For the 99th Birthday of the Great Bassist Israel “Cachao” López Valdés, a Short Essay Written in 2012

It’s the 99th birthday anniversary of the master bassist Israel “Cachao” López Valdés (1918-2008). For the occasion, here’s a program note I wrote for a  2012 Jazz at Lincoln Center concert devoted to his music, directed by Carlos Henriquez. This link will take you to a documentary about his life broadcast on PBS’ American Masters series a few years ago.

 

The Music of Cachao

By Ted Panken ©2012

His name was Israel “Cachao” López, he came from Havana, Cuba and during his 90 years on the planet he played the contrabass with the imperial authority of Serge Koussevitzky,  the kinetic precision of a Yoruba drummer, and the unbridled creativity of Charles Mingus.  His old friend Bebo Valdés, a fellow 1918 baby, called him “the king of rhythm.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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For Trumpeter Jim Rotondi’s Birthday, my Liner Note for the 1999 CD “Excursions”

Best of birthdays to trumpet master Jim Rotondi, who has been teaching the last several years in Austria at the University of Graz.  Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of writing liner notes for three of Jim’s CDs for Criss Cross, the first of which — for Excursions (1999) — I’m posting below. It was a first-class date on which the personnel of One For All (Eric Alexander, Steve Davis, Dave Hazeltine, Peter Washington) plus Kenny Washington on drums, play a series of terrific charts.

 

Jim Rotondi (Excursions):

For Excursions, his third Criss-Cross recording, Jim Rotondi surrounded himself with his top-shelf colleagues from the sextet collective One For All.  “I feel comfortable when I play with these guys, freer to select options that I might not normally choose,” the 37-year-old trumpeter avers.  “I think music works best when you throw something a little different in the mix just to see what happens.  Sometimes you get results you’d never have imagined.”

The familiar surroundings (the only “ringer” is impeccable trapsetter Kenny Washington, replacing regular OFA drummer Joe Farnsworth) spur Rotondi to etch in sharp focus the qualities that have won him numerous admirers in recent years as a featured soloist with Lionel Hampton, Charles Earland and — more recently — Kyle Eastwood.  Projecting one of the most beautiful sounds in jazz, he plays with staunch confidence, nuanced maturity and intuitive melodicism — and reaffirms his charter membership in the no-holds-barred society of improvisers.

Rotondi comments: “One thing that differentiates a Lionel Hampton experience from a One For All experience is that it’s much more blues-based, more elemental.  One For All uses more complex forms, and if we play a blues it probably won’t be straight but a variation on the blues.  Gates grew up in the straight blues, and it’s important to him to keep it in there.  The spirit is to go for it, to try to deliver 100 percent every time.  I think that’s the spirit of One For All, and we translate it to this record as well.  We’ve come to have a reputation as a group that flexes its musical muscles, one with a lot of technical prowess.  Really, we just believe in going for it, in trying to play everything at the peak of its potential.”

Rotondi is effusive about One For All front-line partners Eric Alexander (tenor) and Steve Davis (trombone), both familiar to Criss-Cross devotees.  “We think the same way,” he says.  “The three of us are like one voice; we phrase the same way naturally, without talking or thinking about it.

The Rotondi-Alexander partnership began a year after the trumpeter settled in New York.  “I met Eric when he was attending William Patterson College in the ’80s, and it’s inspiring to see him come so far.  When I first met him, he didn’t have a wide variety of tools and language, and now he has probably the biggest arsenal of any of the young players out there.  He did it with discipline and dedication.  To me, every song that he writes captures his spirit more than the previous one.”  Alexander’s contribution here is “Jim’s Waltz,” taken at the camelwalk pace that Kenny Washington likes to call the “grown-up’s tempo,” featuring Rotondi’s burnished tone.  “It’s typical of Eric’s personality — uplifting, happy,” Rotondi comments.  “The melody is all major key, very diatonic, but still interesting.  It goes to a couple of unexpected places, but makes perfect sense — which I think is his essence as a writer and player.”

Let’s digress with a synopsized account of Rotondi’s pre-New York years (Rotondi scholars who want more should refer to the notes for Introducing Jim Rotondi [Criss-1128] and Jim’s Bop [Criss-1156]).  Rotondi’s mother is a piano teacher, and the Butte, Montana, native played piano from the age of 8; he took up the trumpet upon entering high school.  “My background when I began to play trumpet was more in classical music,” he relates.  “My live music exposure pretty much consisted of Maynard Ferguson, Stan Kenton and Buddy Rich, but when I was 14 I picked up a collection of the Clifford Brown-Max Roach EmArcy recordings and Woody Shaw’s Rosewood.  After I got those records — and many others — I started experimenting with different things that I hadn’t been aware of before when I was practicing the piano.  I think it’s extremely important for trumpet players to have a piano.  As Dizzy said he told Miles, on the trumpet you’ve got one note, but on the piano you’ve got 88.  If you understand all 88, it’s a lot easier to find the right place to put one.”

Rotondi wound up at North Texas State University, eventually landing in the school’s elite One O’Clock Lab Band.  “When I arrived they automatically placed me on the bottom, because so many musicians are there,” he recalls.  “I didn’t have it completely together; in fact I was quite a distance from it!  I learned a lot in terms of basic skills; pulled up my technique and ability to sight-read music, and learned about the professional ethic.  After school I went to Miami and worked on a cruise ship for a year, with the aim of saving money to move to New York, which I did in June 1987.”

Rotondi, Alexander and Joe Farnsworth stuck together, worked small but steady gigs and sideman jobs.  Farnsworth landed a gig at Augie’s, the Upper West Side saloon that nurtured much of New York’s young talent in the ’90s’; in 1994, they brought in butter-toned Davis — currently a two-year member of Chick Corea’s Origin Ensemble — whose warm, enveloping sound and ability to generate instant momentum in his solos makes him a perfect fit.  Of Davis’ title track, Rotondi says: “This tune is a classic example of the music Steve writes.  Simple melodies, putting interesting chords underneath them; he finds these perfect little chord-melody combinations.  He’s one of the strongest writers of the younger guys.  This tune is a nice Bossa Nova in an AAB form; it goes through a lot of different tonal centers, which makes it interesting and fun to play on.”

Formidable pianist David Hazeltine rounded out One For All in 1995; his up-tempo arrangement of “Angel Eyes” is, Rotondi exults, “classic Hazeltine.  He’ll take a standard and slightly alter the harmony or chord changes, which makes the tune more interesting to solo on.  Eric and Dave like to have everything very well worked out; they think things through, and don’t like to leave a lot to chance.”

The oft-paired (on Criss-Cross at least) Peter and Kenny Washington bring their customary excellence to the proceedings.  “Whatever you think a bass player should be, Peter is,” Rotondi comments.  “And I’ve always loved Kenny’s playing; he has an encyclopedic knowledge of everything musical, and brings it to every record he’s on.  He’s always an asset.  He completely took care of business, and did it with aplomb.”

Rotondi’s “Shortcake,” a peppery medium-bright minor line with a Latin feel that begins with a pair of storm-cloud chords, “was written for my girlfriend,” the composer remarks.  The bravura trumpeter bites off the notes with brash panache, evoking the sound of Freddie Hubbard, a major influence.  Ditto on Rotondi’s arrangement “Little B’s Poem,” a memorable Bobby Hutcherson melody on which both Hubbard and Woody Shaw have had an earlier say.  This cool, restrained, stop-start version is spurred by Hazeltine’s intuitive comping and Kenny Washington’s ingenious rhythmic formulations.

Don’t think Rotondi is anyone’s style clone; he’s assimilated the entire post Clifford Brown trumpet tree and reached his own conclusions.  He states: “Clifford and Woody were my initial influences.  Though other guys during Clifford’s time — and before — played as much if not more than he, Clifford covered so much and nailed everything perfectly, even though his playing is completely spontaneous-sounding and creative.  I think it’s a testament to his talent and ability that, young as he was, he never flubbed.

“Woody Shaw to me is the last true trumpet innovator; on his early recordings there’s a strong Hubbard and Booker Little influence, but he found his own language.  The way I hear it, playing with McCoy Tyner opened him up to the solutions he ultimately found.  He inspired me to strive to find my own way to play, to find my own voice — because he really found his.  He blended his version of bebop trumpet with avant-garde elements he was exposed to through playing with Dolphy and Coltrane — it was all in his playing.

“The first thing that struck me about Freddie was his sound, a combination of round, darkish warmth with the bit of edge that I think the trumpet needs to have.  Then it was the long melodic lines he constructed that went all through the changes.  Freddie likes to tell the story of running back and forth between Sonny and Trane, and revealing to one what the other was working on; I’m sure practicing with them opened him up unbelievably.

“I’ve done a lot of transcribing of Booker Little; by the age of 22, when he died, he’d completely found his own voice.  Tonally, his playing reminds me of a Classical approach applied to jazz, very precise, the same fat tone from the lowest end of the trumpet all the way up to the top.

“Kenny Dorham to me is the true melodist of all of them;  every trumpet player should study K.D. to learn the importance of making a melody.  They are logical and beautiful, and make so much sense.  He was the first guy I know of to really put Bebop harmony, i.e., tritone substitutions and other devices, clearly in his playing.

“Lee Morgan and Blue Mitchell were early influences.  I still think of Blue Mitchell as the best ballad trumpet player of all time, principally because he never overplayed.  He just played the melody, and let his tone do all the work.”

Rotondi’s gorgeous reading of “What Is There To Say?” — co-arranged with Eric Alexander — would make Mitchell smile.  “I got the tune from Nat King Cole’s ‘After Midnight’ session,” he explains.  “It’s simple, with potential to interpolate some interesting chords.  I try to find lyrics whenever I can to any standard I’m going to play.  It will keep you from playing anything extraneous if the lyrics are in your ear.”

Excursions concludes with Rotondi’s arrangement of Benny Golson’s “Little Karen,” followed by a fingerpopping “Fried Pies,” a Wes Montgomery blues on which all members stretch out.  “On my last few records, I’ve tried to include something from a great jazz composer and see if I can do something different with it,” Rotondi remarks.  “On One To Ten [1961, Argo] Benny took this tune pretty straight-ahead; I gave the A-section a Horace Silver-like mambo treatment.  And Gerry Teekens always likes to have a blues on the record, and I do, too.”

It’s an ideal conclusion for an impeccable album.  For Rotondi and his colleagues, way past their apprenticeships, individual influences are now a point of departure; their voices are prominent landmarks in the narrative of mainstream jazz.

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For the 89th Birthday Anniversary of Pianist Kenny Drew (1928-1993), My Liner Note for the Reissue of the Xanadu Album “Home Is Where The Soul Is”

Today’s the 89th birth anniversary of pianist Kenny Drew (1928-1993), one of the great acolytes of Bud Powell. I had an opportunity to delve into his musical production while writing the liner notes for a reissue of a trio date that he made for Xanadu in 1978, with Leroy Vinnegar and Frank Butler.

*_*_*_*_

Kenny Drew, Home Is Where The Soul Is (Liner Notes):

“One might take a single pianist like Kenny Drew and find in his playing many of the period’s dominant tendencies: “funk” [extensive use of blues voicings on tunes that are not strictly blues], Debussyesque lyrical embellishments, finger-busting up-tempo solos, and multiple references to earlier styles both gently contemplative (Teddy Wilson and Nat Cole) and hot and bluesy (stride piano via Monk).” – David Rosenthal, Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955-1965.

* * *

Although the late David Rosenthal’s observations on Kenny Drew (1928-1993) pertain to the pianist’s musical production during the 1950s, they also apply to Drew’s performance on the slamming trio date contained herein. Xanadu proprietor Don Schlitten, who wrote in the original liner notes that the Harlem native’s best recorded performances (two enduring dates helming a trio and a combo, and sideman appearances with, among others, Sonny Criss, Dexter Gordon and Paul Chambers) transpired in Los Angeles during a 1953-56 West Coast residence, hoped to elicit a similar vibe by “bringing Kenny home to the ‘cats’” to cut a pair of albums. One participant was bassist Leroy Vinnegar, who had settled in Los Angeles not long before his four recorded interactions with Drew in 1955 and 1956. The other is drum-master Frank Butler, out of Kansas City, whose intuitively spot-on responses within the flow on Home Is Where The Soul Is and For Sure—the latter is a formidable quintet with Xanadu regulars Charles McPherson and Sam Noto on the front line—belies the fact that he was interacting with Drew for the first time. Like Drew, these Los Angeles bebop warriors were 1928 babies.

It’s interesting that the proceedings conclude with Drew’s a cappella tour de force on “Yesterdays,” which he played on 16 separate occasions during his 43 years as a recording artist. This version (not included on the original LP release of Home Is Where The Soul Is) is different in feel and configuration than the brisk interpretation 24-year-old Drew uncorked on his first leader date, done on April 16, 1953 for Blue Note in the percolating company of bassist Curley Russell and drummer Art Blakey. “Kenny’s work is cast in the modernist mold, but it seems to owe allegiance to no one model,” Leonard Feather wrote on the back cover of the original 10″ LP. “On the contrary, a careful hearing of these sides will reveal that he has already developed his own personality at the keyboard.”

Feather was softpedaling Drew’s informed, idiosyncratic, virtuosic allegiance to Bud Powell, four years Drew’s senior and a fellow Harlemite, which is evident in the younger pianist’s efflorescent treatments of “Be My Love,” “Lover Come Back To Me” and  “It Might As Well Be Spring.” But he is nonetheless correct that Drew had already constructed his own nascent voice, one informed by close study of tributaries established by Powell, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Nat Cole, George Shearing and perhaps, by 1953, Horace Silver. He’d been at it for while: Feather writes that Drew, whose mother was a classical pianist, took his first lessons at 5, was a skilled boogie-woogie pianist during adolescence, and assiduously soaked up Tatum, Wilson and Fats Waller during his teens. After high school, he apprenticed at a dance school run by the pathbreaking Trinidad-born dancer-choreographer Pearl Primus, who incorporated African and Caribbean elements into her touring show.

During the latter ’40s, as Ira Gitler wrote in the liner notes to Drew’s 1961 Blue Note record, Undercurrent, Drew augmented his university of the streets education, alternating on piano with Walter Bishop, Jr. in a band with uptown up-and-comers Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean and Arthur Taylor. Feather remarks that Drew entered the fray for real after a maiden studio voyage with Howard McGhee in January 1950 for Blue Note. Over the next two years, Drew would share bandstands and record with the likes of Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Rollins, Milt Jackson, Oscar Pettiford, Sonny Stitt and Paul Quinichette. He began to garner national attention in 1952, when bebop clarinet pioneer Buddy DeFranco brought him on the road; indeed, Drew’s aforementioned trio debut date occurred the same week as two DeFranco sessions for Norman Granz’s Clef label. Perhaps Drew’s blend of orchestral chops, impeccable touch, stylistic range, and improvisational imagination, not to mention the level of authoritative intention at which he operated, reminded Granz of Oscar Peterson. Whatever the case, Granz signed Drew to his Norgran imprint, for which he generated two solos and four trio numbers with bassist Eugene Wright and drummer Specs Wright.

On tour with DeFranco in San Francisco in late 1953, Drew was arrested on heroin-related charges. His appearance on a July 1954 Zoot Sims session in Hollywood indicates that he served little if any time, but his relationship with Granz—for whom Drew recorded a marvelous trio recital with Wright and drummer Larance Marable in L.A. that September—fizzled out, and his career gained no traction. He resettled in New York in 1956, but remained on a similar treadmill, despite sidemanning on two hands’ worth of iconic hardbop classics for Riverside and Blue Note (the short list includes John Coltrane’s Blue Train, Johnny Griffin’s Way Out!, Jackie McLean’s Jackie’s Bag and Bluesnik, Kenny Dorham’s Whistle Stop and Showboat, and Dexter Gordon’s Dexter Calling), as well as leading two highest-caliber trio dates for Riverside with Paul Chambers or Wilbur Ware on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums, and an epic duo encounter with Ware. In 1958 (the year his son, Kenny Drew, Jr.—himself a meta-virtuoso pianist—was born), Drew worked with Buddy Rich. In 1959, he moved to Miami for a year or so, before returning to New York City.

The first time Drew saw Paris was late 1961, on a European tour of Jack Gelber’s play, The Connection. After visiting Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark, he decided to emigrate. He met and married a Danish woman, and moved to Copenhagen in 1964. By 1978, he was Europe’s first-call pianist, with 8 contemporaneous LPs for Denmark’s Steeplechase label that showcased him in solo, duo, trio and combo contexts, generated on 14 separate recording sessions between 1973 and 1977. During those years, he recorded all but two of the numbers (“Three and Four Blues” and “West of Eden”) that comprise Home Is Where The Soul Is.

The set opens with “Work Song,” which Drew initially recorded in 1965 for Fontana with a trio led by Danish drummer Alex Riel that also included bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pederson, with whom Drew played extensively for the remainder of his life. At the time, this group was frequently functioning as a rhythm section for touring horns-for-hire at Copenhagen’s esteemed Jazzhus Montmartre, a hallowed venue that offered Drew a mutually beneficial sinecure as house pianist until it closed in 1976. Drew did “Work Song” a second time on a 1969 Ben Webster date for EMI-Odeon, also with Pedersen and drummer Makaya Ntshoko, and again two months before the Home Is Where The Soul Is session, in Warsaw, with a Polish trio.

He debuted Ellington’s “Prelude To A Kiss” with a working quartet (saxophonist Joe Maini, Vinegar and Marable), documented on Jazz West in December 1955, and revisited it in May 1974 with Pedersen and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath on the sessions that generated the Steeplechase albums Dark Beauty and Dark and Beautiful. That same May 1974 encounter also generated a tour de force presentation of “It Could Happen To You,” a Powell favorite that Drew had previously waxed with DeFranco (the day before his Blue Note debut) and in 1958 with Chet Baker. There, as here, Drew opens with improvised rubato “concertizing” before morphing into deep two-handed swing.

The Drew-Vinnegar-Butler trio addresses Drew’s original, “Only You,” at a brisk clip that imparts a much different ambiance than its balladic representation on Lite Flite, Drew’s February 1977 New York quintet recital with Thad Jones, Bob Berg, George Mraz and Jimmy Cobb. He concluded Home Is Where The Soul Is with the gentle, elegiac “Ending,” which first appeared on Ruby My Dear (Steeplechase), recorded in August 1977 with bassist David Friesen and drummer Clifford Jarvis. The version contained herein stands in calming contrast to the joie de vivre embodied on the preceding track, Drew’s modal “Three or Four Blues,” on which the composer’s solo ranges from Basie-esque pointillism to two-handed Tatumesque turbulence.

Drew’s insouciant, humorous, imaginative treatment of this number and, indeed, of everything else on Home Is Where The Soul Is, completely justifies Schlitten’s determination to illuminate his artistry in this spontaneous, familial context. Here, as on the preponderance of the Xanadu catalog, Schlitten’s instincts were spot-on.

Ted Panken

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For Donny McCaslin’s birthday, a 2009 interview and Liner Notes For The Arabesque CD “Seen From Above” and the Criss Cross CD “Give ‘n’ Go”

Tenor saxophonist-composer Donny McCaslin turned 50 recently, which seems like a good reason to post an interesting interview he did with me in 2009 for a Downbeat piece in which I interviewed four tenor players (Ron Blake, Seamus Blake and Frank Catalano were the others) on developing one’s own sound, as well as liner notes I’ve had the honor to write for an album he recorded for Arabesque in 2000 and another album for Criss Cross in 2005.

 

Donny McCaslin (Feb. 4, 2009) – (DB Tenor Sound Piece):

TP: I guess the things I want to talk about generally are: First, the process by which you started thinking about the idea of saxophone as a way of expressing a voice as opposed to just playing it. What sort of vocabulary you assimilated and how you applied that vocabulary. Was the process of creating a sound a conscious thing, or a byproduct of the process of learning. Can you take those sort of general ideas and run with it?

DONNY:   Sure. There’s a lot of things I can say. As far as expressing myself on the instrument, that’s something I got into at a fairly early stage. I started playing when I was 12, and I started improvising shortly thereafter. Especially as I started to learn some language, I found improvising to be a great outlet for my emotions. So I think I was engaging with that at a fairly early age.

TP:   Of course, you had your father as an example.

DONNY:   Exactly. My father would often come to… My parents were divorced, and he’d come over to my mother’s place. We lived in the country, and there were these barns behind the house where I lived, and my father would carry his Wurlitzer piano up into one of these barns, he’d set it up, and then we’d play tunes that I had learned or was in the process of learning that he played with his band. The very first song that I learned was “Tequilas,” which is basically a one-chord jam thing—my dad would basically just comp for me. Then we’d go through, we’d play “A Train,” we played “Satin Doll,” we’d play maybe “Doxy,” we’d play a blues. What was great is that he would comp for me tirelessly. Being young, sometimes I’d get upset pretty quickly, because I wanted to play better, and I didn’t like what I was playing, and I’d stop. Other times we’d play at length, for what seemed like hours. I think it was through that kind of experience, and then starting to… I had a combo with Kenny Wolleson in junior high school, and then that continued in high school. As you know, it was a really good high school band, and I had chances to solo. It was there, at 14-15 years, that I started playing with a fair amount of emotional expression, where you could say it was a primary outlet for me emotionally.

TP:   Were you under any stylistic influences at that time? Were you learning the canon?

DONNY:   Yeah. My first hero was definitely to John Coltrane, which was mixed in high school with heavy exposure to Duke Ellington. My band director had Duke Ellington charts via Bill Berry, with whom he’d been in the service. So he had all these Ellington charts, and we were rehearsing those five days a week, and listening to the records sometimes. Those were my main influences. At 14-15 years old, I was listening to “Giant Steps,” and was playing through Trane’s solo. In probably my later high school years, I got into Michael Brecker and was heavily influenced by him. So in terms of language in that era, I would say… Well, Charlie Parker was an influence as well in the beginning, so probably Charlie Parker, Ellington, Trane, and Michael Brecker were my main influences.

TP: When did they start to become part of your emotional expression?

DONNY:   Mostly with Coltrane it was… One thing I was so drawn to in his playing was this deep sense of expression in his solos, and the emotional intensity. I was really drawn to that, even though I didn’t understand what was going on. At that age, I couldn’t handle Meditations or Ascension or Kulu Se Mama or Interstellar Space. That was too far out for me. But I was really in tune with the records before that, listening to them over and over. It was that emotional intensity that touched, and then I was trying to get to the same thing as I was playing, just as a kid with that limited vocabulary.

TP:   What sorts of things would your father or the other older musicians tell you about individuality or about the voice? What cues were you getting from people?

DONNY:   I have to think about that for a second. My father I don’t think really talked much about that, to be honest with you. The guys in his band didn’t talk much about individuality per se. But I think that it’s something that… Gosh…

TP:   How about critiquing your playing? Were you getting critiques?

DONNY:   Yeah. I can think of a couple of things. I can remember once when I was a senior I was in an Advancement of the Arts sort of talent competition thing. It was a big thing. It was throughout the United States, and I flew to Florida for the finals. Bill Charlap was one of the finalists, John Bailey, the trumpet player, myself—and Rufus Reid was like the jazz judge. I remember Rufus saying something to me about not playing so many notes, not playing so much. I can’t remember exactly how he said it, but the gist was to slow down and to not over-play. Herb Pomeroy, when I was at Berklee, said something similar to me after a concert. I was in his various student ensembles probably my whole time at Berklee, and after one of the concerts he came up and said something about how he was happy to hear me play more melodically and not just playing a bunch of notes kind of thing.

Various people I recall recounting telling the Lester Young story of him being on the bus…I think it’s Lester Young… They’re on the road, and a tenor player is shedding on the bus, and he’s playing all this shit, and Lester—or maybe it’s Ben Webster—said to him, ‘Yeah, but can you sing me a song?’ or something like that. Various people…

TP:   It’s Lester.

DONNY:   Yeah, Lester is who I thought.

TP:   Did that sort of thing have an impact on you? Because I gather that a lot of people were very impressed with your facility and power on the instrument as a young guy, which can be very seductive.

DONNY:   Yeah. I think it helped, and I think I listened to that. Over the course of the years, I feel I’ve tried to reflect on it. At the time, it’s hard to remember, honestly. Did I all of a sudden buy a bunch of Lester Young records? No, I didn’t.  But I definitely have listened to him over the course of my career, and have listened to various singers, and really thought about exploring different ways of playing and not just relying on technical prowess or whatever.

TP: Were you someone who transcribed solos, or you’d listen and put them into a framework…

DONNY:   It was both. I didn’t really transcribe solos until I got to Berklee, in college, my freshman year. Then I got into that. Yeah, I transcribed various solos, then I started learning solos, and that was definitely part of how I developed my language. But also listening a fair amount, and just being on the bandstand a lot. It’s a combination of all those things in terms of how I developed my language. In terms of focusing on individuality, that came into play when I started playing with Gary Burton’s band. Even before that, when I got to Berklee, there were a lot of really good saxophone players who had a lot of facility on the instrument and who were checking out the same guys I was checking out. So all of a sudden I was hit with this reality of individualism. I remember hearing this great tenor player, Tommy Smith, play. We had very similar influences, Trane, Michael Brecker and whatnot, but he had a very individual sound at a young age, and I remember being really impressed by that. That made a big impression on me, like, “Wow, he’s not only playing all the stuff I’m playing, but he’s got a personality, and it’s really tangible.” I thought, “Ok, that’s something I should work on, I should try to develop that.” It’s a hard thing to develop when you’re in the middle of trying to assimilate all this language and all these different players. But what I tried to do—again, at Berklee—was pay attention to things that struck me on an aesthetic level, that seemed to be different from what I was hearing people do. I tried to be open to what struck me, and I’d try to take the ball and run with it kind of thing.

Gary Burton, when I started playing with his band, would talk about how thematic development could get you away from playing licks and things that you practiced, and get you into really improvising. I don’t know if he called it “real improvising,” but… Then when I was in his band, he would give… We’d be on the road, and he’d give the occasional clinic with the group, and I would be there and I’d listen to him do this rap about thematic development and improvisation… Again, it’s not like I just all of a sudden changed course in the middle of the stream, but I was just checking it out. Then, during the same time I had to practice some things in wide intervals, and I was always drawn to that sound, and I started thinking, “That’s not something that I hear people do all the time, and that’s something I really like—maybe I should try to explore that.” So I explored it, and continued to explore it over the years. But I embraced that, and then this thing about thematic development I think begins… Again, I was exposed to it through Gary, but it was a few years later when I really started working on it and really started embracing it.

TP:   A lot of people in your generation are faced with this profusion of vocabulary.

DONNY:   Right.

TP:   so much information. One other thing (tell me if I’m wrong) that you might have used to explore new byways was exploring the pan-American conception and playing with Danilo Perez. I’m sure that brought you to all sorts of fresh places.

DONNY:   Well, it did. My initial exposure to that, again, was playing with my father’s band. He had a group that had percussion and played Cal Tjader-esque Latin Jazz. I think just growing up with that, and playing with a salsa band, I really had an affinity for that music. This was after Berklee, when I first moved to New York, but I went on the road with Danilo, and had been playing Argentinean folk music with Fernando Tarres… That really changed things for me in a dramatic way—especially my relationship with Danilo. He gave me some serious pointers along the way that, if I stopped and really shifted course completely.

TP: Can you be a bit more specific?

DONNY:   The first time it happened was in the early ‘90s, when we were on tour in Argentina with Fernando Tarres. Danilo said to me kind of what you’re saying:  “Man, you’ve got all this vocabulary together, but you need to think more about how you present it, and you need to explore phrasing more.” I was like, “Wow, yeah, you’re right.” Then he gave me some examples, like, “Take a bar of 8 eighth notes and divide them into a group of 3 and then a group of 5, and play your melodic idea, but you can give an accent at the beginning of the bar and then on the 4th eight note. So you’re making this 3 and 5.” That was his initial example. I thought, “God, I’d never thought about working on stuff like that.” So I took that idea and really ran with it, and just worked on my phrasing.

TP:   So it applied to music outside of just Danilo’s music.

DONNY:   Oh, of course. Because in this context, actually, we were both sidemen. Then I did a tour with Danilo’s group not long after that, and then there was heavy exposure to clave, and to Afro-Cuban folk music, Panamanian folk music, etc., etc. Again, that was something that really changed my life, and I embraced it, studying that, playing with a lot of different groups—with Santi DiBriano a lot, with Hector Martignon. I just was studying rhythm, or studying those folkloric rhythm patterns and the patterns that go with them rhythmically. For a fair amount of time, I was thinking of the saxophone more as a percussion instrument…in a way. I would take these rhythms and apply them to how I would practice playing over tunes, and just try to strengthen my rhythmic vocabulary.

I know one of the overviews of this article is about individuality, creating a voice. I found that working on that stuff gave me a lot more flexibility rhythmically, and with that, a lot more freedom to explore leaving wide spaces, and looking at all these different ways I could approach the rhythm that freed me up to have a much greater range of expression as an improviser than I had before. That enabled me, I think, to get to a place where I didn’t have to rely on my technical proficiency, that I could think like a drummer, I could think like a singer, and I could have the confidence to do that, and to leave that space, and not feel like I had to fill it up.

TP:   You’re the third straight person who spoke of thinking like a singer. That’s interesting.

DONNY:   Yeah, that’s a really good thing to check out, obviously, if you’re a melody player, is to study the way singers phrase things, the way they’ll sing a melody. I think it has a real immediate effect on the way you’re playing something. Literally, I’m on the bandstand, I’m playing a melody, and I’m imagining that I’m Frank Sinatra, or I’m imagining that I’m Sarah Vaughan.

TP: Literally.

DONNY:   Yeah. Of course, it doesn’t happen every night. But it’s those times when I feel like I’m playing the melody and I’m just on auto-pilot, or nothing is really happening, and, “Wait a minute, let me change the framework about how I’m thinking about this or how I’m dealing with it.”

TP:   Can you speak about tone production? This is in the context of a commonly stated critique of young players of the jazz conservatory generation, that older players often say it’s hard to tell them apart. I don’t know if this is true or not. But Ron Blake was talking about a sort of orthodox way to play the saxophone, a certain mouthpiece, and so on… But the old ethos that you can tell somebody by their sound with one phrase, as with people in the old days.

DONNY:   I would say that I feel like I can tell… If it’s Mark Turner, when I’m listening, right away I can tell it’s him. Or Chris Potter, or Seamus, or David Binney, or Miguel Zenon, I feel like a lot of people these days have distinctive voices, at least to my ears. I don’t have that feeling of everybody sounds the same. Although I can understand where that’s coming from. I’m speaking about people who are probably pretty individualistic players. Certainly, because jazz education has come so far, and as you mentioned, there’s so much information out there, it’s no wonder that a lot of young players will sound similar because they’re getting similar information. But that’s the challenge for them, is how can they take that information, those influences, and come up with their own sound. That’s up to each individual. In terms of equipment and mouthpiece and so on, I certainly never felt like I had to play this or had to play that—outside of playing a Selmer saxophone, which most people play. But you don’t even have to do that. Dave Liebman sounds amazing on what he plays… Different people play different things. But it is obviously very important to find your own sound and your own way of doing things, but that’s just the journey that everybody is on.

TP:   is that a more challenging thing to do these days because of the profusion of information?

DONNY:   Yeah, I think it is. I think it is. I think it is more challenging to come up with something that’s new or interesting…I’m not even saying new, but a way of putting all the information out there together into a coherent, original language. Now, that’s a challenge. That’s a big challenge. Because it’s not just playing over bebop tunes—which is not easy, I’m not insinuating that. But yeah, there’s a lot more to process now. Because of the way the music industry has changed and the way jazz education has changed, it makes it harder, but it’s easier and harder at the same time—if that makes sense. There’s more available, but yet how to put that together into a real individual language is difficult.

TP: Also, a lot of the most individualistic players of this period did a lot of bandstand playing when they were young.

DONNY:   Yeah, I think that’s true. I can give you an example of that in my own life. When I was rehearsing with Gary Burton… he put together this Berklee all-star group of students to do this jazz cruise. I was pretty nervous, and when I was rehearsing, I’d never really got into my comfort… I felt like I was struggling or whatever. But as soon as we got on that cruise, and we played a gig, as soon as we got on the bandstand, I played a lot better, and I felt much more comfortable.  Gary commented on that to me sometime later during the week that it was a big difference. I realized at that point, it was all the experience I had with my father, and with the group I had with Kenny Wolleson—that really helped me out. Because I was able to get into a more creative zone on the bandstand. I wasn’t nervous, because I was more comfortable there than I was rehearsing the music, ironically enough. That’s not the case any more. But being on the bandstand all the time, having to play solo after solo really helped me out.

For me, as I already said on the individual sound thing, it’s being open to it and following your instinct. What touches you musically? It’s maybe something unexpected, but not being afraid to follow that.

TP:   Do you deliberately put yourself in new situations? For example, this new trio recording. Is that the purpose towards which you’re framing yourself in that context, or is that a byproduct of looking for different environments?

DONNY:   It’s the latter. Just looking for a different… the two records I’d done before that were these more produced, more conceptual things, and I was like, “No, let me get back to blowing.” I was consciously like, “I need to do something different,” and this is different, and it’s a format that I love, that’s challenging, that has all this history, and so on.

TP:   Were you thinking during your developmental years about an individual voice?

DONNY:   Definitely.

TP:   Was it totally for you, or otherwise…

DONNY:   it was something I was aware of and concerned about, in a way. Like, “Ok, how can I find my own way?” It was a process that happened over time, but it was definitely on my mind, how can I find my own way of playing music in a way that seems true to me?’ I think I was at a certain point where I had all this technical proficiency, and I had worked on all these Trane solos… In other words, I could play all this shit. But it didn’t mean anything to me. It was at that time of, “well, if this doesn’t mean anything to me, then what DOES mean something to me?” How can I shed away all this BS and get to the heart of what I want to try to say as an improviser? For me, that was really embracing thematic and melodic development, which Gary Burton talked about and Sonny was really my guiding light for that. So it was like really letting go of… I can remember going to sessions in the early ‘90s, playing, and not even getting into playing a lot of notes at all, because I wasn’t hearing it, and I had made this commitment to try to only play what I was really hearing, and be TRULY in the moment as an improviser. That meant, for me, letting go of a lot of the stuff that I could “play,” but I wasn’t truly hearing it. So I tried to let go of that completely and to be totally in the moment as an improviser.

TP: Getting back to these older players who talked about telling a story and the dialogic quality of improvising, or that Charlie Parker would describe the woman walking into the room, and so on. Do any of these notions play into your improvising. He said that he applied some of the tactics he’d studied in theater improv to his musical improvisation? Do such things factor in, or is music a very different entity than verbal language?

DONNY: I definitely think about it in terms of telling a story. I’ll think about the beginning of a solo is like the beginning of a short story—you introduce a subject or a character. Then the character develops the story. That’s in a perfect world what the solo is like.

*_*_*_*_*_

Donny McCaslin (Seen From Above) – (2000):

Back in 1988, when Donny McCaslin was a 22-year-old senior at Berklee School of Music, vibraphone master Gary Burton hired him for the tenor saxophone chair in his quintet.  The prestigious gig marked phase two of McCaslin’s education.  A New Yorker since 1991, he hasn’t stopped working, navigating the diverse sonic ambiance of a congeries of top-shelf bands in the jazz mecca, which range from state-of-the-art fusion (Steps Ahead) to Latin (Santi DiBriano’s Panamaniacs, Danilo Perez, Fernando Tarres, Hector Martignon) to speculative improvisation (the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band and Lan Xang) to the Mingus Big Band and Maria Schneider’s Orchestra.

All those experiences helped mold the fully-formed musical personality we hear inflecting the open-ended terrain of Seen From Above, Donny McCaslin’s second leader album.  Here’s what the 33-year-old virtuoso brings to the table.  Thoroughly grounded in fundamentals, he knows how to whip up interesting melodies out of the knottiest harmonic progressions, and doesn’t allow melodic essence to waver at even the nastiest tempos.  His lines don’t land where you’d expect them to, he swings incessantly, and he projects a burnished, vocalized sound through the entire range of his horn.  Most importantly, without sacrificing a whit of individuality, McCaslin has internalized a collective attitude to improvising, allowing like-minded partners Ben Monder, Scott Colley and Jim Black, all 30-something 21st century jazzfolk of like sensibility, to imprint their personalities on the musical proceedings.

McCaslin’s story begins in Santa Cruz, California,  a university town and counterculture bastion 80 miles south of San Francisco, where his father Don McCaslin continues to sustain a steady gig as pianist and vibraphonist.  “My Dad has a Cal Tjader thing happening on vibes, and on piano he’s really into Red Garland,” McCaslin states.  “I’d go with him every Sunday morning to the mall where he had a gig from 12 until 5, and help him set up the piano and the vibes.  Before I was able to walk around on my own, he had me sit on a chair in the middle of the band, where I’d watch the whole thing go down for hours.”  A poor study in junior high school photography class, McCaslin decided to enter Beginning Orchestra and — inspired by the saxophonist in his father’s band, “a really colorful guy, very charismatic, a hippie, tie-dye shirts…I remember looking into the bell of his horn and seeing this pool of saliva with a cigarette butt floating in the middle of it; to me as a 12-year-old, he was really cool” — chose the tenor saxophone as his instrument.

McCaslin progressed rapidly, taking advantage of the area’s first-class music programs and first-hand interaction with his father.  “When I was beginning to play, my father would take his Wurlitzer to the barn behind my Mom’s house, set it up, and we’d play for hours on end,” he recalls.  McCaslin also was able to hear top musicians at Kuumbwa, a nonprofit concert venue in Santa Cruz.  “I saw Elvin Jones there with Pat LaBarbera, and Sonny Fortune a couple of weeks later,” says McCaslin, who played a hometown engagement at the attractive room a few weeks before our conversation.  “Every Monday night the big groups came into town, so from age 12 on I was able to hear guys from New York live, which was important and inspirational.”

He continues: “I was the only freshman in my high school band; my director, Don Keller, had a bunch of original Ellington charts, so at 14 we were playing things like ‘Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue,’ ‘Warm Valley,’ ‘Blood Count,’ ‘Rockin’ in Rhythm.’  I could barely read music, and I was totally in over my head, but I learned a lot.  My earliest influences were Bird and Trane, and then probably Michael Brecker, a little Sonny Rollins, a little Sonny Stitt.  The way Coltrane played seemed so heavy and profound, so urgent; I always have loved the sense of emotional catharsis that can come through improvising, and I felt it embodied in his playing.  Brecker was such a virtuoso, and records like “Steps Ahead” and “80/81″ sounded so modern, like the new happening thing.”

McCaslin matriculated at Berklee in 1984, where he reveled in interaction with a peer group of big-fish young musicians who’d converged in Boston from points around the planet, and took advantage of first-hand contact with teachers like Herb Pomeroy and George Garzone.  “It was very liberating studying with George,” he relates.  “He gave me patterns to practice that broke all the rules you learn in school, a lot of notes outside the chord scale, and wild intervals.  During my years with Gary Burton, I learned a lot about thematic development, thematic improvising, being disciplined in the sense of saying what I had to say clearly and succinctly in, say, two choruses, and then getting out.”

Once in New York, McCaslin began the arduous, rewarding process of shedding chameleonic flexibility to inhabit the skin of his own sound.  “It was only after I’d been in New York for a couple of years that I started to know conceptually how I wanted to play and write,” he confides.  On a recommendation from Burton, he worked with bass legend Eddie Gomez, gigged with various Berklee cohorts, and began to find work playing Latin music of all description.

“I always had an affinity for Latin music in Santa Cruz,” McCaslin notes.  “First, my father was into Cal Tjader and Latin Jazz, and I played in an 8-horn Salsa band called Los Shlepos Tipicos when I was in high school.  While I was in Gary’s band he made a live record with Astor Piazzola at Montreux, which I absorbed.  When I got to New York I sat in with Santi DiBriano at the Village Gate, who started calling me to play with his band the Panamaniacs.  I’d been in the dorm at Berklee with Danilo Perez, who’d played with Santi earlier, and Danilo recommended me to Fernando Tarres, with whom I worked and recorded a lot.  Though I had only a layman’s ear knowledge of clave, I did a couple of tours with Danilo in the ’90s, and he encouraged me to study Afro-Cuban music in a comprehensive way.  I started taking lessons with Bobby Sanabria, and it’s expanded my rhythmic vocabulary immensely.

“Playing with Santi was very important.  The band had tunes that were straight ahead, tunes that were clave-based, tunes that we’d play free on.  I was put into an environment where I had to deal with all these different styles while retaining a unified band approach.  And being the only horn player, I had a lot of space to play and a lot of responsibility.”

McCaslin took on similar responsibilities during his four years with vibraphonist Mike Mainieri in the ’90s edition of Steps Ahead, where he filled the tenor chair Michael Brecker once had held; he’s heard to strong effect on the 1995 recording Vibe [NYC] with musicians like Rachel Z, Michael Cain, Victor Bailey, James Genus and Clarence Penn.  “It was a very good gig,” McCaslin smiles.  “Mike is kind of a hippie at heart, and I relate to him as a person because I grew up in that culture.  Whereas Gary was very exacting as a bandleader, Mike was really loose, gave me a lot of freedom.  Occasionally he would say something, but for the most part he let me do my thing.”

With that background in mind, the stance of open-endedness with discipline that permeates the eight McCaslin originals on Seen From Above makes perfect sense.  “I’ve always had a sense of eclecticism,” McCaslin states.  “When I was at Berklee I played in a Rock band for a while, and I’ve done a lot of funk gigs in New York.  I enjoy playing music.  I’m not a purist about Bebop or whatever, though I love just playing tunes in an open situation with the right guys — it’s like going home.  At the same time, I feel I have something to say as an original music artist, and this is the time to do it.”

The mix wouldn’t work without a band of fluid, flexible improvisers who share McCaslin’s ample comfort zone for articulating a wide umbrella of styles without ever sounding out of their element.  McCaslin knows Ben Monder — who recorded the trio session Dust for Arabesque in 1996 — from frequent gigs with Maria Schneider’s orchestra; the guitarist deploys his vast harmonic vocabulary and nuanced orchestrative capabilities throughout.  Precisely off-center trapsetter Jim Black — known for his work with Tim Berne’s Bloodcount, Dave Douglas’ Tiny Bell Trio, and Pachora — was a Berklee classmate, though, McCaslin confesses, “I’ve hardly played with him since.  The way he plays, utilizing a range of different sounds with a great sense of colors and dynamics, is what I was hearing for some of these tunes.”

Ditto with Scott Colley, whom McCaslin met during the fellow Californian’s late ’80s tenure with Carmen McRae; he’s presently bassist of choice with Jim Hall and Andrew Hill, and is McCaslin’s bandmate in Lan Xang, an open form collective quartet whose other members are alto saxophonist Dave Binney and drummer Kenny Wolleson.  “I heard Scott playing the bass line that begins ‘Manresa’ as I wrote it,” McCaslin relates.  “I knew he could play it the right way — make it ROCK!   Originally it was called ‘Hippie Rock Tune,’ because that’s exactly what it is to me!  Manresa is a beach in northern California, and it conveys the feeling of home.”

The music of Olivier Messaien inspired McCaslin to write the title track — a lovely melody replete with wide interval jumps — and the up-tempo swinger “Frontiers,” on which McCaslin takes a spectacular solo, achieving an inside-outside feel reminiscent of ’90s tenor hero Joe Lovano.  “Messaien’s harmonic language is so interesting, his rhythmic language is so advanced — his music sounds majestic and emotional,” McCaslin explains.

McCaslin penned “Second Line Sally” — both the George Gruntz Concert Band and Lan Xang have recorded it — during Boston days as a swing number; here it gets a fun-house Zigaboo Modaliste treatment, as Black gives it up for the groove.

“These Were Palaces” is a ballad written at the end of a relationship.   “When playing the tune, I’m thinking of the way Jonatha Brook sings,” McCaslin says.  “Her writing actually has had a big influence on me.  ‘Mick Gee’ has a drum-and-bass feel.  Jim suggested we play it faster than I normally do to give it that edgy feeling to contrast with the other relaxed, grooving tempo.  I wanted it to have a shocking effect, with contrasting extremes.”

For “Strange Pilgrim,” “I wanted a swinging bass line with a quirky melody on top,” McCaslin says.  “I wanted to take a simple tune and do as much as I could to make it into a story that develops.”   It’s followed by “Going To The Territory,” a gospel-blues tinged tune with a Rock inflection that reminds you of early ’70s Keith Jarrett.

“Seen From Above” ends with a relaxed idiomatic McCaslin-Colley duo on the memorable refrain of Kurt Weill’s “September Song,” reaffirming deep roots on an album where McCaslin reveals those sources more through phrasing and improvisational acuity than in the formal architecture of the tunes.  “Santa Cruz was very open in music and in art when I grew up,” McCaslin concludes.  “There were salsa bands, straight-ahead jazz trios, free jazz, and I was exposed to all of it.  It was all just music.  I think that notion is something I share with all the guys in this band.  This record is my music, and it reflects all the influences I’ve absorbed through the years.

“The thing that appeals to me about jazz is the freedom of improvisation. I want to do my best to play at the highest level that I can aesthetically.  Playing with musicians of this caliber, who can lift the music into that really exciting and wonderful place, is what I’ve worked towards and practiced for all these years.”

*_*_*_*_

Liner Notes, Donny McCaslin, Give and Go–2005

Highly regarded by fellow musicians and connoisseurs of hardcore jazz since he settled in New York in 1991, saxophonist Donny McCaslin became a subject of mainstream jazz conversation when he earned a 2005 Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental Solo for his soulful, dramatic, architecturally cogent statement on Buleria, Soleá y Rumba, an extended opus by composer Maria Schneider that appears on Schneider’s Grammy winning CD Concert In The Garden.

On Buleria, McCaslin revealed the qualities that have attracted such demanding bandleaders as Danilo Perez, Dave Douglas, Mike Mainieri, and Gary Burton, who in 1988 recruited McCaslin, then a 22-year-old senior at Berklee School of Music, for the tenor saxophone chair in his quintet. In the notes for Seen From Above, McCaslin’s 2000 date on Arabesque, I summarized them: “Thoroughly grounded in fundamentals, he knows how to whip up interesting melodies out of the knottiest harmonic progressions, and doesn’t allow melodic essence to waver at even the nastiest tempos.  His lines don’t land where you’d expect, he swings incessantly, and he projects a burnished, vocalized sound through the entire range of his horn.  Most importantly, without sacrificing a whit of individuality, McCaslin has internalized a collective attitude to improvising, allowing his partners, all 21st century jazzmen of similar sensibility, to imprint their personalities on the proceedings.”

Let’s add that McCaslin’s penchant for exploration rests upon an authoritative command of the vocabularies of hardcore jazz and the Spanish Tinge, which coexist holistically in his tonal personality. A native of Santa Cruz, California, a university town and counterculture bastion 80 miles south of San Francisco, he first encountered both idioms through his father, Don, a gigging pianist and vibraphonist influenced by Red Garland and Cal Tjader. A student of sax gurus Bill Pierce, Joe Viola and George Garzone during his years at Berklee, McCaslin once earned praise from Leonard Feather for “virtually stealing the show” from Phil Woods, Red Holloway, Flip Phillips and David “Fathead” Newman during a saxophone jam on a cruise ship. On the Latin side, he played in high school years with an 8-horn Salsa band called Los Shlepos Tipicos, and as a ‘90s New Yorker, worked intermittently with Perez, a Berklee dorm-mate, with Argentine guitarist Fernando Tarres, and with the Panamaniacs, a Santi DiBriano-led unit that explored clave, straight-ahead and open feels while retaining a unified sound..

On Give ‘n’ Go, his Criss-Cross leader debut, McCaslin draws on lessons learned with Danilo Perez during 2001-02, when he toured steadily on Perez’ Motherland Project, and on his more recent travels with Maria Schneider, a frequent employer in 2004-05.

“Danilo is a great educator as well as a great musician, and it’s inspiring to be around him,” McCaslin relates. “I’d bring blank music paper with me at soundcheck, and as we’d play he’d tell me he was looking at a certain voicing, or discuss some rhythmic progression, and I’d write it down. It was like being back in school—he was sharing so much information.

“One thing that I appreciate about Maria’s writing is how every single part is meaningful. Whether you’re playing the fourth reed chair or the third trombone chair, all the lines have significance and are melodies in and of themselves. That’s influenced me. Also her lyricism and the sheer beauty of her music. She’s not afraid to do what she’s hearing. You can call it ‘orchestral jazz’ or whatever you want, but it is what it is, and she’s just putting it out there.”  Helped by several preparatory gigs at Manhattan’s 55 Bar and Brooklyn’s L&M Loft, McCaslin puts out seven original compositions with support from an A-list cohort. As on all of McCaslin’s dates, Scott Colley, a fellow Californian, anchors the flow on bass. They met while McCaslin was with Burton and Colley was with Carmen McRae, and first recorded together on the 1995 Dave Binney album Luxury of Guessing. After that session, McCaslin, Binney, Colley and drummer Jeff Hirschfield—the latter subsequently replaced by Santa Cruz native Kenny Wolleson—formed the collective quartet Lan Xang, a touring unit until the end of the ‘90s.

Criss-Cross devotees will be familiar with the work of John Swana, the Philadelphia-based trumpet virtuoso, who appears on four selections. “Alex Sipiagin was always telling me how great he thinks John is,” says McCaslin, referring to the Russian trumpet virtuoso (also a Criss-Cross artist), a frequent bandmate. “I played with his organ trio in Philly, and it was a lot of fun. I felt there was some sort of connection, like stylistically he could play straight-ahead but also open at the same time.”

Here as on Seen From Above, McCaslin uses guitar as the chordal instrument, deploying Steve Cardenas, a Kansas City native who currently plays with the Paul Motian Electric Bebop Band, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and a Joey Baron-led quartet called Killer Joey.

“I met Steve more than 15 years ago when he was living in San Francisco, and Kenny Wolleson set up some California gigs for me to do when I came home from college,” McCaslin recalls. “He really gets inside a tune, and brings forth the harmony in a thoughtful way. He’s also a great comper; I feel he hears what I’m doing and makes it sound better, gives me a springboard to play off of.”

A past contributor to Criss-Cross sessions by Alex Sipiagin, Conrad Herwig, Ryan Kisor and J.D. Allen, drummer Gene Jackson is a master at alchemizing hybrid rhythms from ethnic metric signatures. McCaslin began to feel Jackson’s beat on gigs with Sipiagin and on several tours of Japan with singer Monday Ichiru.

“Gene’s playing is very strong, and he likes to go for it and stretch,” McCaslin remarks. “But no matter how busy or wild things get, I still feel a certain sense of grounding that I can latch onto. We egg each other on.

The McCaslin-Jackson simpatico is evident on “Outlaw,” an ebullient long form piece inspired by an Egberto Gismonti tune. McCaslin rehearsed it with Danilo Perez, who included other McCaslin tunes in the Motherland Project repertoire. “One thing we added was the counterpoint bassline in the last section of the melody, which I end up doubling,” McCaslin says. “But the challenge was coming up with the right feel. I’ve played it sometimes as a samba and sometimes with a more straight-eighth rock feel, but it never felt right. Gene and I worked on it, and he came up with what he calls an American samba.” McCaslin and Swana uncork melodic solos with a dollop of saudade.

Based on a synthetic scale from Messaien’s etude book, Modes For Limited Transposition, “Scrappy” is a quirky line with sardonic Monkish phrasing, intriguing intervals, and disjunctive hits. Goosed by the kinetic Jackson, McCaslin and Cardenas incorporate these shapes and dynamics on stimulating solos.

Composed in 2000, “Drift” claims Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus” as an antecedent. The A-section has a moody three-feel, while in the B-section Jackson’s rubato soundpainting details the melody and chords. Swana’s exquisite dark tone fits the melody like a custom-tailored suit, and McCaslin sustains the mood, his tenor voice drenched with soulful emotion.

“I was listening to Radiohead at the time I wrote the tune,” says McCaslin of Give and Go, also from 2000. The title refers to the basketball tactic of passing, cutting directly to the basket, and receiving a return pass for an easy shot, a process represented by the Cardenas-McCaslin interchange on the jagged intervals of the theme. “The melody came about when I was improvising on a synthetic scale, and I heard a harmony that to me sounded like a Radiohead-inspired piece. I was looking to hear some music that excites me and stimulates my sense of creativity. I landed on a Radiohead record. The tunes are interesting, the harmony is weird and different, it’s not the typical pop progression, plus all these other things happen in the arrangement through the production.”  The Liberators’ Song is McCaslin’s response to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’  The General In His Labyrinth, a novel in which General Simon Bolivar is the chief protagonist. “It’s a melody and a mood,” says McCaslin of the brooding, Shorteresque refrain, his voice-like tone cosigned by Jackson’s gentle tom-toms and cymbal splashes.

McCaslin addresses clave structures with precision and finesse on “Two/Three,” composed during his stint with Danilo Perez. “I originally conceived of it as a son, but Gene wanted to play it as a rumba,” McCaslin says. “Danilo’s tunes contain a lot of counterpoint between the bass and the melody. Here I conceived of the bass line first, and to me the bass player’s melody is almost the more compelling one.” Colley demonstrates why on his introductory statement over Jackson’s sticked clave modulations. On their ensuing solos, Cardenas, McCaslin (on soprano) and Jackson handle the involved form with elegant panache. Written during McCaslin’s Lan Xang days, Doom Fuss features an angular two-bar bassline pattern and much open-ended McCaslin-Swana call-and-response.

Following his custom of concluding records with a hardcore jazz classic, McCaslin closes with Thelonious Monk’s “Eronel,”  which he learned in Boston days with Ken Schaphorst’s big band. After McCaslin’s reharmonized, rhythmically displaced intro, inspired blowing commences over Jackson’s Frankie Dunlop-inspired swing-with-a-limp.
“I’ve played it at sessions for years,” says McCaslin, who knows how to use a tricky line to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Also, Steve co-authored a book of Monk tunes with Don Sickler, so  I knew he could nail it and get inside the harmony.”

Jazz-obsessed from his formative years, McCaslin tells his stories with the lucid joie de vivre of a natural improviser. But he has never allowed revered traditions to be a ball and chain.

“I love playing tunes and stretching,” he says. “It’s part of my foundation; it feels like home. But I don’t usually play standards when I do gigs as a leader, because I want to get my original music out there. I’ve always had sense of eclecticism. At Berklee I played in a Rock band. I’ve done a lot of funk gigs in New York. I just enjoy playing music.”

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Filed under Donny McCaslin, DownBeat, Liner Notes

For Scott Colley’s 54th Birthday, my liner notes for the 1998 Criss Cross CD, “Subliminal”

Best of birthdays to bass master Scott Colley, who turns 54 today. For the occasion, here’s my liner notes for his 1998 Criss Cross CD, subliminal…, in which Scott spoke at length about his background, influences and aesthetics.

*_*_*_*_

On subliminal…, his Criss-Cross debut, Scott Colley and a world-class quartet present a seamless, suite-like program of music that has the quality of wide-ranging conversation, at once animated and reflective.  “I knew from playing in trio with Bill Stewart and Chris Potter that it doesn’t matter what material we’re playing because they’re such experienced improvisers,” notes the 34-year-old bassist.  “We’ve done things with no preconceived forms whatsoever, and I know it will work.  I can hear their sounds while I’m writing, which makes me feel free to experiment with my compositions.  When I’m composing it’s important for me to have specific musicians in mind.”

Of Potter, a tenorist of uncanny chops and rampant imagination currently with Dave Holland’s band (his litany of credits is now too long to list), Colley says: “I have very strong feelings about Chris’ playing.  I’m impressed with his directness, his ability to focus which allows him to get incredibly deep into a tune, and in that way it’s challenging to play with him.  Here he explores a lot of different sounds from the horn, using the extreme range of the instrument, changing timbre constantly.”

Of Bill Stewart, a keenly textural drummer of emphatic beat whose rhythmic palette encompasses delicate watercolors to action painting, Colley continues, “As much as Bill can stretch the form and execute polyrhythms in different ways, his playing is very intricate and precise.  He’s aware of exactly where he is in the form all the time.  His focus is amazing.  It’s almost like turning on and off a light switch; when he starts playing, it’s there.”

Of pianist Bill Carrothers, with whom Colley first played a few weeks before the recording, the bassist remarks: “I’m impressed with Bill’s ability, while playing changes, to voice them completely different on every chorus; he’s very present, hears the solos, hears everything that’s going on, and adapts his voicings accordingly.  He’s obviously very influenced by 20th Century Classical Music.  The first night I played with Bill we played a Bill Stewart ballad that I hadn’t played before, and he did what I described.  I soloed, started to pick notes outside of the written chord changes, and he’d immediately incorporate those into his voicings.”

It all boils down to listening for the California native — on the most subliminal level.  That’s how he began.  “A lot of my early experiences were playing by ear,” Colley recalls.  “At 13 I began playing two nights a week at a jam session in Pasadena.  The older musicians would give me records and tell me which songs we were going to play next week.  I’d take, say, the song ‘Old Folks’ from Miles Davis’ Someday My Prince Will Come, which was one of my favorite records at the time.  I’d play Miles’ solo over and over, then play along with Paul Chambers’ bass lines and try to arpeggiate the inner voices, figure out on piano exactly what was going on.  That turned out to my benefit, because I had to rely on my ear.  It wasn’t until later that I realized what I was doing theoretically.  Learning music in this way teaches you the importance of musical conversation.  If all you have is the paper, and you’re learning chord changes by sight, you’ll understand the theory, but you don’t gain the feeling, and your ear doesn’t develop.  There’s so much inflection in the way all these great musicians play, and that’s what you really want to get to.”

Colley’s been a professional musician ever since.  “I did the jam session for three years,” he recalls.  “I would play there until 1, then from 2 to 4 I often went to a place called the Espresso Bar, playing behind poets, duos or trios.  From 16 to 18 I played duo gigs around L.A. with Jimmy Rowles.  He would never tell me what he was going to play; he’d just do it.  I learned song after song that way.  He was a beautiful player and a great composer.

“At 13 I started studying with Monty Budwig, a very giving teacher, a great influence.  He was playing with Zoot Sims and many other players, and he’d take me to L.A. clubs like Donte’s and Carmelo’s.  The lessons were all-day sessions where we’d listen to records, he’d give me records to take home; we’d play classical duets and then jazz standards.  I was studying particularly Mingus, Paul Chambers, Scott LaFaro and Charlie Haden.  Mingus I loved very early on in terms of structure, composition, the variety of sounds and textures he used, the incredible orchestrations, the power of the music — and so much conviction.  With LaFaro, it was his fluidity, melodic sense, and incredible facility, which blows you away at 13 years old — and still does.  I spent a lot of time playing along with Paul Chambers’ solos, which were complete, easy to follow, very direct and beautiful.

“I was really kind of a purist until my older brother, who is a drummer and was always trying to turn me on to different styles of music, took me to see Weather Report during their Heavy Weather period.  It was one of the greatest concerts I’ve ever seen.  Seeing Jaco Pastorius play made me realize that there was so much other stuff out there other than the straight-ahead types of jazz that I’d been listening that I had no idea about.

“Later, at 16 or 17, I listened to a lot of Ornette’s music, and Charlie began to influence me.  He had the same qualities of simplicity and beauty that I appreciated in Paul Chambers.  More than that, I was impressed by his patience.  He never plays anything superfluous; you get the feeling every note is exactly what he means.  The ’70s was a bleak period for recording for bass.  Everybody was using direct-from-the-pickup, losing a lot of the beauty of the instrument’s natural sound, but Charlie never seemed to succumb to that.  His sound has so much integrity; it’s so much part of what he plays.  Like Jim Hall, who I’ve worked with in the last few years, he’s a true improviser, with no preconceptions of what’s going to happen next, reacting to everything going on within the group in the atmosphere of that moment.

“I didn’t take high school too seriously, but I finished, though I didn’t plan to go to college.  Then I heard that Charlie was teaching at California Institute of the Arts, so I auditioned.  They were just starting a jazz department, and they gave me a full scholarship in 1984.  It was a great experience.  I became totally involved in the school’s incredible World Music program, which included traditional African music, Javanese Gamelan from Indonesia, North and South Indian music.  There are classes on theory related to those different musics, and ensembles you play in.  They also had a wonderful faculty.”

In 1986, Colley began touring and recording with Carmen McRae; two years later he received his Bachelors of Music degree, and moved to New York City.  He became one of New York’s busiest bassists, working and recording with musicians representing a 360̊ style spectrum — Dizzy Gillespie, Art Farmer, Clifford Jordan, James Newton, John Scofield, Joe Henderson, Fred Hersch, Billy Hart, Mike Stern, Roy Hargrove, T.S. Monk, Phil Woods, Pat Martino, Chris Potter, Tim Berne, Lost Tribe, and many others.  He leads Portable Universe, a sextet, and is involved in Lan Xang, a new collective quartet.

subliminal… is Colley’s third 1998 release.  He can’t quite put his finger on what triggered this burst of composition after ten years blending as the penultimate sideman.  “I’ve been writing more, and feel it’s time to do more of my own music,” he says.  “The process of recording solidifies your concept.  It forces you to get specific about the pieces you’re creating.  I’ve done more than 60 CD’s in the last eight years, and I’ve been fortunate to play with a lot of great leaders, to observe how it’s done right.”

subliminal… opens with Bill Stewart’s “Don’t Ever Call Me Again,” a 24-bar tune in 6/4 “with a 4/4 bar in there somewhere. I like the way the melody is offset from the rhythm, starting two beats before the bass line begins.  It’s interesting to play on.”

Colley’s compelling title track “was written on the bass.  I like to compose that way because I hear a lot melodically that I don’t hear on the piano — it’s a much more open voice for me.  It’s a challenging line, with the A-section in 9/2 and the B-section in 3/4.   We solo over the 9/2 form, and play interludes between the solos.”

Potter’s burgundy bass clarinet tone is rich and blended throughout “The End and the Beginning,” a mysteriously wistful Colley ballad that evokes complex emotion.  It’s followed by Potter’s “Turangalila,” inspired by the reedman’s meditations on a composition of Messaien.  “Chris wrote it out with no changes per se,” Colley says.  “The improvising is free.  It has a bass and tenor melody in unison.  It’s very open, and points you in a direction that lets you play very freely with the ideas.”

Carrothers’ chromaticism and Potter’s huge tenor sound bring Colley’s slow-medium ballad “Out of The Void” vividly to life, then the band plays Charlie Parker’s “Segment” with inspired idiomatic heat.  Bill Stewart’s solo at the top “really illustrates his ability; no matter how abstract his ideas might be, the form is always there — it always comes back to one.”  Potter’s rhythmically free tenor solo conjures the ghost of Bird ascending, while Colley walks with the confident assertion he imbibed from the playing of Leroy Vinnegar and Paul Chambers years ago.

Colley offers some thoughts on the nature of love with “Is What It Is,” utilizing the familiar changes and “adding a couple of notes.  I like writing over forms I already know that everybody’s done for a long period of time, creating different melodies that give you new things to play over.”

“Impossible Vacation” contains 10 bars of 4/4, 11 bars of 3/4, and 4 bars of 4/4.  “Playing freely over this piece so that it doesn’t seem like you’re marking time is a challenge,”  Colley notes.  The proceedings conclude with “Verbatim,” a spirited blues.

“I think a lot about contrast in general,” Colley concludes.  “Rhythmic contrast, harmonic contrast; thinking about what’s come before a composition when you’re setting it up.  It doesn’t have to be complex.  Jimmy Rowles, for example, would write a simple chord progression, then place one note in the melody to offset it, like ‘Peacocks’ or ‘502 Blues.’  Those kind of compositions interest me.  Also I get bored very easily, so I like music that has a wide range of textures — playing on changes, playing on no-changes, playing on a melody, playing in 4 or 7 or 9, different instrumentations.

“I want to be involved in a lot of different music.  Some music might speak to me melodically, some rhythmically, some intellectually.  If I’m playing with Jim Hall one night, with Andrew Hill the next, and something more groove-oriented like Lan Xang the next, it just feeds a different part of me.  It’s all music I listen to, and absorb in different ways.  Essentially I have my style, whatever that is, and I can subtly adapt it for many different things.  I don’t think of music in terms of ‘this is inside and this is outside’ or ‘this is new music and this is old music.’  It’s more inclusive.  It comes back to listening.  When you’re listening to what’s really going on and not thinking about what you think is supposed to be going on, then you get to the root of what it’s about.”

 

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Filed under Bass, Liner Notes, Scott Colley

For Regina Carter’s Birthday, a Jazziz Feature From 2010

In honor of the magnificent violinist Regina Carter’s birthday, here’s a feature that I had the honor writing about her for Jazziz in 2010 around the release of Reverse Thread.

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It was the first day of spring, a mild, cloudless Sunday, a lovely day to sit on a bench on a tree-lined path in the upper quintile of Central Park for a conversation with Regina Carter. After a jam-packed winter itinerary—a late January performance of a commissioned violin concerto by Billy Childs with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, then a month on the road with the Monterey All-Stars, comprising Barron and his trio, Kurt Elling, and Russell Malone, and here-and-there gigs with her working quintet—Yacouba Sissoko on kora, Will Holshouser on accordion, Chris Lightcap on bass, and Alvester Garnett on drums—in advance of her new CD, Reverse Thread [E1], a meticulously constructed 12-tune program of folk and pop songs harvested from various spots in continental and diasporic Africa. With the possible exception of the 2003 date, Paganini: After A Dream, on which Carter played a recital comprising French Impressionism, tango, and bossa nova on the magnificent 1743 violin that belonged to Nicolò Paganini, Reverse Threads, which Carter produced herself, is the first document that completely represents her intentions, from the repertoire to the actual recording process.

The back story dates to a morning in September 2006, when Carter—then residing in a Central Park West apartment that was visible from the spot where we sat—received a phone call from the MacArthur Foundation announcing that she had received a “genius grant” of $500,000, no strings attached.

“I hadn’t had my coffee, and thought it was a prank,” she said. After it became apparent that she hadn’t been punked, she added, “I couldn’t move, just stared out the window for a while.”

The timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous: A month earlier, Carter had lost a breach of contract lawsuit for having cancelled a concert the previous year after the death of her mother, a former kindergarten teacher in the Detroit public school system. “It lasted a year, and cost me a pretty penny that I didn’t have,” she said. “My mom had beat cancer four times before, but they said cancer was a preexisting condition, and that I should have known better than to take the gig.”

After paying off debts and purchasing a mortgage on the New Jersey house that she presently shares with Garnett, her husband since 2005, Carter sought to actualize a long-standing dream of making a “world music” record. “Detroit was ethnically diverse, and I was exposed to a lot of music from different cultures at a very early age,” she said. “At some point, I noticed that  all the music I heard from all over the planet had an instrument that was either a violin or related to it.” A Suzuki-trained child prodigy on track to a classical career, Carter discovered jazz in high school, contracted out on various gigs (in tenth grade, she toured with the pop group Brainstorm, opening for, among other acts, Michael Jackson), and developed a predisposition to partake of the many musical flavors available in the Motor City’s diverse ethnic mix.

Carter’s initial intention was to “lean more towards Middle Eastern sounds,” but as she investigated, and heard “interesting music that I thought was from Cuba or Puerto Rico, or even Ireland, but always turned out to be indigenous music from different parts of Africa,” she transitioned to a different path. She spent a day at Manhattan’s World Music Institute, “just picking stuff—I bought something from almost everywhere.” Several of her musicians made suggestions, as did Randy Weston. But as Carter began to select the raw materials that resonated—the final cut includes tunes from Mali (Amadou and Mariam’s “Atistiya”), Madagascar (“Zerapiki”), Uganda’s Jews (“Hiwumbe Awumba” and “Mwana Talitambula [The Child Will Never Walk”]), and Puerto Rico (“Un Aguinaldo Pa Regina” by trombonist Papo Vazquez)—she became fascinated more with finding connective unitary threads and less concerned with differentiating the idiomatic particulars.

“I was thinking how we’re all related, how we all come from the same place,” she said. “To think of the music and culture of Africa back in the days of slavery, where the slave ships dropped people off, how those people then mixed with other cultures, and the music and the art that emerged from that became intriguing. Most of this music is not of my culture, but somehow it made me react emotionally. Beauty is beauty, wherever it comes from. Now, if something strikes me, it doesn’t mean I can translate it on my instrument, or with a group. A piece might not be what I thought it was. Those got tossed, and I narrowed it down to what I thought worked for us.”

For Carter, “us” meant a reconfigured ensemble. Before beginning her research, she recruited accordionist Holshouser in lieu of pianist Xavier Davis, and added Sissoko, a native of Mali. “I wanted the sound to be more chamber,” she says. “I wanted the group to be extremely quiet, and I wanted another instrument as quiet as violin—kora is even softer. I wanted to strip away as much amplification as I could. I don’t use a monitor, and Alvester can play extremely quiet. Whether I used electric or acoustic bass, I wanted an acoustic sound. I wanted to have improvisation and still connect to the jazz world. Otherwise, I would have hired a completely African band, and gone inside the music to try to understand everything about it. The album is my take as a Westerner and as a jazz musician.”

Over two years, Carter conceptualized the material, assigned arrangements, and whipped things into shape. “I cut stuff out,” she says. “A lot of this music doesn’t have deep harmonic content—it’s about the groove and the rhythm, creating a hypnotic effect, and you can’t have long solos over these sections.  Not to say they’re simple, but they presented another challenge. The beauty was in the simplicity. The task was to try to make it fit into our world, to impart a contemporary feeling without losing the original beauty—not go into playing pyrotechnics or try to force intricacy. Sometimes I’d get into trying to make something hip, but I was taking the hipness out of it. I had to get out of my own way, if you will, and just let the music by.”

[BREAK]

“When I was younger, I felt I had to prove something—and in a way, you do,” Carter reflected. “Now I’m very much at peace with where I am and who I am. I didn’t know whether anyone would pick this record up or not. But I needed to do it to satisfy my soul, and it was huge to be able to bring on only people who shared my vision.”

Towards that end, E1 honcho Chuck Mitchell, and violinist John Blake, serving as producer, helped Carter to eschew placing her soloistic abilities front and center, as on her six highly produced leader recordings since 1995 for Atlantic and Verve. Instead, she privileges collective dialog, her improvised declamations weaving in and out of the ensemble flow. In this regard, it’s useful to compare Reverse Threads to Carter’s eponymous Atlantic launch date record for Atlantic, on which, framed by personnels and producers, she represents a pan-stylistic sensibility—plugged-in, synthy-worldbeatish-funkish fusion tracks for the smooth jazz market, a Latin track, entr’acte duos with djembe, a concluding ballad duo that ends with a classical cadenza, all impeccably played—on which her tonal personality, as Greg Tate put it in the liner notes, is “better described as [a musician] who plays jazz rather than strictly a jazz musician.”

“They needed a concept first, which I felt was putting the cart before the horse,” Carter says of her experience with Atlantic, and, after 1998, with Verve, which repositioned her as a hardcore jazz musician. “Sometimes A&R people had difficulty understanding that I DID like all this music.  I grew up with Parliament and Funkadelics, all that stuff from Detroit.  I wasn’t trying to do a record to please everybody; I was pleasing myself. I learned to understand the business reasons, though—you’re a product now, and they’re trying to sell a product, so sometimes you’re put in a box.”

The box was literal as well as metaphorical. “In the studio, you’re all in separate rooms,” she says. “The minute you put a glass in front of me I can’t feel you. To hear someone coming through headphones and not from their instrument is the most unnatural way of playing music. Then you see that red light go on, and the panic starts, because all of a sudden you want to be perfect.”

She recalled being urged to improve her solo on a Kenny Barron tune while recording Rhythms of the Heart, her first Verve. “I thought, yeah, maybe I could,” Carter said. “I tried and tried. After a while, Kenny spoke up. He said, ‘You know what? You are where you are today, and you are who you are.’”

“We recorded Reverse Thread all in the same room, next to each other. I wanted some dirt, so to speak, and not have the mindset when I was playing, ‘I can go in and fix that later.’ I wanted it to be about the band and the performance of the piece, not about me.”

During her first years in New York, Carter eluded the box by participating in various creative contexts—with Tate in Black Rock Coalition hits, the String Trio of New York, such “downtown” bands as David Soldier’s String Quartet—that “stretched me in directions I’d never been.” Perhaps the most lasting such experience occurred in 1996, when Carter toured Blood on the Fields for three months with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. “Wynton wrote it to be played down and dirty, like a fiddle player,” she says. “None of the fluff. I hadn’t had much opportunity to play like that before, and I enjoyed it. It can be hard to get rid of the stuff you’ve learned, but it felt natural. In a situation like that, or swinging, I have to be conscious not to use vibrato—we spend so much time in European classical music studying how to get that vibrato, and  now I’m trying to lose it!”

In the liner notes to Rhythms of the Earth, Tate noted that Carter “now believed that swing is the ideal idiom for her instrument.” Indeed, she swings like the dickens throughout those proceedings, as she did at the end of 2009 with singer Allen Harris’ unit during a week-long working vacation at Umbria Winter Jazz in Orvieto, where she’d joined her husband, there for that gig, to prepare to play Childs’  Violin Concerto.

She discussed the technical particulars. Classical violinists, she said, trained to use the whole bow and a very light stroke, deploy so much vibrato on one note that they get to the next note late. Furthermore, using so much bow causes them to phrase on top of the beat rather than laying in the middle of it.

“Classical is my mother language, but I don’t really speak it any more,” she said. “Sometimes I still have to make a conscious effort to be careful about vibrato and phrasing, and to breathe more. In classical music, you sit straight up and you’re ready. With this kind of music, you’ve got to find the groove. You have to dance to the style—the way you move your body is how you’ll play. If I get too excited and nervous, I tend to play too much.”

Most important, Carter said, referencing her early Suzuki ear training, is treating the assimilation of various musical idioms as a process analogous to learning to speak a language. “It’s not about playing the notes exactly,” she said. “You’ve got to listen to records, and, more important, go to live concerts and study people, then tape yourself and hear if you’re doing that. Sometimes I do these Q&A sessions, and parents whose children are playing violin ask me to tell their kid that you have to learn classical music before you can play any other kind of music. ‘No, you’re wrong. That’s what you have to learn if you want to play classical music.’ Every language has its own grammar, its own technique.”

That being said, Carter follows a more generalized methodology on Reverse Thread.  “There’s different violins all over the continent, and so many ways of playing them,” she says. “I’d love to hone in one specific place, to spend some time and learn, say, Ghanaian fiddle music or the violin of Uganda. But this was more about my being a vocalist with the instrument.”

[BREAK]

“My mother’s thing was that if you start something, you’ve got to finish it,” Carter says. “When she died, I felt like an orphan—‘I can’t do this by myself; I’m not a grownup yet.’ You’re flailing for a while, and then you realize, ok, you’re good to go.” Indeed, for Carter, the grieving experience seemed to trigger long-standing aspirations to explore identity—both genealogical and intellectual—more meaningfully in her musical production.

“A lot of times in  the black community, horrible things were not to be spoken about,” she said. “My great-grandmother was a slave, and when my grandmother asked her about the markings on her back, she told her what they were from and then said, ‘We are not ever speaking about this again.’ My mother told me, but that’s all she got. Which is unfortunate, because it’s a part of our history that no one wants to deal with. And we need to deal with it. We need to know.”

Carter’s grandmother graduated from Morris Brown College in 1915 with a degree in pedagogy. “I look at her name, Sarah Vandousa McCaskill. Where does Vandousa come from? As an African-American, I have many roots, and I’m interested in all of them. It would be nice to know if I was connected to some specific tribe, or a  people or an area. Growing up in the ‘60s and watching television, I experienced that Whoopi Goldberg thing of seeing the Prell commercials with the blonde hair going across the screen, and then looking at myself. I was always jealous. I’d see women from East India or Thailand, and they’d have all this jewelry, and see African women with all their garb—all of that stuff. I just thought, ‘I want something like that. Who am I? What is it to be an American?’”

Which are questions that Carter intends to explore for the foreseeable future. “I’d like to continue with this, but maybe hone in on an area,” he said. “I’ve just scratched the tip of the iceberg—why not push the door open and see what else I find?. But let’s see what happens. I always think I know what I’m going to do, but  I’m like a kid in a candy store—every day I change my mind.”

[—30—]

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Filed under Detroit, Jazziz, Regina Carter, violin

For Drum Master Ben Riley’s 84th Birthday, a WKCR Interview/Musician’s Show From 1994

Master drummer Ben Riley, wh0se credits include the Johnny Griffin-Lockjaw Davis Quintet, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk and Sphere, turns 84 today. For the occasion, here’s a transcript of a lively Musician’s Show that we did on WKCR on April 13, 1994.

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Ben Riley Musician Show, WKCR (4-13-94):

TP: Let’s talk about your beginnings in the music.  You’re originally from Savannah, Georgia, and your family came up to New York when?

BR: I was four when they came.  I had already had an interest in music, but I think my desire when I got older, around the teenage area, I wanted to become an athlete — I was a real basketball fanatic.

TP: Were you playing organized ball?

BR: Yeah, I played in school.

TP: Where was that?

BR: I went to Benjamin Franklin High School, and I finally made the Junior Varsity one year, but I didn’t stay in school long enough to complete it.  I played, like, the P.A.L. and the C.Y.O. and the Y…

TP: Were you a guard, a forward?

BR: A guard.  In those days you played both positions, because we weren’t that tall.  I think Ray Felix… When they came around, that’s when the height started shooting up.  Because 6’6″, 6’7″ were really gigantic guys when I was younger.

TP: Now we’re talking about the latter part of the 1940’s?

BR: Yeah, and Fifties.

TP: But drums became serious for you around this time, then?

BR: Well, I think it was acually in junior high school.  I had an uncle who played saxophone, who was studying with Cecil Scott, and he lived right across the street from the high school I went to.  So I would go over there in the afternoons, and sit in with the rehearsal band — and he also would teach me.  So I had a chance to go down to the Savoy and sit in with his band on a Sunday afternoon.  The love was there, but after seeing so many bad things happening in the business with the guys, I didn’t think I wanted to be a part of it at that time.  I thought the athletic part of my life was going to be the strongest.

TP: Healthier!

BR: Yes.  But when I went into the Service I injured my back parachuting…

TP: You were a paratrooper?

BR: I was a paratrooper, yeah.  I was in the last of the Black battalions.

TP: Where were you stationed?

BR: Down in Kentucky, at Fort Campbell.

TP: Was that a situation where you were able to play music?

BR: Actually what happened there, we were bivouacked into the field area.  We weren’t on the main post with the buildings.  We were over into the Second World War barracks.  Now, we had to march every weekend up to the main area for the parade for General showing off his troops.  So I suggested to the Captain that we should have a drum-and-bugle corps, so either we’d be trucked or march up there calling cadence.  He said that was a very good idea.  We went and canvassed the area, and found guys who played horns and drums, and we formed our own little drum and bugle corps, and so we would march up to the main course for our parade.  When the Army became integrated, they reached down and said, “Okay, you had training in school and whatnot, so we’re putting you in the band.”  So I became a member of the band, which lasted less than six months, because then they shipped me off to Japan to go to Korea!

TP: Were you able to function as a musician at all?

BR: Yeah, when I got to Japan.  That’s where I met a lot of musicians from different parts of Tokyo and whatnot.  We used to jam.  And everywhere I was stationed, I’d finally find some guys who were playing.  This worked out to be pretty good for me, because after I got injured I couldn’t run and jump like I could any more, so I had to do something.  The music was there all along for me, so I really became deeply involved in that.

TP: But you understood what the music was supposed to sound like from a very early age.

BR: Well, yes, because I was very fortunate to grow up uptown, on so-called Sugar Hill, and you had Sonny Rollins, Art Taylor, Jackie McLean — everybody was uptown. So I had a chance to sit and listen, and then sit in with them, so I had a real good knowledge of what was going on with the music.

TP: What was the first time you got to sit in on a major-league type of situation?

BR: We used to have a little bar on 148th Street and Broadway called the L-Bar.  On Sunday afternoons, a drummer named Doc Cosey used to run these jam sessions.  So you’d never know who was going to come in.  Any given Sunday afternoon, well, Roy Haynes might come over, because he lived at 149th Street for a short period of time — so he may come over and play.  Tina Brooks used to be a regular there all the time, and he and I played a great deal together on those Sunday afternoons.

TP: So you come out of the Army, and music becomes your…

BR: Not right away.  When I came out of the Army, I went to work because I got married, and I was expecting a child.  So I got a job.  I was working for WPIX, and I was learning film editing.  It was really boring, but it was a job, and I had a child on the way, and we were paying the rent.  So my wife said to me, “you know, you should really give yourself at least two years at music, and then if you don’t make it, then you know you’ve given it a good shot.”  So she really kind of helped me step off.  I probably would have stepped off anyway, but she kind of put the nice pushing on it for me.

TP: The validation.

BR: Right.

TP: Were you able to talk to drummers…

BR: Oh, yes.

TP: …like Art Blakey or Kenny Clarke or Philly Joe Jones?

BR: Yes.  We had a fellow named Phil Wright.  He was a drummer, and also a teacher.  That’s when I met Jimmy Cobb, Khalil Madi(?) and Art Taylor.  We all used to go to his house, and we’d have the music there, and we’d all get on drum-pads and play together.  Any band that any one of these guys was getting ready to join, he’d break down what was happening in the bands for us, so that when we did go to hear these other different groups we had an understanding of what was going on before we got there.

TP: But in terms of the great style masters of the drums, there was a situation where everybody was playing in clubs and you could go see them, talk to them and so forth.

BR: Right. In those days everybody was an individual, or looking to be an individual.  So when I came up, there was already an Art Blakey playing his style, there was already a Max Roach playing his way, Kenny Clarke, Roy and Shadow — they all had definite directions that they were in.  So everywhere you went, even if it was five clubs in one block, you’d never hear the same music when you walked into these different clubs, because everybody had their different  direction that they wanted to go into.  For me it was great, because now I could hear all of these different great drummers, and I could take a piece from each.  I didn’t have to say, “This is…”  Well, I did start out playing like Max when I first started playing; I was a little more Max Roach orientated.  But after I started really getting into it, I said, “I can’t do this.  This is a little bit too difficult.  I have to break it down in the best way I can do it.”  It really happened to me, I think, the first time I heard Kenny Clarke.   “Uh-oh,” I said, “I think that’s it.”  I love the way he accompanied, and I loved the subtleties that he brought to the table.  Between he playing these subtle things and dropping these little things, and Shadow with his tremendous time and his tremendous beat, I tried to absorb both of them.

TP: Let’s hear one of the hundreds of recordings that Kenny Clarke made in the 1950’s, and almost every one of those dates is swinging like…

BR: Nobody’s business!

TP: You said you went off to work on this date, “Walkin'” by Miles Davis for Prestige in 1954.

BR: Right.  This is the record I played every evening on that way out to work to give me that feeling when I went to work every night.  Usually that was going down to Minton’s!

[MUSIC:  Miles Davis, “Walkin'” (1954); Monk/Coltrane/S. Wilson, “Trinkle-Tinkle” (1957); Max/Clifford/Sonny, “Kiss and Run” (1956)]

TP: Ben Riley and I were discussing a lot of things during that set, and one of the last things he said to me was that each of those drummers, Max Roach, Shadow Wilson, Kenny Clarke, expressed their individuality through their cymbal beat.

BR: That’s right.  It’s so important that one gets a cymbal sound, a good sound that can be used to uplift the soloists.  You have three different styles here.  You have Klook, who played softer and tighter than the other two.  He played his things, and he’d play maybe four 8-bar phrases, and he’d change one cymbal beat.  So the cymbal beat never became boring to anyone listening to anyone he was playing behind.

TP: But it’s very subtle.

BR: But it’s subtle, very subtle, and it changes just like it was a subtle goose.  That’s putting it crudely, but that’s what it would be.  It just pumped you up. Now, Shadow had a big beat, a wider beat.  What amazed me about Shadow was, see, this man hardly played too much with the left hand, but I never missed it.  The time was always so full that you very rarely even missed that he wasn’t playing a lot with his left hand.  This always fascinated me, and I think between the two of them I tried to incorporate those things.  I still haven’t been able to get to playing less with the left hand, but I have been able to try to find a way to be tight when I want to be tight and wider when I want to be wider with my cymbal beat. With Max, technically, he has everything set up for certain things that he wanted to do.  So his beat was really very technically efficient.  He just drove very forcefully, because I think he played much harder than the other two.

TP: All these drummers are also involved in creating an ensemble sound.

BR: A sound.  That’s so important.  I think that’s what I enjoyed most of all with Thelonious, and then when we got Sphere together, is that we had an ensemble sound.  An ensemble sound takes care of mostly all the rest of… It makes gravy for the soloists,  Because when you have an ensemble sound, the soloist is just riding on top of the cake, because everything else is easy for him.

TP: You said that you actually enjoy accompanying more than soloing.

BR: Yeah.  When I first started playing, I guess like everyone else, I tried to play all the things that I’d heard all the great artists do and all the great drummers do.  But I found myself saying, “I can’t do all these things, and I’m not going to put that kind of time in to do all these kinds of things to solo.  Now I want to try to see what I can do to set up things.”  And I find now, I can play very interesting solos, because now I’m musically more evolved and ensemble-wise more evolved, so when I’m thinking of playing something, then I’m thinking of a song that we’re playing at this particular time.  So when I do play a solo, I come right in on whatever I’m playing, with what the music makes me want to go, where it takes me. But I find now that I’ve developed a sound such that I can usually play on almost any cymbal and get my sound.  Because now I know what I want to hear.  It’s a matter of me trying to reach it now, because I have the sound in my head.

TP: You were saying that forty years ago you’d hear Kenny Clarke or whoever, who had the sound so focused that…

BR: Yeah.  Because any set that they sat on, you could be standing outside, and you’d go, “Oh, Klook is playing,” and you’d go inside — because he had his sound.  Or Shadow, Max, or Art — they all had their sound.  So if you walked down 52nd Street or anywhere else there was five-six joints, every one of those drummers, you could tell before going inside who they were, because they each had their own sound.

TP: Well, you’re talking about walking around a certain area, and there are four or five or six places where everybody’s playing.  Of course, that’s a whole different climate than what you have now.

BR: To what you have today, yeah.

TP: Of course, you’d be checking out each one of them.

BR: Each one of them.

TP: Talk a bit about the scene.

BR: Well, in those days you had a chance to really understand what the music was developing into.  Because each group had a definite idea of what they had to do and how they wanted to express what they were doing.  So when you got to listen to all of these… Then you were working from 9 to 4, and then the after-hour joints from four-until.  So what happens is, you have a chance to go make maybe two or three, maybe four clubs — four sets you may catch.  Then you go to the after-hour club, and now all these things in your mind are still fresh, so you’d go in and you’d try to work them out sitting in with whoever you were working or playing with there.

TP: It becomes like a laboratory, a workshop.

BR: Right.  So now what you’re doing is going to classes and then going back and practicing from what you listened to from the class.

TP: Speaking of workshopping and finding solutions, we were listening to “Trinkle-Tinkle” with John Coltrane, and you said that Coltrane told you that performing with Monk just opened him up, because…

BR: Opened him up.  The expression that he used is, “it was like opening the door, stepping into the room, and there was no floor.”  [LAUGHS] He left all of this for you to fill up.  He framed the door for you.  When you open it now, you’re there; do what you’re supposed to do.  You find the things that you want to fit into this room.

TP: You were also talking about Shadow Wilson’s contribution on this date and how difficult it is to play so simply.

BR: Well, the way Shadow thought, because he played a lot of big bands and played a lot of shows… In those days, when I first started playing, when you worked in a club you played for a shake dancer, a singer, maybe tap dancing, then you played a couple of tunes for dancing, and then maybe a couple of tunes for just listeners.  So you had the full scope.  You had to do like a vaudeville show plus.  I played Latin music with Latin groups, because Willie Bobo and I used to hang out…

TP: Talk about those experiences.

BR: Well, Bobo at the time was a young man from the Bronx, and he liked to play the regular drums, and I was interested in timbales, so we kind of showed each other different little things, and then we’d hang out together and go listen to different people.  This was all educational.  Like Sonny Rollins said to me one day, “When you’re humming walking down the street, you’re practicing.”  So you never really stop practicing if you’re still thinking music all the time, so that means you’re always practicing.

TP: You were also talking about the value of playing quietly, and yet swinging with intensity.

BR: In those days, the best jobs that were consistent were supper clubs, so you’d be in there five weeks or six weeks.  In order to get those jobs, you had to develop a touch, or they wouldn’t let you in the room because of the diners there.  Today you can play in different rooms with diners, and they will get annoyed, but it wouldn’t be the same situation.  When I came around, you couldn’t work in the room if you were loud.  They wouldn’t even allow you to work in the room.  So I had to develop a touch with… Actually, I started with Mary Lou Williams playing brushes and sock cymbal.  That’s all she would let me bring to the gig.  So I had to develop what I could out of those brushes and that sock cymbal.  Then eventually she let me bring the drums in, so now it was determined that I was going to play with sticks.  There were only two drummers that were allowed to play with sticks in that room, and Ed Thigpen was one and Ed Shaughnessy…not Ed Shaughnessy… Oh, boy, I’m looking at his face and I can’t call his name.  He played with Woody Herman, too.  Well, it will come back to me.

TP: Which room was this?

BR: This was a room called the Composer.  And you had to really get a touch to play with sticks in this room.  I was determined that I had to play with sticks, so that’s why I developed the technique I did with cymbals; because I was determined that I was going to play with sticks in that room.

TP: You mentioned, Ben Riley, that 1956 was the year you started working professionally.

BR: Yes, more or less.  Because I took jobs, where I took people’s places.  Guys would call me, or say, “could you work an hour for me on one set?” or do this, and I’d do that.  But professionally I started in ’56.  The job was at the Composer with Randy Weston.  And then I worked at Cy Coleman’s club down the street.  So I was making that circuit…

TP: So you were working the supper club circuit first.

BR: The supper club thing, yeah.  And the Hotel Astor had a lounge where I worked with a trio, and we’d play all the Broadway show music.  That’s where I got the knowledge of a lot of different songs, because we had to play them for all these matinees.

TP: And all the time you’re playing on the weekends in a Latin band, and after-hours the hard swing, doing the whole thing.

BR: Yeah.  Just hanging and learning and going to different places, watching different people — just learning.

TP: The next set begins with Art Blakey, and I know you have a few things to say about Buhaina.

BR: Oh, Bu and I…

TP: Well, I know you can’t repeat most of them, but we can figure out something to say.

BR: [LAUGHS]  Oh, yes.  Well, Bu was marvelous.  He was always encouraging.  He was the type guy that he would always come around, and you would know whether you were on it or not because he would say something to let you know.  Papa Jo Jones was the same way.  Papa Jo Jones would never say nothin’ when you came off the bandstand.  He’d just stand there, and you’d stand there and thank him for coming.  He’d say, “Oh, okay, I have to run now,” and he’d put a  dime next to you and run out.”  That means, “Call me.”  [LAUGHS] Yeah, and then I’ll tell you what I have to tell you on the phone.

TP: And it was always trenchant and useful advice.

BR: Always.  Always.

[MUSIC: Jazz Messengers, “Witch Doctor” (1960); Philly Joe, “Stablemates” (1959)]

TP: What are you going to say about Philly Joe Jones, Ben Riley?

BR: Well, what I used to say is Kenny Clarke with more technique.

TP: Explain.

BR: He lived with Kenny for a long time, so some of his earlier things, if you listen to them, are set up like Klook, and then he just extended.  Like, he took his Wilcoxsen book, and with his great knack for doing… I guess over time he took some stuff from Buddy Rich, too, that he incorporated.  Because Philly just was a multi-talented person.  He understood so many different things and so many different styles of life, and it all comes out in his playing.  What I really loved about him were the surprises.  Just when you thought you had him pinned down, another surprise.  Like Art.  Art was… Boy, I don’t know how to describe Art.  Whatever music that you brought to him, it sounded like he helped you write it.

TP: People say he had the type of memory where he’d hear something once through…

BR: One time.

TP: …and then he’d interpret it…

BR: Interpret it, right.  Then he’d make it bigger than maybe what the writer thought about doing with it.

TP: Well, a lot of tunes certainly sound different when done with the Messengers than…

BR: In other bands, right.  Because of his character and what he felt about what was going on.  Art just had the knack of really knowing where to be at the right time.

TP: It seems to me that another thing about Art Blakey is that he would always play something different behind every soloist, and it would always be appropriate.

BR: That’s right.

TP: You were mentioning this in terms of Kenny Clarke as well.BR: Well, if you really listen to most of the…all of the great drummers, each of the soloists coming up, there’s always a change.  It’s subtle, and if you’re not really listening, you don’t hear it.  But all of the great drummers did that.  And all of the great bands had that kind of situation.  As I was saying when Art was playing, he could have been the greatest Rock drummer in the world if that’s what he wanted to be.  Because that’s the type of person he was.  Whatever he jumped on, it was going to be great, and you knew it was going to be great.  But his band, or all of those bands, the ensemble was so important!  They made sure that those things worked.  Never mind the individualism.  They made sure that the band sounded good.  That’s why these records today sound like they were recorded this week.

TP: You mentioned big bands, but we’ve been playing all small groups.

BR: Small groups.

TP: That’s primarily the material we’ll be playing.  Were you influenced by big band drums?  Were you interested in that?

BR: Oh, yes.  Well, the first guy was Sonny Greer.  I was really impressed with him because I had never seen anybody with chimes and tympanies and white tuxedo, down at the theater… That just knocked me out, because my mind couldn’t even grasp all of this.  I started listening to Duke, and what he was doing, and then to Basie’s band because of Papa Jo…

TP: And then Shadow Wilson.

BR: Then Shadow, right.  Well, Shadow between Basie and Woody’s band.  I played with Woody’s band for a short span of time, and Woody said to me that one of the best drummers that ever played with his band was Shadow.  But Shadow, Osie Johnson, all of those guys understood the nuances of accompanying.  And until you really understand that, I don’t think you step off as fast as you want to, because there’s something missing.  Because you have to learn how to help before you can go out and do it all on your own, you know.  I think a couple of bands today are beginning to get that sound.   As I think we discussed this before, all those bands we’ve listened to made people want to dance, whereas today not many bands make you want to get up and dance.  That’s what’s missing in our so-called Jazz music.  They don’t make you want to dance, whereas Disco and Rock music have people dancing.  That’s what we were doing when I started up, man.  People would get up and actually dance.  So we’re kind of missing that a little bit, making the people want to dance.

TP: Well, when you were playing with Thelonious Monk I’m sure you saw him do a dance or two…

BR: Yeah, everybody wanted to dance!  I’ve seen people get up and dance.  Because we struck some grooves some nights that I wanted to get up and dance!

TP: In the next set we’ll hear the beginning of Ben Riley’s recorded career, and your rather long association with one of the great tenor pairings ever, Lockjaw Davis and Johnny Griffin.  How did that come about for you?

BR: I met Griff at Newport. I was playing with Kenny Burrell, Major Holley and Ray Bryant.  John was doing a solo, and they said, “Look, you guys play with Griffin on this next set.”  So we all frowned because we didn’t want to play “Cherokee,” nobody wanted to play “Cherokee,” and it was like 99 in the shade out there in Newport.  Griffin said, “Oh, no, we’re not going to play anything fast; we’re just going in to play…”  He started off very well, we played three songs, and it was beautiful — and then we got it!  “Cherokee” for the fourth and final song. So all of this led up to he and I talking.  And I never knew that he really was listening to me that closely, so I just assumed that we’d see each other somewhere along down the way.  When Lockaw and Griff formed this band, they had Victor Sproles, Norman Simmons and a young drummer from Boston, Clifford Jarvis, a beautiful drummer.  Whatever happened, I don’t know, I can’t remember offhand, but Griffin called me and said, “Look, we have a band.  Come on down.  We’re rehearsing down at Riverside Rehearsal Halls.”  So I said, “Okay.”   So I came down, and it was very strange, because Lockjaw and I didn’t hit it off at first at all.  We didn’t hit it off at all.  For some reason he was just cold.  I said, “Damn, I don’t know if I’m going to make this band.”  Griff was enthusiastic, but Lockjaw wasn’t.  So we made the rehearsal, and then we went into Birdland.  It was strange, because the first night we played… Maybe I might have been a little timid; I’m sure I must have been, because it was new for me.  And I had just left Nina Simone, so I was working with a singer.  So Griffin put this Art Blakey record on.  At 5 o’clock in the morning he calls up and said, “This is how it goes.”  He put the phone to this record, and it’s Art playing CHUNG-CHUNG-CHUNG, and the hi-hat is CHUNKA-CHUNKA-CHUNKA.  I said, “You want CHUNG, huh?”,  and so I hung up on him, and the next night I came in — boy, I was blistering.  So boy, we played “Funky Fluke,” and I was CHUNG-CHUNKA-CHUNG-CHUNKA.  So he said, “Okay, okay, all right.”  I said, “I’ll give you CHUNG if you want CHUNG.”  So that’s when I really started…

TP: You got the mood.

BR: I got the mood, right.  Then after that, the next thing I know, Lock acted like he was my father, like he’s discovering me.  And we had a beautiful relationship, he and I and Griffin.  It was a great band.  I really enjoyed that band.

TP: A few words about Eddie Lockjaw Davis.  He seems to be one of the most misunderstood musicians…

BR: Yeah, because he played differently.  As most guys used to say, he played backwards.

TP: What do they mean by that?

BR: Well, you would phrase it one way, he would just do it the opposite.  And he had that Ben Webster sound.  Well, he and Ben were great friends anyway, so I think Ben was one of his influences.  He just had a different way of expressing himself on the bandstand and off the bandstand.  If you didn’t know him, he would give you this rough exterior.  He was really a nice guy underneath, but he gave you this rough exterior all the time.  When I got to know him, I understood exactly where he was coming from.  You know, I found that with a lot of the older musicians that I got in close contact with were very shy people.  I never understood it, because for all this force and beauty they put out on the bandstand, when they came off, they just withdrew — or some of them.  It was strange to see these two different characters, you know.

TP: It was an interesting band in terms of the material as well.

BR: Yeah.

TP: Griffin had just left Thelonious Monk.

BR: Right.

TP: So you played a lot of Monk tunes.  He and Junior Mance were from Chicago, so there were a lot of shuffles and blues in the band…

BR: Well, Lock liked that, too, because he had the organ trio, and they played a lot of those things, too, with Shirley Scott and the drummer Arthur Edgehill.  It was a helluva trio that he had.  We played a lot of Lockjaw “Cookbook” things that were set up for the organ trio.  So we just switched it around and did it with the quintet.  Well, there was so much material to work with, that kept the band even more interesting.

TP: It was a very, very popular band.

BR: Right.

TP: And there were four LPs released from Minton’s.  Which brings up another point in the development of the music.  In the Fifties and Sixties, when you’d bring your band into Harlem, Detroit or Chicago, the audience would be…

BR: Chase you out!

TP: I’m sure that never happened with Lockjaw and Griffin.

BR: No.  We became real favorites at Minton’s.  I remember that big snowstorm in ’64 or something like that, my wife said, “No sense going to work tonight, because there’s this big blizzard.”  I said, “Look, I’m going to take the subway there and just stick my head in the door; if nothing’s happening, I can always come back on the subway.”  So I rode down on the subway, and I walked over, and when I opened the door I couldn’t see!  The place was filled.  So I had to call my wife up.  I said, “Don’t look for me back.  I can’t hardly get in the club!”  It was loaded.  We just had fun with the audience, the audience had fun — it was a fun band.  And the music we played, you wanted to dance.  We had some intricate things, but mostly it made you want to get up and dance.  And that happy feeling is what really made those bands of that day.  Horace had those kind of things that made you want to get up and dance.  The Messengers, dance music.  It was still slick, but it was dancing slick.

TP: The first track by Lockjaw and Griffin is from the Minton’s series, The Midnight Show.  How late did you go?  Four or five sets?

BR: Four o’clock.

TP: Last set ended at 4.

BR: Yeah.  Teddy Hill used to say, “Start on time and end on time, and whatever you do in the middle is your business.” [LAUGHS]

TP: 9 to 4.

BR: Yes.

TP: Were there still after-hour sessions at that point?

BR: Yes.

TP: Where were some of those?

BR: Well, one was right downstairs.  Then there was another down a couple of blocks.  So there was always somewhere to play.  Uptown they had turned one floor of a parking garage into an after-hours spot.  So you had somewhere to go all the time.

[MUSIC: Griff-Lockjaw, “In Walked Bud” (1961), “Funky Fluke” (1961); Griff, “The Last Of The Fat Pants” (1961); Sonny Rollins, “John S” (1962)]

TP: Ben Riley tells us that the group saw “John S” in the studio on the day of the session, and ran it down.  And that was a complicated piece!  You said it drove people crazy trying to count it.

BR: Yeah, because of the odd measures in the end.  It kind of threw everybody, as well as it threw us off for a moment — but it worked.

TP: It certainly sounded comfortable for you, but I’m sure you made it sound that way.

BR: Well, you know, what happens is, when you’re working with guys that are really up on what they’re doing, your job becomes a little easier, because now you only have to worry about yourself, and not worry about anyone else.

TP: “John S” was from The Bridge.  Preceding that we heard a Johnny Griffin composition “Last of The Fat Pants” from a 1961 Riverside date with Bill Lee and Larry Gales on basses, and Ben Riley on drums.  You were featured on the mallets, a particular pattern.  What do you remember about that record?  I know you hadn’t heard it for a while.

BR: Nothing. [LAUGHS] Well, John and Lock did some different things.  I didn’t bring that other album…

TP: The Kerry Dancers.

BR: Yeah, The Kerry Dancers, and then Lockjaw did Afro-Jaws, and we did one other thing.  So it was like another band within the band.  Griff wanted to try these other little things, so this was the result of some of the things that we did with him.  I forget where he got the idea to use the two basses, but it was a very interesting date.

TP: A very prolific period for Griffin, who did about eight records for Riverside, plus all the two-tenor sessions.

BR: That’s right.

TP: Speaking of the two-tenor duo, we heard “Funky Fluke,” a Benny Green composition that was just roaring!

BR: Roaring!

TP: You said that was slower than what you played in the club, but that’s hard to believe.

BR: I don’t remember playing faster with anyone else than this band.  This band played so fast sometimes it was unbelievable.

TP: How do you swing at a tempo like that?  That’s hard to do.

BR: What I did, I never watched my hands.  I always tried to keep in touch with the guys playing.  I would never look at what I was doing, because it was just, to me, insane trying to play this fast.  But it worked.

TP: I guess having a very percussive pianist like Junior Mance…

BR: Made it easier, yeah.  There again we get to the same thing.  When you’re matched up with peers that are your peers and better, it’s much easier on you, because now you have to take care of yourself, and everyone else is taking care of themself plus adding to what each other is doing.  I think that’s one of the beauties of music for me, is to be able to help enhance someone else’s idea and someone else’s creativity.

TP: Well, no one does that better than Ben Riley.  The bassist in that group is someone you associated with for years.

BR: For years.

TP: Because he was with Thelonious Monk, was he not, at the time when you joined the band.

BR: No, no.  I hired him.

TP: Well, let’s be chronological.  You went from the Lockjaw-Griffin band to Sonny Rollins.

BR: Yes.  I had known Sonny, not socially, but we knew each other from being in the neighborhood.  But he never associated me with playing, because he had never heard me or never seen me play.  All he remembered was me playing basketball or seeing me out on the street.  Jim Hall and he were working down at a club in Brooklyn, the Baby Grand, and I was in the theater with, strangely enough, Aretha Franklin and Cleanhead Vinson.  Miles was on that gig, but I was working with Aretha and Cleanhead.  Jim came down to the theater to catch one of the shows, and he said, “Look, I’m working down the street.  When you get off, come down and sit in with us.”  So I said, “Okay, I’ll be down.  I don’t know about sitting in, but I’ll be down.”  I came down, and Jim said, “Sonny, this is Ben Riley.”  Sonny looked at me and said, “I know who he is, but I never associated you as being Ben Riley the drummer.”  So he said, “Come over and play.”  I said, “Okay.”  So we went up and we played.  So he says, “I’m doing a recording, and I’d like you to come and finish the date with me tomorrow.”  He said, “Do you think Lock would mind?”  I said, “I really don’t know.”  He said, “Well, I’ll call him.”  So he called Lock and told him that we were doing this session. So I got down to RCA, and we started running over some of the music and recording.  When we halfway finished, he said, “Look, I’m going to California, and I would like for you to go.”  I said, “Well, we’re due in Washington or Baltimore to do a show.”  He said, “Well, do you think Lock would let you go after you finish the gig in Philly?” — or wherever it was.  I said, “I don’t know.  I’ll ask him.”  He said, “Let me call.”  So he called, and Lock said, “Okay,” and Griffin loved it, he said it was wonderful.  But Lock didn’t like that too well!  But I still made the gig, and I worked almost a year with Sonny.

TP: What was it like being on the road with Sonny Rollins back there.  It was shortly after he had come back from his hiatus.

BR: Right.  And we were doing The Bridge; the title song became “The Bridge.”  Actually, what it turned out was like a fanfare into a solo, and it was working so well that he kept it in, and it became the bridge.  What was interesting, we went to California by train.  It was the first time they had the sleeping quarters.  So we rehearsed going out to California in one of the sleeping quarters every day.  That kept it from being boring, plus it got the band much tighter together.  By the time we got to California, we really had a good idea of what we wanted to do.

TP: It must have been a great reception for the band, with Sonny Rollins emerging from retirement.

BR: Oh yeah, it was wonderful.  It was really great, because we had three sets and we had three changes.  So we had a suit, sports outfit and tuxedos.  We’d open in tuxedos, and by the end of the night we’d have a sports ensemble on.  So every night we had three changes.

TP: The ever fashion-conscious Sonny Rollins!

BR: I guess it made the music wonderful, too, because every time you came in, even if we played the same song, we looked different!

TP: Well, Sonny Rollins was exploring all sorts of musical ideas and configurations at that time…

BR: Yes, he was.  Because at the time we got to San Francisco, Don Cherry had joined us toward the end of the engagement, and he didn’t come directly back east with us, but he had played with us out there.  I think this is when Sonny was getting ready to touch that part of the music.  I left when we got back, which was almost a year, and then Billy Higgins and Don Cherry joined the band after that.

TP: That became the band where Sonny really stretched the form to its limits, just about.

BR: That’s right, yeah.

TP: What happens then between you leaving Sonny Rollins in early 1963 maybe, and then joining Thelonious Monk?

BR: Well, what happened is, I went to California with somebody like Paul Winter.  I met Cannonball in San Francisco.  He said, “What are you doing here?”  I said, “I’m playing with…” whoever it was at the time.  He said, “Miles has been trying to locate you; he wanted you in the band.”  I said, “No kidding!”  So I called my wife, and she said, “Some guy with a scruffy voice called here, and I was getting ready to tell him where you were, and he hung up on me.”  So I imagine that had to be Miles.  I wasn’t home at the time when he called, so he hung up.   I got back to New York, and I went to work with Bobby Timmons, Junior Mance and Walter Bishop, Junior at the Five Spot, opposite Thelonious.  So I was in there like six weeks opposite Monk.  Every night Monk would come in, and he’d look, and he’d see me, and he’d keep walking.  So the sixth week, when I was in there with the third group, he came by that night and looked up and said, “Who are you, the house drummer?” — and kept going.  That was the first two words he had spoken to me through the whole engagement. We closed on a Sunday, and Monday morning the phone rings, and it’s Bobby Colomby…not Bobby, but Jules…not Jules…Harry Colomby.  He says, “I’m representing Thelonious, and we’re at Columbia doing a record date; we’re going to finish the date, and I’d like for you to come in.” I hung up, because I thought it was somebody with a joke.  So they called back and said, “No, this is serious; we’re here waiting.”  So I got in a cab and went down.  He still didn’t speak to me.  So I set up the drums, and as soon as he did that, he just started playing.  So when the date was over, I’m packing up, he says, “Do you need any money?”  I said, “No, I can wait for the check.”  He said, “I don’t want anybody in my band being broke.”  He says, “Do you have your passport?”  I said, “No.”  He said, “Well, we’re leaving Friday; I suggest you go get it.:

TP: That was it?

BR: I was in the band!

TP: Those were your first words with him, or did you know him before?

BR: Well, I never spoke to him before.  We nodded, because I was in all these places that he was working, but we never spoke.

TP: Do you remember when you first heard Monk play?

BR: A record.  I had “Carolina Moon” with Max Roach.  It fascinated me so much, I used to play it all the time.  And it was the first record that my mother came in and said, “Now, I like that.”

TP: Did you hear Monk in person?  Did you go to the Five-Spot?

BR: Yeah, I went to the Five-Spot.

TP: So you dug the music and…

BR: Oh yeah.  When I first heard “Carolina Moon”… Actually, when I was working opposite him, it just dawned on me, I said, “This is my next band.”  I just felt that that was going to be it for me.  Then when Frankie left, I was there.

TP: I guess throughout the 1960’s you were in the bands of two of the great New York born imitators, Sonny Rollins and Monk!

BR: Well, Monk was from North Carolina, now.

TP: Okay.  And you’re from Savannah, but all right, thank you.  We’ll talk more about Thelonious Monk with Ben Riley after we play a set of music carefully hand-picked by Ben Riley.  We’ll begin with “Shuffle Boil” from It’s Monk’s Time on Columbia.  You said this is a piece that drives bass players crazy, because it’s such a strange line that he has to play.

BR: Oh, it drove us crazy.  This is my first recording with him also.

TP: This is the one that he called you to?

BR: Yes.  Is Butch Warren the bassist?

TP: Butch Warren.

BR: Butch Warren, right, and Monk and Charlie.  See, I knew Charles when he had Julius Watkins had a band.  I knew Charles from uptown, Charles knew who I was, you know.  We had been friends for a while. After this particular job, we went to Europe.  There was like 4500 people in this little theater we worked in, and the first tune he played was “Don’t Blame Me,” unaccompanied by himself, and then he got up from the piano and said “Drum solo.”  So I’m trapped here.  I have to play a drum solo.  But I had been playing in the supper clubs with brushes for all those years.  So when he said, “Drum solo,” I just immediately played the song with the brushes.  So as we were going to the dressing room, he walked alongside of me and said, “How many people do you know who would have been able to do that?”  That was the first test that I had to go through.  I didn’t know I was going through all these tests, and that was my first.  I passed that one by being able to play “Don’t Blame Me” with brushes.

TP: Playing quietly in the sup per clubs paid off.

BR: Yeah, I started out in supper clubs doing that, so it was much easier than I thought it would have been.  It took the edge off for me, because now I was more comfortable and more relaxed when that happened.

TP: Would Monk spring new tunes on you or would he give you a chance to rehearse?

BR: That was the beauty of it.  He would only play what he thought you could handle.  Then once he was assured that you could handle that, he would move on.  But he never would try to embarrass you.

[MUSIC: Monk, “Shuffle Boil” (1964), “Oska T” (1963), “We See” (1967)]

TP: You can hear Ben was much more relaxed with Monk in 1967, playing more fills and so forth.

BR: Well, what happens is that you get used to the time.  He deals greatly with time, so you have to learn spacing and where to put things.  I always wanted to make things move as smoothly as possible, so I would be sparing until I felt I could interject something that wouldn’t disrupt what was happening.

TP: Had you been checking out Frankie Dunlop with Monk in the years previous?

BR: Well, if you’ll notice, the first record I kind of played a little like Frankie, because I wasn’t really sure of what to do, so I kind of tried to use Frankie as a framework for what I was doing.  Then after that I moved away from Frankie’s style of playing.

TP: What you mentioned on “Oska T” was that Frankie Dunlop was out-Monking Monk.

BR: Yeah.

TP: What did you mean by that?

BR: Frankie got so inside Thelonious that he could anticipate what Thelonious was going to play before Thelonious played it.  So he would play it first sometimes.  It was really something to see the both of them in action.  It was a great thrill for me all the time to watch and listen to them.

TP: What was distinct about Monk as a pianist you had to accompany on drums?

BR: He left things out that normally people would play.  He wouldn’t play them, and he’d leave it there for you to deal with.  Either you use the space or you put something in there.  I developed like a little sense of humor playing the time.  I tried to do little cute things to make up for maybe three beats that I wouldn’t acknowledge in certain instances.  Learning from him how to incorporate those things has made it so that I think I have some sense of humor in my playing now.

TP: Monk was building really on the basics of African-American music, a lot of shuffles…

BR: Shuffles, right.

TP: …and church type of things.  Talk a bit about his sources.

BR: Well, you know, he used to play for an evangelist, so he played the tents and all those kind of things.  He played the houses that they gave the rent parties in.  He played all those things.  So he had great knowledge of how to be a soloist, and then he incorporated all that in with the other three people.  So this is what you get from him.  You get a whole history of different things.  He would never say “Stride,” but it even sounded like Stride piano in some instances.

TP: I take it he would not play it the same way two nights in a row ever.

BR: Not the same tempo.  That’s what made his music so interesting all the time.  Because every time you’d think you had it, he would change the tempo, so now you had to figure out another way to do the thing that you did the night before, because that won’t fit tonight — not at that tempo.  He was a great one for playing in between meters.  He once said to me, “Most people can only play three tempos, slow, fast, medium and fast.”  He played in between all of those!

TP: That gig lasted how long?

BR: Almost five years.

TP: From 1964 to 1969…

BR: I want to apologize, because I had all of these drummers that I wanted to… Roy, Elvin, Billy Higgins, all these people that have come through some of the things that I came through who I wanted to present today.  When I come back, I’ll start from that, so we can get all these fine people in.

TP: Next is a Freddie Redd recording for Uptown called Lonely City, featuring the late Clifford Jordan and C. Sharp.

BR: That’s one of the reasons why I brought that, because I hadn’t had a chance to really listen to it, but it was such a wonderful day to be with those two gentlemen, and I felt that I should play that.  And George Duvivier, one of my most favorite bass players.  This is tricky music.

[MUSIC: Freddie Redd, “After The Show” (1985); Red Garland, Strike Up The Band “Receipt, Please” (1979)]

TP: Say a few words about recent activities.  You and Kenny Barron have had an ongoing association since the formation of Sphere, and last night you did a recording session with Roberta Flack.

BR: With Roberta Flack last night, yes.  We did three tunes on her album yet to be named or finished.  Also we’re doing a series of concerts.  We’re doing one Sunday with Ravi Coltrane, and then next week we go to Buffalo for three days, and then we go to Europe for ten days.

[MUSIC: B. Riley/R. Moore/B. Williams, “Black Nile”]
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