R.I.P. Wallace Roney, May 25, 1959-March 31, 2020 — A 2016 Downbeat Feature and a 2014 Interview About His Presentation of Wayne Shorter’s “Universe”

Like the rest of the jazz community, I’m deeply saddened at the passing of Wallace Roney, the trumpet genius who died this morning of complications from COVID-19. I didn’t know Wallace well, but we did have a professional relationship, and during the 2010s I had a couple of opportunities to write about him. At the top of this post is a Downbeat feature from 2016, framed around the then-recent release, A Place In Time and another, a still-as-yet-unreleased recording of his production of Wayne Shorter’s 1960s masterwork, Universe. Below that is a transcript of interview that I conducted with Wallace (he reviewed the transcript for accuracy) when he gave the 6th performance of Universe at the 2014 Detroit Jazz Festival with a 21-piece orchestra conducted by Bob Belden — they only got halfway through it, before a lightning storm ended the concert.  Below that, I’ve included my review of that concert and the edited interview.

 

Wallace Roney 2016 Downbeat Feature:

It’s hard to cite a more accomplished 2016 release than Wallace Roney’s A Place In Time (High Note). For his 18th leader date since 1987, a nine-tune recital, the 56-year-old trumpeter assembled a sextet comprised of four over-60 masters—Gary Bartz on alto and soprano saxophone, Patrice Rushen on piano, Buster Williams on bass, and Lenny White on drums—and wunderkind Ben Solomon on tenor and soprano saxophone. Throughout the proceedings, Roney and company improvise fluently and passionately on vocabulary and syntax postulated in the pathbreaking 1960s recordings of John Coltrane, Miles Davis and such Miles alumni as Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams, generating the go-for-broke attitude that defined the era. Roney’s intensely melodic solos have an architectural, inevitable quality, but close listening reveals the instant decisions he makes in mapping out his well-designed routes.

“They were my band from 1998 to 2001, but we never recorded,” Roney said in the Blue Note’s dressing room on October 26th, before a soundcheck-rehearsal for night one of Chick Corea’s “For Miles” project, with Milesians Kenny Garrett, Mike Stern and Marcus Miller, and drummer Brian Blade. “That’s why we did this. We got together for two days, pulled out some tunes, reacted and responded to each other, and goaded each other to play better.”

He was asked to decode the title. “It could mean a place in time when only innovation mattered and what was being said was more important than the instruments involved,” Roney responded. “All of them lived it. They play this thing nobody else can play, and can’t express it with anyone else because no one understands it. They are innovative musicians. Everybody brings something to the table, and we all shape everybody’s music. That’s what Miles did.”

A Place In Time marks a point of departure from the last three of Roney’s six prior dates for High Note, his label since 2004, eleven years after he concluded an initial seven-album run for label proprietor Joe Fields’ previous imprint, Muse. On those, he emulated Art Blakey, his frequent ’80s employer, by hiring less experienced aspirants, among them Solomon, pianists Aruán Ortiz and Victor Gould, bassists Rahsaan Carter and Daryl Johns, and drummer Kush Abadey.

“Sometimes younger guys aren’t as up on things as you’d like,” Roney said, without naming names. “You teach them, they play with other people, and when they come back, they forget instead of utilizing it when you start to go for it. You want the time to be more elastic. They’re playing licks they heard but don’t understand how to expand on. They don’t know different ways to play a chord, or reinvent or substitute that chord, or how to make something go a certain way melodically. It’s frustrating.

“I want young cats to be open to everything. But sometimes you wish the music would go forward, not backward. I want them to understand that music didn’t stop in 1960, and it isn’t beginning in 2016. Kamasi Washington is not Coltrane. Coltrane is fifty years ago. Who’s more advanced? You’ve got to learn the most innovative things. If you can’t do them, you’re not in the ballpark. Learn why Trane and Wayne were able to do what they did, and be able to do it. Understand what Ornette was playing, or Herbie and John McLaughlin and Tony and Elvin. Those are the high-water marks. Then use your creativity, and see if you can add to it. Not just some pentatonics or false fingers, but the idea of that type of virtuosity and spirituality, the merging of mind and spirit, time and universe. This music is hard. People who want to play it on that level of communication and telepathy have to do a lot of studying. It’s a never-ending process.”

Roney has practiced what he preaches. As a child in north Philadelphia during the ’60s, he associated jazz with his father and his circle, who “were into social rights and civil rights and Nation of Islam—trying to enlighten and lift themselves.” He continued: “Jazz was a music of intelligence, whereas other music was social music. The radio was playing Smokey Robinson and John Coltrane. I liked John Coltrane. I didn’t have to like Smokey Robinson, although Smokey was cool.”

He was already playing trumpet and listening to his father’s records “at 5 or 6,” when Miles Davis entered his consciousness. “I could hear Miles was reaching for something,” Roney said. “He was my idol.” He heard, dug and assimilated Lee Morgan, Blue Mitchell, Kenny Dorham, and Clifford Brown. “My father would tell me he thought Clifford was better than Miles, and we’d argue. Matter of fact, I was so mad, I asked Clark Terry about it. Clark gave me the best answer. ‘It’s like apples and oranges; they’re both good.’”

Roney had moved with his father to Washington, D.C. when he introduced himself to Terry after a set at Blues Alley. Terry brushed him off, but, at a second encounter, asked the 12-year-old to play something. Roney responded with Morgan’s solo on “M&M” from the Jazz Messengers album Meet You At the Jazz Corner of the World. An enduring mentorship ensued. Soon thereafter, Roney met Gillespie, who showed him “different scales, things about mouthpieces, and breathing exercises.” At 15, he sat in with Art Blakey, At 16, he sat in with Cedar Walton, who subsequently hired him for a two-week engagement. He matriculated at Howard University, left after a year when Abdullah Ibrahim took him on the road, then transferred to Berklee. “I was aiming to go to New York,” Roney says, explaining why he left school in 1981 to join Blakey, looking for a trumpeter to replace Wynton Marsalis, who had moved on to tour with Shorter, Hancock, Ron Carter and Williams.

Two years later, Roney joined Jon Faddis, Randy Brecker, Lew Soloff, Jimmy Owens, Art Farmer and Maynard Ferguson “to each play a couple of choruses on a fast blues and end with a fanfare” at a Miles Davis retrospective concert at Radio City Music Hall. Hancock, Carter and Williams were the rhythm section. After rehearsal, Carter introduced him to his partners. After the show next evening, Farmer informed Roney that Davis wanted to meet him. “I went to Miles’ dressing room,” Roney said. “He told me, ‘I heard you up there, playing those things. Here’s my number, call me tomorrow.’” He called, and received an invitation to visit.

From then until Miles’ death, Roney says, “I saw him every time he was in town, if I could. Or if he was playing, I was always there. Miles didn’t like a lot of silly people, but he took me. He didn’t just pick me out of the street. He heard someone who was going inside his back pocket, his best stuff, and he said, ‘Man, how did you figure that out? Ok. Come on over here.’ I wasn’t just playing a couple of his licks. I was trying to figure out the theory, and giving my heart to it, because I knew it was the next extension of what the music is about.”

[BREAK]

On October 27 with Corea, in the first chorus of his solo on the set-opening “All Blues,” Roney hewed closely to Davis’ original 1959 presentation on Kind of Blue, then counterstated with complex, chromatic variations, creating long lines phrased to fall at odd places against the intense groove locked down by Stern, Miller and Blade. Later, during a long section on “Splatch,” he and Miller ping-ponged rhythms back and forth; on “My Man’s Gone Now,” he stated the theme with lyric, smoldering, achingly poignant tone, then, as the flow quickened, offered a master class in creating artful melodic variations.

“Wallace plays in Miles’ spirit, and he captures that essence, but there’s more to it,” Garrett said a few days later. “I’d hone in first on his beautiful, round sound—it grabs your attention immediately. We met when we were both 17—he was playing more like Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard then, and he already knew harmony. Now he’s evolved to another level harmonically, extending the lines, playing harmony on top of harmony. What he does is incredible. He’s way ahead of the game.”

After the October 26 soundcheck, Roney discussed his decision, taken in his early twenties, to embrace Davis’ innovative strategies as a jumping-off point. “I admired Woody Shaw, who basically came from Freddie Hubbard, who was the first to play those fourths and pentatonics on the trumpet, trying to play like John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy,” he said. “Woody took that aspect of Freddie, and developed it so much that it became his signature. Now, to me, Miles took the music to a very high level that no one else has gotten to. Trumpet-wise, too, as far as playing poetically on the trumpet—though no one surpassed Dizzy for technique. I told myself that if I could do with Miles what Woody did with Freddie, at least I’m not going backwards.”

He developed his conception during a long run with Williams’ unparalleled quintet, which he joined after playing on Williams’ 1985 album, Foreign Intrigue. Simultaneously, Blakey brought Roney back to the Messengers. Both bands were busy, and Roney spent a year trying to balance conflicting schedules, until committing fully to Williams, who gave him a mandate to “open up the chords” a la Miles, Trane and Wayne.

“I told Tony I was trying not to do that because I didn’t want people to say we’re trying to be Miles and Tony,” Roney recalled. “Tony said, ‘Don’t listen to what they say.’ He gave me the green light. Tony taught me polyrhythms, time modulations, and expansive rhythm. We played the changes, always played the form, but we didn’t have to play it in a locked way. We flowed. I’d play melodies and leave space between the beats, and fill it up like a brushstroke. It prepared me for playing with Miles and Herbie and Wayne.”

That opportunity occurred in July 1991, when Davis—who had been actively coaching Roney since they met—asked his disciple to play alongside him in a Quincy Jones-directed “Birth Of The Cool” concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival that would be his valedictory. After Montreux, Roney recalls, “Miles said to me, ‘Wally, me and you are like King Oliver and Louis Armstrong; I’m King Oliver because I’m the chief.’” After Miles died two months later, Shorter, Hancock, Carter and Williams decided to form a tribute band, and asked Roney to assume the trumpet chair. He participated in several “Miles Davis Legacy” tours with them before forming his own band in 1994.

“When Miles passed, I felt that Wallace was the one,” Shorter told me. “He wanted to keep going with not necessarily Miles’ vision, but his vision is really connected with Miles. I see him as standing on the shoulders of what Miles was doing, like when a father lifts up a kid at a parade and the kid starts telling the father what’s coming down the street. Wallace projects the never-give-up thing, going on the trail less-trodden. The other trail is crowded with wannabes and pop-this and pop-that—simplicity, simplicity and simplicity. I like what Einstein said: Yeah, we know we need simplicity, but no simpler. A lot of people fall by the wayside, give up and, like they say, ‘sell out.’ You want the people who take the hard trail, that warrior thing. Selling out is more noticeable than persevering. We have to make persevering more noticeable.”

“Wallace doesn’t compromise,” White affirmed. “He’s dipped and dabbed in this and that, but he’s a consummate musician and artist, because he doesn’t change his attitude about what he does. He’s authentic. I know he’s misunderstood—he has a real clear conscience and a clear direction, and sometimes that is perceived as a threat.”

After the Miles Davis Legacy tours Roney was reluctant “to jump back and play with somebody else as a sideman.” “How am I going to go back with someone who isn’t on their level?” he asked rhetorically. “I figured I had to take what those guys personally showed me, and use that knowledge in my band. Miles told me that if he ever got a band again, he wanted Tony, Herbie and Wayne, but, although he loved Ron, he thought he would still use Foley or Marcus Miller. He wanted that blend, and I started figuring that electro-acoustic was the way to go.”

Electro-acoustic is the template on In An Ambient Way [Chesky], a 2015 project on which the late Bob Belden, who had retained Roney’s services on numerous projects for a quarter-century, reimagined In A Silent Way with Roney, Oz Noy on guitar, Kevin Hays on Fender Rhodes, Johns on bass and White on drums. More consequential is a studio recording of Universe, an orchestral suite that Shorter composed, at Miles’ request, in 1967. The band broke up, the music was put away, and then rediscovered, Roney estimates, around 2006.

“Wayne called to say he’d found this music, and I was the only one who could do this,” Roney recalled. Shorter cosigns: “I sent him the scores just to do whatever he could do with it.” Roney continues: “My reaction was that this was the Dead Sea Scrolls. We’d all been trying to write something that would be the next step after, say, “Nefertiti.” But here it was, from the originator, the person who thinks like that—and not only that, he orchestrated it. In all this music, you can hear the conception of the band, how Wayne’s music influenced the band, Wayne’s reaction to the band. It’s a microcosm of everything that was going on.”

Perplexingly, Roney has not found a record company willing to release this labor of love. “We’ve had time to digest all the intricacies and respond, so the level is very high,” Roney said. “I’m very proud of it, and I’m happy that I documented it for posterity. I have no faith that a label will be interested, but I’d love to get it on the commercial market. If that ever happens, the world can hear it.”

“It’s hard to get a record deal,” Shorter said. “But never give up spirit. By persevering, Wallace is finding the key to open the door. More and more, Wallace doesn’t have to lean on what Miles did. He has to lean on HIMSELF.”

Roney signified his own feelings on receiving the torch that Miles bestowed upon him by quoting John 5:19-20 from the New Testament and II Kings from the Old Testament in the booklet accompanying the 2000 CD No Room For Argument. But he deflected a question on his thoughts about passing the torch himself as he assumes elder statesman status.

“I haven’t done anything yet to have something to pass on,” Roney demurred. “But Universe and the record with my sextet are two of the best I’ve made. If I don’t get a chance to record again, I’d be satisfied with what I just did.”

 

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TP: I read the piece in the Times and the interview in All About Jazz from last year where you talked a lot about this. Perhaps we’ll be covering some older territory, but let’s go for it anyway. Mostly about this program, and perhaps some other current things…

Roney: This is current.

TP: Tell me the back story.

Roney: The back story is, Wayne Shorter had written some music for Miles, for the Quintet, when he was part of the Quintet, and that band was probably the greatest band ever. The things they did, each record that came out, introduced something new that people hadn’t thought of or that was amazing on an individual level and on an interactive level. So after ESP and Miles Smiles and The Sorcerer and Nefertiti and Miles In the Sky, you said, “Well, what can they do next?” Obviously, Miles had asked Wayne to write a big orchestra piece. That’s why what I just said is important. This was the next level.

Wayne writes like that anyway. Like I say, Wayne always writes with a lot in mind anyhow.

So as he wrote these pieces for Miles, what wound up happening is the band was starting to break apart. Ron left, Herbie got fired, Tony left, and then Wayne left. I think that their feelings were hurt, because they really were a unit. They weren’t just cats that they had a gig, and they played, and they played good. They really loved each other. So each one of them, I think, took it personally. When I speak to these guys, even now, if they thought whatever…

So I think in Wayne’s case, he put the music under his bed or put it away, and forgot about it, and, you know, then Weather Report happened, and then years went by, and then his band. Then somebody remembered that he had written this music for Miles, and they looked it up in the Library of Congress and saw that it was registered. So then the buzz started coming out, and someone asked Wayne about it. Wayne also said Miles had said to him, before Miles died, “Hey, you remember that music that you wrote? We need to do that. Let’s pull it; let’s do it.” And I know that’s true. I know it’s true, because even though people said Miles never looked back, which he didn’t, he didn’t look back at his successes. But he wasn’t about to leave those things that he pioneered. He didn’t. Even in his last incarnation of his band, they were incorporating things like “Milestones” into their solo sections!

So when Miles decided to do the Gil Evans music… I know people thought he said he didn’t want to do it, but Miles had been telling me that he wanted to do it as far back as 1988. Then there’s a thing on VH-1 where you see him and Foley together, and he says it. So he has been hinting at that kind of thing for a while. And when Gerry Mulligan did the Rebirth of the Cool, Miles did agree to do it again—to re-do it. I guess he was just inspired by the moment.

All that to say I understand Miles wanting to go back and do Wayne’s music, because it never really got done. One piece did, the others didn’t—and none of it was recorded.

So Wayne said Miles asked him to go back and find these pieces also. So that, in combination with this other guy reminding Wayne, or bugging him, about this piece, he went and looked for it, and he found it.

TP: Do you know who this person was?

Roney: Bertrand Überall. So Wayne found the music one day. I think it was around 2006. He called me and he said he’d found this music, and he wanted me to play it. He was telling me that…saying a lot of nice things, and that he wrote it for Miles and I’m the only one who could do this. Very nice things. I loved Wayne anyway. So he found all the music and we had discussions, and next thing you know, he sent me the music.

TP: What was your reaction when you first examined the music?

Roney: Yeah, when I examined it… The Dead Sea Scrolls, That’s exactly right. I looked at it… He sent me a lot. When I looked at it, I said, “Man, this is incredible.” It’s like all of us had been trying to write something that’s going to be the next step after “Nefertiti” or something, but here it was, from the originator, from the person who thinks like that, but not only that, he orchestrated it, and you could see it was his orchestration. It was from his mind. Sometimes, on one of the pieces, Miles might get Gil Evans to orchestrate something of His or one of the guys tunes or something. This one was from the mind of Wayne Shorter, and you can see all these things. In that music, you can hear the band, you can hear the conception of the band, you can hear Wayne’s music and how it influenced the band, and you can hear Wayne’s reaction to the band and how the band influenced him too, all in the music. It was like a little universe, a microcosm of everything that has been going on, right in there. It was amazing. I got some guys over. Everybody was excited. We would look at the score, and each person would try to read a part of the score. That’s how it started.

TP: Did you consult with Wayne on the interpretation?

Roney: Of course. Well, what Wayne told me…

TP: I’m wondering what his reaction was 40 years later.

Roney: First of all, Wayne never heard what I did with it. But see, I had been with Wayne and Herbie and those guys, and I had been with Miles. Wayne told me to do what I hear with it.

TP: He trusted you.

Roney: Yeah, he trusted me. He knew that I knew things, and I had been well-versed. He said, “don’t fall into illusions and people trying to take you off your path; you can do this.”

TP: What do you think he meant by that?

Roney: I don’t think like , “what does he mean by that”, Ted. I just do it!

TP: I’m just curious.

Roney: Yeah, I know. But I don’t think like that. I just do, man. I think it’s flattering.

[PAUSE]

TP: You showed me the letter. He wrote, “don’t give in to outside illusions and delusions” — that was very personal. He probably didn’t say it lightly.

Roney: Of course.

TP: When did you meet Wayne?

Roney: The first time I met Wayne Shorter, who was my hero since I was 3 years old… Miles was my hero. Have you seen my nephew, Kojo, and my Son Wally?

TP: Only on Youtube.

Roney: Wally and Kojo is like me, and my son is like that. I loved the music from when I was like 3 years old. So that’s the backdrop. Me and my brother… My brother loved Wayne and Trane, and I loved Miles, and we loved the music, Jazz! We were chasing the music… Everybody else was dancing toR&B, or the Dells and Stylistics and all that stuff. We were looking at them like: Yeah, that’s because you don’t know nothin’. This is music that takes your head somewhere, that helps you understand life. That’s what we were thinking at 3 years old. I understood that. They thought I was a prodigy. I was reading; I used to read Jet and Ebony magazine and all that. They told me I could read Dr. Seuss. Next thing, I saw a picture of Miles Davis in the magazine, and I’m reading that—I want to know what that’s about. Or Malcolm X or Ray Robinson.

TP: You were born in 1960, right, Wallace?

Roney: Yes, sir. So we were following the music and Wayne’s innovations and when I finally got a chance to see him was in 1972. It was in Boston. Even though I was living in Philadelphia, my father had a friend who was later to become his third wife, and he took us up there. They had a festival up there, and Weather Report was on the festival. That’s when it was Eric Gravatt and Miroslav and Joe and Dom! Man, they were amazing. Wayne was still playing like there was no tomorrow, like he had just left Miles’ band. Or, like he always plays. You can’t put it on anything except Wayne. He was incredible. My brother had his eyes bulging out, and my brother kept saying he wanted to talk to Wayne, he’s going to speak to Wayne. At that point, I was 12 and he was 9.

When the concert was over, we went back to speak to Wayne. Weather Report was packing up in the van. They didn’t have road managers and all that. Well, they might have one. I said, “Mr. Shorter, Mr. Shorter.” He looked, he saw these two young kids there, and he was so nice. He came down and said, “Yes?” And he came over to us, and my brother sat there, and he was going to do all the talking—and he couldn’t say a word. He just froze. So I spoke for my brother. I said, “I’m Wallace Roney,(I was 12yrs old myself!) and his name is Antoine (or Tony, we called him), and he loves you. He wants to be a saxophone player.” Wayne looked at him and Wayne said, “You want to play the saxophone, huh.” He said, “Well, first play the clarinet for a year or two years, and then, after that, get one of these.” He pointed to his tenor saxophone. Man, that made an impression on my brother so much, he didn’t know what to do.

The reason why I told that story is, years later, after seeing… We saw Wayne a month after that in Philly, and it was the same band. It was burning. Miles was burning and had opened up the concert!and The Giants Of Jazz with Monk and Buhania and Dizzy and Stitt demolished the show!!! Anyway, years later, I got to know Wayne when we did the Tribute Tour for Miles ! In 1992, they wanted to do a tribute tour to Miles, and the first person to call me was Wayne Shorter. The reason why they’d called me… They’d wanted to get with Miles before, but they never got back to play with Miles again. Miles had passed, and circumstances prevented them from doing that, so they decided they were going to get together, and they wanted me to do it instead of Freddie! I had played with them earlier and I understood the language and things they pioneered, through Miles. The trumpet player had to have played with Miles. And I was the only trumpet player that played with Miles. Miles didn’t like a lot of the trumpet players out there, that was important!!!

So before we started, Wayne called me. Tony had already let me know that this was going to happen. Actually, I had gotten a message from somebody before…I don’t even know where that came from. Anyway, once we solidified it, Wayne Shorter called me, and we became like best friends immediately. We got together at the rehearsal, and we started playing together and we started joking together. It was so weird. It was like a person I knew all my… Like we were brothers. I appreciated that, and every town we would go in, me and him would walk the town. Every town, every place, we’d get off the plane, we’d wait a couple of hours, he’d say, “Let’s take a walk,” and we’d walk as much as we can.

So as Wayne and I developed a beautiful relationship, I was telling my brother about it, who idolizes Wayne still. Finally it got to a point where I was going to Wayne’s house a lot and we’d hang out. Just watch TV… Or crack jokes or eat, Herbie would come by and we all hang!!! Of course we talked music too!!! It got so bad, I almost was living there! I guess Ana Maria was like, “When is Wallace coming now?” So one day I took my brother over to see his idol in his house. And Antoine was cool. He had been talking to Wayne on the phone by this point. But he got over to Wayne’s house, and he started talking, and he started talking about saxophones. Wayne pulled out this new horn he’d just gotten, and he started playing. When he started playing, my brother’s mouth just dropped and froze. Wayne said, “What do you think this sounds like next to this one?” My brother never said a word! He went back to that little kid at 9 years old, and wouldn’t say a word! The funny thing about it was, Wayne kind of chuckled. Wayne realized what… He was beautiful about it. So Wayne talked to him, at him, through me, and Antoine just sat there until we left the house. When we left the house, Antoine said, “that was Wayne Shorter.” Oh, it was so funny. He went right back to 9 years old.

TP: What was it like for you when you first played for Miles? I get the sense your response was always something like you belonged there.

Roney: Yeah. But, I don’t know why.

TP: But you had an inner confidence.

Roney: You know what? It was just, to me, comfortable. I don’t know why. It was just comfortable. Now, there may have been a lot of times when I could have been scared. Or not scared. What did Ray Leonard say? “I’m concerned.” I like that, because as boxers, we get in there, and you’re…you’re not ‘scared’ but you can say ‘concerned.’ There’s been times I’m on the bandstand, especially when I first came to New York… I wasn’t extroverted. I was always more introverted. I might not take a lot of stuff if people say something to my face. But I have a healthy respect for the music and musicians, and people.

But when I first went to Miles’ house, he opened the door, and the first thing he said to me was, “I never liked Brownie—Clifford Brown.” That’s the first thing he said. “Not that I was jealous. He was a nice enough guy. I just didn’t think he played as good as everybody said. Him and Max played fast all the time because he couldn’t swing.” Then he said, “Max stopped swinging when he left Bird.” That’s the first thing he said when I walked in the house, and I was like… I heard him. And I loved Clifford Brown. I loved Miles more. But I loved Clifford Brown. But I was thinking to myself: You know, this is my idol; this is the master of music that even Clifford Brown had to look at at some point. Now Clifford’s gone; Miles is still here. I want to understand what this man is saying. I want to understand how to take these notes, these phrases, these statements, and make them more than a formula or an approach. How do you get from here to here and effect the whole music? Not just the music but someone’s emotion with the music. He’ll play a note or he’ll play a phrase, and it will be perfectly right, but it will affect the whole atmosphere ! You can say it was polytonality, or it’s rhythmically this, or whatever you want to say—and it will be correct. But what’s in his mind. And I was hearing melodically, that way melodically.

So, man, when he said that, I was like, “Yes, sir.” We sat down, and I remember he talked to me, told me I remind him of himself, gave me a horn and he said, “Play this.” I just played. He probably heard a lot of him in me, of course. Then he gave another horn, and he said, “Play that.” So yeah, I guess I didn’t feel concerned enough that it would have hindered me from playing. Or whatever it is. He heard something in me, and I appreciated it.

TP: Let’s go back to addressing this body of music, and examining it, to being able to perform it.

Roney: Well, you’ve got to examine it, because you’ve got to know what you’re doing. If you don’t, then you’ll be hitting and missing. So the examining part is… But after you understand what you’re doing, you have to flow. You have to be in tune with yourself. In other words, when I play, I play like I talk. If I answer your question by going, “How can I say this grammatically to make it work?” I let it flow, because it’s natural. And if it comes out awkward, it comes out awkward with a flow. You know what I mean more than if I say, “I am going to be as concise with my interpretation of how I process this music.” You see what I mean? I can say it more elegantly if I ”

So you have to do both. I learned from Miles that he was a great student of the music. He definitely was theoretically sound, or even better than that, innovative, because he was always questioning and pushing the boundaries of, If you can do this, what if we did this. With or without breaking the rules, but maybe trying to stretch it and twist it or adding to it, recovering it. So he was that kind of guy.

TP: Did he talk to you about Wayne?:

Roney: Yes, he did talk to me about Wayne. He talked to me about Wayne, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and Prez and Hawk. He talked about them the most. He also talked about Hank Mobley and a lot of other guys he didn’t like. I heard everything.

TP: What did he say about Wayne?

Roney: He loved Wayne. He thought Wayne was amazing. He thought Wayne was the next after Trane. And when he said “the next, after” he didn’t mean it as a putdown. He meant after Trane, he couldn’t handle more saxophone players, because they all were playing in a earlier that Trane had gone well past and taken further. After that you don’t want to hear anyone play stuff that they had already surpassed , because Trane had already beyond that and more. It took a long time until the advent of Wayne Shorter, and Wayne Shorter was the next one that played in a way that Miles said, “Yeah, He picking up right there, he’s going right where Trane is, he’s starting right there.” They’re sharing ideas… He loved him. There’s other saxophone players he would say either they were playing licks, or they would play these things that proved to other saxophone players that they knew how to play this thing. He called it “duty playing.” He said he hated it. Wayne didn’t play like that. Trane didn’t play like that. Bird didn’t play like that. They can hear in between the notes!

TP: It’s my understanding that this configuration is your quartet, with Lenny White on drums, Buster Williams on bass, and Victor Gould on piano, and also an orchestra.

Roney: Yes. Steve Turre is with me. Mike Lee is on tenor. I’ve got other people with me, too. Steve takes a solo on one piece.

TP: How often have you performed the piece now?

Roney: We did three nights at the Jazz Standard, and we did it at Poussin Rouge, and we did at the Drom, and last week at Marcus Garvey Park—so six times.

TP: Has it evolved?

Roney: Oh, yes, it’s evolved. It’s a hard piece. A lot of things that didn’t get played are being played, and then we’re adding more things to it that were written that we couldn’t add at the time because we just tried to get it done. Parts that might have been left out. So yes, it has evolved. And still evolving!

TP: How many pieces are there?

Roney: Four pieces.

TP: Are they a suite or separate pieces?

Roney: Separate pieces.

TP: Having now lived with this music for a while, can you break down why these pieces are so important, and what they contribute to the creative music community now?

Roney: They are important because, again, it was written at the time, in one of the most important periods, or an important evolutionary period in music and human life that has not been surpassed yet. A Revolution in life and music and culture that still hasn’t been honored! The music has taken different directions. But the evolution and the innovations that happened during that period between 1965 and 1969 are still being misunderstood and explored and unexplored, and not understood, and nobody can really grasp what really happened. I don’t really think those guys… Well, they can individually, but… So this is a moment still that is… Like I said, it’s like finding the Dead Sea Scrolls. The next thing that was hidden and didn’t get there.

The interesting thing about this piece is it’s futuristic. It was written then, and it sounds like it wasn’t written today—it sounds like it was written for maybe 50 years from now. It’s very futuristic, and it was written from Wayne’s mind as a young man. Now you hear Wayne’s pieces, he’s writing from his mind as a wise older master. Now, the difference is: As a wise master, he might not use as many notes to get from point-A to point A+, because he understands that you can do this, or he might have another way of doing things, or he might use a cluster of notes. Back then, he used everything he could think of. But the thing is, it was an optimism with that. So it might have been 100 million notes, but each one of those notes had the energy and optimism in it, and they all meant something, and they all say something. So with that, you still had the same mind of that master, who he is today, but in a younger form.

TP: As far as your own other activity, what other things have you been working on during the last year?

Roney: I’ve never understood that question. “Other things.” There’s never another thing. The thing is a commitment to the music!!! And what you’re doing at the moment is that commitment and the next thing is the thing that evolves out of it.

TP: What was the thing you were doing before this?

Roney: Music !!! Let me tell you why. Because it’s part of me, my band. I don’t do anything else but play! Well, I’ve done all-star bands, but you do all-star bands because they make you do it or you can’t do anything else, or put you in a certain position to have to do it. When I do it, I make the best out of it. I try to make a very creative statement out of what they want. But when they allow me to do this, this is what I do. And this is an extension of what I’ve done last year, five years, ten years ago. It doesn’t stop to me. It’s not another thing. It’s the same thing. It’s the next day. It’s a commitment to playing. So if you ask me that again, I’m just going to say I never understood that. It’s just a commitment to playing.

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Filed under Wallace Roney, Wayne Shorter

For George Coleman’s 85th birthday, a 2016 Downbeat Interview and interviews on WKCR from 1994 and 1995

To honor the 85th birthday of tenor saxophone maestro George Coleman, here are three interviews — most recently, a long one conducted in 2016 for a shortish Downbeat “Beat” section article on the occasion of his SmokeSessions album A Master Speaks (his son, drummer George Coleman, Jr., was also present) ; then WKCR interviews in 1994 and 1995, pegged to club appearances.   Several years ago, I posted a 1995 WKCR interview that I did with Mr. Coleman and the great drummer Idris Muhammad, a frequent bandmate,

 

George Coleman (Feb. 8, 2016):

TP: This is your first recording as a leader in 18 years. Tell me how it developed.

GC: Basically, Eric Alexander conceived the idea. He said he wanted to produce a CD with me.  He discussed it with Paul Stache, and Paul thought it was a good idea, too. He selected the personnel, too, which is excellent—Bob Cranshaw and Mike LeDonne, and Junior playing drums, of course. I didn’t need control. They said they wanted to produce the record, and I said, “Go ahead.” There was no conflict.

TP: From what you just told me, doing records has not been your forte.

GC: No.

TP: By which I think you really meant that you haven’t been offered terms satisfactory to you on too many occasions over the years.

GC: That is true. And the record scene out there with a lot of young people doing records just to be doing them… That was one reason… I didn’t want to just do a record to be doing a record. A lot of times when you do records, they just sit on the shelf and collect dust. Some of the record producers…once they get the money that they invested, they’re not too particularly interested any more. At least that’s the way I’ve always felt.

TP: You were saying that you inaugurated Smoke in 1989.

GC: Yes, that’s right. Sometimes when these things happen, I’m really not aware of them. But I’m constantly reminded that I was the founder.

TP: you told me that Joe Farnsworth called you, who used to play at Augie’s a lot…

GC: That’s right. And the late, great Junior Cook. They used to play there quite a bit. Several other good players. James Farnsworth, who I didn’t know and never met, who passed away at a very early age. He was a baritone sax player who I heard was very talented. The Farnsworth family is a talented family. John playing trombone and saxophone now. Great.

TP: I’d think that your agreeing to do this recording after an 18-year gap for the reasons stated denotes a certain respect for and trust of Paul and Frank Christopher and the club.

GC: Yes. Sometimes things are not about money. They’re about integrity. It’s about people really interested in your product, and feel able to put it out in a commercial atmosphere, where you might get some record play. Something that people may have wanted to hear from you. There have been so many times over the course of these 18 years when people said, “Man, when are you going to make a record?”

TP: There was recording in 2002 of a collective group, The Four Generations of Miles recording.

GC: Then I did a thing with the Saxophone Masters, with Joe Henderson and Billy Pierce.

TP: that was the early 1990s, though.

GC: Also Live at Yoshi’s. Danger: High Voltage with the octet in the ‘90s, maybe 1996.

TP: The last one was I Could Write A Book on Telarc, with several things in odd-meters…

GC: There was one thing in 7/4, on “Lover,” just a little tempo change.

TP: So since then, there’s the Four Generations of Miles recording and I guess you played on one of Joey DeFrancesco’s records.

GC: I did some recording with Joey and did some gigs with him. Fantastic player.

TP: I didn’t get everything you told me about playing with Mike, and how it differed for you from playing with Harold, who you’ve played with for so long.

GC: Mike adopted some of the harmonic things that he heard us do. He’d be in the audience, listening to Harold when I’m playing with Harold. So he had a sense…he knew what to do harmonically for me, and he knew what I liked. Of course, I would always tell him about certain harmonic things that I wanted him to do, but he already knew that, because he knew we were inventive when we were up there. We were always trying to invent a different harmonic pattern, or something a little bit…not really unusual, but not done too much in this age, especially by young players.

TP: What’s not done too much? Not working out new harmonic patterns on the bandstand?

GC: Well, not even playing some of the old ones! There’s a lot in the old ones. Back in the dawning of the bebop era, there were so many harmonic things that were happening during that time that people have forgotten about. They don’t even do them now. You can play a standard and inject these kind of things. They’re oftentimes illustrated in original music, too.

I’ve always liked playing different tempos, key changes. That was really my motto. I guess probably a lot of record producers weren’t interested in that concept, because it went into the so-called fusion, rock, funk, jazz, whatever they’d like to call it. So I really wasn’t interested in that. I had some aspirations maybe to do a string album or something. Then I had one of my students from years ago who became a very good string writer, and started writing for Hollywood and California. He told me, “Man, I sure would like to do a string album for you.” But we couldn’t get the money together.” So it’s a lot of different things. A lot of things interject and interfere with certain projects you might feel you want to do. It mostly boils down to money.

TP: Did you do a big with this band before going into the studio?

GC: No.

TP: you didn’t do like two nights at Smoke or something like that?

GC: Well, I guess we did. Didn’t we?

GEORGE JR.: We played with Bob, myself, Big George and Mabern at the Disability Pride thing, but that was a year ago. That was the closest the band was to playing together. But I’ve actually worked a lot with Mike up at Smoke. He’s hired me a lot of times. So I was always very comfortable playing with him. But really, this particular band, we never really played before. The first time we got together was when we were in the studio.

TP: You didn’t even rehearse before you went in the studio.

GEORGE JR.: I came over here a couple of times…

GC: We had a little rundown over here.

GEORGE JR.: Just me, George and Mike, but not with Bob.

GC: Bob was a little under the weather, and it was cool, because he knows…

TP: His ears are amazing. With Sonny Rollins for 55 years.

GC: You don’t need to rehearse with him. That guy! Of course, he was at Sesame Street for over thirty years, right?

TP: On one of these radio shows we did… Remember I was telling you that you brought Idris to the station once in 1995. Here’s what he said: “George is special to me because he’s always working at new things.” He said that the night before you came to the station, you “were playing some stuff, and my left hand was going crazy, and I was trying to play what George was playing in my left hand and keep the rest of the things going, and it was pulling me, and I said, ‘No, I’d better stop myself,’ because I happened to stop my cymbal ride and my bass drum beat, because it’s a challenge to play with him.” He said, “George is a fellow who’s always working on something new and he’s always progressing, and for me to play with him, one of the greatest things is just watching George play, and hear him always reaching for things, new things. When I play with George in the band, it’s always something new. Every time I play with him, he’s always progressed.” Is that still the way you think about things? Are you still trying to find challenges?

GC: Well, not consciously maybe. The things just happen. I just let things happen. But I am trying to think academically when it comes to music. I am always looking at other alternatives. So in that sense…

TP: Would analytically be the word?

GC: Well, somewhat… Things just happen. Sometimes especially with my type of playing, a lot of things are not planned, but we have certain things that we know that we can do. We’re playing “I Got Rhythm,” we’re playing the blues, we have some alternatives that we can do, and we invent those sometimes into the program when we’re playing. We do that. So it keeps things interesting for us. Modulations, so to speak. Because some people shy away from modulations. They said, “Well, you play it in this key. “No, I’m used to playing it in A-flat” or “I’m used to playing it in B-flat” or whatever key. So they don’t want to go to another tonality, but I do. I do. I might take a tune and maybe go to three or four keys. That’s the things I like. That stimulates my mind, my thinking about the harmony and stuff. So what Idris was talking about was probably along that line.

TP: He’s far from the only one.

GEORGE, JR.: What I would say, the interesting thing about… It kind of pisses me off, too. The things that George and Mabern have developed over the years in terms of their ability to take a standard tune with standard changes, and really just reinvent it and look at it in a completely different way harmonically, but not doing it where they’re beating you over the head, like, “Yeah, this is what we’re doing”… It’s just kind of a natural progression and a flow of the great musicality that they have. Part of it, of course, they’ve played these standards a million times, so they want it to be interesting for themselves. But they also want them to be interesting for the musicians they play with and for the people who listen to them. Many times people are like, “Well, these guys are still doing what they did 50 years ago.” But not really. Sure, they might be playing a lot of the same standards, but their harmonic approach to it is different every time. To me, as a person either in the band or experiencing it, it amazes me. I never feel like… I’m not saying this because he’s my father, or Mabern… It just seems always fresh and it’s always interesting, and it’s something you don’t hear from a lot of musicians, even great ones. It’s not something that’s easy to do. They make it look so easy and sound so easy, I think a lot of people think it’s easy to do. But it is not.

TP: Otherwise more people would be doing it, as they say. They also noted that you and Mike played duets at a party celebrating your selection as an NEA Jazz Master at Smoke, and that put the finishing touch on the notion that you’d do a record.

GC: Yes, they had a little press party for me, sort of a little celebration at Smoke. Maxine Gordon organized it. She went to Paul to tell him, “Yeah, we’ll just have a little thing.” A few of my friends came by, musicians and people who had helped me through the years, like Jim Harrison and Matt White and people like that, who had been producers of jazz for many years. So it was a nice little celebration. I enjoyed it, and a number of musicians came by. My son made a nice speech for me, and recognition for the NEA Award and everything. It was nice.

TP: How did you feel about that award? Did it mean something?

GC: It meant something, sort of. But I looked at all the years before, and I saw a lot of other people who I thought deserved as much or more than me, who hadn’t received it. Like Harold Mabern. He’s been over there at William Patterson teaching for over thirty years, and he’s been playing for over fifty years with various artists throughout his history. Wes Montgomery. He was Joe Williams’ musical director. So he has an extensive repertoire.

TP: He played with J.J. for a while.

GC: J.J. A lot of people. I said, “Well, I’m getting it, but Mabern deserves it just as much or more than I do.”

TP: That being said… As we discussed, your discography as a leader is shockingly low for someone of your stature and the respect you’re held…

GC: Well, my personal discography.

TP: Not as a sideman, of course.

GC: There was a French guy who wrote a book about my discography. I’ve got it around here somewhere. But as far as recording with other people, I’ve recorded almost with everybody. There are so many people I’ve recorded with. There’s a lot of material out here, and a lot of material that I don’t even know about that people call me to tell me. “Man, I heard this fantastic recording of you where you were in Italy, you were in Germany, you were in Switzerland…”

TP: There’s a great youtube clip of you in Vittoria with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Billy Higgins. If I could use the word “killing”…

GC: That’s what George says. On that, I played “Dolphin Dance” from that Maiden Voyage thing; I hadn’t played it since the recording.

TP: Let’s talk about the repertoire on  A Master Speaks. As far as I can tell, you’ve only recorded one of these before—“Blondie’s Waltz” on Amsterdam After Dark. Maybe you’ve performed some of these pieces, but they aren’t cited on the online discography I consulted. Was that a deliberate choice?

GC: It was just some tunes we selected that I wanted to do. I figured that it would be good as far as repertoire. That’s how that came about. There was no special thing. I got rushed, because they wanted some original music, and I haven’t written original music in some time. So I had to come up with this original music in a week or so.

GEORGE, JR.: Great stuff, too.

GC: So the stuff I came up with was pretty spontaneous. Nothing really complex. I said, “I’ll just put something together that we can do real quick.”

TP: I think the complexity comes in the interpretation.

GC: That’s just it.

TP: A couple of the tunes made me think of some signposts. Perhaps in discussing them we can touch back on your personal history. “Blues For B.B.”—I guess B.B. King passed around the time you recorded it.

GC: That’s it. Pretty much.

TP: I know you played with him from 1953-55, and I think George, Jr., posted the youtube clip “Woke Up This Morning” on Facebook.

GC: That was his first hit, and probably the first R&B Latin beat, too.

TP: It sounded like a tango in the “St. Louis Blues” tradition.

GC: It was sort of like that, a rumba, whatever you want to call it.

TP: What was B.B. King like before he was B.B. King, so to speak.

GC: Oh, he was a great guy. B.B. was easygoing and very entertaining. He liked the idea of our little jazz concept that we had before he would come on the program. Of course, the people would be asking for him. We’d be playing these jazz tunes. We had a great arranger-composer during that time in Memphis, a guy by the name of Onzie Horne, who later became Isaac Hayes’ musical director.

TP: You’ve also mentioned a guy named Robert Talley, who helped you learn harmony and…

GC: Great piano player and arranger, too.

TP: You said he’d show you things on the piano.

GC: Yes. He’d show you some things that you might learn at Berklee, the chords they call half-diminished chords that he’d call minor 7s or flatted 5s, which is the same thing. That’s the way I learned it back in that day. I didn’t know anything about half-diminished with the slash over the zero. Just minor 7, flat 5, which is a half-diminished.

TP: Did you play piano?

GC: I learned arranging piano, and that’s basically what I do now. But I do know harmony somewhat on the piano.

TP: So when you were learning the saxophone, more or less self-taught…

GC: Same thing with the piano. I was a self-taught pianist. But I was around people during that time when I just started playing, about two years into playing. I was around people who were very learned, and they showed me things. They didn’t sit me down and say, ‘here’s a lesson; we’re going to have a lesson.” I would just sit and… I’d be around them, and if I sat down at a piano with Bob Talley, he would say, “Well, this is such-and-such-such.” So those guys were my teachers during that time. I was teaching, too, during that time. With everything I would learn, I’d show them. Like with Mabern. He wanted to know the changes of “All The Things You Are.” He’d be playing boogie-woogie during that time. This is during the early stages of his development. So I would show them whatever I knew. That’s where my teaching experience expanded to pretty much through my entire career. I was teaching what I was learning.

TP: You mentioned that you transcribed all the Charlie Parker solos you could get your hands on from the 78 records.

GC: Yeah, we did that. Not only me. There were a lot of other people doing that back in that time.

TP: In Memphis?

GC: Yeah. There were some guys in Memphis who did that. But this was all over the U.S.?

TP: Sonny Criss had already split by the time you were playing, right?

GC: Yes. But I met him years later in Paris, when he had moved to Paris. We had a nice relationship. Great player.

TP: But all the saxophone aspirants of your generation and younger were listening to Charlie Parker and forming a style.

GC: Everybody was listening to Charlie Parker. Piano players as well.

TP: And you were initially an alto player.

GC: Yes.

TP: B.B. King bought you your first tenor?

GC: That’s right. It was one of those things where it was a switch. That’s when the switch was made. Prior to that, I was just playing alto.

TP: In an interview I read, you said you had gone on the road with B.B. King and had your first airplane flight when Charlie Parker died.

GC: That’s right. From Memphis to Houston. I arrived in Houston and heard the sad news that Bird had passed away.

TP: Do you feel your approach to tenor is influenced by having played alto so much early on?

GC: Maybe. Probably. The transposition is a fifth. But it’s the same keys. 12 keys is 12 keys. If you’re playing tenor in the key of C, that’s G for the alto. It’s a different sound; it’s a different key from what you’re playing—the two together. It’s like a fifth. Ok. It’s a fifth. Of course, there’s a different embouchure you have to consider when you’re playing alto, and even with the soprano. You’ve got to have chops for all these instruments that you play, if you’re doubling. But since I was pretty well versed in keys, the switch was not that difficult to me.

TP: Keys came pretty naturally to you it sounds like. Obviously you worked hard, but it doesn’t seem to have been that big of a struggle.

GC: Well, one of the things was, we played in these country places where these pianos were out of tune. Terribly out of tune. So sometimes we had to play in the other key. If you were playing in C, you might have to play C-sharp, one of those abnormal keys…I won’t say abnormal, but it was abnormal because…

TP: Unusual maybe.

GC: Unusual. That’s the term. So through that, transposition and tonalities and things like were introduced to me at a very early age through that.

TP: Do you have perfect pitch?

GC: No, I don’t. But sometimes I can hear keys. Right now, I keep a tuning fork right near my bed, and when I hear something on Music Choice on the television I’ll test my pitch to see if I… I’m between 75%-85%.

TP: In those R&B bands when you were a young guy, the musicianship was very high.

GC: All those guys…a lot of those guys could write, and they were writing for some of the R&B people. Like…

TP: Floyd Newman.

GC: Floyd was in the band with me. He was the baritone player. Me and him are the last ones out of those 35-40 people, including the bus drivers, the people doing the booking during that time—all those people from B.B. King’s band, 1955, are gone.

TP: You might have been the youngest player in the band when you joined in 1953?

GC: Maybe the youngest. I’m not sure. I was probably 18 when I did “Woke Up This Morning.” That was the first actual recording I ever did, period, R&B or jazz.

TP: Did you solo on any other B.B. King recording?

GC: No, that’s the only one.

TP: You moved to Chicago in 1956, though. What precipitated your move to Chicago?

GC: It was a rich environment in Chicago. All the great players were there. Gene Ammons. Johnny Griffin. Sonny Stitt would come in from time to time. Of course, Bob Cranshaw. Muhal Richard Abrams.

TP: You played with the MJT+2 for a while.

GC: Walter Perkins’ group.

TP: Muhal was the pianist before Mabern joined.

GC: He was the first one. He was the original.

TP: Wasn’t Nicky Hill the first tenor saxophonist?

GC: Yes, he was. Nicky Hill. He was a great player, too.

TP: But what made you want to go to Chicago? Did you know it would be like that? Did someone suggest it? I think you told me that Chicago was the second stop.

GC: Yeah. From Memphis to Chicago, and from Chicago to New York. That was the geographic transition. The great thing about Chicago, and the great thing about Memphis, too… When I left Memphis, I was fairly equipped to be ready for Chicago. When we came into Chicago, the three of us, me and Mabern and Frank Strozier, they said, “Damn, them guys from Memphis, man…” So we were the rave during that time. All the Chicago musicians said, “Where did these guys come from?” So we were respected. Because we could play a little bit. But we learned a lot from people like Griff and Gene Ammons, all of them. Those were the great talents on the saxophone during those years. Clifford Jordan was there, too, though he’d left before I arrived. I met him later in New York. I think he left probably around the early 1950s, maybe ’53 or something. I got there in 1956 and he’d left.

TP: You had a gig at Budland next to the Pershing. It started at 6 in the morning, with Prentice McCrary on organ.

GC: that’s right. Chicago was 24 hours. There was a place called the Cotton Club that was open… It was Cotton Club first, and then they called it Swingland. They would have a bass on the stand and a set of drums, and guys would come in at all hours of the morning and night to sit in and play. That was the atmosphere in Chicago. The gig on Saturday started at 11 o’clock p.m. and went to 5:30-6 a.m. After that you had a gig that started at 6, or 9. In the Club DeLisa, on 55th and State, all the show people came to the breakfast dance. I’m trying to think of the drummer’s name.

TP: Red Saunders.

GC: Red Saunders had the band there. It was a great scene, man. It was 24 hours of music, polish sausages and barbecue.

TP: All those things that are bad for you.

GC: But it was good for you, too, because the music was so enlightening and rewarding. It was great. I feel very good about that transition I made from Memphis to Chicago. I might have made it from Memphis to New York, too. But that’s not what happened. The Chicago atmosphere prepared me for anything else I might have had to encounter in the New York scene. That in itself was a great experience for me.

TP: Did you have offers to record while you lived in Chicago? I’m asking because John Jenkins recorded for Blue Note, Clifford recorded for Blue Note, Ira Sullivan…

GC: Well, Lee Morgan heard me. He came through and heard me, and he wanted me to come to New York and record with him, which I did.

TP: On City Lights.

GC: Yeah, that was my first recording, along with House Party and all that stuff. All those things were recorded together. I did House Party with Jimmy Smith, and I did City Lights with Lee Morgan. I played alto and tenor.

TP: Are those representative of the way you sounded then?

GC: Heh-heh. I didn’t think I did too well on them. But I got through enough. I just got through. I wasn’t happy with any of the solos that I did. But I was experienced. I could look at a sheet of chord progressions and know how to improvise on that. That’s what happened. Then in the latter years, what I did with Herbie, it was the same thing that happened. On Maiden Voyage we went to the studio, Lynn Oliver’s on Broadway and 70-something, in that area. That’s where all the guys used to go rehearse for Blue Note—two hours. Next day, over to Rudy Van Gelder’s. Pickup at the Empire Hotel and to Rudy Van Gelder’s.

GEORGE, JR.: You told me an interesting story about that record. The first day of the recording, the drummer was different. It was Stu Martin?

GC: Yes. Stu Martin was pretty much under the impression that he was going to do the date. I think there was a little bit of politics involved in this. Herbie had promised him. He said, ‘Ok, Stu, you got…” Stu wasn’t bad, but, you know, he wasn’t Tony. So Alfred Lion, he was very opinionated about the music. “It doesn’t schwing. We can’t do that; it doesn’t schwing.” And if it didn’t swing, shit, he’d cancel the debt, pay everybody off—and that’s what he did on a couple of occasions.

TP: Quality control.

GC: Yeah. If he didn’t like it…ok, you’re finished.

GEORGE, JR.: So you guys just went back to Rudy’s the next day?

GC: We went back to Rudy’s the next day. Stu didn’t even know that he wasn’t on it. There is a cut with Stu playing “Maiden Voyage.” But I can’t remember any other takes on that stuff we did. Once we did the first take, that was it. “Dolphin Dance,” first time. Had to read the changes, because I wasn’t familiar with that harmonic thing. So that’s what happened. Now, “Maiden Voyage” was very simple, but “Dolphin Dance” was not so simple. He had different harmonic structures there that were… To this day… It’s an intricate little tune.

TP: Hard to tell you hadn’t played the stuff before. Sounds like you’d been playing it forever.

GC: I think we got lucky a little bit. What it is, is experience. Freddie hadn’t played this stuff either. We did a two-hour rehearsal, and we rehearsed all the stuff we did on the record. But it’s just two hours. You haven’t had time for that stuff to soak in so that you can really feel you’re in a positive improvisational situation. You’re thinking, “Well, I’ve got to read these chords; I’ve got to play this line.” But it came off ok. If you’ve got a little bit of experience… I didn’t have a helluva lot of experience in recording, but I knew what I could do, and…

TP: You did it.

GC: Yeah.

TP: Max Roach brought you out of Chicago?

GC: Yes, he came through when I was workign with the MJT+2. We were at the Blue Note. Frank Holzfiend was the owner.

TP: Max hired you and Booker Little together. You were very close to Booker Little, like a kind of older brother.

GC: Yes. Well, see, when I joined Max’s band, it was Kenny Dorham in there. When Kenny left, that’s when he got Booker. He called Booker in.

TP: How long were you with Max?

GC: Only about a year.

TP: you’re on 7 recordings with him between April 1958 and January 1959.

GC: Yes.

TP: You’ve called that a “finishing touch” kind of gig. Playing at tempos, odd meters…

GC: Oh yes, that was a really great experience for me. Then with the Slide Hampton Octet was another great experience. These are pianoless groups. But you still had to know your harmony. You still had to know what the chords were. We were playing chords. There was no piano, but we were playing chords. There was a bass there, and the drummer and no one else. So how could you go wrong. Nelson Boyd and Art Davis—great bass players.

TP: Mabern has told me about discovering Ahmad Jamal through Bill Lee.

GC: When I arrived, Ahmad was there. The king of Chicago. It was in a place called Pershing Lounge, right next to Budland, the place I used to start at 6 in the morning.

TP: I’m asking about Ahmad Jamal because you made that wonderful record with him.

GC: Oh, yeah. It was always mutual respect there. I didn’t know him that well, but I knew him somewhat. And he knew about us—meaning the guys from Memphis. Frank Strozier recorded one of his things, a big band thing. He played flute and…

TP: How did that recording with Ahmad Jamal in the ’90s come about? And what was it like playing with someone who comps behind you like an orchestra?

GC: I didn’t get in his way, so to speak. I just laid back and let him dictate. That was the thing when we made the tour. It was just like that. He’d come in and do his thing, then he’d bring me on. I always wanted to stay out of his way. I didn’t want to play while he was doing his trio stuff. But he would call me up, and then we had some special things that we would do with the quartet after he’d call me up. But his thing was… It would have been too complex to try to play with the stuff that he played. Because it was so unusual. Even when I would do those recordings, it wasn’t just straight time patterns… If it was a 32-bar pattern, he might put a tag in there for about 16 bars or so. So it was never anything that was strict. So I had to be listening for all of this stuff. I think that’s one of the things he likes about me, because he knew I could hear all this stuff he was doing.

TP: I guess the last piece here, “Time To Get Down,” a Rhythm piece, has an Ammons-Stitt feel to it.

GC: Yes.

TP: “These Foolish Things,” which you did in duo with LeDonne, makes me think of Ammons, of course, and it also made me think that two of my favorite recordings of yours are tenor-piano duos with Tete Montoliu, on Timeless, and with Richie Beirach on Triloka. Can you talk to me about playing when the drummer isn’t there.

GC: Tete Montoliu was just a fantastic guy. He was blind, but all he had to do was hear something, and then he had it. I don’t care what it was. It was fantastic. He could be all up with the minor third stuff, “Giant Steps” progressions; he could hear that. He could play that. It was remarkable how he would do that. All the double diminished stuff that people play today, he could hear that and play all of that. He was phenomenal. Tete Montoliu was one of the great musicians that I had the great pleasure of playing with.

Richie was great, too. Richie wrote these arrangements for me, for soprano and tenor, and we rehearsed them at his house on Spring Street, and we went to the studio and did them. There was no problem, because we had gone through them somewhat. He had 2 or 3 originals. Then we had a couple of standards that we did, I think. Then we had “Infant Eyes” that I had never played. Wayne Shorter tune. Great tune. I had never heard that.

TP: When you’re playing duo, do you approach things differently when there isn’t a drummer? I guess I could also ask if you play differently when there isn’t a chordal instrument? Those are challenging situations for you?

GC: It’s always challenges. The thing that helped me so much is the fact that, when I used to practice, I’d just pick up my horn, pat my foot, and play like I had a drum there, or everything was in time, in tempo. That’s the way I used to practice. So when it came to playing duos, before I had played solos, nobody but me. I would practice tunes like “All The Things you Are,” with the right tempo, playing all the changes in them. “Cherokee” I would practice with up-tempo, the same tempo, with the changes. So when I got with Max, you know, Max was right there with the time. You didn’t have to worry about the time. He’d bring you back, bring you in and take it out. His sound was impeccable. So you didn’t have to worry about that. In the case of Slide Hampton, of course, he had the octet there. It was six horns that would play backgrounds. So in a sense, you had a bit of harmonic lift there; you had a pianistic accompaniment. He’d play some written backgrounds behind you. But a lot of times, you played the with just bass and drums.

TP: I guess with Elvin Jones, there was no chordal instrument either.

GC: Same thing. Me and Frank Foster had a wonderful time. I had the gig with him in 1968, 1969. I went with Lee Morgan in the early 1970s. Elvin was another great musician. I’ve had an opportunity to be with the greatest!

TP: Well, with Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Billy Higgins, you’re not doing too badly.

GC: That’s the top! For me to come up in that, people like Tony Williams…I mean, that wasn’t no problem. Tony Williams was great, too. But I had been with all of those guys, man. Elvin Jones, Max Roach and Billy Higgins! So time… I was always conscious of time, and they had such a great beat, each one of them, that you could float on their beats. By that I mean they swung so much, to use a better word, the swinging is like a pulse you get from playing the music.

TP: You were never with the Messengers, though.

GC: I was never with the Messengers. But I liked Art Blakey. I think I might have played just one gig with him. Not his gig. We were just on a gig. This was a day when he didn’t have no sticks, so he had to play with a coat hanger.

TP: there’s a tune called “Sonny’s Playground.” Is that Sonny Rollins?

GC: That’s Sonny Stitt. That was one of his signature things, which is a very difficult key to play the blues in—D-flat, concert. Of course, back in the old days, guys…that’s an old thing. “Woodchopper’s Ball,” that was in D-flat, and guys were playing tenor solos. But Sonny Stitt had another plateau with the D-flat blues. He was so technically efficient. That’s what you have to be to play that way in the key D-flat, which is transposed E-flat for the tenor saxophone. But Coleman Hawkins and those guys, like, in that classic “Body and Soul,” that’s D-flat. So D-flat is a key that’s a challenge for any saxophone player, and probably a pianist, too, or any other instrument. That’s why “Sonny’s Playground.” That was his thing. D-flat, fast tempo, very technically involved when it comes to fingering.

TP: There’s a youtube clip of an interview by Brian Pace, I think, where you talk about sitting in with Ammons and Stitt in Chicago, and making sure they knew you could hang with them.

GC: I was on the stand with him and Gene, and I was playing with them, and he tried to trip me up. He went over to Andrew Hill to change the key, and Andrew said, “that ain’t gonna bother him!” So after that, Sonny said, “Ok, look, man, you sit this one out. Me and Gene got it.” That’s the way it was.

TP: After that, you were best friends forever or something like that.

GC: Well, George’s mother used to play with Stitt. She played bass with him and organ. But he couldn’t quite place me. He didn’t know that this is Gloria’s husband. He just thought, “Who is this guy who always comes around and wants to sit in?” But I did one thing with him one night, but he was ok with it.

TP: “Darn That Dream” is another one of those classic ballads that it’s hard to believe you never recorded before. Is “You’ll Never Know What You Mean To Me” your…

GC: That’s LeDonne’s tune. I came and sat in with him one night, and they were playing it, so I heard it from the audience. I said, “Let me try a chorus of this.” So I grabbed Eric’s horn, and the first time I start playing it. He said, “Haven’t you heard this?” I said, “Yeah.” But it wasn’t that hard. [SHOWS ME THE TENOR PART]

TP: To me, it looks hard.

GC: But it’s not! It’s not really that difficult. But it’s got changes in it, and it’s a nice little tune, with a tag on it. But that’s LeDonne’s tune. That was a great little tune.

TP: Has “Shadow Of Your Smile” been part of your repertoire for a while?

GC: Well, back in the old days I used to play it.

TP: But you never recorded it.

GC: No. But Paul Stache mentioned it. He said, “Why don’t you do ‘The Shadow Of Your Smile.’‘ I said, “Ok, sure.”

TP: You’re easy! People think you’re difficult, but you’re easy.

GC: No, I don’t have no problems, man.

TP: “Invitation.”

GC: “Invitation” was something I wanted to play. My wife loved that, God rest her soul—Carol Hollister. So in memory of her I brought a thing out to play it. It’s a good tune.

GEORGE, JR.: It was the last tune we did on the date.

TP: It’s the first tune on the mix on the sequence that I received. I can’t do this piece and not ask you about your time with Miles.

GC: Make that as a conclusion.

TP: You mentioned that apart from Charlie Parker, Coltrane was a big influence on your concept and that Sonny Rollins was someone you were also checking out, but though you listened to many people, there weren’t really other influences.

GC: Strangely enough, I had influences back to the time when I started. People like the R&B players, like Louis Jordan. I think Sonny Rollins mentioned him, too. Louis Jordan influenced me, because I was playing alto during that time, and Louis Jordan was an alto player. There was Earl Bostic, of course, from that era. Tab Smith.

TP: All the lead alto players.

GC: Lead alto players, but great soloists.

TP: Did you hear Hank O’Day, the guy Hank Crawford took his name from, and Sonny Criss dug?

GC: Oh, yeah. I knew him. He was a nice guy. Helluva pool shark, too. He could play all bank, man. Those guys down there, they weren’t playing black ball or rotation. They were playing the whole thing. And five rails in the corner. They could take a ball here, and it would be sitting here, they’d say, “Ok, four rails in the corner.” The ball goes, BING, BOMP, BING, BING, and back, and hit that ball and knock it in, and wouldn’t scratch. Those guys…so they could do more… Slim Waters, my adopted father, who was a trumpet player, he was a pool shark, too. Then there was a guy who was in the barber shop. It was right across the street from the pool hall. I’d be sitting around, looking at them, and then I’d go back to Mitchell’s Hotel and practice. Your horn would be on the bed. It probably never was in the case. I’d take it out of the case and it would be there.

TP: So you were living at the Mitchell Hotel.

GC: I was staying in the Mitchell’s Hotel.

TP: Did you grow up in Memphis proper?

GC: I grew up on the north side of Memphis. Manassas High School.

TP: You had a teacher named Miss Thomas who would play you the Moonlight Sonata and you’d have to analyze it.

GC: See, I had basic elementary music education. I knew what the great staff was. I knew bass clef, treble clef, I knew what the lines and spaces were, and the names. I knew all of this stuff. Because that’s what they taught you in your first elementary education. Then we had music appreciation, where she would play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and you’d have to identify it. What is this? All the basic stuff—whole note, quartet note.

TP: You had a thorough bedrock for a self-taught musician to build on. Then it was up to you.

GC: That’s right. I wasn’t even playing a saxophone during that time when she was teaching basic music, like the lines and spaces and clefs. I was playing a little bit. I could read a little bit. I was playing in the concert ball and also playing football.

TP: Were you a good football player?

GC: Not that great. I could tackle, and I had pretty good hands. Of course, I missed a pass one time that was right in my hands and broke my finger. It’s still bent. [SHOWS ME] I never bothered to have it straightened. I’ve worked with it all these years.

TP: Back to Miles. You sat in with the quintet, I guess, with Wynton Kelly, Coltrane, PC and Philly Joe, and they called something real fast…

GC: I called it. They asked me what I wanted to play, and I called “Lover.” So when they heard me play “Lover,” I think it probably convinced Miles. It was up.

TP: Did Miles or Coltrane know you from Chicago?

GC: No, I don’t think they knew me from Adam, as a matter of fact.

TP: Well, could just anybody sit in with Miles and Coltrane at the Bohemia?

GC: Well, I was there, and I heard them, and I asked to sit in. I didn’t have no horn, so Coltrane gave me his horn and I went up and played. I think they knew a little something about me.

TP: From Max maybe?

GC: Well, maybe. First of all, I think Trane was getting ready to leave, so he needed a replacement. So he recommended me. I never knew that.

TP: But Hank Mobley and Stitt came before you.

GC: I replaced Hank Mobley.

TP: This is what you told me a few years ago, and you fleshed it out more in an interview with a guy called Dan Miller for All About Jazz. The gist is that you were cramping their style because they wanted to mess with the form…

GC: You’re talking about Herbie, Ron and Tony.

TP: Yes. You said to Miller that you’d be out front because Miles would go to the bar for 10-15 minutes, it was cramping their style and it would drive them crazy, and then one night you decided to take your solo outside, and that calmed them down for a while.

GC: Yes. After they heard that, they knew that I could play that shit if I wanted to. But I didn’t want to.

TP: Why didn’t you want to at the time?

GC: Because I was playing the repertoire of the leader, Miles Davis. He was playing his solos and stuff, but we were still playing the standards. We were playing “Autumn Leaves.” We were playing “Walkin’”. All that stuff. But they wanted to take that concept somewhere else when they were on the stand without him. I wanted to continue playing… First of all, as I said (and this is true), people thought I was Miles. When he wasn’t there, they thought I was Miles. Did you know that?

TP: I didn’t know it until I read your remark about that.

GC: Yeah, man, they thought I was Miles. People would come to me at the end of the set and say, “Oh, Mr. Davis, such wonderful music. Really. Thank you so much. Can I have your autograph?” It was something I didn’t like. I didn’t want to be out there trying to be him. First of all, the stature was different. I am 250 pounds, and Miles Davis was maybe, wet, 150 or 160. So they just didn’t know! He wasn’t there. During that time, he was in considerable pain with his hip. And some nights, I guess he didn’t really want to play. He would come in the Vanguard and play one set. After the first set, he’d be gone. So the second set, we’d have to play. Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams.

GEORGE, JR.: He had hip and back problems back in those days?

GC: Well, he had a bad hip, and it would pain him. He was in extreme pain. So a lot of nights he wouldn’t make it. Strange thing about it, though, is the next night when he would come in… The first night, when he wouldn’t show up, there would be lines of people waiting for him. But we’d be in the club, and we wouldn’t show. So the club owner would say, “you guys go up and play tonight, and I’ll tell them that he’ll be here tomorrow night.” So when tomorrow came and he was there, there were still lines of people, probably a longer line than there was originally.

TP: Part of it is, “will he show up or night?” People thought like that then.

GC: Yes, they’d think like that. They said, “I’m going to get there, because I wonder if he’s going to show.” Because he’s like, you know, the high priest. That’s why I decided I couldn’t deal with it no more. Too much friction between them and me. That wasn’t the case off the bandstand. Oh, they were great pals with me off the bandstand, because I would have the girls. See, after the gig was over I’d always have me a girl, you know, a girl who would come to the room, and then they’d be coming, knocking on my door. “Hey, let us in, man.” So it was all pals. But when it came to the bandstand, it was another story. But it was a great experience. Wallace Roney told me (and they all know this), “Man, Miles didn’t want you to leave.” I do remember that day when he called me. “Are you coming back, man? Come on.” I said, “No, Miles.” “Why don’t you come back, man?” I said, ‘you know…” And he knew I was having problems with them. They were trying to get me fired anyway. They wanted to hire Sam Rivers, and after that they got Wayne Shorter.

TP: I guess Sam was Tony’s mentor in Boston, so they were very close.

GC: Exactly.

TP: And then Wayne, I’ve heard, had talked to Miles while he was still with Art Blakey, so politics were afoot in that situation as well.

GC: Sure.

TP: Do you think you’ll record again for Smoke Sessions?

GC: That’s a possibility.

TP: this one is coming out around your 81st birthday. I hope we can have one for your 82nd.

GC: Well, maybe. We’ll see. If this one goes good, and it just might… It might be ok. I’m not crazy about it, and that’s why I’ve been reluctant to listen to it.

TP: Do you have a favorite record?

GC: Some of the live stuff that I did with Wynton Kelly, I think with Ron McClure and Jimmy Cobb in Baltimore, at the Left Bank. Jimmy Heath came over to the house one night, and this guy sent me the transcribed solo of “Surrey With The Fringe On Top”—my solo. I looked at it and I said, “what?” This stuff looked like a classical selection from Stravinsky. It had all kinds of different weird… Jimmy came here, I said, “Jimmy, check this out.” he put the whole sheet on the floor. It was almost ten pages. So we put the record on and he started looking at it, and he said, “man, it looks pretty good to me.” But it was crazy. It was like groupings of 7th with one beast, 5s, 7s… Weird. Did I give you that transcribed…

GEORGE, JR.: No. You showed it to me and I took a look at it.

GC: I’ve got to find it for you so you can have it for the archives.

TP: george, why don’t you tell me what you said about your father at the NEA Party at Smoke, or synopsize it?

GC: Did you record it?

GEORGE, JR.: I didn’t. I don’t know if anybody did. But basically what I said was… This is echoed by anybody who knows George. Besides being…we don’t like to say “unsung,” because there’s plenty of people who love George Coleman. One of the funny things is, I have Facebook… George is not a big social media guy, so I handle all that for him. I remember as soon as I got on, I started getting all these requests, and I’m like, “Who are these people? I don’t know who all these people are.” Then I started getting notes from them, like, “Mr. Coleman, I love your solo on ‘My Funny Valentine’ and I saw you in Italy…”

GC: They thought it was him.

GEORGE, JR.: They thought me was him. I never went to “Junior” or anything. It was “little George” or something like that within the family. So it was interesting to me to see all of these people from all around the world who were touched by what George had done musically, and in most cases didn’t know him, and in some cases they may have saw him live somewhere in Europe or Asia or whatever. So that was really interesting for me.

But the thing I spoke to at the NEA thing was the concept of my dad being a wonderful human being. He’s helped so many people. I don’t know how many times George has had students come over and not taken money from them, basically wanting to share all this great knowledge, or people who were down-and-out and needed help, and George lent a helping hand. I also think that’s a testament to his great playing, that he’s also a great human being. People who don’t know George don’t know that about him. But I think that’s one positive aspect in terms of why he’s always been great with crowds. He’s a very giving person, and he wants the people who listen to music to enjoy themselves and feel like they were really special and part of something, because they are. I feel a lot of the approaches to music these days are less focused on the interests of the people who are actually attending the concert and more about the interesting things that the musicians are doing for themselves on stage, and that’s not what George is about, and that’s the lesson I’ve always gotten.

GC: Whatever you play, you’ve got to entertain.

GEORGE, JR.: You’ve got to entertain. Somebody told me one day “it’s not called ‘show art.’ It’s called ‘show business’ for a reason.” That’s the other thing about George. That doesn’t mean you diminish the sophistication or complexity of what it is that you do musically. It’s just something that you keep in mind. It could be something as simple as feeling the crowd out and maybe wanting to call one particular tune, which I’ve seen George do many times, where we’ll be in the back…I’ll have an opportunity to play with him, I’ll be in the back, and he’ll say, “here’s the set list,” and then we get onstage and we don’t do any of those tunes, because at the moment George feels this crowd just seems different, so this will work better. So it wasn’t like we played any lesser music. We just felt the vibe of the crowd, or he felt the vibe of the crowd…

TP: But he’s describing a very art-for-art’s-sake aesthetic, but then there’s another side that probably comes from playing for people…

GC: Miles Davis liked to play for people, too. All those guys. All the successful guys. Now, you’ve got people like Herbie and Chick Corea…they basically play for themselves. In a lot of instances, the stuff they play is for themselves. That’s their signature. But it might not be palatable to the ears of some people. Now, the staunch JAZZ people…you could take a nickel or a quarter and scratch it on some glass, and people say, “Oh, that’s great jazz.” But for people who really want to hear the people swing and want to hear some nice melody and nice rhythm and things like that…this is what some of the professionals I’ve come into contact with… I’ve been with some of the great professionals, like Lionel Hampton. Now, he was a showman, too. That’s what made them successful.

TP: Talent and showmanship.

GC: Yeah. Not necessarily showmanship… They would play stuff that the people would want to hear, play music the people would want to hear.

GEORGE, JR.: I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been at concerts, especially some of the clubs where a lot of tourists come, not necessarily regular jazz fans or people who live in New York, and they come up to me or come up to George and they say, “I’m not really a jazz fan, I don’t really like jazz, but I love what you guys are doing.”

GC: Yeah, that’s right.

GEORGE, JR.: that says to us that we did our job.

GC: I’ve been with a lot of people in showbiz. Even Max… All the guys I worked with, they played stuff. Max knew the people like “Valse Hot,” and they liked to hear him play 3/4. They knew things… I’m sure when Brownie was in the band and Harold Land, they played stuff that people were anxious to hear. “Daahoud” and all that stuff they recorded, they played that stuff, man, and they swung and it sounded so good, and it was up-tempo stuff. When Sonny was in the band… People liked to hear that. This is back in the day, though, Ted. The ears today, the youthful ears… I think they are somewhat deprived, because they don’t realize what it used to be like.

 

 

George Coleman (WKCR, 4-27-94):

TP: You’ve played so long with Harold Mabern and Jamil Nasser. You must go back at least forty years.
GC: Yeah, that’s true. We’ve been together for quite some time now, and it’s always a great experience playing with these guys.
TP: When did you first meet Mabern? Was it back in Memphis?
GC: Well, we were in high school together. I graduated a little ahead of them — well, him. Jamil was over at Booker T. Washington. We were going to Manassas High, which was on the North Side, and Booker T. Washington was on the south side of the city. Of course, the two schools were rivals. They were the top black high schools in Memphis during that time.
TP: Did they have good band programs?
GC: Yes, they had very good band programs, both of them. Both schools had nice marching bands. Of course, their forte was basically, though, I would say probably athletics. But there were some good musical programs.
TP: There also was probably a lot of work in Memphis for a talented young musician in the late Forties and early Fifties.
GC: Well…sort of. You had the R&B thing during that time. That was the popular music of that day. But of course, there was some Jazz there, too, also.
TP: A few words about some of these early working experiences. A lot of bands either would come through Memphis and would be based in Memphis, and it was a center of a certain aspect of the recording industry.
GC: Oh, yes. Well, during that time we’re talking about the early Fifties, late Forties. We had people like Count Basie’s band coming through. The guys would always come to this little place, which then was known as Mitchell’s Hotel. It’s long gone now. It was right on the corner of Beale and Hernando, and the proprietor was a guy by the name of Andrew Mitchell, affectionately known as Sunbeam. He just recently died, a couple of years ago. But he was very generous to musicians coming through during that time. A lot of times guys would be stranded, and they could always get a meal and a bed.
A lot of guys were coming through during that time. A lot of the R&B bands would come up and sit in. There was just a session. There was always a session there.
TP: It seems to me that having so many musicians come through, you’d learn very quickly how to edit your playing and how to approach soloing and so forth.
GC: Yes. I feel that we did have an advantage coming up in that time period, all the musicians who came up during that time, because there was a lot of exposure to the music — and everybody was trying to get involved with this great music. There was a lot happening. There was a lot happening for young musicians. Not so much today, because you’ve got to search high and wide to try to find a session, a jam session, whereas during that time, man, there was always somebody playing somewhere, or rehearsing some music, some original music or whatnot.
TP: Even so, it must be quite gratifying for an older musician from Memphis to see the talent that’s continued to emerge from there, or the hundred mile area, particularly the great group of pianists.
GC: Yes, there has been quite a talented array of pianists coming from Memphis — Mulgrew Miller, of course Mabern, the late, great Phineas Newborn, James Williams, Donald Brown. So it’s a pianist’s city. There’s another pianist named Charles Thomas who is also from Memphis. And there’s always some younger guys coming up.
TP: Often at the Vanguard you’ve worked with Billy Higgins or Carl Allen, sometimes Idris Muhammad, but I can’t remember you working with Jimmy Lovelace at the Vanguard.
GC: Well, Jimmy, affectionately known as Lace, has been a great drummer for many years. He goes back to that period of the Fifties. He’s always been an excellent player. And although he doesn’t get a chance to play as much, whenever he sits down on the drums, he really gives account of himself. He’s always there swinging and playing with taste and good chops, too. I don’t know how he does it, because he doesn’t play that much. Well, I think he’s playing a little bit more now. Anyway, we’re very happy to have him.
TP: A few words about the two others in the band with whom you’ve been playing for so long, Jamil Nasser and Harold Mabern.
GC: Well, they’re always excellent. They just know what to do at the right time, and their repertoire is always extensive. They know just hundreds of songs, and we have quite a few harmonic devices that we use. We always listen to each other, and that’s how we formulate and really get a groove going, because we listen to each other rather than just close your eyes and just be playing. We’re always listening for something that will help us to communicate.
TP: Will all three of your horns be in evidence this week?
GC: Well, yes, I’ve been trying some new stuff, you know, and hopefully it will work out pretty good. But those are tricky instruments, the alto and the soprano.
TP: Well, you started off as an alto saxophonist, didn’t you?
GC: Oh, yeah. That was my original instrument.
TP: How did the switch to the tenor come about? Because of the function of rhythm-and-blues gigs, you had to play tenor?
GC: Yes, that story was when I went to join B.B. King. That was when I switched to tenor. Because he had an alto player. He didn’t need a tenor player. So I started playing tenor then. That was circa 1955, somewhere around there.
TP: We have a few tracks cued up from recent recordings that you appear on. One is with Hilton Ruiz. There is a partnership there over the years as well.
GC: Oh, yes. Well, Hilton and I have been on tours together. As a matter of fact, he was the pianist on my first European tour as a leader, with a quartet, going back to around ’76 or ’77,.
TP: That was documented on Timeless, an LP called Amsterdam After Dark.
GC: That’s right. Billy Higgins was the drummer on the tour, but Sam Jones wasn’t with us. He was playing with Cedar during that time.
TP: According to the liner notes, you brought this piece in for Hilton’s last date for Novus, A Moment’s Notice, a piece called “Strange” featuring you and Hilton Ruiz as the primary soloists, also Andy Gonzalez on bass and Steve Berrios on drums, dueno and timbales as well.
GC: It’s an old song that a lot of people don’t know about. It was recorded many years ago by Nat King Cole. He was the first artist that I had heard perform the tune. I always liked it. I liked it harmonically, and it had a nice kind of little Latin thing to it. So I thought that would be quite appropriate for Hilton’s date. So I did introduce it, and he decided that he wanted to record it.
[MUSIC: Ruiz-Coleman, “Strange” (1993); Beirach-Coleman, “Flamenco Sketches” (1992); Coleman-Henderson-Pierce-Williams, “Lo-Joe” (1993)]
TP: Are we to assume that “Lo-Joe” is a dedication to your partner on that date, Joe Henderson?
GC: That’s correct, yes, yes.
TP: I was just asking you 30 seconds how long it took everyone to nail that down.
GC: Well, they got it pretty quick, I must say. Of course, when we play it now, we play it very fast. We play it up-tempo.
TP: That wasn’t up-tempo?
GC: No, that wasn’t really as fast as we play it. We use it like for a chaser when we’re coming off. Heh-heh.
TP: People who want to sit in, beware, because George will probably put that one on you and change the key three or four times as well! Preceding that was a duo with pianist Richie Beirach on “Flamenco Sketches” from Kind of Blue. That’s from a date I enjoyed very much that didn’t get distributed as widely as it might have, on the Triloka label, Richie Beirach and George Coleman, Convergence. That brings to mind another duo date you did in the 1970’s with Catalonian pianist Tete Montoliu. And another thing it brings to mind is that George Coleman spent a couple of years with Miles Davis. So I’ll have to ask a question that brings all of that into play. You said that the song itself was new to you when Richie presented it to you.
GC: Yeah, I had no idea of what it really was. I just looked at the chord progressions and just improvised from that. Of course, I’m assuming that that’s basically… The way it sounds, the way I remember it, I might have heard it maybe once, the rendition of Miles Davis. When I heard it, that’s basically what it was. I didn’t hear any kind of profound melody. It was just something that seemed to be a slow ballad-type thing with just changes and free improvisation. That’s what it sounded like to me.
TP: So this one didn’t get played when you were part of the Miles Davis group.
GC: No, that wasn’t a part of the repertoire at the time.
TP: Since we’re on the subject, what were the circumstances that led you to joining Miles.
GC: Well, strangely enough, I think I found out much later that it was John Coltrane who recommended me for the job.
TP: How long had you known John Coltrane?
GC: Well, I didn’t really know him that well. I had met him a couple of times. He was a very, very beautiful guy, always there, very humble, and was just a sweetheart of a person, always there to help you. I remember one time I came down and sat in with the band. This is at the old Bohemia down on Barrow Street. This is many years ago. This is when I first arrived in New York. I was with Max during that time, I think. Anyway, he let me play his horn, mouthpiece and everything. So I sat in and played with Miles, and I guess evidently I had made some kind of an impression on him. Because when Trane got ready to leave, or when he asked him about people, he recommended me.
TP: That must have been an interesting band to play with. Was it different every night? Were the tunes treated in a different way?
GC: Yes. Well, a lot of people oft-times comment about that, wondering if we really rehearsed those things we were doing, or if the rhythm section really rehearsed. No, this was pretty much spontaneous, everything… We had a format, though, of course. I would play counter-lines behind him or some little harmonies, and these were set things. But as far as into the guts of the tune, all kind of things might be happening. There would be tempo changes, or 3/4 in a section which if it was a 4/4 tune it would do. They were very inventive, I must say. The rhythm section was very… They were young guys, and they were interested in doing new, different things. As a matter of fact, I was probably considered the old man, heh, the old post-Bebop player! I was trying to adhere to basic rules of Jazz playing, and they were on another plateau. They were moving out. They were getting ready to do some different things, which they did.
TP: Can you elaborate on that a little more?
GC: Well, yeah. There were times when they felt I was kind of cramping them. Because I was always pretty much a straight player. But one night I stretched out and played a little free something for them, and they were all amazed. All of them including Miles, because he had left the bandstand, and when he heard what was going on and said, “What was that?!” Of course, Herbie and Tony and Ron, they were all very I guess pleasantly surprised — because that was that one night. But I didn’t do it any more after that.
TP: You figured you’d made your point.
GC: I just wanted to show them it wasn’t impossible for me to do that.
[END OF SIDE]
I would love to do something with maybe Ahmad Jamal one of these days.
TP: Were you checking him out when you were living in Chicago in the mid-1950’s?
GC: Oh yeah. He was the house band at the Pershing Lounge for many years. So we would always go there and hear the trio with Vernell Fournier and Ahmad and Israel Crosby, a great bass player. Every night, man, they were there hitting. They were there hitting right in the lounge of the Pershing Hotel, and he was there playing so magnificently every night.
Chicago was such a great place during that time, man. I mean, you had music twenty-four hours a day. I tell people that.
TP: And they say, “What do you mean, twenty-four hours a day?”
GC: Yeah! Well, actually I had a gig that started at six o’clock in the morning at a place called Budland that was adjacent to the Pershing Hotel. They had a little place there, and we used to start at six in the morning. Then there was another place up on State Street…
TP: Who was your band?
GC: There was a guy named Prentice McCrary. Johnny Griffin would know who that is. Most people would not know this guy. But he was the organist, a very good keyboard player. I can’t remember who the drummer was.
TP: What type of people would be going to these six in the morning gigs?
GC: Well, people who have late gigs or early morning. Bartenders and waitresses and people like that, they would be up that early time, at that time of the morning! Just like the after-hour joints that used to be here in New York!
TP: It’s hard these days to conceive of an actual gig that hits at six in the morning.
GC: Well, they had something called the Breakfast Show at the Club De Lisa during that time, the famous Club De Lisa on State Street in Chicago. That started at like 8 o’clock in the morning. Nice show, beautiful show, dancers and singers and whatnot. This guy Red Saunders was the bandleader there for many years. He was a drummer, and he had that gig sewed up for many years.
There was a lot of excitement there in Chicago during that time, a lot of excitement and a lot of opportunities for young musicians to learn the music. There was another place where Johnny Griffin used to play all the time, a place called Swingland on Cottage Grove. He had bands in there. The music was continuous in there. After the regular gig was through, there were instruments on the stand, drums and bass, and people would come in at all times of morning or night. It just never ended.
TP: You had had a lot of experience playing the Blues in Memphis, so I guess Chicago must have been a place where you were able to get gigs and further develop yourself.
GC: Yes, that was a second stage. I had had some experience in Memphis playing with bands and doing a little bit of reading and a little bit of arranging and whatnot. But when I got to Chicago, that really opened up a different thing for me. That really gave me some very good opportunities to learn the music and to continue to develop. And meeting up with Johnny Griffin was one of those inspirational things.
TP: It’s a jam session town, and a tenor player’s town, and it was filled with great tenor players in the 1950’s.
GC: Oh, there was guys there… Also Gene Ammons was there during that time when I was there, and he’s such a wonderful player, and a nice guy, too. Of course, Sonny Stitt would come through from time to time. It was just great. There were a couple of other guys around there that nobody really knows too much about. There was a guy named Nicky Hill, who was an excellent saxophonist, a guy named John Jenkins, who just recently passed, an altoist — he was from Chicago. There was quite a few guys there, lesser-known people, but still great players.
TP: George Coleman is a musician who every time you think he’s topped himself, well, he tops himself the next time, and you can hear him with people he’s been playing with for years at the Village Vanguard this week, Harold Mabern on piano, Jamil Nasser on bass, and Jimmy Lovelace on drums. The next track we’ll hear is from My Horns Of Plenty which you did for Verve a couple of years ago with Mabern, Ray Drummond and Billy Higgins, where you showcase your alto and soprano saxophone.
GC: I like playing these instruments if I can get a comfortable situation with the right kind of acoustical setting. If the mikes are right or if the sound is good, then I feel good about these instruments. But without these things it can be somewhat of a problem, as most people who play these instruments can tell you, especially a soprano. But I’m giving it a try this weekend at the Vanguard. I haven’t been playing them for a while, but I’m going to try to see what I can do this weekend.
TP: We’ll hear “You Mean So Much To Me.”
GC: This is something that I had conceived some years ago, when I was touring with the band that I told you about, with Hilton Ruiz and Billy Higgins and Ray. So I would always be messing around on the piano, trying to figure out what I was going to do with it. So I finally put it together, and thusly that’s what it is. I came up with a title. And Bill Lee, Spike Lee’s father, wrote some lyrics to it. It could be a singer’s tune.
[MUSIC: G. Coleman, “You Mean So Much To Me” (1989)]
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George Coleman (WKCR, 7-26-95):

[MUSIC: G. Coleman-A. Queen, “Soul Eyes” (1987); Coleman-Pierce-Henderson-Williams, “Lo-Joe” (1993)]
TP: You’ve been bringing in different drummers to these Vanguard weeks. Billy Higgins has been in there, last time Idris Muhammad, and this week Alvin Queen. A few words about Alvin Queen, and how you relate to different drummers, how they affect the way you play.
GC: I always try to get the best that’s available, and sometimes that can be difficult because the real good drummers are working. We’ve had Lewis Nash, we’ve had, of course, Billy Higgins, we’ve had Idris Muhammad, Carl Allen — and this week we’re having Alvin Queen, which is a blessing.
TP: How far back do you go with Alvin Queen?
GC: Alvin and I go back a bit. I first became really acquainted with him, so to speak, when I was in Europe touring in the 1970’s, like in 1975, and he came up to sit in with us in Rome. Prior to that, I was not really hip to how well he played. I knew he was a good drummer, but you never know until you play with people and really find out the finer points of what they can do.
TP: What are you looking for in your drummer when you’re playing? Is there a hierarchy of qualities?
GC: Well, there are several things. One of the basic things is keeping time, and then after that, imagination, taste and things of that sort. That goes into being a good drummer. You know, taste is the thing where a drummer can hear you do something, and he’ll dress it up for you. That’s in the vernacular of Billy Higgins and drummers of those dimensions. Of course, Idris Muhammad is excellent for that. But I’ll tell you, the real great drummers tend to be rare. There are a few nice young ones. You have Billy Drummond and people like that (who I haven’t had the pleasure of playing with that much). But the drum chair is a very critical chair. It motivates the structure of everything that’s happening, especially in a quartet situation.
TP: The drummer has to hold it all together.
GC: Oh yeah.
TP: Now, Harold Mabern is known for his very percussive and rhythmic style.
GC: Well, he definitely adds to the rhythmic portion of the band. He sort of anchors everything along with the drummer. He enhances the drummer.
TP: And a great harmonic knowledge as well.
GC: Of course. That’s another one of his fortes.
TP: Has that been there ever since you’ve known him? — I guess going back forty years plus.
GC: Yes, he’s always been interested in doing different things harmonically. And we have sort of a connection there, all of us, including Jamil, whereas we like to do different things harmonically. And sometimes these things turn out to be spontaneous, too; they’re not pre-planned. But that’s the way we think.
TP: Who were some of the good drummers you played with going back to your early days in music, in Memphis, some of the exceptional, strong ones?
GC: Well, there weren’t too many great drummers back there in Memphis during that time. There was a guy named Charles Crosby, who is deceased, who was one of the young drummers during that time who were… There just weren’t that many in Memphis during that time.
TP: I guess they had to keep time pretty well, because they had to play on the Blues circuit and so forth.
GC: Yes. Well, that’s what they were basically involved in. There weren’t many jazz-orientated drummers down there during that time. Only a few, and nobody would know who they are.
TP: Did you start getting involved with big-time, major league drummers when you moved to Chicago?
GC: Yes. Now, that’s when things started happening, because there were quite a few great drummers there during that time. Unfortunately, I missed Ike Day. He was that legendary drummer that Max and Art Blakey and all of the great drummers used to talk about. He was really something. I never got a chance to meet him or play with him. All of the great drummers, Max and Art Blakey and probably even Klook, they knew about him. He was just an exceptional percussionist.
TP: Who were some of the drummers that you did work with? Because when you came out of Chicago, you came out with Max Roach!
GC: Well, I was fortunate enough to have the cream of the crop, see. That was ultimate. And through him, my technique developed, because we were playing fast all night; most of the times, everything we played was fast.
TP: So it’s different dynamics on fast.
GC: Oh, yeah. The emphasis was on fast, really, with him. And of course, he was a pioneer in developing 3/4 in its association with Jazz. Max was the first guy to play 3/4.
TP: How did he link up with you? You must have joined the band in late ’57 or early ’58.
GC: Yes. Well, what happened was, I was playing with a group called the MJT+3 in Chicago during that time, featuring Walter Perkins and Bob Cranshaw, Muhal Richard Abrams, and a trumpet player by the name of Paul Serrano. We were playing a club on the North Side of Chicago called the Blue Note. Max came in one night, and he heard us, and he was very impressed. Then after that he heard Booker Little. As a matter of fact, I think that particular night he heard Paul Serrano, but he was very much impressed with Booker Little, because Booker Little was like what he was looking for in a trumpet player.
TP: What was that? What were those qualities?
GC: Well, he was looking for great technique and an innovative ability, and youth, too. And when Kenny Dorham left the band, that’s when Booker joined. He snatched Booker right away.
TP: You knew Booker Little about as well as anyone.
GC: Oh yeah. We grew up back in Memphis. I was amazed at his talent even when he was just a kid. He had transcribed a Miles Davis solo on “Star Eyes” note for note, and I was very impressed with that. Of course, he was just a phenomenal player.
TP: Can you tell the audience a little bit about Booker Little’s background and what you remember about his first forays into Jazz?
GC: Well, he was sort of like a protege of mine, in a sense, because he was a little bit younger than me, and I was, in a sense, like a teacher to most of the younger players there, like Frank Strozier… Not really a teacher, but I was a sort of a…
TP: …role model.
GC: Yeah, a role model, and I would put them in a catalystic direction as far as Jazz was concerned. I would tell them what to do, and what it was all about, and how to improvise, and what this chord was. And I was still learning, too, during this time. But I have been a teacher… Even during the time when I was learning, I have been a teacher. I am happy to say that and I’m very proud of that…
TP: It probably helped you learn.
GC: Oh, it did. Most certainly. And it has transcended through all the years that I have been involved with music.
TP: But did Booker Little have that incredible sound that we can always identify him with from his early years?
GC: Oh, yes. He always had a great sound, reminiscent of Clifford Brown — very mellow, you know. It’s almost a flugelhorn like sound on a trumpet. He never did have the blare. Even when he would go up to maybe a high D, the note was so mellow. It was not screechy. Of course, that’s a very high note on a trumpet. But he could play up there. He could play high F’s and it would sound so mellow.
GC: Who were the trumpet players that he was really paying close attention to? You mentioned him transcribing Miles’ solo on “Star Eyes.”
GC: Oh, yeah. Well, of course, Miles and Dizzy and Fat Girl and all the great trumpet players, Clifford Brown, that’s the people he was listening to. But he was not copying not one note from any of them! It was amazing, because he was a stylist at a very early age. He was playing like nobody but himself. Which was amazing, you know. If you listen to him, you don’t really hear… I mean, you hear little nuances maybe from different people. But his ideas were his own.
[MUSIC: Max Roach-K. Dorham-G. Coleman, “Parker’s Mood” (1958)]
TP: Right before you came on we heard a track called “Lo-Joe.” You’ve been a student of the tenor saxophone and of other tenor saxophonists for many years. When you came up in the 1950’s, when you started emerging on the scene, who were some of your contemporaries who you were really enthusiastic about at that time?
GC: There were quite a few. Of course, when I arrived in Chicago there was Johnny Griffin and Gene Ammons. Those were really the two that I was most impressed with during that time. Of course, Sonny Stitt would pop in from time to time. There was just quite an array of saxophonists on the scene at that time.
TP: How did listening to them shape your style, if at all? For instance, Gene Ammons.
GC: Well, my style was basically shaped through listening to Charlie Parker. He was the man for me, Charlie Parker. Then later came John Coltrane. But then there were so many others. There was Hank Mobley, of course Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Lucky Thompson, and Don Byas and some of the older players that I was very impressed with — technique and originality.
TP: Did you study their records, check them out live, transcribe solos, things like that?
GC: No, I’ll tell you. Those guys, the solos they played were very difficult to transcribe, man!
TP: Why is that?
GC: Because they were so unique. The stuff that they were playing was really… You’d say, “Man, that stuff’s not even on the horn, what these guys are playing.” Because they were so individual. They knew how to bend a note. I mean, you couldn’t even notate the stuff that they played. Even if you could write the notes, you wouldn’t be able to notate it because of the way they played notes — the way they slurred, the way they would bend the note, the way they would finger. There’s no prescribed way of doing that. Eddie Lockjaw Davis is a prime example of that. He’d hit a note, and it just would sound like it wasn’t even on the tenor, the way he played it. Of course, he was one of my idols, too. I loved the way he played, because he was so unique.
It’s been said in this modern day and age that there are so many young players out there, and they all sound the same. But during that era, everybody sounded different. You had Paul Gonsalves, you know. They were coming from different schools, like maybe Don Byas, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, but they sounded different! All of them sounded different. They played different ideas. Some of them had a tendency to have somewhat of the same kind of sound, so to speak, but even that was different. There was just so much difference in players. It was a challenge for you to come up in that era and not sound like those people. But I never would rely on anybody else’s licks. I would listen to it and analyze it. Like some of the diminished things that Coltrane used to play, all the saxophone players was playing those. And I loved the licks! But I would always turn it around and play it a different way. It would be the same kind of diminished sequence, but I would just maybe invert or do something else with it.
I think all of us have come from somebody. Like, the emphasis of a lot of players, especially the so-called avant-garde ones, they’re saying, “Oh, I don’t want to sound like nobody.” But you know, they don’t sound like nothin’! Most of them don’t sound like anything. They’re not musical. Now, that’s a harsh statement to make, but it’s true in a sense. Because saxophone playing is something that has dated back many years, and the expertise has been handed down through all of these great players. For somebody to just get up and just play meaningless notes without connecting is… But you know, you have the critics, they say, “Oh yes, he’s creative, he’s this and he’s that and he’s that.” That kind of irks me, in a sense. It disturbs me, because they don’t really know. They don’t really know. When I first started playing, I could make a sound, I could make a strange sound on the saxophone. But to put notes in order and to have them mean something, harmonically and rhythmically and melodically, that’s something that requires study, expertise and God-given talent.
TP: In the Fifties, it seems to me you were doing a lot of doubling, alto-tenor. There are a number of recordings with you on alto saxophone at that time. What was the primary reason why you went pretty much exclusively with the tenor saxophone?
GC: Well, I changed to tenor back in 1955, after playing alto maybe four years, because it was an economic necessity. I went with B.B. King, and he already had an alto player; he needed a tenor. So that’s how that came about. The rest is history. But alto was my forte, and was my first instrument. That was the instrument that I first began to play.
TP: What’s the difference between the two instruments for you?
GC: They have different characteristics, you know. Alto is a control instrument. Of course it’s a different pitch. Alto a sixth from Concert and the tenor is like a major Ninth or just a step away from Concert. But transposition-wise, that never bothered me, because I would play in all the keys anyway, even as as kid when I was coming up. So the keys was never a thing that… The transition from one key to another was never any problem with me, because I practiced all the keys on both instruments.
TP: Do you find yourself shaping solos differently on the tenor saxophone because of the different sound?
GC: Yes, that is a possibility that enters into the picture. When you’re playing alto there’s a couple of little things that you might think differently on alto than you do on tenor — and even soprano. They all have their own different characteristics, and it sort of influences as far as what you might play on each one.
TP: Are you playing only tenor this week?
GC: No, I’m struggling with the three! And if I can get some good reeds, that’s going to facilitate my performance a little bit better. But last night I had a terrible time with reeds.
TP: I’ll bet nobody knew but you.
GC: Well, sometimes that’s the case. But if there are musicians in the audience who know, and know about this problem, they can acknowledge the fact when things like that are happening.
[MUSIC: George Coleman, “Father” (1987)]
TP: Are you working on any recording projects right now? Any ideas in mind at the moment?
GC: Well, I am pursuing in my mind… This is something that I have been thinking about for a while. I would really like to do some strings stuff, maybe an album with strings and voices. This is something I would like to do.
TP: What’s the appeal of strings and voices? It seems like every strong jazz musicians wants to do at least one record with strings and voices.
GC: Yeah. Well, with a full orchestra behind you, there’s so much excitement and inspiration, in my mind, that I think I could probably do some things that maybe I haven’t attempted to do before, if I could have that kind of an ensemble, so to speak, behind me, with voices and strings. Because I’ve always liked that. I have some equipment at home now that I just recently set up. I have the music-writing stuff, the Finale and the Encore, and it’s all hooked up to the MacIntosh, and now I have this Roland Synthesizer, and just through that I’ve been hearing some different sounds. It’s inspired me to realize the potential of maybe being involved in a project like that. So that’s what I’m really thinking about doing. I don’t know who is going to help me do it, but…
TP: I’m sure there’s a big pool of arrangers and composers out there to actualize it if the money is there.
GC: Yeah. I’d like to maybe give a stab at doing one myself. That would give me a little more of something different from my octet writing.
TP: How about the Octet? A lot of people miss that group.
GC: Well, we’re going to revive it. Of course, the personnel is different. There’s a lot of younger musicians in it now.
TP: Who would be some of the young musicians you’d use if it were coming down to that.
GC: Of course, there’s Ned Otter, who is one of my students. Adam Brenner, who is another. Of course, Gary Smulyan, an excellent baritone saxophone player; he’s in the band, too. Of course, George, Junior, my son; he’s playing drums. Clint Houston has been playing bass. Of course, Harold Mabern is the pianist. And Bill Mobley from Memphis is the trumpet, another young man who is a great arranger and a great trumpet player. So with all of these ingredients, I think we can really do something. We’re going to start some rehearsals in the near future.
TP: We’ll conclude with George’s interpretation of “Good Morning Heartache,” composed by Irene Higgenbotham and sung by Billie Holiday. I’m sure you heard this one often as a kid.
GC: Well, I had only heard it through the rendition of Diana Ross. That’s the first time I had really heard that tune, and I was impressed with it. The first few bars are kind of strange, you know, but if you adhere to the melody you can get through it and interpret it. But it’s kind of strange. It’s kind of funny in the beginning of that tune!
[MUSIC: G. Coleman, “Good Morning Heartache” (1987)]

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For the 69th Birthday Anniversary of Pianist James Williams (March 8, 1951-July 20, 2004), A Pair of Interviews Conducted For The albums “Jazz Dialogues” and “Memphis Convention”

To honor the 69th birthday anniversary of pianist-composer James Williams (March 8, 1951-July 20, 2004), I’ve posted my liner notes for a magnificent 4-CD set of duos that he self-produced in 2003, titled Jazz Dialogues, as well as the interview that I conducted with him for the project. I’ve also posted a comprehensive 17,000-word interview that we did in 1993, when James asked me to write the liner notes for a pair of albums  (DIW) devoted to Memphis, Tennessee, his hometown — Memphis Piano Convention featured solo performances by “Memphis school” pianists Donald Brown, Harold Mabern, Mulgrew Miller, Charles Thomas, Russell Wilson, and James himself; while on Memphis Convention James convened those pianists as well as saxophonists George Coleman and Bill Easley, trumpeter Bill Mobley, and guitarist Calvin Newborn with the stellar bass-drum pairing of Jamil Nasser and Tony Reedus.

James was a very important person to me. He was frequently my guest on WKCR (someday I have to  transcribe the interviews we did on several Musician Shows and a Sunday profile), but also brought musicians who were important to him (Charles Thomas, as an example) to the station for interviews and profiles, particularly when he was booking his favorite pianists into Bradley’s, where he was an essential member of the rotation. The Memphis Convention dates were my second-ever liner notes, coming 12 years after I was given the opportunity to write the notes for Art Blakey’s Album of the YearJames was extremely giving, kind, gracious person, and a magnificent talent. He is missed.

One of my favorite tunes by James is “Alter Ego,” which Roy Hargrove recorded early in his career. I’ve linked to a youtube clip of a performance of “Alter Ego” performed live at Bradley’s by a trio in which James and Robert Hurst sidemanned for guitarist Kevin Eubanks. If you look very closely at the cover photograph, by Jimmy Katz, you may be able to discern the shadowy profiles of two women — one is my late wife, Donna Sturm, the other is her best friend, Lezlie Harrison.

I don’t have time to do full fact-checking or spell-checking on these texts, but will certainly respond to remarks from those who read this.

 

Liner Notes for Jazz Dialogues:

In January 2001, his fiftieth birthday fast approaching, James Williams decided to give himself, in his words, “an early birthday gift.” The result is “Jazz Dialogues,” a summational program of 43 musical conversations on a capacious repertoire spanning Williams’ own originals, jazz and songbook standards, even a composition by 17th century Middle Baroque composer Henry Purcell. “Jazz Dialogues” takes place between Williams and 24 top-shelf improvisers, almost all of them friends from his three decades as a professional jazz musician.

“It was a labor of love, something I’ve long wanted to do,” Williams says. “I didn’t think I could put together a big band, and I couldn’t do a concert with all of them, so I decided to make something a little different. I wanted to express myself in a wide range of approaches. Media seem to put me into one or two categories — ‘James Williams, oh, he was a Jazz Messenger, and his piano playing is soulful,’ and so on. I thought this would be a chance to break down some preconceptions about my total musicianship.”

Williams was a church organist in his native Memphis during formative years, and the voicings and time feel of spiritual music and the blues deeply inflect the sounds he conceptualizes and executes. His playing throughout Jazz Dialogues reminds us of the elegance and idiomatic authority with which he deploys the tropes of those languages, and of bebop and harmonic impressionism to suit the requirements of the moment. The tonal personality is cosmopolitan and downhome, flexible and holistic, attuned to storytelling and dialogue, averse to didacticism and self-absorption. It denotes sophistication, an open mind, and a willingness to listen, qualities that any pianist must possess to flourish in New York, where on any given day they must address new material, make sense of it, and impart to it a fluent, natural sound.

A member of the New York piano elite since he settled in Brooklyn in 1984, Williams honed his savoir faire the hard way — on innumerable wee-hours-of-the-morning solo, duo and drummerless trio jobs at various New York piano emporia, and through extensive sideman work with, to name a few, the likes of Boston drum-master Alan Dawson, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Milt Jackson, Benny Carter, Thad Jones, Art Farmer, Milt Hinton, Ray Brown and a host of others.

“There’s a certain energy, a certain swagger, a certain recklessness,” he says of the New York state of mind. “Carefree might be a better word for it. When I think of New York, all those things should be present, up-close and personal. But New York is also very unpredictable, and that’s the perspective here.”

Williams made sure that would be the case by organizing the recordings in a manner suited to imperatives of spontaneity and confident professionalism.

“We did the date in 3 days, and I had everyone come in at different times, every two or three hours,” he recalls. “Some things were planned and others were spontaneous. Steve Nelson has played with me a lot, and he showed up with my book of music; we ran down the tunes — very in-the-moment. I wrote ‘Le Wizard de Basso’ for Ron Carter, which we’d played on a tour with Billy Cobham and Donald Harrison. I wanted to hear Joe Lovano’s take on two of my originals, and after a couple of runthroughs we did them on the spot. Ray Drummond often played ‘For My Nephews’ with me at different piano rooms; I didn’t even have to bring out the music. The only vocal I rehearsed in advance was the Purcell piece with Roger Holland and Thomas Trotter. I wanted to make sure I could play it! Freddy Cole taught me ‘That’s My Desire’ and ‘Close To You’ in the studio prior to the recordings. I told Miles Griffith that I heard his voice with ‘These Foolish Things;’ he said he knew it, and we found a key and did it. Etta Jones told me she’d never recorded ‘Skylark,’ which I thought was perfect, because I didn’t want anyone to sing songs they’d already done five or six times on record.

“I basically wanted to make everyone do things a little differently than they would in their own situation. Usually, I let them lead and zoned in quickly on their mood at that moment. I didn’t go by their reputation and what they’d recorded. If we were laughing or silly and clowning around, I’d try to bring that kind of buoyancy. If they were playing behind the beat, I had to make sure that I wasn’t following them so much that the tempo would drag or things would get sluggish. Throughout, I was less concerned about how well I played as a soloist as much as I wanted to be really on top of my game as an accompanist. Accompanying means being a team player, even if, in a sense, I am half of the team. I wanted to move things along, to do two or three takes maximum, and not have anyone work that hard. I wanted it to be more like a gig or a party.”

The festivities never flag; from start to finish, “Jazz Dialogues” documents serious musicians having serious fun.

[—30—]

 

James Williams for “Memphis Convention” Liner Notes (1993):

Q: I think we should talk about the different people on the album, and why you wanted each of them, and your experiences with them over time.. So your brief biography, let’s say; your brief account of the circumstances through which you know everybody.

JW: I will say that there are numerous artists from Memphis that I really wanted to participate in this session as well, that deserve to have been there perhaps moreso than I did, but due to the fact that, obviously, for one session it wouldn’t be fair if we had everybody…if we had each and every soloist from Memphis that deserved to have been there. No one would have gotten a chance to play much more than a chorus at best. So it was a decision made on several factors, some of which were availability and things like that, and who was interested in doing it at that point in time, that we came across… But fortunately, everyone that did participate in this particular session was a high priority anyway.

Q: Let’s start with the veterans, because it’s a multi-generational project. Calvin Newborn.

JW: Calvin Newborn, of course, is from one of the distinguished families and one of the first families of Jazz, especially down in Memphis. Of course, everyone knows of his brother Phineas. But his father… He really got his experience, both of them did, playing with his father’s band, Phineas Senior. They had many great artists come through that group while they were there in Memphis playing in perhaps the late Forties or early Fifties in particular, including people like Frank Strozier and George Coleman, Booker Little, Jamil Nasser, and different ones that would come through who actually played with that family band. And it literally was a family band, because Calvin’s future wife, Wanda, at that time was also the vocalist and trombonist in the group, and others participated along the lines(?), and all of the guys doubled and that whole thing.

So I think he was essential, because he is really one of the premier Jazz guitarists to come out of Memphis. And of course, he’s excellent in his own right, in addition to being Phineas’ brother. Had they not even been related, he would have deserved to have been there.

Q: I think you may have been the person responsible for bringing him into Bradley’s a couple of years ago.

JW: Yeah, that’s correct. He played up there with a quartet that I was leading. We had just a real festive time. And people that consider him one of their mentors, people like George Benson was by, Milt Jackson came by to see him, Kenny Burrell sent regards… It was just really a real, like, homecoming, because he hadn’t played in New York in over thirty years at that point in time..

Q: Would you say that Calvin Newborn is the primary source of a certain guitar style…? What are his sources as a guitar stylist?

JW: I think it would probably be Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery and Grant Green in particular. I’m sure there would be others that he would name and he would have been influenced by. But particularly, those are the three I think that can serve as inspirations.

Q: Was he playing in Memphis at the time you were there?

JW: No, actually he wasn’t. As a matter of fact, his brother only had moved back when I was just kind of peripherally starting on the Jazz scene around there, and playing… I was a student in my early days at Memphis State. And Calvin wasn’t living in Memphis at the time. He was still traveling with Hank Crawford’s group and doing, I imagine, some other freelance work, but still living in Los Angeles during that period of time, and really didn’t move back to Memphis until the Eighties or maybe the late Seventies perhaps. And of course, that was after I had left and gone to Boston, and subsequently come to New York.

Q: Let’s talk about his rhythm section mate, Jamil Nasser, who in the Fifties in Memphis was known as George Joyner.

JW: That’s correct. Likewise, I didn’t know Jamil in Memphis at all, too, because he left in the early Fifties, going into the Service and later on playing with B.B. King’s band — both he and George Coleman. B.B. really transformed George from an alto player to a tenor player. And Booker Little and a few others got to work with B.B. during that period of time. And of course, B.B. was at that time living in Memphis himself.

So I met him a little bit later. I saw him play in about 1975, after I had moved to Boston, with the Ahmad Jamal Trio (he was a member of that group for about ten years). Then occasionally, he would come home. I do remember him coming back to Memphis one time prior to my leaving Memphis, but I didn’t get a chance to meet him on that particular occasion. And he would still come down maybe once a year. Because both of his parents, I may add, are still living in Memphis, and his sisters and brothers. One of his brothers is a distinguished minister down in Memphis as well.

So I got a chance to know him a little bit there, and then I met him a little more… I got to know him much better in the latter part of the period he was with Ahmad, and then he played Monty Alexander for a while. And then I guess I knew him even better at the time he started working with George Coleman’s quartet, and we would be on certain tours together, for instance, in Europe or something like that when I was with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, or they would play in New York or come to Boston or something like that.

Q: How would you characterize Jamil’s playing and contribution at the session?

JW: Jamil is certainly inspired by people like Oscar Pettiford and Ray Brown, and he is really a throwback, which a lot of the younger bassists have kind of gone back to more, or being a bass bass player. I mean, that is really coming in there and playing good time for you, walking you to the Moon and back, making sure everything feels real good for the soloist. I wouldn’t say that he was a distinguished soloist in his own right. But he gives you everything you need, the right kind of energy, the right kind of pulse and sound for that, and really knows how to drive a band, has an extended repertoire of standards and things like that, and is really… When you hear the word “bass,” it really typifies what he or Ray Brown or Milt Hinton or some of the young bass players like Christian McBride and Peter Washington and others who are coming right along, and bringing that tradition back. Because it’s like when you build a house, when you say the base, it’s got to be something firm, and you can build everything else around that. And the same thing with building a band, an ensemble around the bass and subsequently the rhythm section.

Q: Were there any bassists in Memphis who preceded him and who he might have listened to as a young musician in the late Forties and early Fifties?

JW: I’m sure there were. Because Jimmie Lunceford is from Memphis, and that band was there… Of course, I don’t know some of those names, unfortunately, that I can’t call. But I would love to speak to him about that, and find out…

And a bassist that came up of note after his time, who is a contemporary of mine is Sylvester… [PAUSE]

A bassist of note, a young, charismatic bassist who is named Sylvester Sample, as I mentioned, one of my contemporaries, grew up there. But his specialty… He played the bass violin, but he was a magnificent Fender bass player, and he was one of the first ones… He was kind of innovative in his own way, because he was one of the first bassists to play the fretted bass, combining the Jazz bass with the fretted neck and, you know, things that people like Jaco Pastorius and Jeff Berlin and Stanley Clarke eventually started picking up on and doing a little bit later. But he chose to become an engineer, a civil engineer, and didn’t pursue music full time as a career. And now he’s in Chicago, and he tells me he’s now thinking that he really wants to come and do some things like that. But he was really, really something, and really was instrumental, because having someone like that really helped me to grow as a pianist — and certainly I think Donald and Mulgrew can attest to that, and Russell and Charles, too, for that matter. Harold didn’t really know Sylvester that well, although he did play with him a couple of times on one of the first occasions that I met him as well.

Q: Let’s also talk about George Coleman, who also came up in Memphis in the 1950’s. He and Mabern both went from Memphis to Chicago at a certain time.

JW: Well, actually, George went a little earlier. Because once again, as I mentioned, George went out with B.B. real early. And Harold and Frank Strozier actually went to Chicago together. Booker Little had been up there… Now, let me get it right. Harold and Booker Little went there together. Frank had already gone up to the Chicago Conservatory, and Booker eventually joined him there, and of course, Harold soon followed.

So actually, I knew George Coleman’s name more from the Miles Davis period than anything else when I was growing up. But he did come down to Memphis when I was a student at Memphis State, and he was a guest soloist with our little Jazz ensemble. And that was really the first time I really got a chance to meet him. I heard him play in Memphis a year or so earlier, when he came down to one of the local clubs that was bringing artists in. That was a real good period of time, maybe somewhere like around ’72, ’73, that time, and maybe even a little earlier, too, that they were bringing in different artists, many of them Memphis musicians coming home, like George Coleman or Frank Strozier, Marvin Stamm, but they also brought in people like Clifford Jordan, Hubert Laws, Pepper Adams, Freddie Hubbard came down… All playing with a local rhythm section. As a matter of fact, Charles Thomas, who is on this session, was the pianist for all of those performances.

Q: George started out as an alto player, I think. Yes?

JW: Yes. George’s brother Lucious was an alto player, and I think it was one of his first inspirations. And as I mentioned, B.B. King bought his first tenor for him….

Q: To go on the circuit.

JW: Yeah, playing that Rhythm-and-Blues out there. You know, he had to go out there and do that and walk the bar, and probably a number of other things I don’t know anything about!

Q: How would you characterize George’s playing and his contribution to the session?

JW: Oh, energetic. A virtuoso performer. That goes without saying; that’s been known for thirty years. But at the session, he was just absolutely beautiful, a model to follow all the way. On time, willing to give up extra time if we needed to rehearse or a little something else. Wasn’t at all caught up with being of the stature that he is, that he could have taken a different attitude. He was there for us. He was just loving being around his colleagues and friends and stuff like that. And it was just really a nice time, even though he was always on time…

As a matter of fact, most of the guys were there early. It was like they couldn’t get there quick enough to see each other.

Q: And his soloing is extremely consistent, and you know it’s him, of course, right from the first couple of notes.

JW: Sure. And on the selections that George does solo on, I deliberately was wanting to hear him play in selections that… He has an extensive repertoire and plays a wide variety of things. But I wanted to hear him play even things that I had never heard him play on club dates or concerts and things like that. Of course, I knew he’d be quite at home with playing something like “Our Delight,” but I had never heard him play it. And I wanted him to do some music like Tadd Dameron, some things like that.

I wanted to challenge the guys, but yet at the same time have everyone fairly comfortable in what they were going to be doing, so they could be as relaxed as possible, yet at the same time not just do something that they have been doing almost verbatim in many of their concerts or club dates or something like that as well.

Q: And Harold Mabern is the fourth member of that particular generation on the session. As a pianist, I’m sure you have a certain relationship to his playing that perhaps you don’t to the other three.

JW: Of course, Harold made such an impression the very first time I met him. Like I said, my first really professional engagement was at a Holiday Inn. This was 1972 in Memphis, and Harold had come home to visit his father, who was ill. And I… I was working with Herman Green, who is actually one of the other veterans on the date, and I guess someone had told him that Bill Mobley and I were on that engagement. And he came down to the club and hung out, and of course, Herman invited him up. I even remember that he sat in and played “Green Dolphin Street” and “Secret Love,” and it was just so impressionable hearing him, how he was able to play my Fender Rhodes piano, which they called it at that time, and still, you know, capture a certain energy and spirit.

And he was always so giving and gracious, you know, because we were just learning — on-the-job training, literally. And he was still very open, even though he was already, you know, quite well-celebrated as far as being a recording artist. And of course, he was in that last Lee Morgan group there, and at that time it was just a matter of a few months after that tragedy had happened. And all the great people like Wes and Miles and Sweets Edison that he’s been associated with.

So that main impression has always carried over, how much he was comforting and encouraging to all of us there on that engagement. With the exception of Herman, all the rest of us were just students there, glad to have our first gigs.

Q: This may not be fair to ask you, since you’re now his producer. But how would you characterize Harold’s style and his playing and, again, his contribution to the parts of the session that he was on?

JW: Well, he contributed a lot beyond just even what he did on the session. First of all, Harold was there for every note that was played on those sessions, even at the rehearsals. He was there. You know, we were having dinner together, he was at the hotels with the guys. Any other assistance we needed… He said he told his wife, “Look, just don’t even plan to see me this week. I’ll come home for dinner or something like that, but these cats are in town and I’m going to be hanging every night.” So of course, she understood that, and said, “Okay, well, I’ll see you next week then.”

So he was just there and doing everything, and like our main cheerleader, when somebody was playing, whether it was Russell playing some of Phineas’ favorite Classical pieces, or whether it was me out there going through whatever I was doing, playing the B-3 or something, and certainly not only the pianist, but Mulgrew and the arrangements he was… He contributed a beautiful tune that Mobley orchestrated for us. And he was just there, well beyond… And then, of course, he comes out and plays the daylights out of the piano.

So you know, that kind of spirit there is really… You know, you have somebody… It’s always one or two people you can just focus when things are down or you’re a little tired, that you can rejuvenate and reinvent yourself around. Because this person always has that little extra intangible or energy there that you need to really get through the remainder of whatever is going on at that point.

Q: Let me return to the first part of the question, thought and talk a little bit about his style and a little bit about his history in Memphis.

JW: I did get away from that. Historically, like I said, he left Memphis in 1954, too. So that was a little soon for me to get to know any of those guys.

But his style has eventually evolved where I see influences of people, certainly from Phineas and people like that, but also I hear Ahmad Jamal and even people that he initially inspired in Chicago, like Herbie Hancock or people like that, or Andrew Hill. But also, you certainly hear the stylings of Bud and Hank Jones or Red Garland there. But he has a real deep Blues feeling, and he is always about playing the Blues. Because the Blues is never far away in Harold’s playing, whether he’s playing some of his beautiful contemporary pieces, or playing compositions of John Coltrane, or whether he’s playing standards or playing the real Blues. So that’s the thing, that he has really absorbed much of the history of that, and yet he has a very personal sound. When you hear little young pianists like Benny Green and Geoff Keezer out there playing, you really hear how he has had a profound effect on them — and others as well, all of us Memphis musicians.

That’s where I hear Harold coming from. And he was influenced a lot by horn players, too. You hear stylings of Clifford Brown, and certainly, like I said, Lee Morgan and people like that, that he’s worked with over the years. The singers… He used to work with the choice singers like Joe Williams and Sarah Vaughan.

So he’s been around, you know, people who really did the stuff so authentically that he was able to absorb all those things, being basically a self-taught musician. And that’s one of the purities of it, of being self-taught, is that you absorb things. You don’t dissect and say, “Well, do I really need to do this or should I do this?” You know, if it sounds good and it feels good and it feels natural, your instincts will carry you that way. And I think that’s where Harold’s style is coming from. You know, people like… Buddy Montgomery is another example of some of those purer Jazz players, pianists, in terms of… You just don’t hear anything academic in their playing at all. It’s just music there. And certainly Erroll Garner is probably one of the greatest examples of that.

Q: I think what you just said about Harold you might be able to use on one of his records… [ETC.]

JW: Oh yeah…

Q: Now, Herman Green was the last of that people of that generation, and he would be the least known to the general public. So a little detail on his background…

JW: Herman Green is a woodwind player. He’s a saxophonist, he plays alto and tenor and flute. But actually, Herman has been around. He has had extensive experiences on the road. He played with Lionel Hampton for about three years. He played with Lloyd Price’s band when Slide Hampton was the musical director. He has been around and been in different settings. He knew Coltrane and Philly Joe, and lived in New York in the early Sixties, and lived all over the United States it seemed like, you know, even before he returned to Memphis.

And it was a critical time when he came back, because just at that time was just when I was just starting to play, and some of the rest of us, you know, we were really too young to even go to the clubs… We’d go down there and try to get in, and we’d sit out there for a few moments, and you know, the club owner would come and waltz us right back on out of the club. So we’d stand outside and listen to him playing at a place called The Music Box, right on Second and Beale Street — I can remember where it was.

So it was a little later… So when he settled down there, he was playing with a group sort of commercial… Herman is also the kind of guy who was sort of a jack of all trades, who could… You know, he adapted. He really was a musician that if he had to go play a commercial gig, he went on and made that gig, because that’s what had to be done to take care of his family and get this thing done. So he wasn’t playing Jazz full-time, and even, I’m sorry to say, at this stage of the game he’s not playing Jazz full-time. He’s not getting a chance to play very much Jazz at all down there.

But he would do this… He would play with another group at that time, just before… I was just ready to become a study out at Memphis State, so I was aware of who he was. And because, like I said, at some of these concerts, he would sit in… George and those guys would have him sit in with them and different things. So we knew that he was bad at that point.

So after this commercial gig broke up, he got this gig at the Holiday Inn. Because all of the other guys left, and since he was already a member, he stayed on and put a group around that. Well, of course, he hired young guys… He hired me on one of my first Jazz engagements where I didn’t know hardly any tunes. I might have known maybe “The Girl From Ipanema” and “Satin Doll” and maybe five other songs. Marvin Stamm was in town. The late Joe Dukes was on the gig; he was home visiting. And we had a bass player that was on the gig, that…you know, he couldn’t help me. They called “Stella By Starlight.” I said, “What are the chords?” He said, “Well, the first note is an E.” This is where we were coming…! So I knew I was going to be in for a long evening.

But I guess he must have heard something, because he let me hang around. I figured that Charles Thomas and those guys were already busy. So I said, “Well, everybody else must be busy, too.” So luckily, I was able to get this on-the-job training. Later, Sylvester Sample and Bill Mobley were able to join in and get some of this as well.

And that really happened, oh, maybe several months later after that first thing I mentioned in the Holiday Inn. And that was a beautiful engagement, even though it was a commercial job. The waitresses danced on the table and sang pieces like from “Those Were The Days, My Friend” and from Cabaret and from Hair… Anyway, that was a good experience.

But we also had three band sets. We just wanted to play, and I would be… I was trying to learn some of these Chick Corea tunes and all this stuff. And he was teaching us standards and all these things; you know, he would play them, and we had a little book… So we had a chance to really go out and play. We were playing six nights a week, five hours a night. And that was a good experience with Herman there, leading us and letting us get that playing time in.

And also, as I mentioned, when different musicians were either coming through town or either hanging out, that would be the only place it would be that many nights… The first time that I met Bill Easley was down there at this Holiday Inn. Phineas used to come down and sit in. Clark Terry would be in town, and Jean-Luc Ponty, George Duke….

Q: This was the center of Jazz in Memphis.

JW: Yeah, this was downtown, and they had… At the time I didn’t realize it, but it turned out to be a very hip gig. And we were making fifty dollars a night; we thought we were on top of the world. I’m living at home, no expenses and playing at church, too, getting paid — so I was in seventh heaven. I didn’t have to work no job.

Q: So Herman Green was in the center of that for you.

JW: He was for us and, like I said, for Bill and several other of the younger musicians. Donald and Mulgrew got some taste of that a little later, too, as well as different ones floating in and out at different times. Although I was much more…you know, worked with much more than either Mulgrew or Donald. So he was really good.

So that’s another reason… This is sort of my way of reminding him that I did realize that his contribution to my career, especially at that stage of the game, was considerable, and I did remember that. But beyond just trying to just repay him back for that, he deserved to have been doing this, and he was qualified to be on there and everything. So it wasn’t any kind of favor that I felt obligated to acknowledge, you know.

Q: Let’s just keep running through everybody on this same tack. You just mentioned Bill Easley. Are you contemporaries, you and Bill Easley?

JW: A little bit. He’s a few years older than I. He’s about seven years older than I am. So we had him up on that pedestal as well. Because he was the only person… I never heard anyone who could play all those instruments so well, and who was a virtuoso and had such soulful feelings…. He was around there. And then at that point, we would hear him… He was playing with Isaac Hayes and doing all kinds of gigs like that. But whenever it was a Jazz gig that he had, we’d do it.

And I can remember going over to his house asking him would he come and jam with us sometime! And here’s this guy, he’s already an accomplished musician. He had been with George Benson and these people and lived in New York, and we were over there asking him… I said, “Man, come on over. Would you like to come to a jam session we’re going to have?” You know, I think about that, because sometimes when someone has asked me to do this in subsequent years, I try not to just sort of look back and say, “Oh, man, you’ve got to be kidding.” Because I remember that incident, it’s so vivid in my mind, and how nice he was, that… Like I said, I didn’t have his telephone number, but I had given him a ride home one night. So I actually went to his house and did this! So I think back on it, you know, and think, well, he could have just really canceled me out, and my feelings would have been hurt forever. But you know he was nice. He declined making the jam session, I may add. But the way he did it was very tactful.

Q: Say a few words about Bill Easley’s background.

JW: First of all, Bill Easley was really from Olean, New York, and had come there from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — of course, that’s part of where the George Benson connection was. Then he settled down in Memphis. Actually, he said he got stranded in Memphis, and then, as it turned out, he got a gig like about two days after he was there. Somebody told him… He was staying at this hotel, and the guy who was working there was a part-time singer. He said, “Oh yeah? Well, look, I can you a gig.” Easley said, “Oh really?” He said, “Come down to this club at a certain time.” And lo and behold… He didn’t believe it; he just went down there anywhere. And that’s how he got… And he ended up loving Memphis. To this day, Easley is still talking about he’s going to buy him a house in Memphis.

So that’s how he settled down there. And I just started hearing a little bit about him. Because like I said, we were just peripherally on the scene, and we couldn’t get in a lot of these places, and we’d hear about these people… But he is just such a magnificent musician and can play so many different styles… That’s one reason why he’s so popular here in New York, because he can vacillate, and he floats back and forth between doing Jelly’s Last Jam and Broadway things, and doing all kinds of other Rhythm-and-Blues gigs, lounge gigs, and recording, and doing all kinds of different things with the Lincoln Center Orchestra — you can just see him everywhere.

And that impressed me in a lot of ways, that he could do that. I said, “Well, I like all that kind of music; I should be able to do that, too.” So in an indirect way, it sort of set the tone for the way I started thinking. Why do I have to just play this? Because if I like all these things, I can kind of float back and forth. But my passion was still to go and really learn how to play Jazz, because that was the most challenging, and that was where I was really feeling the direction I wanted to go most of all.

Q: How would you characterize his contribution to the session? I guess one thing is because he plays all the instruments so well, he makes it very easy to do certain type of arrangements.

JW: Well, he only played tenor, alto, clarinet and flute; he didn’t bring his piccolo to the session. Well, that says it in itself. He gave us the extra dimension to combine different instrumentations that we needed just to add a different variety of texture to the recording. You know, if it would have been just all saxophones, and maybe a trumpet here and there or something like that, or guitar or whatever, I think the sound of the record would have been a little more monotonous than it turns out to be. Now you’ve got these things, and you’ve got a clarinet solo here on what’s generally considered a bebop tune, and just a couple of little curlicues thrown in there along those lines. So he really gave us an added dimension there.

And of course, like I said, he was just thrilled just to see all these guys again and to see what everybody’s been doing and all of this, and he and Lewis Keel getting a chance to play together for the first time in a long time. So through his artistry, and equally as important, his enthusiasm too was just there.

Everybody just smiled… I wish we had recorded the conversations that were going on in the back room there between takes and so on and so forth. That would have been worth almost releasing as well; at least, a certain segment…

Q: The private issue.

JW: Right, the private collection of the Memphis Convention.

Q: Let’s talk about Lewis Keel.

JW: I met Lewis Keel when I was seventeen years old, coming into Memphis State. Lewis Keel was a student at Memphis State; a graduate student there. It was several different things. First of all, he was directing the Third Jazz Ensemble, which was just being assembled that year. Because that first year I was there, I couldn’t even place in any of the Jazz ensembles — according to my director at least. But when they put this together, he directed that. So I met him during that time. Actually, I didn’t even play piano in that ensemble.

But he was the director and was around, and he was the best soloist in the school on any of the instruments. So we always just loved to go hear him play. And he had a few gigs around town. We didn’t get a chance to catch him there, at that point, but on a couple of concerts around school, and then guys would play over in the student center, and just any time he was playing, we were just there. So we were going through that.

And Lewis was just so special that way. And he would tell us, because he knew some of the guys from Memphis; he knew George Coleman and Hank Crawford and all these people. So he was a great story-teller for us, too. He said, “Oh wow, what these guys do,” and he would tell us about records and stuff. I remember he always said, “All you cats need to do is get you some records and some exercise books, and then you’ll learn how to play Jazz. You learn the instrument and you learn how to play.” You know, learn your instrument.

He and Charles Thomas were always very clear. They were given a lot of academic information about theories, and flat ninths and this and that, and voicings and so on. They would give some basic information, and if you could dig it and really hear what they were saying, you would just follow that practice, and you would be able to get to a source of the music.

So like I said, he had a profound effect during that time there. And I eventually got a chance… He even hired me for a gig one time down there. I was glad to take my electric piano over there; I would be there with bells on.

Q: How would you characterize his style? He’s very in the blues thing…

JW: Yeah.

Q: He has a sort of Plas Johnson type of sound.

JW: Yeah. But I would say it’s probably more influenced… He’s really very influenced by Hank Crawford and David Fathead Newman and players like that, Stanley Turrentine. See, when I knew Lewis in Memphis, he was playing tenor always. He’s now just kind of… He told me he’s not even playing that much tenor any more. I wanted him to play tenor. When I called him about this, I said, “Yeah, man, bring your tenor,” because I was thinking, well, Easley will play to cover the alto stuff. And he said, “Well, I’m really not playing tenor. I really would rather play alto if I’m going to play saxophone.” I said, “Okay, bring your alto then; no problem.” I was aware that his recording was on alto, but I was just assuming that he still played tenor, because all those great solos we remember out there at school were tenor solos.

I think he played flute on something, too. I’m not sure if he did. Maybe we thought about it and we didn’t record it or something.

Now, his alto sound, like I say, is very distinguished. I like his choice of notes, his ideas, the way he plays. Mobley and I were talking about that. At times, on the Rhythm changes and stuff like that, he really finds some different notes to play there, how he resolves some of his phrases. I said, “Yeah, man, that’s some bad stuff; I need to figure out exactly how he does it.” And these are things, you know, that I think are personalized, because I really haven’t heard anyone else… It’s not that it’s innovative as such, but it’s really just some personal statements that he was finding. And I always liked his feeling, because he was about that always, too.

And he was around here. He used to play with Frank Foster’s Loud Minority band, and he played with Howard McGhee in the Seventies. So he had been in New York as well. He knew Russell from back in college days, too, so they were able to catch up on a lot of things there. So once again, he was a source…

Everybody showed up at all the sessions, whether they needed… Sometimes I said, “Well, look, I only need you for an hour-and-a-half or two hours.” But the guys stayed around. Everybody was there. Nobody wanted to leave or miss anything, no matter what was going on there.

So that was another way…stylistically… You said Plas Johnson. I can hear that. But I guess I hear it more directly between Hank and maybe David Fathead Newman and Stanley Turrentine.

Q: Let’s talk about the last of the horn players. Bill Mobley is someone who is highly respected by many musicians, and he contributes a couple of arrangements on this album as well, so he has two roles here. [ETC.]

JW: Well, I sort of made Bill our musical director. I said, “Bill, we’re going to do this date; it’s really going to happen. But I know James Williams to know that I’m not going to be doing this stuff like I want to do it. So you’ve got to do it.” So he said, “Oh man, are you sure?” I said, “Yeah, sure. We know what we’re going to do.” So I told him what we had in mind, and worked out the instrumentation for each tune, and said, “Look, this is what we’re going to do, and we’ll have this… Now, this is just a general idea of what I have, but basically do what you want to do with this. I don’t want to restrict you, but at least I want to give you a concept of what I’m hearing with the ensemble in terms of soloists on each tune and what kind of instrumentation on each tune.”

And he was just magnificent on those, especially the ones where we had more than two horns playing on that. And it was creative, it was inventive, yet it was challenging. We had the guys there, you know. I told the guys, “Look, you all got to practice this music now.” I knew he wasn’t going to have a lot of time, so I said, “Bill, xerox them for us and send them to everybody,” and I got all the addresses and sent them to him so he could do that. And he just took care of all kinds of business like that before he picked up the trumpet or the fluegelhorn.

Then he came in and just quarterbacked the whole session like that along those lines. And Bill is a very shy person. I am always on him about being a little too shy. But he is an excellent, excellent musician, and he is solidly fundamentally sound.

I’ve known him since he was sixteen years old. We attended the same high school. I’m two years older than he is, but we came out of the same high school. So obviously, we go way back.

Q: Which high school?

JW: Central High School in Memphis. Probably every city has a Central High School.

Q: Was that a high school with a certain type of arts program?

JW: No, that wasn’t fashionable then, unless you just went to a music school…

Q: Was there any in Memphis. Detroit had one, Cass Tech, and…

JW: Right. But they didn’t really have that in Memphis that I knew of. But I went to Booker T. Washington for a year, which is the school where the Newborns and Charles Thomas and Booker T. Jones and a lot of folks came out of that school…Jamil…

Q: Was there a particular teacher there when they were going?

JW: Yes, W.T. McDaniels. He was the head of all the Black music programs in the high schools. So he got a chance to rub shoulders with Charles Lloyd, he had Frank Strozier — you name it. Everybody who came out of Memphis through that whole time, from the Forties right up until the Sixties came up under him. Even Russell and those guys just barely missed him. They might have gotten a year of him, but not really; you know, they didn’t get the full thing. But Charles Thomas, the Newborns, Garnett Brown, Isaac Hayes, Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire — all these people who came up under that whole tutelage of them. Booker T. Jones from Booker T. and the MGs. So you really got a wide range of folks that dealt with him. And before he was there doing that, Mister Jimmie Lunceford was the cat. So you see where that was coming from — and with that whole tradition there.

So the late W.T. McDaniels… His son, Ted, Junior, now is the Chairman of the Jazz Studies Department at Ohio State. So he’s kind of keeping that tradition alive, unfortunately not in Memphis, but nevertheless, very much so involved in it.

So Bill Mobley and I, we played in the first Jazz… The first time I was trying to play Jazz with a group, Bill Mobley was just about there I think without two months of that time. This other trumpet player friend of mine was from Memphis, and he was around, and he knew a little more than Bill did. But Bill was always real quick and sharp, and picked up on things real fast. So we’ve really been playing together for that length of time. I can remember playing our first concert together and playing Jazz compositions like “So What” and trying to play stuff way over our heads, that we had no business trying to do some of those… Like “Joshua,” those kind of tunes!

So like I said, to this day I can call up Mobley and say, “Look, we’ve got to have this done” (we’ve got some other projects we’re involved in) and he takes care of it. And then he’s going to come out and he’s going to play the music so well. I think he’s very underrated. I would love to see him really doing more things, because he is so gifted and so unassuming in some ways. That’s a certain nice quality to have in this day and age of real aggressive kind of mentalities.

Q: Finally, just a few words about his style and his playing.

JW: Stylistically, I think he’s coming from people like Kenny Dorham, Blue Mitchell, as well as Freddie, Lee Morgan, maybe to a slightly lesser degree Booker Little. But I really think those are his primary influences that I hear coming through. Woody Shaw also, I should say. Woody Shaw I would say is a major influence. So that’s where he’s coming from in music. He really checks them out. But that doesn’t mean that… He certainly knows Miles’ and he knows Dizzy’s and Fats Navarro’s and Clifford’s playing very well. I mean, we play all these tunes he’s transcribed, and so he’s done an in-depth study. But you know, he’s never really focused around those players as such in terms of the way he developed his own approach.

Q: And he arranges “Our Delight” and “There But For The Grace Of,” Harold Mabern’s composition, on the recording.

JW: That’s right…

Q: Now Tony Reedus, your nephew.

JW: Yeah…

Q: So we don’t have to talk so much about Tony…

JW: People like Tony and Mulgrew and Donald are so well-documented right now that anything I’d say would probably be repetitive.

He came in there and he was ready… Once again, I was saying, “We’ve got a lot of music to play.” But he comes to the session prepared. He does homework. If you say, “Look, we need you to really lock in on this,” and so he did that very thing. He came in and he knew what was happening. He took the extra time if things may have been questionable. He’s always going to be swinging. I think he’s still one of the most exciting young drummers on the scene. And I knew he would make a major contribution.

He and Jamil don’t play together that often, so I was glad that they were able to develop a rapport to get things going there. And of course, he plays with Mulgrew all the time, so he… With many of the musicians there. Tony a little later got a chance to get a little experience around playing with Calvin Newborn and Herman Green in separate situations around Memphis when he first started playing, around ’77 or ’78, something like that. So we had that connection, too. So he knew that. And of course, since he’s been in New York, he has certainly played with George and Harold and Easley and those guys — he’s on Easley’s albums.

So I think he was not only the logical choice; I guess you would say he was the only choice. Because anyone else… The only thing I do regret is that I couldn’t get in touch with Joe Dukes. I would have probably asked him to be on some of the session. And just off the record, I was even hoping that we… We were planning on doing a second session, and I was going to just have Joe make the entire one. But I didn’t have the vision for what happened there prematurely.

[ETC./NOW THE PIANO PLAYERS]

Q: Russell Wilson.

JW: Russell Wilson was my piano teacher at Memphis State. He was a graduate assistant there. Actually, as a matter of fact, many people there, when I talk with faculty members, they feel that he’s probably the finest pianist to ever come out of Memphis…

[END OF SIDE A]

Russell Wilson was a gentleman I met shortly after I got to Memphis State, and he soon was one of my piano teachers while I was a student at Memphis State, although in some ways he’s sort of like a contemporary. Actually, he’s more of a contemporary of people like Bill Easley’s and that generation there. He was a source of inspiration there. Many people felt that he was probably the finest pianist to ever come out of Memphis State, speaking to his various teachers that are still on the faculty, the chairman of the Piano Department and different ones.

Russell is also well-versed in the European Classical literature, and has done perhaps more formal study in that area than any of the others of us that are participating in the session.

Q: And he performs pieces by Ravel and Chopin.

JW: Yes, that’s right. One of the reasons why I asked him to do that is because I knew that Phineas was fond of a lot of that literature, because he had actually played a number of those things as well. Even on one of his recordings, he used part of the “Sonatine” for an introduction to “Lush Life” — on the World Of Piano album. So that was one of the reasons why that particular Sonatine was chosen to perform. And hearing Russell play it was really the first time I had heard it played in its entirety. I had never heard a recording of it. I hadn’t been able to find one other than that. So in a way, this is a sort of rare presentation, and unique. And it gives a different thing for the recording, too, because it shows the expansiveness of the Memphis musicians and the artistry of the Memphis musicians that have come through there as well.

And of course, he also chose a composition in addition to that; he chose a beautiful composition by one of my favorite pianists and composers, Randy Weston — “Little Niles.” That likewise was recorded by Phineas on one of his earlier recordings.

Russell stylistically is hard to pin down, because, like I say, he has that influence there, but very much so the people that he enjoys listening to… You’d think, with his virtuoso skills, it would be just pianists along those lines. And naturally, he loves Art Tatum and people like that. But he’s a big fan of people like Cedar Walton and Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones. So when you’re dealing with that kind of touch and things like that, you can never go wrong.

I think in a lot of ways, Russell has come back… He’s such an expansive musician. He’s always interested, curious and listening about learning things. I think he’s probably been influenced by some of us younger musicians who came up under him, some of the younger pianists, obviously like Donald and Mulgrew and perhaps myself there as well, and other musicians. Because he’s always interested, and asking, “Well, what do you think are some good tunes I should be learning?” or “Who are some of the younger players out here; tell me about some of these people.” He has that enthusiasm, which I like.

And that’s another characteristic of all of the artists represented here, is that it’s never “Well, okay, because I have attained this level, this is the end of it.” I’m always curious to know what else is around the corner there, and who is doing what, and what can I do to kind of improve. And I think everybody wanted to play well for each other. For ourselves, but for each other, too, just so that everyone could see just how we’re going to make this spiritually nourishing as much as it was musically.

So Russell brought some of those intangibles. You know, he only played on the solo selections, but likewise, he came up for the entire session. He was there doing everything, from just support group to videotaping to taking photos, as well as playing the daylights out of the piano.

Q: Was he working on the Memphis scene when you were there in the clubs? Or is he primarily an educator?

JW: No, he was doing a couple of engagements. I also have to thank Russell, because Russell is the one who introduced and first told me about Charles Thomas. I had never even heard of Charles Thomas and hardly many other musicians, and he told me…

Russell was working with a singer, a guy who kind of wanted to sing like Johnny Hartman around Memphis. He was doing those things. And they had a little TV show, they would be on on Friday nights about midnight or something like that. And he was leading the house trio. So they would be doing standards and blues and that kind of thing.

So he was out on the scene, being a little older. And he said, “Oh man, I just heard this great pianist. You definitely would love to check him out. His name is Charles Thomas, man. Real fluid and everything, great feeling throughout.” I said, “Oh yeah?” So I filed it away. And then eventually, it was probably another six months before I got a chance to hear him play. So Russell even then had that same kind of thing. He’s always doing…motivating himself and receiving that kind of energy from that.

And he lives now… He teaches… He is a teacher now at Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond, where he plays a steady job I think at one of the hotels there, but he also is a pianist with the Richmond Symphony Orchestra as well. So he keeps a wide variety of things, and continually updates his repertoire, does recitals, Classical recitals and Jazz recitals every year without fail. Whereas it’s easy… If you have tenure, most people immediately go into retirement.

Q: Is he originally from Memphis?

JW: Oh yeah, he is. And he grew up in the same neighborhood, although younger, that Charles Lloyd was in. He remembers hearing Charles Lloyd practicing saxophone on his back porch. And like I say, he was a contemporary… He was a student at Booker T. Washington when Booker T. Jones and Maurice White was there, and there were some other musicians around Memphis that were not present here on the session who still work regularly.

And I might add, he played… Well, he was a clarinet major when he went to college… He and someone else on this session went to college together; I can’t even think right offhand. But people like Sonelius Smith, who is around here in New York, was around at the school, and others… So he was a real… Oh, I know who else was there. John Stubblefield. So all of these people, they were around there in college together in Arkansas, and then eventually Russell transferred back to Memphis and finished up at Memphis State.

Q: The next person you mentioned was Charles Thomas.

JW: Well, I told you how I met Charles Thomas, was first becoming aware of him through Russell. As I said, I couldn’t go hear him in the clubs. But he did make an appearance on this particular show, this Johnny Scott show, the singer down there. And I said, “Wow, this guy can play some piano!” I didn’t know what he was playing, but I knew he could play. And that’s where I first heard him, very unassuming, seemingly. But a certain presence that always was very captivating to me in a sort of mysterious way.

Eventually we were able to go hear him in clubs, and we were down there all the time. It was a good period. He was working with another vocalist, kind of her style was like Nancy Wilson, and they were doing all kinds of great things. He was the one that really inspired me to think about learning a lot of songs, because they never had music on the bandstand. Never. I never saw them read one note. And they were always doing all kinds of tunes. I could go down there three, four nights a week, and would very rarely hear some of the same songs repeated. She would maybe sing some of the same songs, but their instrumental set would always be… It would range from “The Sweetest Sounds” and “Speak Low” to you’d hear something like “Seven Steps To Heaven” or maybe “Dolphin Dance” or maybe something like “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most, “So What,” those kind of things.

So it was a really inspirational kind of thing to go hear Charles play on that level every night with that trio, even though I wasn’t, you know, as inspired with maybe the trio as I was with him. But the trio played well, though, and they played well with him, too — so in that sense it worked.

And so it was about a two-year period where they had a lot of steady work, maybe a little longer like that. And that was real critical for us, because we got a chance to not only get out there trying to practice this stuff at Memphis State or in my parents’ den or somewhere; we also got a chance to reinforce and hear the great local players play it right down there.

And eventually, I found out that Charles went to school with my older sister, Tony Reedus’ mother. She said, “Oh yeah, I remember Charles Thomas around Booker T. Washington.” So I invited him over to the house, so he could become reacquainted with my sister again and everything. But really I had my ulterior motives, just to get him over there to play and see if he would teach me anything. Well, Charles isn’t the teaching type, but he will sit down and play. And I learned a lot. I just sat down and watched him play. I said, “Oh man, that’s bad. Well, play this. Would you play that?” So I really learned a lot from Charles just doing that, and then, like I said, going to hear him play in person, and he would be talking about different records to listen to — and that’s where his influence was.

In a way, I feel somewhat well that I was able to do that on a much smaller scale for Donald and Mulgrew when they were first kind of coming around a little bit more — and basically we’re just talking about like maybe three years apart here. But by this time I had accumulated a little bit of a record collection, and we would do this, and maybe tape something, or I let them borrow records… I can’t even believe it. I wouldn’t dare let anyone borrow them. Probably a few years later, when I got to Boston, folks stopped returning them!

So it was really a nice connection from Charles and having a chance to hear him play. He now works… It’s a shame that he doesn’t perform in Memphis, but on occasion, you know, several times a year. But he works steady in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he is able to work and make a very comfortable living doing that. I still would love to see him in New York. If he came to New York for two years, I would love to see what level of artistry he would attain.

Q: Where is he cominng out of as a pianist?

JW: Charles is coming from Bud Powell. Certainly he was influenced by Phineas, because he was a few years younger than Phineas, and he got a chance… He told me, “Man, I was in junior high school, and Phineas was a senior,” and he said he could not believe… He heard Phineas playing stuff in high school that he has heard very few people play to this day. He said he would just be down there, and he would be down in the band room practicing all the time, just playing, and playing the most incredible stuff — playing the Classical literature, the whole stuff. Tommy Flanagan told me a story about that. He said one time Phineas came over to the house, and he just went through his Chopin books like it was nothing.

So Charles was influenced by him. He was very influenced by Bud Powell’s playing. He turned Harold and Frank Strozier and those guys on to Bud’s playing and Dizzy’s works and so on and so forth. I would say also he is a big, big fan of Red Garland’s playing, and to a lesser degree, Wynton Kelly. But all of those pianists from that period. I would say primarily more of the Bebop players. And certainly he can play some Stride and stuff like that, so he is certainly aware of Teddy Wilson and Nat Cole and like them, and Erroll Garner and Horace…

Q: Did he turn you on to information also?

JW: Well, like I said, Charles wasn’t really the type of guy who did a lot of verbalizing. Even conversation-wise he isn’t a real big talker that much. But he would tell me about these records. He said, “Yeah, you should check out this,” and you know, listen to Bud Powell. At the time, I was kind of wanting to hear Herbie and Chick and McCoy; I was talking about, you know, give me this hip stuff.

And he likes that… You know, the interesting thing, too, is he is kind of influenced by like earlier things of Herbie’s and McCoy’s, and Chick’s as well — Keith Jarrett, for instance. Although I don’t think it’s apparent in his playing, those are players that he talks about quite a bit, too, that he really admires. He likes Kenny Barron, of some of the contemporaries, and certainly Harold. But those kind of people that I hear him speak of quite a bit…. And he’s checked out George Shearing, and he can play some of those Tatum runs and stuff like that.

I used to say, “Oh man, how do you play those things?” He said, “This is a pentatonic scale” — I remember one of the first times I heard that name he was saying that. But it was just like he was kind of playing it, and if you can catch it, more power to you!

Q: Just a couple of words about his two pieces on the solo piano record and why them.

JW: In terms of the solo pieces, I had no idea what anyone was going to play.

Q: So this wasn’t your prerogative as the producer.

JW: No, I didn’t suggest anything with the solo. I felt like the other part needed a little bit more structure. But with these guys, I didn’t worry. It was just like having a private concert there in the studio, and everybody came out and just played… So I had no idea what they were going to play.

In some cases, it was like we didn’t know what we were going to play. I kind of had thought about it that day. “Well, I think I’ll play this,” because I thought the selection I chose would probably be something that no one else would play and would have, once again, a different flavor to it. We have everything from the European Classics to a traditional Baptist hymn on there, which sort of typifies Memphis music.

So that’s where I was coming from with that. So I had no idea when Charles went in there in the studio what he was going to play. So he played an untitled original piece as well as “What Am I Here For” by Duke Ellington.

Q: That was great, what you just said about the unity of the pieces, in terms of Memphis music. Now, Donald Brown is the next-oldest, I guess, and he had a full range of experience in Memphis. I think that’s one thing we could talk about, him being house pianist at Stax-Volt and the type of things he went through coming up.

JW: Yeah, sure. Probably more so than any of the others of us, Donald has had the versatility and flexibility to jump into all of those genres as comfortably as possible. I think he was actually a staff musician over at High Records, which is where Willie Mitchell and Al Green and Ann Peeples, and I don’t even know if you know some of these Rhythm-and-Blues artists were doing recordings. He might have done some things at Stax, but I don’t… I don’t particularly remember Stax as being… Even when I was just starting to get out there a little bit, it was just at the very tail end. And I got a chance to play a little bit with Isaac and Al, too, but it might have been one of those things…

Q: My mistake.

JW: So he was doing that. And he always kind of was interested in doing that music and all, but he was kind of learning… When he got out to Memphis State, he was picking up on Jazz like a fish takes to water. I have to kid him, because I remember… I think I taught him how to play “Green Dolphin Street.” I shouldn’t say I taught him how to play it, but I sort of showed him the chords on it, and then gave him the records. And he had it and was gone! It just seemed like it was just a matter of weeks, and he already had picked up on the feeling and all of the nuances of what one could do in that short period of time.

Versatile. Can play so many instruments. Donald plays about five different instruments, in which he can at any time…. Of course, we know he’s probably the premier composer in Jazz right now. But any time on any of those instruments, if he needs something to be conveyed, it’s nothing unusual for him to ask someone… He might ask Mister Ron Carter, say, “Ron, do you mind if I play this figure on the bass just so you can kind of see what I had in mind?” Then of course, he says, “Oh, yeah, that’s what you do,” and then, of course, you put it back in the master’s hand and they go right on with it, and you’re able to get that. So you really can get someone who gets to the essence of the music that way.

And it’s influencing his playing, too, because you can hear the independence. When you hear him play “Poinciana” on there, boy, that is just a work of art in itself. The independence, the dexterity that it takes to do it… It sounds easy because it’s so relaxed and it feels so nice and mellow, and then you realize, hey, he’s just playing all this by himself. Because I would have to sit down here and really do some serious thinking and working on that one, I think! But that’s very typical of Donald as a musician.

And I have known him… During that period of time at Memphis State, too, he was always… We became fast friends, even though we played the same instrument. We would hang out, and we would go hear different people. I would try to get him to sub on certain things. And he was always real shy. A lot of times he wouldn’t even accept the jobs, because he wouldn’t feel like he was ready to do it. Probably these days, people don’t care whether they’re ready or not. They say, “If you get the opportunity go on in there.” And there’s some merit to that, too.

So I can’t say enough accolades about Donald Brown. And he brought actually a real spiritual commitment to this session, too. I wanted him to play… I asked Donald…. We sort of commissioned him to write… That’s the origin of

“Squindo’s Passion,” is that…. I said, “Donald, I really want it to have something that all the horns can participate in, and I need you to write something.” I told him the session was going to be these days… About two days before we’re supposed to do this, I get a call from Donald. He said, “James, didn’t you say something about writing something? What kind of thing you had in mind?” I said, “Donald, don’t pull this stuff. You better show up with something. I don’t care if you have to sing the parts to everybody.” And of course, he comes through. And he said, “Well, I had this idea. Let’s see what this sounds like.” And he put it together, and that’s where he is…

He’s very organized. So he’s probably… He and Thad Jones have the same birthday. I always kid him. I say, “You’re definitely an extension of Thad, because you write all these great orchestrations in your mind, and it’s just a matter of sitting down there and getting it to the paper.” But they’re already written. And he brought that in…

The same thing in his playing, the whole spectrum of doing that. And the other selection he did on there was just a completely different mood. I can’t remember what it was that he played… “The Second Time Around,” which is a favorite standard of his. I notice that he plays that every once in a while in a club. One time he was playing with Milt Jackson, and Milt asked him, “What do you want to play?” He said, “Let’s do ‘The Second Time Around.'” So when he did that, it kind of reminded me of something from a few years earlier, that he always liked playing that tune, and tunes that have that kind of quality to it.

Q: We talked about Harold before, so I’ll integrate that into this. Now let’s say a few words about Mulgrew and again his “Memphisism”.

JW: So many people are born elsewhere… Mulgrew was actually born in Greenwood, Mississippi, and certainly considers doing his musical teeth-cutting and growth there i Memphis. Even when we first heard him play, you just saw this raw talent there. There was something there. Bill Easley I think picked up on it before any of us. And I was aware of it, but Bill Easley said “Wow….” We sat down… He sat in at a club down there and played “Blue Monk,” and Bill Easley just immediately said, “Wow, listen to that.” You’re talking about somebody eighteen years old or something like that playing, and you just see where… It’s just enough of that there just coming through that if you have any kind of insight or foresight, you knew this was something great that was going to develop, this was going to blossom into something real special.

And that’s what the case is. I mean, on and off the bandstand. His personality… It’s not at all surprising that Mulgrew is as great as he is, because what you hear is what you get off the stage, too. I know him so well, and we talk two and three times a week on the telephone if we don’t see each other, or grab some dinner, or do something. He is the type of person that you just gravitate towards.

And then you find that he’s got all this musical wealth of feelings and experiences. He’s a tremendous Gospel player. Tremendous! I mean, he could go out there and make a living just playing Gospel music, and we know what he can do out here with this Jazz! And he is developing into a real fine composer, I think, too. It’s not at all surprising… As far as I’m concerned, he’s probably the first-call pianist in New York right now at this stage of the game — arguably. People will try to get him on their sessions. And I guess you, being at the station, know how many sessions show up in the studio there with him on them.

Q: I guess he said that he’s trying to deliberately stop that…

JW: Oh, he’s stopping that right now because he’s going to focus on the trio. But I’m just saying that over the last six or seven years, or maybe eight or nine years, that that has been very much so. I equate him to what Herbie and McCoy and Andrew Hill were doing with Blue Note and some of the other labels back in the Sixties, appearing on numerous dates as sidemen. And he can bring something to everyone’s session, whether it’s original music, whether you’re playing standards, whether you’re playing Blues — he’s a tremendous Blues player, I think.

He’s got great hands. He is a pianist. When you see him, you know, he’s not a piano player. When you watch him play, when you hear him play, the sound he is able to draw out of the piano… It’s not like he’s banging. He’s got that touch that’s really happening, that touch is really starting to convey.

There’s one thing that Calvin Newborn said that I think is exactly true. I think that he perhaps, maybe more than any of the others of us, is really the guy that really carries forth Phineas’ spirit. Not by playing just the two-hand things, not just doing stylistic things that Phineas perfected and innovated, but through the whole persona of how he approaches the instrument, of really being an extension of himself there. I think that he is really… And I don’t think any of my dear, dear colleagues would disagree with me saying that. I think that he at this point in time carries that spirit forth more so than perhaps any pianist in Jazz right now.

Q: Now, I want you to talk about you as well somewhat. But first let me ask you to extend that statement and say a few words about Phineas Newborn, who seems to be the figure whose breadth stretches over everything that’s on this particular album.

[ETC.]

…that Phineas’ breadth is sort of the spirit that’s hovering over the approach to the album.

JW: Oh, he is. His spirit is very much present throughout the entire session, but particularly here with the piano. Because the piano is the orchestra. And the way he approached it, his playing was so orchestral, so deeply rooted in the basics of just good Jazz playing, so deeply rooted in piano playing that it’s a shadow that even if we wanted to get away from it, we couldn’t — because he cast a long shadow in that area.

When we did this, I think all of us had Junior in mind, because he really set the tone for what we realized as possibilities of being able to do on the piano, and still do it with good taste and elegance, and do it with the kind of spirit and swing that’s the full essence of Jazz. He dared to be daring. And he really gave us, I think… And certainly there have been others who have. But more so there, he set the tone as being the inspiration.

In a sense, he could be just like what Earvin Johnson was to the Lakers, what Larry Bird would be to the Boston Celtics, what any number of great artists in theatre or ballet or in any other art form…

Q: It would be like John Coltrane was to saxophonists; Phineas maybe had that impact in Memphis and other…

JW: Yes, very much so. The same kind of thing that John Coltrane, or perhaps in earlier times, Charlie Parker, and a little bit earlier we can say Billie Holiday or Lester Young, that kind of profound…

His was maybe more regional. I think he’s a very underrated artist. He arguably could be the most underrated artist in the history of Jazz. But as far as that region of the South, and especially the mid-South area, people who heard… The stories are legendary, and yet the beautiful thing about it, the legends are true. They are not exaggerated. Him going out and being able to smoke a cigarette with his right hand and play the song with his left hand and not miss a beat; being able to play trumpet and baritone horn, and play vibes and tenor saxophone — as well as, you know, being one of the greatest pianists.

You know, Barry Harris first heard him playing tenor saxophone. He said, “Yeah, this is a good young tenor player coming up here from down there; the father’s band was up there playing.” And he asked Barry… Barry was playing with Yusef Lateef and those guys up there. And Barry told me this story himself. He asked him, “Would you mind if I could play a tune or two on the piano the next set?” And Barry said, “Oh, you want to play piano?” He was probably saying, “Oh, you really must be something if you’re going to run up there behind Barry Harris.” And he sat down and played the piano, and Barry said, “Wait a minute now.”

So that whole story, to see that… And to be able to come up with such unique arrangements. You don’t have to talk just to the Memphis pianists. Those in the know really are aware. You can talk to Ray Bryant or talk to Billy Taylor… And I spoke to the late Red Garland about it, too, and Red Garland told me (and these words are almost verbatim): “Look, when Phineas came to New York, he scared all of us to death, including Oscar Peterson.” That doesn’t necessarily have to be on this. But he said that he really did that… And Sam Jones and different ones have spoken of him in such high regard, including Oscar and Hank Jones and Jay McShann and different people like this.

So this is a thing that goes well beyond… In terms of the general population knowing him, it would be more regional. In terms of the entire Jazz world, it would be more of the people who really are well-versed in the music and have made it a point to really know Jazz piano and Jazz piano history, and the contributions it has made.

And he set the tone of excellence. You know, that’s the reason why we try to play like we do, whether we’re playing a three-fingered Blues or whether we’re trying to play something that’s much more challenging, like Thelonious’ music or whoever, Bird’s music, Thad Jones or whatever. The thing is that he set the tone for us, that it’s got to be of a certain standard and excellence there. And like I say, you have to be daring. You don’t have to be conservative in your playing.

That’s what I was saying about Mulgrew, that what he has done is taken what Junior did and taken it to the next step, in many degree. And I think to a similar degree, Donald and Harold and maybe myself, too, that we are strongly influenced by that, but yet are not completely locked into it, in terms of we haven’t been made a prisoner of just mimicking Junior. He wouldn’t want us to do that. He would want us to take that and to build on it, and find our own personal voice through that. And that’s what we have done. And that’s the reason why, you know, we have a range of pieces and players here that can cover his full spectrum, from Russell Wilson’s stylings on various pieces, to Harold coming in there and playing “For Carl,” something that Phineas recorded, and Mulgrew playing “Dancing on The Ceiling” — that could very well be him dancing on the keys, because of the way his…he writes poetry at the piano for sure.

Q: What’s Mulgrew’s other piece?

JW: In the ensemble with the trio, it’s called “The Sequel.”

Q: I know this will be a little tough, but a few words about you in relation to the things that we’ve been talking about. Maybe you don’t want to talk about yourself in the notes, and that’s all right, too.

JW: Probably not. I mean, what can I say about myself? All I can say is that I just enjoyed… This is one of the most inspirational things I’ve done – certainly musically – in life, because of just seeing the expressions of everyone, the feeling that everybody brought. Like I said, it was such a jovial spirit, and everything that was present in this room, it was like a Church service, but a ceremonious…a real celebration. You know, guys seeing each other… People showing up over at the session, other musicians coming in town, people calling and inquiring: “Is this really happening? Is it really going to go down?” Herman Green… Virgil Jones came by the session. He hadn’t seen him since they were with Lionel Hampton in the Sixties. When the word got out, different folks wanted to see this.

Meeting down at Bradley’s. Donald was playing there every night. Going down there and having meals every night, and everybody… Just the camaraderie. We were just hanging twenty-four hours a day, it seemed like, or roughly sixteen, seventeen hours a day with each other. And it was just the most intense, beautiful five-day period of time that you could see. People were really catching up with each other. Many of the guys who were in from out of town were staying in the same hotel, so they could get together and have breakfast, or walk to the session together. We were recording at Power Station, and they were at the Edison, so they would have a six- or seven-block walk over where they could kind of get caught up in seeing New York at the same time — that same kind of rapport.

So, see, that really made the music, I think, come in even more special. Because when you don’t have time to rehearse or perform before you do that… That extra intangible carries over and adds an extra dimension, you know, that doesn’t show up in any statistics or anything, or maybe not known by anyone else — but I realize that.

Also, like I said, some of the guys… There’s two musicians from Memphis in the Basie Orchestra, and they came by the session.

So that was the main thing that I think feel good about it, thinking that we actually accomplished something of this magnitude. And to my knowledge, no other city has done this — and Memphis musicians have done it twice. We’re talking about thirty-some years in between.

Q: Young Men From Memphis, right.

JW: Yeah.

Q: Well, you titled it Memphis Convention I, so that leaves room for the sequel. Do you want to say a few words about the tunes you selected for the ensemble pieces? Are they all your selections or commissions and so forth?

JW: Yeah, they were. Let’s go down.

“Squindo’s Passion” was… I commissioned Donald brown to compose something specifically for that. Donald, once again, is a person that musically I just trust everything to. I just said, “Okay, Donald, write us something.” No criteria. The only thing we might talk about is, he said, “Do you need something fast or do you need something loud?” — and that would be some very general kinds of things in terms of feeling. And I said, “Well, we can go either way.” And just leave it to him, and he’s going to take care of the natural business there. So that’s how that came about, and that was something that got all of the guys involved ensemble-wise to play.

“Ray-El” was a friend of mine by Thad Jones. Bill Mobley actually suggested it, “Well, maybe we ought to something like “Ray-El”. It’s a Blues, and you know, Memphis is the home of the Blues, but yet at the same time it has a different kind of feeling, it’s sort of a soulful kind of thing, too. So it could come out of different expressions. And I had been thinking about that, because I had been playing that in Elvin Jones’ band, and we brought it in there. So it was a natural choice to go along with that.

“There But For The Grace Of…” is one of Harold Mabern’s pieces. I consider that almost like an anthem. And once the lyrics are applied to it, it could be almost as special as something like “Lift Every Voice” or “Some Day We’ll All Be Free,” Donny Hathaway’s piece — of that kind of quality. It does that. I wanted that… And that was another one that I thought would be just great because it has such a built-in arrangement. Basically, it was still Harold’s arrangement and Bill Mobley’s orchestrations for that.

“The Sequel”: I asked Mulgrew to do something with either solo or with the trio, preferably in a trio setting, that could kind of be just special for Phineas. Of course, he showed up with a piece that he subsequently called “The Sequel.” So in a sense, this is a sort of continuum with what people like Jimmy Lunceford and Jimmy Jones and Phineas and people like that before really did.

And the beautiful thing is, he didn’t try to write a virtuoso piece that… Because see, Phineas had many different moods and different directions he could come out of. Most people, when they think of him, many times think of him as just being a virtuoso artist who could play incredible tempos and things like that, and be real fluid. But Phineas also was a great player… He could play “the real blues,” as Stanley Cowell once said, and he could come down there and play some three-finger piano that just sounds like somebody who don’t play but in one key or two keys or something like that. And of course, he could play a lot of different things; he was inspired through Bud and other composers.

So Mulgrew really came up with something that really on the surface may not sound like that, but was very much in tune with the spirit of what Junior was about.

“Tickletoe”: There was no real reason to play that other than the fact that I like the tune, and it’s something that I’ve wanted to hear Charles Thomas play. I said, “Oh, he would be the perfect guy of any of us. He would play that better than any of us would play it.” Then I said, “Well, hey, it is Lester’s piece, and Prez is special, so let’s get a tenor player on this.” And that’s when we got Mister Bill Easley to do that and Bill Mobley — and they contributed major performances on that as well.

“Night Mist Blues”: Well, you know, Ahmad…

Q: You play the Hammond.

JW: Yeah. I wanted to do something a little different. Because in Memphis, I played…you know, at church, I played organ all the time. So that was as much a part of what I was doing as whatever I was doing at the Holiday Inn. And I’ve been thinking about it, and hearing… Since some of the younger guys are coming out here playing that and kind of inspired by Jimmy Smith, I said, “Look, I can still play organ. I may be a little rusty in places, but I want to play it.” And I said, “What could we use that on?” Then I said, “Well, let’s do that.” Then just at the last minute, I enlisted Donald’s services to come out and set the tone for us on the piano and give us a little body and soul there underneath, to give the organ a little more space, and make my role less defined.

“Our Delight”: I’ll tell you, I have to admit, that was just something I wanted to hear what George Coleman would do on tenor and what Mobley would play on trumpet, what Bill Easley could put on clarinet… Bill Easley plays two instruments on there, alto and clarinet.

Q: Alto on the ensemble.

JW: On the ensemble, yes. Then also Mulgrew… I wanted to hear those guys come out and put a thing on that tune there. I knew it would be challenging, but I knew they would also be able to rise to the occasion for it.

“Cottontail” was a tune I thought… You know, we could never go wrong with playing Duke’s music. But I was thinking that would be good for Herman and some of the guys, because this is some music… Playing “Rhythm” changes is no problem. It would be something that I felt would add another little side to it. Most of the time in Memphis, when I heard people playing “Rhythm” changes, they were playing “Oleo.” So I said, “Let’s just do something a little different, a different head there, and let them just go and get in there.” And that was a good showcase for Calvin, Herman, Lewis and Charles in particular.

“No Moon At All” is an old standard that a lot of vocalists used to sing back in the Forties and Fifties. But it’s really Phineas’ arrangement. He recorded it on the Fabulous Phineas album. All I did was adapt it to the horns there. He did it with just the quartet, with his brother and Denzil Best and Jamil. And Jamil was saying, “Man, I don’t think I’ve even played this since we used to play it with the group.” So I wanted to have something that was close to him there in that way, and it was fun — and we just came in and hit one take and did it. But like I said, I thought I would add the horns just to have a slightly different sound to it other than being just a total mimic of his arrangement verbatim there. So having them in added a little spice to it. And once again, as I say, it’s a showcase for him.

“Locomotion”: That was just an after-thought at the end. I thought we should have at least one other tune, because we were running out of time, and I had hoped to read down some other music or come through something. I said, “We don’t have time to really put any more arrangements together. Let’s do something where the guys can play and just really have a blowing sessions, and just sort of have the horns going back and forth” — just to see who really was up for the occasion as much…

So that was really a fun choice. We just kind of worked out a little ending, and it’s basically Coltrane’s arrangement, what he did with the three horns in unison, and a couple of harmony notes here and there towards the end. And it’s really just a showcase also… I asked Mulgrew… I said, “Well, Mulgrew, this is the horns; you just play some trills there and you’ve got the bridge.” So really there’s no piano solo on there. But I asked Mulgrew because I knew that he’s such a great accompanist that he would be right in there and would maybe just give them that added sparkle that I think the horns needed. And I thought it would be fun, too; that Herman and Lewis would get a kick out of playing with Mulgrew again. And actually, I found out that Lewis and Mulgrew had never played together. So that really added another…

Q: One more question. Say a few words about the connection of Memphis that knits the diverse group of musicians on this session — if you can in any sort of general way.

JW: Maybe you should say the last part of the question again.

Q: What is it about your mutual or shared experience in Memphis, whether you born there or work there, that links you as musicians, that gives you this common ground that you can function like this?

JW: It’s hard to say. In Miles’ autobiography, he said it must be something in the water. But I don’t quite say it oversimplified just to that… I think it was always that Memphis was… You heard good music… Even before I was a musician, I was hearing good music, and I assume this is true for most of the other musicians, if not all of them. Long before I was even thinking about even playing piano or playing music in general, whether it was at church or whether I was listening to the radio. And I caught the tail end of the times when they didn’t have the program directors telling you what to play. So you could hear James Cleveland and Aretha, or you could hear Nancy Wilson or Nat King Cole or Dinah Washington, and then you could hear the Ramsey Lewis Trio or maybe Rufus Thomas or somebody like that all within the matter of an hour or two on the same program. So I have always associated that with thinking that music is not only feel-good music, but artistically there’s a lot happening too. And probably it was more pronounced when Harold and Frank Strozier and Charles Lloyd were playing around Memphis there…

[END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]

Q: I guess what Kazunori wants us to elaborate on is what distinguishes Memphis Jazz. And that’s probably actually a better way of describing my questions. How are all these musicians Memphis musicians, how does it come out in their playing. But I think he also wanted in a more specific way, what distinguished Memphis Jazz from, say, New York Jazz or Chicago Jazz or Los Angeles Jazz and so forth…

JW: Well, I can’t speak about the specifics about all of those other locales. But I think, just my opinion, and probably if you asked another one of the musicians you might get a startlingly different viewpoint…

But in my case, just from my observations, I have noticed many of the musicians that have come out of Memphis, first of all, have been really very conscious about certain standards by which they approach the music, being serious about the music, whichever style they are — they are very committed to that. They also usually have fairly good command of their instruments, too. They take a lot of time and care to really know their instruments. Not to be a virtuoso, but to really know what you’re capable of doing, to draw out of your instrument.

And I think also a lot of emphasis is on being able to play the Blues, being able to keep that inflection there and carry that around when you do that. Presentation and all that. Being able to carry in the most professional way in terms of presenting the music when the situation calls for it. Obviously, sometimes we don’t have control over that and we can’t make those kinds of artistic decisions.

And particularly, just to summarize once again, I think that a certain dedication and also a certain command and love and high standards of being able to play the instrument and know your instrument as well, and like I said, certainly the influence of being able to play the Blues and a love for being able to play the Blues. Maybe with some of the others, like Mulgrew and myself, and even Donald to maybe a somewhat similar degree, that Gospel influence is definitely ever-present too. So you have a whole variety there musically.

Now, in terms of the city, where it’s located… I think a lot of musicians gravitated there historically, because on the Mississippi River, during that time they had groups playing on ships and steamboats going up and down there. So if anyone had an aspiration, say, to go from New Orleans to Chicago or to Kansas City, the chances are they came through Memphis.

Charlie Parker’s mother was from Memphis, and actually he was born in Kansas City two weeks after she moved there. So he easily could have been born in Memphis himself! That’s just for some trivia that ..(?).. Aretha Franklin is from Memphis, Tennessee, but grew up in Detroit — but she lived there long enough to really remember living in Memphis the first nine or ten years of her life.

So you have all these other influences there that people always… The beauty of the city. For many years, even when I was growing up, Memphis would win the City Beautiful Award. So it was a very comfortable place to live in terms of space and in terms of climate. The greenhouse effect has done a little change on that!

And also just the whole historical part of it. Because the Father of the Blues, W.C. Handy is from right there. And you have, like I said, later on a connection with Jimmie Lunceford and hiring many of his students from Manassas High School, from Tennessee State, which is actually in Nashville, a university there…

So these standards were set in a lot of ways. And like I said, the city was always expansive. And even though it was a Southern city, it was probably a little more tolerant than many other Southern cities in terms of the Black families being able to grow. I talked to Milt Hinton. Milt Hinton said he spent time in Memphis, and even his father…. When his father died, he was living in Memphis. So when people came from Mississippi and Arkansas and Alabama and so on and so forth…

So from that perspective, people were able to develop, because even though they knew they still had many of those restrictions, and by no means was it utopia, it was comparatively much better than other cities. You know, the first thing… There was a law at the time when Milt Hinton and my father was growing up that Black men couldn’t leave a state like Mississippi. If you were old enough to work, or like a young adult or something like that, you couldn’t just go up there and just relocate — because they knew people were trying to do that. You either had to have some kind of reason or something like that… So many times, parents would get their young males out when they were young boys, twelve years old or something like that! It’s a whole different thing there.

So I think that, once again, could have set the tone for why people there… And then, of course, people were entertaining themselves, whether it’s through rent parties and other situations, and that whole communal thing made for an effort that… By the time that George Coleman and that generation and then later on my generation and all of us came along, these things were fitting into place — and Beale Street was the place it was jumping off.

I don’t know anything about Beale Street in that sense, because by the time I was kind of coming on the scene, Beale Street had become almost like deserted. You know, it was just a couple of pawn shops open down there. They’ve since renovated it, but anyone I’ve talked to…you know, it doesn’t have the same spirit and the same feeling. It’s beautiful and it looks good for the tourists and all of that, but it’s not really quite the same, you know, heyday as it had… And Beale Street was equivalent to what people know as Bourbon Street in New Orleans…

Q: The Red Light District, and all the entertainment was centered there ancillary to that.

JW: Sure. And some of the more important churches were congregated in that area. The church where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his last speech was just right around the corner; it’s not on Beale Street, but it’s a block away — Clayborne Temple.

Q: Let’s try to focus a little bit on the variety of music that was around when Calvin Newborn, George Coleman and Jamil Nasser were coming up, when you and Lewis Keel and Bill Mobley were coming up.

JW: When the generation of Jamil and George and Harold was there, all the musicians played Jazz and Rhythm-and-Blues; but maybe the reverse order — they played Rhythm-and-Blues and Jazz. It wasn’t any distinction. This was just something that came about in the Sixties, when the music was starting to be separated and stuff. But you know, you went on a gig and you played a little bit of each one of those things, and all that whole thing was carried over. And dance music… The musicians could dance and musicians were all-around entertainers. They could sing, and I don’t mean just sort of go through the motions, but everybody did something…

Like I mentioned with the Newborn family band, all the guys doubled — Phineas was playing four or five instruments, Calvin was doing three or four, Wanda was singing and playing trombone. So you had a whole variety of things that you could change the whole look. They had an organist and they had a pianist, too. So if somebody picks up a different instrument, you’ve almost got a whole different band up there on the stage. That was there…

By the time we came along, some of those elements were there. But it became…the community was a little separated. There were people who were known as Rhythm-and-Blues musicians or Blues musicians, and those who were Jazzers and those who were Rockers and all that kind of stuff. So I caught a little tail end where I got a chance to get some Rhythm-and-Blues experience, and like I say, I was playing religious music, and I also got a chance to subsequently some Jazz too.

But it was kind of funny… By the time… Not only in Memphis, but around the country as well, when you’re thought of as a Jazz player, people just assumed you didn’t do anything else but play Jazz. I still have people walking up to me and say, “Oh, man, I’m surprised. I didn’t know you did that. I thought you were just a guy who was into Bud Powell” or something like that. Now, unfortunately, I see that even happening just within the Jazz thing, that people are thought of as just playing Contemporary or Straight-Ahead and so on and so forth.

So those kind of separations started happening a little bit around Memphis, but it was much less pronounced and more soft-pedaled at that time. So you could still float a little bit… Donald Brown was probably the last of the musicians who really got a chance to float into all of those areas as comfortably and could move into those circles from one right to the other, and not miss a beat, so to speak.

I still love Memphis, you know. If Memphis was in New York, I’d live there any day. If I could only bring Memphis to New York, it would be definitely the best of both worlds, or when worlds collide, or something like that…

[-30-]

 

James Williams for “Duos” (4-16-03):

TP: So what is the nitty-gritty? How long ago did you decide you wanted to do this project?

JAMES WILLIAMS: Not much before I did it. It was done about 15 months ago [Winter 2002]. It was something I thought about doing, sort of an early birthday gift idea, in terms of putting that kind of financial effort and time and labor into this. It was a labor of love, doing something I wanted to do. And it involved many different friends, many of whom happen to be outstanding artists in one way or another. I didn’t think I could put a big band together, and I couldn’t do a concert with all of them, so I said, well, something a little more permanent that can be recaptured. The most logical thing was to do a CD, and that’s how I came to the conclusion to do this and present as wide a range… Most people seem to like to conveniently put me into one or two little categories, “James Williams, oh, he was a Jazz Messenger, and his piano playing is soulful,” and so on. But there are other areas I’m interested in and touch on, and feel very comfortable expressing myself in, so I thought this would be a chance to break down some of those preconceptions of what my musicianship is.

TP: You think people have typecast you after all these years.

JAMES WILLIAMS: Especially after all these years, in some ways. Because they see the associations with Art Blakey or Milt Jackson or Ray Brown or Benny Carter or Art Farmer or Milt Hinton (which I’m extremely proud of), but they don’t quite see the ones with Elvin or Lovano or Joe Henderson or Woody Shaw or Thad Jones, or even Joe McPhee or Frank Lowe.

I just called everybody up and said, “Look, this is what I want to do; can you do this at this time?” Luckily, I feel so good about my friends and colleagues that I know they’re going to say yes. I found this out from doing the Finas Sound Tributes concerts. Kenny Barron used to tell me, “Look, don’t even ask me any more; just tell me when the date is — I’ll be there.” That’s very comforting, and it’s also a lot of responsibility. I don’t want to abuse my friendships or my friends. So I knew that they would do it if we could just find a common time.

We literally did it in two or three days, where I had everyone comes in at different times. It was like I had an appointment book. John Clayton was the first one I did. I told my sound crew, “John Clayton’s scheduled to come in at 12 o’clock, Christian’s going to come in at 2 o’clock,” so on and so forth. Ray Brown was doing that triple bass thing at the Blue Note. Ironically, I didn’t get him, because that was the first open day in the soundcheck, so he said, “I can’t do it; I’ve got a golf match.” He wasn’t about to give up a golf game to come in there and just play a couple of tunes with me at that point. “I’ve given you three albums already; we’ll do it next time we come to town.” So we laughed about that. Etta Jones was coming in, Ron Carter was coming in… I had everybody every two or three hours…

TP: If you can resurrect the schedule… So you basically called everyone, and they came in one after the other over three days.

JAMES WILLIAMS: Yes. The nice thing is that some of the guys came early to hear other guys. Joe Lovano came in early to hear Billy Pierce, and Steve Wilson was in to hear Steve Nelson, Patitucci came in to hear Ray Drummond. [very relaxed]

TP: Did you know what repertoire you wanted to play with person, or did you mutually decide it when you were there?

JAMES WILLIAMS: I had some ideas, like certain originals. Steve Nelson said, “Let’s do that tune of yours I used to play every once in a while that I like so much; we never played but a couple of times on gigs.” I said, “Yeah? Which one is that?” It was “Be Real Special.” I said, “Gosh, I haven’t played it in a long time, but if you want to do it, let’s do it.” We just did it in the studio. Steve played with me a lot, so he showed up with my book of music. He has a Geoff Keezer book, a Donald Brown book, a Mulgrew Miller book. So he just came to the studio with my book of music, and he brought it there. I said, “Okay, let me run through it and make sure I’m clear on it, especially playing solo piano.” I just hadn’t thought of it. In that case, it was very in-the-moment.

Certain tunes I had in mind to play, but I wasn’t sure who I wanted to play them with. Jon Faddis had a request to do “A Child Is Born,” and I hadn’t been thinking about it, but I knew he had a great association with Thad, as had I to some degree.

My originals certainly were planned. I wrote a tune for Ron Carter called “Le Wizard de Basso,” and we’d played it on a tour in 2001 with Billy Cobham and Donald Harrison. I brought the music, but I knew he’d do something to make it interesting and give it a different slant than what we did with the quartet.

TP: About what percentage would you say was spontaneously decided at the studio and how much was pre-planned?

JAMES WILLIAMS: All the originals I had planned to play at some point with somebody, and usually it was someone who… I wanted Joe Lovano to play two of my originals. I wanted to hear his take on them. I’d heard Steve Wilson and Billy play on them, and wanted to hear what Joe would bring to the table. No rehearsals. We ran the tunes down, tried out some things, made sure the parts were clear, the beginnings and the endings, and did them on the spot.

Steve Nelson liked “Old Times Sake,” but he’d never played it with us before. He always asked me, “Look, why don’t you ask me to play with ICU?” I told him Dave Holland and George Shearing wouldn’t let him go away; I couldn’t hire him for anything.

TP: Did more pre-planning go into the vocals?

JAMES WILLIAMS: A couple of vocals were planned, like the Purcell piece. That’s the only thing I rehearsed in advanced, because I wanted to make sure I could play it! I suggested to Miles Griffith that I heard his voice with “These Foolish Things,” he said he knew it, and we found a key and did it. The Leon Ware tune that Roger sang, “I Know It’s You,” which is associated with Donny Hathaway, is one I’d asked Roger about, and we had a little rundown because it’s pretty tricky. I’m not sure if I played it as well as I even think we could have played it. On “For All We Know” I put a little vamp on.

But I asked Etta what she wanted to sing. She said, “You know, I never recorded ‘Skylark’; let’s do that.” I thought that was perfect, because I didn’t want them to come in and sing songs they’d done on records 5-6 times already. I basically wanted to put everyone in a slightly different element and make them do things a little differently than how they’d do it in their own situation.

Ray Drummond used to play “For My Nephews” with me often at Zinno’s and the Knickerbocker and places like that. I didn’t even have to bring out the music. He and Christian always came to my gig and had done their homework; they knew my music before they got there.

TP: Who’s Thomas Trotter?

JAMES WILLIAMS: He’s an opera singer, who is a friend of mine. I wanted to do something a little different, after I chose that Purcell piece. I asked Roger to come up with a little arrangement, a little duet.

Kim Nally is a vocalist from San Francisco. A friend of mine knew her and suggested her, that she was going to be in town that week. I didn’t really know her, although I’d heard her sing, and said, “Let’s go for it.” Same thing with Steve Heck, who’s a former piano student of mine from Berkeley. I ran into a few years ago playing a Howard Johnson’s gig, and I thought, “he sure sounds good.” I said, “He looks like a student of mine,” but he hadn’t been singing at that time, but his piano playing sounded good. I wanted to have someone on there that nobody knew as well as people like Lovano or a singer like Freddy Cole…

Now, the songs with Freddy I didn’t know. Freddy taught me the songs, and then we just recorded them. Right now, I’d be hard-pressed to play them; I’d have to go back and learn them and listen to them again. If he were to call “Close To You” on a gig right now, it would get a little confused. He sat down and played them through a couple of times, and I said, I think I’ve got it.”

TP: This is about four hours of music all-told, and the music is so wide-ranging. You’ve been a professional since 1977, so it’s 26 years as a professional doing all sorts of jobs. What challenges are involved in playing with all these personalities?

JAMES WILLIAMS: A lot of times I wanted to led them lead and zone in quickly on what mood they were in at that particular day and moment, not go by their reputation and what they’d recorded. If we were laughing or silly and we were clowning around, I’d try to bring that kind of buoyancy to the music. Sometimes they’d play behind the beat or play at… I had to make sure that I wasn’t having a tendency to follow them so much that the tempo would drag, or everything would get in a sluggish mode. That was always the other side of the challenge, to be a good accompanist all the way throughout. I was not all that concerned about how well I played as a soloist on this session as much as I wanted to be really on top of my game as an accompanist. Accompanying means being a team player. Even though I was the only team member, or I am the team in that sense.

TP: But you’re the boss, too!

JAMES WILLIAMS: That’s interesting, too. Because in a sense, they wanted to please me. They came in and said, “What do you want me to do?” I said, “I want you to be yourself.” Ron said, “What do you want today?” I said, “I’m not too demanding; just play some of that Ron Carter stuff on my date and sound good for me.” He started laughing. I said, “You probably can handle it; I don’t know. I’m sure you can.” We worked at it. Ron is all business, he doesn’t deal with a lot of small talk unless he’s around people he really likes and knows pretty well.

Now, Etta was totally passive. “Oh, James, what do you want me to sing?” “Etta, let’s just do what you feel.” She said, “Well, I never recorded ‘Skylark.'” I said, “Let’s do it, then; I can play it.” I told her, “Thank goodness you do it in the original key.” I could have transposed it. I probably would have taken a moment and written it out. Because I didn’t want anybody to be doing a lot of takes. I thought two or three takes maximum. I said, “We’ve got to move this right along. I want this to be more like a gig and like a party.” I didn’t want anybody to work that hard and get all caught up like it’s a real studio date.

TP: Did you therefore allow the personalities of your partners to determine your approach to the piano? Some things are kind of beboppish, some things are kind of churchy, some things are bluesy, some things are more harmonic and impressionistic. Does the material rule that? Does the dialogue rule that?

JAMES WILLIAMS: Both, actually. I wanted to play some bebop. I said, “Look, that’s what I do.” I play bebop. I love that music. That’s what really excited me about the music, especially when I first was starting to play more. So that had to be represented. Obviously, the church and gospel and bluesier side of things is also what I seem to have become known as. Now, I don’t think of myself that way. When I hear that, I think of Ray Bryant and Bobby
Timmons and Junior Mance and cats like that, but not so much myself. I’m always sort of amazed. I say, “Is that what people think of me.” I don’t really see myself in that light. I don’t want to dissociate myself from that as much as to add on…

TP: Put it in its proper perspective.

JAMES WILLIAMS: Okay, that’s one dimension. Let’s move on and explore some other sides. That’s the other thing I wanted to keep out front, and hopefully… I don’t necessarily expect this necessarily to change that opinion. It’s a different project. I just want each CD to display another side of where I am at that point in time.

TP: Is this a New York centric CD? You’re a New Yorker since January 1984, when you moved from Boston.

JAMES WILLIAMS: I think it definitely is. There’s a certain energy, a certain spontaneity, even a certain recklessness. Carefree might be a better word for it.

TP: Maybe a confidence.

JAMES WILLIAMS: That, too. A certain swagger to it. I think all of those things are certainly what we look for. When I think of New York, all those things should be present, up-close and personal. But New York is also very unpredictable, and that’s the perspective here. The industry is now volatile and unpredictable. That’s the reason this is happening the way it is. To me, anybody that’s supposed to be in the business would jump on this immediately. It has everything they say they need — marketability, name value, things along those lines. But right now, everyone is doing just the opposite of what jazz is about. For the most part, they’re being very careful and ultra-conservative in some cases, going for the sure thing only, and not deal with anything that wants to take any chances. There’s a whitewashing of the music in a lot of ways. The people making the decisions are saying people only want to hear this and not be challenged. So that’s reflected in this, too.

[-30-]

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Filed under Interview, James Williams, Liner Notes

For Henry Threadgill’s 76th Birthday, A 2018 Downbeat Feature and the Transcript Of A 1996 Musician Show on WKCR

Best of birthdays to maestro Henry Threadgill, who turns 76 today. In honor of the occasion, here’s my uncut version of an early 2018 Downbeat feature, and a transcript of the proceedings of Musician Show that we did in 1996 on WKCR.

 

Henry Threadgill, DownBeat Article, June 2018:

No one applies more creative mojo to naming a band or a song—or to conjuring out-of-the-box instrumentations to compose for—than Henry Threadgill. The 74-year-old maestro maintains that standard on Pi’s parallel spring releases by two recently configured ensembles.

Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus follows Double Up’s 2016 debut album, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi). The earlier date coincided with Threadgill’s Pulitzer Prize award, bestowed for In For A Penny, the sixth consecutive album by Zooid, which premiered in 2001 with Up Popped The Two Lips. Dirt . . . And More Dirt introduces 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg, which combines personnel from Zooid, Double Up, and an as-yet unrecorded brass ensemble dubbed Dimples, which Threadgill premiered in 2014.

Threadgill’s well-turned epigrams complement the music’s singular character. Yet again, he continues to find new ways to address the raw materials that define his documented corpus since Air Song, from 1975, the first of a dozen recordings by Air, a trio with fellow AACM members Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall, in which he sought to expand the possibilities of the saxophone-bass-drums format along organizational principles gleaned from Ahmad Jamal, whose trio Threadgill heard while growing up on the South Side of Chicago.

After the 1979 one-off recital X-75 by a bespoke nonet (four basses, four winds, and voice), Threadgill launched a six-album run by his seven-piece Sextett, framing his oracular, spirit-raising voice on alto and tenor saxophone and flute with trumpet, trombone, cello, bass, and two drummers. The players, who included rugged individualists like Olu Dara on trumpet and Craig Harris on trombone, rendered with panache and flair his sui generis pieces, in which Threadgill deftly refracted marches, rags, the blues, sacred music, Balkan strains, Afrodiasporic pop elements, and modernist Euro-canon harmony into his own extravagant argot.

There followed three albums by Very Very Circus during the early ’90s, on which Threadgill deftly sculpted polyphonic and contrapuntal tonal combinations from the potentially lugubrious admixture of saxophone, trombone, two electric guitars and two tubas, propelled by Gene Lake’s primal, funky grooves. On another three albums by Make A Move between 1995 and 2001, Threadgill added accordion, harmonium, vibraphone, and hand percussion colors to his palette, and delved into Pan-American and Pan-Asian flavors. Then, with Zooid, he pared down, framing his instruments with an austere guitar-cello-tuba-drumset ensemble, which improvised fluently within the rules of a rigorous, homegrown intervallic 12-tone system.

On In For A Penny, Threadgill began to loosen the reins, applying a process he describes as “free serialism.” He continues that practice with Kestra and Double Up, creating environments as timbrally lush as Zooid’s are spare, while removing his instrumental voice from the preponderance of the proceedings. To navigate them, he’s recruited a cohort of New York-based best-and-brightest Gen-X’ers and Millennials who match his job description of being “without preconceptions that music and art go one way, and one way only.”

To be specific, Double Up comprises pianists David Virelles, David Bryant and Luis Perdomo; alto saxophonists Roman Filiú and Curtis Robert MacDonald, and drummer Craig Weinrib, none of whom played in Zooid, from which guitarist Liberty Ellman, tubist Jose Davila and cellist Christopher Hoffman return. Augmenting that personnel in the Kestra (Perdomo is absent) are trumpeters Jonathan Finlayson and Stephanie Richards, trombonists Jacob Garchik and Ben Gerstein, bassist Thomas Morgan, and—from Zooid—drummer Elliott Humberto Kavee, who pairs off with Weinrib.

“I use ‘free serialism’ as an analogy,” Threadgill said between sips of a double espresso in a café on Ninth Street and Avenue C in Manhattan’s East Village, a few blocks from the apartment he moved into in 1980. “There’s no other term I can use. These are technical issues only scholarly-type people are concerned with.”

After this demurral, Threadgill broached the matter with a pithy “serialism for civilians” explanation. “Serialism is a tone row of 12 notes arranged in order, and you follow that order strictly, over and over,” he explained. “If it’s free serialism, you’re using still only those 12 notes, but not strictly in that order. Something that goes 1-2-3-4-5, is now going 1-3-5-2-4. I really like Alban Berg, who just did things he wanted to do with his system. I like people like Debussy—people who just do what they want.”

“I think the musical language Henry uses to construct the pieces is so ingrained that he can extrapolate from it right away at any point,” Virelles said. “With the piano, you can hear his harmonies as more defined than some things he did in the past, when he distributed it between the wind instruments, the bass, sometimes even the drums. He tunes the drums specifically, in an orchestral and harmonic way, to add to the overall color he’s trying to put forth.”

Why did Threadgill remove himself from the mix? “It’s not necessary for me to play in every group,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a distraction to listeners; they focus on me as though the other musicians aren’t important. I brought these new young people on the scene with me because I think they’re extremely important.”

He added: “My music is a type of concept or system. It’s not something you can come in and do in any short period of time. Zooid rehearsed a year-and-half, without a gig in sight, before we started. That’s nothing unusual. I did it in Chicago with a number of people. I did it when I worked with Cecil Taylor during the 1980s. For these new people, I had to consider how I could modify my processes so they could be comfortable and use it.”

According to the band members, Threadgill’s modifications do not denote a concomitant decrease in the intensity of his rehearsals. Ellman noted Threadgill’s penchant for targeting areas of deficiency. “He started writing really high guitar parts, which were hard for me to read,” he remarked. “Henry said, ‘You’re wasting a whole lot of your instrument.’ But an improvising ensemble requires a lot of rehearsal to execute the music properly, with the required joy and freedom. We’re not playing every night. Henry wants the music to be tested and internalized so it really comes out as something that’s been mastered before we perform it.”

“Henry is always writing to push you to your limits, trying to expose something we’re trying not to expose,” said MacDonald, who has doubled as Threadgill’s copyist for several years. “He’ll completely change stuff on the fly. He’ll say, ‘I like that; do it again.’ He’s always curious, always listening to what other people are up to. He’s a sponge for all sorts of input and information.”

Why did it take Threadgill so long to write a consequential body of work built around the harmonic possibilities of multiple pianos? After noting his previous deployment of Myra Melford on piano and Amina Claudine Myers on organ and harpsichord on the 1993 album Song Out Of My Trees, Threadgill offered a characteristically blunt explanation.

“I always wanted to write for piano, but I haven’t used it because the pianos are so bad in New York City,” he stated. “With some of the clubs and venues we’ve had to play in, I couldn’t imagine asking a piano player to sit down at some of this junk. It’s taken this amount of time for me to feel comfortable with the physical instrument in this environment.”

Another motivation was Threadgill’s burgeoning friendship with Virelles, who moved to New York in 2009 at the instigation of Steve Coleman and Dafnis Prieto, who had alerted Threadgill to the Cuban pianist’s skills, and, in turn, brought MacDonald, Filiú and Weinrib into Threadgill’s orbit. “During our first few sessions, he’d bring me with him to hear the music playing in New York in a given week,” Virelles recalled. “We’d hear Muhal Richard Abrams with George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell, then a premiere by Elliott Carter, whoever was playing at the Village Vanguard or the Jazz Gallery. We’d go to museums and galleries. I was with him or in touch with him almost every single day, talking about music or art.

“Every couple of weeks, I’d bring things to his house to work on. He’d give me directions as to how he thought I could expand and generate more material from what I already had, to transform any amount of information into something else, both for preconceived composition and improvisation. We’d have long discussions about composition and orchestration, which we still do. That’s how I became familiar with his way of thinking about music. After a couple of years, he started coming up with situations where he could use my voice.”

Although Threadgill emphatically does not see teaching as his calling, he acknowledges doing so in his ensembles. “Leaders lead people,” he said. “They trust you to lead them. You’ve experienced a lot more than they have, so you can make them aware of certain things. You have to know what you’re doing, or you shouldn’t be in that position.” His next remarks hearkened to his time in Vietnam, where in 1967-68 Threadgill served as an Army musician in Pleiku, an active combat zone. “Make the most dangerous, critical thing you can imagine, and everyone could end up dead if you get it wrong. You want the leader to be the person you believe can take you through.”

This being said, Threadgill evaluates his relationship with Virelles as a collaboration between equals. “I’d say David was using me more or less as a lead assistant,” he said. “He was a mature artist when I met him, not only an outstanding pianist but an accomplished composer. He knew my musical processes. We looked together at different ideas and problems he was exploring, and I showed him things I was working on, which he got into, examined and understood.”

In describing his interaction with Virelles, Threadgill mirrors his own 55-year friendship with the late Muhal Richard Abrams. They met when Abrams played a concert at Chicago’s Wilson Junior College, where Threadgill was an 18-year-old freshman, and then invited the aspirant to participate in the Experimental Band, the rehearsal group from which the AACM emerged. Threadgill mentioned the encounter to classmates Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell and Malachi Favors, who decided to investigate. In 1965, they became members of the newly formed AACM; in 1968, Threadgill—who had spent three years raising a joyful noise with a traveling evangelist before his time in Vietnam—joined them.

“Muhal was an example of the studious musician-student, the inquirer-scientist,” Threadgill said. “His level of intensity and the depth of his research went all past jazz and all past classical music. Once Muhal told me he was going to start tuning his piano. He took the whole piano apart. He said, ‘That leads up to tuning.’ When computers came out, he was the first one I knew who had books and materials about the systems. Next thing you know, he had three computers, including one he was opening up to see the mechanics. You saw him unravel the myths or mysteries behind things. His level of research cleared up what you had to do. It told you, ‘See, if you do this, you can go somewhere.’”

Like Abrams and his fellow AACM lifers, Threadgill weathered the ups and downs attendant to a career in creative music, before attaining golden years institutional recognition, as most recently signified by his Pulitzer.

“It was a great honor and privilege to receive the Pulitzer in my lifetime,” he said. “It’s certainly helped me get a bit more attention and have people take some of my work more seriously. Labels like ‘jazz’ put you in ghettos. I just say it’s improvisational-based music. There shouldn’t be a limit to what jazz is in terms of going forward.”

What kept him motivated over the years?

“This is what I do!” Threadgill stated incredulously. “This is what I’m here for. There’s nothing here to discourage me. If I let myself be discouraged, it’s my problem. I’m not supposed to let that happen.” He laughed. “I can’t control human agency.”

“I’m not sure you totally believe that when it comes to your compositions,” he was told.

Threadgill laughed again, and then mentioned the m.o. of his dear friend, the late conductionist Lawrence “Butch” Morris, a fellow Vietnam veteran, composer, flaneur, and Lower East Side neighbor, to whom he dedicated Old Locks and Irregular Verbs. “Butch was looking to get people out of the effect of habit,” Threadgill said. “I am, too. It takes time to understand what’s going on in music. In time, you see how people are doing things by rote almost. My idea—and what Butch was concerned with—is how to keep musicians away from automatic musical behavior. I take away all the symbols they’re used to, that tell them how to behave, and give them another set that allows them only to be spontaneous.”

In the manner of his generational cohort in the AACM, Threadgill sustains a fresh outlook through extra-musical artistic production (in his case, writing), nourished by consistent use of New York’s abundant cultural resources. As he puts it, “Why be here if you’re not going to use the museums and art galleries and libraries? Go to Paducah!”

In point of fact, Dirt . . . And More Dirt gestated in northern California, where Threadgiill was “maxing out” a 90-day Lucas Artists Residency at Montalvo Arts Center, while investigating the local “dirt and clay, huge trees, and vegetation” and the locally-based works of sculptor Stephen De Staebler and painter-sculptor-installation artist Walter De Maria. Conceptual artist David Hammonds, Threadgill’s and Morris’ mutual friend, “pointed me in their direction.”

“Sometimes I’m researching one thing, and it spills over into a manifestation musically,” Threadgill added. “I’m interested right now in arithmetic.”

Did he care to elaborate?

“Not yet,” Threadgill said. “That will become clear pretty soon.”

[END OF ARTICLE

 

 

Henry Threadgill Musician Show (7-24-96):

[MUSIC: Threadgill, “Like It Feels” (1995), “Hyla Crucifer” (1993)]

TP: We have very diverse music that reflects many experiences of Henry’s. I’d like to begin by talking to you about your early experiences listening to music and playing music coming up in Chicago in the 1950’s as a youngster and a teenager. The first set will focus on the Chicago Blues. Was that some of your earliest listening experience?

HT: Yes, some was my earliest Blues listening experience. But I listened to all kinds of music, Western European Classical music, a lot of Polish-American music and American-Mexican music, and a lot of Black Gospel music, and what we called then Hillbilly music, and of course Boogie-Woogie piano.

TP: You’d hear this music in the community, or on records in the house?

HT: Most of it was on the radio. That was before radio was programmed the way it’s programmed today. It was pretty wide-open radio. And then I would hear some music in the community, mostly coming out of shops, because I was too young to go in places where they played music other than churches, where you could hear people like Sam Cooke, the Pilgrim Travelers, people like that.

TP: What church would he play in?

HT: All around the South Side. But this was around Cottage Grove and 31st Street, 35th Street, 39th Street.

TP: In your home were there musicians in the family?

HT: No. I had an aunt, one aunt that was studying piano and voice. She was away in school, went away to a college. Then I had a cousin who played very fine piano, but I never knew it. My aunt married a musician, my uncle Nevin Wilson, a very fine bassist in Chicago. I was very close to them as a kid, because of the music. He was playing with Ahmad Jamal at the time, so I was around them for a lot of that experience.

TP: When did it occur to you that music was something you wanted to do? Was it a natural thing that happened, or was there a conscious choice when you were a kid?

HT: It was a gradual thing, just a gradual thing. By the time I started high school I knew pretty much that’s what I wanted to do, was to play music. But my ideas were very… You know the ideas of a young teenager… Well, not nearly the way teenagers think now. Teenagers nowadays, they think in terms of millions of dollars. We weren’t even thinking in terms of dollars; it was just a matter of wanting to be able to play the way we heard music being performed and played. That’s the way I thought, and my peers, you know.

TP: Did you have a peer group in junior high and high school of kids who were interested in music?

HT: Oh yeah. We had Absholom Ben-Sholomo, who was with Sun Ra, Richard Heard, Stephen Scott, the bassist Mchaka Ubu, my cousin Michael Wess. Arlington Davis, Jr.; his father, Arlington Davis, Sr., was a famous saxophone player from Chicago. There was the Pulliam family, which was a highly musical family in Chicago. I learned a lot from John Pulliam, the saxophonist. His younger brother and sister were my age. We all played together. And Milton Chapman. There were quite a few of us.

TP: At one point or another you’ve performed on nearly every saxophone and woodwind instrument, but it seems like alto has been the consistent main vehicle over the years? Was that first instrument?

HT: Oh, no, that’s my last instrument. I started out as a tenor saxophone player. Tenor saxophone, the baritone saxophone, the clarinet and bass clarinet, then I went to the flute, and I came around to the alto last.

TP: Did you start playing the saxophone in high school through a band?

HT: Yeah, in the band at Englewood High School in Chicago.

TP: Now, the famous high school is DuSable and Captain Walter Dyett…

HT: One of the famous high schools. Englewood was famous… [LAUGHS]

TP: I was leading up to ask you to tell us about the music program at Englewood High School.

HT: It was like all the high school programs, pretty much. It was a band program, and sometimes there would be small group rehearsals to work on Dance Band music or Jazz Band music. We called it Stage Band, besides being in the concert band… In other words, the concert band, the marching band, and then the stage band where we would play big band arrangements. There were a lot of great players at that school when I got there. Roscoe Mitchell, a great saxophone player Donald Myrick, Steve McCall had gone there, Oscar Brown, Jr., Satterfield, the trombone player. There were a lot of good players there.

TP: Who were some of the people who connected you into extending your research into music? Was Roscoe Mitchell one…

HT: No, I met Roscoe very late. The first saxophone player around that I really was influenced by that always was there with encouragement was Donald Myrick. Donald was older than I was, and he was a very fine saxophone player, very gifted when he was very young. There were band and solo city competitions, and he had won several of these for a couple of years. I was kind of following behind him to go to these contests, and play in the different groups. He would take me around to different sessions on Monday nights and Wednesday nights around the city.

TP: Were you listening to tenor players on records at the time? Were you starting to study different styles and approaches to the instrument?

HT: Well, I was listening to everything. But Chicago had a wealth of tenor saxophone players, and it was very difficult not to fall under the spell of Chicago tenor saxophone players, because they are very powerful players, very innovative players. John Gilmore, Eddie Williams, Eddie Harris, Clifford Jordan, Von Freeman, Gene Ammons, Jay Peters. There was just a list of them that went on and on, so many fine tenor saxophone players. But I never did hear too many alto saxophone players. It was mainly tenor saxophone players that I would go around to hear you always.

TP: Were there any you tried to emulate?

HT: Oh, sure. When you’re learning there’s always people you try to emulate. Gene Ammons was one of my favorites. I always went every place Gene Ammons would play; I’d always turn up there if I could. Gene Ammons and Eddie Williams in particular, and also John Gilmore. John Gilmore, Eddie Williams and Gene Ammons, and then later Von Freeman. Those were like the strong tenor saxophone players around Chicago. Later I was very much an admirer of Clifford Jordan, who became one of my favorite people also.

TP: The first group that you mentioned were all playing around Chicago when you were in high school?

HT: Yes.

TP: Which would have ’58, ’59, ’60 or so?

HT: Yeah, ’58, ’59, ’60.

TP: Were you working at all on little neighborhood gigs at this time, or doing things outside school?

HT: Yeah, we would get a job every now and then.

TP: What type of job would it be?

HT: In a bar, in a club. We would get a chance to play in a bar somewhere every now and then. But mostly we would play at somebody’s house or in the basement of school or in the band-room. We would find someplace to work out our ideas.

TP: What sort of things would you work out on? Would you take tunes sort of in general currency?

HT: Yeah, right. The general repertoire that you heard, the popular Jazz pieces, the contemporary pieces of Charlie Parker. That’s what everybody was playing, learning how to play it. If they couldn’t play it, they were learning how to play it…

TP: So learning the harmonic language of Charlie…

HT: The technical language, harmonic language and melodic language, and the whole musical aesthetic attitude of that music.

TP: Now, there were a lot of venues to play music on the South Side of Chicago at that particular time.

HT: Oh, sure.

TP: That legacy went back many years, and it was kind of the end of that very fertile period of being able to hear a lot of music on the South Side of Chicago.

HT: Yeah, Chicago was like… It was just one place after the other on 63rd Street on the South Side from Martin Luther King Drive (which was named South Park) to the Lake, which was I don’t know how many miles. There was just one place after another where you could hear music nightly, every night, where great musicians played. You’d get to 63rd and Cottage Grove, there were really big places, big dance halls where Duke and Count and people like that would play — the Trianon, the Pershing Ballroom and places like that. The Pershing Ballroom had a ballroom and a bar where Ahmad Jamal worked, and later Sun Ra worked there. Dexter Gordon and these people would come, and you’d hear them in places like Basin Street. There were so many places there.

TP: I take it you were underage to get in, but you would have been able to soak up the whole environment.

HT: Sure, you could get in if you were playing music. We used to carry our instrument around, so they would let you in. They knew you were trying to learn, so they would let you in. They’d serve you Coca-Cola or whatever soft drink they had.

TP: Were you also playing the Blues at that time?

HT: Not at that time. I was playing in marching bands. I was playing in a host of marching bands, all types of marching bands, marching bands that were playing (for lack of a better term) something close to like Dixie, similar to the style of marching bands that you’d hear in New Orleans. That was one type of marching band. Another played military tunes…not military tunes, but tunes that were written for military bands — John Philip Sousa and pieces like that. then there were some things that were just arrangements by people for these different aggregations. But there were quite a few of these things on the South Side. Veteran organizations that had bands. Post bands. You could make money playing parades. That’s what I did.

It was a while before I started playing in Blues bands. That was in the late ’60s, when I started playing in Blues bands in Chicago.

TP: Nonetheless, for purposes of our Musician Show chronology, we’re going to start with Howlin’ Wolf and “Smokestack Lightning”.

HT: For me, Howlin’ Wolf is the greatest. Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters are two of the greatest people I ever heard. It had nothing to do with the Blues; they were just great, period, when you hear what they do and how they do it.

[MUSIC: Howlin’ Wolf, “Smokestack Lighting” (1956); Muddy Waters, “Mean Mistreater” (1959); Rev. James Cleveland, “I’ll Do His Will”]

TP: Any general comments on the Blues and Gospel music in reference to what we just heard?

HT: The idea about the Blues that’s sometimes put forth in institutions and situations similar to what institutions put out, that the Blues has some kind of strict formal structure — it does not. The Blues is an internal thing. If one ever really heard the Blues, Blues had no type of structure until the Blues existed. That is, each piece presented its own development and own structure. It had nothing to do with patterns that’s often put forth, that the Blues is some 12-bar form or something like that. That’s really not true. Not this type of Blues. Maybe some type of Blues that’s gotten to be popular among certain type of musicians. But the Blues that I heard that was played on the streets of Chicago and probably played in the country, in the Delta, that Blues could take any direction and any form at any time.

Gospel music was the same way. It was music that was improvised music. It had a starting point, but you never knew exactly what was going to happen with this music. The Blues was the same way. You never knew what was going to happen with it. It was a spirit music, and the spirit was the strongest part of the music. It had the direction of the music. The direction was through the spirit, not so much through a lot of mental calculations and things of that nature. They would more or less play it by the spirit of what they were doing.

TP: If I’m not mistaken, you were out a couple of years on the road with a band for a traveling preacher.

HT: Yes, I used to play with Horace Shepherd, out of Philadelphia. It was a great experience. He was a traveling evangelist, so we got a chance to go to a lot of places, a lot of camp meetings and different churches where they would have him for a week. It was a large entourage of music people that traveled, similar to what Billy Graham has, but it was all Gospel and Sanctified people — singers, musicians that played instruments, pianists, organists, everything. Highly skilled musicians. The level of musicianship was really quite incredible.

It was a great experience because the music would just go off. It almost free. It was free because there was no expectation level. You couldn’t learn some patterns and do these patterns and think that was it. It didn’t work that way at all. You just had a place where you started, and where it ended up depended on what would happen in the emotions of church services.

TP: Did you travel the country?

HT: Yes.

TP: Did you go East to West, North to South with Horace Shepherd?

HT: Oh, yeah. We went to California, the South, the Midwest, the East Coast.

TP: Was that your first extensive experience on the road?

HT: Yes. That happened in 1963-64. It was a very new and very eye-opening experience, because I came in contact with people all around the country for the first time, and I got to see what America looked like outside of a geography book and newspaper clippings, and see real people and see what their attitudes and dispositions were.

TP: At the time you joined Horace Shepherd, the traveling evangelist, talk about where you were musically.

HT: I was playing with the AACM, but it wasn’t the AACM at that time; it was the Experimental Band. Muhal Richard Abrams and all the different people that were associated with the Experimental Band, like Fred Anderson, Steve McCall, Donald Myrick.

TP: For people who don’t know, what was the Experimental Band?

HT: The Experimental Band was a large or small orchestra at a place called C&C’s Lounge, when I came in touch with Muhal and the group. Muhal invited me over there to play and write a piece at that time, which was I guess about ’62.

TP: Was that the first time you’d written, or was it an interest of yours before?

HT: I started writing about that time. Prior to that I started writing, about 1961.

TP: You were still in high school when you began writing.

HT: Yes.

TP: What was your impetus for that? Did you have some sort of rudimentary composition class?

HT: No, it was just a natural thing. It was something that I knew I could do, and I just started doing it without any kind of formal instruction or formal information. It was just something that I knew I could do, and I just started doing it.

TP: How did you come to the Experimental Band? Was it something in the air…?

HT: No, Muhal Richard Abrams. He came and played at the school I was in, Wilson Junior College. We had a music club there.

TP: That later became Kennedy-King Junior College, I believe, and that’s where Malachi Favors and Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman and Jack de Johnette were all attending at that time.

HT: Right, and Eddie Harris, Bunky Green, Betty Dupree, they were all up there. There were a lot of musicians there at that time. But we had a music club, and we invited Muhal there to play with a group. That’s when I first met him. and we talked and everything. I don’t know what transpired, but I saw him again, and he invited me to come over there and play with the orchestra at C&C’s, to sit in the section and read the different charts they had.

TP: What was your impression of the music they were playing? Was it different than what you…?

HT: Oh yeah, because it was all original. They weren’t doing standards, and they weren’t doing the popular Bebop music at all. These were people who were writing music, coming from their own directions who were looking for a new direction in music.

TP: Had you heard any music up to this point, 1962, that gave you some kind of reference point to playing this music?

HT: Not really. Well, I would say Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra. For playing the music, that was one thing; for writing the music, that was a different experience altogether. For playing the music, yes, I would say Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor.

TP: You were already familiar with their recordings.

HT: Oh, yes. We were quite aware. They made a big impression on musicians all across America, all around the world, the step that had been made by them. Bill Dixon, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor. That move was a very significant move in improvised music in the Western world.

TP: Why so?

HT: Because it was the next move from Charlie Parker and Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, people of that school — that move. Once that move had been made, it was like everyone began to learn this music and they began to formulize this music. It became formulized, the way polyphony in Western music had become formalized by Bach. Then it had fallen into more or less a set of known patterns and predictable outcomes, and consequently it was becoming stylistic and into periodicy, I would say.

TP: What do you mean by that?

HT: That it stayed within itself within that period and style, and it advanced as far as it was going to advance, and that was it. There were refinements and arrangements and beautiful solos, but the evolution had stopped. So with these other people we were speaking of, like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Bill Dixon and others, the doors opened up again, and a number of artists around the country, like the AACM in Chicago were greatly influenced by this music. The later works of John Coltrane, which were in that direction, Eric Dolphy, they had a great influence on the players in the circles I was in.

TP: The next set will start with the only recording by Wilbur Ware, a bassist who was one of great spirit musicians of Jazz, who might start out from a point and take it wherever.

HT: Wilbur had a great influence on all the players I knew around Chicago, and here in New York, too.

TP: When did you first meet him?

HT: Oh God, I don’t even remember what age I was. He and my uncle Nevin Wilson used to run together. I’ve been knowing Wilbur Ware since I was a kid. I don’t even remember.

TP: He was a bassist and a drummer at one point. He lived with the great Chicago drummer Ike Day, and was I gather a very good dancer as well.

HT: Yes, exactly.

[MUSIC: Wilbur Ware, “The Man I Love” (1957); Gilmore-A. Hill-Hutcherson-Davis-J. Chambers “Le Serpent Qui Danse” (1964); Gene Ammons, “The Happy Blues” (1956)]

TP: I seem to recollect a conversation with you, Henry, some years ago, where you remembered Gene Ammons coming into McKie’s while Sonny Rollins was playing, or vice-versa…

HT: Yes, they played together a week on the same at McKie’s, in the Strand Hotel, the Sonny Rollins Quartet with Gene Ammons. It was quite incredible. I mean, I was a great fan of Sonny Rollins when I was growing up; he was one of my idols besides Gene Ammons. Now, you can often hear things live that will never get on record. I remember the last night that the played, the Sunday night, McKie’s locked the doors of the club around 2:30 or 3 o’clock, and they wouldn’t let anybody else in. They played until the next morning, and Gene Ammons was really… I had no idea he could play like that. He was playing pieces up in the harmonic section of the saxophone, the altissimo of the tenor saxophone, and never played below that. Very high notes, played all of these melodies like an octave higher than Sonny Rollins. It was really quite impressive. I didn’t even know he played up there on the saxophone! It was quite a lesson.

TP: Which goes to show that no artist is giving away all their secrets on any given performance.

HT: That’s right. But those two players were two totally different styles. Sonny Rollins had some Chicago roots, too, because he had a lot of family there and had spent a lot of time, so he knew quite a bit about the Chicago style of playing. I’m sure he was struck with Gene Ammons’ playing. There were very few tenor players of that age who were not struck by Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon coming out of the Billy Eckstine Orchestra.

TP: A few impressions on Gene Ammons’ style and individuality on the saxophone?

HT: Well, I can’t say too much about Gene Ammons’ style, but his sound and the way… I used to run around behind him and watch him and listen very closely to how he would produce the sound on the instrument. It had to do with his physicality also, but he had a way of putting air through the instrument that was important for the production of the type of sound that he had. He had such a massive sound. It wasn’t so much loud as it was big. It was a huge sound that would permeate everything. He would play in a room without a microphone, and just fill up the entire room with sound. Then he played with such depth of feeling, too. He was a great balladeer. He really knew how to play a ballad. He could bleed you to death with his ballads! He was a type of minimalist player, I would say. He didn’t play a whole lot of information, the way Thelonious Monk played. He was an economy player.

TP: A few words about John Gilmore? Did you listen to the Sun Ra Band in the ’50s?

HT: Yeah, I used to be at their rehearsals. They used to rehearse on 63rd Street in Englewood, 63rd and Morgan. Ronnie Boykins lived in the area I lived, and they had a rehearsal space in a supermarket. Absholom Bensholomo and I used to be at the rehearsals every night when they would practice, so we would be back under Pat, Marshall and John on a nightly basis at the rehearsals — then also going to all the performances they’d play.

TP: So this was when you were 14 or 15..

HT: 13-14-15.

TP: What did the music sound like to you at 13, 14 or 15?

HT: It was very different. It was quite radical from anything on disk that we had been listening to. It was really quite radical. The music and the way that they improvised was really quite radical. I hadn’t heard anything like that. I heard Sun Ra before I heard Ornette Coleman or any of these people, and it was really beyond anything that was recorded that we knew of.

TP: Where would you see them perform?

HT: They played every week at the Pershing Lounge, and we’d go there every week. When they left for New York, they left from the Pershing Lounge. They finished at the Pershing, and they got in their cars and drove here to New York around 1961.

TP: A few words about the dynamics of John Gilmore’s style and individuality.

HT: His sound and his style, the information that he was playing was some very advanced harmonic and rhythmic information. His rhythmic approach was really quite amazing. John used to tell me about practicing out of drum books, when we used to go to the rehearsals, listening to them as kids, so I went out and bought a whole bunch of drum books, and I’d play with different drummers. Arlington “Butch” Davis and I used to practice together, and we’d only practice out of drum books. That gives you a grounding in certain drum rhythmics that you wouldn’t ordinarily have in your playing, playing a melodic instrument. Gilmore’s playing was very rhythmic playing. I don’t mean necessarily always busy. It could be busy, but very unusual rhythmic patterns in his playing. And also his harmonic language was extremely advanced. He and Coltrane used to consult a lot. and Coltrane used to come and listen to him play. Eddie Harris, Clifford Jordan, a lot of people knew about his musical thinking. He was a very sophisticated player, and totally original.

TP: Did you ever get to speak with Sun Ra as a teenager, or was it just from afar?

HT: Just a few words here and there. Not too much. I never had any long conversations with Sun Ra, not really.

TP: You mentioned Eddie Harris just now. Were you enamored of his sound and style at this time?

HT: Oh, of course. He was playing at C&C’s Lounge, a great group, with Sleepy Anderson on organ. They had a great band at C&C’s Lounge, with Doug Freeman, a trumpet player, I believe, and I think Ajaramu was the drummer. It was a fantastic band. It first had been Eddie Williams, a fabulous tenor saxophone player in Chicago, then Eddie Harris. That’s when I first met Eddie Harris. He was fascinating, the amount of information that was in him musically.

TP: He was also a pianist. I believe he played Mondays and Tuesdays at the Pershing when Ahmad Jamal was off.

HT: Oh, yes. He played a lot of piano. He was an all-around musician.

TP: Was Johnny Griffin around Chicago a lot at that point?

HT: No, he was pretty much gone by that time. But he used to come in there and play engagements at different clubs and play the theaters. The theaters at that time would have shows after the movie, and he and Jay Peters (another great saxophone player in Chicago) used to front a big band at the Regal Theater.

TP: Both went to DuSable High School. I believe Johnny Griffin succeeded Jay Peters in the Lionel Hampton band.

HT: Right. And they used to play together a lot, duelling tenors with a big band.

TP: A Chicago institution.

HT: Mmm-hmm!

TP: Was that something you’d engage in as a young saxophonist? Part of the Chicago musical ritual, as it were?

HT: Well, it wasn’t any formal ritual. But you had to fall up under the influence of these people because they were all original. They were very original. We were hearing a lot of the music disk coming from who was being recorded in New York, and it was a striking difference, the approach for tenor saxophone players that were out of Chicago.

TP: Presumably mature improvisers are individual in one manner or another. What was the nature of the Chicago individuality?

HT: It took a lot of chances and played a lot of information that was outside of what was being played in New York. Also the concept of sound was different, from what I was hearing on records — what people thought about sound.

TP: Different in what way?

HT: The aerodynamics of sound! The way they put the air in the instrument and what kind of sound came out. There didn’t seem to be a unison thought on that in terms of the Chicago school of players. There were so many people that was far to the left and far to the right in how they approached sound.

TP: So if you’re talking about Chicago players dealing with, say, the same tune that someone in New York was playing, it would come out in as many different ways as there were people to do it.

HT: Yes. Two of the greatest sound masters on the saxophone, in my opinion, are Johnny Hodges and Eddie Lockjaw Davis. But the Chicago school of people was operating on that same level. Von Freeman, John Gilmore, Gene Ammons, these are people that worked with sound in the same kind of way. It was a very sophisticated level of dealing with the sound.

TP: Von Freeman says that Ben Webster, one of the great sound masters, was around a lot during the early and mid ’50s.

HT: Mmm-hmm. So was Don Byas. He lived in Chicago. He stayed on 55th Street in Chicago for a long time. [I THINK HENRY MEANS COLEMAN HAWKINS, WHO LIVED THERE IN THE EARLY TO MID ’40s, ON GARFIELD BY THE NORTH-SOUTH EL]

TP: Next up is music by Ahmad Jamal, who by 1961 was an institution in Chicago. At what point did your uncle, Nevin Wilson perform with Ahmad Jamal?

HT: Oh, this was in Rockford, Illinois… Late ’50s, I believe. Somewhere in there. I don’t remember the years. But I had just fallen under the spell of Ahmad Jamal, who was not only a great pianist, but an incredible orchestrator and arranger at the keyboard. He’s still that way. He does what he absolutely wants to do at any time. He’ll play anything as long as he wants to play it. He’ll play one note for a minute if he feels like it. And his orchestrational thinking in terms of what the drums should be doing melodically and rhythmically, the tunings between the drums, the bass and the piano, has been so sophisticated over the years… It’s just incredible how still there’s not a lot of information written about Ahmad Jamal and what he’s done for music, American music. You can’t think about playing music on the trio level and bypass that. If you bypass that, you’re going to really miss some serious vitamins in your diet! I mean, you could fall dead if you don’t have that kind of information.

TP: I guess one of the reasons there’s such a dynamic interaction between he and his drummer was who his drummer was, the great Vernell Fournier from New Orleans, and inheritor of the drum traditions of New Orleans.

HT: Mmm-hmm. But those traditions were all up and down the Mississippi River. Those traditions were not unique to New Orleans at all. They were prevalent up and down that river, coming up to Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago — straight on up. It’s a misconception that a lot of things was just in New Orleans. Not at all. It was up and down that river. The only time there was a lot of information in New Orleans was in the days there was mostly pianists operating in New Orleans. You know, Jelly Roll. After that, not really.

TP: Well, Jelly Roll came up to Chicago which gave it a different flavor.
HT: Louis Armstrong came to Chicago, too.

TP: It seems to me that one of the things about Chicago music is that the New Orleans musicians had such an impact there from moving there to work in the 1910’s and ’20s.

HT: Well, they did make an impact. They had to come up. That was the only way to come. You had to come to Chicago. The stockyards was in Chicago, and it was also the center of the railroads. It was like 42nd Street. You had to go to 42nd Street here to make changes to go all over town. So the only way you could get to any part of America was you had to come to Chicago. They came to Chicago because the logistics of transportation made it impossible for them to go any other way. If you wanted to go west or you wanted to go east, you still had to come to Chicago.

TP: I guess you could go to California to New Orleans in a different way…

HT: No, you couldn’t.

TP: Sure, by the Southern Pacific Railroad.

HT: No. They all came to the center of the country, through the shipping routes. The shipping routes is the way people traveled. The shipping routes had to do with the way America was being fed, which was around the stockyards, and where all the trains came through. That was the best way to travel. Also people tended to come to Chicago because of work. There was a lot of work on all kinds of levels. You’ve got to remember, people came from the south to the northern states via Chicago. Some went on to other places, Detroit, Cincinnati, etcetera. Others never left Chicago. That’s why you have such a large community of Southern people in Chicago.

TP: Some people call Chicago the northernmost Southern city.

HT: Yeah, they say “as far down South as you can get up North.” [LAUGHS]

TP: Any ideas on the impact of that phenomenon on the music of Chicago?

HT: Well, the Delta Blues and the Gospel was very strong in Chicago, which led into the whole Rhythm-and-Blues period. That music was pervasive, and people really responded to it. So it was a part of a musician’s background. If you became a musician, that was naturally a part of your background. It was hard to get around that. Mahalia Jackson was there, Clay Evans, James Cleveland and people like that would come through, Sam Cooke was there. You had to be struck by the artistry of these people. Howlin’ Wolf. It was incredible.

[MUSIC: Jamal-Crosby-Fournier, “Raincheck” (1960); Sun Ra-Gilmore, “Images” (1958); Von Freeman, “I’ll Remember April” (1992)]

HT: Von Freeman’s rhythmic and sound approach is very distinctive. It’s almost Eastern, what happens with the sound. Johnny Hodges often worked with the sound like that. It’s different from what a lot of players think… They have this idea about a just intonation, what’s in tune. What’s in tune is what’s in tune in your mind; not what is in tune physically, but what is internally in tune. That’s really an unusual approach for a saxophonist, because in so much of the tradition of the music everyone is trying to sound so much in classical unison. It’s a wider sound band that he’s playing in.

TP: Now, in Blues situations that’s not necessarily the case. You’re in tune in a different way.

HT: Exactly. I believe a lot of it is coming from there, because he comes right out of that Blues environment in Chicago. That’s the kind of foundation that these older saxophone players out of Chicago had, how they would play variants with the sound, which is something that I think kind of goes back to Africa possibly; it might have its roots there in terms of sound.

TP: That quality of working with sound is one of the characteristics of the new music of the 1960’s that inspired you as a young saxophone player.

HT: Yes.

TP: People like you and Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman and Kalaparusha…

HT: Roscoe named his first album Sound.

TP: Roscoe Mitchell has mentioned a great debt to Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. There’s a phrase to describe the music that happened in Chicago post-Ayler Music, which it may or may not be. But I’d like to talk with you a little about those years. We spoke before about your introduction to the Experimental Band, and you were at Wilson Junior College in 1962 before going out on the road with Horace Shephard, the traveling evangelist, which is where you met Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell…

HT: Joseph and I were there in school together playing prior to Roscoe coming there. I think Roscoe had come out of the Service or something like that at that time. He came out of the Service, and then we started playing together. The three of us started playing together, rehearsing together after he came out of the Service.

TP: What sorts of things would you work out at these rehearsals?

HT: We started off with traditional things, Art Blakey or Horace Silver arrangements, and then we started to go into things — some of Ornette’s music and Coltrane’s music; basically those two.

TP: Were you with a rhythm section?

HT: Yes. That was Dracir(?) Smith on drums, Eddie Chappell(?) on bass, another bassist who played with us, and a pianist named Byron. There were about two or three pianists who used to try to work in that context, which was very difficult because the music had changed so much. We weren’t really doing anything with Muhal yet, who was quite qualified to work in that area, and Andrew Hill wasn’t around, so he wasn’t available! So it was some younger pianists who were working in that direction. Christopher Gaddy ended up being important in that circle.

TP: Was that a workshop band, or were you working…?

HT: Yeah, I guess you would call it a workshop situation. It was just a weekly thing that we did all the time.

TP: So you were doing that, there was the Experimental Band, and you were making forays at writing music.

HT: Right.

TP: This goes until 1963, when you go on the road with the evangelist minister Horace Shepherd, and you came back to Chicago when?

HT: I was in and out of Chicago. I wasn’t gone completely. Then I left Chicago in ’66 for a couple of years when I went in the Service, and came back in ’68. That’s when I started playing mostly Blues.

TP: Did you join the AACM when it was incorporated in 1965?

HT: I wasn’t there.

TP: But you kept your association.

HT: Yeah, I had some association. I really wasn’t playing too much music outside of the music I was playing with Horace Shepherd. That’s the only music I was playing at that time. I wasn’t playing Jazz or anything like that.

TP: So you went in a whole different direction in the middle part of the ’60s.

HT: Right.

TP: In the Service were you playing music?

HT: In the Service I was playing music.

TP: You were part of a band?

HT: Right.

TP: What was that experience like?

HT: Oh, it was a very good experience, because they had great bands, great musicians in these bands, large concert bands. A lot of great players I met in these bands in the States and overseas, fantastic musicians.

TP: Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman had very positive experiences in these bands as well.

HT: Many musicians. Wayne Shorter, Coltrane, Clark Terry, Lester Bowie, all these people were in bands. You name it! That was one way people used to go. It was a place where you could work out your ideas, and only work on music, for one thing.

TP: What was the scene like when you returned to Chicago in 1968? Did you immediately go back to the AACM type situations?

HT: I was playing with the AACM, but I was playing with Phil Cohran also. Phil Cohran is a very important bandleader, composer, theoretician, historian, and also one of the people who founded the Afro-Arts Theater which was an important institution in Chicago, that presented a wealth of music-dance events. They had a lot of great musicians under his leadership. The original people from the Earth, Wind and Fire group were all there. There were a lot of great musicians in that particular camp. I worked with him, and I think Stubblefield was in the band with the guitarist Pete Cosey. Sonny Rollins’ aunt or cousin I think was in that band. There was a tuba player who later became a bass player, Tyus Palmer. Phil Cohran was very important, and he’s still very important in Chicago. He’s still a great musical thinker and leader in Chicago.

TP: What were the nature of activities when you came back to Chicago with the AACM?

HT: Mostly playing with the big band at that time. I didn’t do too many… I started doing some rehearsals with putting some small groups together, but basically playing with the AACM Big Band is what I was doing.

TP: What were some of the affiliations you started making in ’68 and ’69? I know in ’69 the Art Ensemble left for Paris, and people like Braxton, Leroy Jenkins and Steve McCall as well, the configurations changed.

HT: Well, we kept doing things. We still had a big band, but people were making some moves around the world to try to take the music on the road and to try to get some working situations for themselves over and beyond what they could get in Chicago and around the States. I left briefly in ’69 and came to New York, and I stayed for a while and played around here. Then I came back and started putting Air together, the trio that I had. After coming to New York I went back to Chicago and decided I was going to start another group. I had some groups I experimented with, but it was Air that took off.

TP: We’re going to play “Lonely Woman,” and I’d like you to say something about the impact of Ornette Coleman on the music that developed in the 1960’s. I think we can speak about him very comfortably with the other saxophone players in terms of projection and use of sound.

HT: Yes. Also a kind of new melodic direction came from Ornette Coleman. He’s such a great melodic thinker and lyrical player. They were such fresh new melodies that came out of what he was doing. They came out of the same place we were used to listening to in the traditional Jazz music. Also, the orchestrations within the framework of the instruments they had were very sophisticated, especially what Charlie Haden was playing. Where he would be playing in reference to where another instrument was playing was quite unique. It wasn’t just a bass, it was a bass part that moved in terms of registers that were in relation to what the other instruments were playing, which gave the music a sound and made it jump out and cause certain acoustical connections to happen. Say Ornette would be playing on a certain range on his instruments; then the bass would be in a particular range that made the alto sound a certain way — it gave the whole ensemble a certain sound. This was quite new, because the bass playing we had heard previous to that was a walking type of bass that kind of went up and down. It didn’t have these big register shifts like that, register shifts that had an ultimate orchestral effect on the music. So it was really a lot of new information that came out of this music which permeated all of my thinking and the thinking of all my peers.

TP: Well, certainly that sense of unifying sound or creating sounds in relation to each other was very evident in Air, which had a very spare instrumentation, where you were joined by two extremely resourceful instrumentalists and improvisers, Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall. I guess there’s some element of the Ahmad Jamal concept of orchestration, too, with a minimum of elements.

HT: Yeah. Exactly.

[MUSIC: Ornette, “Lonely Woman” (1959); Eddie Lockjaw Davis, “Whole Nelson” (1961)]

HT: Eddie Lockjaw Davis, I have to say, is probably the most original saxophone player I ever heard in my life. I’ve listened to all the different saxophone players, but I’ve never heard anyone play the saxophone like that. It’s the most convoluted style of playing that I ever heard in my life. You can hear a lot of players emulate Charlie Parker, Coltrane, all kinds of players. I’ve never heard anyone that can emulate this man, or anyone who can approach the saxophone in this way. It’s a strange style of playing, and the harmonic language is very different. His way of formulating sound on the instrument is extremely different; I don’t know what that was about. If you listen to Eddie Lockjaw Davis (most people haven’t listened to him, I don’t think), you will see that the notes don’t come out of the saxophone the way they do when other people play the saxophone. It’s very convoluted. It’s the most original thing I ever heard in my life. The most original.

TP: People use the phrase upside-down to describe his patterns.

HT: I don’t even know what he’s doing, to tell the truth. Maybe he was playing upside-down, I don’t know. Whatever it was, it was the most original thing I ever heard. Because it’s not a linear way of playing. It’s convoluted. It’s a convoluted style, and I never heard anyone else play like that.

TP: You mentioned that you started as a tenor player and came to the alto saxophone last, a lot of the people we’re listening to in the course of the show are tenor players. A lot of people take the opposite tack. Given the choice between the alto and tenor, they find it’s easier to get an acceptable sound on the tenor, and move to that. You went in the opposite direction. What was it about the alto that appealed to you?

HT: It was when I was playing with this church band. The minister of the Church, when I first went to play for this particular church, asked me to play this particular piece of music, “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” I played it that Sunday. Like I say, this was a sanctified church, and when I played it, the people were just polite; they just kind of looked up in the air. They usually just fell on the floor in front of my face! The minister told me, “I have an alto saxophone under the pulpit.” He told me to go put it in the shop and he would pay to have it fixed. So I put it in the shop, got it fixed, and then he said to me, “Now, play that same piece of music next Sunday.” I played it, and it was like a whole different reaction from the church when I played it. What I discovered was (I had been playing the tenor around there) that they just didn’t hear the tenor. It was too low. The tenor is great in playing the Blues, but it really didn’t work in the churches. And when I started coming across a couple of other people who were playing out there in that church circuit, they were all playing altos, too. So that’s how I switched over to the alto.

TP: Then in the AACM, multi-instrumentalism was…

HT: When I came back to the AACM I was playing all of the saxophones, the baritone and tenor, but eventually…

TP: I recollect seeing you play twenty years ago, there would be a floor of instruments on the bandstand.

HT: Playing everything. I just worked it down to…I just play mostly these days alto, flute and bass flute.

TP: In what sense did being in the AACM and being in that environment expand your compositional horizons and visions and sense of the possibilities of music?

HT: Oh, because the players were all composers, and they were all looking for and developing their writing skills and compositional language. So you would find out what other people were constantly doing, which enhanced what you were doing. Also, people’s general interest in world music. Somebody could tell you about listening to this person play music from some other country, or avail you of information to go hear concerts by the Chicago Symphony or the Chicago Chamber Players or anything of that nature. There was so much broad information now, all of a sudden. In that circle there was a broad resource of information being exchanged and previewed. It was not exclusively Jazz any more. It was music. The picture was music there. It was not a particular idiom any more.

TP: So it’s as though the musical language of the world is on your plate to do with what you will.

HT: Yeah, to investigate and whatever. Whatever approach you wanted to take to it. But it was wide open. Before that, the places I would go and be around, people were exclusively just trying to deal with just Jazz, and not looking at the music of Varese or Hindemith or Schoenberg or Stockhausen, or listening to Bishmallah Kahn. That wasn’t the case. Now in the AACM, there were a bunch of people that were aware of a lot of different music, were working within the context of different musics, and integrating it into what they were doing. The same had been done before. That’s the way it’s always done. That’s how advances are made, by infusing and accepting other things into what you’re doing until you come up with something that allows you to evolve in evolutionary terms.

TP: When you came to New York in the mid-’70s, Air continued, and then you focused on the Henry Threadgill Sextett, with two drummers, making it a 7-musician ensemble. We’ll hear a track from the last Sextett recording, Rag, Bush and All on RCA-Novus.

[MUSIC: “The Devil Is On the Loose And Dancing With A Monkey” (1988); “Just The Facts And Pass The Bucket” (1983); Varese, “Ionization”]

TP: A few words about the current organization. I asked you before if you recycle compositions, or better put, rework them and re-orchestrate for different bands, and you said it’s almost entirely new music for new orchestras. You have a new group after Very Very Circus, which doubled the guitars and tubas.

HT: The new group is a five-piece group, Make A Move.

TP: In your writing are you hearing sounds and finding people to match the sounds, or are you hearing people’s sounds and finding ways to structure them within an ensemble? Is that a clear question?

HT: It’s a clear question, but I don’t know if my answer would be the answer you want. The answer is, no, I hear a totally different situation, and it’s about finding the right people for the situation. They bring a lot of new possibilities within that situation. I have a general idea of where I want to go and what I want to do, and then when somebody comes in, you see how much information they have, so it enriches your information as to what’s possible within this new framework that you put yourself in. That’s basically what happens.

TP: Well, I don’t think I wanted one answer or the other. I just wanted to know what the deal actually was, Henry!

HT: What the deal is. I don’t actually know what the deal is until the deal is done! It’s like that. You’ve got to know when to hold it and know when to fold it and know when the deal is done!

[MUSIC: Very, Very Circus, “Vivjanrondirski”]

[-30-]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ted Nash Blindfold Test: (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Danilo Pérez, See a Little Light – Downbeat 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Danilo Perez DB Article 2010 (Final):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[BREAK]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[BREAK]

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

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

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

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

Perez, who left NEC to assume artistic directorship of Berklee’s Global Jazz Institute last September, is walking that walk. He recalled a mid-‘90s fortnight run at Bradley’s playing duo with Jacky Terrason. “It was 42 sets, and by the 42nd I thought I could play anything I heard. It’s endurance, but also a belief developed by doing this so intensely with people around you. Sometimes artists walk this dangerous path of portraying ourselves individualistically, and forgetting that it’s about all of us. People send messages, energy, and ideas; jazz is important because it brings a community together. We must take up the sword. This is a quiet revolution—you dream your passion. That’s what Wayne talks about.”
[—30—]

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