 43rd birthday, here’s the uncut version of a Blindfold Test we did for Downbeat in November 2005. He was 29 at the time, and already extremely literate in the lineage of his instrument.


Miguel Zenon Blindfold Test (Raw) — (2005):

1. Ornette Coleman, “In All Languages”(from In All Languages, Harmolodic/Verve, 1987) Coleman, alto saxophone, composer; Don Cherry, pocket trumpet; Charlie Haden, bass; Billy Higgins, drums.

That’s Ornette. At the beginning it sounds like this other tune that I know, but I don’t know this tune. It sounds like Charlie on bass, but that’s another horn in there. I wonder if it’s Don Cherry. Or maybe not. It doesn’t sound too high for a pocket trumpet. But definitely Ornette, though. I don’t know this recording, but who’s going to say anything about Ornette? One of my main inspirations in terms of one of the first alto guys that really got away from the Charlie Parker thing and was able to do something original back then. He still does actually. I saw him the other day when we played with Charlie at the Blue Note. He was there. So I was pretty nervous! But it was great to see him. I’ve had the chance to meet him a couple of times, and he’s one of those guys who everything he says seems to have a meaning somehow. He doesn’t talk unless he wants to say something important. But I’m pretty sure that this is Ornette. It sounds like a fairly recent recording. From the ‘70s maybe? It’s the way the recording sounds, and to me the more recent music is a lot freer in terms of time, whereas his earlier music was free in terms of the improvisation, but what was happening with the rhythm section was pretty much a bebop approach, like walking bass and the cymbals just kind of swinging in that way. This is totally free in terms of tempo, too. But in terms of the sound, you can tell this has reverb and all that stuff, so it’s maybe ‘80s or even more recent than that. 5 stars, just because it’s Ornette and it sounds incredible. I’ve seen Ornette recently perform a few times with his current group, and he’s almost like Wayne Shorter in the way he uses little motifs that he’s carried through ages, but he still uses them to compose. Sometimes you’ll be able to recognize something that’s an obvious motif from Ornette’s language, but then it’s a totally different tune. So that’s what happened when he started the tune and the first phrase – I thought it was this other tune I’ve heard before. But then he went into something totally different. It’s a definite gift, I guess, for a composer to have motifs so strong.

2. Donald Harrison, “Doctor Duck” (from Eddie Palmieri, Palmas, Nonesuch, 1994) (Palmieri, piano, composer; Harrison, alto sax; Brian Lynch, tp; Conrad Herwig, tb; Johnny Torres, bass; Richie Flores, congas; Anthony Carrillo, bongo; Jose Clausell, timbales, Robbie Ameen, drums

I don’t know this record, but it sounds like something maybe Eddie Palmieri would do. Yup! There’s the montuno right there. This is probably Donald Harrison. Well, it might not be him, but I know he did all those records with Eddie, and because of the montuno and the kind of tune it is, it’s pretty obvious that it’s Eddie’s recording. Of course, Eddie Palmieri is one of the legends of Latin music in general, and this track specifically is a perfect example of a traditional Latin jazz kind of track, very danceable in terms of the form, in terms of the way the percussion is playing behind them, just going for it, establishing a percussive movement and setting. There’s not that much interaction between the soloist and the band; it’s more like they’re establishing that… It’s the same way you would do on a salsa group, establishing a groove, and the alto player, who I think is Donald Harrison, is blowing on top of that. But of course, as I said, once the tune started I was trying to guess who it was, and I guessed Eddie first of all because of the instrumentation, because I know he used trombone, trumpet and alto on a lot of those records, and also once he started playing the montuno it was obvious that it was Eddie Palmieri. That’s probably Brian Lynch on trumpet. Yes, that’s definitely Brian. He’s playing the changes real clear, but then he’s playing some kind of modern stuff. This kind of stuff to me is really nice to listen to. It’s very groovy and very down-the-line, pretty obvious Latin. It has the percussion, the montunos, the bass, the tumbao—everything. It’s almost like dance music. It’s trying to capture that same vein, all the music that Eddie does. Eddie’s one of those guys, along with Pappo Lucca, who plays with the salsa group Sonora Ponceña in Puerto Rico. Every piano player who’s working on montunos, they swear by these guys, because they kind of invented a way to put what all that stuff that was coming from the très, from the son montuno in Cuba, to put that stuff in the piano—and in a modern way, too. So they are very different, but every piano player you talk to, they always cite them as their main guys for montuno. It’s incredible that Eddie still plays like that, too. 4 stars, just because it’s Eddie and a legend. If it was somebody else, I probably wouldn’t give it 4 stars. As I was saying, this isn’t something I would sit down and listen to. It’s something that’s more danceable, very groovy and very nicely done.

3. Sonny Criss, “Blues In My Heart” (from Crisscraft, 32-Jazz, 1975/1997) (Criss, alto saxophone; Ray Crawford, guitar; Dolo Coker, piano; Larry Gales, bass; Jimmy Smith, drums; Benny Carter, composer)

I have absolutely no idea who it is. He sounds great. I can’t recognize the alto player by sound. Maybe when he starts improvising, I’ll be able to… He’s playing a lot of Bird stuff, but the sound has something else to it. It might be Charles McPherson. Maybe Frank Morgan. He has a very distinctive vibrato, but I don’t recognize him. [Do you know the tune?] It sounds familiar, like I might have heard it, but I don’t recognize it either. He’s got a great sound. The way he uses vibrato specifically, it’s hard for me to pinpoint who it is. He has a way of using the vibrato which is uncharacteristic of other alto players. But he’s definitely playing a lot of bebop stuff, too. So whenever he’ll play a run, I can say it’s definitely a guy who admires Charlie Parker a lot. But I’m not familiar enough with the sound to pinpoint who it is. The way he’s playing the bluesy stuff is kind of different, though. He’s being very economical about the notes he’s playing. He didn’t really play a lot of notes. He was being very patient. 3½ stars. Sonny Criss? Wow! I’ve heard him a couple of times, but I’m not really hip to him that much. Oh, that was by Benny Carter. When he started playing, I was thinking of Benny Carter, but the sound didn’t match…

4. Tim Berne, “Huevos” (from Science Friction, Screwgun, 2001) (Berne, alto sax, composer; Marc Ducret, electric guitar; Craig Taborn, keyboards; Tom Rainey, drums)

This is definitely more modern than that! This recording sounds almost like a live recording. It sounds weird. It doesn’t sound like the other recordings. My first guess would be Tim Berne maybe. His sound. Just the composition. But I’m really not that familiar with his playing. I’ve never actually heard him live. I’ve heard him on recordings. When the composition first started playing, I thought he was Henry Threadgill, but once he started playing, it’s not quite the same sound. Although it might be him! But now that I hear it a little more, it’s not like something Henry Threadgill would write, at least from the stuff I’m familiar with. It’s pretty complex and really well done. He has a lot of instruments in there. I can’t really pinpoint how many. Maybe a couple of guitars? One guitar. Drums… It sounds really thick. It could be Marty Ehrlich. He has that kind of sound, too. But my guess would be Tim Berne. The other guy I might think of is Dave Binney because of the composition, but his sound is totally different.[AFTER] I guessed it, but by chance. As I said, I’m not really that familiar with his playing or his music at all. But the times I’ve heard him, I could recognize him by the sound, what he started playing. I couldn’t tell you for sure it was him, but I could guess it was him also because of the music. I’ve heard a little of his music and the music he does with other people, and it’s along the same vein—specific instrumentation and driven by some kind of complexity and a very systematic way of doing it. It was a great piece. 4 stars.

5. Jerry Dodgion, “Quill” (from The Joy of Sax, LSM, 2004) (Dan Block, Dodgion, Brad Leali, alto sax solos; Mike LeDonne, piano; Dennis Irwin, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums)

The alto is way up front in the mix. I can’t tell if that’s the recording.. But it sounds great. I can’t recognize them. There are a couple of alto players. The second guy, I can’t tell… He’s playing a lot of Cannonball stuff. I’m not really sure if it’s Cannonball, but it’s definitely from Cannonball. I wonder how many saxophones there are. Sounds like a big saxophone section. It sounds like one of those Thad Jones arrangements, although it isn’t, but just the way the groove is set. Maybe it’s Jerry Dodgion. I can’t tell about the other guys, though. I wonder who the second guy is, the guy who sounds to me like Cannonball? Well, I thought it was really. It was grooving. It sounded to me like it was a really big saxophone section. I couldn’t really tell by the orchestration; there were a lot of different things happening. But it was pretty happening. 3½ stars. I can’t guess the alto players, though.

6. Steve Coleman, “Ascending Numeration” (from Alternate Dimensions: Series 1, Self-Produced, 2002) (Coleman, alto sax; Jonathan Finlayson, trumpet; Anthony Tidd, electric bass; Regg Washington, acoustic bass; Sean Rickman, drums; Pedro Martinez, percussion; Yosvany Terry, clave)

I know the drummer already, I think. Sean Rickman. The way he’s playing. The sound of his cymbals. This is Steve Coleman. I’ve sat in with him a few times, and I’m usually lost. I get together a lot with him and talk. If I were going to say anything about him, he’s probably my greatest living inspiration in a musician. He’s the hardest-working guy I’ve ever met. He’s always working on something. He’s one of those guys who never gives up in terms of the information he has. He’s not content with what he has already. He’s already looking for more, always looking for something new, always reading and trying to bring everything that’s around him into music. I think this is the record where he uses two bass players, maybe Resistance Is Futile, or maybe the one before. I’m not sure of the name, but I’m pretty sure I know this recording. Reggie Washington is playing acoustic and Anthony Tidd is playing electric. I’ve sat in a couple of times at his gigs, and I talk to him a lot about music… I’ve gotten together with Steve a bunch of times, and we just play and talk about the kind of stuff he does. It’s always inspiring. But his music is very, very complex. It’s almost important to go out and sit in on a gig with him if you don’t know what’s happening. You could kind of skate around it, but I think the main thing with him is that he’s trying to put his own effort to not skate in everything he does. Even though something can be very complicated for somebody listening from the outside, he’s trying to play it as perfectly or as accurate as possible. He’s very accurate about playing changes and playing meters, and I know he’s very serious about the whole thing and not just getting by, kind of just playing licks. He’s an inspiration, because he plays it at such a high level. But then when you talk to him about something, he usually just talks about Bird or Coltrane, and goes back to the tradition, which he knows real well. But the thing that’s most inspiring about him to me is that he’s really been able to take all that tradition and classic jazz stuff, and he’s been able to translate into something that sounds incredibly modern. But the roots of his music are all in something that’s very tradition. That to me is incredibly inspiring. He’s very precise about changes. When you hear anybody else playing this music, and you hear him play, he’s not missing anything. He knows this music so well. Everything he does, at least from what I’ve learned from talking to him, is pretty systematic. It’s preconceived, in a way. He conceives everything from the rhythm to the harmony to the melodies, and everything that happens on the tune has a purpose. It could be something numerical, or he even goes as far as astrology and stuff that goes beyond just playing numbers and music. I wouldn’t be able to into deepness on it, but I know he’s serious about incorporating many elements of nature, and just… Everything that has to do with the world, basically. He’s very serious about incorporating that somehow in his music. So the rhythmic thing… When I first met him, I was an incredible fan, and I had all these records, and I started asking him about tunes, like this tune that’s in 5/4 or 7/4 or whatever. The first thing he told me is that he didn’t think of it like that, he didn’t think of it as 5/4 or 7/4 in meter. He thought of it almost like a rhythmic melody. He’s got a rhythmic melody that just happens to be 11/8 or 7/4, but he doesn’t measure it in terms of meter – it just happens to be that way once he starts playing the tune, and they have to incorporate everything around that. His music is an incredible inspiration to me in every way—conceptually, sonically, the way he plays. Especially after I got to meet him and talk to him. A really big influence on me. 4 stars. There’s things he’s done that I like better than this. My favorite is probably this double record he did with a big band and also a quartet called Genesis and Open Another Way. The thing he did in Cuba is also incredible. And by far my favorite is The Sonic Language of Myth. That period when he did those records is incredible.

7. Kenny Garrett, “April In Paris” (from Roy Haynes, Birds of A Feather, Dreyfuss, 2001) (Garrett, alto saxophone; Roy Hargrove, trumpet; David Kikoski, piano; Christian McBridge, bass; Roy Haynes, drums)

I know this tune, I just can’t think of the name. It’s a great tune. “April In Paris”? I had to think of the lyrics. I’m still not sure if it’s Kenny Garrett, but if it isn’t, it’s definitely somebody who’s really into Kenny Garrett. Just the sound. He has a way of bending into notes, especially when he plays high. It’s very distinctive to the way he plays, even if he’s playing ballad. But I’m still not sure if it’s him. But I’m pretty sure it’s him. Would this be one of those recordings with Freddie or Woody Shaw? Maybe one of his first couple of recordings. Kenny Garrett is probably the most influential alto player of the last 20 years. Anybody from my generation, or even younger or a little older has been influenced by him one way or another. Because what he did was so strong… Basically, he was kind of the Michael Brecker of the alto, of that generation. The way he played in terms of sound and his whole approach to the alto was very un-alto. It was more like a tenor. He was coming from the Trane kind of influence, but he brought all that stuff into the alto. He’s an incredible soloist and knows how to build. So any time you hear him, he’s going to be consistently good. But as I said, he’s so strong, the way he plays, that even for myself… When I started getting into jazz, he’s one of the first guys I started transcribing and really getting into. But eventually, I had to stop listening to him, because he was so strong that it’s hard to get away from trying to sound like that. So I had to stop listening to him completely. As great as he is, I don’t listen that much to him any more, because I’m trying to get away from the vein that everybody else has gone. But he’s an incredible alto player, one of the top today, if not the top. Just what he did with sound, just that, the way he approached sound on the alto is enough to get him into the hall of fame or whatever. 4 stars.

8. Lee Konitz-Sal Mosca, “Baby” (from Spirits, Milestone, 1971/1999) (Konitz, alto saxophone; Mosca, piano)

This sounds like one of those Lennie Tristano-Lee Konitz heads, putting a different melody in a standard, but I know it’s not Lee Konitz. Or maybe it is. More recent Lee Konitz. Yeah, it’s definitely Lee. But his sound is very different. If I were going to mention someone other than Bird who really did something for the alto back then… They were all kind of contemporaries, Bird, him and Ornette; they were coming out of the same time, just a little before and after and so on… But the incredible thing about Lee Konitz is that he was able to do something totally different from everybody else who wasn’t Bird. Even Cannonball… He and Ornette were the only ones who just went totally left. It’s almost like they did it on purpose. But he had a sound back then that was a very cool approach, not like a hard-headed sound like Bird had. It was more Stan Getz, kind of Paul Desmond, very cool and delicate. It was a strong sound, a great sound, but a very different sound. The way he plays his lines now is pretty much the same as he played them back then, though obviously more advanced and a lot different. But it’s very unlike something that Bird or somebody coming out of the Bird vein or the bebop vein would play it. The way he moves around the changes is very different in many ways. He uses a lot of different approach notes, he resolves the changes in a different way than somebody within the bebop vein would. Everything about him is different. What makes him different from somebody like Ornette is that Ornette to me was coming from a point where he was trying to find freedom with melody. He wasn’t really worrying that much about changes. He was trying to bring melody back to the forefront and this got to be the main characteristic of the music. Whereas Lee was still dealing with changes and standards. He was playing the same kind of changes that everybody else was playing; he was just playing them very different. It still sounds good, but it sounds very different, and for somebody who’s heard all these alto players coming out of the Bird tradition, when you hear Lee Konitz, it’s incredibly refreshing. It’s incredible! But his sound now has more of an edge to it, and he’s got a way of approaching and swelling into the notes that makes it very obvious that this is something that would be more recent. I don’t know who the piano player is. Is the tune “My Melancholy Baby”? 4½ stars. ‘71?

9. Henry Threadgill, “Dark Black” (from Up Popped The Two Lips, Pi, 2001) (Threadgill, alto saxophone, composer; Liberty Ellman, guitar; Tarik Benbrahim, oud; Jose Davila, tuba; Dana Leong, cello; Dafnis Prieto, drums.

This is Henry Threadgill. Right away. That instrumentation. The way he’s doubling the melody with a lower instrument. He does that a lot. He’s an incredible composer. Probably one of the top jazz composers today just because of his originality and what he brings to the music. Very dense. His music is very dense, very well-done. A very original sound on the alto. It’s almost coming from that avant-gardist kind of sound on the alto, but his music is not free. His music is very composed. Is this Zooid? I don’t know what he calls it. He’s got the band with cello – it might be Dana Leong – and tuba, but I forget the name of the guy he uses. Maybe it’s Liberty Ellman on guitar. Maybe Elliott Kavee on drum or Dafnis; he switches. I don’t think it’s Dafnis. The music is very dense for me. It’s hard for me to find something to grab. I would have to listen to it a couple of times to start finding my own logic to understand it. I guess that’s kind of my fault, too; I’m always having to find something in the music that I can understand in a way to be able to follow it. But it’s incredibly well done. 4 stars.

10. Greg Osby, “Mob Job” (from Channel Three, Blue Note, 2005) (Osby, alto saxophone; Matt Brewer, bass; Jeff Watts, drums; Ornette Coleman, composer)

I just bought this record a couple of weeks ago. That’s Greg Osby. It’s an Ornette tune. I would probably put Greg, Steve Coleman and Kenny Garrett in the same category, as guys from the same generation who all are coming from different places but have something fresh happening. Kenny Garrett I’d say is coming more from the tenor as opposed to the alto—maybe Trane, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson. Whereas I know from talking to Steve that he’s totally a Bird fanatic, and everything he does is somehow coming from Bird. Whereas Greg Osby, in terms of the sound and things he does in the lower register and his lines and so on, is coming from a Cannonball vein, but a lot more modern approach. Greg is also a great thinker, a total conceptualist, and he has a lot in common with Steve in that way, though their ideas are very different. They deserve the same amount of respect in that sense. Greg is definitely a huge influence. I like this record a lot; it’s probably the one I like most of the last two or three he’s done. Before this one, I thought Symbols Of Light, the one he did with a string quartet, was incredible. This one is at that level. 4 stars.

11. Eric Dolphy, “Round Midnight” (from George Russell, Ezz-Thetics, Riverside, 1961/1999) (Dolphy, alto saxophone; Russell, piano; Steve Swallow, bass; Joe Hunt, drums; Thelonious Monk, composer)

Is this Eric Dolphy? This is “Round Midnight.” He’s got such a special sound. Every time I listen to him, it seems he’s blowing as hard as possible into the horn. He has so much energy. Could the arranger be George Russell? I don’t know if this is a George Russell recording, but I know they did some stuff together. The instrumentation and the beginning reminds me of stuff he’s done. A few people I know who knew Eric Dolphy personally, they say he was the nicest, sweetest person, and he doesn’t sound like that when he plays! He has so much energy when he plays. Definitely not nice and sweet. Very aggressive. Especially his sound. He sounds like he’s blowing so hard into the horn, but it’s not like he’s getting out of control, but like a laser kind of sound. His approach to the intervals and melodies is very personal. To tell you the truth, it wasn’t until recently that I started to find a way to get into his music and listen to his records for a long enough time… Before they kind of pushed me away a little bit. Before, with the combination of his sound and his aggressiveness, I couldn’t hear what he was trying to do in terms of changes and melodies. I couldn’t really see his whole vocal approach. His whole thing is like a vocal thing, and I couldn’t see that; I was interested in something that had more finesse, like Cannonball and Bird or Lee Konitz. This doesn’t have finesse at all. But in the last couple of years, I’ve started to try to get into his head, basically, and see what he was going for. He was an incredibly organized guy. When I started listening to him the first couple of times, it almost sounded to me like he was just playing random things, but now I listen to it and it sounds incredibly organized. This is a very virtuosic and personal way of playing the instrument, definitely. 4 stars.

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Filed under Alto Saxophone, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Miguel Zenon

For saxophone-woodwind maestro and composer Ted Nash’s 59th birthday, an uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test from 2010

To mark the 59th birthday of Ted Nash,  master composer and master practitioner of the reeds and woodwinds family, here’s the uncut proceedings of a Downbeat Blindfold Test that he did with me in 2010.


Ted Nash Blindfold Test: (2010)

John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, “Foreign One” (from ETERNAL INTERLUDE, Cuneiform, 2009) (Hollenbeck, composer, drums; Tony Malaby, tenor saxophone solo; Gary Versace, piano)

Wow. That was intense. That was, of course, “Four In One,” Monk, but a complete taken-apart-and-put-back-together version of it. It’s almost an original composition in itself, using Monk’s theme as sort of an inspiration. Certainly, the big unison line at the end kind of recalls the whole passage of 16th notes. But it’s really recomposed. The sound, the production of it is very clean. Because of the cleanliness and the in-tune quality and the great proficiency with which they dealt with it technically, it almost sounds electronic at times. I know I can hear a lot of edits, and I think it’s not just for best takes; I think that’s kind of part of the sound that the composer is after, is to have these kind of clean chops. I like using the board and using edits to make a statement. I don’t do it myself that much. I prefer things to kind of flow forward. I haven’t heard this before. My guess is it might be either John Hollenbeck’s band, or it could be Dave Holland. If it’s Hollenbeck, I know he was the arranger. If it’s Dave Holland, I wouldn’t know who did the arrangement. [It’s Hollenbeck.] It is Hollenbeck? I’ve heard his music a little bit, and I think he’s really creative. This stuff is very intense. The tenor solo really leads into the next section. Pretty interesting how that is designed. A lot of times, people allow the soloist to take a lot of the space. When I studied with Brookmeyer, he actually was getting more and more away from having improvised solos, except for ones that really serve the purpose of the composition. I do miss extended solos when it gets to that degree. But it could have been Donny McCaslin or Chris Potter. Those are the two… Maybe Tony Malaby. It’s Tony? I haven’t heard any of them in that context very much, but the freedom sounded more like Malaby to me than the other plays—but I hadn’t heard him play with such a great technique up in the upper register, which made me think of the other two. I really enjoyed it, and I think that Hollenbeck definitely somebody who has got his own thing going on. It doesn’t sound like a cliche big band. I get tired of sort of the cliche approach to writing in a big band. This is very refreshing. 4 stars.

Mark Turner, “Nigeria” (from Billy Hart Quartet, ALL OUR REASONS, ECM, 2012) (Turner, tenor saxophone, composer; Hart, drums; Ethan Iverson, piano; Ben Street, bass)

I loved the humor in that, especially at the end. It was also interesting to have that notey line, that very linear theme played, and then have an extended drum solo. You don’t hear that very often, and I think it was an interesting choice. The pianist is interesting, because I don’t recognize at all his left hand. He’s got a different way of playing chords. It’s not the cliche way people accompany themselves when they’re playing with their right hand. He was playing fuller triad kind of things in his left hand, rather than more extensions. The looseness of it reminds me a little bit of my friend Frank Kimbrough, and how he’s I think got a lot of his influence from people like Andrew Hill and Herbie Nichols and like that. Is the saxophone player Mark Turner? Ok. I’m not extremely familiar with his playing except for a few things I’ve heard. I think he’s remarkable. He’s got a nice, light, airy sound, and he’s very linear. He reminds me of an extension of Warne Marsh and that Lennie Tristano kind of thing when he’s doing that. It doesn’t necessarily have… In this recording and some of the things that I may have heard, it doesn’t necessarily have a lot of room for that kind of bluesy expression, but it’s a little more intellectual. I like it for that. I think he’s got something going on that does feel like an extension. You can hear the lineage from some of those older players coming out of the Warne Marsh school of very linear playing. I like it very much. I like the looseness and the freedom. The drummer sounded a little like Jeff Ballard to me. At times, for me, it lacks a bit of real deep expression. So I give it 3½ drums. [AFTER] I thought it might be Ben Street, because he played with Mark with Kurt and Jeff—that made me think of Jeff Ballard. Ethan Iverson makes sense. Very creative. He’s got his own way of doing things.

James Carter, “Playful—Fast (with Swing)” (from CARIBBEAN RHAPSODY, EmArcy, 2011) (Carter tenor and soprano saxophone; Sinfonia Varsovia Orchestra; Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor; Roberto Sierra, composer)

Is it Branford Marsalis? Oh. I’m not familiar with this. I know Branford did some things with orchestra. It became sort of tongue-in-cheek. It started off very 20th century, with influences of Berg, and then it gravitated toward more of a Gershwinesque kind of ending with the blues. It really was all about the blues, but it didn’t really feel like that was coming. Then it became just a little tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at certain cliche aspects of the blues. But it was a beautiful recording. Who was it? James Carter? That was my second guess. I swear to God I was going to say him because of his technical stuff in the low register, but I hadn’t heard him stretch out so much, and his harmonic sense seemed to be a little more developed than I thought… I thought maybe it was Branford. But he’s got such an amazing technique, especially with the slap-tonguing and stuff; it made me think of James Carter right away. But I had no idea he was doing this kind of stuff. 3½ stars based on the quality of the recording. It was interesting and had some humor.

Vinny Golia, “NBT” (from SFUMATO, Clean Feed, 2003) (Golia, composer, sopranino saxophone; Bobby Bradford, trumpet; Ken Filiano, bass; Alex Cline, drums)

That was intense. It’s very influenced by the Ornette-Don Cherry thing. I don’t recognize it. I’m not sure if the instrument that the saxophone player was playing was a sopranino or a soprano. It was hard for me to tell; it seemed the range was sopranino. I don’t recognize the trumpet. It did sound like Don Cherry to me, but I think it might be a bit later than some of the stuff they did. I liked it. I loved the thematic material, the way they played that with a certain kind of looseness, and that it was kind of anything-goes for a while. For me, at times, I felt like they could have come to more ups and downs in the overall shape, because it kind of kept one intensity throughout most of it. There’s some humor; the quote by the trumpet player of “I Love You,” which I like. The sopranino player was playing straight through in one direction, and it carried me through, I have to say. It kept my attention. I didn’t feel like it was completely without regard to anything. But just in general, I felt I could have seen more ups and downs and shapes within the freedom. For me sometimes, when music is totally free, there has to be a little bit more story-telling at times. But this obviously is what these people do, and they’re very good at it, and for me it held up. 3½ stars. [AFTER] I don’t know who Vinny Golia is. I was thinking that might be Bobby Bradford, because he’d been in the band with John Carter. He’s the only other trumpet player I could think of who was that close to Don Cherry. But I wouldn’t necessarily have recognized him.

Rudresh Mahanthappa, “Playing With Stones” (from SAMDHI, ACT-Music, 2011) (Mahanthappa, alto saxophone, laptop; composer; David Gilmore, electric guitar; Rich Brown, electric bass; Damion Reid, drums; Anantha Krishnan, mrdingam and kanjira)

I’m not sure I recognize the alto player. I might know him if I heard him in another context. It feels like it’s his composition. There’s an ostinato that goes on for a long time with repetitive rhythmic support that almost suggests an Irish, an African thing… At the same time, it’s got a heavy sense of some kind of Afro-rhythm, but also that jig-like thing with the melody on top. Then it breaks down into a very atmospheric section; it has some more effects on it. I enjoyed that section. For me, it was kind of light. Not every piece has to tell a very specific story. Sometimes it’s just part of a larger story. When you hear the entire record, you might have a better sense of why this piece was what it was, and why it was limited to a certain kind of experience. I’m definitely not familiar with it. My guess might be Steve Coleman, from his stuff with the Five Elements group. No? That was a wild guess, because I’m actually not that familiar with his music. This might be a player I know, though, in a different context. 3 stars. [AFTER] I’ve been hearing a lot about him, but I still haven’t had a chance to check him out. I heard something that was a little more straight-ahead once… I like what he gets to at times. It’s very conceptual. Again, it seems like a piece of a bigger story. I’d like to hear more of his music.

Will Vinson, “Late Lament” (from STOCKHOLM SYNDROME, Criss-Cross, 2010) (Vinson, alto saxophone; Lage Lund, guitar; Aaron Parks, piano; Orlando LeFleming, bass; Kendrick Scott, drums; Paul Desmond, composer)

That was beautiful. I really loved the alto player’s sound. It’s very warm and dark without being stuffy. For my taste, a lot of alto players play with such a brightness, and this is the kind of sound I really enjoy hearing. Very expressive. 4 stars. Everybody is playing with a lot of space and maturity, and willingness to let it be what it’s going to be without forcing it. That means a lot to me in music, when there’s that kind of relaxed sense of allowing it to be something. The guitar player is gorgeous, too. I’m sure I know who both players are, but off the top of my head I’m not sure. [AFTER] I don’t know him. He’s got a beautiful sound. I don’t know Lage Lund either. There are so many great players out there. Having heard this, I want to check him out more. Beautiful sound. I like his conception, too.

Yosvany Terry, “Contrapuntistico” (from TODAY’S OPINION, Criss-Cross, 2011) (Terry, alto saxophone, composer; Michael Rodriguez, trumpet; Osmany Paredes, piano; Yunior Terry, bass; Obed Calvaire, drums; Pedro Martinez, percussion)

I really liked that. It was a nice journey. Is it Billy Drewes on alto? No? It sounds just like Billy Drewes to me, in a really positive way. A similar kind of sound and way of phrasing, especially in the low register. I didn’t get a chance to hear the trumpet player improvising that much; it reminds me a little of Tim Hagans. Then I’m not sure who this is. I liked the piece. It had a nice flow to it. The line is like a journey somewhere. You’re starting off and you have a vision of something, and you start out on this trip, and you go, and then you get to a certain point, and you rest for a little bit, like, on the top of a hill, and then, when you think you’re about ready to go to sleep, you realize you’ve got to walk home. That’s what happened there. It came back. Then you realize you’ve got to take this journey back home. There was patience involved with it, I thought. Yet the solos had intensity and were very creative. 4 stars, just for the overall concept and strong improvising. [AFTER] I don’t know Yosvany Terry. Very, very good. I know Mike Rodriguez; I’ve worked with him a bit, and I’m a big fan of his. He didn’t have a real extended solo, so it was hard for me to tell. But I like the alto player’s concept. I think he’s coming from similar influences as someone like Billy Drewes; some freedom, and yet good technique, good understanding of harmony, and so on. Interesting. Similar in sound to Billy.

Eddie Daniels, “Three In One” (from ONE MORE: THE SUMMARY—MUSIC OF THAD JONES, VOL. 2, IPO, 2006) (Eddie Daniels, clarinet; James Moody, Benny Golson, Frank Wess, reeds; Jimmy Owens, flugelhorn; John Mosca, trombone; Hank Jones, piano; Richard Davis, bass; Kenny Washington, drums; Michael Patterson, arranger; Thad Jones, composer)

Obviously, the classic Thad Jones, “Three In One,” which I played many a Monday night at the Vanguard. I’m not sure I see the real reason for re-recording this. It’s pretty much Thad’s arrangement, especially the sax soli, which I thought sounded really beautiful with the clarinet on lead. I think it would almost have been reason enough to record this like that, just to hear that really relaxed clarinet sound in the lead. But it felt like the solos were rushed, like they needed more time to express something. It felt like someone’s idea to do something that would be kind of cute and fun, but didn’t have enough reason really to be documented. The soloists sounded fine, and I thought the bass and drums were hooking up pretty good. It was very relaxed. It didn’t have the intensity that this piece usually would have with the big band. The trombonist sounded a lot like John Mosca to me. Ah, that’s why! I didn ‘t recognize anyone else. The clarinet sound was beautiful. Who was it? Eddie Daniels? Is it his record? 3 stars. I love the piece, I love the beautiful sound of the clarinet, I love Mosca’s solo. Again, I don’t quite see the reason to re-record this as it was, as it’s not a stronger statement than the original. Who else was on it? So it’s people who had a lot of close association with Thad, and wanted to do a tribute to him. For that reason I understand it. If it was just someone’s conceptual idea of something creative, for me it lacks a little. Again, very relaxed. Not really tight by all means, but a nice, relaxed feel.

John Ellis, “Dubinland Carnival” (from PUPPET MISCHIEF, ObliqSound, 2010) (Ellis, tenor saxophone, composer; Alan Ferber, trombone; Gregoire Maret, harmonica; Brian Coogan, organ; Matt Perrine, sousaphone; Jason Marsalis, drums)

I totally love the theatrical quality of this. I’m a big fan of theatrics. It’s got a lot of humor, and what I love is that the musicians are not afraid to go ahead and embrace that humor. If they were afraid to do that, it would suffer greatly. 4 stars for everybody’s complete commitment to what the piece is supposed to be about. That’s fun. It feels like a circus. The circus is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be entertaining. There’s a little high-wire act going on there. The harmonica sounded like a synth, a keyboard harmonica. It sounded like a real harmonica in the beginning, and then it seemed like maybe it was a synth. The organ sounded great, and I love the tuba as a bass function. It gives it a lot of depth, and it helps for that theatrical quality. I’m not sure if I know the musicians. The tenor player phrases a little like Chris Potter, but I haven’t heard enough of his improvising, the way he thinks and feels, to know who it is. [AFTER] John Ellis? I don’t know his playing. I think there’s a lot of personality in his playing. I didn’t hear enough of his improvising to… But it’s a showcase for who he is, and his risk-taking. I don’t know Gregoire Maret. He did things technically on harmonica that seemed to be almost impossible. Amazing. I loved it. Jason Marsalis is great. He has a great concept of how to play over odd time signatures. He’s got the ability to play in different time signatures like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra, “Like A Lover” (from LIVE AT MCG, Telarc, 2005) (John Clayton, bass, arranger; Snooky Young, trumpet solo; Jeff Clayton, soprano saxophone solo)

I think this is a piece of a larger picture, for me. It feels like a movement of something rather than an entire statement. I liked the use of what felt like a quarter step in the beginning, and then it came back at the end there, with a little rhythmic thing in the low brass. It was like a use of some kind of a rubbing quarter steps, which I don’t hear very often. There’s moments with this kind of syncopated, smooth line that was going on that reminds a bit of some of Brookmeyer’s stuff from the ‘60s, which I think a lot of great orchestrators have developed their take on—like Maria Schneider and some other different composers. I liked the plunger solo coming out of nowhere, in a way. It was like a great contrast to what was going on before, which was very atmospheric, and this was like that kind of spark of somebody kind of screaming for something, like “Let me out.” But then, when it got to the soprano, I felt it went on too long, and it felt like the piece didn’t support that long a soprano solo. I thought it could have been more integrated into the orchestration. I think the orchestration could have grown out of the soprano solo, or vice-versa. I think that needed to happen there after the trumpet solo. So it promised something for me in the beginning which it didn’t feel like it delivered as much. But again, it may be just a small statement of a larger piece. There were some intonation problems in the woodwinds which made… This kind of orchestration needs to be really in tune to sound at its best. Even with that said, I think it’s beautiful orchestrating. I’m not sure who it is. 3½ stars for the ability of the orchestrator. It’s a live performance; if it was a studio performance, they’d have had time to make a little bit tighter. [AFTER] It makes sense with Snooky Young. That’s his thing. I was thinking it sounded like someone who was copying Snooky a little bit, the way that he belts out those little phrases. This is not the typical Clayton-Hamilton that I know, which is a little more full-on and really swinging hard. So it was good to hear that. Again, it was a live concert, and John Clayton, the orchestrator of this music, is really gifted. This is one of the most swinging big bands I’ve ever heard. This is an departure from my experience of their music.

Marty Ehrlich, “Frog Leg Logic” (from FROG LEG LOGIC, Clean Feed, 2011) (Ehrlich, soprano saxophone, composer; James Zollar, trumpet; Hank Roberts, cello; Michael Sarin, drums)

I liked it. Of course, this is a freer piece, but it’s within the context of something that’s quite structured. So you get both. You get structure and then absolute freedom, too, which I really like. Someone’s vision is very clear. There was a lot of clarity in this performance. The trumpeter sounds a lot like Ron Horton, who is on my record, in his approach to phrasing and the way he goes up in the upper register. It’s someone who maybe comes out of the same influences as Ron. It sounds a lot like someone who is influenced a lot by Ornette Coleman as well on the alto, so it’s got that kind of freedom… Both the trumpet and the alto have angular lines going. But I like that they don’t suddenly just go off in a direction and stay there for a really long time. There’s a responsibility about how much freedom and how to involve everybody and keep it all intact. I think that’s one thing that people who are playing music that’s much more free…there’s still a responsibility to tie things in with each other. I thought they did it very well. For that, 4 stars. Also, the incorporation of the cello, and how that was voiced in, was very nice. Also, using the instruments in registers that you don’t often hear them, like the alto playing parts that are written way down low, with the trumpet way up, like a tenth up, and stuff like that—sort of unusual ways. I like when people don’t limit themselves to using the instruments for how they’re always used. It always creates something kind of fresh. I don’t recognize the players, though. [AFTER] Marty Ehrlich makes sense to me. I haven’t heard James Zollar in that context. I’ve always enjoyed Marty Ehrlich’s playing. We’ve crossed paths at different times. He’s a wonderful multi-instrumentalist, a beautiful musician, and definitely very committed to his own vision, which I really like.

Gerald Wilson, “Aram’ (from DETROIT, Mack Avenue, 2009) (Wilson, composer, arranger; Terrell Stafford, trumpet solo; Antonio Hart, alto saxophone solo)

This performance was all about momentum and intensity, and it kind of built from the beginning and didn’t let up, and then the only way they could really deal with it is just to fade it out. Which was a little disappointment for me… It’s the end of the album? Ah, then it’s the end of a big statement again. I sort of wanted to see how the composer would bring it to an end, and they just did it by fading. So the intensity went away, but the moment was still there. It’s still there now! It’s off, but it’s still going. A lot of intensity. My favorite thing in this was out of this waltz, which keeps going and keeps going and keeps going, then suddenly this bridge, you have two bars of 4/4 swing with a whole different approach to the harmony, and then all of a sudden back to the 3/4. So you keep coming back to this thing, and you keep promising something with this 4/4 swing, and then you’re back into the 3 again with a minor kind of vibe. So it’s sort of like a tease. It didn’t say a whole lot to me overall, because I think the statement was meant to be a limited statement, in a way. I think the soloists jumped up on the intensity, and then did what they were supposed to do. I don’t recognize the composer or the players. 3 stars. I might have a different opinion if I heard a whole album’s worth of material. But for that performance alone, 3 stars. [AFTER] I should have said Gerald Wilson. I thought that might be Gerald Wilson’s band, because I recognized certain things about his harmony. Anyway, I didn’t. Pretty swinging, but it felt like it didn’t have a lot of dimension to it; it felt one-dimensional. That’s not necessarily a bad thiing, because that’s obviously the choice he was making. But I kept waiting for it to go in another direction, and it didn’t. My hat is off to him for being his age and still having so much passion for music. He’s not the kind of person who is going to sit down and rest. He’s going to keep going and keep going.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Ted Nash

For Danilo Perez’ 54th Birthday, Downbeat Features From 2010 and 2014

Best of birthdays to maestro Danilo Pérez. who turns 54 today. A few years ago on this date , I uploaded a post containing transcripts of an uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test that we did in 2001 and a WKCR interview in 1993. That post linked to a pair of Downbeat articles that it was my honor to write about Danilo in 2010 and 2014 respectively. Today I’m posting the texts of those articles.


Danilo Pérez, See a Little Light – Downbeat 2014

At 2:30 in the morning on the penultimate night of the 2014 Panama Jazz Festival, Danilo Pérez hopped off the bandstand of his new, namesake club in the American Trade Hotel in Panama City’s historic Casco Viejo district. He was exhilarated, and for good reason. Pérez had just concluded the week’s final jam session—a fiery encounter with tenor saxophonist George Garzone, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Adam Cruz—with an exorcistic five-minute piano solo on John Coltrane’s “Mr. P.C.”

“That was like Bradley’s,” Pérez called out, punctuating the point with an emphatic fist-bump. The reference was to the late-night Greenwich Village piano saloon where Pérez was a rotation regular from 1989, his first of three years with Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra, until Bradley’s closed in 1996. That was the year Pérez released Panamonk, cementing his status as a multilingual storyteller who renders Afro-Caribbean and hardcore jazz dialects without an accent.

Earlier that evening, Pérez had focused on his latest release, Panama 500 (Mack Avenue), at a concert at the City of Knowledge, a 300-acre former U.S. military base along the Panama Canal where the festival transpired. The 12-tune suite evokes Panama’s half-millennium as a global crossroads, incorporating indigenous melodies and local variants of African-descended rhythms. On the recording, Pérez fleshes them out with structural and harmonic logics developed over a 14-year run with the Wayne Shorter Quartet, and animates them by unleashing two intuitive rhythm sections—bassist Ben Street and Cruz from his working trio of the past decade, and Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, his partners with Shorter—capable of matching the twists and turns of the leader’s open-ended improvisations. He phrases with a singer’s malleability and a drummer’s effervescence. The concert marked only the second public performance of the work, but Pérez and his unit—Patitucci, Cruz, violinist Alex Hargreaves and conguero-batá drummer Ramon Díaz—delivered it with precision and flair, overcoming a balky sound system, dubious acoustics, and several obstreperous attendees.

Throughout the week, Pérez, 48, multitasked efficiently despite minimal sleep. He fulfilled numerous extra-musical obligations, analyzing the big picture and extinguishing logistical brushfires. At an opening-day press conference, he displayed considerable diplomatic skills, communicating the festival’s educational mission and socio-economic impact in concrete language that the politicians and bureaucrats he shared the stage with could understand and support. He never removed his educator’s hat. There were visits to his Danilo Pérez Foundation, which offers top-shelf musical instruction and life lessons to several hundred at-risk children, 19 of whom have received scholarships to the likes of Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory. Furthermore, Pérez participated in an array of clinics, workshops and master classes conducted by faculty and an elite octet dubbed the Global Jazz Ambassadors [GJA], culled from the Global Jazz Institute, the 30-student enclave that Berklee hired Pérez to conceptualize and develop a curriculum for in 2010.

After a two-hour rehearsal on the morning before the “Panama 500” concert, and another one with Patitucci and GJA for an evening concert in which he would play timbales, congas and cajon, Pérez walked to the City of Knowledge food court for lunch. Over the next hour, he discussed his creative process, staying on point through periodic interruptions—a fan asked for a photo; a violinist and a documentary filmmaker stopped by the table for separate chats, as did Oswaldo Ayala, a popular Panamanian accordionist-vocalist who would debut a new project that evening when the GJA concert was done.

“Records for me are like signposts, and now we have to make a lot of new windows through which to enter and exit,” Pérez said. “They really need to know all the little details; otherwise, there are places where we could get lost in the mud. I’m excited about finding ways to open up and get those notes off the paper.”

The little details and the portals coexist in equal measure on Panama 500. In its formal complexity, Pérez hearkens to the specificity of intention that infused his ’90s recordings—The Journey and Motherland, both heavily composed meditations on Pan-American themes in which the drums power through, and also blowing-oriented dates like Panamonk and Central Avenue, on which he imparted a funky, Mother Earth feel to an array of odd-meter claves. But the mood is more akin to the spontaneous, fluid, experimental sensibility—a quality of instant composition—that palpably infuses 2005’s Live At The Jazz Showcase (ArtistShare) and 2010’s Providencia (Mack Avenue).

Originally, Pérez had intended to follow Providencia with a less speculative program of standards and originals, but experienced a creative breakthrough after the 2013 festival. “When I got back to Boston I knew what the record would be, that I wanted to tell the human path of what happened when the Spanish discovered—or rediscovered—Panama and the Pacific Ocean,” he said. “I started writing new material and improvising at the piano constantly for two weeks. I was writing for each person in the band to represent a certain aspect of the experience. The violin can be the Spanish colonizer, and then transform into the indigenous.”

Once in the studio, Pérez decided to give the two rhythm sections repertoire that they had not previously worked on. “I didn’t want the feeling on the record that people have complete understanding or control,” he explained. “The more familiar they were with a piece, I chose to go the opposite way. Before I joined Wayne, I would have been panicking that someone didn’t know all the details.”

Cruz recounted the milieu. “There was a lot to digest and process, and each section has a certain character,” he said. “So we were struggling—a fun struggle, but hard work. He’s looking for a way not to feel trapped by what he wrote, so performing it always feels fresh and pregnant with possibility.” By deploying this approach, Pérez mirrored what Street described as the “completely chaotic” environment that pervaded the making of Providencia. “I told his wife I thought we should make changes in the control room or ask people to leave,” Street said. “She looked at me almost pityingly and said, ‘Danilo thrives on chaos.’”

Upon hearing her words back, Patricia Zarate laughed long and hard. “It sounds weird for me to say my husband is special, but Danilo has a lot of charisma,” Zarate said. “He has a natural predisposition to turn really bad situations into good ones, whether it’s a band that sounds really bad that he makes sound really good, or being in the home of a student who lives in extreme poverty, transforming it into a great party. That comes from his father. I see chaos in front of me; they see a little light that I don’t see.”

Danilo Pérez Sr., a well-known Panamanian sonero of the Beny Moré school, became an elementary school teacher during the ’60s. He experimented with ways to use music as a learning tool in poor neighborhoods, and passed them on to his son, who was playing bongos by age 3 and began classical piano studies at 8. “My father clearly demonstrated to me that learning and playing a piece is not the beautiful part,” Pérez said, who played both piano and drums in his father’s bands from an early age. “It’s the struggle to get it. If you can connect to the actual lesson that the music teaches you, you have learned something profound in that process, and it will stay with you forever.”

Gillespie and Shorter, both musical father surrogates, reinforced this basis of operations. “Dizzy said that people need to simmer,” Pérez said. “Let it come from friction. Let people struggle until they find their place. Don’t try to accommodate it. Wayne also told us that. Don’t rush. Don’t make quick assumptions. A big attraction to working in Wayne’s context is that he took away everything that I could use to recycle. He said, ‘Function from the primacy of the ear and find your way in.’ Dizzy talked about that, too. ‘Listen, listen, listen, and then let the music guide you.’ That’s the way I’m doing things now. I’m just trying to redefine things that I have thought about or worked on for years.”

Patitucci, who hosted the Panama 500 rehearsals at his Westchester home, described how Pérez manifested this attitude. “Danilo’s process is long,” Patitucci said. “He came in at 9 a.m. with stuff, but it was just the starting point. He’d literally investigate sounds all day, have a short break, and then go to the gig. That makes him perfect for Wayne’s music, which is not about quick answers and cliches. It’s about probing, searching, the struggle of finding new sounds and dealing with them. Danilo is not in a hurry, and he won’t settle for something expedient. He’ll go for something much deeper.”

Pérez described this mindset as “almost obsessive-compulsive, like a dementia.” He said: “It’s almost like the time stops. I feel more joy and function better when I do that, like a kid finding and creating, doing one little thing for a long time. It’s beyond what my father explained to me. It’s the most human I feel.”

Again, he credited his embrace of this perspective to Shorter’s example. “I’ve been encouraged to take these risks,” Pérez said. “I’ve been allowed to think that the creative process is invaluable. I’m starting to get into an open door to come up with a vocabulary that has been with me for years, since The Journey and Panamonk. On each of them, I was falling in love with little things in my life, and I feel like they’re coming back at me. I’m not chasing them. They’re coming back.”

Pérez now finds himself at a crossroads not so dissimilar to the one he faced 14 years ago, when he decided to table his burgeoning career as a solo artist and commit to Shorter’s quartet. This summer, He will join Patitucci and Blade on the club and festival circuit as the Children of the Light trio, while Shorter, who pushed himself hard during 2013 with numerous 80th birthday events, stays home to compose. Pérez’s 2014 itinerary also includes several runs with the Panama 500 unit and a duo event with Miguel Zenón. He hopes to revive his long-standing partnership with tenor saxophonist David Sánchez, and a more recent relationship with altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa and trumpeter Amir ElSaffar that developed during a 2010 project titled “Celebrating Dizzy,” as yet unrecorded, on which Pérez applied principles of nonattachment to Gillespie’s oeuvre. Speaking of recordings, he has several possibilities in mind—perhaps a singers’ project, perhaps documenting orchestral work, perhaps a solo piano recital on the kind of repertoire he played at Bradley’s back in the day, informed by such early mentors as Donald Brown, Jon Hendricks and Gillespie.

Topping Pérez’s aspirational queue is to generate sufficient income from his club to buy the building that houses the Danilo Pérez Foundation. “My dream is to create the best listening room in Latin America,” he said, noting that a 7-foot grand piano would soon be installed, and that Rob Griffin, Shorter’s sound-engineer/road-manager since the mid-’90s, will be overseeing the details. “We want to provide a creative space where the musicians who go from Panama to the United States can play and develop artistically when they return, and also bring international artists to perform at the club in a way that complements the foundation. I want the foundation to be there forever.”

The foundation’s genesis dates to 1984, when Pérez, a few months shy of 18, left Panama on a Fulbright scholarship to study electrical engineering at Indiana College in Pennsylvania, where he stayed a year before transferring to Berklee—also on scholarship—in 1985. “I promised that I would come back and give time every year,” he said. Pérez committed four days each year over a nine-year span to a music-social outreach project called Jamboree, assembled big bands and taught private classes. “Although Danilo saw all these things as part of his mission, they were disconnected and unsustainable because there wasn’t an institution that could take care of this mission,” Zarate said. “So in 2003 he opened a corporation to create a jazz festival that had a social component. ‘I really need to do this,’ he told me, ‘and I am going to put in the project all the money that I have saved to buy our first house in Boston.’”

Two years later, Pérez—who had been appointed Panama’s Cultural Ambassador in 2000—met K.C. Hardin, a controlling partner of the real estate development company Conservatorio, which was then purchasing numerous properties in Casco Viejo One of them was the National Conservatory of Music, a four-story structure constructed in the 1670s—it was Panama’s first Presidential palace—where Pérez had studied in his youth. Another was the American Trade Building, a 1917 mercantile structure across a small plaza from the conservatory, that had fallen into disrepair. Hardin offered Pérez the first floor of the conservatory for a decade, at no rent, to house the foundation; in 2013, he gave Pérez complete creative control of the Danilo Pérez Jazz Club on the hotel’s ground floor.

Luis-Carlos Pérez (no relation), 35, a one-time DPF student who earned master’s degrees in jazz composition and music education from New England Conservatory, is the foundation’s director of education. “We try to teach the children human values and good habits through music,” he said in the foundation’s main practice room, which contains a Kawai grand piano, a Ludwig drum kit and a marimba. In a back room are two Apple computers with keyboards, and six PCs for students—five of them pay $40 per month; the rest are on scholarship—to do homework and access the internet.

Profanity is forbidden, as is fighting, and wearing shoes is mandatory. “We don’t teach music in a conservatory way,” Luis-Carlos Pérez said. “They need to play, to feel music like a game. We teach them to make different sounds with their body, that their body is their first instrument. Some kids may be sexually harassed; this teaches them to respect their bodies. We give them rhythm instruments, or melodicas on which they learn little tunes. We also teach teamwork, how to listen to each other. If a kid has an attitude problem, we know it’s because something is wrong at home, so we make them the leaders. That was Danilo’s idea.”

Danilo Pérez’s core notion of privileging process over product also infuses his vision for the Global Jazz Institute, whose students play in nursing homes, hospitals and prisons to give them an opportunity to feel, as he puts it, “that their talent brings with it great responsibility.” “At the institute, we teach that everything is connected,” said Marco Pignataro, a Bologna-born saxophonist who has been GJI’s managing director since its inception. “The act of giving is going to affect what you do on stage. Danilo’s teaching reflects his experience with Wayne Shorter—his sense of harmony and orchestration, the idea that creativity and humanity exist at the same time. Offstage, you’re still improvising.”

“Danilo sees the world as one huge combination of things, instead of ‘music is here and other things are there,’” said Zarate, a music therapist whose mother is a neurologist in Chile. “He was a totally different person before Wayne, who totally connects to music therapy. But while I was trying to figure out how to restore movement in people with Parkinson’s Disease, Wayne was talking about how we’re going to move humanity with music.”

For all his preoccupation with the big picture, Pérez is a stickler for fundamentals and idiomatic assimilation of traditions. “I still believe that the core of this music’s sound design and architecture comes from listening to Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, who created a vocabulary that is so representative of North America,” he said. “I emphasize that the kids be aware of bebop. I want them to look at Charlie Parker as a superhero. Their backgrounds are very similar. You see this music speak to them; it comes from the barrio.”

Pérez describes his own background as “poor, working-class,” recalling how his mother, also a teacher, “saved a penny to a penny to raise our level.” He emphasizes that “to be poor then didn’t necessarily mean issues with crime and violence, whereas now it’s implied. It was a super-optimistic, honorable culture. My grandfather would say, ‘A monkey dressed in silk is still a monkey; possessions mean nothing if you’re a crook.’ Those values were passed on to us. My mother studied so hard! I promised myself that I want to learn all my life. That’s why I went to New York, and put myself in situations where I was uncomfortable. I think the ultimate heritage you can leave for your family is the desire not to want things to be easy. When I’d see Dizzy in a corner with a little pencil and music, or Wayne writing 100 bars, that is where it’s at for me: commitment and passion.”

These first principles will continue to inform Pérez’s implementation of his social-humanitarian vision. “I understood from early on that the component of education wasn’t only for musicians,” he said. “I see so many things that could be changed in my country, and I asked myself whether I wanted to be a person who produced the change or one who just complained about it. I decided I’d do whatever it takes that I feel is ethical and moral, that doesn’t go against the values my parents taught me. Another thing I learned from Wayne is that every time you feel resistance, it’s a sign to know you’re on the right path. Use resistance as a fertilizer.”



Danilo Perez DB Article 2010 (Final):

“I have to take a risk, otherwise I start to freak out,” said Danilo Perez, after downing a second double espresso at Saturday brunch in the restaurant of his Manhattan hotel. “I understood that early on, even when I was playing with great artists. They wouldn’t like it, because I wouldn’t do the same intro, and maybe I screwed it up the second time.”

The 43-year pianist was midway through a first-four-nights-of-April engagement at the Jazz Standard with a new project dubbed Things To Come: 21st Century Dizzy, on which he and his newest band—alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, trumpeter Amir El Saffar, tenor saxophonist David Sanchez, and percussionist Jamey Haddad, along with drummer Adam Cruz and bassist Ben Street from Perez’ working trio—were deconstructing iconic Dizzy Gillespie repertoire like “Salt Peanuts,” “Con Alma,” “Manteca,” and “Woody ‘n You.” It was only their third meeting, and Perez meant to use his ten club sets to coalesce the flow. There were arrangements, but Perez spontaneously reorchestrated from the piano, cuing on-a-dime shifts in tonality and meter, relentlessly recombining the unit into various duo, trio and quartet configurations.

Ultimately, Perez said, he hoped to extrapolate to the larger ensemble the expansive feel he’s evolved over the past eight years with Street and Cruz, one that Street positioned “somewhere between Keith Jarrett’s late ‘60s-early ‘70s trio with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian and Herbie Hancock’s Inventions and Dimensions record.” Street added: “The music has a lot of emotional freedom, but also an unspoken subtext of rhythmic science that doesn’t always need to be directly addressed.”

“It takes time and patience to be able to go anywhere the music takes us,” Perez said. “Our mission is to uncover new territories inside what’s there to create something unique, and then write to that.” Elaborating as the conversation progressed, Perez referred several times to “writing with windows through which people can enter and exit.”

“I don’t want to write in a dictatorial way, that inhibits personality,” he continued. “I want them to put me in a weird spot.” Perez credited Wayne Shorter, his steady employer since 2001, as the source of this imperative. “Wayne writes you this amazing thing, but then says, ‘Forget that, and bring your own idea—I want to hear your opinion of what I wrote.’”

Cruz cosigned Perez’ consistent non-attachment to material. “If there’s even a smattering of routine on the gig, an ‘Oh, this is what we do’ feeling, Danilo immediately wants to throw a wrench—knock all these pieces over and start again,” he said. Mahanthappa added: “More than anyone I play with, Danilo loves loading a set with surprises to keep things fresh.”

Perez also attributed this predisposition to his experience with Shorter. “He’s given my life a dimension that wasn’t there before—to be committed and fearless, and not focus on the result, but let the stuff morph as it wants to,” he explained. “I’m thinking a lot about what in my life is important to portray, and then letting the music mold and take shape as it goes.” He referenced the title of his just-mixed new album, Providencia [Mack Avenue]. “It’s to prepare for the unknown, for the future, almost as though you’re watching something in forward motion. You let ‘providencia’ take place. I’m thinking a lot about movements and movies, even about struggle. And a lot about children—when I play now, images arise of how children make decisions, doing something and suddenly switching to something else, like organized chaos, but keeping the thread.”

Providencia is a tour de force, a kaleidoscopic suite woven from the core themes that mark Perez’ oeuvre since his eponymous 1993 debut and its 1994 followup, The Journey, on which he presented a mature, expansive, take on Pan-American jazz expression. There are dark, inflamed Panamanian love songs; original programmatic works addressing Panamanian subjects on which the woodwinds and voice that augment the ensemble improvise fluidly within the form; and improvcentric combo tunes that incorporate complex, intoxicating Afro-Caribbean meters—Panama’s tamborito on “Panama Galactic,” for example—and highbrow jazz harmony; a pair of cohesive, spontaneously improvised Perez-Mahanthappa duos towards the end. Throughout the proceedings, the pianist plays with exquisitely calibrated touch, extrapolating the beyond-category voice shaped in the crucible of Shorter’s quintet—Mahanthappa describes it as “the history of jazz piano and 20th century classical music, but improvised, virtuosic, reactive, and musical”—onto the ingenious clave permutations and capacious harmonic palette that established his early career reputation.

The precision of the language and clarity of intention on Providencia belies the loose methodology that Perez deployed in making it. Yet, rather than work with a preordained “text,” Perez, in the manner of a film director who convenes his cast several weeks before shooting to work out characters and plot, constructed his narrative after extensive studio rehearsals.

“I approached it more as a life event than a record date, different than what I’ve done before,” Perez said, referencing his earlier, more curated productions. “I’m living by the code of adventure, to play what I wish for, without preconceptions. I’m fascinated by human collaboration expressed through music, how people with different interests, different loves, can come together and create. The project was a response to an imaginary question from my two daughters: ‘What are you doing to prevent the world from disappearing? What is going to be left for us?’ It’s an invitation to get away from our comfort zone.”

Similar impulses influenced Perez’ decision to collaborate with Mahanthappa and El-Saffar, both high-concept leaders who work with raw materials drawn from South India and Iraq, their respective ancestral cultures, as well as Haddad, a Lebanese-American who specializes in articulating timbres and meters drawn from North African sources. At the Jazz Standard, Perez deftly wove their individualistic tonalities into the overall sonic tapestry. “I was curious to hear how I’d react to an unknown space, like traveling with a person that you never have traveled with or don’t know well,” he said. “I’m attracted to the connotation of globality—the global feel, the idea of bridging gaps.”


“For me, jazz is the only place where globalization really works,” Perez remarked. He embraced that notion during a 1989-1992 tenure with Dizzy Gillespie’s Pan-American oriented United Nations Orchestra, when his name entered the international jazz conversation.

“Dizzy was a global ambassador, and the idea of doing a project around him seemed appropriate now,” he continued. “I believe that this group can become a sort of healing band. Maybe go to Iraq or India and play a concert with musicians there—have the group reflect how the United Nations or the government should be working.

“When I started playing with Dizzy, I was listening a lot to Bud Powell. Once I played a solo over Rhythm changes, people were congratulating me, but Dizzy sort of said, ‘Yeah…but when are you going to deal with where you come from?’ Later, I somehow added something, and he went CLUCK-CLUCK with the baton, meaning, ‘Whatever you did, just keep going.’ I understand now that by not putting up barriers, Dizzy was practicing his Bahai faith. He wanted to create a cultural passport that functions all around the world, for everybody, and he should be credited for that.”

Mentored by mainstem jazz pianist Donald Brown at Berklee, and seasoned in the idiomatic nuances over a consequential year with Jon Hendricks, who “insisted that I know ALL the history,” Perez drew on Gillespie’s first-hand knowledge of the thought process of such seminal figures as Monk and Powell, whose vocabularies he would assimilate sufficiently to make the rotation at Bradley’s, Manhattan’s A-list piano saloon.

“The education system then was not what it is now,” he said. “They channeled information through the great music of the Western world, mixing that with the rhythms they were working with, and developed a new language. I heard Bach’s flowing lines in Bud’s music, and this helped me start to hear bebop. Dizzy would say, ‘Create counterpoint; if I play this note, find another one in the chord; don’t play all the notes. Position your hands, lift some fingers, and then listen to the sound.’ Wayne talks about it, too: ‘Find the tonal magnetism.’

“When I came to the U.S., something drew me to the word ‘jazz.’ I don’t know any more what it means, but I know the feeling. I understand the emotion from being with the cats at Bradley’s or the masters I played with later. There’s a spontaneity, a moment of joy, something that drives your momentum and makes you feel more optimistic and aware. I realized I had to make a cultural decision to immerse myself in the environment, to hear how people talk, to learn. Then I started making connections—finding common tones. ‘That reminds me of the brothers in Panama—they talk kind of like that.’”

Such experiences bedrocked Perez’ quest to find a trans-Caribbean rhythmic context for Monk’s compositions during the ‘90s, documented on Panamonk [Impulse!], from 1996. The idea germinated, he said, on a 1994 tour with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra devoted to Wynton Marsalis’ arrangements of Monk repertoire.

“They approached that music in a sort of Monk-New Orleans-Panama folkloric way that resonated,” he said. “In Herlin Riley’s playing, I heard the connection between the tambores of Panama and second line rhythms, things that reminded me of danzon and contradanse—it all made sense. I had a similar experience playing with Paquito D’Rivera; I wanted to play jazz and swing, but he focused me on Venezuela and Panama.”

Sharpening that focus were occasional gigs with the Panamaniacs, a short-lived group led by Panama-born bassist Santi DiBriano, who introduced Perez to Panama’s contribution to the jazz timeline—saxophonist Carlos Garnett, pianists Luis Russell and Sonny White, drummer Billy Cobham. Perez contends that the demographic diversity stemming from Panama’s position as a global port produces a cultural mix well suited to jazz expression. He referenced Panama City’s Central Avenue, for which Perez titled a well-wrought 1998 release.

“You hear an Indian cat kind of speaking Spanish, but not really,” he began. “Then a Chinese guy semi-speaking Spanish with Chinese. Then an Afro cat. It’s almost what New York feels like, but in one small country. That’s what one has to portray, that kind of mystical mess—but an organized chaos.”

Within the Panamanian melting pot, Perez was ideally positioned to become an improviser. A child prodigy who studied classical music from age eight, he received first-hand instruction in singing and percussion from his namesake father, now 72, a well-known bandleader and sonero of Afro-Colombian and indigenous descent.

“My father was my first school, my fundamental figure,” said Perez, who became a professional musician at 12, dual-tracking during high school as a math and electronics student at the insistence of his Spanish-descended mother who felt, perhaps from first-hand experience, that music was not a dependable profession. “Music was easy for me since I was little, a language I understood quickly, so he used music to teach me to look at things I needed to function in society—“two plus two is four; four plus four is eight.” At 6 I’d pick up the guitar and start singing, ‘Besame, besame mucho,’ and he would say, ‘sing a second voice.’ ‘Papi, that’s too low.’ Later he had me transcribe Cuban records. Imagine being in that environment 24 hours a day. That connected me to music in intuitively, while the electronics and mathematics—my mother’s side—gave me the discipline and ability to learn things on my own.

“My father said he knew that sooner or later I would decide in favor of music. I think now that I didn’t even have to choose, that I was already walking on the music path and wanted to continue growing on that path. From him I understood early on that being mentored was a key, and I surrounded myself with people that know. I always want to keep being a student, to be in situations I can grow in. Otherwise, I lose touch with how music first spoke to me.”


In 2001, when he first toured with Wayne Shorter, Perez faced a crossroads. Then 34, fresh from three high-visibility years playing trio with Roy Haynes and John Patitucci, boasting a c.v. that already included several influential Grammy-nominated albums, possessing strong communicative skills and multi-generational peer respect, he appeared on the cusp of the upper echelons of jazz leaders. Instead, he subsumed such aspirations, constructing his next decade’s schedule around Shorter’s itinerary and a full-time professorship at New England Conservatory. He started a family with his wife, a Chilean music therapist, established a foundation in Panama to work with gang members, created the Panama Jazz Festival, became active in Panamanian cultural politics, and allowed his music to marinate.

“When I was 16, I promised that if I ever had an opportunity to go out and do something, I would return to my country and give back,” Perez said. “When I started playing with Wayne, his approach reconnected me with values that I learned with my father as a child. I realized that for my music to continue to flow naturally, I need to keep growing as a human being. I need to intensify my promise.”

In their essence, Shorter’s musical lessons were not so dissimilar from Gillespie’s earlier admonitions. “Early on we were playing ‘JuJu,’ and I was playing things I’d assimilated from earlier listening—McCoy—and Wayne looked at me like this.” Perez made his face blank. “All of a sudden, I saw a bunch of horses—I went with it. Wayne immediately turned and said, ‘That’s the shit right there.’ I kept going for that, to the point where it become a state of mind. Every time I thought about music, he looked at me like this”—he deadpanned—“and every time I disconnected myself and thought about an event, a movie, my daughter, my wife, he’d say, ‘That’s the shit right there.’”

Shorter has offered moral lessons, too, delivered as metaphoric koans but always landing precisely on the one. “Wayne made me realize that courage isn’t determined by trying to climb Mount Everest,” Perez said. “Courage is getting in a relationship and going through the struggle. He said, ‘Happiness doesn’t come for free. We have to fight for it every day, and we have to be inspired.’ He talks about no regrets—they leave wounds. He says, ‘Don’t hide behind your instrument—see who you are.’ Develop things. With Wayne you have to have a lot of tools together, but the most important tool is to be driven by your shamanistic side, your role in society as a musician.”

Perez, who left NEC to assume artistic directorship of Berklee’s Global Jazz Institute last September, is walking that walk. He recalled a mid-‘90s fortnight run at Bradley’s playing duo with Jacky Terrason. “It was 42 sets, and by the 42nd I thought I could play anything I heard. It’s endurance, but also a belief developed by doing this so intensely with people around you. Sometimes artists walk this dangerous path of portraying ourselves individualistically, and forgetting that it’s about all of us. People send messages, energy, and ideas; jazz is important because it brings a community together. We must take up the sword. This is a quiet revolution—you dream your passion. That’s what Wayne talks about.”

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Two Interviews with Roscoe Mitchell from 1995 on WKCR, and a 2017 Downbeat Feature

n 1995, I had the opportunity to interview the master saxophonist/woodwindist/composer Roscoe Mitchell on two separate occasions on WKCR. Although the transcripts have been up for a number of years on the Jazz Journalists Association website,, the occasion of Roscoe’s 71st birthday on August 3rd offered a good excuse to post the proceedings here as well. On the first session, he came to the station with pianist Amina Claudine Myers, his friend since the mid-’60s; he came solo six months later. Ahead of these in the sequence below is the final draft that I submitted to Downbeat of a feature piece on the maestro in 2017.


Roscoe Mitchell, DB Article, Final Draft:

In spring 2014, not long after Roscoe Mitchell received a $225,000 Doris Duke Artist Award, ECM founder Manfred Eicher wrote a congratulatory letter to the iconic woodwindist-composer. Eicher proposed to Mitchell, then represented on ECM by three albums under his leadership since 1999, and by four with the Art Ensemble of Chicago since 1978, that they should start thinking about their next project.

Not long thereafter, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art invited Mitchell to present an on-site concert in September, in conjunction with its second-half-of-2015 exhibition The Freedom Principle: Experiments In Art and Music, 1965 to Now, mounted to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, of which Mitchell was an original member. Beyond the realm of notes and tones, Mitchell contributed several paintings and his percussion cage, a “sculpture-instrument” comprised of dozens of globally-sourced bells, gongs, hand drums, mallet instruments, rattles, horns, woodblocks and sirens that CMOCA positioned on an installed stage alongside the percussion setups of AEC colleagues Joseph Jarman, Famoudou Don Moye, Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors. It was Mitchell’s second AACM-related event in Chicago during 2015, following a March concert with cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Junius Paul and drummer Vincent Davis documented on Celebrating Fred Anderson, on Nessa Records, whose catalog tracks Mitchell’s evolution since 1967.

Although Mitchell “didn’t even have an idea what music I would do” for the CMOCA event, he nonetheless contacted ECM. The end result is Bells For the South Side, a double CD featuring four separate trios embodying a 40-year timeline of Mitchell’s musical production—James Fei on woodwinds and electronics and William Winant on percussionist; Craig Taborn on piano and electronics and Kikanju Baku on drums and percussion; Jaribu Shahid on bass and Tani Tabbal on drums; Hugh Ragin on trumpet and Tyshawn Sorey on drums, trombone, piano and percussion cage. On some of the ten compositions, the units function autonomously; on others, some with Mitchell performing and some not, he assembles them in configurations ranging from quartet to full ensemble.

Mitchell, 76, sat amidst half-packed suitcases in his downtown Brooklyn hotel room, a few blocks from Roulette Intermedium, where, the night before, he’d performed with a new edition of trio SPACE, a unit whose initial iteration, between 1979 and 1992, featured multi-woodwindist Gerald Oshita and vocalist Thomas Buckner. Joining Mitchell and Buckner was Scott Robinson, whose arsenal included such bespoke items as reed trumpet with two-bells, a slide sopranino saxophone, a contrabass saxophone, and a barbell. Robinson elicited authoritative lines from each instrument, complementing and contrasting Mitchell’s own sometimes circularly-breathed postulations on sopranino, soprano, alto and bass saxophones, intoned with precision along a spectrum ranging from airiest subtone to loudest bellow. Buckner triangulated with micronically calibrated wordless shapes, timbres and pitches.

Mitchell’s next stop was Bologna, Italy, where, four days hence, he’d participate in the latest instantiation of the ongoing concert project, Conversations For Orchestra. The title references the transcriptions and orchestrations of improvisations that Mitchell, Taborn and Baku uncorked on some of the 21 pieces contained on Conversations I and Conversations II (Wide Hive), from 2013. As an example, Mitchell broke down two treatments of “They Rode For Them,” originally rendered as a bass saxophone-drums duet. “I took myself off bass saxophone and reinserted myself as an improviser on soprano saxophone,” he said. “I used Kikanju’s very complex drum part, giving one percussionist his hands and the other percussionist his feet. In New York, I took the bass saxophone part and featured bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck as an improviser.”

On site in Bologna would be one-time Mitchell student Christopher Luna-Mega, who transcribed and orchestrated the improvisations on “Splatter,” and current student John Ivers, who, on “Distant Radio Transmission,” in Mitchell’s words, “transcribed the air sounds the soprano is making with these gradual shifts of pitch, and then the real notes involved in that, and then transcribed those for strings, and orchestrated it for the string section.” The interchange not only satisfies Mitchell’s predisposition “to put my students in the same space I’m in when I’m working,” but is congruent with Mitchell’s “studies of the relationships between composition and improvisation.” He continued: “It’s a new source to generate compositions from. I have these transcriptions and can do what I want with them, so it removes the element of ‘What am I going to write?’”

A similarly pragmatic attitude towards the creative process informed Mitchell’s approach towards generating material for Bells For The South Side. He referenced the Note Factory, an ongoing project that debuted on the 1993 Black Saint sextet recording This Dance Is For Steve McCall, and scaled-up to octet and nonet on Nine To Get Ready (ECM-1997), Song For My Sister (Pi-2002) and Far Side (ECM-2007). “Because the Note Factory was big and didn’t work all the time, I’d keep working with different elements of it—a quintet concert here, a trio there,” Mitchell said. “That keeps everybody engaged with the music, so it’s easier when I get the opportunity to put together the larger group. I enjoy long-lasting musical relationships with people. It takes time to develop certain musical concepts.”

Few musicians have known Mitchell longer than Shahid and Tabbal, with whom Mitchell founded the Detroit-based Creative Music Collective along AACM principles after he relocated from Chicago to a Michigan farm near East Lansing in 1974. Colorado-based Ragin joined them in Mitchell’s Sound Ensemble a few years later; Taborn entered Mitchell’s orbit on a mid-’90s tour playing piano with James Carter opposite the Art Ensemble. The Fei-Winant trio coalesced after Mitchell joined them on the Mills College faculty in 2007 as the Darius Milhaud Chair of Composition; neighborly proximity has allowed ample rehearsal opportunities, as is evident in the uncanny mutual intuition they display on Mitchell’s epic For Trio: Angel City (RogueArt).

Baku, a Londoner who plays in noise bands with names like Bollock Swine, had contacted Mitchell before a January 2013 engagement at London’s Café Oto with Tabbal and bassist John Edwards. After inviting Baku to sit in on the second night, Mitchell decided to pair him with Taborn for the Conversations sessions 10 months later. About a year earlier, Mitchell first played with Sorey (whose teachers include Mitchell’s AACM peers Anthony Braxton and George Lewis) when he was invited to play duo with the younger musician at a Berkeley house concert. “He sounded so amazing playing solo, I thought, ‘Now, what am I supposed to do with him?’” Mitchell recalled. The answer came that July, when Wide Hive recorded a Mitchell-Sorey duo encounter, with Ragin augmenting the flow on several numbers.

Three years later, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Mitchell assigned Sorey to perform in the percussion cage on “Bells For The South Side,” while having Baku open the proceedings by dancing with Favors’ sleigh bells and ankle bells. The journey continued via the following sonic roadmap, tracing a route along vocabulary signposts Mitchell had heard each musician deploy: “Kikanju is joined by interjections of the hanging wind chimes found on the blue rack of Joseph Jarman’s percussion setup, then is joined by short bursts of rolls on the piccolo snare drum, gradually adding cast iron bells whose pitch will be used to construct a melody for piccolo trumpet being played at the far end of the exhibition space. This melody should develop gradually, starting with long tones, with silence in between the melody consisting of more than one tone. This section should end with a cued gong attack that should be marked, ‘Let Ring.’ Inside each of our percussion setups, we have bells of all different sizes that we can swing, and they will continue to swing and ring on their own. They start very small, and gradually build up to the great big bells. Then the sound of the trumpet, and at the end, under my percussion setup, you hear this huge school-bell with a handle on it.”

“Prelude to the Card Game,” a Mitchell-Shahid-Tabbal trio, is the latest in a series of card compositions Mitchell first developed during the 1970s. In them, he provides material on a set of six cards that fit together to be configured in different ways, whether overlapped, side-by-side, or out of numbered sequence. The intention, Mitchell said, is to help inexperienced classically trained improvisers “to avoid making the same mistakes—that is, following, or being behind on a written piece of music.”

He continued: “Each time the information comes up, it’s done a different way. If you play something I like, I can store that and bring it back, say, when I’m running out of information. By then, you’re in another space. Suddenly, we have an important element—a musical composition. That’s counterpoint. I can take your idea and put my own take on it and bring it in another way. Where we had one thing going on, now we have two. If what I’m doing registers to you and you want to put a different take on that, then we’ve brought three different things.

“Every moment is different. If I can remain aware of what’s happening in the moment, it’s helpful in constructing an improvisation. For instance, I might have done something really good last night, but if I try to do the same thing the next night, it might not work. An improvisation should never be a situation where there’s only one option. To me, improvisation is trying to improve your skills so you can make these on-point compositional decisions. That takes practice.”

“Panoply,” which “deals with different sound textures,” features Fei on alto saxophone, Winant on xylophone, Ragin on trumpet, and Baku, Sorey and Tabbal on drumsets. It is also the title of the Mitchell painting on the back cover of the booklet jacket.

“The art came from my mother’s side of the family and the music came from my father’s side,” said Mitchell, whose father sang professionally until he developed problems with his vocal cords. “When I was growing up, one of my uncles created a kind of comic book structure of myself and my sisters and our friends, where we met all these different people from different planets. He used a crayon and ink, and then he’d put the crayon on the paper and then scrape it and mix colors. My other maternal uncle made a lot of my toys and stuff growing up.”

Asked if his creative process involved synesthetic elements, Mitchell responded: “If you’re an artist, sometimes you just make a choice which way you want to go. You’re using the same thought patterns that create painting and music and writing.” In this regard, Mitchell mentioned early AACM colleague Lester Lashley, who played cello and trombone on Sound, the 1966 Delmark recording that vaulted Mitchell into international consciousness. And he mentioned Muhal Richard Abrams, whose paintings were also on display at the 2015 CMOCA exhibition, as were Anthony Braxton’s graphic scores. Mitchell met Abrams in 1961, not long after he returned to Chicago from a three-year stint as an Army musician during which he developed from acolyte to well-trained practitioner prepared to follow Abrams’ dictum of self-education..

“Muhal was painting then, and we talked about painting a lot,” Mitchell said. “Even now, when we get together, we may go to a museum. We always had a sketch-pad with us. I enjoyed sitting in front of the canvas and trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I still try to keep something going on. I do a lot of drawing, and right now I’m working on a sculpture out of pieces of trees that were cut down at Mills—this thing I call the Cat. It’s a two-faced sculpture—one side, to me, has a male image, and then, when you flip the head around, it’s more of a female image. I made glasses for it, so you can display it in several different ways.”

It was time for Mitchell to finish packing, check out, and catch his flight to Bologna, but he took one more question: Considering the time he devotes to teaching, composing, traveling and art-making, how does he sustain his gargantuan chops on the array of instruments on which he continues to perform as a virtuoso?

“I’m not doing so well with that right now,” he said. “I’m longing to get back to practicing six-seven hours a day, like the old days, when all I did was play and I had a real embouchure. There’s an old phrase, ‘catting on the pass.’‘Oh, you got red together, so here’s red, here’s red, here’s red.’ I’m trying to get out of that. I want to get past the point of practicing just to get my embouchure back together. I need to practice consistently until I can get to a point where I can start learning.

“As we live longer, people don’t want to be categorized. I think the best thing, what I always encourage my students to do, is to study music, not categories, so that you can seek in any musical situation you’re in. Certainly be aware of everything that has happened in music, and study that. But strive to study the big picture, which is music.”


Roscoe Mitchell & Amina Claudine Myers (WKCR, 6-13-95):

[MUSIC: RM/M. Favors “Englewood H.S.” (1994); RM New Chamber Ensemble, “Oh, the Sun Comes Up, Up In the Morning”]

Roscoe, having just heard the two recent releases, a few words about each of them, the continuity of the ensembles, the ideas behind each CD.

ROSCOE:  The New Chamber Ensemble, Pilgrimage is dedicated to Gerald Oshita, who was a member of our original trio, which was Space.  The New Chamber Ensemble, you could say, is a continuation of that work.  Gerald passed, and we dedicated this record to him.  On this record there is also a composition by Henry Threadgill with a text by Thulani Davis entitled “He Didn’t Give Up; He was Taken.”  For the pieces that we’re going to be doing Saturday we’ll have joining us also two members of this ensemble.  Thomas Buckner will be performing with the S.E.M. Ensemble, which is an 11-piece chamber orchestra, in a piece that I wrote entitled “Memoirs Of A Dying Parachutist,” a poem by Daniel Moore.  We’ll also be doing a trio piece for piano, saxophone and baritone voice, with the members of this particular ensemble.

In the 1980’s, apart from your work with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, you were working concurrently with the Roscoe Mitchell Sound Ensemble and the Roscoe Mitchell Space Ensemble, and sometimes combining the two.  Would you talk a little bit about your concepts for each of these groups in terms of the words “sound” and “space” as separate and converging intents.

ROSCOE:  If you’ll remember, back in 1966 my first record to come out on Delmark was titled Sound.  This is the where the name for the Sound Ensemble came up.  Over the years, though, we’ve worked in different combinations with both of the groups, either doing large pieces, which you will find on that CD on Black Saint, Roscoe Mitchell and the Sound and Space Ensembles.  Sometimes we would tour with both of these groups, and we would do pieces with one group and pieces with the other group, and then combine pieces.

If I could talk about your question on the scope of the music, I don’t really see that much difference from one to the other.  I’ve always tried to work in lots of different areas with both groups.

In the Sixties, when Sound came out, Amina, were you… I know Roscoe played in some of Amina’s ensembles in Chicago in the 1960’s.  At that point had the two of you met?

ROSCOE:  Yes, we had.

AMINA:  Yes.  Actually I played… Roscoe did an all Duke Ellington concert, and had me doing vocals, and he did another concert where I played and sang.  But he never played in any of the groups that I had organized.

ROSCOE:  Except the group we had at the Hungry Eye.

AMINA:  Oh, yes.  That’s right.  That organ group!

ROSCOE:  We had a hot group at the Hungry Eye.  The first time we had Gene Dinwiddie with us…

AMINA:  That’s right.  Kalaparusha, Lester Bowie…

ROSCOE:  …and Lester Bowie, and then we went to Kalaparusha and Lester Bowie and Ajaramu.  I mean, we had one of the hottest organ groups that you wanted to hear back in those days.

AMINA:  That’s right.

ROSCOE:  That’s when they had the music up and down Wells Street, the Plugged Nickel, the Hungry Eye, and so forth.  All those clubs were there.  It was like a miniature New York or something.

AMINA:  That’s right.

What was your impression of Amina’s music when you first heard it, Roscoe?  Do you remember the circumstances?

ROSCOE:  I was always knocked out by Amina’s music.  At that time, in Chicago, the organ was starting to gain more presence on the scene.  Jimmy Smith had come out with that record, The Champ, and so on.  And in Chicago there were a lot of organ players then.  Baby Face Willette was there, Eddie Buster… So in Chicago at that time, there was music almost every night.  So I always knew where to go.  You could go out every night and play with somebody if you wanted to, and this is what I did.

Where were some of the places you’d go out to play?  Would they be on the South Side?

ROSCOE:  Yeah, a lot of them were on the South Side.  There was the Wonder Inn…,

AMINA:  McKie’s.

ROSCOE:  …McKie’s, and then there were clubs that were further over toward the lake.  I can’t remember the names of all of them…

AMINA:  The Coral(?) Club.

ROSCOE:  Yeah, and then that club they had down on Stony Island…

AMINA:  Oh, yes.

ROSCOE:  …and one on 71st Street.  There was a lot of… See, I came from that kind of a thing.  I mean, when I grew up in Chicago, not only did I listen to the same music that my parents listened to; I could go right outside of my house and go down the street, and they’d be playing there.  My parents and all of us, we all listened to the same music.

What was that?

ROSCOE:  That was a wide variety of music.  Whatever was popular was on all the jukeboxes.  I mean, those were the days where you could go to a jukebox and there was some variety in the music on the jukebox.  I mean, now you go to a jukebox and it’s all the same thing.  But whoever was popular.  I mean, when Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Williams had that hit out, that was on there.  James Moody’s “It Might As Well Be Spring” was on there.  I mean, just to give you… It was jazz pieces, popular pieces; whatever was popular at that time was out.

Were these clubs hospitable to young saxophonists coming in to sit in?  In other words, were there jam sessions at a lot of clubs?  Were you able to get gigs at some of these clubs with the local musicians?

ROSCOE:  Well, that was my musical upbringing.  I always went out and sat in with people, so I got to know different people.  Like I said, I could go out and play every night.  Then it was also at that time when the licensing for the clubs was getting changed.  If you had a trio there, it was one price for a license.  If you had anything bigger than a trio, then it was a bigger price for a license.  So a lot of house bands were working, and people would come and sit in and stuff like that.  Because it was right on the verge of the era where people were starting not to have as much live music, and the disk jockeys were starting to become popular in the clubs.

Were you playing alto saxophone all this time?  Was that your main instrument back as a teenager?

ROSCOE:   I started on clarinet, then in high school I played baritone saxophone.  Then later on I went to alto, and so on and so on.

A lot of the musicians in Chicago who came to prominence went to DuSable High School with Walter Dyett, but you went to Englewood High School.  Tell me about the music program there.

ROSCOE:   Well, that’s where comes this next CD.  I was very fortunate in Englewood High School to have met Donald Myrick, who is a founding member of the AACM.  He is also a founding member of Phil Cohran’s group he headed, the Afro-Arts Theater, which later on became the Pharaohs, which they did also record under that name, and then after that became members of Earth, Wind and Fire.  Now, like I said, I know that DuSable had Captain Dyett, but we had Donald Myrick at Englewood High School.  And I was fortunate to meet him at that time, because he was already playing the instrument in high school, and he kind of like took me under his wing and, you know, started to show me about music.

I’d like to talk a bit about your gradual transition from being let’s say a talented apprentice on the instrument to becoming a person for whom music was a life.  Did you always see music as your life?  Do you recollect when that started to happen?

ROSCOE:   Well, I know I’ve always loved music, and like I said, it was always in my family.  Through an older brother, I got really introduced and really very interested in Jazz, because he had all of those old 78’s, and we’d spend a lot of time just listening to them.  “Hey, come over here, sit down, let’s listen to this, let’s listen to that.”  So yeah, music has always been in my life.

Then, when I was in the Army, I started to function as a professional musician twenty-four hours a day, and I was in the Army for three years.  So when I came out of there, yeah, I was pretty much on the track to being a musician.

I gather that you were exposed to a lot of interesting music when you were in the Army, stationed in Europe.  If I’m not mistaken, I recollect hearing you talk about hearing Albert Ayler play in Germany maybe…?

ROSCOE:   I was in the band in Heidelberg, Germany.  Sometimes we would go to Berlin along with the band from Berlin and the band from Orleans, France, and Albert Ayler was a member of that band.  We’d come together and do these big parades in Berlin.  But at that time, when all the musicians got together, there were a lot of sessions and different things.  So when I first heard Albert at that time, I didn’t quite understand what he was doing, but I did know that he had an enormous sound on the tenor.  I remember that once someone called a blues or something at the session, and I think that for the first couple of choruses Albert Ayler played the blues straight, and then when he started to go away from that, then I started to really kind of understand what he was doing.

But I have to say that, as a musician, when I was in the Army, when I first heard Ornette Coleman, I didn’t really fully understand what he was doing.  When I got back to Chicago and met Joseph Jarman, he was already more advanced than I was in terms of listening to Eric Dolphy… As a matter of fact, it was John Coltrane who brought me back into that music with his record Coltrane, which has “Out of This World” on it.  That was when Coltrane started to go away from the regular chordal pattern and use a sort of a modal approach to the music.  When I started to hear that, I said, “Wait, I’d better go back and listen to Eric,” and then I said, “I’d better go back and listen to Ornette,” and then I started to fully understand.  That was like about two years as a musician being able to understand that music.

Talk about the beginnings of your relationship with Joseph Jarman.  I gather that you and he and Malachi Favors were all at Wilson Junior College, now called Kennedy-King.

ROSCOE:   Yeah, it was Wilson Junior College.  Also Jack De Johnette was there, because we played a lot in those early days.  Jack was known around town as a pianist, but he always played drums, too, because he was very talented.

Wasn’t Steve McCall the drummer in his trio?

ROSCOE:   In Jack’s trio?  I don’t remember at that time.  I know it was Scotty Holt.  Steve might have done some things with him.  But it was Scotty Holt, the bass player.  So we were all there together, and that’s where we first met.  And of course, Muhal was always the person who brought everybody together.  He had his big band rehearsals down at a place called the C&C every Monday night, and we all started to want to go down there and be a part of that.  This is what brought everybody together to where people started talking about, “Oh, yeah, let’s put together an organization where we can kind of control our destinies a little bit more” and so on and so forth, and this is where the thoughts for the AACM originated.

What was your first contact with Muhal like?  What was your impression?

ROSCOE:   Well, Muhal always impressed me… Now, he was a guy who would always help out anybody who needed help, and everybody would always come over to his house, and at the end of the week he would still have a piece for the big band!  I don’t know how he did that, but he did it! [LAUGHS] For a while, all I did was, I’d go to school, and then after school then I would go over to Muhal’s house.  Sometimes I wouldn’t get home until 9 or 10 o’clock at night or something like that.  And that’s what a lot of us did in that period.

Amina, you weren’t originally from Chicago.  You came there from Arkansas.  But when did you get to Chicago?

AMINA:   In 1963.

Did you immediately find the AACM at that time?

AMINA:  No.  I went there to teach school.  I taught Seventh and Eighth Grade music.  I really wasn’t thinking about playing.  And I went out with a young man one time, he was a photographer… He was really a photographer, but he liked to play the hand drums.  Unfortunately, he had no rhythm, none.  But he would go up on the West Side and sit in, and I went there with him one night and played the organ, and the leader of the group fired his organ player and hired me.  Then I went from there, and started working with a guy named Cozy Eggleston.  While working with Cozy, Ajaramu, the drummer, heard me, and we formed a group together.  He was the one that brought me into the AACM.

Talk about your background in Arkansas.  Had you been playing piano and organ since very young, and in church?

AMINA:  Well, I started playing the piano… I was taking European Classical music around 7, and then I started playing in the church, leading choirs and co-leaders of several gospel groups in my pre-teens, all the way up through college.  Then the organ was introduced in the early Sixties.  I was playing the piano in a club, then the organs came in, and then I started playing in the churches, playing church organ.

So you were playing both in the church and jazz as well?

AMINA:  Yes, I was.

Talk about your early exposure to Jazz.  Who were the pianists who inspired you in the type of music you were trying to play?

AMINA:  Well, first of all, I was doing Rhythm-and-Blues and everything.  And a young lady when I was in college came up to me and she said, “I have a job for you, but it’s playing in a nightclub.”  I’ve told this story so many times.  I wasn’t even thinking about playing in a nightclub.  I said, “Girl, I can’t play no nightclub.”  She said, “Yes, you can.  It pays five dollars a night.”  And as I have said so often, we called her “the black Elizabeth Taylor,” because she looked just like Elizabeth Taylor.

So I went down there and got this job playing.  I copied all of the… Because I was singing.  I always sang and played at the same time.  I copied all of Ella Fitzgerald’s “Stomping At The Savoy,” note for note.  But like Roscoe was saying, the jukebox there had Ornette Coleman, Lou Donaldson, and Ornette’s music was very popular.  I always liked it.  It sounded strange, but I liked it.

But a lot of the piano players from Memphis, Tennessee, used to come to this hotel which had a room in it…  The club was in the hotel.  So I picked up a lot of things on piano from the pianists that would stay at the hotel.  They played at the white country clubs in Little Rock.

Who were some of the pianists you heard then?

AMINA:  Charles Thomas.  He’s in Memphis now.

He played a week at Bradley’s in New York a few months ago.

AMINA:  Oh, a few months ago.  I heard that he had been this way, but I didn’t know when.  A young man that’s passed away now, Eddie Collins.  There’s a young guy that’s on the scene now, his father is… I can’t think of his name.  He’s from Little Rock now.  He’s very popular.

So this is how I learned.  I started picking up things on the piano, trying to learn how to play “So What” and things like that.  But mainly I was copying Nina Simone, Dakota Staton, Ella Fitzgerald.

What was early impression of the AACM after you got to Chicago?  What was your first experience like?

AMINA:  Well, I was very apprehensive.  Because Muhal had those charts!  I thought they was… I said, “Oh, my goodness.”  There were about two or three piano players on the scene, and I was hoping I wouldn’t be called!  Because reading the music, it looked so, so difficult.  I was more or less shy.  Believe it or not, I was.  I was hoping I wouldn’t be called to play.  I would worry all while I was up there at the piano!  I was worried about playing the wrong note.  Because the music looked very difficult to me, and it can be.  But Muhal was very patient and very encouraging.

Then when we started organizing smaller groups, we all did things.  Like, Roscoe and all of them were inspiring.  I never felt… You know, I felt that I belonged and that I was, and I realized that I could write, and that I had something to say.  Because you know, Roscoe used to walk around with this big tall top hat, it was about five feet high tall!  He was painting, Muhal was painting.  They were doing all these things.  It was very, very creative.  So it was like a beehive of activity, and I was inspired.

It sounds like Chicago was a place where you could really actualize anything that came to mind through the work you were doing and put it out there, and it would generate new activity, and it just kept going and going.

ROSCOE:  That’s true.  Because we were very fortunate to be in a spot where there were so many people that were thinking the same way.  It was also very inspiring.  Because I remember going to different people’s concerts, and then the way I would feel, I’d be so excited that I felt that I wanted to go home and try to really work hard for my next concert.  And so on and so on.  You would always be inspired… it was just a great time, a great learning time for music, and you didn’t have to be quite as rushed as, like, for instance, if you had been in New York at that time, where everybody is over here and over there, you know, trying to do this and do that to make some money or whatever.  I’m not saying anything about New York.  I’m just saying that it was easier to get a bunch of people together there, at that time, then it would have been in New York.

AMINA:  Mmm-hmm.  It was.  It was.

Well, New York seems a much more competitive, cut-throat type of place in many ways.  Considering the AACM has stayed together and the relationships have remained over thirty-plus years, it’s testimony to the bonds that formed during that time.

AMINA:  Right.  Because of our foundation there.  I don’t think it could have happened here because it’s too spread out.  There’s too much… You have to work so hard to survive here.  It was much more relaxed in Chicago.

But I don’t exactly get the sense that in Chicago it was so economically wonderful for the musicians in the AACM, but I guess it was maybe a little easier to live.

ROSCOE:  Yeah, that, and then… Well, we’re an example to the world of what musicians can do if they put their resources together.  I mean, not only did the AACM exist.  I mean, of course, we started it off… The way we got things going was, we paid dues, and we saved our money, and we had our programs for the children in the community, and then we would do our concerts.

AMINA:  We had a training program.

ROSCOE:  Yes.  Then we also went on to an idea beyond that.  We thought, like, “Hmm, well, why don’t we encourage people in other cities to do a similar type thing, and then have exchange concerts and things like that.”  I mean, we also created work for musicians, in a way.  We’d have musicians come up from Detroit, which later became the B.A.G, the Black Artists Group…

AMINA:  St. Louis.

ROSCOE:  I mean, St. Louis.  Sorry.

You were going back and forth to Detroit also, I guess.

ROSCOE:  Well, Michigan is where I started the C.A.C., which is the Creative Music Collective.  We followed the same format that we had laid out in the AACM.  I mean, we did our concerts, and then we’d bring different people in to play.  It was like creating employment.

Roscoe, it sounds like you and Malachi Favors formed an instant bond from those days in junior college.  And he was a member of your original ensemble, even before the first Delmark recording.  A few words about that relationship.

ROSCOE:  Well, he was also at Wilson Junior College with us.  It was Threadgill, Malachi, Jack De Johnette, Joseph, John Powell, and a bunch of other folks.  Yes, Malachi was in some of my earliest groups, that’s true.  We did form an immediate bond.  Although we don’t always agree on everything, we do at least agree on music, you know!  So that’s kept us together through all of these years.

Talk about your earliest groups, before The Sound was recorded.  Were you basically working toward the areas that you explored on Sound in those groups in ’64 and ’65?

ROSCOE:  Well, like we were talking about before we went on the air here, we’ve got a record way back there with Alvin Fielder and Fred Berry, who is a trumpet player that used to play with us, Malachi and myself, which is a very good record which we might release sometime.  But then even before that, Gene Dinwiddie, who I don’t know how many people know of him now, but he went on to be a member of Paul Butterfield’s band for a while; and then Kalaparusha was playing with us a lot in those days.  The other night I was playing in Chicago at the Hot House, and a guy came by with some photographs from that period, thirty years ago, with Lester Lashley on there playing cello, and this other drummer that we worked with out of St. Louis — at that time his name was Leonard Smith, and now his name is Fela(?).

In those days, that’s all we did, was play.  I mean, we rehearsed every day.  When it was warm, we went to the park and played every day.  I mean, Chicago was that kind of place.  When I was growing up there, if you went to the park, you could always find Curley out there, a saxophonist, playing.  And a lot of guys that were really trying to learn how to play and stuff, they would go out there and hang around him.  So these groups and the AACM, I mean, they all evolved out of this kind of philosophy.

Amina, what did having musicians available like Roscoe and Kalaparusha and many others do for your writing with your various groups, Amina and Company, in the mid-1960’s?

AMINA:  Well, everybody has a different style and approach.  For instance, Kalaparusha was playing with us for quite a while.  We traveled together.  I had this little electric piano, and I would watch how he voiced his chords with the clusters and things.  And just observing the scores and hearing the music, I saw that the mind was free to create whatever you wanted to create, and that it would work, you know, if you believed in it, and it would have a meaning to it.  I noticed this with all the music, with Muhal… Everyone was different, but yet they were unique within their own.  Of course, my background was mostly just Gospel.  I never studied technically.  So basically, mine was I guess a little bit more simple.  I didn’t know anything about chords or anything like that really.  I just had some of the basic things.  So I just had to observe and listen and watch.  I’d see what Muhal would do… I just picked up what I could.

I guess later, when you worked with Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, the chords probably came into play a little more.

AMINA:  Yes.  They didn’t believe in having music.  Sonny Stitt would rehearse something, and then three months later he would call it.


AMINA:  I remember “Autumn in New York,” he rehearsed that, and then I forgot all about the song.  But he said, “‘Autumn In New York,'” and just started playing it before…!  They didn’t… So it was like you had this on your mind.  See, I didn’t know anything about going to the stores and buying sheet music.  I was very naive, believe it not; very naive.  In doing Gospel music, we never used any music.  We picked up all the songs off the radio.  There was no such thing as buying music.  You know, I was from a little village on the highway, and the quartet singers would come through, so I mean, we never saw music — you just picked it up from what you heard.

So therefore, with Sonny and Jug… Jug did have a few little tunes he wrote on the chord changes on occasion.  But basically, they wanted you to hear it up here.  You had to hear it.  They said, “Use your ears.”  Especially Sonny Stitt.  He would always say, “Use your ears.”

Roscoe, Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons are really synonymous, in a way, with a certain sound of Chicago.  Were they a big part of your early experience as a saxophonist?

ROSCOE:  Yeah, of course.  And Nicky Hill was also a big part.  I mean, a lot of folks don’t know about Nicky Hill.  He was also a great saxophonist in Chicago.  There were so many people!  I mean, Clarence Wheeler was a great saxophonist.  There was a guy when I was growing up named George Fullalove(?), who was a great saxophonist.  And this guy that I just told you about, Curly; I mean, he’d go out in the park and he’d be out there six-eight hours a day, standing up there, running scales and arpeggios all day, all day long.  We’d just go out there and sit and listen to him, and he’d tell us about this and tell us about that, and show us different things and stuff like that.

Chicago has a very rich tradition in music. I mean, there are so many people that you don’t even hear about that are totally great.

And it’s been that way since the turn of the century, since the Pekin Theater was built on 27th Street and Michigan Avenue in 1905.

ROSCOE:  Exactly.

A center of show business and black artists.

[MUSIC: Amina, “Jumping In The Sugar Bowl” (1986); Roscoe, “Walking In The Moonlight” (1994)]

“Walking In The Moonlight” was a composition by Roscoe Mitchell, Senior.  Was your father a musician, a working musician?  Obviously he was a lover of music.

ROSCOE:  Yeah, he was a lover of music.  He was a singer, you know.  Not only was it the jazz artists who were real popular in those days, but the Popular singer was also very popular; Nat King Cole, of course, comes to mind…

Did your father know him from his younger days in Chicago?

ROSCOE:  Yes, he did.  My mother went to school with Nat King Cole.  They remember him always going to the church to practice the piano and stuff all the time.

Nat Cole’s father was a minister…

ROSCOE:  Yes.  And… Oh, what was I saying…?

I interrupted you.  Sorry.


Your father was a singer…

ROSCOE:  Yes, my father was a singer, and he was one… I guess you could group him into the group of singers that they call crooners.  He also used to do a thing where he would imitate instruments, you

Would you say you picked up your earliest musical inspiration from him?  Did he get you your first instrument?

ROSCOE:  Well, I would say that my father always wanted me to be a singer, you know, because that was his first love.  I think my brother is the one who got me interested in the instrument.  I always loved music.

Well, you have that rich baritone.  I’d imagine you could have gone somewhere with it!

ROSCOE:  Yeah.  But it was my brother who was largely responsible for me starting to know about people like Lester Young and Charlie Parker and so forth.

A number of the older musicians in Chicago who people might not necessarily think of as being involved in the AACM were early members, like Jodie Christian, the pianist on Hey Donald.

ROSCOE:  Yes, he was.  Jodie was my idol when I was in high school.  I mean, I remember Lester telling a story about Jodie and a group he had with I think Bunky Green and Paul Serrano, and it might have been Victor Sproles or somebody on bass — I don’t remember.  He remembered they came down to St. Louis, and they were so great that the people just said, “Oh, they’ve got to stay a few more days,” so they cancelled their whole program and kept them down there.  All those people were just a great inspiration to me.  Like I said, in Chicago you could just go out and see these kind of people, like, all the time.  So there was always something to keep you thinking about something.

Eddie Harris, who is working at Sweet Basil…he and Richard Abrams were actually partnering on a workshop orchestra that eventually became the Experimental Band.

ROSCOE:  That’s correct.

Muhal, of course, worked with Eddie Harris’ groups in the late 1960’s and early Seventies.

ROSCOE:  Yes, he did.

Now, Eddie Harris is someone who was very much concerned with sound and explorations in sound in similar ways to what you have been doing.

ROSCOE:  Of course he is.  I mean, Eddie Harris is the only guy that I really know that really has ever done anything with the electric saxophone and all of these different kinds of things.  He has always been right on the edge of creativity all the time, I mean, with all the different things that he invented, and his books, and he’s got the ability to be extremely experimental or just walk over here or something and get a big hit — as a Jazz musician!  You remember when he came out with “Exodus,” I’m sure.  He was always a great inspiration to all of us.  I was just in St. Louis, I don’t know, a few months ago, and I was very lucky that Eddie Harris was playing at the hotel that I was staying in, so I got to see him and listen to his music again.

Amina, in Little Rock, where you settled I guess as a young adult, there was a thriving musical community as well.  Two musicians prominent on the scene today who come to mind, although I don’t know if you were there exactly when they were there, are Pharaoh Sanders and John Stubblefield.

AMINA:  Well, when I was in college I met Stubblefield.  His group came over to play.  We had originally hired Arthur Porter I believe is his name.  His son, Art Porter, Jr., is now very popular on the scene.  Art Porter couldn’t make it so, he sent Stubblefield’s band.  We clashed the first night, but we’ve been very good friends ever since then.  Pharaoh wasn’t there.  He had moved by the time I got there.

Tell me about the music that you’ve composed for the concert on June 18th.  It’s original music commissioned for this concert.

AMINA:  Well, I’ve been commissioned to write a composition for a chamber orchestra of 12 pieces, the S.E.M. Ensemble, directed by Petr Kotik.  Then Roscoe and I will be doing a duet, along with other duets he’s doing.  This will be original music also.

Roscoe, you mentioned that your Army experience sort of catapulted you into being a professional musician.  In the Art Ensemble of Chicago, I think everybody but Moye spent some time in the Army.  It seems to me that that experience must have had a big impact on the Art Ensemble’s being able to forge their path during the difficult days of the late Sixties.

ROSCOE:  Well, you learn how to survive in the Army, that’s for sure.  And it’s true, I met great people in the Army.  Like, another guy out of Chicago, Reuben Cooper, was in the Army with me at that time.  Lucious White, who is Joseph Jarman’s cousin, who is an excellent alto saxophonist and bassoonist.  When I was in Heidelberg, Germany, Nathaniel Davis’s group had won the All-Army competition, so they came and stayed with us for almost about a month or so.  I would go around with him and he’d be playing… I remember one time we were down at the Cave 54 in Heidelberg, Germany.  There was a great Danish saxophonist there who was in Germany at that time, Bent Jadik, and he’d always be down there kind of running over everybody, and then when Nathaniel Davis came down there that night [LAUGHS], we saw Bent Jadik kind of perk up a little bit!

Like I said, a lot of really talented musicians that were willing to share some time with me and show me different things like that.  Some people may have had a bad experience in the Army.  Mine wasn’t that bad.  I mean, I actually came out of there knowing something about music.

Talk a little about that three-year sojourn in Europe with the Art Ensemble.  What was your impetus for going over there?

ROSCOE:  Well, we had been all over the States.  We were very adventurous, you know.  And I think that we’re responsible for a lot of people that go over there now.  Because people weren’t really going over there, you know.  We went over there and carried the banner of the AACM.  We started playing at this club, it was a small theater really, in Montparnesse, called the Luciniere(?) Theater.  We played there four nights a week, and sometimes we’d have enough at the end of the gig to go get ourselves a cheese sandwich and a beer.  But people started to know about us.  And this is how people became interested in us in Europe.

Also Steve McCall was over there at that time, Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins, Leo Smith was there.  But not only them, there were all these people from New York.  I mean, Paris was alive with music then.  I’ve never seen Paris like that as I saw it in the late Sixties.  There was always music all the time.  This guy who put out all those records, Jean-George Caracas(?), did this big festival.  He was supposed to have it in Paris, and at the last moment they wouldn’t let him have it at the Mall de Mutualité, so he had to change everything around, and he had it in Amiges(?), Belgium.  This was like a grand festival, with a whole week, two different stages, one shut down and the next one kicked right up, and so on.  He had all kinds of music there.

Then after that was that whole rich time when we did all those different recordings.  I got a chance to record with Archie Shepp and Grachan Moncur and Sunny Murray and so on and so forth.  I mean, there were concerts almost every night.  Every day everybody was at the American Center, playing all the time.  I’ve never seen Paris like that.

Well, the records bear that out.  There’s a real sort of fire burning through all of them collectively.

ROSCOE:  Exactly.  I mean, Cal Massey was there.  I was hanging out with Hank Mobley, Don Byas, so on… I mean, I couldn’t have asked for a richer experience as a young musician at that time.

One musician who both you and Amina have both mentioned as being right there, and who was at the beginning of Roscoe’s musical explorations, is Henry Threadgill.  In the next set we’ll hear compositions by him on which Amina and Roscoe perform.  In Amina’s case, she’s featured on organ on a song entitled “Song Out Of My Trees,” the title track of a 1994 release on Black Saint, with Ed Cherry on guitar, Henry Threadgill, alto saxophone, and Reggie Nicholson on drums.  Then from Roscoe Mitchell’s new release on Lovely Music, Pilgrimage, the Roscoe Mitchell New Chamber Ensemble, we’ll hear “He Didn’t Give Up; He Was Taken”, music by Henry Threadgill and poetry by Thulani Davis.  This is a quartet for baritone voice, Thomas Buckner; violin, Vartan Manoogian; alto saxophone, Roscoe Mitchell, piano, Joseph Kubera.

Amina, a few words about the piece we’re about to hear.

AMINA:  Well, on this particular piece, Henry started hearing things for organ.  He’s always coming up with various combinations of instrumentation.  And it seems like the organ started coming back on the scene again, so I was glad to see that.  It was very interesting playing this particular composition with Henry.

ROSCOE:  I’ll have to say about Henry, he’s a great musician and a great inspiration.  I’d like to start off by saying that.  Because Henry was also there back in Wilson Junior College Days.  My admiration of him as a composer… I mean, he just completely overwhelms me every time I hear something by him, because I’m always inspired by what he’s actually writing.  This piece that we do on this record is a text of Thulani Davis about a guy who was homeless, but despite all of that he didn’t give up, he went on, he was taken, he had a purpose.  This piece grew out of a concert that happened in New York at Town Hall, where we had the New Chamber Ensemble and Henry Threadgill’s group both doing separate pieces and combined pieces.  So he wrote this piece for the New Chamber Ensemble at that time.

[MUSIC: Threadgill-Amina-Nicholson-Cherry, “Song Out of My Trees” (1994); RM New Chamber Ensemble, “He Didn’t Give Up; He Was Taken” (1995)]

In summing things up, I’d like to talk about current events, current projects.  Roscoe, you’ve been living in Madison, Wisconsin, and using it as your base.  How many groups are you working with now? Are you  teaching…

ROSCOE:  For the moment I’m not teaching.  The different groups that I’m playing with right now:  Of course, the Art Ensemble is one.  The Note Factory is another.  The New Chamber Ensemble is another.  Then, I do different variations of different things.  I had a concert in Chicago last Saturday with Matthew Shipp, Spencer Barefield (who is a member of the original Sound Ensemble), Malachi Favors, Gerald Cleaver, who is the new drummer (and an excellent drummer, I might add) that I’ve been working with out of Detroit, and of course myself on woodwinds.

I’m a composer also, so depending upon what someone is asking for, the size of the ensemble or whatever, I’ll write for that also.  Then of course, don’t let me forget, we just had the record come out with the quartet with Jodie Christian, Malachi Favors and Albert Tootie Heath.

You also appear on a recent recording on Delmark with Jodie Christian, a couple of very strong pieces.


TP:    You’ve always incorporated extended techniques on the different saxophones, but it seems that your use of circular breathing has really been entering your compositional formats in the last decade.  Can you talk about the aesthetics of circular breathing, what it allows you to do?

ROSCOE:  Well, if I look at Frank Wright, for instance, and the kinds of things that he was doing in the early Sixties, which I was very impressed by, what I can do now is go back and reflect not only on that situation, but other situations musically.  Just his approach to the sound, for instance, I’ve studied that, and now I can extend that through circular breathing.  That’s what it allows you to be able to do.  It also gives me the opportunity to be able to put more, longer phrases together, and the opportunity to explore when notes really come at you very fast and continuous for a long time.

With me, it’s an experiment.  Everything is an experiment.  So when I’m out with one of my groups, it takes us at least a week or so playing every night before we really start to get up there, and then it gets so exciting that after a concert is over you can never sleep at night.  So sometimes I’ll have a glass of wine and it will calm me down.

But to me, it’s all an experiment.  The fun for me is going out and having the opportunity to explore these different ideas that I have in my head.

Of course, I listened to Roland Kirk all the time when he was alive, and I was totally amazed by what he did, because not only did he circular breathe; he was able to play several instruments, you know, out of his mouth and some out of his nose, and so on and so forth.  Now, there’s a guy who really had control over that.  If you think about circular breathing, it’s a very old tradition.  I mean, the aborigines used it, the Egyptian musicians used it a long time ago. I became interested in it through Roland Kirk, and I had to think about it for about a year before I was able to do it.

In regard to everything being an experiment, the Art Ensemble of Chicago must have been an ideal vehicle for workshopping ideas on a consistent basis, night after night, week after week, year after year.

ROSCOE:  Of course. I mean, I think that’s the thing that keeps people going, is the opportunity to explore music.  I could never be one of those musicians that just plays the same thing all the time, because that’s never been my interest with music.  The thing that’s always fascinated me about music is there’s so much to learn, and I like to try to keep myself as much as I can in the forefront of that learning process.

Amina, same question to you as I posed to Roscoe: The different situations you’re working in, current projects, etcetera.

AMINA:  Well, right now I’m doing a lot of Blues, Gospel, Jazz and extended forms of music solo piano.  Hopefully, I’m trying to organize pipe organ work in Europe, various parts of Europe.  They have expressed interest in that.

Talk about the dynamics of that vis-a-vis working with the Hammond or various electric organs.

AMINA:  Well, of course, with the electric everything is right there, right at the touch.  With the pipe organ you’re dealing with the air.  The sound is so vast, it’s like… You work at it more, but the rewards are so much greater with the pipe organ, because there’s phenomenal combinations, and the size of the pipes, you get all the different kinds of sounds.  You can’t beat it.  I mean, the Hammond, I would say, would be, as far as electric organ, I would prefer that.  If I had to play the electric organ, it would be the Hammond B-3.  But pipe organ, there’s just no comparison really.  It’s very thrilling to be able to play that.  I would like to do more with that.

Originally I had done some work with voice choir with the pipe organ, so hopefully I can continue to do that.  I’m just working now on Gospel, writing Gospel tunes for the solo performances.

So it’s primarily solo.  You don’t really have a working band…?

AMINA:  Oh, yes, I have a trio.  Well, I do a lot of trio work.  Right now I’m getting calls for a lot of Bessie Smith material and the trio format.  The solo piano and trio formats.

On the next set we’ll hear separate duos by each of you with Muhal Richard Abrams, who has been such a great inspiration for both of you.  I know I asked you for some words about him before, but maybe we can conclude with some comments about you, the AACM, and your relations with Muhal Richard Abrams over the years.  Roscoe?

ROSCOE:  Well, like I said before, Muhal has like always been a mentor, not only to me but so many other musicians in Chicago.  I think it was through his efforts of keeping that Experimental Band going where all these people could get together; it provided a place where all these ideas could come out.  Like I said, this was where the ideas for putting the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians came about.  We were interested in controlling our own destinies, because we’d read the books and seen what happened to people who were out there on their own.  I think they didn’t really treat Charlie Parker that well, or Coltrane.  I think Charlie Parker had maybe one European tour or something in his life; I don’t know what it was.  But those kinds of things made us want to reassess the situation and try to band together, so that we could create self-employment for ourselves, sponsor each other in concerts of our own original music, maintain a training program for young, inspired musicians.  These are the kinds of things that have kept us going throughout the years.

AMINA:  Muhal is really my spiritual brother.  I think we must have known each other in a past life.  You see, Muhal, he never stops creating.  He constantly inspires me.  He’ll push without pushing.  He’ll say, “Okay, Amina, you need to do this, you need…”  So he’ll always find ways to encourage me to write and to create and to do things.  He’ll bring up some ideas.  Because he knows the things that I can do sometimes that I don’t even think about doing.  So I mean, he’s very inspiring to me.  I didn’t know that he was coming to New York; I don’t know if he knew that I was coming.  But we have been in close contact since being here.  As I said, he’s my spiritual brother, and I appreciate all the things that he has done to encourage me.  He still does that.  Not that I depend on him, but I can look to Muhal for any type of assistance, musically or whatever.  And he has inspired a lot of people, and people love him because of that.  I certainly do.


[MUSIC: Muhal-Amina, “Dance From The East” (1981); Roscoe-Muhal, “Ode To the Imagination” (1990)]

Roscoe Mitchell (Ted Panken) – (12-5-95):

[MUSIC: “Songs In The Wind, 1&2”]

I’d like to ask you about the genesis of the Roscoe Mitchell Chamber Ensemble.  You and Tom Buckner have been at least recording together since the late 1970’s, and you’ve known each other now for at least thirty years, I gather.

Yes, that’s true.  We met in California in the late Sixties.  That’s when we first met.  We started performing together when we put our group together, Space, with Gerald Oshita.

Tom Buckner was up here a few days ago, and described hearing the Roscoe Mitchell Quartet, I believe it was, several times in the Bay Area in the mid-1960’s.  What were your first impressions of Tom Buckner?  What was he into at the time you were out there?

Well, let’s just say that when this group came together, I was putting focus on composition and improvisation.  And Thomas Buckner interested me because he was an improviser when I met him.  I don’t know if you recall any of his earlier recordings with Ghost Opera, but it was a group that was from the West Coast that used improvisation in their music.

I first met Gerald Oshita when I was in California in 1967.  He was playing in a group with Oliver Johnson and Donald Raphael Garrett.

All of these people were improvisers at that time, and this group came together to study improvisation and composition as they relate to each other, and that tradition continues today.

When did Kubera and Manoogian start to enter the picture?

I met Vartan at a concert of Joan Wildman at the University of Wisconsin.  We were playing together on a composition by Joan Wildman.  I think we struck a chord from that very beginning, and we decided that we would go on and try to do some work together.  I think our first performance was on a concert of Vartan’s at the Eldon(?) Museum in Madison, where we performed the composition, the duet for alto saxophone and violin entitled “Night Star.”

You’ve been involved in maybe four or five simultaneous ongoing projects over the last number of years, it would seem to me.  This ensemble, with Joseph Kubera, Vartan Manoogian and Thomas Bucker, that’s performing Thursday; the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which has been a primary interest for a quarter-century and more; the Sound Ensemble; the Note Factory.  Are compositions written or structured for specific musical units, or are they mutable, adaptable to different performance situations?

Well, certainly you can transpose a composition so that it will fit, you know, any situation you want it to fit.  Usually how I start off on a composition is first I have an idea, and then I figure out how to get that idea down.  Then a lot of times you are given the size ensemble that will perform the work that you’re writing.  So it’s determined by lots of things.  One composition, “Nonaah,” started off as a solo piece, and has ended up being played by larger ensembles, quartets, trios, so on and so forth.

We could probably do a nice 90-minute presentation on various examples of how “Nonaah” has been formulated.

Yeah, people have done that.  There’s a young woman in Madison, whose name slips my mind right now, who did her dissertation on that piece, along with some works by Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler, I believe.

When was “Nonaah” actually written or conceived?

In the early Seventies, as a solo piece, like I said.

Putting together a solo piece, does it come from your explorations of the instrument?  Does it come from a more conceptual framework…?

Well, let’s look at it.  One part of “Nonaah” is set up so that it has wide intervals.  One of the thoughts that I had when I was composing it, I wanted to have a piece that was played as a solo instrument that would give the illusion of being two instruments, and with the wide intervals like that, you can get that, because the instrument sounds different in the lower range and the mid range and the high range, and then there’s also the altissimo range, of course, which sounds different from any of those other registers.  So if you construct a melody that moves in that way, in taking advantage of the intervals, then you will achieve that goal at the end.  And that was one of the thoughts that I had when I was constructing the composition.

But then, of course, after that, you use that same basic formula to structure other movements of the piece.  So for me, I guess, I am at the point now where if I needed to do anything in that particular system of music, I could do it, I feel like I could do it, because I have built the vocabulary related to that structure.

I saw the Art Ensemble of Chicago perform in Chicago on December 1st, and you were performing on soprano, alto, tenor sax, and you had the bass saxophone as well, although I don’t think you got to play it…

No, I didn’t play it, actually.  I just brought it along, because it was going off to Jamaica where we’re going to be for the next month, and I guess I just kind of forgot to play it.  I mean, a lot of times I don’t really get to instruments, but I like to have them there if I’m moving in that direction.

What determines which instruments you’re playing at a particular time?  Your main concentration over the last number of years seems to be with the soprano and the alto saxophone.  It doesn’t seem like we get to hear you always on the tenor, but when we do, it seems like you’ve really been putting a lot of work or thought into a particular area.  Has that been happening lately?

Well, I mean, what determines what sounds I get to is, like, a lot of times I’m trying to just move different sounds around, and then whatever I hear that can add on to the structure I’m working on, I’ll select the instrument based on that.  So this is how these things get determined.  Unless, of course, there’s a specific composition which calls for a specific instrument.  Then that would be played on that instrument.

How long has multi-instrumentalism as a way of getting to the plethora of sounds that are at your disposal been a major preoccupation of yours?  Did that begin with your exposure to the AACM and that group of musicians?

Well, I think that, like, in the late Sixties I wanted to explore other sounds.  But then, if you notice, in the history of the music, before the Bebop era, in the larger bands, a lot of the woodwind players doubled.


Yeah.  If you see some of those pictures, they had quite a variety of instruments that they played.  I think the music at some point moved to where it was a one person, one instrument type focus.

With smaller combos, sure.  I mean, Harry Carney played baritone sax, bass clarinet and clarinet, and Jimmy Hamilton…

And so on, yeah, sure.

But in terms of your preoccupation, you weren’t really coming up in Chicago in an environment where that sort of multi-instrumentalism was a common thing as such.

That’s true.  But I think my fascination with sounds drew me toward that.  For instance, the Art Ensemble is an outgrowth of a quartet of myself and Malachi Favors and Philip Wilson and Lester Bowie.  When Philip left the group, we were drawn more to percussion sounds.  That was because we didn’t really have anyone that we thought could come into the group and function in his place in terms of the type of melodic structure that he dealt with.  So that drew us more into percussion.

It just kind of added on to my fascination with the exploration of sounds.  I mean, sometimes I don’t really hear like a scale per se.  I might hear one note, and then the next note with a whistle, or a whistle with kind of a wind instrument, or a whistle and a bell.  There are so many different possibilities to explore.

When did your obsession with the saxophone begin?  When did it become evident to you that music was going to be your life?

Well, I guess I kind of knew that in high school.  And I was fortunate enough… If you remember the record, Hey, Donald!, that’s dedicated to my friend Donald Myrick, who went on to help establish Earth, Wind and Fire.  Donald Myrick was an excellent musician when I met him in Chicago, and he was a big motivation for me — you know, to see someone, one of my peers actually doing that.  So I guess I kind of knew it then.  And I had an older brother who had many, many 78 records, and he would get me to sit down and listen to them, and that really…

What kind of records were they?

Oh, you know, all of the old ones — J.J. Johnson, Charlie Parker.  Everything was on 78 then.  Billie Holiday…

In the late 1940’s, early 1950’s?


Who were the people who really caught your ear first as far as stylists, specifically as saxophone stylists?

That’s hard to say, because I liked different stylists from different records.  If I were to look at the tenor saxophone, I’d look at like our history of many styles.  And this is how the tenor is represented in my mind.  And then I always listened to, you know, the same music that my mother and father listened to.  So it was a wide variety of music.

What were they listening to?

Oh, everybody listened to everything that was popular then.  It could be a popular song or… Oh, and it was always on the jukeboxes, too.  The jukeboxes actually had a variety of things that you could select from.  For instance, when James Moody’s “It Might As Well Be Spring” was popular, everybody listened to that, not just a select group of people from here or a select group of people from there.  Everybody knew about that.  Everyone knew of that duet with Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Williams.  You know, whatever, whether it was a song by Nat King Cole, or even when Johnnie Ray had his hit, “Cry.”  All of these different things were common knowledge.  So for me, I had a wide variety of music to select from.

Did your choice to pick up a saxophone at an early age… How old were you when you first began playing?

Oh, I was a late starter on saxophone. I mean, I started clarinet first when I was 11 years old.  That’s late-starting.

How was that inspired?  Through your family or through school?

I guess mostly through my older brother, Norman.  I was always interested in music, and I used to sing a lot when I was younger.  But I guess mostly influenced by him to want to go on and actually pursue an instrument.

What was your first more or less formal tuition?  Was that in high school or in the elementary schools?

That was in high school. I started clarinet in Milwaukee, at I think it was West Division High School.  I don’t remember the teacher.

Did you further that in high school in Chicago?

Yes, at Englewood High School.

I’m sorry to keep putting you all the way back in the Fifties, but there are some things I’ve been curious about for a long time, so I’m taking the opportunity.  Were you playing in a lot of teenage combo situations, gigs for money and so forth then, in high school…?

Well, no, not that much.  I mean, we had our regular obligations that we did in high school, with the concert band, and I was also a member of the dance band.  I think that I started to function probably more as a professional musician when I was in the Army, from 1958, I believe it was, to 1961.  So by the time I got out of the Army, it was pretty much solidified that I was going to be a musician.

I gather that the Army was a real mind-bending experience for you musically, and you were exposed to many different ways of playing music.  I think one account I’ve read has you encountering Albert Ayler in Germany in the early Sixties.

That was a big influence on me.  Because at that time, I was aware of Ornette Coleman’s music, but I have to say, even as a musician at that time, I didn’t fully understand what Ornette was doing.  The thing about Albert Ayler, when I first met him, one thing I knew about him, I knew basically what was happening with the saxophone, and I knew he had a tremendous sound on the instrument, and that lured me in to want to try to figure out what it is that he was doing on the saxophone.  I remember once there was a session.  They were all playing the Blues, and Albert Ayler, he played the Blues straight, like for two or three choruses, and then started to stretch it out.  And that really helped me.  That was kind of a major mark for me musically, just to be able to see that that could really be done.

Again, referring to interviews, you’ve described being impressed at that time by Sonny Rollins, by Hank Mobley, by Wayne Shorter — I think those are the three names that come to mind in terms of playing in a style.  Were you playing tenor, alto…?

I was playing alto.  I mean, in the dance bands I played baritone.

So the multi-instrumentalism started there.

Well, you could say so.  I mean, my first encounter with the saxophone was baritone in high school.  The guy who was playing baritone in the dance band graduated, and I was moved up to that position of playing the baritone.  But I think the alto was the saxophone that really caught my interest.

Describe the ambiance of being in an Army band in Germany, in 1959, 1960, 1961.  The regimen, the musicians, and the off-base scene that was happening in Europe at that time.

Well, that was a really good time to be where I was in Germany.  I was in Heidelberg, Germany, which is the place of the famous Cave 54.  Now, that was a club where most of the local musicians would play in, and everybody that was coming from out of town would play there.  There were a lot of sessions there.  Some of the people that you’ll know now were there.  Karl Berger was there, Albert Mangelsdorff was there, Bent Jadik (who when I was in Denmark at this time I didn’t see him, but I was talking to the guy at the music store, and I asked about him, and he said he was still around).  Many things happened there.  Then Nathaniel Davis stayed in our barracks.  He was in a quartet that won the All-Army competition, and they stayed with us for a while, and they were going around Europe playing.  And then names that you don’t know.  Joseph Stevenson, who was a Sergeant, who now I’ve heard is a Warrant Officer, was a great musician, an alto saxophonist and composer.  Many, many people.  William Romero.  Just a lot of people that made influences on me.  I mean, there was a guy there, Sergeant Mitchell.  Palmer Jenkins, a tenor saxophonist.  So there was a lot of music and a lot of opportunity to learn.

I gather in the Art Ensemble, you, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors and Lester Bowie, all had Army experience.  Lester has stated that that experience helped you survive as a unit on your travels and travails particularly in Europe in the late Sixties and early Seventies, and in the years before that in the States.

Well, that’s very true.  I mean, no one has ever done anything for us.  We’ve always done everything for ourselves, in a way, so far as the Art Ensemble is concerned.  I don’t think the Art Ensemble gets any recognition now.  And we’re still going on, and still doing concerts, and still filling houses, and everybody tries to act like we’re not doing that.  So yeah, I guess our Army training did help us get to this point.

A lot of discipline entailed that I’m sure was retained and is retained in the way the Art Ensemble functions.

Yes, that’s true.

When you got back to Chicago after the Army, what sort of scene did you find?

Well, that was when Muhal had the Experimental Band there… In ’61 Muhal Richard Abrams had the Experimental Band.  It met once a week, and it was a great opportunity to go down and meet all these great musicians, and get a chance to really be in a big band that was rehearsing.  This year at the Chicago Jazz Fest Muhal put together that band as closely as he could for a performance there.  It would be great to do more things with that band.  After I had been in Israel and heard everybody sounding the same, and then got back and I was in a band where everybody sounded like themselves, it was a very interesting phenomenon.

You’re talking now about 1961?

I’m talking about Muhal’s big band.  Everybody in there sounds like themselves.  They don’t sound like anybody else.  They all have distinguishable sounds, their ways of phrasing, their different ideas about music… I think this is one of the things that stimulated me over the years, to be fortunate enough to be associated with people like that.  So that was a great experience.  That band was rehearsing every Monday night, and I would have to say that that band was the place where started the thought, you know, of the AACM — to actually put together an organization that would function in promoting its members and concerts of their own original music and maintain an educational program for younger, inspired musicians.  These things we carried on from there, as you know.  Like, when the Art Ensemble went to Paris and we carried the banner of the AACM.

At that time also you encountered a number of musicians with whom the relationships have maintained for three decades and more.  Malachi Favors at Wilson Junior College at the time, Jarman, I think Henry Threadgill was around then…

Threadgill.  Jack De Johnette was there.

Braxton before he went in the Army.


And Jack De Johnette at that time I gather had a piano trio with Steve McCall on the drums.

Yeah, he did.  But he was starting to play drums then.  Because he and I used to play drums and saxophone all the time.

So was there a lot of interplay and experimentation and workshopping amongst you, working with different ideas and so forth?

Well, you could say that Muhal’s place was like the meeting place for people.  We’d kind of all show up over there, and then Muhal would be bothered with us, you know, for that whole week, and still come to the rehearsal on Monday with a composition for the big band.  Amazing.

So Muhal’s place was really sort of the clearing house where all these ideas could come together and be formulated.

That’s right.  And we studied music, art, poetry, whatever.  It was like a school.  It was a school.

Talk a little bit about how your first band that recorded, which recording I believe will be issued for the first time on Nessa… A 1964 recording which I think you mentioned last time…

Yeah, I did mention that.  I still don’t have a release date on that record.  That was an early quartet with Alvin Fielder, Fred Berry, Malachi Favors and myself.

Was that quartet performing all original music by you, or was it a more collectively oriented thing?

The music was mostly by me.  I remember on that one tape there’s a piece by Fred Berry also.

Are there any pieces that you wrote at that time that you still perform to this day, that have lasted?

Oh, certainly.  There’s many.  We still perform “Ornette.”  I still perform “Mister Freddie,” which was recorded on a recent Jodie Christian disk.  We intend to perform “Sound” again.  To me, any music that you do is just a kind of work in progress, so to speak.  So you can at any time go back to that work and extend it or… As for me, I mean, some things that I did with “Sound,” for instance, become more interesting to me now that I could apply maybe circular breathing to those situations, and do something, I don’t want to say more, but do something different with it in the way of expanding it.  So to me, it’s a work in progress.

The Art Ensemble’s Friday night Chicago concert concluded with Malachi Favors’ “Magg Zelma,” but before that you performed “Ornette,” if I’m not mistaken.

“Mister Freddie,” I think it was.

At any rate, I’ve given Roscoe Mitchell the third degree now for about half an hour, so we’ll give him a break right now and play some music.

I thought it was a talk show!
[MUSIC: Pilgrimage, “He Didn’t Give Up; He Was Taken” (1994); R. Mitchell Quartet, “Hey, Donald,” “The El” (1994); Art Ensemble of Chicago, “The Alternate Express” (1990).

The next set of music focuses on Roscoe Mitchell with some musicians who played a very important role in his music of the 1980’s, Detroit-based Jaribu Shahid and Tani Tabbal, Hugh Ragin was part of some of your quintet music, and Michael Mossman is another trumpeter who was involved with you.  I’d like to talk about that aspect of your music-making in the 1980’s with Michigan- and Wisconsin-based musicians.

If you look at Michigan, there we had the CAC, which is the Creative Arts Collective, which is a group that followed the same basic fundamentals as the AACM in its structure.  It was a group of musicians that came together; you know, we did our own concerts, we had our small groups and things inside of that larger group and we had concerts for them.  We also brought in musicians from Chicago and New York to do concerts.  We had the help of the Abrams Planetarium on the Michigan State University campus; they let us use their hall for concerts…

This was in the Sixties, the Seventies…?

In the Seventies it was, yes.  So this is another ongoing work in progress, my work with the Detroit musicians.

Do you recollect your earlier meetings with Jaribu Shahid and Tani Tabbal?

I was living in Michigan at that time, and that’s where we met.  Jaribu Shahid and Tani Tabbal weren’t there at that time.  It was Spencer Barefield, one of the musicians who I saw the other night at the AACM 30th Anniversary, Dushan Moseley was there, and other Michigan musicians, William Townley… Guys who…we had put together an organization that, like I was saying, was similar in philosophy to the AACM — for that purpose.

I guess interplay between the AACM and the Detroit-based musicians goes back to concert exchanges in the 1960’s, when Chicago musicians would go to Detroit to present concerts and vice-versa.

That’s true, but that was largely due to John Sinclair, who at that time was the leader of the Detroit…God, what was it… It wasn’t the White Panther Party then.  It was another name.  Then he went on to be the leader of the Rainbow People in Ann Arbor.  But they had their own newspaper in there, and they had like maybe a whole city block there, where they had places for performances, for musicians or artists to come and be involved in the program that they had there.

This group developed in some very interesting ways, and I guess was the kernel for several offshoot groups — the Note Ensemble and various editions of the Roscoe Mitchell Sound Ensemble.  I’ll repeat a question I asked earlier:  In working with these particular groups, what are the dynamics of each of them that impact your writing or arranging or structuring of sound for either the musicians or the overall ensemble?

Well, I’m hearing different things for different situations.  Like you said, those groups can be broken down, because I’ve worked with different varieties of those groups.  But the Note Factory is getting closer to I guess this grande sound that I’m hearing.  That’s why we have like the two basses and the two drums and piano and myself as the bare bones of it.  Eventually we’d probably like to have two pianos, and then I’ve thought of a couple of other horn players to go with that sound — it would probably be Hugh Ragin and George Lewis.

You recently were on a record of George Lewis, in acoustic duos and interactions with the Voyager computer program.

That’s true.  We also did a concert at IRCAM this last summer in June, which was a concert at IRCAM for the Voyager program.

[MUSIC: Mitchell/Ragin/Tabbal, “Fanfare For Talib” (1981); Note Factory “Uptown Strut” (1987); Bergman/Buckner/Mitchell “Looking Around” (1995); Mitchell (solo) “Sound Pictures #3: Solo For Winds and Percussion” (1995)]

Our thanks to Roscoe Mitchell.  One final question about solo performance.  Your solo work on record goes back to the 1960’s, and continues to this day, I gather, with some frequency.

Yes, that’s true.  I’ve always been interested in solo playing as one of the options.

What’s attractive to you about solo playing?

Well, one thing I can say about solo playing, if you’re listening to me, and I sound like an orchestra and not a saxophone, then I’m successful to some degree.  When you’re playing with someone else, I guess you can always blame them for messing up.  But if you’re playing with yourself, then you have to blame your own self.  So it’s a challenge, of course… Well, it’s a challenge playing with someone else, too.  So to me, I just see it as one of the parts that make up the whole picture.

Is there a process of trying to transcend the saxophone, whatever limitations there are in performing it?

Well, I think everybody does that when they are really successful at whatever it is that they are doing.  You actually do transform the instrument that you’re playing.  I mean, the instrument is just the vehicle by which you are able to transmit the sounds.

[MUSIC: RM (solo) “Nonaah” (1976)]


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Pieces on Maria Schneider — A Gil Evans “Dozens” for; 2014 feature article in Downbeat, Plus The Interview for That Piece; A WKCR Interview From 2005, an Interview for a NY Daily News piece from 2005, and a Daily News article from 2005

Maria Schneider is in residence this week at the Jazz Standard, presenting brand new music that she’ll record at the end of August and then self-release. It sounds different than anything I’ve heard by her, so if you have a chance, get to the Standard. In any event, I realized that I’ve never posted any of my various articles, collaborations or interviews with Maria. Hopefully this post is will rectify that glaring omission.


Maria Schneider, Gil Evans “Dozens” for

1.) Sorta Kinda (Track 13)

Artist; Claude Thornhill:

Album: The Real Birth of the Cool: Studio Recordings (Sony)

Musicians: Claude Thornhill Orchestra : Gil Evans (arranger); Ed Zandy, Louis Mucci, Emil Terry (tp) John Torrick, Allen Langstaff (tb) Walt Weschler, Sandy Siegelstein (fhr) Harold Weskel (tu) James Gemus, Victor Harris, Ed Stang (fl, pic); Danny Polo (as,cl) Bill Glover (as,fl) Mickey Folus (ts,b-cl) Mario Rollo (ts,cl) Billy Bushey (bar, b-cl,cl) Claude Thornhill (p,arr) Barry Galbraith (g) Joe Shulman (b) Bill Exner (drums); Gene Williams (vocal)
New York, June 4, 1947

RATING: 100/100

This recording has so many great Gil Evans arrangements that I’d easily qualify it as a must-own CD. I love this particular arrangement because it’s just so swingin’ and hip (I know–very subjective words). First of all, this is not the hippest song on the planet probably, and neither is the singing, but what Gil manages to create is extraordinary. The intro is quirky and wild, starting with the ascending sax line leading into the huge ensemble blast, then dropping off a cliff into a little piano moment. Contrast is a big part of the personality of this arrangement. It’s very daring. Gil doesn’t bring in the vocalist until after a full minute into the tune, and the whole piece is less than 3 minutes. He makes a very bouncy version of the melody with tight ensemble writing. After the intro, it feels very conventional, but rhythmically it swings like crazy. At the end of this first statement of melody between Gil’s mid-range brass and piano, he creates a transition and modulation that’s really unexpected. Listen to the bottom of the brass, the unison line against the quirky line in the trumpets. Also, this transition extends the form of the tune and creates an odd phrase that goes on longer than expected. The piece is full of surprises–the kind you want to experience again and again. I find it to be a hilarious moment when this wildly creative transition settles into a new key and the simple vocal entrance. As the vocal delivers the melody, Gil throws in some awesome counter-lines in the saxes and French horns, with great little brass hits–endless details that just make the feel so lively! Then the band’s full, concerted ensemble send-off to the tenor solo is just superb line writing, creating a completely light and fluid full ensemble. Not easy to do, trust me! And the band is so swingin’ too. Check out how hard the band swings and the great line in the ensemble right before the vocal returns. Man! Of course, Gil writes fantastic lines for every player so it’s super-gratifying to play, and, with the inner parts so well written, it’s almost impossible not to swing. Just when you think Gil’s given you his last surprise, check out the last note. With a very dry delivery, he lands on an odd note (the relative minor key). How I wish I’d known this piece when I knew Gil. I’d have loved to listen to it with him. I know the exact look on his face and the laugh he’d make when he heard the last note himself. That man had some sense of humor and this is one fantastic arrangement. And to think it was recorded in 1947. Wow!

Just a side note: obviously Gil also realized how hip this arrangement was, because he would come to reuse a lot of this same ensemble passages almost 10 years later for his arrangement of “People Will Say We’re In Love” with Helen Merrill on her wonderful album, arranged entirely by Gil, called Dream of You.

2.) The Troubador (based on “The Old Castle” from Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’)
Artist: Claude thornhill

Album: The Real Birth of the Cool (Transcription Recordings)

Artists: Claude Thornhill Orchestra: Ed Zandy, Louis Mucci, Emil Terry (tp) Tak Tavorkian, Allen Langstaff (tb) Walt Weschler, Sandy Siegelstein (fhr) Bill Barber (tu) James Gemus, Victor Harris, Ed Stang (fl,pic) Danny Polo (as,cl) Les Clarke (as,fl) Mickey Folus (ts,b-cl) Mario Rollo (ts,cl) Billy Bushey (bar,b-cl,cl) Claude Thornhill (p,arr) Barry Galbraith (g) Joe Shulman (b) Bill Exiner (d) Fran Warren, Gene Williams (vcl) Gil Evans (arr)

Recorded: New York, NY, June 18, 1947

RATING: 100/100

I ask that you spend 99 cents and buy “Pictures at an Exhibition” (the orchestral version) orchestrated by Ravel, and get the part for The Old Castle. That’s what this is based on. You’ll find the comparison to be very enlightening. People often assume that classical composers write more linearly than most jazz composers/orchestrators. Jazz tends to be chord conscious–many arrangers thinking vertically when they arrange. And when most people talk about Gil Evans music, they refer to the marvelous “voicings.” I say phooey to that. The magic of Gil is so far beyond that. It’s in the lines and layers folks! There are so many layers displayed here it’s just crazy.

The original begins with a bassoon line that is quite hypnotic and gives way to the melody. This bassoon line comes in again just briefly under the melody at the end of a phrase connecting us to the start of the melody again. In Gil’s version, after an intro based on Promenade (the recurring main theme in between each part of “Pictures”…), he starts with a little rhythmic nudging figure in the low brass at 0:27. Then he adds the flutes in a repetitive cross-rhythmic staccato figure, creating another layer that will add to the overall feeling feeling of “play” in the otherwise staid 4/4 meter. Now enters Mussorgsky/Ravel’s original bassoon line, but Gil orchestrated it as a low unison for two bass clarinets with French horn (0:37). Gil’s differs in that he will greatly extend the line, weaving it into a counterline that endures and develops throughout much of the piece. All these layers are established before the melody even enters at 0:45 in a solo French horn. And they all work together without creating musical mud, because each idea or line is so firmly established in its own right that it’s easy for the listener to hear clearly the full tapestry and delight in the exquisite layering and details. Listen to the beautiful woodwind line at 1:30. The high flute “swirls” (2:34) are both lovely and exotic. The way this large ensemble grows and grows and then dramatically descends and dissipates (2:54–3:23) to tremolos (with harmonic twists and contortions unique to Gil) makes me leap up out of my chair! The colors (harmonic and timbral) are just stunning. There’s an interesting tuba line that creates a little shift in the overall harmony at 3:32. Listen to the subtle little shifts in harmony at 3:46–4:13 in the repeated brass riffs. 4:17–4:37 is just so creative. Even though harmonically things get very tight, twisted and dark, still, all the original material is there, so it’s a mud that you want to wallow in. The original doesn’t grow and develop nearly to the degree that Gil’s version does and there’s far less counterpoint. Gil was a master of development and intricacy. I think Ravel would have flipped over this. Also, it’s funny that the original uses alto sax for the melody, and Gil’s arrangement, which might be considered jazz, doesn’t use sax on that melody at all. Also, make note, there’s no improvisation on this piece. It’s just about Gil’s spectacular writing. Everything Gil would develop in later years has its roots firmly planted in his Thornhill music. This is one beauty!

3.) Track: My Ship

Artist: Miles Davis (flugelhorn)

Album: Miles Ahead (Miles Davis + 19) (Sony Columbia/Legacy CK 40784)

Band: Miles Davis Orchestra under the direction of Gil Evans: Miles Davis (flugelhorn); Bernie Glow, Ernie Royal, Louis Mucci, Taft Jordan, Johnny Carisi (trumpets); Frank Rehak, Jimmy Cleveland, Joe Bennett (trombones); Willie Ruff, Tony Miranda (french horns); Bill Barber (tuba); Lee Konitz (alto saxophone); Danny Bank (b-clarinet); Romeo Penque, Sid Cooper (clarinet, flute); Paul Chambers (bass); Art Taylor (drums) Gil Evans (arranger, conductor) Composed by Kurt Weill

Recorded: New York, May 10, 1957

RATING: 100/100

This cut is beauty personified. There’s nothing seemingly complex or unusual, but even the simple half-note pads that sustain the harmony behind Miles have Gil’s telltale linearity and instrumental color. It’s also probably one of his best-known arrangements.

Starting with the intro, you’ll hear three layers. There’s the top pattern in the cup-mute trumpets that descends. On the very bottom there’s the static repetitive bass figure that’s also in the tuba. And then the third layer works in contrary motion to the top line. If you read Miles Davis’ autobiography, you’ll probably remember him marveling at Gil’s use of contrary motion. What it means, in this instance, is that while the muted trumpets have a figure that slowly descends, you’ll hear a bass clarinet slowly rising, as if coming out of a mist. When it reaches a rather high range, it drops to a little figure then that sets us up for the tune, which is stated by the low brass. This statement is partly characterized by the warm French horns placed quite high on the melody, the bass clarinet with a lovely line on the bottom, and the sweep of all the ensemble parts in motion with the melody. The ensemble here is voiced in harmony that gives beautiful lines to each player. The passage is lush with a darkly hued color to it.

I remember one day while working with Gil in about 1986, I walked in the door and found him at the piano, totally frustrated as he was trying to figure out what he wrote on this piece. He threw up his hands and said, “I don’t know what I wrote!” I was baffled and asked why on earth he’d need to transcribe his own music. That’s when he told me how one day he just got tired of his music and threw it out. Ouch! I was dying inside when I heard that. It also got me thinking about how it could be possible that such perfect music could ever, from his perspective, be worth trashing. I also got to witness, how, given the distance of years, he seemed to again appreciate its beauty. Thankfully much of Gil’s music was found, albeit long after he passed away.

I think one of the stunning moments of this cut is when Miles enters. The chords just feel like they glide, and their brightness, created by the slightly pinched sound of mutes, makes Miles’ fluegel a beautiful open and dark foil. That’s a moment I could loop a thousand times. The double-time feel passage from 2:27–2:45 is voiced in a way that allows it to move fleetly. That’s another wonderful ability Gil has. This piece ends how it begins, except this time the rising line of the bass clarinet is now absent, and that makes sense because we’re winding down. This piece immediately segues into “Miles Ahead,” another piece loaded with linearity, contrary motion, parallel motion and a light sound, despite a sometimes thick ensemble playing.

4.) TRACK: Struttin’ With Some BBQ

Artist: Gil Evans

Album: New Bottle Old Wine 1958 (World Pacific)

Band: Gil Evans Orchestra: Johnny Coles, Louis Mucci, Ernie Royal (trumpets); Joe Bennett, Tom Mitchell (trombones); Frank Rehak (trombone solo); Julius Watkins (French horn); Harvey Phillips (tuba) Cannonball Adderley (alto saxophone, soloist); Jerry Sanfino (reeds); Gil Evans (arranger, conductor, piano); Chuck Wayne (guitar); Paul Chambers (bass); Art Blakey (drums) Composer (Lillian Hardin Armstrong)

Recorded: New York, May 21, 1958

RATING: 100/100


5.) TRACK; Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess

Artist: Miles Davis

Album: Porgy and Bess

Miles Davis (flugelhorn, trumpet); Johnny Coles, Bernie Glow, Louis Mucci, Ernie Royal (trumpets); Joe Bennett, Jimmy Cleveland, Frank Rehak (trombones); Dick Hixson (bass trombone); Willie Ruff, Gunther Schuller, Julius Watkins (french horn); Bill Barber (tuba); Jerome Richardson, Romeo Penque (flutes); Danny Bank (bass clarinet); Cannonball Adderley (alto saxophone); Paul Chambers (bass); Jimmy Cobb (drums); Gil Evans (arranger, conductor) Composed by George Gershwin

RECORDED: Columbia 30th Street Studios, NYC, August 4, 1958
RATING: 100/100

How does one pick a favorite piece from Gil’s and Miles’ Porgy and Bess album? Tough to do. I’ve chosen this piece because it so perfectly illustrates another unique aspect of Gil’s writing. Sometimes when I listen to Gil, I get a spontaneous visualization of the inside of a watch: the perfection, the detail, all the little parts at work; nothing is there that doesn’t contribute to the flow of movement and the perfect passing of time. Every gear attaches and locks another into motion. If you listen to this piece, you can envision a serpentine line being passed from instrument to instrument, color to color, whether it’s behind Miles or in front when he’s not playing. It’s like a thread that never gets dropped. Let’s start at the top with the French horns and alto flutes that are playing a flowing passage together. Then the horns hold while the flutes go on their own, giving way to the trombones who take over, then the flutes pick up a line above them, and then soft brass (the trumpets are in hat mutes with French horns voiced with them). You can continue on through the piece and follow the slow-moving gears as lines pass around the orchestra. This piece also goes into a little swing section where the trombones take on Gil’s signature comping role that the piano might have taken if there was piano on the record. That’s a unique aspect to these Gil/Miles recordings. There’s an absence of piano. It leaves all the harmonic background to the creative hand of Gil.

One further detail. Because these pieces are a suite, their connectivity is really important. Take note how the end of this arrangement suddenly introduces a very stark, open, spare sound. It contrasts all the lushness we’ve been hearing. That spare sound is achieved by utilizing open-5th intervals in the ensemble. It also happens to be the same opening interval of the next movement, “Prayer.” So this ending is really more of a “transition” to “Prayer.” Much of the elegance of these collaborative recordings is how each subsequent piece begins with a feeling of inevitable arrival. Gil leaves no stone unturned.

6.) TRACK: Concierto de Aranjuez – Adagio (Joaquin Rodrigo)

Artist: Miles Davis:

Album: Sketches of Spain

Gil Evans Orchestra: Miles Davis (flugelhorn, trumpet); Bernie Glow, Taft Jordan, Louis Mucci, Ernie Royal (trumpets); Dick Hixson, Frank Rehak (trombone); John Barrows, Jim Buffington, Earl Chapin (French horns); Jimmy McAllister (tuba); Albert Block, Eddie Caine (flutes); Harold Feldman (oboe, clarinet); Danny Bank (bass clarinet); Janet Putman (harp); Paul Chambers (bass); Jimmy Cobb (drums); Elvin Jones (percussion); Gil Evans (arranger, conductor) Composed by Joaquin Rodrigo

recorded: Columbia 30th Street Studios, NYC, November 20, 1959

RATING: 100/100

This is arguably the finest of Gil’s and Miles’ collaborations. There are countless details one could highlight, but I would like to touch on two particular points about this piece. It will be more deeply appreciated if you take the opportunity to first listen to the original guitar concerto as composed by Rodrigo. A comparison will illuminate Gil’s unique gifts in writing all parts in a linear fashion. It’s most notable that he manages to do this even in the bass line. The bass is never just relegated to playing roots, but rather lines—rich melodic lines. If you listen to the tuba line in the beginning, you’ll catch one of these lines right from the start. And if you listen to the bottom parts throughout this work, you’ll see that part of the translucence that Gil generally gets in his music is from freeing up the bottom and putting air in these low parts. Such attention to line-writing permeates every layer and can be heard throughout this piece. The amount of counterpoint exceeds the original by leaps and bounds. If you listen to both versions back to back, this will be very obvious without me pointing out a thing to you. This piece takes what he achieved in “The Troubador” (1947) to a whole other level. The path was certainly well laid in his work with the Thornhill Orchestra.

Gil once expressed to me that the thing about Miles that most inspired him was his sound. This piece perfectly illustrates how beautifully he sets up Miles. Listen to the opening: lines are perpetually moving, the harp undulating in high register, and the castanets fluttering. But the moment Miles enters, sonorities suddenly freeze, motionless—all lines, all undulation, all fluttering stop. This sudden vacuum brings us to focus purely on Miles’ horn. It’s a stunning moment. It’s long been my suspicion that the castanets were supposed to stop a couple of seconds earlier than you’ll hear on your recording. And sure enough, if you listen to the out-take on the boxed set, they stop the moment Miles enters as was most certainly intended. You’ll hear many other moments in this piece that showcase Miles in a similarly stunning way.

One of my favorite places in this piece comes at 5:44. I love the low flutes with wide vibrato that play and hesitate (there’s a bassoon, French horn and harp voiced in those chords too, with an almost inaudible timpani in the background giving the slightest hint of motion). It’s a very rubato (without strict time) section. I love how Gil utilizes Miles’ lowest range on the instrument. It’s utterly haunting. There’s a wonderful shift of color to brightness when Miles goes to Harmon, with cup-muted trumpets and flutes voiced behind him (9:30) giving a tangy sound. When the French horns enter at 10:11, they sound so warm by contrast as they play in sonorous parallel moving triads. That kind of harmonic movement is one way Gil gets the smooth sound that we’ve come to associate with him. The subtle moan in their parts is so expressive (10:28). Now the cup-muted trumpets, harp and flute all take over before you hear descending lines that slow us down. Here, Gil starts to set up anticipation for the large ensemble passage that will soon become the climax of the entire piece. He leads up to it using parallel triadic French horns again, voiced with flutes and harp. There’s a counterline in the bassoon, a wonderful color to be appreciated throughout this piece. The castanets are going along throughout helping the build. At 12:46 the tambourine color enters, and we are overwhelmed by a wonderful full-ensemble orchestration of the main theme. You’ll hear moments of parallel and then contrary motion. I particularly love 13:26, where you can especially catch the essence of the parallel triadic motion in all parts. Listen to the French horns inside the ensemble. That lead note reaches the very top of the instrument range in the lead French horn at 13:36, and it just soars! And the triadic 16-notes at 13:46 are just so exciting. Conducting this section and hearing it surrounding you in live concert is a trip. Every hair stands on end.

This is followed up by all sorts of detailed, muted, impressionistic “color” accompanying very low lines in the tuba and bass. It comes down to such spareness and fragility with just a lone tuba, harp and bass behind Miles at 15:32. I love the passing of lines from the bassoon, to the Harmon trumpet, and finally to Miles at the very end. Whew!

This is arguably the finest collaboration of Gil Evans and Miles Davis. There are countless details to highlight, but I would like to touch on two particular points about this piece. One will be more deeply appreciated if you take the opportunity to first play the original guitar concerto as composed by Rodrigo. A comparison will illuminate Gil Evans’ unique gifts in writing linearly in all parts. It is most notable that he manages to do this even in the the bass line. The bass is never just relegated to playing ro ots, but rather lines, rich melodic lines. If you listen to the tuba line in the beginning, you’ll catch one of these lines right from the start. And if you listen to the bottom parts throughout this work, you’ll see that part of the translucence that Gil generally gets in his music is from freeing up the bottom and putting air in these low parts. Such attention to line writing permeates every layer and can be heard throughout this piece.

Gil once expressed to me that the thing about Miles that most inspired him was his sound. I’ve heard him speak of it in interviews as well. This piece perfectly illustrates how beautifully he sets up Miles’ sound. Listen to the opening, lines perpetually moving, the harp undulating in high register, and the castanets fluttering. The moment Miles enters, sonorities suddenly freeze, motionless–all lines, all undulation, all fluttering stop. Even vibrato is absent. This sudden vacuum brings us to focus purely on the vibration of sound from Miles’ horn. It’s long been my suspicion that the castanets were supposed to stop a couple of seconds earlier than you’ll hear on your recording. And sure enough, if you listen to the out-take on the box set, it stops the moment Miles enters as was most certainly intended. You’ll hear many other moments in this piece that showcase Miles in the same way.

7.) TRACK: Once Upon a Summertime

Artist: Miles Davis

Album: Quiet Nights

Miles Davis (trumpet, solo); Johnny Coles, Bernie Glow, Louis Mucci, Ernie Royal (trumpet); Dick Hixson, Jimmy Knepper, Frank Rehak (trombones); Paul Ingraham, Robert Swisshelm, Julius Watkins (French horns); Bill Barber (tuba); Danny Bank, Eddie Caine, Romeo Penque, Jerome Richardson, Bob Tricarico (woodwinds); Janet Putman (harp); Jimmy Cobb (drums); Elvin Jones, Bobby Rosengarden (percussion); Gil Evans (arranger, conductor) composed by Michel Legrand

RECORDED: NYC, November 6, 1962

RATING: 100/100


8.) TRACK: Stratusphunk

ARTIST: Gil Evans

Album: Out of the Cool

The Gil Evans Orchestra: Gil Evans (piano, arranger); Johnny Coles (trumpet solo); Phil Sunkel (trumpet); Jimmy Knepper, Keg Johnson (trombones); Tony Studd (bass trombone); Bill Barber (tuba); Eddie Caine (flute, piccolo, alto saxophone) Budd Johnson (tenor saxophone); Bob Tricarico (bassoon, flute, piccolo); Ray Crawford (guitar, solo); Ron Carter (bass); Charlie Persip, Elvin Jones (drums, percussion)

recording: November 18 or 30, 1960

RATING: 100/100

9.) TRACK: The Barbara Song (Kurt Weill, from Three-Penny Opera)

ARTIST: Gil Evans

Album: The Individualism of Gil Evans ((Verve 833 804-2)

Musicians: Gil Evans (piano), Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), Frank Rehak (trombone), Ray Alonge, Julius Watkins (French horns), Bill Barber (tuba), Al Block (flute), Andy Fitzgerald (bass flute), George Marge (English horn), Bob Tricarico (bassoon), Bob Maxwell (harp), Gary Peacock (bass) Elvin Jones (drums)

Composed by Kurt Weill; arranged by Gil Evans

RATING: 500/100

When I first heard this arrangement, I was immediately in love with it. I thought of it as a Gil piece, not an arrangement of something. One day, it occurred to me to check out Kurt Weill’s original version. And there it was, the whole long and developed melodic contour I was familiar with. Gil had simply laid it out, but he did it in such a way that made it feel improvised and continually evolving. The character was so completely different, that I would have never imagined it once had the lyric, “No you don’t just smile and pull your panties down when you have the chance of saying no.” Gil heard profound depth in that melody and spun his own universe out of it. If you know neither of these pieces, I recommend listening to Gil’s first and then purchasing the original on iTunes from the original cast album. You’ll hear how ‘Gil’s’ lines are just the melody, but wrung out at a slow searing tempo. But then there’s so much more to it.

How does Gil manage to simply take such a melody and make it entirely his? Well here, it starts with the combination of brushes, harp and bass flute, followed soon thereafter by a double reed, creating a combination of colors that few others would have used. Then there’s atmospheric texture of the rolling bass flute, and Gil’s signature feeling of time and no-time all at once (Gil is adept at creating a feel of imprecision by using very precise notation–an effect that no one I know can match). Then there’s Gil’s very quirky gestures on piano that are as personal as a fingerprint. You’ll also hear that ever-present tuba. The muted horn stab at 1:32 could only be his. But my favorite part starts at 2:10. He does a run up to a high sonority, a sonority that then slowly shifts and descends like a long slow exhale. In this passage, you’ll hear the melody on top, and inside, a wonderful slow descending mostly-chromatic line that, when it stops descending, continues to hold it’s final note for another 20 seconds until we reach another similar passage. The line writing as this passage descends is beyond spectacular. No one can make ‘slow’ more compelling than Gil, and he does it all with lines. At 3:21 the melody is voiced in a quirky way which has the odd interval of the minor-ninth, an interval that’s also evident in much of Gil’s piano accompaniment here. That dissonant minor-ninth is a ‘no-no’ in many an arranging class, but Gil built a world on that interval.

When Gil introduces Wayne Shorter’s tenor solo we’re already over five minutes into the piece–and that in itself is unique in the world of jazz arranging. Wayne plays gracefully over the low pyramids, and gesturally behind a crying flute and bassoon as they sing in unison double-octaves. This man finds endless colors in infinite combinations. The whole piece just weeps with beauty. If I could give this 500 out of 100 points, I would. It breaks the meter, because as Wayne Shorter himself once said that Miles said about the music that he loves: It’s music that goes way beyond music.

10.) TRACK: Zee Zee (Gil Evans)

ARTIST: Gil Evans

Album: Svengali (Koch Jazz KOC-CD-8518)

Musicians: Gil Evans (p,el-p,arr,cond); Marvin “Hannibal” Peterson (trumpet, solo); Richard Williams (trumpet); Joseph Daley (tuba); Sharon Freeman, Pete Levin (French horn); Billy Harper (tenor saxophone); Howard Johnson (tu,bar,flhrn); Trevor Koehler (bar,sop,fl); David Sanborn (as); David Horowitz (synt) Ted Dunbar (el-g) Herb Bushler (el-b) Bruce Ditmas (d) Sue Evans (perc) Composed by Gil Evans

Recorded: Jazz Festival, Philarmonic Hall”, New York, June 30, 1973

RATING: 100/100

It’s hard for me to decide which song to take from Svengali. This album shook my world in about 1982, when I heard it for the first time. The whole thing has such a mystery to it. It was while listening to “Zee Zee” that I saw myself one day working with Gil. At the time, seeing that in my mind didn’t register as any true reality that would come to be, but, bizarrely and by sheer coincidence, it became reality. The piece is largely about atmosphere. The musical idea is simple. All the chords are moving chromatically in parallel motion and the bass simply passes from a minor I to a minor IV chord. There are chimes moving in the same pattern. To me, it recalls the wind, but the wind in a dark, brewing storm, the kind that blows through the window, shakes the shutter and turns the air green. Perhaps you have to come from tornado country to relate to that, but that’s where it takes me, and it’s interesting that the last sound is the sound of wind. I just love the essence of this. And I love that it’s all played out of time. Everyone just breathes and sighs the figure in tandem as Hannibal Marvin Peterson slowly builds in intensity and finally just wails over it. This piece is a total distillation of Gil to the most extreme: the type of harmony, the quirky intervals, the colors, the linearity, attention to the soloist, and, above all, the attention to evoking something that, once again, goes beyond music. How can something that is so spare compositionally and with so much free improvisation still be so completely and utterly Gil?

11.) TRACK: Up From the Skies (Jimi Hendrix)

ARTIST: Gil Evans

Album: The Gil Evans Orchestra Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix

Gil Evans (keyboards,cond); Marvin “Hannibal” Peterson, Lew Soloff (trumpet); Peter Gordon (French horn); Peter Levin (fhr,synt); Tom Malone (trombone, bass trombone); Howard Johnson (tu,b-cl,el-b); David Sanborn (as,sop,fl); Billy Harper (ts,fl); Trevor Koehler (ts,as,fl); David Horowitz (el-p,synt); John Abercrombie, Ryo Kawasaki (electric guitars); Keith Loving (g) Michael Moore (bass guitar; electric bass); Don Pate (bass); Bruce Ditmas (drums); Susan Evans (d,cga,perc); Warren Smith Jr. (vib,mar, chimes, Latin perc)

Recorded; New York, June 11, 1974

RATING: 100/100

It is a must to pick one of the pieces that Gil played regularly at Sweet Basil’s jazz club in Manhattan with the last band he had. This was always my favorite. It’s sonic fun! Who else on the planet could find a way to voice out a Hendrix tune and make it so completely hip, and retain something of the gutsiness that Hendrix had in his sound? Only Gil. I love where the bass clarinet lies in the voicings in relationship to the melody. There’s grit and ease at the same time. It’s just deliciously left of center. I love the spirit of the band and how they offer variation and nuance to the tune with the synthesizers and guitar. It’s so joyful. I got to see a sketch of this, and was shocked when I noticed that in harmonizing this melody he employed a technique very familiar to young arrangers called “drop-2.” We all tend to think of this technique as formulaic and non-creative. It’s the sound you’d hear in just about every sax soli in big band music. How Gil made it sound so fresh here is a mystery. Is it the character of the melody coupled with the way Gil tweaked the harmony within drop-2? I need more time to understand this myself. There’s even a story (I hope I have this right!) that Gerry Mulligan used to tell, where Gil came running up to him in utter amazement and enthusiasm about his new discovery about Duke Ellington. It was the last thing Gerry expected to hear when Gil exclaimed, “He uses DROP-2!!!!!” Or was it Gerry who told Gil? I can’t remember, but it was me screaming the same thing last week. “Gil used drop-2!!!!” Bask in the joy of this cut.

12.) TRACK: Easy Living Medley (Easy Living/Everything Happens to Me/Moon Dreams)
Artist: Dutch Jazz Orchestra

Album: Moon Dreams: Rediscovered Music of Gil Evans & Gerry Mulligan –Dutch Jazz Orchestra (Challenge, CHL 73275)

Musicians: Dutch Jazz Orchestra: Jeanine Abbas (flute); Marco Kegel (clarinet, saxophone, alto saxophone); Jan Oosthof (trumpet); Eric Ineke (drums).

Personnel: Martijn Van Iterson (guitar); Simon Rigter (flute, tenor saxophone); Albert Beltman (clarinet, alto saxophone); Ab Schaap (clarinet, tenor saxophone); John Ruocco (clarinet); Nils Van Haften (bass clarinet, baritone saxophone); Jan Hollander, Ray Bruinsma, Mike Booth, Ruud Breuls, Erik Veldkamp (trumpet); Morris Kliphuis, Roel Koster, Rene Pagen (French horn); Martijn Sohier, Ilja Reijngoud (trombone); Martien De Kam (tuba); Rob Van Bavel (piano); Jan Voogd (bass instrument).

Recorded: 2009
RATING: 100/100

For my last choice I’m going to offer something that 99% of you will not have heard, because it seems to have not been recorded until recently. To have a new work by Gil emerge out of the ether is to be bestowed with a gift more valuable than gold. Here is one such magical gift. In the liner notes of this album, they say he was experimenting with a new band that he’d only rehearsed. The instrumentation of this work consists of 3 flutes, 5 reeds, 2 French horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, guitar, piano, bass and drums. It seems far more likely that this is actually something from the Thornhill band collection that was never recorded, or for which the tapes were lost. This piece has the precise instrumentation of “The Troubadour” and several other of Gil’s arrangements that Thornhill recorded in the same period (1946-1947). That offers a big clue. Never mind, though—the point is, it’s gorgeous. Of course, we all know “Moon Dreams” from Birth of the Cool, but here it is in even fuller orchestration. And clearly, then, the nonet version was a paring-down of this much more orchestral version written probably around three years before Birth of the Cool. This medley exhibits every characteristic that I’ve talked of until now: the exquisite inner melodies, the airy tuba parts, the delicate details that dovetail into each other moving from color to color in the orchestra. Just sit back, shut your eyes, and bathe in the sheer gorgeousness of this long-lost Gil treasure.


Maria Schneider DownBeat Article – 2014:

In 2005, shortly after receiving her first Grammy for her fourth release, Concert In the Garden, Maria Schneider pinpointed the significance of the honor. “It means something more to me than my view of myself,” she said. “People in the general audience may not be sure exactly what a Pulitzer is, but they know the Grammy as the ultimate music award.”

The composer, then 44, added that she herself had “dreamed of winning a Grammy” while growing up in Windom, Minnesota, an agricultural community of 3,600 in the state’s southwest corner. “I’d say my speech at home when nobody was looking,” she said. But in her brief 2005 remarks, delivered one day before the domain name was activated, Schneider deviated from the “I want to thank my mother and father” script of childhood. Rather, she acknowledged the members of the Maria Schneider Orchestra, an entity since 1992, that had won the Best Large Ensemble category, and ArtistShare, which produced her self-funded Concert In the Garden. Later in 2005, Schneider would earn DownBeat Critics Poll honors for Composer of the Year, Arranger of the Year and Album of the Year. She repeated the DownBeat trifecta three years later for Sky Blue, and again in 2014 for Winter Morning Walks, both issued under ArtistShare’s imprimatur.

In 2014, Schneider spoke from the same Grammy podium to accept her Best Contemporary Classical Composition award for Winter Morning Walks, which comprises two through-composed song cycles commissioned and performed by soprano Dawn Upshaw (who earned a Grammy [Best Classical Vocal Solo], as did engineer Tim Martyn and producer David Frost). For the occasion, she delivered eloquent denunciations of digital file-sharing and Spotify that were quoted in national media and went moderately viral.

“I didn’t expect to win, but when Tim and Dawn were announced, I realized I’d better start thinking what to say, because this could happen,” Schneider said a few months later in her trim apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “I feel I’ve been given a position, and I wasn’t going to fritter away this amazing opportunity. The second I got the award, I decided I’d say this is legalized theft, which is exactly what it is. Everybody went crazy and applauded. How long are we supposed to take this?”

It was time to discuss music. “I feel a little guilty,” Schneider said of her latest Grammy. “All these people push through that classical world their whole career, and I come in with this big grab. But I’ll take it.” She also expressed discomfort with DownBeat’s 2014 Best Arranger designation. “Arranging is a special art, taking a standard piece and reforming it,” she said. “It’s not the same as orchestrating.”

On Winter Morning Walks, Schneider applies her orchestrative powers to frame Upshaw’s intuitively penetrating interpretations of two very different suites. On “Stories,” set to Mark Strand’s translations of five ironic, melodramatic poems by Brazilian Carlos Drummond de Andrade (1902-1989), she provides the 34-piece St. Paul Chamber Orchestra intricate, sweeping scores. The title piece—performed by a strings only ensemble from the Australian Chamber Orchestra, with improvised sections from pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist Jay Anderson and woodwindist Scott Robinson, all Schneider associates for two decades—comprises nine poems that Nebraskan Ted Kooser, a one-time American Poet Laureate, wrote while recovering from cancer.

Oswaldo Gojilov, one of several prominent contemporary composers who regard Upshaw as a muse, introduced her to Schneider with a gift of Concert In The Garden in proximity to Schneider’s first Grammy. “There aren’t many times these days where I actually fall in love with a CD,” Upshaw said by phone. “But I started to play this one over and over again in its entirety. It brought me joy at a difficult time in my personal life. Maria’s music has so much power, so unaffected and even ecstatic; it brings out the best in life. It was something new for me, and I wanted to hear it live.”

Upshaw attended Schneider’s annual Thanksgiving Week residence at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard, where they became acquainted. During a subsequent conversation, she began to envision a collaboration. “I thought perhaps we’d meet some place neither of us could imagine,” Upshaw said. “I’m drawn to chiseled musical voices, music that, when I hear it, touches me, and I feel I can live in that world and express myself. When I am most myself in somebody else’s music, I find that their music is like nobody else’s.”

It was a year or two before Upshaw—by now involved with SPCO programming as an Artistic Partner—“gathered the courage” to reveal her proposition. “Maria was scared at first because I came from another world, but I thought the possibilities were huge,” Upshaw said. “The melodies are so beautiful—and I do like to sing a good melody. I’m glad I acted on the impulse.”

The choice of repertoire and musical direction was entirely Schneider’s. “I’d sent Maria a few things that she didn’t go for, which was fine,” Upshaw says. “I think the composer will be most inspired by something they find on their own.” Schneider wanted something that was “almost folk poetry, not complex and difficult, but with a narrative, human element that my music has.” A Brazilian friend suggested Drummond, and Schneider—who has incorporated Brazilian elements in pieces like the contrapuntal “Choro Dançado” from Concert In the Garden—“went to town.”

“I thought my Brazilian music influence was a good meeting point with classical music,” she said. “You can play it without drums, and it has groove and tempo and time, which I put into the orchestral lines. The classical world is used to pulling ahead and falling behind, but a big band plays the beat right when the ictus of my hand is going down—not late, not early. At certain points I wanted that relentless time, which was a challenge for the players.”

For the follow-up, which debuted in June 2011 at the Ojai Classical Music Festival (music-directed by Upshaw), Schneider decided to compose a looser, sparer, more intimate opus for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, a string ensemble whose musicians stand and function without a conductor, and pianist Frank Kimbrough, woodwindist Scott Robinson and bassist Jay Anderson, all members of her band for more than two decades. Within the pared-down setting, she mirrors the interior, animistic quality of Kooser’s works, which evoke, Schneider observed, “the open prairie landscape that I come from, so pale in the winter—I don’t want to say bleak—and so beautiful.”

Beginning with 25 poems that she placed on a board above the upright piano in her living room-work space, Schneider culled nine pieces that most “spoke to me as music.” She referenced her orchestration of “Perfectly Still,” which opens the proceedings. “I could immediately imagine Frank playing these little crystalline, biting things,” she said. “Writing this, I was out on a limb, and being able to write for people I know so well made it easier. My music has gradually been getting closer to some realm that’s right in the middle of classical and jazz, where the improvisations are woven into the formal development of the music. So I decided to pull the strings and Dawn a little bit into my world by including my guys. Also, as opposed to big compositions, it was fun to write songs, short little nuggets, a defined melody as opposed to a melody that keeps developing throughout a piece.”

In constructing the songs, Schneider “forgot myself” in the texts and drew on first-hand observations of her collaborator’s tonal personality from their initial encounter. “The language gives a rhythmic and almost a melodic contour,” she said. “That took me out of the realm of genre and into the world of trying to evoke something from each poem. I also followed the sound of Dawn’s voice, which is such a beautiful tone, with a beautiful low range. I love the way she enunciates and projects the meaning of the words with a human depth and perspective.

“If I did something well on this, it’s that the music serves the poetry. Sometimes I hear classical music that deconstructs the words and the way someone would speak a phrase to a point where it’s unrecognizable. I don’t know why you would write for words if you don’t want to enhance the meaning of those words.”

Having her bandmates on board enabled Schneider to incorporate “spatial notation” that allowed them “to improvise textures with directions I provided. Some songs are very specific, but some are open, where the orchestra can hang on to things longer, and Dawn can sing out of time.” She added that during an 11-concert tour of Australia in February for which she wasn’t present, “Scott, Frank and Jay took more liberties each night, which made Dawn take more liberties, which made the orchestra do the same. By the end, everyone was smiling at each other, hearing the little things. It brought them to a point of more malleability as a whole group.”

As a concrete example of how keenly Schneider attends to “the little things,” Kimbrough presented an anecdote from the May 2012 recording date, soon after a Florida-to-Canada tour of Winter Morning Walks that she did supervise. “Maria is a perfectionist’s perfectionist, and she tweaked things right up to the last minute,” Kimbrough said. “While we were recording ‘Walking By Flashlight,’ I was playing a four-bar passage at the front, just quarter notes, before everything comes in. Maria stopped me on about the second bar and told me that I had rushed the second beat of the first bar. She hears with a microscope, and she was working with a producer and recording engineer who also hear on that level.”

As 2014 proceeds, Schneider’s itinerary includes several performances of Winter Morning Walks. She was also considering several commission offers, although she expressed ambivalence about taking on projects that incur continual “low-level stress.” “I’m not prolific, and I don’t churn things out,” she said, noting that a bout with breast cancer a decade ago had shaped her perspective on the matter. “I say no to a lot of things, even things maybe I shouldn’t say no to, because I know the psychological place I need to be to live. Commissions only turn into money later when you sell or perform the music, which is another reason why I like writing for my band. I pay for this stuff through gigs and especially clinics.”

As we spoke, Schneider was coming to grips with a $26,000 charge from the SPCO union in response to an accidental unit overage in the pressing of Winter Morning Walks. “It’s a $200,000 record; I had made $110,000 back, so I was at the $90,000 loss point, but now, overnight, it’s $116,000,” she said. “Sales are slow now. I’ll sell them at gigs, and people will perform the music, so in time it will pay for itself. But oh, my God, I can’t keep sliding backwards. I don’t have endless funds. A lot of people don’t think I struggle as much as I do.”

This being said, Schneider expressed her determination to follow through on a scheduled orchestra recording at the end of August. The 2015 ArtistShare release will document music she’s composed since the 2007 sessions that generated Sky Blue, including beyond-category pieces like “The Thompson Fields” and “Arbiters of Evolution,” which draw deeply on memories of her rural Minnesota childhood.

“I grew up in a town with no record store, with a complete hodge-podge of records in our house, everything from Peruvian music to Artur Rubinstein to albums by Artie Shaw and Earl Hines,” Schneider said. “I was never taught to have allegiance to any particular thing; everything I heard was, ‘Oh, that’s cool. That’s fun.’”

She became immersed in jazz after moving 300 miles east to Minneapolis to enroll at the University of Minnesota, where she majored in composition and music theory from 1979 until 1983. She is clear that it continues to animate her creative process.

“The classical world at the time was super hung up on atonality and serialism, and it almost felt you weren’t relevant if you didn’t join the program,” Schneider said. “To me the jazz world was much more cutting-edge, because it accepted all kinds of music on its own terms, from Cecil Taylor-like to Louis Armstrong-like, and everything in between. It felt like a world where I could find myself, because it was so open-minded, which I feel it is to this day—down to Downbeat asking me about Winter Morning Walks. It’s an incredible genre. I love it.”



Maria Schneider for Downbeat (May 21, 2014):

TP: I’d like to focus on Winter Morning Walks, and that portion of it more than the Carlos Drummond De Andrade, which Michael Gallant focused on when he wrote about you last time you won.

MS: You have the album. It’s not really jazz, but it has improvisation on it, you know…

TP: They’d like you to go into some detail about it, and then we should talk about your next projects, and jazz-related stuff.

MS: I’m recording at the end of August with the band again.

TP: We spoke in January for your JALC event.

MS: That ended up being really fun. They changed the acoustics there. It’s fabulous. We had a great gig. Johnathan Blake played drums, and he was amazing. It was really fun.

TP: Also, today I’ve been reading some recent interviews. There’s a pretty good one from Minnesota NPR, who got some interesting stuff. Here’s a quote for me. You said, “All these classical people work their whole career, pushing through that classical world, and then I just come through with a big grab…”

MS: Oh, yeah. That I feel guilty.

TP: I’d like you to take me through the process of putting together Winter Morning Walks. You wanted classical music, but you wanted improvisation as well.

MS: Yes. Absolutely.

TP: And you didn’t see the two as antithetical.

MS: Right.

TP: I’m wondering, had you had some kind of breakthrough in the last few years that allowed you to do it? Does it seem like a logical evolution?

MS: I think my music has slowly and slowly been getting closer to some realm that’s really right in the middle of classical and jazz. The improvisation is important, but the formal development and using more space in my music, which really was inspired by the guys in my band, their beautiful sounds, their way of blending. Clarence Penn being willing to leave…to not play. All of that has made it possible for me to sort of find some place in between. So when I was writing for strings and Dawn, I thought, “Well, if I’m in the center, why not just start from that, the musicians on the other side. Let them reach across the divide by including Frank, Scott and Jay, and just pull them a little bit into my world, into that middle.” And really write songs. As opposed to big compositions, writing songs. It was fun.

TP: Melodies, you mean?

MS: Not melodies so much. Just short little nuggets. Little songs that are just… Yeah, I guess a defined melody as opposed to a melody that keeps developing and developing throughout a piece. It’s like a song. It was fun to do that, and to have the improvisational aspect be very simple, and to try to dovetail it so that it doesn’t feel like Jazz Meets Classical, but just feels like its own genre.

TP: How did you go about making it not like Jazz Meets Classical?

MS: Let me think about this. I guess by making the primary focus be the poetry, and Dawn’s melody, and being inspired by that, not by letting that lead where the melodies came from. The poetry, the language has a way of giving a rhythmic and also almost a melodic contour. So that sort of took me out of the realm of genre and into the world of trying to evoke something from the poetry, forgetting about genre. So I sort of forgot myself. I got lost in the poetry. And the sound of Dawn’s voice, which is not only just a voice, but such a beautiful tone. She also is so great in the way she enunciates and the way she projects the meaning of a song; in the same way that I feel Kate McGarrity does in the world of jazz, Dawn does in the world of classical. All of a sudden, the meaning of the words really comes through with a human depth and perspective. I love that.

TP: Did the experience of interacting on the Carlos Drummond de Andrade project have a big impact on your work on this piece?

MS: It did, because it made me want to do something contrasting, in a way, and made me want to… I mean, the poems, too, made me want to write more simply. Because I had Jay and Frank playing in a little bit of a jazz way here and there, it left it open to take some of the intricacy out of the strings and allow them to be simpler, because some of that rhythm and whatever was a bit…just in a few moments, it was almost like I had a rhythm section, as opposed to a more classical way of writing.

TP: Can you trace for me the story of your relationship with Dawn Upshaw? I gather she was a fan of yours.

MS: She used to come hear the band.

TP: She approached you and said she’d like you to do something.

MS: Yes, have me write something for her.

TP: How did that lead to the Stories piece?

MS: She wanted me to write something for her for St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

TP: Is she also from Minnesota.

MS: She’s from Illinois, and she was working a lot with St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. She was their…I don’t know what you’d call it…kind of their artist-in-residence kind of thing. But she didn’t want to choose poetry. I was asking her if there were directions, and she wanted nothing to do with the direction of the music. I found the poetry through a friend who’s from Brazil. I wanted poetry that was very human and storytelling, and not… I didn’t want complex, difficult poetry. I wanted very human level, almost folk kind of poetry. This friend turned me on to Drummond, and then I found the translations by Mark Strand, and then I kind of went to town.

For me, choosing Brazilian poetry was also because I felt that the influence that Brazilian music had on my music was a good meeting point with classical music. If you think about pieces of mine like “Choro Dancado,” which is on Concert in the Garden, it’s very intricate and has lots of counterpoint… The piece isn’t really a Brazilian choro, but it’s, say, choro-light, or choro-like-light…

TP: Choro-esque maybe we could say.

MS: Let’s say choro-esque. That music you can play without drums, and it has rhythm and time. So the music that I wrote for SPCO was, in a way, like my music, because I tried to put time and rhythm into the orchestral lines. Whereas a lot of classical music doesn’t have propulsion of rhythm like jazz does, my pieces did have quite a lot of that. It was a challenge for the players.

TP: That music seems a little denser than Winter Morning Walks.

MS: It is.

TP: And it seems to suit the tone of the poetry also.

MS: Yes, because the poetry is a little dark.

TP: It’s not only dark, but it’s very social. Relationships are explored. It’s like reading Jorge Amado or something. Whereas the Kooser poems are very interior…

MS: Yeah, and the Kooser also is evocative of a very… This is the part that I can relate to, because Kooser comes from where I come from. It’s evocative of a very…I don’t want to say bleak, but prairie landscape, very open, in the winter very pale, in a way. So the music doesn’t have a lot of emotional drama. It has definitely emotion in it, but not drama. The Drummond has a lot of melodrama. Some of those poems do. Not all of them.

TP: There’s a certain amount of irony in Drummond, whereas in Kooser if there’s irony it’s very well hidden. I haven’t listened enough to the music to say anything, but I heard certain sounds in the Drummond denoting that.

MS: Yeah, definitely.

TP: The Kooser music makes you cry.

MS: Yes. The poems are so beautiful. On my board here, I put up 25 of his poems that I thought I might be able to use, and then just slowly picked out ones that spoke to me as music. You can love a poem, but it just doesn’t make music.

TP: What was the first one you set to music?

MS: Perfectly Still was the first one. I could immediately imagine Frank playing these little crystalline, biting… I was thinking about Frank, and he was a little bit a lifeline in this, too. Writing these kind of things, I’m sort of out on a limb. The Winter Morning Walks, having Frank, Scott and Jay there, writing for people I know so well, that made it easier.

TP: Whereas that wasn’t the case for Drummond…

MS: Yeah, I didn’t know the orchestra. I’m used to writing… I almost don’t take commissions any more unless they’re for my own band, because I just want to write for my guys. I know them, and I feel like that relationship…through that steadiness I am able to evolve in a way, compositionally, slowly… It’s so comfortable. I love that.

TP: Did you deliberately use different musical language in Winter Morning Walks? Was it the poetry telling you what to do?

MS: It was just the poetry telling… Yes, the poetry led the way. I do think if there’s something on this that I think I did really well, it’s that the music serves the poetry. That was really important to me. When I listen to people writing classical music for a classical singer, sometimes it’s almost like they deconstruct the words, and deconstruct the actual way in which somebody would speak something, to a point where it’s not recognizable. I don’t know why you would write for words if you didn’t want to almost enhance the meaning of those words. That was just important to me. That’s what was exciting about the project.

TP: In a couple of interviews you’ve done about this, you’ve remarked that you were initially a classical student, and your knowledge was autodidactic and sketchy. Your piano teacher played stride piano, so you kind of knew about Tatum and other people. And then a teaching assistant told you they heard jazz in your work…

MS: You’re mixing stories. Sort of. It’s almost exactly right. When I went to college I started listening to so much jazz, and suddenly I was in a city where there was a record store. At home, it was sold in a clothing store. It was three hours from Minneapolis. I started listening to public radio, and they had a jazz show, so suddenly I was hearing Bill Evans. A friend down the hall lent me of his records, and he lent me Coltrane with McCoy. So all of a sudden, I was just launched ahead decades. Then I started discovering things going backwards. He gave me Herbie Hancock, Headhunters, so I heard that before even early Herbie Hancock or even hearing Herbie with Miles. Then I kind of worked my way backwards.

The classical world at the time, it seemed to me, was so super hung up on atonality and serialism, and it almost felt like you had to join the program, otherwise you were just not with the program.

TP: You’re not relevant.

MS: Exactly. That’s a great word for it. Then my composition teacher started hearing a lot… I guess I was always talking about jazz things I loved. Then he said, “there’s a big band…” They had no jazz program. But he said, “there’s a big band; why don’t you go watch and rehearse and write something for them.” Which was such a great thing for a man to say that had studied with Hindemith. He was a great, great teacher.

TP: Hindemith liked jazz, I think.

MS: Maybe.

TP: Well, Andrew Hill was in contact with him somehow.

MS: Really? I don’t know where Paul Fettler… It’s funny. I thought Paul Fettler had died, and he wrote me recently. He said, “I’m not dead.” I must have said in an interview… Oh, no, because I got an honorary doctorate at the U-of-M, and one of the teachers heard me say, “The late Paul Fettler,” and he wrote to me from Florida and said, “I’m alive.” He was a great man. I guess I could ask him about Hindemith’s relationship to jazz.

Anyway, I started writing for the big band. What I found was, oddly, the classical world that wanted to be so cutting-edge…the jazz world, to me, in a way, was more cutting-edge, because it was accepting of all kinds of music on its own terms. It could be Cecil Taylor-like or Louis Armstrong-like. Everything in between. The world… There were so many different facets, and there were people interested in anything and all of it. So I felt like it was a world where I could find myself. I loved the improvisation. Also maybe part of it was, because the school didn’t have a jazz program, and I fell in love with that music, it made me this very curious, searching individual. So I would search for people in the community to study with—writing and piano and everything. I’d get together with other classmates and students, and talk about harmony and show each other things we learned. I think it’s a really healthy way to develop. And Liebman came to the school. I asked him if he would look at one of my compositions, and he came to the practice room and he gave me some ideas that to this day I…

TP: He was constructive.

MS: Oh my God, he was fabulous. I loved him. It was a world that I just loved, because it was so open-minded, and I feel that, to this day, it is—down to Downbeat asking me about Winter Morning Walks. It’s really amazing. It’s an incredible, almost all-encompassing genre. I love it, and I love the community of people and the open-mindedness that most of them have.

TP: In working with these two orchestras… Apart from using improvisers in Winter Morning Walks… I don’t know how much language would be unfamiliar to the Australian orchestra if they weren’t involved in jazz. But there are elements in the Drummond that are jazz-like, more related, it seems to me…that are more recognizable as you…

MS: You could recognize the Maria in me more in the Drummond. Maybe because you’re used to my intricate orchestration.

TP: Whatever the case, talk a bit about how they responded to those elements of your language.

MS: I think both orchestras really enjoyed it. I think that the challenge with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra was that the music had groove and had tempo and time. We’re used to in jazz…when there’s time, time means time. It means don’t be late, don’t be early. It’s like be on time. The classical world is used to pulling ahead and behind on certain phrases, and at certain points I just wanted this relentless time. Sometimes I just wanted to put on a click track and force them to play to a click track. I didn’t do that, but that was the challenge. So the aspect that was, I would say, their encounter with the jazz world on that music was the time aspect. That was the challenge.

With the Australian Chamber Orchestra, they don’t use a conductor, which already makes them a little bit more jazz-like. Sometimes St. Paul doesn’t. There was more out-of-time improvisation in the Winter Morning Walks. There was stuff where that was just spatially notated, and they could sort of improvise textures with certain directions that I gave them. So the music was actually, in some ways, in some moments, a little bit improvisatory in Winter Morning Walks. They really had to key into each other. They took that on tour in Australia. I wasn’t there. But Scott, Frank and Jay said that they really got into it, and Scott, Frank and Jay took more and more liberties every night, which made Dawn take more liberties, which made the orchestra… They said that by the end they were all looking at each other and smiling, and hearing all the little things. So it brought them to a point of more malleability as a whole group.

So I think both experiences have encountered with jazz. Winter Morning Walks was more the looseness, the collective improvisation. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra was the aspect of jazz time. Those were the challenges.

TP: Moving back to Minnesota: at what sage as an undergraduate did you start becoming acquainted with the big band tradition?

MS: I would say at the end of my first year, getting into my second year. Then I started going to the rehearsals of the big band all the time. The big band was pretty good. It wasn’t great, probably. To me, it was really good. But the director was quite well known. His name was Dr. Frank Bencrushuto(?). He was a good friend of Bill Evans. He’s died. My big regret is I missed… Bill Evans came to town and I didn’t even know it. It was before I knew. I’d just come to Minnesota. It was one of the last things he did, I think.

TP: He died in September 1980.

MS: Yeah, and I started college fall of 1979. He was there, and I didn’t know, and within a year, I was a complete Bill Evans freak—and I’d missed my moment.

TP: In doing your early big band charts, were you transcribing stuff off records…

MS: Just trying to write. Listening to things. Not so much transcribing, but listening a lot. Watching scores go by when the big band would rehearse. Just listening to everything from “Splanky” with the Basie band, to Mingus, to Gil Evans, to Thad Jones. I love Thad Jones. I listened to a whole variety of things, and just… Then in graduate school, I got into Bob Moses’ things. Just taking it all in and trying everything. Everything from Rob McConnell, the clean, blended stuff, and then the open forms of Bob Brookmeyer, to the loudness of Mingus and the exuberance of Thad Jones. There’s a great book… I studied them out of books. There was a really great book (it might be out at the house) where it takes charts by Brookmeyer, Thad Jones, Neal Hefti, and it analyzes them and what makes them each unique. Their writing and orchestration is so different.

TP: I don’t want to do a gotcha thing, but did Ellington come into the picture during those years?

MS: Oh, yeah. Do you know The Greatest Concert In The World? It’s on Pablo. It’s got everything in it. Ella sings with the band…

TP: Like Cote d’Azur, ‘64 or ‘65 or ‘66.

MS: It’s not that, but I have that, too. But this set was… I listened to it constantly. “Don’t Be That Way.” “You’ve Changed.” Ella singing. Actually, that’s what I was playing in my room… No, I guess it came later. And I had older Ellington from the ‘30s that came out on Smithsonian. So Ellington was definitely in there, too.

TP: In our last conversation, because it was a JALC event, I mentioned that your band’s history and Wynton’s band’s history has spanned exactly the same timeline.

MS: It’s true. But they are so different.

TP: You said that Wynton might be more explicitly about Ellington, whereas yours is more about letting life tell you what to do, writing with the musicians… You’ve put yourself in that position as well.

MS: Here’s what I think. I think that everything comes… You know how they say for young kids, that basically the blueprint of your life is made before you even get to school, like in pre-kindergarten and all. I think that the blueprint of our life musically comes really early on. So look at Wynton’s early life. His father was a musician, everything steeped in the tradition of New Orleans.

TP: He was a teacher.

MS: He was a teacher, and he learned this lineage and this respect, and he’s also coming up with African-American culture in New Orleans, playing jazz.

I’m from Minnesota. I’m this kid who grows up in a town with no record store, with a complete hodge-podge of records in our house, everything from Peruvian music to Rubenstein to an old Artie Shaw album, and maybe an Earl Hines album. It’s just this odd mix of stuff, with no…never really being taught that you had to have an allegiance to anything or whatever. So everything that came, it was like, “Oh, that’s cool. That’s fun.” But it’s all against the landscape of my life, which was pretty much being outdoors a lot. So I hear music against this landscape of Nature, pretty much, and I hear music as being an expression of life, not music being an expression of musical tradition.

Actually, I think that’s a great explanation of why Wynton is who he is, and why I am who I am, and why our worlds don’t really intersect so much. But maybe do in some ways. Because then I became, obviously, much more analytical when I got older.

TP: Remember that Wynton was playing classical music before jazz. Although he was playing in marching bands. This is a Grammy-winning classical trumpeter, and an autodidact composer.

MS: I’m not even so much talking about classical music. I’m more talking about the jazz aspect. How he came up, and what your attitude is about the people that came before. If you ask me what inspired me most about Gil Evans, I would talk about the lines, the orchestration and everything, but the biggest thing that inspired me about Gil was knowing him and seeing how devoted he was to being himself made me want to do the same thing for myself. And Brookmeyer, too. “Wow, these guys are such a concentrated, intense thing of developing their own voice. I want to do that for myself.” Whereas somebody else, if they came up more in a lineage of…came up more like Wynton, next to Gil Evans from a young age, it might be more like, “I’m going to carry on the tradition of Gil Evans as Gil Evans might have done,” continuing on.

TP: Like what Ryan Truesdale is doing.

MS: Yeah, maybe. His thing is a little bit different, because in doing this music he’s like a musical archaeologist, finding all this music and putting it together, and unearthing all these beautiful things. That’s like another thing, maybe. I think if Ryan gets out there writing his own music more, I don’t know that it would be in the style of Gil.

TP: I don’t remember hearing your music before the first recording. Retrospecting, could you pinpoint when you started to become you?

MS: Studying with Bob Brookmeyer. My early pieces, we still play them… We used to play one all the time, called “Bird Count,” which is very Mingus-like. “Gumba Blue,” which was on my first recording, but it was pre Bob Brookmeyer—I wrote it in college. It is a little bit Gil Evans-inspired and influenced. But it was Brookmeyer who just started asking me, everything I did, “Why did you do that?” and I started realizing…

TP: The Socratic method.

MS: What does that mean?

TP: Asking questions constantly…

MS: Yeah. Why did you do that? Why did you put that there? I started to realize that much of what I did was sort of like putting up a pre-fab house. I sort of thought, “Well, this is what you do.” Like, I’d be sitting here (at the piano) writing maybe (or not here, but someplace), and always thinking, “Can I do that? Can I do that?” Then Bob made me start to think more audaciously about what do I want to do; there’s infinite possibilities. So as I started asking myself more questions about, “What do I want to write?” my music became my own as I gave myself permission to think outside of the norm. That was Bob. And not intentional. When I told Bob later he did that for me, he was like: “What? I did what? Oh, I don’t know about that.” But he did.

TP: By “thinking outside the norm,” you mean?

MS: Like, he would say, “Why is there a solo here?” Because the tune happened as a jazz piece; now there’s a solo. “Well, what else could there be?” Or, “Why is the soloist soloing on these chord changes?” “I don’t know, isn’t that what soloists solo on?” “No, actually, they could solo on…” There’s other choices.

TP: You’ve mentioned in a number of interviews, and also said to me…you told me this in 2005 on WKCR… Since 2000, you’ve changed your intentions (perhaps that’s the best word, or maybe not) for composition, that you wanted to enfold the improvising into the composition, and that your pieces were more directed, whereas before there was more soloistic freedom…

MS: Yeah, now it’s going back.

TP: Yes, in January you said you wanted to move back.

MS: It’s all changed…

TP: Can you speak to what’s brought you to this path?

MS: My solo sections used to be quite open. On Evanescence there’s solos on “Green Piece,” on “Evanescence”—there are kind of these open vamps. Sometimes, it would feel, when I’d bring the band back in, that it sort of was this openness and now it’s composed. It didn’t always feel like it had a compositional flow throughout the piece, that the piece had a constant feeling of inevitability. So I wanted to start building in this sense of inevitability, and being sure that the piece would develop emotionally as I intended. So, you know, “Hang Gliding” has very intricate changes that keep developing. There’s a lot of pieces of mine that are like that. “Cerulean Skies” and various things, I guide the chordal development underneath the soloists.

Simultaneously to that, we would always be playing some of my older pieces in concert. The band started really embracing the freedom, because the contrast between those two aesthetics is quite marked, and the band started going further in the pieces with the freedom. But I think because of the other compositions, I think they more and more got that… Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe it was just playing the music for longer and longer. But I think collectively, everybody got more and more of the hang and the concept of this continual development of the piece, so that even though they were taking these free sections further away, they were landing the plane back into the airport with greater and greater precision. You know what I mean? It wasn’t like a crash landing when it came back in. It was almost like they took it upon themselves to find ways to really link in to my music, and really have it feel like the two things would really elide. As a result, I started to discover that my band has now developed this way of improvising within a composed… I don’t think it would work necessarily with just any band. My guys improvise like real composers. So it’s made me not on every piece want to write open and free, but it’s made me feel like I can embrace that a little bit.

TP: I don’t recall when you told me this, but you offered George Flynn’s description of the band as “a flock of birds.”

MS: Oh, all turning on a dime. It is more and more like that.

TP: Even on the older, more open pieces.

MS: Especially on the older, more open pieces. Because they know them so well, so they know how far they can take it. To the point where Scott Robinson… Maybe I told you this. We played in Japan.

TP: Tell me.

MS: It was our last night in Japan, and at the end of the night I was introducing the band, and I said, “And this is Scott Robinson…well, he plays every instrument; sometimes he even pulls things out of his pocket; you never know what he’s going to play.” We had just paid everybody, because it was right before… He pulls out of his pocket a check. Everybody laughed, like, “what are you going to do on a check?” Well, we played “Green Piece,” which is very open, and it happened to be his solo. He started playing. He held the check between his lips like a reed, right up to the microphone, and started vibrating. Frank, who has a perfection of an ear, heard it and started making harmony out of it, and then it slowly developed into Scott playing baritone, and then it gloriously just fell back into what the band needed to play. It was amazing! That’s what I mean. It’s gone to the moon now.

TP: With Winter Morning Walks, there’s a kind of…I wouldn’t call it full circle, but you’re dealing with subject matter that’s very close to home, as you have with “The Thompson Fields,” which I believe you’re going to record on the next record.

MS: Yes.

TP: One think that was in the back of my mind a few hours ago, when I was reading about the jackhammering behind this apartment, was your relationship to New York. Having access to musicians like Frank and Scott is one reason why one wants to be in New York, because that’s where you find those sorts of…

MS: Characters and people, yes.

TP: But talk to me a bit about how New York has influenced you.

MS: that’s hard to say.

TP: Well, in 2005, you were talking about this neighborhood as a village…

MS: It’s not so much that way any more. It’s true. You feel it changing.

TP: I’m a lifelong New Yorker, Maria. My reference point is 1969-1970.

MS: What does it feel like now to you?

TP: Like the suburbs.

MS: Yeah, it’s lost a lot of its charm. One of the sad things for me is that Times Square…all those old hotels… I worked there a lot as a copyist in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. I don’t know why they wouldn’t renovate those beautiful old buildings.

TP: Instead of tearing them down?

MS: Yeah. And have Times Square feel like a retro, beautiful…but well taken-care-of. Why didn’t they do that?

TP: Instead of Hong Kong?

MS: Hong Kong. It feels like Hong Kong. It’s horrible. I mean, Hong Kong has its own thing. But Times Square should not be that. It’s really sad to me. Ok, I understand Donald Trump… We signed a deal with the devil, and he fixed up the whole West Side, the bike path and everything. But those buildings that came up over here, they’re just horrible.

TP: The ones along the Hudson River, the West Side Highway.

MS: Yeah, the skyscrapers over there. They are just so ugly, soulless, lifeless. Humanless. New York has lost some of its charm for me. I hate to say that, because I was in love with this city. I moved here in ‘85, and just loved it. Loved the rawness of it.

TP: There was still rawness to be found in ‘85.

MS: Yes, there was.

TP: Did you live here?

MS: I lived in Astoria.

TP: When did you move here?

MS: In ‘92. Astoria was wonderful. I came in every day to Times Square to work as a music copyist, and going past all the porn clubs, and this-and-that, and 8th Avenue or 9th Avenue at night, man, you wouldn’t even walk over there. It was just chain-link fence and creepy. It’s changed so much.

TP: If you lived in New York at a certain point, you can fetishize the grime and corruption…

MS: Mmm-hmm.

TP: …even though it wasn’t so great at the time.

MS: It wasn’t great. It was scary and everything. But I think it could have cleaned up and kept some of the Old World charm. I feel like they lost that. Some of the zoning, I can’t even believe… Or it was allowed that these people did this to the middle of a New York block.

TP: But as far as your music, there’s a very firm sense of place in Winter Morning Walks or “Thompson Fields.”

MS: Yes.

TP: I’m wondering, in your broader body of work, if there’s a sense of New York…

MS: I don’t think so, and I don’t know why. I mean, now that you come to say that. I think it has to do with what I was saying earlier. I think that we basically are where we started, and our roots are our roots. It’s like when Clarence Penn came to Windham, and he was just in shock. We were at this place, the Bergen Bar. Four cornfields meet, and there’s a bar there and a couple of houses. Clarence is sitting there, he’s like, “Ok, you’ve got to tell me; do you feel more like this or the Maria I know in New York? I just don’t even get this, how you could be from here?” I said, “Well, I’m actually much more this.”

TP: You remarked that growing up in the rural space, you create your own fun growing up. You were telling me about the carp wrestling, Crisco and mudhole.

MS: Yeah! I was just back there. I was out birding, and we went to this native prairie and just watched the bobalinks, and then we watched and observed swallows, and we found three kinds of tree swallows, all hanging, watching their behavior at night over the water, and looking up on the internet why do they feed like that at certain times of year… That’s my…

TP: Didn’t your mother have birds? Crows…

MS: Yeah, we had crows. Talking crows.

TP: And the town made you put them in jail.

MS: Lock them up. I told you all this! I always wanted to write a piece called “Joe The Crow.”

TP: I thought the Crisco thing could be a piece, and the crow is another…

MS: Also we had a goose, Lucy the Goose. Lucy the Goose could be a piece, but Joe the Crow might be a piece, yeah.

TP: Back to Winter Morning Walks: In interacting with Dawn Upshaw, how specific were you in her interpretation?

MS: I let her do it, and then here and there I said a couple of things. If there was a word or something I wanted her to wait on… But she had a lot of ideas, too. “I want to sing this line like this; it needs to…” I learned a lot from her about the focus of a line, and where it needs to lead with an intention of going somewhere. I feel like I learned a lot from her. So I gave her some direction; she gave me some, because I was conducting. Well, not Winter Morning Walks, but the other one, where I was conducting, she told me… She had a lot of opinions about things. So it was good.

TP: Perhaps you incorporated some of that information in the way you wrote for her on Winter Morning Walks.

MS: Probably. I learned a lot. She has such a beautiful low range. I utilized that in Winter Morning Walks. She’s great. She’s amazing.

TP: Are there plans for future collaboration?

MS: Maybe. I don’t know. She’s performing that this summer in Tanglewood, they’re performing it in Ravinia, and we’re going to do it together with the students at University of Miami, maybe in New York with Mannes School. There’s all sorts of…

TP: So to what extent do you need to be there for your music to be properly…

MS: This is bizarre. For my band music, I know I’m a pretty important part of it. I know that, because I’ve heard groups play my music, and I’m like, “Oh God, I wish I could just work with them a little,” and even my band…


He wants to do it at Mannes, and that I probably will conduct. I think Winter Morning Walks is probably ok without me conducting, and I think Drummond might be even better without me conducting. Conducting a real classical piece is really difficult, and I’m very limited in what I can do because of what I’m used to doing. If you conduct a piece in time, you know, with my big band, we’re both exactly in time together. They are feeling it… When I go BUHM, they are BUHM. The ictus of my hand going down is right when they play the beat. In a classical orchestra, they’re behind. So if you’re doing something in time, you have to be in front of them. I cannot physically do that. That’s like asking a dancer to dance some milliseconds in front of the music. It’s physically impossible. So the orchestra kept telling me I was behind. I’m like, “I’m not behind. Let’s be together.” But their idea of together is to be behind me. So if I’m with them, then they keep going slower and slower. Oh my God, it was so hard for me to do that.

TP: so there is an instance where you’re not speaking the same language.

MS: We’re not speaking the same language, no. They are also not used to a lot of stuff where Time is the Almighty God. So I actually think the Drummond would be better served by a real conductor.

TP: So in these instances, you don’t do…there’s nothing experimental about it. The pieces are written, notated, and have to be played that way each time. It’s not the Ellington mode of shifting things around…

MS: Winter Morning Walks is like that. It stretches and is open, and the orchestra can hang on to things longer, then Dawn can sings out of time. Things are very spatially notated rather than specific. Some songs are specific, but some are very open. But the Drummond is very specific.

TP: What’s the trigger for the open sections…

MS: Oh, following Dawn. I wrote in all their parts, so they can see what each other is playing so they can watch it go by and be together. I had to do it that way, because the orchestra doesn’t use a conductor. So I had to figure out how to make it visually look so that they can see, when Dawn sings this word, she sings “light,” I have to hit this note. Then I put her words there with a little line going down, meaning “line up with this,” because she’s slightly out of time. “When I switched on a light,” they… “In the barn loft late last NIGHT,” and they’ve got to hit with that. If it’s spatially notated, how would they know where she is? I had to come up with my own kind of notation for that. That piece sounds very simple, but it’s actually not.

TP: I had a question that I think you answered, but… When I saw you over Thanksgiving at the Jazz Standard, you were playing “A Potter’s Song” all the time, and you said in January that you rewrote it.

MS: Yes, it’s so much better.

TP: You said you were reworking another one, “Arbiters of Evolution.”

MS: Yes. “Potter’s” was hideous. It’s really beautiful now. I hated it before, and I really love it now. Now it’s my favorite thing on the record. I think we’ll probably open with “Potter’s Song” on the record.

TP: Do most of your pieces mutate?

MS: They always mutate a little bit. They’re not over until I can sleep. “Potter’s” I was just not happy with. Even Jay Anderson spoke to me after we went to Japan in December, and he said, “It’s so beautiful when it gets to the chord changes.” I said, “Yeah.” So what I ended up doing… That’s a piece where I basically wrote a song, and then I came up with all these changes behind Gary Versace, and the changes went to all these harmonically beautiful places that I wrote after I wrote the initial song, and I ended up loving it. So what I went back and did was then take that harmony and go back and put the melody in the beginning through a prism of the melody, and redeveloping the whole beginning. Now the whole thing feels so…

Writing is not a linear thing. If it is, you miss… Sometimes you have to go back and say, “Ok, I love where I got; now I have to work my way backwards,” start again to make that sound inevitable. Inevitability doesn’t come by just writing linearly. It’s the same thing for writing an article, right? Sometimes you come up with your whole thing maybe at the end. So then you work your way back…

TP: You might have written the whole thing, and then you cut everything out…

MS: Except the one thing and start over again. But it took maybe 10 pages to get to that. This woman I’m working with lives near where our house is. I met her in an outdoor farmer’s market, and she said, “Are you Maria Schneider?” She’s a really great graphic designer. She said to me recently, “You know, you’ve got to put down a lot of ugly to get to pretty.” Not meaning that everything has to be pretty, but meaning that you’ve maybe got to write a lot of pages to get to the one pearl that then you go back and rewrite everything. It’s the same with music. Sometimes it comes, and it’s just right the first time. But a lot of times it doesn’t. People always say, “When do you know you’re done?” I don’t know I’m done until I don’t think about it all night when I’m sleeping. When I can sleep, then I know I’m done.

TP: Dance and sculpture. When you talk, you make dancing motions.

MS: Mmm-hmm. I’m Italian. No, I’m kidding. I’m not.

TP: well, Germans dance, too. You’re German, yes?

MS: German, Dutch and French.

TP: Two questions. How aware of painting and sculpture were you before you got to Minneapolis?

MS: Oh, very. Because my sister Kate is a painter. She was very artistic. My mom had tons of books on painters. My mom was very into the arts. She was a very loving-the-arts kind of person, loving music and art.

TP: she played some piano, yes?

MS: Mmm-hmm.

TP: But there’s a sort of synthesia that you describe, translating volumetric ideas into music, or dancing to get the right time feel…

MS: Yes.

TP: Is that a constant for you?

MS: Not always.

TP: You did one dance piece for Pilobilus, I think you said.

MS: That opened me up a lot. Generally, I think I’m more visual than I am… It’s funny, because people…

TP: You’re not a Schillinger person.

MS: Oh, you mean mathematics. That’s interesting. Here’s the thing. I think they’re both the same. This is really interesting, because I’ve been trying to come up with a name for a brand-new piece I just wrote, and I don’t have a name for it yet. I was trying to write something beautiful. I found this thing on the internet where there’s a place in the brain where they can do an MRI and see what parts of the brain light up. So they had different people that see things that they perceived to be beautiful, and this place that they call Field-A1 lights up. That same place in the brain lights up when they took post-doc students who understood a lot about mathematics. They would show them different mathematical equations, and the equations that distilled into very simple ideas, like the Theory of Relativity or whatever, the same…them looking and thinking about the equation, the exact same place in the brain would light up. And, what’s really bizarre is they took people who understood nothing about mathematics, and they showed them those same equations, and the same place lit up in the brains of those people with the same equations. So almost as if there’s something inherent…the beauty somehow vibrates in that mathematical equation.

Don’t ask me what it means. But what I would say is that there’s math and there’s math. Because they were all equations. I definitely use what I would call math in trying to find solutions for my music. For instance, when I was trying to figure out “A Potter’s Song,” I did heavy analysis about that middle section, and harmonically how that’s going to work. It doesn’t mean I write with an equation. But I’m always looking to distill things down to find the simple, elegant solution that makes the whole piece vibrate within one kind of universe. To me, that is where the beauty comes. Because everything in our universe is mathematical and full of proportion and geometry…

TP: Sure. Or the Golden Mean in Renaissance painting.

MS: Exactly. The way our bodies are formed and everything. We’re part of that. So I don’t really separate as much the intuitive from the mathematical, except what I try to do is, when I write things intuitively, later I go back and analyze it, and look for the math beneath that my sort of subconscious brain was understanding, and try to bring it up to the surface so I understand it, so that I can use my understanding to bring even more to that idea than what I was able to intuitively.

TP: You’ve talked to me a couple of times about balancing output and productivity—getting stuff out, meeting commissions, meeting deadlines, generating material for a new record, which has taken a number of years—with the need for “leaving the field fallow,” as you say. Although I have a feeling you’re always working in one way or another, even in the fallow time.

MS: I am. I always dream of more time just…

TP: Your brain isn’t going to shut off.

MS: Not shutting off, but just doing some gardening or…

TP: How is that going anyway? The fallow…

MS: Well, I was just at the point… Because I thought I’d finish this one point, then I’d let a little fallow happen. Then the person I can’t talk about came forth, and wants something, and then what am I going to do, say no?

TP: I’m sure he’s paying you well.

MS: I’m not sure. We haven’t discussed that. We’ll find out. [OFF THE RECORD] I don’t want to sully the relationship. Is that the word?

TP: I guess it could be the word. It’s an interesting interpretation of what would happen if you talked about it…

MS: Talked about it, yes. Then I asked somebody and they said, “Oh, he’s notorious for being cheap.” Really? Oh, God.

TP: Well, it does segue into what I intended to ask you about. Since you do independently produce your recordings, and you’ve been public about the cost of putting your music. You’ve also said about he-who-shall-not-be-named that there’s a certain fear factor, an apprehension, but of course you’re going to take it on. “Well, can I do this…but of course I’m going to take it on,” is a constant trope for you.

MS: Yeah. I hate that.

TP: Spending $30,000 to make your first recording, then earning back $10,000, but accepting it. This recording you said cost $200,000…

MS: Yeah, and I just got charged another $26,000 by the union. It was a limited pressing agreement, and I printed 10,000, which includes like 1500 promo copies, and the printer made more than they were supposed to make, so now I’m stuck paying another 26-grand. A $200,000 record; I had made $110,000 back. So I was to the $90,000 loss point. Now I’m at the $116,000 loss point. Overnight. Literally, I have to pay it next week. It really sucks. Now the sales are quite slow. I’ll sell them at gigs, and people are going to be performing the music… I believe in time it will pay for itself, but it will pay for itself in other ways. This record was a bit of an odd thing, and I wanted to do it, but oh my God, I can’t keep sliding backwards. I don’t have endless funds. It’s really rough. Believe me, it’s rough. And I committed to making this record this summer, and I’m not going to not do it, because getting all the guys together is really hard, and the timing is right, and so I’m just going to trust that people through my website are going to come through, and I’m going to plea and beg and hope that it comes. I think it will. This was a harder sell than my band.

TP: You need a McArthur or Doris Duke grant.

MS: Man, that would be nice.

TP: It’s hard for me to believe that you haven’t received one. I wonder what that tells us about the politics of the grant world.

MS: I’ve had more people tell me they were asked and wrote a letter.

TP: I really do find it hard to believe. I’m not buttering you up. I support the people who get it. But given your accomplishment to this point…

MS: I think a lot of people out there think that I’m…

TP: You’re an establishment figure.

MS: Yeah, and that I don’t struggle as much as I do. Because I do portray the success of what I’m doing, which is true. Sky Blue paid for itself. Concert In The Garden paid for itself. But it’s a shit-ton of work. Busting my ass on this thing was a challenge. But in order to get the Doris Duke thing, you have to have applied for a Chamber Music grant. Now, I should see if I could apply for one to re-orchestrate Winter Morning Walks for small group. I don’t know if they would give me that. I haven’t wanted to take off time to write something for small group when I have a thousand other things. But if I did that, I’m pretty sure I would get maybe a $200,000 grant or something after that. I’d probably be chosen for a Doris Duke grant. But when am I going to do that?

TP: Anthony Braxton went into debt after his MacArthur, because he put everything into his opera. He wound up with a big tax liability.

MS: That sucks. The curse of a MacArthur, I’ve often thought… I’m often like everything is fine, everything happens for a reason. The curse of a MacArthur is everybody thinks, “Oh, wow, she’s got money; she can pay for this.” After the taxes, it’s not that much money. God grateful, I am getting by and managing. This year is going to be a struggling, but next year I won’t be hemorrhaging as much money, and it will be better.

TP: So you now are refocusing on the band.

MS: Yes. Somebody came to me and they want me to write something for a major singer, classical. I would love to say yes, but I’m so scared to. And do I want to just concentrate on the band for a while? The other thing I hate is having three commissions on deck, one after the other. It feels like someone has got a choker around my neck. Then I’m constantly…

TP: You’re talking about my life. On a much different scale…

MS: You’ve got all these things that feel like these guillotines coming down. If I once say yes to that, that is going to be a gut-wrenching thing for me. I would much rather finish some things and then have a blank canvas, and then go, “Ok, now.” Even if the timing was fine. I just can’t…

TP: Bach was in the same boat. He had to write one every week.

MS: But I don’t do that. Listen, I’m not prolific. And there’s a lot of people who take on a lot of commissions. These guys like Mike Abene doing all this stuff for Cologne, and Rich De Rosa…

TP: They churn the stuff out. I won’t name names, but I’d like to discuss this in a way that doesn’t…

MS: There’s a lot of people who are constantly churning out. I’m not a churner, and I’m very sensitive to pressure. Very sensitive. I say no to a lot of things, not because I want to say no. It’s just because I know the psychological place I need to be to live. And once you’ve had a diagnosis with breast cancer, you don’t… I believe a lot of it is about stress. So I don’t want low-level stress in my life continually. It’s not worth it to me. So sometimes I say no to things maybe I shouldn’t even say no to.

TP: well, economically…

MS: Commissions are never money. They turn into money if you later are selling the music or performing the music. That’s why I also like writing for my band, because then I turn it into tours or working as a guest clinician. It’s my music, and I can perform it and turn that… That’s the income. But the actual writing comes out to less than minimum wage by the time you sit there for endless hours for months on end.

TP: Books are like that.

MS: Yeah. It doesn’t make you any money. Gigs make me the money, but especially clinics. That’s how I pay for all this stuff.

TP: Do you have a lot of clinics… What’s the rest of your year…

MS: Not crazy busy, in a way, thankfully, because I’m making the record. So I don’t have a lot of clinics. They’re starting to come for next… I have a feeling 2015-16 is going to be very busy. But I’m trying to keep things kind of clear this fall to follow the post-production—editing, mixing, designing, Artist Share. That’s a lot of work.

TP: Perhaps we can end this by describing what the record will be like that you’re recording in August. It’s the first one since 2007, Sky Blue?

MS: It came out on ‘07.

TP: So we’re talking about 8 years.

MS: Yeah, it’s a long time. The longest I’ve ever gone without doing a band. Concert In the Garden came out in ‘04. I’ve made records every three years, pretty much. I guess you could say Winter Morning Walks came out last year…

TP: From 2008 and 2011.

MS: That’s a long time. So this is music I’ve been writing over the past few years, again, trying to feature as many guys in the band as I can. The way I see my records is that I don’t so much plan a record as the record represents a period of my writing. It’s sort of a documentation of a period. But I think there’s usually a connection in the music by the nature of a period…its style or whatever. I think it’s a continuation of… I think beauty. There’s a lot of what I would just call beauty on the record. Another bird piece. This one the Birds of Paradise, “Arbiters of Evolution.” If there’s anything markedly different, I don’t quite know yet what it is. I think it has some unique solo sections on it that highlight people in pretty creative ways. So we’ll see.

And the band is in a really good place. They’re just playing well. This is the first time I’ve done a record where we’ve played most of the music for quite a long time, so I feel we know how to play this music—most of it. Some stuff is a little still-we’re-working on it, and this new piece I have to tweak. But a lot of the music we’ve played for a while, so I think it’s going to be… A lot of times I make a record, and then I hear it years later, and I’m like, “Oh my God, we don’t play like that any more.” This hopefully won’t be that.

TP: Do you have any speculation on the nature of your impact on other people. You’ve attained a lot of prominence, and you’ve crossed over past the jazz world. They write about you in the Economist, the Times Magazine, and so on.

MS: Here and there I hear something from a student that just sounds so much painfully like mine that it’s embarrassing, and I just want to say, “don’t do that to yourself.” But generally, I think that maybe… I don’t know, but I have a lot of feeling that a lot of people started big bands because they saw in mine how expressive the medium can be. That it was more than a lot of fun with a bunch of guys getting together, that they saw it could be really a great compositional outlet, and it doesn’t meant blasting big band music all the time, but that there is a lot of different space and colors and levels of density that you can get out of the instrumentation. There’s a lot of people writing large ensemble stuff now. I don’t think it’s just me that made an impact. But I know I have made some, because some people tell me… D’Arcy tells me Evanescence was a big influence on him wanting to do stuff, and certainly D’Arcy has been an influence on other people. So I think there was that time when Evanescence came out, that more and more people saw, “Wow, maybe I can find a way to be creative in a large ensemble, too, and it looks like fun.” And it is fun. It’s a pain in the ass, too.

TP: You probably won’t recall, but when I heard you at the Jazz Standard over Thanksgiving week they put me at your table, the conductor’s table. Richard Thomas…

MS: Richard Thomas was right next to me. That was a good night.

TP: I must say, I heard the music very differently, because I’d never been right in front. I think it made a lasting impression.

MS: Yeah, it’s powerful when you’re right in the middle of the front. I always wish people could sit right where I’m sitting. When it’s on, it’s really on.



Maria Schneider (NYDN, Final):

“When I was a child, I dreamed of winning a Grammy,” Maria Schneider says. “I’d even say my speech at home when nobody was looking.”
The 44-year-old composer realized her fantasy last month, winning Best Large Ensemble Album for “Concert in the Garden.” She and her 17-piece orchestra will celebrate with a four-night run at the Jazz Standard, beginning Thursday.
Schneider won the honor despite bypassing record labels and conventional distribution channels. She spent $87,000 of her own money to make the record, and released it last July on ArtistShare, an Internet-based music delivery service..She quickly recouped her investment by selling disks and various downloadable add-ons exclusively through her website. As of now, she’s over $30,000 in the black.
Conservatory-trained and bandstand-tested, Schneider is a master of orchestration and flow. On “Concert In The Garden,” she treats her ensemble, comprised of New York A-listers, more like a chamber group than a conventional jazz big band. Her pieces are lyrical, intricately woven, and palpably sensuous, highlighted with ravishing instrumental colors and textures. There’s improvisation, too: she supports her soloists with harmonic language that embeds them into her sonic world while allowing their stylistic idiosyncracies to flourish.

“There’s an arc from beginning to end,” she says, in her light-filled Upper West Side apartment. “To get the timing, I tape the music, put on headphones, and start dancing. My body tells me if something is too brief or hanging on too long, if it needs to be more active or more pensive. To me, dance and music are together.”
The forms and rhythms of Spain and Brazil permeate the sound of “Concert in the Garden.”
“Flamenco and Brazilian music both come authentically out of their particular cultures, which attracts me,” Schneider says. “You feel the intensity of spirit coming through. I listen to them a lot, and it creeps into my music. What you eat, you eventually become.”
“Maria completely discarded everything she had been using, and went fearlessly into another world,” says Bob Brookmeyer, himself one of the most influential jazz composers of the last forty years. Schneider studied composition with him when she arrived in New York in 1985.
Soon after, she found work as an assistant to Gil Evans, the arranger responsible for the Miles Davis classic “Sketches of Spain.”
“She’s a chance-taker,” Brookmeyer continues. “Yet Maria has complete control over what she does, both as a composer and conducting her band. She has her own voice. Where that comes from, I have no idea.”
Some clues appear on the walls of Schneider’s flat. Above her chair is an old black-and-white photograph of her smiling mother cradling a piglet – “Happy Birthday” marked prominently on its shank – about to be presented to Schneider’s father.
On the opposite wall, above the piano at which Schneider composes, hang three small oil paintings by her sister in which massive towers, placed in an endless green expanse, morph into spaceships and aliens.
The setting is Windom, Minnesota, a prairie town of 4500, where Schneider’s father, an agricultural engineer, ran a flax plant. Her mother was an enthusiastic amateur pianist who, as Schneider puts it, “had Chopin down.”
“Behind our house was a field with huge flax stacks, an air strip, and towers for my father’s ham radio,” Schneider recalls. “He’d go to South America a lot, and brought back records. So I’ve always been attracted to all things Latin.
“Windom was full of magic,” she adds. “Sleeping in bed at night, ball lightning sometimes came through one window and out the other. Our parents told us this didn’t exist, but I kept seeing it. I still believe that the world is full of magic, much more than people acknowledge.”
Schneider draws similar nourishment from Manhattan.
“Of course, the city is international and multicultural, and so many great musicians live here,” she says. “But New York also feels closer to Windom than anywhere else I know. My neighborhood is my village. Everything I need is within walking distance. There’s nature, too. When I go into Central Park early in the morning and search for birds, I reach the same place I get to when I’m writing and very concentrated. You submerge into yourself, and connect to other things. That’s the magic place for making music — and living, ultimately, I think.”
Practicing piano as a little girl in Windom, Schneider imagined that the passing cars and trains had radios monitored by talent scouts from New York.
“If I played my Chopin, I always did my very best so that I would be discovered somehow,” she says. “I had ambitions, but when I practiced my Grammy acceptance speech, I had no idea what exactly it would be for. I just wanted to do music in some capacity. I firmly believe, and always did, that deep, heartfelt dreams come from deep, real wishes, and have tremendous power to make things happen in your life.”



Maria Schneider (Jan. 4, 2005, WKCR):

TP: Maria Schneider is performing Monday night at Birdland with her orchestra. This used not to be such a big deal. By that I mean that every Monday night for five or six years you could hear the Maria Schneider Orchestra at Visiones, on the corner of McDougal and Third Street. Now, performances by the Maria Schneider Orchestra are an event. The putative hook for the gig is that you’ve been nominated for a number of Grammies behind your first recording on your own label, which is being distributed over the Internet through Artist Share. You’re either the first or one of the first couple of releases done through Artists Share. It’s interesting on several levels, first the music, and what it denotes in your own musical evolution, which is a world unto itself; secondly, as a business model that many prominent musicians seem to be adopting. I think people will start to see the fruits of that attitude as 2005 progresses, as many are issuing albums under their own imprimatur.

Talk about the arc of the suite. Was it all recent work at the time you recorded it, in 2003-04, more or less?

MARIA: This piece [with Luciana] was the first written on the album. I guess that commission happened a couple of years ago. I decided to write three pieces that were sort of dance-influenced. So Choro Dançado… The choro is an early Brazilian music, almost what Ragtime is to Jazz. It’s a beautiful style that has a very specific harmonic kind of movement. My piece doesn’t really follow that, but it has the rhythm and contrapuntal quality that Choro has. Normally you don’t dance to choro, but I felt that this was a very dance-like piece.

Then I wrote Pas de Deux, which is the middle movement. I kept a picture of my favorite ballerina on my piano, Sylvie Guillem. She’s spectacular. She’s the most amazing ballerina. She’s French, but she’s danced with different companies in Europe, and on occasion she comes through New York, though it’s rare now. She’s very flexible, but it’s not only flexible. When she lifts a leg, it hesitates for a moment before it comes down, and everybody in the audience… She’s one of these performers that you can hear the whole audience breathe with her. She captivates the audiences that way. So I looked at this picture, and tried to treat two soloists… “Pas De Deux” is a dance for two, and I decided I wanted to have two soloists… The typical thing in jazz is if two people are trading, they’re almost competing, but I wanted the two soloists to play back and forth as if they’re dancing and catching one another. So each person, as they’re finishing their line, it weaves into the next person. I think that Charles Pillow and Ingrid Jenson did an amazing job of doing that.

TP: Have you done any writing for dance, for dance companies?

MARIA: Just once, and it was a lot of fun—for Pilobilus. It was fun how we came to that piece. It was part of a Doris Duke grant, and they had paired up five modern dance companies with five jazz composers, and so they paired me up with Pilobilus. They rehearse in Connecticut. I would go to the studio and play a few things on the piano, and then they would just start moving and improvising. They have three choreographers who are ex-dancers in that group, and they would just watch and tell them to develop certain moves. Then as I would watch them, I would play certain things. It was almost a playing back and forth between them and me. Then I recorded everything that I played, and we’d go home and develop that into compositions, and then go back another week later and… It was fun.

TP: Does the notion of dance and movement inflect the flow of your compositions and arrangements? Is it a constant preoccupation for you?

MARIA: It’s the way I write, actually. To me, one of the difficult things about composing and one of the things that I do in my music now is… Typical jazz is maybe a song form, and then everybody improvises, and there’s kind of a repetition of that form, which is kind of like theme-and-variations. But now my pieces really develop, so if there’s two soloists, they’re probably soloing over something differently, and whatever harmonic language is underneath them, even that keeps developing and moving. So there’s this arc from beginning to end. So to try to figure out the timing of that is… For me to get the timing, putting in my body really helps. So I actually put it into a tape recorder, put on headphones, and then I just start dancing. My body tells me if something is not going on long enough, if it’s hanging on too long, if it needs more activity or if it needs to be more pensive. That’s the technique I’ve found.

TP: Have you ever danced formally, taken lessons, techniques?

MARIA: When I was a kid. Tap and ballet, and I figure-skated. At the same time, I was taking music lessons. To me, dance and music are together. And my favorite kinds of music involve dance. Look at swing. Jazz. So much of it was dance music. Then Flamenco music, which I love, comes together with dance. Samba. All these different things.

TP: You’re going to have pretty much the full orchestra that’s been with you since ‘93, and you made your first recording at that time. So you’ve kept a consistent personnel over the years. How important is that to you, to have sounds, tonal personalities to write for consistently over the years?

MARIA: That’s been a wonderful thing. The band has developed… George Flynn, the bass trombone player in my band, made a comment the last time we played. He said the band has become like a flock of birds. If one person shifts a little bit, the soloists or somebody in the rhythm section, everybody, just BOOM, is like blackbirds, and they all shift to the left and to the right. That comes from playing a long time together. There have been a few changes in my mind, and that’s also been healthy because it brings in a little bit of new life and new voices for me to compose for. But there’s been a steady group that have threaded through the years.

TP: Have they influenced the content of the music? Their presence.

MARIA: Absolutely.

TP: What about them influences it? Their sounds, or predispositions, or thematic quirks, or your sense of who they are which gets transmuted somehow into music?

MARIA: I wonder if it’s something that’s more intuitive and that maybe I can’t put into words. I know that when I put my music out there, they bring it back, and over time they find certain ways to interpret the music that go beyond even what I had in my head. Somebody will find a certain way to play a line or something. Then when I hear that, all of a sudden I know, “Wow, I like that; I can use…” Then maybe that comes into my next piece. So over the years, they’ve really influenced me by what they bring back to my music, and what I hear is what I move on from.

TP: How would you describe the Maria Schneider sound circa 2005 versus when you first started presenting your orchestra 12 years ago? What’s similar? What’s different?

MARIA: I think my music has become more intricate. I’m sure it has. I’ve tried to incorporate the soloist into the writing. So I think that the soloist embeds into the writing in a deeper way now. It’s less like, here’s my writing; okay, now the person blows. But it’s more woven in. I think that there’s much more influence of rhythms and music from other countries. And orchestrationally, I treat the band much less like a big band now. In my older music, you’d hear more the brass and the saxophones, or the trumpets-trombones-saxes. Now I really look at it as a chamber group, that I have all these available colors. So in the reeds, I don’t just have five reeds, but I have many more possibilities, because one guy plays alto flute, bass flute, clarinet, and Charlie Pillow plays English horn and oboe. So I have all these different combinations, and then combinations of that oboe with someone from the trumpet section playing a flute or whatever. So mixing this, and NOT writing so sectionally. That’s probably the biggest change.

There have been a lot of things. If I listen to the music, the basic tonality of the music has changed.

I see the pieces all as little personalities, and I remember everything in my life that happened. When I hear a piece, I remember all the things, the smells, just the environment that went around writing that piece. They really represent each time of my life.

TP: What qualities are looking for in your musicians? By now, you have a sort of repertory company to write for, which is an ideal situation. Those musicians are very individualistic, but in some general way there’s a kind of synchronicity of their personalities that comes together to suit your vision. What are those qualities?

MARIA: One is a sound… There are two aspects to somebody’s sound. A sound that’s beautiful on its own, and a sound that knows how to blend. Sounds that can go together with other instruments and create something round and cohesive. Some people can have a sound, but it sticks out. These people know how to really blend together. That’s also probably come with time. Then, an approach to soloing where they have a voice of their own, but they also want to play for the music. That’s also kind of come over time. When I first started the band, I didn’t really foresee where this thing was going. I found these musicians, knew some of them, and we just kind of began this thing. Now, if I look back, it’s not so much that I can say, ‘Okay, I picked this person because they’re going to bring such-and-such to my music’—but over time they have. And by sticking together, this thing has come up, this sound as each record comes out, and it’s a mixture of what we all put into the music.

Concert In The Garden was released July 1st, and only available on my website. Maria Schneider Records at

TP: [AFTER Pas de Deux] Earlier I described this release as notable on two levels, first the music, and what it denotes about Maria’s evolution and development and general qualities as a musician; and also for the business model. Jazz musicians for years have been putting out their own product. Duke Ellington did it for a while in the ‘40s on Mercer Records. Max Roach and Mingus tried to do it in the early ‘50s, made a go of it for a while. JCOA. But with Internet technology and the confluence of that with the crisis in the retail record business, it now seems like a very interesting time to set up ways (a) to distribute your own product, and (b) earn the fruits of your labor in a way that hasn’t always been possible for musicians before because of the various costs of production. What kindled your desire your undertake this? There are lots of details involved. It seems easy at the beginning: Yeah, I’m going to put this out, I’ll sell the records, I’ll make all the money, and recoup my costs. But then you wind up having to be a business person as well as a musician, possibly.

MARIA: I guess there are a few things. I was having problems making back my costs. These records are extremely expensive to make. This one cost $87,000. Now, I could have made it a little cheaper; I blew it in a few spots. But all my records were expensive. My first one, Evanescence, which I made in 1993, I spent $30,000…

TP: A question. Did you put up that money yourself and then sell it to Enja?

MARIA: That’s what happened with that record. I put it all up myself, made the record… Because I’d tried to get record companies to record me, and nobody would. So I thought, “Okay, I’m going to do this.” I wound up with a little DAT tape, $30,000 worth, and everybody said no. Everybody said they didn’t know how to market me. I got various responses. Finally, Enja said, “We’ll do it,” and they bought it for $10,000, which I felt…

TP: That was pretty good money for a jazz record in the ‘90s.

MARIA: Yeah. That seemed like a pretty good offer. But it’s the typical thing of a musician saying, “Oh, I’m only losing $20,000! Somebody wants to put out my music. Wow!” Get it out there. We’re so happy just to get our music out there, we’re willing to lose money to do it.

TP: I suppose that’s justifiable as an opening salvo, a sort of calling card. “Okay, here I am, this is my investment, now…”

MARIA: Right.

TP: But then the second record, what happened?

MARIA: The record company paid for the second record. But along the way, also, a lot of record companies… One thing I realized, too, is that record companies are not making that much money. When people are buying a CD for $15 or something like that, the profit that the record company is making isn’t that. The record store is making their money, the distributor, then the record company. So in fairness to the record companies, they have to sell a lot of product to make their money back.

But most artist record companies are set up so that their royalty that they get… Say you negotiate for a 15% or 16% royalty, and the record company works towards recoupment. But they are not paying the artist their royalty as soon as they recoup all their expenses. They calculate their recoupment at the artist royalty rate. That means they take… If they’re selling a record to a distributor at $6 a CD, they take 15% of that, which would be 89 cents or something, and they calculate that amount. When that amount equals the $40,000 they spent on the record, then they start paying the artist. So that means the record company is set up to make a lot of money before the artist makes a penny.

Now, most artists are investing a lot in rehearsals, the time writing the music… So everybody is set up to make money except the artist. The distributors insure their profit. The record store can return the CDs if they don’t make money. The record company… It’s almost like a credit card company that’s getting their interest. They’re set up to make their profit. So the artist feels happy just to have people want to listen to their music.

This thing has got to change. Artists have to change their attitude about it. So Brian started seeing… Brian Camilio. Brian Camilio is the one who thought of this idea of ArtistShare, and technically, my record is on the ArtistShare label. But the thing is that I own my own masters and 85% of the profit is mine. So he came up with this idea to create this web design, this web software that allows me not only to sell my CDs, but to share the whole process. He said: “Really what we need to do is share much more than just the music. What is it that people who listen to your music are interested in?” I said, “Well, there’s a lot of musicians, actually. Even composers.” He said, “What if you shared your process, if you made your scores available for people to download, created lectures about how you compose your music.” So we came up with all these ideas, and he created this incredible software that allows people to get downloads, to stream information, to buy things by mail order. They can participate in the project on many different levels.

TP: So he has a proprietary software that’s customized towards the selling and distribution of recorded music and the ancillary incentives to purchase that music.

MARIA: Yes. For instance, as I was doing my project, I wrote news entries about what I was going through—the process. My process happens to have a lot of pain attached to it, and a loss of confidence and self-deprecation. My father said to me one day, “Geez, Maria, nobody’s going to want to buy your music if they hear that you really think that you’re not any good!” I said, “Well, Dad, I have to tell people the real deal…”

TP: Everybody’s confessing everything these days on national television; why not do it on a website?

MARIA: Yeah. So it’s a little bit of a tell-all. But I think it’s important to do that.

TP: Well, I’m sure among the people who are interested, it creates a feeling of intimacy. That’s not a bad marketing tool, come to think of it.

MARIA: That’s the idea, that the audience gets to know the artist and interact with the artist in a deeper way. I for one think it’s just an incredible idea. For me in particular, it’s been working very well. On all three of my records, I never, ever made a profit. That first one, the most I ever got in royalties was $7,000. I told you I lost $20,000. Plus, I gave up half my publishing. So all these records were kind of a losing proposition because of the publishing, and I invested a lot of money in my third record… For this one, I’ve already made my costs back! And it’s only been out for half-a-year.

TP: And it cost you $87,000. Pretty good.

MARIA: It’s my most expensive record, and I’ve already made the money back.

TP: Now, a lot of artists are moving toward similar conclusions. I’ll name a few off the top of my head with whom I’m familiar who are working with Artists Share. Jim Hall. Herbie Hancock…

MARIA: I think he’s doing something. I’m not really sure.

TP: A Brian Lynch project with Eddie Palmieri that’s being done this spring. Danilo Perez, who has a live trio recording at the Jazz Showcase. Dianna Witkowski.

MARIA: Charles Pillow has something coming up. There’s a wonderful group called Convergence that Greg Gisbert in my band plays in. Trey Anastasio from Phish is going to be doing something; I’m not sure exactly what. You can go to and see…

TP: Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette… I think a lot of people have heard what’s happened with your record, and they’ve been thinking about their options… It’s an idea whose idea seems to have come in 2005.

MARIA: The great thing about this, too, is I announced my project long before I recorded my project. I was shocked at the number of people who found it. I had no advertising at that time. I hadn’t hired a publicist yet. People just found it through the Internet and did their pre-order. I had something called Gold, Silver and Bronze participant levels, where they could have their name in the booklet as being a gold participant, and some man gave $1,000 right off the bat, somebody I’d never heard of. So I already had raised 30,000-some dollars before I had to pay for the album.

TP: Internet communities tend to organize themselves that way. Because of search engines, you can find information, or people go to sites that become clearing-houses, and it’s a very direct way to proceed.

MARIA: Someone goes to my website and can purchase it there. But all the people who have Artist Share sites are kind of hooked into this Artist Share network. My CD number on Artist Share is 001. I’m the first one.

TP: Sounds like you’ve always taken risks. Spending 30-grand on your first big band project isn’t something everyone would do. What gave you that confidence? You’re talking about how self-deprecating you are, but you put up $30,000. What’s with that?

MARIA: I have a strange kind of conflict within me. One is that, on one hand, I’ve always been this way—I’m self-deprecating; on the other hand, I must have some deep-seated trust. There’s something inside that says “throw it out there and do it.” I have some kind of deep risk-taker thing in me, and I always feel I’m going to come out landing. So far, I have. What’s really to be lost in something?

TP: Well, 30-grand.

MARIA: Yes, that’s true. [LAUGHS] And I did lose a fair amount. But that first record, as much as I say I lost money, it really got my name on the map, and Enja was incredible for me in that way. I felt proud to be on that label, too, because they’ve put out so much great music over the year.

TP: Part 3 is called Dança Illusoria. What’s the programmatic aspect here?

MARIA: In Portuguese it means “illusory dance.” It’s a foxtrot, but the harmony is almost Jobimish… It’s Brazilianish harmony. This was just my fantasy… I love dancing. In college I took ballroom dancing. This is like my fantasy foxtrot, I don’t know, maybe like Gene Kelly. That’s who I fantasized about as a child.

TP: May I read your liner note? “As I child, I would rush to the TV to watch anything with Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire, loving everything about those movies. Oh, to be one of those lucky women carried by that incredible music on the forearms and legs of Gene Kelly, and that continuous horizontal glide that appeared so easy, so divine, and so devastatingly romantic. I dreamed as I watched stone-faced, not to be caught even wishing for such an impossible thing.” Keep that in mind as you listen to Dança Illusoria.

How many rehearsals do you need to prepare the band after they’ve been off for three or four months?

MARIA: One. Unless I have a new and difficult piece. It’s kind of like putting on an old glove. It’s such a nice feeling, because everybody falls in. After maybe half a piece or one piece, it’s like, “Ooh, that’s how that feels again.”

TP: But back in the ‘90s, having a band every week, every performance could be like a workshop. Not that it wasn’t on a professional level, but you could experiment, you could tweak things, see how this or that sounded, allow for rough edges. It isn’t like that now, is it, because you’re primarily performing concerts and tours and one-offs.

MARIA: Yes. Although on occasion, I’ll sight-read something on a gig. I’ve found that the audience likes it. They like to feel a little bit part of the process. We used to do that a little bit at Visiones. We’d sight-read something, and there would be a train wreck; we’d stop, and we’d start again. We’d make that a small portion of the set sometimes. I’ve even done that when I wrote one particular piece, Hang Gliding. We were playing the Vienna Konzerthaus, which is like Carnegie Hall. I told them, “This piece is half-completed; I want to play the first half, and then we’re going to segue into another piece.” I just did it, and the audience seemed to love it.

TP: What’s your opus number? How many compositions?

MARIA: Compositions and arrangements? I really have no idea. I should count. I’m not particularly prolific. It takes me a while to complete some of these pieces. Every time after I’ve made an album, I always have this hiatus where I don’t hear anything, and then all of a sudden it comes back again, and I get going. It usually takes a commission to get a fire under my rear.

TP: But all your records, with one exception, which was a commission from a winery, are composed of original music. For the winery, you arranged tunes.

MARIA: I’ll be putting out that album through Artist share this year. I like it because it was recorded live, and it has a certain quality of what the band does when they play live.

TP: Within a normal set, are you particularly concerned about playing original music?

MARIA: I just mostly do. Usually I’ll play one standard a night. Not always. Sometimes two. I just try to put together a nice set. I don’t think my music is particularly difficult to get. It has a lot of details in it, but I don’t think it’s challenging in any huge way. Maybe somebody else would disagree. But I do have some standards that I like to play, and feature guys in my band on them. I have one that I arranged in college on My Ideal.

TP: Also a few years ago, I don’t recall whether you rearranged it or just conducted the chart, but you did Sketches of Spain with Wallace Roney on trumpet.

MARIA: That was just me conducting Gil Evans. I did nothing to it except get to stand in the middle of it and enjoy myself.

TP: That’s my awkward segue towards the influences question, because we’re about to hear a piece dedicated to one of your mentors, Bob Brookmeyer. Gil Evans was famously a mentor of yours as well? Do you have influences right now? At this point, would you say that you’re past influences in the way you think about writing? Is it coming through ways that you’ve distilled those people? Is it entirely Maria Schneider?

MARIA: I think I’m not past having influences come into me. I think I’m kind of secure in my world. But I think it’s impossible to listen to music, or absorb art, or take things in that impress you and inspire you, and not have it affect you. There’s a reaction to anything that you let into yourself in an emotional way. I particularly love listening to Brazilian music these days, and for years, Flamenco music. That’s been a huge influence. There’s so much left for me to learn and absorb from Brazilian music. There’s a lot of people there. Egberto Gismonti’s music has influenced me in a lot of ways. Paco De Lucia for sure. Classical music that I listen to? Absolutely. Pas De Deux has a lot of Ravel in it. It still comes in, absolutely. But I don’t go in and listen to something, and say, “Ooh, I’m going to try to write something kind of like that.” Like, maybe I would have way back when I was first starting. I think those days are gone.

TP: When did you come to New York?

MARIA: 1985.

TP: So there’s an eight-year gap between arriving in New York and putting out your first record. When did you first put together the big band?

MARIA: 1988.

TP: Was that when you went into Visiones?

MARIA: No. I went in there in 1993. I originally started the band with John Fedchock, and we’d play half his music and half my music. Then we both started our bands, and I got a different rhythm section and made a few changes, and probably him, too. There’s some similar personnel still there.

TP: In ‘85, were you coming directly out of school, or did you make a pit-stop?

MARIA: No, I came right down from Eastman with a friend of mine, a wonderful singer named Kate Egan, who lives in Alaska now—a classical singer. She and I came down and decided we were going to be roommates. I worked as a musical copyist for a man named Frank Zubac(?), and at a xerox machine I met a composer, Tom Pierson, who knew Gil Evans, he told Gil about me, and I started working for Gil… I did a lot of different things for Gil. As a copyist. Reorchestrating some of his music for big band, because his music was kind of a different instrumentation. Then he started having me help him on projects. It slowly developed. I did a lot of transcribing for him.

TP: I know one of the ways he himself learned about orchestration was going to the Public Library and copying the scores. Was that one of the ways…

MARIA: That I learned to orchestrate? I never did that. But I went to school and took orchestration classes. Gil was big into studying at the library. Once I told Anita that I’d fallen so in love with flamenco music, and she said, “Oh, you and Gil. He used to go to the library all the time, and he was so obsessed with flamenco music.” I should have figured it because he did Sketches of Spain, but I didn’t realize it. He and I had never talked about that, that he was so enamored of that music. But he studied when he wanted to learn something. Always curious.

TP: Are you systematic like that? Do you get into projects that you just have to absorb, or is it a different process?

MARIA: No. I wish I was a little more systematic. I’m kind of where I hear something, and… I was never studious about transcribing or anything. I’d be just, “Oh, I hear that; I like that; maybe it’s sort of like this.” It’s just my way. I’m not so meticulous and organized as that.

TP: The next piece is a gift from you to Bob Brookmeyer? [Anthem]

MARIA: That’s right. These people, who all played in his band and were friends of his, decided to make a record called Madly Loving You I think for Bob’s 70th birthday, and they invited friends of Bob to write pieces that featured Bob. So I was so intimidated to write a gift for Bob that would feature him. I went into such a panic. This thing starts out with kind of an F-triad. I even called him one day, and I was half-tearful. I said, “Bob, would you just play an F-triad so I can hear it!” I couldn’t believe that I was so blocked. He played it, and he said, “Maria, don’t worry about it; I can decorate any melody and make it sound nice.” It’s true! When you hear this melody and the way he creates decorations, and also how compositional he is in his improvisation… I created this section that leaves all sorts of room where he has to answer the orchestra. He’s phenomenal. I knew I could put that kind of trust in him that he would come through.

TP: [My Ideal] Maria wrote that arrangement of My Ideal in 1983. That version was recorded live at the Jazz Standard in [tk], and issued on a CD entitled Days of Wine and Roses.

MARIA: It came with two bottles of wine. In most states, music and wine is illegal to sell.

TP: And you may be releasing this on Artist Share as well. …recognition for her new CDs, Concert In The Garden, by the Grammy nominating committee for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album; Donny McCaslin is nominated for best solo on Buleria. I had two compositions nominated. One is the Buleria, Solea Y Rumba, and then the University of Miami recorded Three Romances and submitted that as a composition, so I got nominated twice in that category…

You say you’re in a hiatus now. But do you have any projects on tap? Any commissions?

MARIA: There are some commissions coming up. One isn’t in its final contract yet, but for the Disney Hall out in L.A. I think they’ll commission me to write something for my own orchestra. I’ve been talking a bit with a symphony. I don’t want to say which one yet, but there’s a symphony in the States that’s interested in commissioning me to write something. So maybe it’s time I step into that realm a bit. There’s a nice idea I have for an Artist Share project which will be a collaboration, but I can’t say that one either. So people who come to the site…there will be a big announcement when it happens.

TP: Do you count your hits?

MARIA: Not really. I try not to count my sales too much. I try not to peep too much, although it’s kind of nice to look, because there’s actually a significant profit now per CD. That’s the thing that’s really exciting, that when people buy CDs now, a significant amount of that money really is going back to me doing new projects. So it all perpetuates the possibility of me doing new recordings. Which never happened before. I had to run around doing clinics and a thousand other things to make enough money to put out a record. But maybe I can be in the business of actually making recordings primarily, and having it be a viable business.



Maria Schneider (March 7, 2005):

MARIA: …the way to play my music. Imagine if we had that for Mahler…

RICK: This is the tempo I want for this thing, or whatever.

MARIA: Exactly.

TP: So tenor player Rick Margitza is visiting from Paris, and Maria later this afternoon is going to interview him on her website on how to properly phrase her music. You‘re saying that you want to sell scores, parts…

MARIA: I’m trying to broaden the whole experience of people ordering my music. Typically, if they buy the music, they can listen to the record and figure it out for themselves. But here they can listen to Rick talk about the way he approached soloing on certain changes. So students can get that extra advice. I can talk about how I actually rehearse things, or Rick can talk about how he phrases lines. Because when Rick plays my music, certain lines he plays, even when he’s not improvising, he has a very beautiful way of interpreting my writing that makes the music sound the way it sounds. My band has this kind of buoyancy… Tim Ries came over, and we were going over flute parts, and he was playing some things, and then he told me right where he starts putting vibrato on a note to make the note blossom a little bit. Then I realized that’s why the band sounds so great.

TP: Rick Margitza, who would have taken the solo for which Donny McCaslin was nominated for a Grammy… You were saying, Maria, is that you interface with the musicians, that over the years there’s a feedback loop where they take your information and give it back to you. They make the music live, in a certain sense.

MARIA: They bring their own thing to the music, which in turn I think affects the way I write, and then maybe that has some influence on the way they play, and then they go filter it through themselves, so it kind of comes back and forth.

TP: Rick I suppose you’ve been involved in Maria’s music since she first organized the band? What are the qualities of the writing aside from the craft and poetry and notion of the dance…what qualities make it appealing to you? Why is she able to hold this band together for so long? Apart from working every week for a few years. There were other bands in the early ‘90s. What was so special about Maria’s?

RICK: I think the fact that her music is so organic is the main thing for me that made me continue to want to keep playing in the band and playing the music. It has inherent qualities that give it the ability to be different every time you play it. As opposed to maybe more stock big band kind of stuff where you have to play it in a certain way, in a certain style, her music lends itself to different types of interpretation and openness.

MARIA: My music requires that the soloists really have to participate in that piece. It’s not enough to just blow on the piece, but they have to carry the piece from one point to another. So it requires something of them to really connect to the music, rather than just kind of blowing on a tune.

RICK: I’m thinking about this interview we’re going to do later, and one thing I was going to say is that every solo in your music, you kind of have to play it in the context of the piece. You can’t just bring the stuff that you play over A-minor in any other jazz tune, and play it over A-minor in Maria’s music. You have to approach the A-minor differently, depending on the context of the piece, and the atmosphere and the environment.

TP: Maria, in writing the tunes, are you specifically thinking of those tonal personalities?

MARIA: A little bit. It’s weird, because I don’t want to typecast, and sometimes we switch solos on different nights. I always gave Rick the torturous ones! But generally, I have a certain feeling about their sound and what kinds of things they can come out in. But then sometimes we’ll switch solos around just for fun, and then somebody else will bring something, and I’ll think, “Wow, I didn’t think they had that in them, or that there’s other sides to people. So I have to be careful about tyepcasting.

TP: Rick, how have you noticed the evolution of Maria’s music over the past decade or so? Does it sound palpably different to you now than what she was doing ten years ago?

RICK: It’s becoming more of who she is. I think that’s the goal of most of us as artists, is that the music grows as we grow as humans. Maybe some of the earlier stuff sounded a bit more like things you heard in the past. Now I hear it, and I know immediately it’s her music. I don’t think I can give you any technical examples, but it’s just opening up more. There’s more points of reference and it seems more personal.

TP: Does it seem more beyond influence?

RICK: Yes.

MARIA: What goes along with that is I don’t really care if my music sounds like big band music, or… When I wrote before, sometimes I’d wonder, “Can I do that?” Now I never ask, “Can I do that?” Who says “can I or can’t I?” I just write.

TP: When you came out with your first records, because only people around New York who knew about the people you were involved had a sense that you were doing anything, and here you show up with this fully formed personality. When did you first meet?

RICK: When I got to New York in ‘88-‘89.

TP: How much repertoire did you have at the time?

MARIA: Not that huge. I moved to New York in ‘85. I have a couple of pieces in my book that I had written in a different form before that. But that’s when I started studying with Bob Brookmeyer and working with Gil Evans, and started thinking about maybe starting a band. So I had a few pieces, but not a lot.

TP: Did forming the band force you to start producing a lot of stuff?

MARIA: More, yes. And getting commission. When we got the Visiones gig, and people started coming in and hearing the band, they started commissioning me, and then you have to produce. It’s a bad and a good thing.

RICK: One thing Maria said about my music that I felt about hers before she said it about mine is, I hear and feel more joy in it.

MARIA: Yes, that’s true. Egberto said that about my music, too.

RICK: There’s more details, more… It’s not that it was never fun to listen to, but it’s even more fun to listen to.

TP: What’s Maria like as a bandleader?

RICK: It’s great that she lets us bring our own personalities to the music. We’re talking about how I phrase her things. I play certain phrases that I like to use to ornament, things that are not written in the music, and she allows us to try things as opposed to saying, “No, this is the way I want it.” That makes it a joy to be around, because it doesn’t feel like you’re just an employee. You feel like you’re part of the whole process.

TP: Was anything going on in New York like Maria’s music in 1992-93?

RICK: No. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never heard the Mingus band live. A lot of people said that that was kind of different every week. But I think that hardly had any structure, which is…

TP: You’ve worked in the Vanguard Orchestra, though.

RICK: Yes, a couple of times.

TP: Now, there’s an orchestra with an enormous book, and it seems to me that they take liberties with the charts, solo change…

RICK: Solos change a little bit, but that music kind of has an inherent structure, that you have to follow certain guidelines. Of course, I love that music, but it’s not as open as Maria’s. It wasn’t as different from week to week.

TP: So at the Jazz Standard, when you play Buleria, each night Buleria may mutate into some slightly different…

MARIA: Some pieces more than others. It depends on the pieces. Some of the older pieces, like Green Peace, which Rick played on, the rhythm section takes that so far left now. It’s amazing, what’s happening on that thing! So it depends on the piece. Some of my pieces are pretty tightly composed, but then the rhythm section, they can do several things to make it feel different. It depends what piece it is.

TP: Is the qualitative difference that you’re going to change sections or assign different solos, or is it that within your part to interpret, it can be open…

RICK: I should be more specific. As Maria said, certain pieces lend themselves to more openness. But I think it’s more in terms of what happens within the solo section. The written stuff, obviously, because it’s more structured, is going to sound not the same every night… But I was talking more about the solo sections.

TP: Now, you’ve been nominated for Grammys before, so this isn’t your first. Obviously, within the context of the jazz world and serious music world, you’ve had recognition. But how has getting the Grammy affected things? On the real side, does it really mean something to you?

MARIA: I think it means something more than to me personally inside my own head and my view to myself. It means something to the general world, the general audience. For instance, I’ve heard from so many people from my home town, just a ton of people. For a lot of the people, the ultimate music award is the Grammy. Maybe even some people aren’t really sure what a Pulitzer is, but they know the Grammys. So in terms of reaching a wide audience, to be able to say…


TP: You’re playing in Machu Pichu?

MARIA: Well, no, I’m playing in Lima. But I’m working with a band of all different musicians, and then Peruvian musicians.

So I think it means something to kind of the wider world, that you can always say, “Hey, I won a Grammy” or that you’re introduced that way. It means something. So it’s a nice thing.

Plus, even for me, when I was a child, I used to dream of winning a Grammy. When the Grammys were on, afterwards I’d say my speech at home when nobody was looking!

TP: Was that the speech you gave?

MARIA: No. That one was probably, “I want to thank my mother, my father and…”

TP: Well, they don’t give much time for jazz on national television.

MARIA: No. I mainly thanked ArtistShare and the band and things like that.
TP: What’s your home town?

MARIA: Windom, Minnesota. Three hours from Minneapolis, in the southwest corner. Prairie.

TP: So it’s not the Bob Dylan part.

MARIA: No. It’s the southwest corner, close to South Dakota and Iowa. Big, open… 3,666 was the population.

TP: When you were a kid?

MARIA: Yeah.

TP: Was there lots of jazz there?

MARIA: [LAUGHS] There was no jazz there. There wasn’t even a record store. The records were sold in the clothing store. In recent years, they’ve sold my CDs… Well, now my CDs aren’t sold in stores. But before that, they sold them in the flower shop.

TP: Has there been a spike in your CD sales since the Grammy?

MARIA: Yeah, definitely.

TP: In January, when we spoke, you were already a nice taste in the black. How many have you sold so far?

MARIA: I’ll have to look. I don’t know how many I’ve sold.

TP: But it cost you $87,000 to make, and you were $10,000 or $15,000 in the black.

MARIA: Yes. Now I think $120,000 overall is about what I’ve brought in. That’s pretty amazing. But the thing about ArtistShare is it isn’t only CD sales. Maybe CD sales are $70,000-something of that. But it’s this thing of the composer participants, having all these different levels in which people participate in other ways, is bringing in income, too.

TP: So for instance, what you’ll do with Rick will be one of those value-addeds.


TP: You pay Rick for his services, you sell it for X amount, and it…

MARIA: These interviews go along with the music, documenting something beyond. The latest thing I’m doing that I’ll try to put up in the next few days is that when I recorded my music, I left solos off of… I had people solo in the booth. [HEARS WATER DRIPPING, FIXES IT] When I recorded the music, I also made versions with no solos. So what I’m going to sell is that people can download an MP-3 of the music without the solos, download the printed music in all keys for all instruments, and then listen to the interviews I do with the guys about how they approach those solos. It’s called The Maria Schneider Orchestra Featuring (?).

TP: Is Bob Brookmeyer doing anything like this these days?

MARIA: Bob is going to start an ArtistShare.

TP: You’re playing in Peru. One thing you discussed on the radio is that you’re bringing more of the flavors of the world into your music, that it’s become a much more multicultural organism. That’s certainly how Concert In The Garden is.

MARIA: Somebody asked me recently, “How do you go about bringing in world influences?” The thing is, some people are into World Music and studying music of different cultures, and for me it’s not really quite like that. I’m not really so studious. The thing is, I’m attracted to music that is very authentic and coming out of culture. It’s something I’ve noticed. Flamenco music. Flamenco music isn’t just music; it’s a culture. Brazilian music isn’t just music; it’s a culture. And you can feel that intensity of spirit coming through the music. That’s what attracts me to that. I’d say jazz was more a culture at one time. The world of Jazz has changed somewhat. So I find myself listening a lot to that music. I’m just attracted to it. And if you’re listening to something a lot, it comes into your music in different ways. It just creeps in. It’s like what you eat, you eventually become.

TP: Do you think you’d be able to do this kind of music if you didn’t live in New York? The cosmopolitanism of it, the international flavors? Or is that kind of immaterial?

MARIA: I can’t say for sure, because I just do live here. But there’s a lot of things I love about New York. One thing is all these musicians that live here, the great musicians, the fact that the city is very international and multicultural, the fact that it feels more like a small town to me than any other city I’ve ever lived in, except for Windom. It feels closer to what Windom is about than anything else I know.

TP: New York does?

MARIA: Yes. I live in Manhattan, and when I live my apartment, everything that I need is in a very close area. My little area feels very much like a community. I know the different people. I recognize faces on the street. I know people in the shops, and they know me. This area of Manhattan is my village. I’ve lived in other cities where you have to travel by car, and you go to this mall for that, and whatever. That to me feels like a city. This to me feels like it’s a village. Wherever you live, you make your own little sphere, your own little bubble that’s your world.

TP: I’ve never heard anyone say that Manhattan felt like a village. But I know exactly what you mean.

MARIA: It’s the closest thing to a small town. You can walk everywhere. And it’s social. A small town is social. I talked to a friend of mine, Oscar Castro-Neves. He lives in L.A. He’s originally from Rio. He said, “Maria, if you want to meet somebody, you’ve got to make an appointment three weeks in advance.” Here it’s like, “Hey, you want to have dinner?” Okay. Boom. We meet. That’s something you can do in a small town.

TP: Is that good for the music?

MARIA: Yes, definitely. “Hey, Larry, can you come over for an interview?” Or George Flynn, for instances, who lives uptown a little ways. “I want to bring my tuba down and play some music for you, and let you hear this new tuba I have, it sounds so great.” So boom, we can get together like that, and so some music. Or “Can you come over with your horn? I want to hear if you can articulate something that I’m writing.” I do that with people all the time.

TP: So you really are drawing on the musicians in very palpable ways. [LOCAL INGREDIENTS, RESTAURANTS THAT USE FARMERS MARKETS]

MARIA: Yeah.

TP: On the radio you said that every piece brings forth a life association. You can remember the circumstances in a very sensual way—the smell, what was around you, the way things tasted. Listening closely to your music, you can hear those little flavors. This morning I was thinking, “Wow!” There’s also an underlying notion of dance, and you spoke of how you get inside your own body to ensure that the pieces are the right proportion.

MARIA: The timing. Did I talk to you about the sculpture thing? Recently I figured out why… First of all, music has always felt sculptural to me. When I sit, I can envision shapes and things going through things, translucencies, all sorts of things about sculpture. Yet I need to dance to figure out the timing. Then I figured out why I’m so attracted to dance. I thought, well, dance is sculpture in the context of time.

TP: Do you look at a lot of art? Do you have a lot of artist friends?

MARIA: I do. My sister is an artist. These three… That she made of me years ago. Actually, she was 13 when she made this portrait of me.

TP: She’s turning water towers into spaceships and aliens… [WATER TOWER IN A FIELD…] Sort of surreal.

MARIA: They’re oils. It’s very surreal. The images you see in her paintings are all things I recognize. First of all, my father flew a small plane for his work. He had to fly a plane. We kept it behind our house for years, but then Windom eventually built a little airport. That’s corn country, corn and beans, so it’s just fields, and then in the middle out there it’s just this air strip, and it’s very kind of bleak like that. Then we also had water towers next to our house… Well, Windom had a big water tower, but we had big radio towers that my father built because he did ham radio and stuff. We just had these huge towers. So in a lot of Kate’s things, she’ll do that little tower motif.

TP: People from Minnesota are wild. I’ve been reading Bob Dylan’s autobiography, and he writes a lot about the Mesabi Range and Minneapolis in the late ‘50s. I have other friends there. Seems like there’s something there that inclines people to independent thinking.

MARIA: Maybe. I think there’s something that makes you very creative when you grow up in a small town, too, because you make your own fun. You have to, in a way. Everything isn’t pre-packaged, and you go here and have this package deal. Okay, you’ve got snow; what can we do with this? There’s this family we know, and they had these barn parties in the summer. They’d invent these things like carp-wrestling, where we’d all smear ourselves with Crisco and go in this mud-hole and try to catch carp! It’s fun.

TP: That’s a tune.

MARIA: Could be.

TP: How programmatic is your music? What’s the balance between abstract thought, purely musical ideas, and programmatic narrative?

MARIA: The programmatic aspect I’ve started to understand better lately, too. I don’t set out to say, “Okay, I’m going to write a piece about carp wrestling or hang gliding or whatever.” But what happens is, when I sit down to write, I’m looking for an idea that grabs me. What happens is all of a sudden I’ll find this little sound, or something that feels like it has potential to be its own entity, its own personality. It’s like a little embryonic form of something. What usually happens when I fool around with that, is a lot of times that idea will attach itself to some sort of memory. It will just start to smell like something that I know in my life. Not literally smell, but suddenly it will bring me back to something. Then when I delve into that sound attached to that memory, it ends up being not necessarily programmatic, but maybe descriptive or something of that time. Then a lot of times I’ll name it for that, but I didn’t set out to write a piece about it. I’m not that technical. Like, if somebody comes to me, “We want a trumpet concerto,” it’s so hard for me. I have to find a sound, and then see what that wants to be, and then follow it. It’s like following the music.

TP: It always starts with a sound.

MARIA: Right. It does. It’s following the music, rather than leading the music. I like to follow the music, let the music lead me to where it wants to go.

TP: Do you compose on the piano?

MARIA: Yeah, generally. A combination of with the piano, walking around, writing things down, going to the park, back and forth.

TP: Do you use Sibelius program…


TP: So it’s not like you lay down tracks for yourself on the computer. You do it the old-fashioned way.

MARIA: Right.

TP: Would you ever use high-tech? Is there something about the process of making music the way you do, the physicality of it?

MARIA: This is my process. It feels so organic and kind of spiritually right for me. I just can’t see being where I need to be mentally in dealing with the computer. I so associate the computer with email, it doesn’t feel creative to me. Not to say it isn’t for somebody else, but I’ve never gotten to that point. A lot of people are so comfortable with it that it feels part of their creative process. It’s never become part of mine. Maybe some day, but it hasn’t been yet.

TP: Another aspect of being in New York is that the other arts obviously have a profound effect on what you do, and you can partake so easily.

MARIA: The weird thing about New York is that I don’t go and see half of what I should. When you’re here, it’s so easy not to see it somehow. It’s just crazy. New York also has nature, the park… I was just writing to Mom, I’m so excited for the migration that’s going to come soon, where the warblers come through. I watched birds when I was a child, and I started again last year.

TP: You met a friend, an older man, whom you go watch birds with.

MARIA: John Caravelli. He used to play french horn in the New York Phil.

TP: Does birdsong help you write, or is that…

MARIA: Not so literally.

TP: Not like Eric Dolphy going out on Malibu…

MARIA: Or Messaien. No. But I’ve discovered that when I go into the park early in the morning and start searching for birds, I go into this place in myself that is very difficult to go into, that is completely different from being here and dealing with the computer and the phone and everything. It’s the same place that I get into when I’m really writing and very concentrated. You kind of submerge into yourself. And in that place in which you are really deeply into yourself, ultimately you’re very connected to other things, so you feel very connected to Nature and birds. I think that’s what happens, too, when you sit down and compose or maybe improvise; when you go really deeply into yourself, ultimately you’re in a place where you can connect to others. So that’s the magic place for making music—and living, ultimately, I think.

TP: Were you able to articulate this before you started doing the ArtistShare material? Has the process of communicating with your audience helped you articulate aspects of your artistic process?

MARIA: Probably a little bit. I’ve always liked teaching and communicating. But probably the ArtistShare thing has forced me to figure a few things out, and I started to understand more things.

TP: You’re going to be four nights at the Jazz Standard.

MARIA: We did Jazz Standard last fall. They’ve been having us about every six months.

TP: Performing your repertoire in a club, ten pieces a night, five a set, is it different from a concert?

MARIA: It is. It’s more relaxed, which is nice. They both have their special things. A concert is special, too. But a jazz club you feel very close with your audience, and I think the band feels looser to try things. Because you feel you have another chance the next night, people feel they can take risks. It feels very alive and joyous and nice. I like working in a club; I really do.

TP: If you could name three classical composers in the European tradition who have influenced the way you think, who would they be?

MARIA: Bach is probably number one. Ravel.

TP: With Bach it would be the counterpoint and the dialogue of musical voices.

MARIA: And the magic of the math and the beauty, the logic being so incredibly profound, translating into beauty. To me, it’s the closest thing I know to Nature. Looking into a leaf and seeing fibinacci or something, but then you stand back and it’s this beautiful thing. Or a pine cone. To me, Bach is the closest thing to the magic of Nature and math and geometry. Ravel because his music has influenced me a lot—the colors. The third is tough, because there are so many people after that.

TP: Two more.

MARIA: Hindemith. One of my favorite pieces is The Four Temperaments, and it’s also one of my favorite dances. Balanchine. The next one would be because I heard it so much as a child and I know it’s part of my sound, is Chopin.

TP: Did you play Chopin as a child?

MARIA: I did. But my mother did a lot. So I heard Chopin around the house. It was always this sort of melancholic… Whenever my Mom sat down to play piano, she was playing Chopin, and it had a big influence.

TP: Is she a good pianist?

MARIA: Not great. But she had Chopin down. She had certain repertoire that she could just sit down and play.

TP: So music came to you through your mother.

MARIA: My mother, yes. And she liked standard tunes, too. And my piano teacher was just this phenom.

TP: But when you hear your mother, it soaks into you? Why don’t you play your music?

MARIA: On records? Because I suck! I’m not a good player. In Windom, everybody thought I was amazing. By Windom standards. But when I got to college, I knew I wasn’t, because my piano teacher had… She was this great stride pianist, great classical pianist. She had this relaxed ease in her hands, and at the same time this tremendous power, this evenness in her scales. I couldn’t get that together. I was deathly scared of performing, because I felt so inadequate. When I first auditioned at the University of Minnesota, I was just an absolute wreck. I love conducting and helping with the interpretation of music. I had no inhibitions, when I was child, to dance. I had no inhibitions when I ice skated. When I fell, I didn’t much care.

TP: No inhibitions about smearing yourself with Crisco.

MARIA: No inhibitions about that. But terrible inhibitions about playing and wanting the sound to be perfect somehow. So it works for me for the creative part of my process to be private, which it is when you compose, and then to put it out there how you want, and leave it up for the interpretation and for the band to mess up! If they want to mess up, that’s their problem.

TP: Ellington probably didn’t play such even scales either all the time, but he used piano to prod the band…

MARIA: But he had a beautiful way of… Gil, too. Gil was no technical master. But Gil had a certain quirkiness and personality to his playing that was so special. I don’t particularly think I have anything special to offer. So if I can have somebody like Frank Kimbrough play my music, why would I even think of touching a piano?

TP: Can your music be pared down? Has anyone done a piano trio record of Maria Schneider’s music…

MARIA: They probably could. A few of my guys have done things. Like, Rich Perry recorded My Lament, and somebody recorded Last Season

TP: Is it too organic to be broken down?
MARIA: The orchestration and so many details. You could do it. I’m not sure if there’d be that much to be gained by it, because I think such a huge part of it is the orchestration.

TP: Maria is sitting under a photograph of her mother, who appears to be maybe 30, holding a pig sort of like a baby, with “happy birthday” markings on the pig. You also had a goose in a diaper.

MARIA: That was a birthday gift to my father. My mother repaired wings of birds, so this little gosling was given to my parents. I think its mother had been hurt, and this bird’s wing was hurt. My parents brought her up, and she became Lucy the Goose. She never could fly, but she had a diaper and lived in the house. Recently I was home, and I saw there was a picture of a dog and a squirrel in the house, and I said, “Mom, you had a squirrel?” “Oh yeah.” I said, “Where did it go to the bathroom?” “Oh, all over.” We had crows. We had two crows, and I don’t know… The crows were free, and I don’t know how they became take, but the crows started to steal clips off the laundry lines and started to steal jewelry at the beach, at the lake, so the police made us lock up the crows. They made us put them away. So my father made this huge cage for the crows. But that’s Windom. They put crows behind bars.

TP: Were there picket fences and stuff?

MARIA: Not picket fences. But it was very surreal. I have to say there was something very bizarre about Windom. I think Windom, in a way, was full of kind of that Magical Realism. In our house, we had recurring ball lightning that would go through our bedroom, so sleeping in bed at night, this ball of fire sometimes would come through one window and go out the other window. Our parents were telling us this didn’t exist, but I kept seeing it.

TP: “Oh, she has a vivid imagination.”

MARIA: Exactly. That’s it. “Oh, it must have been a reflection on the window” or whatever. It wasn’t until I think I was 13 that I finally saw an article in Life magazine on ball lightning, and it was like, “See?!” So it instilled this thing in me that I still carry, which is that the world is full of magic and there is much more than people will tell us there actually is. I still believe that, because I experienced it as a child. So Windom had a lot of real life, but then a lot of imagination, too.

TP: Maria said that when she was a little girl practicing piano, she imagined that the trains and cars passing by (there was a railroad track nearby) had radios, and a talent scout from New York.

MARIA: There was a highway that went through Windom and across from our house was just a field. Nothing. It really is very bleak. But I would fantasize when cars would go by that there were people passing through just looking for talent from mid-America to bring to the big city. If I played my Chopin or whatever it was I was playing, I was always playing my very best so that I would be discovered somehow.
TP: So you had ambitions.

MARIA: I had ambitions. I didn’t know exactly to do what. Even when I would practice my Grammy acceptance speech, I had no idea whether that would be for a song, for a performance, for jazz, classical, rock. I had no idea. But I just wanted to do music in some capacity, and felt that I had the ability for it somehow, but I had no idea of really what.

TP: Some of what you became is making sense from these anecdotes of your childhood.

MARIA: I’m a firm believer that when you have these really deep, heartfelt dreams… I’m so intellectualized, but they’re just coming out of real deep wishes. Those things have tremendous power to make things really happen in your life. I’ve always had that.

TP: Do you still have it? Now that you’ve won a Grammy, and your name is known around the world, and you have this band, and 50 compositions…

MARIA: I guess it’s different. Those dreams come back to me if I do something like go out bird-watching. When I get out of this grind of practical life and go more into that place inside me, then those kind of unrealistic but very possible dreams come out.

TP: Do you do all your own business?

MARIA: A lot of it. I have an agent, and I have people who help me, but I do a lot of my work.

TP: How does your day break down? Now are you writing anything?

MARIA: I’m just starting something. [POINTS TO FRAGMENTS ON SCORE PAPER ON PIANO] A lot of stuff there is being thrown away.

TP: Don’t you have a symphony commission?

MARIA: Maybe in the fall. Not a symphony, but a symphonic orchestra may have me… The Minnesota Orchestra is talking about maybe a little something. But lately it’s a lot of business. I’m getting back to writing. I have a some commissions. Every time I do a record, after the record, I’m fallow like… [END OF SIDE]

TP: You said you’re fallow like a field is fallow. What kind of crops did your parents grow?

MARIA: My father was in the flax business. He designed machinery for processing flax.

TP: Agricultural machinery. So he was an engineer.

MARIA: He was an engineer, and he ran the flax plant there. Behind our house was a big field with these huge flax stacks, and he’d have to go to Canada and Mexico, and he’d go to South America. That’s part of the South American thing, too. When I was a child, my father would go to South America a lot. My parents had some records of music from South America. Just this fantasy of South America. I’ve always been attracted to all things Latin.

TP: It’s a very romantic culture.

MARIA: Yeah. This isn’t for the Daily News, but I did have one experience as a kid with… There was a man from Mexico named Angel Gardner who came to our house. He came to Windom; he was somehow involved in the flax business. He was a young guy in his twenties. The only restaurant in Windom at this time was a place in the country called the Driftwood Steak House, which wasn’t really elegant dining, but they had like the chicken basket, the red plastic basket. My sisters went there, but it was my parents and me. I was probably 12 or 13, maybe. I had the chicken basket. And I didn’t feel very attractive. I was a late bloomer, a redhead kid. I was sitting there, and Angel is next to me, and I’m eating my chicken, fried very greasy, and he looked at me and said, “Maria. Feed me chicken.” “What?” “Feed me chicken. I want chicken.” So I took a drumstick, and I’m like holding it up to his mouth, and he starts nibbling and tugging on it. All I could think was it felt like a bullhead pulling the line and the bobber down in fishing! The lips smacking. And my parents were just sitting… They were in shock! They didn’t say anything, they didn’t stop it, they were just kind of like… I’d have to say my first erotic experience was with a Latin man in Windom, Minnesota. I’ve been looking for Angel Gardner ever since.

TP: He’s probably in his late fifties now.

MARIA: That’s okay. I tend to be with men who are about twenty years older than me. I’m trying to get over that. It’s not working well…


TP: How did you first meet Maria?

BROOKMEYER: Ed (?) at Eastman called me and told me ….[BLIP]…..

TP: She needed a job and a place to stay, and she’d call you ….[BLIP]…. What did she do with you? What was the nature of her apprenticeship.

BROOKMEYER: She said, “I came to you an arranger and left a composer.”

TP: So her technique was pretty much fully formed out of the conservatory.

BROOKMEYER: Her instrumental technique.

TP: When did you first hear her work?

BROOKMEYER: When she came to me.

TP: What was it like? Do you recall?

BROOKMEYER: Very well skilled. Good arranger. She had good orchestration. Everything was in place. So she was ready to go.

TP: What were her influences at that time?

BROOKMEYER: I think me. She heard Make Me Smile with Mel Lewis. She liked that. I assume she’d heard Gil. What else, I don’t know. First we worked on arrangements. She wanted to write something for Woody Herman’s band. Her then-boyfriend was on the band. So we wrote two arrangements for Woody, and then one for Mel Lewis as a vocal, which we thought would be a good entry into the band. Then she wrote Green Piece for Mel’s band, and Mel didn’t like it. So eventually, she and John started their own band, which was very good right away, and then she started her own group months later.

TP: Did you hear her band right away?

BROOKMEYER: No. The first I heard it, she sent me a CD to do the liner notes.

TP: I know how much you mutually admire each other. But could you speak to what has made her music stand out in the ‘90s and in this period?

BROOKMEYER: We talked a lot about being a woman in this business. I thought it necessary because I wanted to get her ready to function in sometimes a hostile male world. It’s hostile to me, and I’m a man. So I wanted to get her ready for the real world. She has a sensibility that is feminine, yet she has very much control over what she does, both as a composer and as a conductor with her band. So she has a voice, and where that comes from, I have no idea. The music god says, “You’ve got a voice,” you’ve got it. That’s the music god. That’s why I’m not Bartok.

TP: When you say that her voice is feminine, what exactly do you mean by that?

BROOKMEYER: I think she has a gentleness, say, as opposed to Thad Jones, or some McNeely even, and some other people. Since I think women are better human beings than men, I think she has a very human touch with the orchestra and a very poetic sense of space and timing, and the way she handles the instruments and the chances she takes I think are wonderful.

TP: There’s an innate quality of dance—not necessarily swing—in all the work that I hear, that somebody could be dancing to this.

BROOKMEYER: I would think this. She played Concert in The Garden for me, she was worried about the mix, so went to her apartment and listened to it, and I was just stunned. I said, “As Gil went from Porgy and Bess to Sketches in Spain, which is a radical work for him, this is I think a great leap from her third CD, Allegresse, to this one.

TP: How so?

BROOKMEYER: She completely discarded everything that she had been using, and went into another world—fearlessly. I think it’s a magnificent achievement.

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R.I.P., Vibraphonist David Samuels (1948-2019) — A Downbeat Blindfold Test From 1998

Just received news that master vibraphonist and tuned percussion player David Samuels has passed away at age 70. In his memory, I’m posting a Blindfold Test that he did with me in 1998 — I think this was my first-ever BFT.


David Samuels Blindfold Test (1998):

Veteran mallet master David Samuels has touched on almost every facet of improvisation in the course of his career. Best known for his 17-year association with Spyro Gyra, the Chicago-born Samuels has also performed and recorded with the likes of Gerry Mulligan, George Shearing, Carla Bley, the Yellowjackets, Pat Metheny and Bruce Hornsby. Lately he’s been exploring pan-diasporic melodies and rhythms with Paquito d’Rivera and steel drummer Andy Narell in the Caribbean Jazz Project, while on “Del Sol” [GRP], issued several years ago, he joined forces with Latin Jazz masters Danilo Perez and Dave Valentin. That puts him in a line of direct descent with Cal Tjader, who, Samuels comments, “is responsible for putting vibes in the center of the Latin small ensemble as a solo voice.” On his latest disk, “Tjaderized” [Verve], Samuels joins forces with Eddie Palmieri and a top-shelf cast of young and veteran Latin stars on an idiomatic homage to the maestro.

Gary Burton: “Rhumbata” (from “Native Sense,” Stretch, 1997), Burton, vibes; Chick Corea, piano.

DS: I haven’t heard this record, but it’s clearly one of Chick’s tunes — an epic, long, involved piece. Four stars. Chick and Gary are a mini-percussion ensemble with two keyboard percussion instruments. They’ve been doing it for 20-25 years; they own this sound. I have a similar relationship with Dave Friedman in Double Image; it’s a very special dynamic and intuition.

Mike Mainieri: “Heart of Darkness” (from Don Grolnick, “Medianoche,” Warner Brothers, 1996), Mainieri, vibraphone; Grolnick, piano, composer; Dave Valentin, flute; Michael Brecker, tenor saxophone; Andy Gonzalez, bass; Steve Berrios, drums, bongos, percussion; Don Alias, timbales and percussion; Milton Cardona, congas and percussion.

DS: That was Mike Mainieri on Don Grolnick’s “Medianoche,” a great record. Four stars. Michael has created not only an approach to playing the vibes, but a sound as well. He’s able to alter the sound electronically with effects, giving it a characteristic quality that he likes. Combine that with his ability to write tunes, and you’ve got yourself a great player.

Bobby Hutcherson: “Pomponio” (from “Ambos Mundos,” Landmark, 1989), Hutcherson, vibraphone; James Spaulding, flute; Randy Vincent, guitar; Smith Dobson, piano; Jeff Chambers, bass; Eddie Marshall, drums; Francisco Aguabella, congas; Orestes Vilato, bongos & cowbell; timbales; Roger Glenn, percussion.

DS: I’m not sure which Bobby Hutcherson record this is. [LOOKS AT COVER] I could have heard Bobby playing marimba on this piece as well as vibes. Bobby’s an important player on his instrument. He’s recorded historic music and continues to make great records. Improvisation is a process with no boundaries; the boundaries you put on how you improvise are the boundaries of style — there are as many different ways to improvise as different styles of music. I think one approach to playing over a Latin rhythm section like this is to play in a Post-Bop style, as everybody does here. Another approach is to fit the rhythm into the style of the music. I’ll give this three stars, partly because the way it’s mixed and recorded makes it hard to extract what’s going on. I’m missing a lot of Bobby’s notes; some of great lines are lost.

Joe Locke: “Slow Hot Wind” (from “Moment to Moment,” Milestone, 1994), Locke, vibraphone; Billy Childs, piano; Eddie Gomez, bass; Gene Jackson, drums.

DS: That’s from “Moment To Moment,” by Joe Locke, a great player who should be out there more. He’s heavily influenced by Bobby Hutcherson, but has taken it one step further. He’s got Bobby’s kind of linear approach, but also Joe’s a four-mallet player. Technically his phrasing is a little different. He’s got some dampening going on, a distinctive harmonic approach. Four stars.

Red Norvo, “Move” (from “The Red Norvo Trio with Tal Farlow and Charles Mingus,” Savoy-Denon, 1995, recorded 1950), Norvo, vibraphone; Tal Farlow, guitar; Charles Mingus, bass.

DS: This is that great trio with Red Norvo, Tal Farlow and Charlie Mingus. Five stars. Red Norvo from my standpoint isn’t recognized as he ought to be in the evolution of jazz vibraphone. He’s really the father of playing with four mallets. He started, on the xylophone, then started playing the vibes around 1927, when I think is when the vibes were invented.

Milt Jackson: “The Masquerade Is Over” (from “Burnin’ In The Woodshed,” Qwest, 1995), Jackson, vibraphone; Benny Green, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Kenny Washington, drums.

DS: [AFTER 8 BARS…] That was the man — Milt. Five stars. He’s like a horn player playing vibes. I remember reading a description that he’s like someone who’s ice skating on the vibes — skating and gliding. He has those big puffy mallets! You don’t get a sense of how intensely he plays unless you stand next to him.

Gary Burton: “Bel-Aire” (from “The Best of George Shearing: 1960-1969,” Capitol, rec. 1963), Burton, vibraphone; Shearing, piano; Vernell Fournier, drums; John Gray, guitar; Bill Yancey, bass.

DS: [QUICKLY] That’s a very young Gary Burton playing with George Shearing, swinging unbelievably. It has a real sparkle. It’s one of Gary’s first recordings, a live concert, and remember hearing it years ago. He’s got that kind of youthful intensity. In a situation like that, short solos, you have to get it all out real fast — and Gary certainly did! Four stars.

Lionel Hampton: “When Lights Are Low” (from “Small Groups, Vol. 3, 1939,” Musique Memoria), Hampton, vibraphone; Dizzy Gillespie, trumpet solo; Chu Berry, tenor sax solo; Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, tenor saxophones; Benny Carter, alto saxophone, arranger; Clyde Hart, piano; Charlie Christian, guitar; Milt Hinton, bass; Cozy Cole, drums.

DS: Gates! Five stars. That’s seriously heavy-duty swinging. It has the same kind of intensity and movement of any music that’s played well with a rhythm section playing together. Lionel’s a drummer who subsequently went to vibes, which is my own background, so I relate heavily to that style of playing.

Sanougue Kouyate: “Bintou” (from “Balendala Djibe: Salif Keita Presents Sanougue Kouyate,” Mango, 1990), Sanougue Kouyate, vocals; Keletigui Diabate, balafon, arrangements; Salif Keita, chorus.

DS: I first thought it was Salif Keita, who it turns out produced it and sings in the chorus. I like the way the balafon sounds here. It’s part of the ensemble, there’s a balafon solo, and though the instrument isn’t totally tempered, it’s in the context. Four stars.


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For the 75th Birth Anniversary of Peter Kowald (1944-2002), A Memorial Piece For The Village Voice, A WKCR Interview in September 2002, An Interview Conducted at the 2002 Vision Festival, and a Review of Several Kowald CDs for Downbeat in 2002

I was very fortunate to have had an opportunity to speak with and write about the great German outcat bassist Peter Kowald during 2002, the year he passed away in New York City. For Kowald’s 75th birth anniversary yesterday, I’m posting an obituary that I wrote for the Village Voice in their jazz issue of 2003, the transcript of a WKCR encounter conversation I had with Kowald and saxophonist Assif Tsahar in Sept. 2002, nine days before Kowald’s death, and a review column of Kowald CDs that I did for Downbeat earlier in 2002. At the bottom is an interview that I conducted with Kowald at the Vision Festival in May 2002 — it was for a prospective radio piece on the “avant garde” intended for Studio 360 for which I also interviewed Derek Bailey, Fred Anderson, and others.


Peter Kowald Obituary, Village Voice, 2002:

“I lead the life of a traveler who goes to play for the people, opens his hand, gets some money, comes back home, and goes to the next one.” – Peter Kowald, September 12, 2002.

In the mid-‘90s, the late bassist Peter Kowald-–a man Butch Morris says “could drive for 24 hours and only stop for gas”–spent a full year at home in Wuppertal, Germany. His intention, Morris speculates, was “to lock in on who the Kowald was in his body.” He kept his car parked, and rode only his bicycle. At his house, he presented concerts with world class improvisers, collaborated with various Pina Bausch dancers, held workshops with local amateurs, and made forays into spontaneous form-sculpting with a “conduction” ensemble. Befitting an abiding passion for all things Hellenic, he fell in love with and married a Greek artist. Then he returned to the road, and broke up with his wife. He flew to New York in 2000, bought a 1968 Caprice station wagon, and, accompanied by French filmmaker Laurence Jouvert and a small crew, spent 10 weeks circumnavigating the United States in a succession of self-booked one-nighters.

Not long after they returned, Jouvert made the documentary Off the Road, an account of Kowald’s musical and conversational encounters in more than a dozen cities across America and various points along the highway. Meanwhile, Kowald, who had established himself as an important figure in the New York improv scene through his frequent visits over two decades, purchased a Harlem pied-a-terre to solidify his base.

The final week of this robust 58-year-old’s life was entirely characteristic. On Thursday, September 12, 2002, a few hours after joining me on WKCR to publicize an upcoming series of New York events, he flew overnight coach to Italy for a pair of weekend concerts. He returned to New York on Monday. On Tuesday, he made a recording session and worked at Triad with saxophonist Assif Tsahar and drummer Hamid Drake. The next night he worked downtown with saxophonist Blaise Siwula and guitarist Dom Minasi. On Friday he would play at B.T.M. in Williamsburg with trombonist Masahiko Kono, guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi and drummer Tatsuya Nakatani. He was scheduled to perform on Sunday at CBGB Lounge in trio with White Panther blues poet John Sinclair and Loisada saxophonist Daniel Carter, and then with Last Global Village, an ensemble comprising three Chinese flutists, Korean cellist Okkyung Lee, vocalist Lenora Conquest, and percussionist Ron McBee.

After the gig at B.T.M. Kowald began to feel unwell. On the ride home, he asked Kono to drop him off at the East Village apartment of bassist William Parker and dancer Patricia Nicholson. There he expired of a massive heart attack.

Had Kowald been an actor, director Rainer Fassbinder might have cast him to play proletarian everyman Franz Biberkopf in his epic film Berlin Alexanderplatz. Burly and attractive, with close cropped hair, Kowald moved with the deliberation of a butoh dancer and parsed his words with precision honed during youthful work as a scholar of ancient languages and translator of Greek poetry into modern German. He was a utopian, a pragmatic activist, a skilled organizer who learned the art of institution-building in the fractious milieu of radical ‘60s German culture.

At last year’s Vision Festival, Kowald worked the food stand, constructing two-dollar cheese sandwiches with the meticulousness of a master sushi chef. We can trace the existence of this annual event to his friendship with Parker, which began with a chance sidewalk encounter in 1981. Within a year, Kowald brought Parker to Berlin to play with heavyweight European free improvisers in concerts organized by FMP, the do-it-yourself grass-roots German music collective co-founded by his old friend Peter Brötzmann, to which Kowald had contributed mightly for more than a decade. In 1984 he received a government grant to live in New York for six months. He brought with him a 50,000-mark stipend from the millionaire painter A.R. Penck, with a mandate to make something happen.

Acutely aware that New York’s outcat community would mistrust his motives, Kowald reached out to Parker as a liaison. They held meetings to plan the logistics of the first Sound Unity Festival, settling on the FMP payment policy of $100 per musician, including bandleaders. In 1988, again using Penck’s money, Sound Unity spent $1000 to rent the Knitting Factory for a week, and played to packed houses every night. This did not escape the notice of proprietor Michael Dorf, who established the Knitting Factory Festival the following year. In response, Patricia Nicholson launched the Improvisers Collective, which in 1996 evolved into the Vision Festival.

“Peter would stop by a place that an American musician would walk past 20 times, and get something started just by being personable,” Parker says. “Especially black musicians, it seems you’re fighting all the time. You get worn out. You can lose your perspective if you’re not on top of things. But Peter was always probing and looking for signs of life wherever he went.”

Wuppertal is an industrial city of 350,000 in the Rhine Basin, the home of the Pina Bausch Tanztheater and the birthplace of Engels and German Communism. During Kowald’s formative years, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s electronic studio was a half-hour’s train ride away in Cologne, while Wuppertal’s own Galerie Parnass presented Nam June Paik’s first one-man exhibition and new work from Joseph Beuys. Saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, who had come to Wuppertal to attend the local art school in 1959, worked as Paik’s assistant, and accompanied him on Fluxus happenings in southwest Germany and the Benelux countries. Brötzmann urged Kowald, a teenage tubist, to learn the bass, preaching Paik’s liberating dictum: “the space is completely open, you can use any material, any ideas–everything is possible.” They began to play on a nightly basis in Brötzmann’s basement studio.

During our WKCR encounter last September, Kowald spoke frankly about the no-holds-barred milieu that framed his formative years. “The mood was, `Okay, we can change the world tomorrow morning; there is a movement, we are not alone,’” he said. “Then you take a saxophone or bass, and do what you want–don’t worry what the teachers told you. I learned bass autodidactically until I was 26. We played in Berlin, and Rudi Dutschke, this famous student revolutionary, was in the second row. Grand times. I am happy I was in my twenties when I grew up in this climate, and that we always knew our enemies.”

Like most German radicals born in the aftermath of World War II, Brötzmann and Kowald came from educated, middle-class families in deep denial about the recent Nazi past. Brötzmann remembers that Kowald’s father had flown in the Luftwaffe and was an educator of the deaf, and that his mother was a housewife.

“Peter’s mother never forgave me for leading her son on the wrong path,” Brötzmann says. “But after the war we never got answers for the question, ‘Why did you do that?’ We had to look for our own answers and raise our own questions. We in Germany had problems with our fathers’ generation, and that’s why our rebellion was so strong and why our early music was such violent stuff, much more violent than in other European countries.”

Spurred by solitary investigations, encouraging encounters with passing-through expats like Steve Lacy and Don Cherry, and a few months on the road with Carla Bley, the young firebrands deployed American out jazz as a symbolic weapon, in Kowald’s words, to kill their fathers. Then they tried to kill the stepfathers, who proved to be unconquerable.

“Growing up in the `40s and `50s, it was very difficult to sing a German song, because it always carried this smell of Fascism,” Kowald said. “I saw that blues musicians and Jewish musicians related to their own tradition positively. My Greek wife loved her songs. But I never used my own culture in my music. I was always interested in what the other cultures had to say, and I took it all from there. When we started to improvise, our stuff clearly came from from jazz. But later we decided to do it the European way–not play Classical European music, but also not copy American jazz. Of course, looking back, I have to say we took a lot from saxophonists Albert Ayler and Pharaoh Sanders, and bass players like Henry Grimes, Gary Peacock and Reggie Workman.”

Lacking the virtuosity of early influences like Barre Phillips, Barry Guy, and Maarten Altena, or the force-of-nature blues anima of Fred Hopkins and Parker, Kowald functioned as a self-described chameleon, as comfortable playing in blood-and-guts trios with Charles Gayle and Rashied Ali or Floros Floridis and Gunter “Baby” Sommer as conducting extemporaneous musical dialogues with Tuvan vocalist Sainkho Namtchylak, body artist Ellen Z, or dancers Kazuo Ohno, Min Tanaka, and Jean Sasportes. His time wasn’t great, and he focused more on process than content. Nor was his vocabulary cliché-free; as he perfected his own novel techniques–like detuning his E-string and chanting low, gutteral tones over long drones in the Mongolian manner, or sticking the bow in the strings and rocking it to elicit seesaw overtones–he tended to use them regardless of context.

Somehow Kowald made his collaborations work. “Peter was looking to be a universal world musician,” Parker says. “He had what I call the X-factor, an ability to infuse the tradition of jazz bass in his playing and personalize it. He wasn’t coming out of jazz, so to speak, but he could play in all the styles, and added his idea of sound to the bands he played with. He always talked about wanting to play the blues, and I’d tell him, ‘You don’t have to be bothered with that; you are who you are, and whatever blues is there, it’s there.’ There was restlessness about him, and it seemed on all his journeys he was searching for something. I don’t know exactly what.”

There was something archetypally German about Kowald’s wanderlust. He was a nomad, a road warrior, a wanderer between the worlds–he hit the road not to escape his contradictions, but to confront them. “Peter was very social,” says Morris. “He wasn’t afraid to talk to anybody. If you said, ‘Hey, Peter, let’s go to Morocco and walk to South Africa,’ he’d say, ‘let’s do it.’ The adventures and the information he could get were right in line with his searching. Just to be on the way someplace satisfied him deeply. He could see that this music belongs everywhere.”


Peter Kowald-Assif Tsahar (WKCR, 9-12-02):

TP: Peter Kowald is one of the avatars of European improvisation, beginning in the early 1960s. You and Peter Brotzmann came up in Wuppertal, a city which also serves as the home of the Pina Bausch Dance Company. As you’ve told me, Nam June Paik was living there, and you came under his influence. Since then, Mr. Kowald has created a staggering vocabulary of extended techniques and ways of attacking the bass and creating dialogue out of those techniques. He’s one of the giants of that way of making music.


TP: Assif Tsahar is a generation younger, 33 years old, from Jaffa and grew up in Tel Aviv in Israel, and has been resident here for ten years. Peter Kowald is now a part-time New York resident, and has been for how long now?

KOWALD: A year-and-a-half. I found a place here now, and I’m going back and forth.

TP: Peter Kowald made an impact on New York as far back as the mid-1980s, when the Sound Unity Festival happened on 2nd Avenue and Houston, when you helped bring together what was a somewhat fractious community of improvisers into an extremely successful festival. It seems to me that this laid the seeds in some ways for the Vision Fest. So this is not New York’s first experience with Peter.

The two of you have developed a close musical simpatico over recent years. Deals, Ideas and Ideals is from 1999. How did you meet?

TSAHAR: Peter came to town, and he was staying with William Parker, who is his very close friend. Back then I was working on the Vision Festival maybe, the first year or so…

KOWALD: We met earlier, before.

TSAHAR: Yes, before. It was the Improvisers’ Collective. So we met there, and then I asked Peter if he had the time to play, to do a session. We played, we had a very good time. He was very supportive. One of Peter’s best qualities is that he has very good insights into the music; he’s very supportive in that way. That was the beginning. We played in the first Vision Festival. He played in the group I was playing in with William Parker and Susie Ibarra, and we’ve kept it up since then.

TP: This goes back to when? ’95 or so?

KOWALD: Somewhere around then.

TP: Assif, as a saxophonist coming up in Israel, how aware were you of the stream of music that developed in the ’60s in Europe…

TSAHAR: I was aware of the musicians. I was aware of some of the music. Growing up in Israel, more depended on what we could get, and those were very hard to records to get there. I knew of Globe Unity, so I knew of Peter from there — and Brotzmann. But I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about everything that happened there. I had more knowledge of what was happening here, just because that’s what we could get in the record stores. So I knew of all the things like Cecil Taylor… When I got to New York, I didn’t really know what was happening. I knew William Parker because of what he did with Cecil, but I didn’t know all the current things happening at the time in New York.

TP: But it’s the ’80s when you’re forming your musical aesthetic and sensibility. Was there a community of out players in Israel at that time, or were you operating in isolation? Are you operating with a peer group?

TSAHAR: It was pretty much in isolation. A very good friend was a piano player, Daniel (?). He came with me here. We were working together. Basically, we were almost it, along with a few others. A drummer, Egal (?), who also lives here now. We were kind of working together. There were five, maybe six people, and that’s it. Now it’s growing, I think. There’s a lot more awareness of it now in Israel.

TP: How frequently does this configuration play, the trio or augmented, of Peter Kowald, Assif Tsahar, and Hamid Drake, the drummer from Chicago?

KOWALD: We actually do play quite a lot in Europe rather than here in America, and we have a couple of tours. Like, every two months we have a tour or a couple of gigs together. So we’ve played quite a lot in the last one-and-a-half years, in fact. We had a tour in Israel last year…

TP: 50-60 performances in the last couple of years?

KOWALD: Maybe somewhere in there.

TP: That would seem to be a situation that would generate a lot of new music and a lot of ideas and new directions. How has the band evolved from the first meeting?

KOWALD: The trio is more organized that way, that we just improvise, and we don’t really use, or only rarely, any thematic material. But the quartet with Hugh uses the pieces. But then, the quartet doesn’t work that often. Only a couple of big festivals when they invite us. And we have rehearsals for the pieces. So the music is a little different between the trio and the quartet. the quartet sounds more like the structure of you have a theme, and then you have the solos and you go back to the theme, and the trio is completely open.

TP: Do you find in trios like that you tend to create compositions from a blank canvas? How do you sustain freshness in a situation like that?

KOWALD: I would say there are a lot of routines in a positive way, like things we bring… Like, we have a bag on shoulders, and in the beginning of the evening we pull out things, things we know, things we have in a similar way done before. But then also, new stuff is happening each night. Especially I find that the relationship with Hamid and myself has really developed over the time. It’s interesting, because he likes to go into rhythmical things, and I like that, too, but then I kind of seem to be the person who always takes him out of there again to go somewhere else. Then Assif is using the two instruments, the saxophone but also the bass clarinet, so we have different textures in the horn section. And then the bass is the bow and the plucked, like the pizz stuff, so it’s a different thing… The pizz stuff with Hamid is more of a free rhythmical thing, and then the bows goes to the bass clarinet. So there’s a lot of songs coming from different parts. Hamid sings, he plays the hand drum, and we have pieces where I sing and he sings. So there’s a lot of different textures.

TSAHAR: I think the group is interesting. When we were touring in Israel, because of Peter being from Germany and Hamid being a Sufi, who have a strong connection also to Islam, and myself being Jewish, it was very interesting. I think that comes off in the music. We come from different places but have a very strong meeting place. What comes together is actually very strong, but we all come from like different direction, but really meet in the middle. I think that interestingly works… It’s also socially like that. It also works out in the music like this.

TP: A number of Israeli musicians who have made an impact in New York, but in less open form situations, have all had quite a bit of exposure to North African and Arabic music. It’s part of their vernacular growing up. It’s unavoidable.

TSAHAR: Yes. It’s actually the stronger… It’s actually what we listen to. People think about Klezmer music when you think about Jewish, and actually when you listen to Israeli music, Arabic music is a much stronger influence.

TP: Now, what do you think that imparts to you that allows you to intersect with the broader realm of improvising, whether within jazz or a pan-improvisational manner? Is it that you’ve internalized these very complex rhythmic signatures, or certain scales that correlate to melodies…

TSAHAR: I don’t know. I can’t comment on that.

KOWALD: I would say for myself that in many ways I am playing a traditional European instrument. But I learned it autodidactically before I studied it. I played with Brotzmann ten years before I started to study the bass. I was autodidactic in the early years. Between 16 and 26, I was autodidactic. Then I studied classical European music, but it was kind of schizophrenic, because all the things I had to study in the day, I didn’t want to do at night. A lot of the things I did at night were forbidden in the day. So it was a real parallel thing, and the influences I had were rather not the classical European music, and the bel canto sound, as I used to call it, for the bass, and the classical European sound… I wanted to avoid that. I wanted to go into other aesthetics, and I took from all kinds of music. I tried to copy singers from Tuva and Mongolia and African music, and of course, it never worked on the bass, but then what came out was something… I was closer to the aesthetics of “world music” than of European aesthetics. That broadened the techniques, too. I had to find a way to put my finger on the instruments so it would make these kinds of sound I wanted to have.

TP: All the time. Have it not be an accident, but a systematic vocabulary.

KOWALD: Yes. And then I really tried to transform sounds and aesthetics of the pygmies onto the bass, and some of it worked, but of course, it’s not pygmy music. But suddenly I found out that the bass harmonics in a certain position with the hands do certain things which nobody does except me — but I got it from the pygmies.

TP: Can you relate what you were doing to the cultural milieu during the 1960s, the arc of the culture up to ’68 and the aftermath of that? Baader-Meinhof is happening…

KOWALD: Oh, yes. I can actually go back a little earlier. Because when I grew up in the ’40s as a little boy, and in the ’50s in Germany, it was very difficult to sing a German song, because everything had been used by Fascism and Hitler. So we didn’t sing our songs. It was very difficult. So I saw that every blues musician or every Jewish musician somehow related to his own tradition in a positive way. I used to have a Greek wife, and she loved her Greek songs, but I didn’t love my German songs. Then I became a traveler somehow. So I tried to be… I was always interested in what the other cultures had to say, and so I took it all from there. I became somehow a traveler from the beginning. But I didn’t ever use my own culture into my own music. Of course, there was Brecht and Weill and Eisler who were relatively modern people out of the last century, but in a way, their music was a bit of a tradition to me — or it became a bit of a tradition. But it was very difficult to sing a German song because it had always this smell of Fascism in it.

TP: It would seem that with Brecht and Weill and Eisler there’s a certain attitude or sensibility toward the material that becomes correlated through the years to what you were doing.

KOWALD: Well, the ’60s came… That was your question. Then the whole political movement came, and then there were two Germanies, East Germany and West Germany, and then we had all the sympathy for the East because Brecht was there, and things were discussed in a very different way — and some of them were not discussed, of course. But we were all left wing people, and we were part of this revolutionary thing that started in the mid-’60s, and then we had ’68 in Berlin and Paris and here in America, too, and in Italy and Japan… Many people don’t know that in Japan there was a very political thing happening in the late ’60s. We said, “Okay, we can change the world tomorrow morning — let’s go.” I was a little younger then. Brotzmann is three years older, and he was so confident when he was very young, in his early twenties. He knew what he wanted. He knew what he didn’t want. So I was kind of following him a little bit, in his shadow. So we played in Berlin, and Rudi Dutschke was in the second row, this famous German student revolutionary. So that was all part of it, yes. It was great. It was wonderful. Grand times. And I am happy I was in my twenties when I grew up in all this climate and always knew our enemies, so to speak.

TP: But you’ve mentioned to me that you were sort of imparted the notion that anything is allowable by Nam June Paik, who came out of the Fluxus movement, which in and of itself was an apolitical entity…

KOWALD: Well, it was not apolitical at all. But it was very open in terms of material, yes. Peter when he was only 20 was an assistant for Nam June Paik, certainly projects he did in Wuppertal, because we had this fantastic gallery all the time that would invite all these people in the early ’60s. Peter was a great painter and artist all the time also. He was much more advanced as an artist when he was in his early twenties than as a saxophone player. But then he decided for the saxophone. And I think he discussed a lot with Paik about these questions, about what is art today and what does it mean, what can we do in Art. I remember Peter saying that Paik told him, “Now, don’t worry about anything; you can do anything you want to do; the space is completely open; you can use any material, you can use any ideas — everything is possible; don’t worry about nothing; do what you want to do.” So that was the ’60s, which had all this air about this whole thing, and “okay, now we change the world tomorrow, we can do anything, we are able, there is a power there, there is a movement there, we are not alone” — and then take a saxophone, take a bass, and do what you want to do, and don’t worry about what the teachers have been telling you. [LAUGHS]

TP: Taking this broader political and cultural theme and applying it to the area you’re involved in, which is a specific way of translating sounds into vocabulary and narrative and creating this pan-national dialogue: How do you start reaching out and finding your peer group throughout the European Continent, which is sort of developing in parallel. While you and Brotzmann are talking to Paik, Derek Bailey and Evan Parker are developing what they’re doing in England, and Han Bennink and Misha Mengelberg are doing what they’re doing in Holland, and people are dealing with different things in France and Italy. And eventually, the Globe Unity Orchestra forms, which seems to be an effort to incorporate these strands. Talk about your initial forays towards finding this peer group and embracing it.

KOWALD: Well, in a way we were very local in the beginning. We started to play together in ’62, I think. But I was 17, and had to be home… I had to go to school in the morning, so I had to be home early at night. [LAUGHS] My parents were pretty strict about that. Then we just started to play, and we had this little basement place which was a club, and sometimes on the weekend bands played. Gunter Hampel came by, I remember. Different people. But we during the week, we just came played for ourselves with different drummers at the time. Every Tuesday and every Friday we went, and then after one-and-a-half years, the first person came to listen. Nobody wanted to listen to us. They said, “Brotzmann can’t play, and why do you play with this guy, he can’t play — you have to learn other things.” After one-and-a-half years, the first person came.” We felt quite isolated in the beginning.

Then in the mid-’60s, Carla Bley came, Paul Bley came, Mingus came with Dolphy, Coltrane was there with the quartet in this club in Cologne. So we could see different people. But I think very important for us was when Carla came, and we sat in that night. She had a quintet with Steve Lacy and Mike Mantler and Aldo Romano and Kent Carter, and then she left…

TP: You and Brotzmann sat in.

KOWALD: We sat in on night. I think there’s still a tape of that.

TP: How did that feel?

KOWALD: Well, I was a little boy who was over-impressed by everything, and Brotzmann was much more “Let’s go into it and do it.” Carla liked him very much, and Steve also actually, and Steve encouraged us, and said, “Go ahead; this is good what you are trying to do there.”

TP: What was Brotzmann trying to do?

KOWALD: Well, he played alto… The drummers we had, they were always still playing time. Then I think Aldo Romano in this constellation, and maybe a few months earlier, when the Paul Bley Trio came, I think it was Barry Altschul… They were the first drummers who didn’t use time, who used more of an open pulse or free…

TP: This is ’65 and ’66.

KOWALD: ’65 and ’66, right. Then these records came out on Dutch Fontana, and then of course, Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity came over on ESP Records. That was about the time when Carla was around, and then she asked us for a tour…she asked actually Peter to play a tour with her the last year, and she had planned to bring Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, but somehow it didn’t work out with them, and then Peter was actually very nice and said “I’ll only do the tour if Peter Kowald is coming also.” Then I was 22 years old, and I did a three-month tour with that group. That was a big experience for me in many kinds of ways. I did a lot of mistakes in all kinds of ways, but still…

TP: Were you playing her compositions on that tour?

KOWALD: We had compositions, but…

TP: And then taking them completely apart every night.

KOWALD: Yes. But the context was more like a free context. We had the compositions in the beginning, but then all the improvisations were free, and without changes, without time.

TP: Were you ever involved in situations as a younger player where you needed to deal with form all the way through your improvisations and were satisfied with that course? Did you come across those experiences, or were you always wanting to shatter form, as it were, within every performance?

KOWALD: Well, in the early years with Brotzmann, we still played compositions. We played Ornette Coleman compositions, we played Mingus stuff, we played Coltrane stuff…

TP: That’s what you cut your teeth on.

KOWALD: Yes. But we didn’t really use the changes any more. We freed ourselves and never really stuck to the changes and stuck to the bars, the whole clear form. But then, on the other hand, I did very strict things. I played the tuba also at the time, and I played with Earle Brown and Morton Feldman, and we recorded Cage pieces… There’s a record of this. So I did a certain amount of stuff of reading Contemporary Music and notation. That was the most formal thing I, in fact, did. It was very interesting, because they were themselves there. Earle Brown was conducting his own pieces and Morton Feldman was conducting his pieces. That was really interesting. But that was the most formal thing in fact I did while I improvised freely. We basically went to free improvisation.

And I think after the Carla tour was exactly the time when Globe Unity started to be. But Alex didn’t know us, because we were about 40 miles away from Cologne where they were, Manfred Schoof and Alex Schlippenbach. But then they heard us one night, and it was just when Alex was writing his composition “Globe Unity,” and he included the whole trio into his Globe Unity Orchestra. Finally there were two bass players and two drummers, and Peter was added.

TSAHAR: One thing I’d like to add, and see if Peter agrees with me or not. The free improvisation, there is something very natural about it that almost every musician goes through. Then, when they go to school, it almost makes you feel like they’re taken out of it. My first experience of music was free improvisation, was taking the instrument and playing, and then doing it with a friend of mine. I think there is something about that that’s very natural. It’s probably also what they were trying to do, without so much of the thinking that this is a revolution.

KOWALD: Well, I have to say that in Europe it was clearly forgotten. Improvisation wasn’t used at all any more. If you go back to Bach and Mozart, they could do it, and people like Messaien could do it, but in Europe as a method of working for music it was forgotten. But then Stockhausen came back and said, “Okay.” He gave a little advice, “Hear what you want to play and then play it.” He had very open pieces. But that was the same time we started to improvise, but our stuff came from Black American music, very clearly. It came from jazz. But then there was maybe a little step which I would call a healthy way of killing our fathers. I mean, I love jazz. I still love it. It’s the main music I’ve been listening to in all my life. In some way, I’m proud of it now, over these years. But we had a point in Europe where we said, “Okay, let’s do it the European way.” We don’t want to copy American jazz any more. We don’t want to play Classical European music, but we don’t want to copy American jazz.” Like, a lot of bebop players in Europe had done that for years. But looking back on it, I still have to say we took a lot. We took a lot from Albert Ayler, we took a lot from Pharaoh Sanders, talking about saxophone players, and I took a lot from all the bass players, from Henry Grimes, Gary Peacock and Reggie Workman. I will play a bass duo on the 15th November with Reggie Workman at Roulette, and I am very happy that he agreed to it. It’s part of a bass duo thing I’ve been doing with European bass players. There are 3 CDs out now, but more are coming. We are planning for one with William Parker to come out, and the concert with Reggie Workman will be recorded also.

TP: There are different attitudes to the form question. Someone like Dave Holland, a contemporary of yours, in the 1960s was playing with Derek Bailey and John Stevens and spent the ’70s playing totally free music with Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton’s structural music, and then he made a decision that he didn’t want to exclude closed form, that he liked both of them. He felt that without structured forms you couldn’t necessarily springboard to the next step, that they contributed to his creative development. So you’re coming from a similar milieu, albeit he’s English and he’s German, but reaching two very different conclusions. That’s not to make a value judgment, just to show how two very different ways of approaching an instrument and an aesthetic can emerge from similar set of circumstances.

KOWALD: Well, I would say that the (?), of course, is quite a different one. But what I find is that the music we have been doing found a form, too, but it is as a very organic, natural form. I am very interested in… When I work with younger people it is always my theme: How clear can the music be? How clear can improvisation be? Is it just this process of what I call a cold spaghetti music, where everything just glues and sticks to each other and goes on and goes on? Or is it possible to have a more intuitive, formal consciousness about when you improvise? I am very interested in people who play with a formal consciousness. Maybe that is the European mind a little bit related to the mind over here. But I find that a certain element of being clear and making decisions also, which is somehow a formal thing, is very important to me. I think, in a way, I feel that I am respected over here, too, because I have that. Even when I play a solo, I mean, it’s completely open, but I have formal sections. I have sections in there, and people understand that. People understand that a formal background without it (?) so much from. But the difference from Dave Holland is that it is not a pre-given form. The form is coming while you do it. And Dave Holland and many other people like to work with pre-given forms. That’s just the difference.

TP: Peter Kowald has also contributed to the stream of out jazz through working with drummers like Rashied Ali, through working with drummers like Hamid Drake, working with saxophonists like Charles Gayle and Assif… There is now and has been for at least 20 years that component to what you do.

KOWALD: I would say, yes, the saxophone trio with a saxophone trio and a drummer…

TP: Where the bass functions as a bass.

KOWALD: Well, that’s one side of the extreme. And then to play completely European, free improvised music with the young people, where you sometimes don’t make a sound for minutes and think all the time, I like that, too. That’s the other extreme. My whole pendulum has been those two. I love to do the more jazz quality stuff, like we do with Assif and Hamid, but I also like to have that improvisation. Then also I work with Sanko, the Siberian singer, who gave me a completely new value since the early ’90s because her voice is from this Tuvan Shamanist breath and overtone harmonic music section. I went to Tuva with her twice on the Trans-Siberian train. So that is another leg I am trying to stand on.

TP: Assif, you’ve played with a number of bass players. What are the qualities that Peter Kowald brings to this real-time encounter, this collective improvisation that distinguishes his instrumental personality from his peer group?

TSAHAR: Well, it’s exactly what he said now, because his pendulum is so vast. So we don’t get locked so much into one thing, one area, which is very common to do. So it’s very easy when we’re playing with Peter. It’s both ways. He keeps it as a compositional thought from beginning to end, and also keeps the variety going. Because it’s very easy, let’s say… I mean, I love those Sam Rivers records; it’s a good example. But in some ways, it always stays within that jazz vein. But in some ways, when I play with Peter, even though if we go there, and go somewhere that’s in the jazz vein and in the swinging tradition, it will always go out of it and go into different places, and always have the possibility of going back into it. That’s why I love the experience of playing with Peter.

TP: Peter Kowald is leaving for Italy. The life of an improviser. You’re going to Italy for maybe one night, two nights…

KOWALD: I play two days in (?).

TP: Come back here.

KOWALD: Come back Monday.

TP: Come back Monday, do a recording, play this gig at Triad, do some other gigs during the week… I’ve been watching you create a schedule, and is Einhoven on the way from Frankfurt… The troubadours.

KOWALD: Yes. The everyday life of a traveler who just goes there and plays for the people, and opens his hand, gets some money and comes back home, and goes to the next one.

TP: Very much in the medieval European tradition of the traveling troupes, the caravans. The modern-day troubadours.

KOWALD: Well, in fact, Botticini(?), the great bass player, he had a bass that he could take the neck off, so in the horse coaches he could travel, and then he did the gigs at the clubs!

TP: We don’t have time to go in tremendous depth into recent work… We have cued up a CD called “Aphorisms: 26 Looks On a Situation” with saxophonist Floris Floridis, and drummer Gunter “Baby” Sommer…

KOWALD: He’s from East Germany. We were not allowed to play together for a couple of years, but we played secretly in the late ’70s and early ’80s. But in the early ’70s we were not allowed to play together.


KOWALD: [after Kowald-Barry Guy duo] …It means “The Silence of Marcel Duchamp is Overvalued.”

TP: And why is it overvalued?

KOWALD: Well, it is something that Josef Beuys said. Josef Beuys was an artist of the area where I grew up. I really liked him in my early years, and he was very influential to me. Just to say it in short, he not only did his artwork for which people know him over here, but he also tried to put art in a social context in a new way again — again, something as a result of the ’60s also. He was very out there in the ’60s for us.

TP: Something that was antithetical to Marcel Duchamp, the idea of putting a context on anything.

KOWALD: He did a project which he called “The Silence of Marcel Duchamp has Been Overvalued,” and I thought it was really interesting because I liked Marcel Duchamp so much, too. Then Beuys said, “Okay, but let’s look what does it mean. Do we take certain things too seriously? Don’t we have to act in another direction now?” The ’60s again. Right? Actually, the Barry Guy record has all titles which are related to Art, which are actually sentences. Paintings used to be on the record, on one side, on the other side four pieces which are related to certain artists. Barry likes art very much. Then he decided for I think… Anyway, I decided for Beuys and Marcel Duchamp.

TP: The previous piece was a duet between you and Sanko, the Tuvan throat singer to whom you referred. An incredible sound. It catches your attention. Even Peter Kowald, who’ve heard this record and played with her hundreds of times, is sitting across from me… If you can visualize a totally attentive expression where no motion is possible for a moment until they reach the next moment.

KOWALD: These aspects… We are talking about Josef Beuys now, who on the one hand is an artist who comes very much out of my context, but he also has worked on the Celtic stuff. Or the Cayuta(?) piece, when he came to America, where he didn’t touch American ground, but was carried off the airplane and carried with an ambulance into a gallery so he wouldn’t touch American ground, and then spent a week with the Cayuta(?) (they didn’t know each other, and they became friends during this week), and then Beuys left again without touching American ground. It’s very interesting, because he worked with very old cultures, and he includes… When he came the first time to America, he wanted to talk about the old America, and the Cayuta(?) was the symbol for that. Then Seinko carries in her voice a thousand years — and maybe more — of musical knowledge that hasn’t changed much in that area. In Tuva and Mongolia, the music has remained similar. Then she carries that thousand-years-old knowledge and puts it into a contemporary context. This is wonderful and very interesting to me.

TP: This actually would connect you with a strain of European modernism that goes back to James Joyce and Ezra Pound and Picasso. Pound would use pre-Biblical language, Joyce recontextualizes Homeric myth, Picasso deals with African sculptural forms. And here you are using a similar process in this manner of making music. If there’s a narrative in the music you make, what would be the closest analog? Would it be vocabulary? Would it be the visual arts? Is it shapes? Is it colors? Because the words “narrative” and “vocabulary” are often used by musicians, but it’s obviously an abstract vocabulary.

KOWALD: I believe that artists and the way that we play music is a very similar process in many ways. I think a beautiful thing in the music (and some of my artist friends sometimes express jealousy about this) is that we do it in groups often, most of the time, and the artist is most of the time alone in a studio…

TP: You mean that music is a social even a social process.

KOWALD: Yes. Well, art is a social process, too. But then the artist usually works alone in the studio, while we work in a group on stage and in a direct way. The music is going out, and it’s right there. The artist works for months maybe, until the product is ready. But I believe certain questions are very similar, certain questions of how do you free your language, how do you work with form. I talk a lot with artists about this question of form and how to change… Once you have been doing it for years, the change gets smaller. When I was young, I thought every month something new came into the music. Now it is changing much less. Artists have very similar problems. That is classic with them. And artists sometimes have a more, like, formal consciousness, because they work on form for months; when they do a painting, for months they work on the form of the painting. Our form kind of develops organically and it’s right there when it’s just been developed.

But then you come also back to the question of form with Seinko from Tuva, the singer. What is interesting about her is she brings all the qualities of her culture, of her voice, all the Shamanistic breath techniques, all the overtones and all of that, but she left what I call the local song. She doesn’t bring her local song any more. She says, “I don’t sing my song any more. I put my stuff into an open context, so I can play with you or I can play with Evan Parker or Ned Rothenberg,” whomever she plays with. So she left the local song. But she still brings all that knowledge and all the thousand years with her. That’s a beautiful thing. Then suddenly, because the pre-given form, the local form is not there any more, the form is completely open, and we just all can work together. People from China, from Africa, from Tuva, from Israel, from Germany, we can work together instantly without even discussing the matters. That’s really good. That’s really what I call the Global Village. I have this group called The Last Global Village. We are actually playing at CB’s Gallery on the 22nd. We are playing with… [LISTS PERSONNEL] We don’t prepare the music. We don’t rehearse it. We just get together. And most of the people don’t know each other, have never played with each other. And it works, because we don’t arrive with a pre-given form.

TP: That brings me to another question. What do you observe your audience to be? And how has that audience evolved over the forty years you’ve been playing? Who do you find coming to the concerts? How do you think they’re receiving it? Are they involved-enthralled in the process of the music-making? My main response to hearing this kind of music is watching the interplay as it occurs from moment to moment. It’s not so much what’s being played as how I am perceiving taking shape in real time. Other people may have a different perspective. How do you perceive the process with your audience?

KOWALD: Well, the audience has been the same in many ways. There are little festivals in Europe where the same people come together every year to listen to basically the same musicians — the big family. That’s fine. But then, in the last few years, I see many young people coming. Also I play for a lot of artists, like for the art openings, and then you have an audience which has never heard this music. So what I tell in these workshops sometimes, the young people, what for me is important… We’ve talked about form now three times already in this little hour here. We talk about the believing and the love of it. This is important to me. I’m sometimes a little critical about some European players who do it so cold, in a way, with so much thinking and so much formal consciousness. I don’t mind the form at all, and I said that before. But I also believe that you need the love. You need to believe in what you are doing. If I don’t believe in the moment what I play, how can the people down there believe it? That’s what I try to tell the young people. Don’t just think about material. Just do that. Practice, check out the forms and do the work, but also try to come in contact with yourself. This is an esoteric term you read all over the place.

I remember this very young dancer of Pina Bausch who lived across the street, and we used to meet in the coffee house in the afternoon sometimes. He was 22, a French guy, Francois Durer(?), a fantastic virtuoso dancer, and Pina let him do all these little solos in the pieces. And then one afternoon he told me, “Listen, I know I’m a good dancer, but I haven’t found it in HERE yet.” And then he pointed to his chest. I found it really wonderful that a 22-year-old virtuoso dancer, a great artist already, understood that still he had to look for something inside. This is what I’m talking about. “If you don’t believe what you are doing,” I tell young people all the time, “how can they believe it? How can the audience believe it?”

That’s what you were asking about the audience. The audience believes it if you believe what you are doing, if you are in it, if you open your soul, if you open your heart. That’s the aspect people don’t talk about enough sometimes. I think in Black America people talk about it much more than in Europe. That’s I think an important point also to the question where I said I have this pendulum between, let’s say, Black American Jazz and very formal European improvised music. I think the music meets the heart.

TP: Assif, you’re from a generation for whom playing free music is almost another option for vocabulary. Last year I went to Cecil Taylor’s orchestra workshop at Turtle Bay Music School, and there were people who could play the music extremely well and lucidly. But in talking to some of these people, they might play bebop here, and here we’ll play this way, and here we’ll play a dance gig. There were all these options, and free music is one part of the craft of being a musician in 2001. It seems generational, that people with that attitude can embrace this music with extended vocabularies and extended techniques and tabula rasa playing as a genre of equal value to others. Maybe it has to do with the way education is presented now. Not to ask you to speak for your generation, but for you is this an operative thing?

TSAHAR: Well, it exists. Things are more formalized and more clear, and there’s more awareness that one is using certain techniques in a certain genre. Also, I grew up playing actually bebop on guitar, not on saxophone, so I had an experience of growing up and then being freed out of it. Because everything was done, there’s more awareness of what are the things that we’re doing. But in the end, the difference is of being a musician or being an artist, I guess. So for me, I’m trying not to think about it. I’m trying just to think about where I am, how I play, where do I find myself, and not think about playing like… If I find myself thinking about, “oh, I sound like…” Which was always with me. I think, “Oh, if I sound like Coltrane,” that’s not a positive thing. That’s a negative thing. That’s…

TP: Well, for a while you want to emulate a sound, and then move away from it, no?

TSAHAR: Well, I think that’s from the beginning, a certain awareness. I might have enjoyed it more in my earlier years, “Oh, wow, that’s cool.” But I was always aware this is not what I want to do, this is not where I want to go. I want to feel like I have no shadows chasing after me. Because all these thoughts of style and mentors, which could be like living mentors or dead mentors, are kind of shadows covering what I really want to do. So I’m trying to surpass them and not really… They only will get in the way, in a way. So being within a style thing of, “Oh, I’m playing free” or “I’m playing inside,” all those things, in a way, interfere with what I want to do.

But it is all there, because it’s all part of what I listen to, what I grew up with… You asked in the beginning how does Arabic music influence my music, and a lot of people ask me about Jewish music, and I say that for me I play Jewish-Israeli music if I want or if I don’t want. It’s like what I grew up listening to. It’s in my sound even if I don’t like it. A certain type of Arabic singing… Like, playing out of tune for me was the easiest thing ever…

TP: Microtonal.

TSAHAR: Or microtonal, if you want to be more intellectual about it. But it’s the way I heard people singing. The tone, the pitch always shifts and moves. It’s never like a very specific thing. That’s how I hear. That’s how I play. Because that’s what I heard growing up.

TP: Peter, you said before we went on mike that you could discuss some of the extended techniques you use on bass in the duos, say, with Barry Guy. And it’s interesting, because in some sense there’s a creative tension between the elaboration of these very specific techniques that comprise your sonic identity, and transmitting the heart and love and soul that is your ideal, the imperative for why you do it.

KOWALD: Well, there are different steps. On this CD here is Barre Phillips, who was a little bit my teacher in the ’60s when he came to Europe. He had studied with Fred Zimmerman here in New York. I met Barry Guy later, but then when I went to London in the ’80s, often I stayed at his house. We would drink until early in the morning, and then he would go to a studio and record this Mozart symphony which he hadn’t looked at. He went completely unprepared to the studio, and he could do them, and they all got these awards. So he is a fantastic classical player, too.

But now I want to talk about the third person, Martin Aaltena, who did something to me which really helped me a lot. He broke his arm in the ’70s, and he had it in plaster, so he knew he wouldn’t be able to play for two months. Then he put the bass neck into plaster, too, and then he started to play concerts like that. There’s a record out where there’s a photograph of the bass neck in plaster and his arm in plaster. I thought he had a courage which I don’t know if I’d have had to really go out and say, “I have to forget everything I’ve ever learned and do something completely new.” So he started to stick bows into the strings and made all this sound. The sounds he made were completely sounds that didn’t have to do at all with bass techniques he knew. He just wanted to spend the two months playing the bass, even with his arm broken, and he did that way. But also, all the sounds which came out really freed him from everything he had learned, and it helped to free me. Because I was kind of theoretically… I didn’t want to break my arm to do the same thing, but okay, let’s try really to put the hand on the bass in a way like I’ve never done it before. Then all these sounds come out which you don’t know where they come from. Then you have to combine. You have to combine your aesthetic will, maybe, something you have in your head and something which comes through the music you listen to, to combine with this how to put your hand on the instrument. If those two aspects get into a balance, then I think it’s really interesting.

TP: I’d like to pick up one other trope of this conversation, which is the relationship between your musical expression and the visual arts. So much of your music seems to be generated, performed, and perhaps even done in that context. You’re contemporaneous with German painters like A.R. Penck, Baselitz, Kiefer, painters who made an international impact in the ’70s and ’80s. I’m not trying to suggest any affiliation, but merely to note that their work was operating in parallel to you. Were there convergences?

KOWALD: I always like to hang out with the guys and discuss everything, and with the artists you often hang out and discuss… With the musicians, too. But then we discuss the methods, and discuss how does this function and how does this work. Well, artists don’t have an instrument. They have a very open way to use material. I have a bass. Of course, I could do other things, and now all the young guys do this electronic stuff, in order to have maybe a more free equipment to work with. But I was always quite a purist. I wanted to do all these things just on the bass. But then, artists have a lot of freedom. Many people do videos, installations… I just saw a documentary a couple of weeks ago in Germany. They are very free in terms of material. I think musicians can learn from that. That’s one thing I definitely have to say. But then our social thing is…I really don’t want to miss it. To go with Assif and Hamid on stage, and the three of us, and that smile, and then we just go, and we don’t know what the next minute will bring us. That’s the most wonderful thing to do.


Peter Kowald Review Column (2002):

“I sometimes like to be like a chameleon,” Peter Kowald said last May, five months before his death. “I like to change color related to the person or the group I play with. And it means that I don’t have a function any more. I am just a bass player, which means that I make sounds on the bass like other people do on the trumpet, on the koto, on the gu-cheng or on the pipa.”

Born and based in Wuppertal, in Germany’s Ruhr Basin, Kowald brought that fluid aesthetic to innumerable extemporaneous encounters with a global cohort of speculative improvisers. Deploying a vivid, original tonal personality that blended tropes from jazz, Euro-Classical, and Mongolian and Pygmy folk traditions, he was as comfortable navigating discursively conversational duos as the complex terrain of hardcore free-improvised jazz.

Kowald is both chameleon and functional bassist on APHORISMS (Ano Kato 2015, 44:17, 4 stars). True to the title, Kowald, Greek reeds and woodwind virtuoso Floris Floridos, and innovative Dresden-born drummer Gunter “Baby” Sommer improvise 26 pithy vignettes from a veritable lexicon of extended techniques, parsing essences with precision and nuance, merging singular vocabularies into a collective sound that transcends instrumental gymnastics. Outcat trombonist Conrad Bauer, a multiphonics maestro who like Sommer was a pioneer of jazz in the GDR, joins Kowald and Sommer on BETWEEN HEAVEN AND EARTH (Intakt 079, 52:46, 4 stars); they perform eight brief narrations with similar rigor and timbral scope, before stretching out for two vigorous extended blowout improvs that sustain compositional thought and variety from beginning to end on a minimum of thematic material.

Theme-solo-theme structures spur the intense interplay of OPEN SYSTEMS (Marge 28, 72:42, 3-1/2 stars), a sprawling, ritualistic recital by a first-time-out quartet of Kowald, post-Ayler saxophonist Assif Tsahar, bravura trumpeter Hugh Ragin, and drummer Hamid Drake. Convened in Paris in the spring of 2001, the unit only occasionally meanders, blowing with heat and wit through Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” and four Tsahar vehicles that conjure up the apocalyptic feel of 1969 BYG record by, say, Archie Shepp or the Reverend Frank Wright. Kowald chants low, gutteral tones in counterpoint to Drake’s muezzin’s call on “Heart’s Remembrance,” an open improv, and presents an idiomatic Ayler homage entitled “Fathers and Mothers.”

Kowald once noted that he and saxophonist Peter Brötzmann – his mentor in early ‘60s Wuppertal — deployed radical jazz as a symbolic weapon to kill their fathers. After encouraging mid-‘60s encounters with expat American avatars like Steve Lacy, Don Cherry and Carla Bley, the young Germans set to work at eliminating the stepfathers; in Kowald’s words, “to do it the European way.” FOR ADOLPHE SAX (Archive-FMP Edition 230, 50:25, 3 stars) reissues a rawboned, to-the-barricades 1967 trio album on which Brötzmann blows with primal violence, Kowald bows resourcefully and dynamically, and Swedish drummer Sven-Åke Johanssen jabs and pummels ametric texture out of the drumkit, setting an expressionist template for several subsequent generations of the young and restless on both continents. Dutch energy pianist Fred Van Hove, Brötzmann’s cusp-of-the-‘70s partner in a trio with Han Bennink, joins the unit for a strong, though predictable disk-concluding track recorded at Radio Bremen.


Kowald at Vision-Fest (5-27-02) – (Peter Kowald):


PETER KOWALD: …it’s about making a castle against the poor people. Like, America is a castle, and then Europe is another castle now. I guess in Asia there are castles, too. So it’s like a castle to defend certain things, certain standards.

TP: I know what you’re talking about. [ETC.] We’re in the boiler room of the St. Patrick’s Church Community Center, where the Vision Festival is being held… [ETC.] Peter Kowald, bass player, master of extended techniques…

What is your sense of the term “avant-garde” and how does it apply to what you do, to the projection of your musical personality?

[45:18] KOWALD: Well, the first thing I have to say: In Europe we don’t use that term so much. And it has been used in the last century…well, at the beginning of the century for artistic movements like Dadaism, Surrealism and stuff. Actually, it is a military term. As we know, the group in front. The group in front which may be in the most dangerous place, the most risky place, and also which can make decisions — or does make decisions which the people in the back don’t do. So that has been modified for art movements in the last century. The way we use it, or the way it’s used here in New York about this music we all are playing, it’s a way we wouldn’t use that any more. Somehow, the term smells a little bit in Europe. It’s a little old-fashioned.

TP: That leads to a question I was going to ask. If there’s a difference between the conception of the avant-garde in Europe and the American notion of what the avant-garde is.

[46:24] KOWALD: So I believe what it meant and what it means is that there’s a movement or a group of artists who do something new, something different from what has been before. And I guess in the ’60s the term came up for this music very strongly, and there has been a lot of breaking up of traditional matters. And so, it has been used now 50 years later…no, 40 years… Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz” came out in ’62, no?

TP: ’60.

[47:04] KOWALD: Okay. 40 years later. I would say that’s a good moment, Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz,” which was definitely what at the time people would call avant-garde. It was breaking many, many rules, and trying to really open up the whole question of form. That’s what we maybe have to say first. Breaking up the form was what the whole goal was. Because all traditional musics, all over the world, they have a form. The Inuit singers or Indian Raga or African drum music, all this has form, however open or tight it might be. And I think the ’60s movement, what we relate to the term “avant-garde” now to what we are playing has completely opened up the form, which was not only the case in this music but also in contemporary art and… Remember Nam June Paik, the Fluxus artist, he came to Wuppertal in the early ’60s, and Brotzmann was his assistant for a moment, and Paik had said, “Now you can do anything. It’s completely open. Anything is possible now. Don’t worry about any tradition; don’t worry about any traditional form — anything is possible.” And that was maybe for us Europeans to think, “Okay, now the free…what does the free mean?” It basically means, in the first place, free of a pre-given traditional form, like bebop was and like a raga is or any other music has these forms. Free of a form. But of course, Ornette Coleman and Max Roach and the black musicians in America meant it also in another connotation of, well, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were around at the same time.

TP: Now, the Inuit musicians and the musics of India and the drum music of Africa, you don’t see this pattern of breaking up the form in this manner. These days it’s more that you see people who have mastered these forms intersecting with other people, creating this giant hybrid of vernaculars and cultural expressions. Why was the notion of breaking form so appealing to you at that moment?

[49:20] KOWALD: Well, I have been thinking about this a lot, in fact. What we might see in the ’60s…it started, and now it’s really obvious: That you could go all over the world in a plane in 24 hours, which means in one-night-and-day unit. Or you could have a CD or record at the time from any music of the world. I mean, there might have been very remote corners where you wouldn’t have something, but now everything is there. Everything is to our disposal. And at that time, at that exactly at this moment when this happened technologically, basically, that happened. The form broke open. So the traditional forms… They are still there, of course, and they are still very strong and they will stay. But exactly at that moment, the question came up: What does traditional form mean? Because traditional form is always a local form. But going around with a plane in a one-day unit means that the question of local has changed. And I believe that it’s very much connected, what I’m talking about now, that we can have information about all parts of the world, about all cultures, about all musics, about all art forms. We can have that now. We can discuss it. We meet people who play instruments who come from very different… Like, I play with Sanko from Tuva, and Tuva in the ’60s wasn’t even…nobody really knew about it here in the West, and now everybody talks about Tuva and the music there. So, so much has happened in these forty years. Which means that the local forms are still there, but they don’t have their importance any more. Or, they have it for the people who live locally. We all live locally, we have to say, too. But at the same time, there is a big exchange of all cultural values and traditions and all that is there. People call that the Postmodern maybe. I don’t know if I would like to use that term, in fact. But everything is there. Everything is to our disposal. We can use everything.

[51:30] So breaking up the form in terms of avant-garde, it meant — and Cage has said — that we can use any noise, and any noise is valued. And a saxophone player in New York, he would play saxophone in a way that would make certain screams, as we know, and certain noises. So noise has been with instrumental improvisers included, too. Noise was not excluded. So as Nam June Paik has said, anything is possible. We can include anything.

TP: You mentioned Nam June Paik twice, and in doing so you’ve touched on the next question. To what extent did artistic forms, cultural forms other than music — or politics — inflect the musical personality you’ve come to evolve?

[52:30] KOWALD: I mean, I grew up in Germany, and that’s why I talk about it. And I met Paik when I was 20. So he was very influential to me, in a way, through Brotzmann somehow. But also I was closer to the visual arts at the time, because I played the bass, and I played with Brotzmann, and I was 17 when I started to play with him, etc. But we didn’t grow up with the music like people here did. I was not Albert Ayler’s bass player at the time. What happened here, we watched really what came out here, the records when they came over here later — ESP and all of that. We really watched that and listened to it. But we were not here. We were in Wuppertal, Germany, which is a little town, and we were the only two people playing that kind of music at the time — or trying to. So we didn’t grow up with the music. So our connection with other art forms was more natural at the time. It was usually visual art, and then Fluxus was very important; it started in ’62-’63. Which again, the movement of Fluxus was about everything is open and everybody can what he or she wants to do.

So transporting this or transforming it to the question of playing the music: We tried to say, okay, we don’t want any tradition. We reject our own tradition in the sense of not playing Classical music, Classical European music, not even contemporary music in a sense, which is something which follows the classical music in the 20th Century. But then again, not what many Europeans had done before, learned the jazz licks and learned jazz and tried to copy or being with American jazz… We said, “We don’t want to do that either.” So that was our way to say, “Okay, we play a completely free, improvised music now.” And somehow, of course, Albert Ayler and Coltrane and Cecil Taylor and Ornette helped us to make these steps, and they were actually very influential to us in the beginning. But then also, we thought, okay, now we’ll try to have some European music which is just coming out of improvisation and no pre-given form.

TP: In the process, the most committed, adept improvisers developed specific identifiable vocabularies. Someone can tell you from William Parker from Barry Guy and so forth and so on. And you’ve evolved these vocabularies over many years. Has a music which was born from the idea of there being no form or the abolition of form become a formal entity unto itself, and how then does the music develop and advance within such a situation?

[55:36] KOWALD: Well, the pre-given form… Of course, in what we call now the avant-garde of this jazz music or post-jazz music…sometimes it has form and makes forms. But what I call the free improvisation doesn’t have a form — or a pre-given form. But each piece, of course, which is improvised, as a solo, as a trio, as a quintet, will have a form when it’s finished — has a form when it’s finished. Form is not something pre-given, but form is something which turns out to be in the process of playing. But this is basically a situation which is very open, open in the sense, too, that… And that’s what I love to talk about, too. I have played with a lot of people from different cultures. We all have. But I always looked for the question what the other cultures have to say. So from Sanko to Charles Gayle, or from a Japanese koto player…a Chinese koto player is in my group now, ..(?).., who is in my group in Germany now. to Pamela Z(?) from San Francisco, who uses body contact mikes. I like to play in other spectra. But that’s also part of the openness, too.

In a way, I sometimes like to be, as a bass player…like to be like a chameleon, which means I like to change color related to the person I play with or to the group I play with. Which means as a bass player I don’t have a function any more, like, up until the ’60s the bass player had. And still, sometimes, in a groups with saxophones, drums and bass, of course, I still use the function…I have the function of a bass player in that group, too, when I play with Rashied Ali. But in other times, I don’t have a function as a bass player. I am just a bass player, which means that I make the sounds on the bass like other people make it on the trumpet, on the koto, on the gu-cheng or on the pipa. And that means we are all individuals now. The openness is there. The openness… As I said, we can travel in one day to any part of the world. We can have music from everywhere we can listen to, and we can play with people who also live behind the local forms and just say, “Okay, we are open now, too.” We still use our aesthetics. Sanko, the singer, is an example I like to use often, because she is so obvious. She’s using the shamanistic breath techniques, and she is doing the overtones like in Tuva, but she opened up the form and she doesn’t sing the local song any more. And when we do that, then we can play together immediately, without any discussion. We don’t have to prepare anything.

TP: This is a very radical idea.

[58:45] KOWALD: Well, it’s an idea which sometimes… I don’t want to exaggerate, but sometimes I feel it could be a beautiful little model for how this world could function. Because of course, the forms… We need form, and that’s why many people also sometimes come back to it more than in the ’60s. Many musicians have gone back to pre-given forms — to compositions and to playing time and to playing chords sometimes. But all that is possible. All that can be included. We don’t want to exclude anything any more. Not the noise, but also not the sound. So we can include everything. And that’s nice. Because I believe if you look at it socially, politically, psychologically, everything that is excluded will be a problem later on. So we can include everything. Then when everything is on the table, then we can make our choice and say, “Today I eat the apple” and tomorrow the orange and then the day after the grapes. We can make the choice when everything is on the table. But everything has to come on the table first. And when it’s on the table, then we can make the choice.

TP: Now, this attitude, it doesn’t seem to me, was possible 40 years or, or 30 years ago, even. But now it seems a commonplace to say this. Why do you think that is?

[1.00.16] KOWALD: Well, that has to do with that the world got smaller, in fact, of course, and it has to do with attitudes of… We all travel more than we did in the ’60s. In the ’60s we had an old car, and went from Germany to Belgium, which was five hours. Of course, some musicians traveled at the time, too, but they were much less. And now everybody travels all the time to play concerts wherever in the world. Wherever people ask me to play, I go. Or if I were to invite a musician from wherever, I ask them to come.

So that’s part of that. But also the information has gone… I don’t look at television any more, but what they give you on television at least it’s a sign what could be possible of what we see from other cultures, what we see from other parts of the world. Television in Germany and in America and in the Western world don’t use that. But there are so many possibilities to get information. But then there’s so much information that we have to make choices again. We have to make choices all the time, because it’s too much. And then, okay, we made the choice to make free improvised music with a network of people between Asia and… Maybe there are people in Africa coming soon. I played with people in Africa who understood what I was talking about. Because they wanted to teach me their rhythms, which as a German I never would be able to learn, even as much as I would try. Then at some point, they said, “Oh, you play what you play and we play what we play,” and so we played together. That was a step into… Still people who were very related to their traditional form said, okay, you can do what you do and we’ll do what we do. That’s a step into that freedom you’re talking about.

[1.02.35] TP: You were saying just before that you will travel wherever anybody asks you to play, and you’ve been doing something like this for about 40 years in one form or another, and you’re 58 years old. How have you sustained your intensity and commitment?

[1.03.10] KOWALD: Of course, I have sometimes a longing for being in one place more. Now I have two places, because I am in Germany, as I used to be, and I have a place in New York now, too. So basically I have two legs I’m standing on now. Well, I don’t like so much to teach. I do these workshops sometimes, and I like to talk to younger people about this music, and maybe give away something I’ve learned over the years. But basically, I love to play. So I don’t want to be really a professor at a university and stay in one place. My family…my children are big and have children themselves, so I am completely free to travel. And that’s what I love to do — travel and play. Just play with anybody… Traveling is the biggest thing…it’s a little hard. But to play with as many people as I like to play with and who like to play with me.

TP: Derek Bailey kind of rejects the notion of performance as artistic activity. He refers to it as playing, which implies a workaday attitude. That he is a musical artisan, in a certain sense. If you were to use that general typology of what it is you do, would you characterize yourself as an artist? An artisan? Both?

KOWALD: Well, I would say that at the moment I play, I mean, this hour or two hours of a concert on a stage… Usually it is on a stage. But I prefer the little cafe, the corner of a little cafe; that’s my favorite place, where there are 50 people and everybody is in reach, really. That is my favorite. But this hour of music for me is a special moment, I have to say. I wouldn’t call it a holy moment, but a moment of great concentration. All I can give to the world is that hour, the music in that hour. So when I play with people in a situation where people listen to this music, and not just at home or in a rehearsal space or in any place, just playing… It’s a different thing, playing for the public, I feel, and playing for non-musicians. This is a special moment, and this is still what… I don’t care if you really call it art, but I believe it’s my art, yes.

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