For Drum Master Kenny Washington’s 59th Birthday, an Uncut Blindfold Test From 2002

I was in over my head when I conducted the DownBeat Blindfold Test with the great drummer and discographical omnivore Kenny Washington in 2002. But today’s his 59th birthday, and it’s time to present the uncut proceedings.

 

Kenny Washington Blindfold Test — 2002:

1. Roy Haynes, “My Heart Belongs To Daddy” (from BIRDS OF A FEATHER: A TRIBUTE TO CHARLIE PARKER, Dreyfus, 2001) (Haynes, d; Kenny Garrett, as; Roy Hargrove, tp; David Kikoski, p; Dave Holland, b) (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Roy Haynes! He gets a million stars. That’s the record, Birds of A Feather, with David Kikoski, Dave Holland is on it, Roy Hargrove, and Kenny Garrett. That’s a great record, man. Listen, man, Roy Haynes just continues to play better and better. Last time I saw him I said, “Man, can’t you slow down so that I’ll just be light years behind you?” I did all the drummers from the bebop era, of course; I studied them all. But Roy Haynes is really the only one that in the ’60s could have made Chick Corea’s recording, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, sound so contemporary. Not that the other ones couldn’t do it. But he had a certain freshness, approaching Chick’s music that was incredible. Of course, playing with John Coltrane, filling in for Elvin Jones, he sounded so fresh with that band, too. I mean, Roy Haynes has always been at the top of his game, all the time. And nowadays, he’s playing better than ever. He’s an amazing musician. I used to do transcriptions and proofread drum solos, and when you’re writing out Roy Haynes’ drum solos, you have to create map. Roy Haynes creates so many different sounds on the drums, so to get students to understand what he’s all about, you have to make an enormous map, do all these little diagrams, make notations of different sounds he makes on the drums. And he’s got tons and tons of different sounds that he just gets off the snare drum alone. We won’t even talk about the rest of the instrument. And look at the records he made with Gary Burton in the ’60s. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no other drummer from that era, the ’40s and ’50s, who could have made that music sound as contemporary as it did. Of course, it’s as fresh as some of the other drummers of that era, like Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette and people like that.

But Roy has paid his dues. He goes back to Luis Russell’s band! One time I was on the radio, and I played some record of Benny Carter’s band with Max Roach. When I came back on the air, I talked about Max and how he wasn’t just a bebopper, that he’d played with some of the swing bands as well and knew all the swing styles. I go on to the next record, the phone rings in the studio. I pick up the phone. “Hey Wash. This is Roy Haynes.” I say, “Hey, Roy, what’s happening, man. How are you doing?” He says, “You know, I played with the swing bands, too. And you didn’t mention me. I said, “Haynes, I know, man. You played in Luis Russell’s band.” He got quiet. He said, “How did you know that?” I said, “That’s required reading, man. You kidding me?” I said, “Haynes, I apologize. I just happened to leave your name out. I didn’t mean anything by it.” Man, he’s a helluva cat. Nice man, too. He’s just as slick off the drumset as he is on. Full of vitality, a hip dresser, just a hip person out and out. I give that one a million stars. The band plays great. It’s a nice matchup. They all played well together. They all came to this session ready to play. It’s a great record, one of my favorite of Roy’s later recordings.

2. Wynton Marsalis, “Saturday Night Slow Drag” (from ALL RISE, Sony Classical, 2002), (Marsalis, comp.; Herlin Riley, d) (3 stars)

Well, it started out as a blues in A-flat. Probably Wynton. In the beginning there were a lot of problems pitch-wise. And it sounded like there were some double-reed instruments in the beginning along with the bass. There were a few pitch problems. But that happens with putting those kinds of instruments together. It was okay. It was cool. It’s like a cross between Duke Ellington’s voicings and Gil Evans’ close voicings. I’m almost 100% positive it’s Wynton and the band with… It might have been Wess Anderson on alto and Joe Temperley on baritone, probably Herlin Riley on drums, with a string orchestra. The piece was all right. I wasn’t completely knocked out. They got some nice sounds, though. To me, it went on a little bit long. For the writing… You have to put work into that. It was cool. Didn’t knock me out. But the writing was good, the musicianship was very high. So 3 stars.

3. Bill Charlap, “Blue Skies” (from New York Trio, BLUES IN THE NIGHT, Venus, 2001) (Charlap, p; Jay Leonhart; Bill Stewart, d) (5 stars)

That was a great arrangement of “Blue Skies” in 5/4 time. I’ve never heard that before. It’s got to be Bill Charlap. But the beginning was hip, man. At first, it sounded a little bit like Chick Corea. He’s got a hip touch anyway on the piano. But the way he played on 5/4 was real light, and the time just sailed. It wasn’t bogged down at all. The whole rhythm section just floated. That cat can play any style, man. I know it’s him by the way he thinks, and I also know the lines he plays — even in 5/4 time. The trio sounded just like they were playing in four. Sometimes, when you start playing in odd time signatures, you definitely have to think a certain way. But they sound as if they were playing in 4/4 time. It didn’t matter to them. They would play straight through the barlines. That’s a nice arrangement. That’s Bill Stewart on drums. I’d know that sound anywhere. Great drummer. Another one of them guys who can play in any style and he’s got his own unique sound on the drums. They played straight through as they were playing in four. I didn’t get a chance to hear the bass player solo, but the cat was rock-solid. He held down the time. Could it be Jay Leonhardt? There it is! I don’t have this record. 5 stars. High musicianship, man.

4. Dafnis Prieto, “El Guarachero Intrigozo (The Scheming Party Animal)” (from Caribbean Jazz Project, THE GATHERING, Concord Picante, 2002) (Prieto, drums & timbales; Richie Flores, congas; Roberto Quintero, perc.; Dave Samuels, marimba; Dave Valentin, fl; Dario Eskenazi, p; Ruben Rodriguez, b) (4 stars)

Man, I have no idea who that is. You got me on that one. It could be somebody like Dave Samuels, and the flutist could have been Dave Valentin. Any number of people who play that style. The arrangement was slick. The percussionists were great, tight as a drum. It’s not something I listen to all the time, but look, man, those guys played very well together. You could tell Dave Samuels knows something about playing changes. He was right in the middle of the chord changes. It’s a hard arrangements; it kept changing times and everything. Super slick. Slick arrangement, slick tune. It’s not something I would go home and play all the time, but the musicianship was high. What more can you ask for? But I don’t know who the drummers are. There are so many guys who play well in that style and can do that kind of thing. But the drum ensemble was very together. It almost sounded like the CD had skipped, because they played so well together. I don’t know how long it took them to get that tight. 3-1/2 stars.

5. Charlie Haden, “Blue Pearl” (from Charlie Haden, NOW IS THE HOUR, Verve, 1996) (Quartet West: Ernie Watts, ts; Alan Broadbent, p; Haden b; Larance Marable, d) (2-1/2 stars)

It’s Charlie Haden. That’s the West Coast Philly Joe Jones on drums, Larance Marable. It’s probably Ernie Watts on tenor. The tune is by Bud Powell, I think, but I can’t remember the name. I didn’t feel that Charlie and Larance hooked up as well as they could have. I wasn’t too bowled over by the bass lines. I like better bass lines than that. And he always plays bass lines like that. But I’m sure that was Larance Marable on drums. I’d know that drum sound anywhere. He’s one of the guys that brought the East Coast sound to the West Coast in terms of drummers. the other drummers out there, with the exception of Stan Levey and a few others, had a certain way of playing. But Larance Marable played just like a New York City drummer. As a kid, I always dug him. Like the record, The Resurgence of Dexter Gordon. That record was a big influence on me, man. The records he made with Sonny Criss. He also made a bad record with Victor Feldman called Victor Feldman Plays The Music From ‘Stop The World, I Want To Get Off’ that’s never come out on CD. He played his ass off on that record! Nice man, too. One of the unsung heroes of drums. It seemed to me that when Larance got a chance to play the drum solo he got a chance to take all the shackles off, and he said, “Whoa! BAM!” He sounded like himself then, as far as I’m concerned. He’s a keeper of the bebop flame. The piano player was good, too. Was it Alan Broadbent? Good piano player, man. I just did a concert with Jane Monheit, and he was the conductor. Great musician. Great writer and arranger. He really knows what he’s doing with strings. I wasn’t bowled over by the way the rhythm section sounded, though. 2-1/2 stars.

6. Frank Wess, “Short Circuit” (from TRYIN’ TO MAKE MY BLUES TURN GREEN, Concord, 1993) (Wess, ts; Gregory Hutchinson, d; Richard Wyands, p; Steve Turre, tb.; Cecil Bridgewater, tp; Lynn Seaton, b) (4 stars)

That’s magic, man. Frank Wess. I learned so much from him, playing in the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. He used to sit right in front of me. He’s the kind of guy that if you didn’t do what you’re supposed to, he would tell you straight to your face that it wasn’t happening, and he’d tell you what you needed to do to get it together. So I learned a lot from him. And just hanging around with him, talking. He’s been on the scene for years, playing with Basie and Lucky Millinder. Great musician, man. It’s too bad he doesn’t record more. He’s a master of the flute, one of the pioneers of the flute, at least in modern jazz. Great writer and arranger, too. That might have been Steve Turre on trombone. The pianist is Richard Wyands. It’s hip how he threw in that quote from Jimmy Heath’s “C.T.A.” Bass player could have been Lynn Seaton. That’s my nephew-in-law on the drums, Greg Hutchinson, early in his career. He plays a lot different now. He’s learned a little bit more about touch, about dynamics. The cat has hands. He always had the chops, as you can hear. Even, good swing, good time, comped well with his left hand. But now, the way he’s playing, he’s learned a lot more about the snare drum and he’s learned a helluva lot more about dynamics. He sounded great then, but since then he’s come a long way. I think this is a Concord record, “Turning My Blues Green” or something. Could the trumpet player be Terrell Stafford? Somebody like that. I can’t think of his name right off, but I can see his face in my mind’s eye. But it’s definitely Frank Wess, no question. Big tone on the tenor, swinging his ass off, great lines. 4 stars.

7. Ralph Peterson, “Smoke Rings” (from THE ART OF WAR, Criss-Cross, 2001) (Peterson, d, comp; Jimmy Greene, ts; Jeremy Pelt, tp; Orrin Evans, p; Eric Revis, b)

Ralph Peterson. That was a slick little tune, a hip tune. Those cats just play too damn loud, man. There were no dynamics. The only time there was some dynamics is when he went to the hi-hat near the end of the piece. To play like that, of course, takes a lot of energy and you have to know where one is. He definitely knew where one was. But there was no dynamics. It’s just loud, straight through the whole piece. There were no hills and valleys. In my opinion, if he could have taken that and just did something with the dynamics, it would have made it that much better. But I liked the tune, and the way he was playing around, all the time things… But it’s too loud. Too much. It’s too much ALL the time, as far as I’m concerned. Is that Orrin Evans playing piano? I know he’s trying to sound like Monk and everything, but… Whoever wrote the piece… Ralph wrote it? Nice tune. But I thought it was too loud all the way through. They didn’t seem to be playing any kind of dynamics at all. You’ve got to let things float sometimes, too. They’re just busy all the time. It made me nervous. He definitely knows what he’s doing. It’s just not my cup of tea. To sit up there in a club with the drums and everything that loud, I just don’t know. Ralph plays trumpet, too, and he plays piano. So he definitely knows something about melodies and harmonies. That’s definitely a hip tune. For what they were going for and that kind of playing… For the tune I’ll give it 2-1/2 stars. They knew what they were doing. But I didn’t hear any dynamics. Just loud and wild.

8. Dave Holland Big Band, “The Razor’s Edge” (from WHAT GOES AROUND, ECM, 2002) (Holland, b, comp., arr., Duane Eubanks, tp; Steve Nelson, vibes; Josh Roseman, tb; Billy Kilson, d) (3 stars)

Was that Steve Nelson on vibraphone? It’s probably Dave Holland’s big band. I like the tune. But I think it went on much too long. The band played very well together. That’s a hard piece of music. Did Dave write that? It figures. Great musician. Great bass player, too. Nice man. I didn’t think the rhythm section swung. The drummer sounded more like a cat that’s into R&B or a fusion-type drummer. It could have been somebody like Billy Kilson. When it came to the spangalang, to the swing, it really wasn’t IN there like… You could tell by the way the drums were tuned. To me, he’s not really a jazz drummer. Now, he played the ensembles wonderfully. But it sounded more like Fusion music. Plenty of energy. He played the hell out of the ensemble, though. But when it came time to play spangalang, to get in there and swing along with Steve Nelson, to me it really wasn’t making it. The drummer makes or breaks a band. The way a band sounds depends upon what the drummer does. But the band played great. Well in tune. Everybody sounds together. That’s a hard piece of music. 3 stars for the musicianship and the playing. High marks for the musicianship and the writing.

9. Duduka DaFonseca, “Bala Com Bala” (from SAMBA JAZZ FANTASIA, Malandro, 1999) (DaFonseca, d; David Sanchez, ts; Claudio Roditi, tp; Helio Alves, p; Romero Lubambo, g; Nilson Matta, b; Joao Bosco, comp.) (4 stars)

Is that Claudio Roditi on trumpet? I don’t know who the tenor player is. He played good, though. I can’t put my finger on that sound and phrasing. The drummer is very good. That’s a true art, to play brushes on a samba. Was that Duduka DaFonseca. Duduka DaFonseca is a bad dude, man. Nice man, too. The whole feeling of the thing was nice. He kept it light with the brushes, and it just floated along. It had that feeling. Of course, he knows about that. 4 stars. They all played their asses off.

10. David Hazeltine, “Horace-Scope” (from SENOR BLUES, Venus, 2001) (Hazeltine, p; Peter Washington, b; Louis Hayes, d) (5 stars)

That’s the real thing. It doesn’t get much better than that. David Hazeltine with my soul brother on bass, Peter Washington. Billy Higgins said you’re lucky in life if you get one bass player you can really hook up with. Well, the Lord smiled on me when they sent Peter to New York. That’s my favorite bass player to play with. I mean, very easy… Always plays the most sophisticated bass line ALL the time, better than any of the other bass players his age or younger. He knows what to play and when to play it, and at the right time. Of course, he checked out all the masters, like Paul, Percy Heath and especially Doug Watkins. My favorite bass player, easy to hook up with.

David Hazeltine is really the keeper of the bebop flame. He’s a great writer. He writes tunes like Horace Silver writes tunes — that was “Horace-Scope.” Anybody can get into them. He’s a great arrangers. Have you heard some of those R&B tunes he’s done arrangements of. He’s swinging his ass off! He’s coming out of Cedar Walton, Barry Harris, Buddy Montgomery and those kinds of guys.

And Louis Hayes! Listen, Louis Hayes is one of the only drummers, besides Mel Lewis, who took the time out with me when I was a teenager… I used to follow this cat around to all the clubs and the Jazzmobiles, and he used to see me all the time, and we got to talking. I’d say, “Hey, man, how did you get your cymbal beat like that, how did you get such great time, how did you get that sound?” He said, “Come up to my house, man, and I’ll show you.” I lived in Staten Island, and I’d go from Staten Island to all the way up in the Bronx, where he lives, and I would stay in his house all day and half the night. We’d stay up discussing Kenny Clarke records. I learned a lot about the right hand, that cymbal beat. He’s got the best cymbal beat outside of Kenny Clarke, who was of course his idol. You could take a handcuff and lock his left hand to the drum stool; he could make a date with just the ride cymbal, man, and you’d never know anything else was missing. That right hand could swing you into bad health. He’s one of my biggest influences. I grew up listening to them Cannonball Adderley records and Horace Silver records he was on. And he really helped me out in getting my stuff together, especially playing fast tempos, practicing the cymbal beat on the practice pad. I got that from him. So did Tony Williams, for that matter. Tony Williams asked Lou Hayes the same questions I did, and Louis told him the same thing — practice the cymbal beat on the practice pad and what have you. That’s how he got his cymbal beat together so he could play real fast. Louis Hayes taught me the same thing. Of course, later on I went on to play with Betty Carter and the Little Giant, Johnny Griffin, and it sure did come in handy. He showed me all I needed to know in terms of playing tempos. He’s got such a hellified feeling! In that middle tempo like that, it just laid right in there! It doesn’t get any better. He just swings his ass off.

It’s a great trio record. No one plays bass solos like that any more. Because Peter is one of the only bass players that took the time out to listen and study Israel Crosby and Ron Carter and especially Paul Chambers. He always plays great solos. 5 stars.

11. Teri Lyne Carrington, “Middle Way” (from JAZZ IS A SPIRIT, ACT, 2002) (Carrington, d; Herbie Hancock, p; Terence Blanchard, tp; Gary Thomas, ts; Robert Hurst, b) (3 stars)

Is that Jack DeJohnette on drums? It wasn’t Jack DeJohnette, huh? Well, if it wasn’t Jack, it’s someone who listened to Jack DeJohnette. I like the tune. It’s an interesting tune. That was Terence Blanchard playing trumpet, though. The tenor player could be that cat from Baltimore, Maryland. He plays with Steve Coleman, muscle-bound cat. Gary Thomas. Is it Joey Baron? It isn’t Joey Baron on the drums! Huh. I don’t know who the piano player could be? Is it Keith Jarrett? It could be Orrin Evans. Kevin Hayes? Billy Childs? The piece is nice. It’s kind of open, then they got into swinging in the middle. It sorta-kinda had the feel of an Ornette Coleman tune. I know it’s Terence playing trumpet, but I don’t know anyone else. But the drummer has the same setup as Jack, the cymbals with the real tight sound, them Paiste cymbals. The drummer sounded to me a lot like Jack, with a nice cymbal beat when they got into the groove. That’s the same approach that Jack would use. They played well together. Wait. I thought it could be Bill Stewart, but it didn’t really sound like him. I don’t know who that could be. I don’t know who the bass player is, the piano player, nor do I know who the drummer is. Most of the time I know the drummers, man, but this one is throwing me for a loop. What are these cats that are running around New York City? Who the hell could that drummer be, playing like that?! And it wasn’t Joey Baron… I give up. Who was it, man? 3 stars. [AFTER] Oh!!! Right, of course. That explains it. She used to hang out with Jack DeJohnette. She was very much influenced by him. Herbie on piano? Wow! So it was a California session. At least I guessed two of them.

12. Harold Mabern, “It’s You Or No One” (from STRAIGHT STREET, DIW-Columbia, 1989) (Mabern, p; Ron Carter, b; Jack DeJohnette, d) (2-1/2 stars)

Sounded to me like Harold Mabern with Jack de Johnette (I know that was Jack!) and Ron Carter. “It’s You Or No One.” While the three of them are great musicians, I didn’t think they played well together as a group, probably because they’d never played together in a trio setting. They didn’t sound like they were used to each other. They’re all great musicians, but to me the chemistry didn’t really work. They all played well, and you could see that the three of them were really listening, but the combination didn’t do much for me. Harold Mabern’s a great piano player. They call him Hands because he can play all them big, fat, pretty chords. Marvelous musician. Plays with George Coleman. Nice man. Knows everything about harmony that you want to know. It’s good for what it is. Three great musicians. What can you say about them? But 2-1/2 stars. I didn’t think it really hooked up. It wasn’t totally sad!

13. Branford Marsalis, “Trieste” (from REQUIEM, Columbia, 1998) (Marsalis, ss; Kenny Kirkland, p; Eric Revis, b; Jeff “Tain” Watts, d) (2 stars)

Sounded like Jeff Watts to me. Probably Branford. It went on too long, man. The stuff is too long, man. I could see they were going for something, but it didn’t knock me out. It didn’t do anything for me. It just went on and on and on. Pianist could have been Joey Calderazzo or somebody like that. Kenny Kirkland? That’s an earlier record. Well, ’98 is a while ago! It was okay. Those guys are good musicians. But I’m listening to this stuff, and I don’t really FEEL anything, man. It doesn’t really make me feel happy. It doesn’t make say, “Yeah!” It’s not that kind of feeling where you go into a club and say, “Hey, barkeep, give me another drink, man, and buy her one, too, or buy him one, too.” It didn’t have that feeling to me, man. Music’s got to have feeling. While these are great musicians, it doesn’t hit home for me. You’ve got to give them something for musicianship, because the guys can play! They played well together, they were going for a certain thing; it just didn’t appeal to me.

I’ve been in this music all my life, and I’m thinking what does the audience, the public think? A lot of this music you’ve played, sometimes I can understand why the audience doesn’t come out to hear jazz. They stay home watching “The Sopranos” and whatever else it is they do. I’m a musician, I’ve been in this stuff all my life, and it doesn’t have the feeling. Sometimes, when you go to these clubs and hear some of these bands play, and they go on for 15-20 minutes, when you look at the audience… Especially a woman. She’s looking like she’s thinking about what’s happening tomorrow, or “I’ve got to wake up and go to work tomorrow.” Because after about 2-3 minutes of that stuff, you’re thinking about something else. You’re not really into the music. People have a short attention span anyway. So to hear this kind of stuff in a club for 10-15 minutes, I can understand why people… Sometimes people come up to me… I’m not talking about hipsters. People who want to go out and like jazz, they want to be entertained. They’ll come back to me and say, “Well, I heard such-and-such.” I haven’t said anything one way or another. They get this look on their face, like a confused, sometimes apologetic look. Then they start blaming themselves because they feel they just didn’t understand it. It’s just too much for them to understand. It’s too much for them to comprehend. They think jazz is a high art — and it is — and they blame it on themselves. But then they finally come out and tell me, “I didn’t really dig it too tough.” The I start laughing. I can understand why they didn’t dig it. They went on for 20 minutes with a tune, man! Of course they didn’t dig it. They won’t play anything that an audience can grab a hold of.

I’m not saying it’s cold. I’m saying it lacks… I don’t know what it is. It just doesn’t have that thing that makes you say, “Yeah!” It doesn’t make you say, “Hey, let’s stay, baby, and have another taste.” There’s no finger-popping there. Not really. While they all play great, you know… It doesn’t do anything for me. 2 stars for the musicianship. Because those guys can play. They’re great musicians. It doesn’t do anything for me.

14. Ken Peplowski, “If This Isn’t Love” (from LOST IN THE STARS, Nagel-Heyer, 2002) (Peplowski, cl; Ben Aronov, p; Greg Cohen, b; Lewis Nash, d; Roy Yokelson, engineer) (4 stars)

The musicianship was high. The clarinet player played his ASS off. So did everybody actually. It’s a tune you very seldom hear called “If This Isn’t Love.” Cannonball used to play this tune. But this is the first time I’ve ever heard it as a calypso. Felt good, man! Everybody was playing their ass off. The clarinet player was incredible. Good time. Swung. Played the shit out of the changes. Man, the only cat who plays clarinet like that… That’s Ken Peplowski. That’s who I think it is. He played his ass off! There aren’t a lot of clarinet players like that, who can play. He can play any style. He’s a helluva musician. He’s studied it all. Is this record brand-new? I’ve never heard it before? That’s the best record that Peplowski has made. He’s got a good rhythm section for a change. For me, he’s a great musician, but he always makes these records with hack drummers. Every one of the records he makes, the drummers don’t swing. That’s the most important part of the band. For once, he made a record with someone who really nailed all of it.

I think I know who the drummer is, but they screwed him for a drum sound. The bass is buried under everything. I know the engineer screwed up, because if the drummer is who I think he is, this man gets the best drum sound out of all of us. No matter where he goes, no matter how sad the engineer is, he always manages — I don’t know how he does it — to get a good sound on the instrument that sounds like him. But I’m telling you, if this is who I think it is, they screwed him royally on this one. I want to hear another track before I say who it is! If I could hear a fingerpopper or something… All right. That’s Lewis Nash. That’s the worst drum sound they ever got for him. Because he was playing some spangalang, I could tell it was him a little bit more. On the other tune, they were only playing swing like in the bridge for a few bars. But in a better studio… I don’t know if Lewis was using his drums, he might not have been, but even when Nash doesn’t have time to bring his drums, he always gets his sound in the studio, no matter what. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard anything like him… It’s not his fault. Don’t get me wrong. It has nothing to do with him. The engineer should be slapped three times on each cheek, man.

To me, Nash has the best time out of all of us. You stomp it off, it’s like set it and forget it. If I have a gig and send him in as a sub, I can sleep that night, because I know the gig is taken care of. Great drummer, he can play in any style. We make all the records on the scene… This cat can do it all.

That’s a good record. I have to get it. I don’t even have to listen to anything else. It’s the best record Ken Peplowski has made. 4 stars.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer, Kenny Washington

For the 65th Birthday Anniversary Of Hilton Ruiz, My Liner Notes for the 2003 CD “Enchantment” and Interviews from 2000 and 2001

For the 65th birthday anniversary of the virtuoso pianist Hilton Ruiz (May 29, 1952-June 6, 2006), here are the liner notes that I wrote for his final CD, Enchantment, a 2002 release, plus the interview that we conducted for those liner notes and a WKCR interview from 2000.

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Liner Notes For Enchantment:

It’s long-established that Hilton Ruiz, now 49 years old, is a virtuoso of the piano. Born to Puerto Rican parents and raised in midtown Manhattan, cater-corner from the old Madison Square Garden and two blocks from Musicians Union headquarters, Ruiz studied Puerto Rican folkloric music and European Classical repertoire in early childhood. By 18, the wunderkind was a professional jazzman, gigging with Clark Terry, Joe Newman, Frank Foster, and Jackie McLean, and making an impact on the Latin circuit with soñero Ismael Rivera and Mongo Santamaria. Through extensive tutorials with ancient-to-the-future pioneer Mary Lou Williams, a lengthy apprenticeship with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and postgraduate work with George Coleman and Tito Puente, Ruiz learned how to imprint his personality on a surfeit of styles that encompass the jazz timeline; he’s equally comfortable laying down idiomatic two-handed stride and the blues at its most primal, morphing the piano into a drum on a nasty montuno, carving wicked elongated Bud Powell bebop lines with bell-like clarity, and soaring to the outer partials of abstraction.

Ruiz internalized from his mentors the old-school credo that technique is nothing more or less than a means to communicate and entertain; as he puts it, “Making people feel good, putting on a great show and still playing valid, beautiful music is what it’s all about.” On Enchantment — a seamless set comprising 12 cannily sequenced songs, each referencing some aspect of his professional experience — he does precisely that.

The connecting thread, Ruiz notes, is how the compositions “lend themselves to the ear; even though some might be complex or angular, basically, you can hum all the melodies on the record.” His bottom line: “Play the melodies clearly and make them pretty so people can recognize them and hear the song. The improvisation is the other part of it. But those beautiful melodies are what I wanted to emphasize.”

The pianist’s fierce two-chorus improvisation on “Seven Steps To Heaven,” the set-opener, gets the juices flowing, not least because of the mighty groove set by bass veteran Lisle Atkinson and young Venezuelan trapset whiz Marlon Simon. Then Ruiz plunges into the title track, recorded by long-time colleague Dave Valentin a few years back. The pretty refrain blends Brazilian and Caribbean elements; Ruiz improvises elegant bop-inflected lines with a Barry Harris connotation atop a smooth carpet of rhythm-timbre set forth by Simon and Panamanian percussionist Renato Thoms on cowbell. Note Ruiz’ keen comping over Atkinson’s brief solo before he launches into his final theme-and-variations, climaxing with an immaculately executed parallel octaves sequence.

The versatile tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman comes on board for “I’ll Call You Later,” a swinging blues with a bebop melody. After a horn-like Atkinson solo in the upper register, Freeman uncorks an intense solo with a resonant sound that channels the spirits of Chicago ancestors Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons and Clifford Jordan; lest you forget his modernist affinities, he concludes his declamation with a series of crescendoing arpeggios. Not to be outdone, Ruiz follows with another logical, crisply executed bop statement that contains not one excess note.

Ruiz first played with Freeman as a sideman on the 1977 album, Beyond the Rain [Contemporary], while the tenorist was a member of the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine; in the mid-’80s, they worked in the initial iteration of The Leaders, with Don Cherry, Arthur Blythe, Cecil McBee and Don Moye. “Chico’s playing transcends the ordinary,” Ruiz says. “As a listener, he captivates me, takes me to a spiritual level. It’s always forward motion with him. He’s always searching and looking.”

Freeman sticks around for “Sweet Cherry Pie,” an irresistible line with a cha-cha/boogaloo groove that trombonist Juan Pablo Torres recorded in the mid-’90s. It’s the kind of feel Ruiz danced to — and played — on countless occasions in his teens.

The ’60s were a golden age for Latin music, and Ruiz recalls them fondly. “It was great,” he says. “I got a chance to see Barry Rogers, Jose Rodriguez and Lewis Kahn, and Johnny Rodriguez and Ray Barretto. The St. George Hotel in Brooklyn would have 14 bands going all night. You’d take the IRT to Clark Street, go up in the hotel, buy a ticket, and all of a sudden you’ve got TNT, the Lebron Brothers, the Meditation, Eddie Palmieri, Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez, and Johnny Pacheco; there was constant dancing and grooving and partying. I’d get back on the subway early in the morning.

“Everything was mixed up. I listened to WABC radio in my youth, which involved the Four Seasons, the Beatles, Little Stevie Wonder, the Beach Boys. I’d go to the Cheetah and hear the R&B bands, and I listened to hard rock from Jimi Hendrix, Canned Heat, Led Zeppelin, and Traffic. I listened to Classical Music. I listened to everything.

“When I was about 14 I’d hear Ed Williams’ radio program, ‘Maiden Voyage,’ on WLIB, and later on I listened to Ed Beach on WRVR. I heard John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. But when I heard the Bebop, I was captivated how it sounded and how it swung. I could really feel it. I’d go to Slugs and listen to Lee Morgan; I heard Elvin, Woody Shaw, McCoy Tyner and many other people live.

“I listened to a lot of great saxophone players when I did my early jazz studies, and through them — John Coltrane and Charlie Parker and Rahsaan — I was introduced to the great pianists. Hearing Al Haig, Tommy Flanagan, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Andrew Hill, Cedar Walton, Walter Davis, Jr., Walter Bishop, Rahn Burton, and Bill Evans, I could relate to how the piano works with the horns; they showed me conceptually what and what not to do. When I started working, I had some working knowledge of how to accompany, and for the last thirty years I’ve been an accompanist in addition to having my own gigs as a leader.”

Ruiz goes on to discuss his piano influences: “Oscar Peterson’s trio records with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen had an impact on me like a horn — I could really focus on the piano. I heard Eddie Palmieri a lot at dances, but Herbie Hancock made the strongest impression for his beautiful harmonies and ideas. Then I heard McCoy on the record African Village, with that technique and soloing and fire. That told me there was someone else besides Herbie. I listened to Harold Mabern live, and studied a bit with him. Also Barry Harris, Chris Anderson and Roland Hanna. Cedar Walton, who I also studied with, was a good friend, and so was Hugh Lawson. I liked Bill Evans, especially for the way he comped behind bass players. He directed the music but at the same time left it wide-open, constantly setting up a carpet where you could blend, and that really impressed me.”

“I was around Mary Lou Williams from when I was 18 until she passed. She showed me a lot about what not to do. When I did something wrong, she’d say, ‘No, that’s not right, that’s corny, that’s not happening. Do it like this. Move over. Let me show you how it’s done.’ Then I’d watch her play, and saw the true feeling of a true original. She was effortless, but the things that came out were marvelous. The whole thing was about feeling.”

Keep these recollections in mind when listening to the four Ruiz solos that comprise the next section of Enchantment. The first pair are rare piano readings of “Gemini” and “Black Narcissus,” by saxophone giants Jimmy Heath and Joe Henderson, respectively.

“I’ve worked on and off with Jimmy Heath through the years, and I’ve always looked up to him,” Ruiz says. “He’s very knowledgeable; I could always go to him with questions and he’d straighten me out. I like the melody and the feeling of ‘Gemini.’ It also happens to be my sign. I’m playing it pretty much straight-up the way Jimmy wrote it.

“Though it’s in my resume that I worked with Joe Henderson, I only worked with him once, years and years ago, around 1970, as a sub. I went to his house in Brooklyn to rehearse for the gig. This tune was part of his repertoire then, and he played it for me on the piano. I learned exactly how too play it directly from the composer, so I know I got it right.”

Ruiz shows how thoroughly he’s assimilated the language of Thelonious Monk on a quintet version of “Shades of Thelonious,” an ingenious reharmonization of “You’ve Changed” that he recorded in trio format in 1991 [Doin’ It Right (RCA-Novus)]. “The melody gives my interpretation of Monk’s flavor,” says Ruiz, who grew up a 15-minute walk from Monk’s San Juan Hill apartment. “The flatted fifths and other devices identify with Monk and Ellington. They could make sense out of those intervals, creating beauty from them.

The second pair of solos are an elegant, blues-drenched reading of Billy Strayhorn’s “My Little Brown Book” (“it’s played by some of the more knowledgeable musicians, people who are into the finer points of Ellingtonia”) and “Silhouette,” an impressionistic on-the-spot improvisation with a Gershwinesque flavor.

Bassist Lisle Atkinson plays the melody on the first part of “Goodbye” with a plush arco sound before Ruiz enters on the bridge.

Ruiz cites Frank Sinatra’s iconic reading of the Gordon Jenkins torch song on Only The Lonely as his inspiration. “Guys tend to play tunes in their own style, with embellishments,” Ruiz notes. “Whenever I need to get the lyrics right, I’ll go to a Frank Sinatra album, because of his great articulation. He did it right! Here I put the bass up front to give it another kind of interpretation. In a well-integrated trio the bass can play the melody; if the melody allows, even the drums can do it. The drums have only four or five tuned pitches, but they get other sounds. I’ve always been conscious of leaving space for the drums to be part of the tonality. That comes from my background in Latin music, and also from playing extensively with people like Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, Roy Brooks, and other great drummers. When the drummer is conscious of the melody and chord changes, and uses the drums as another melodic instrument, then you can elicit beautiful overtones, which enhances the whole performance.”

That’s what drummers Simon and Thoms do on “Home Cookin,” a funky boogaloo that Ruiz recorded in 1987 [Somethin’ Grand (Novus)] and played during a cameo in the Woody Allen film Crimes and Misdemeanors. And he ends with Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “The Business Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues” (from Kirk’s flute album I Talk With The Spirits), showcasing a Chico Freeman solo that drips with soulful Chicago feeling, embodying Ruiz’ assertion that “the idea of the blues is to play something that sounds good to take the blues away — a taste of real life.”

“All the music I enjoyed was part of the Rahsaan experience,” Ruiz says. “He played the music of Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. Real down-home blues, as they’re called. The great composers of Classical music. Music from all over the world — Africa, the Orient, the Middle East. We had to play all these musical flavors every night. I had to research. Rahsaan would come to my apartment, we’d go to the record store, and he’d buy 15-20 records; each time he’d give me one or two, pointing out songs to listen to. Then I’d play those songs on the gig. I learned boogie-woogie and stride piano in the manner required to get it to swing in its own style — do it for real, make it sound right. That comes from within. If you love something and have the talent, then you get to it.”

Ruiz concludes: “I didn’t want to make this album complicated. I wanted it to be straightforward and honest. The listener can make their own decision.”

This listener’s verdict is A-plus.

*_*_*_*_

Hilton Ruiz (WKCR, 10-19-00):

TP: Was Dizzy Gillespie’s music very significant for you as a youngster in formulating your conception and sound?

RUIZ: Most definitely. I really heard Charlie Parker first, and Miles Davis. The tune I remember is “Back Home Blues.” I had a chance to be around Dizzy a little bit. He was a really funny, beautiful person. Magnanimous. He’s one of those certain artists who reaches the highest level of entertainment 24 hours a day. Make you laugh; taking care of business. I had the honor and opportunity to be on a video and CD called Rhythm Stick. We played together a couple of times, with Jon Faddis and Dizzy and me on the piano, just the three of us. For the few times I got a chance to be around him, I’m really happy to say that I knew the man, because people like this only come once in a lifetime. But thankfully, we have the music to listen to and to study.

TP: About how old were you, what year was it, when you started getting out there in the public world and playing? Mid-’60s, in your teens?

RUIZ: Yeah. I played with Ismael Rivera, a great Puerto Rican sonero, and I played with Ralph Robles for a while in a band called Ray Jay and the East Siders.

TP: What part of New York did you grow up in?

RUIZ: I grew up on 50th Street and 8th Avenue, right by the old Madison Square Garden. But I spent a lot of time on the Lower East Side and a lot of time uptown in Harlem. All over the place. I’ve been all over the city. I know this city very well.

TP: What were your first music lessons? Was it a family thing? How did it begin for you?

RUIZ: It was a family thing. My family really loved music, and they listened to records. My uncle took me to Professor Santiago Mesorana, who was also from Puerto Rico when I was 5 years old. He started me off on the solfeo, which is also called solfeggio, a method of sight-singing. Then after a couple of months went by, he let me get to the keyboard, and I studied folkloric Puerto Rican music. That lasted maybe about two years. After that, I went to Carnegie Hall, and I studied with George Armstrong, a very great pianist. That’s where I played my first recital, at Little Carnegie.

TP: Was that dealing with Puerto Rican folkloric music or Western Classical?

RUIZ: No, that was Franz Liszt and Mozart.

TP: So you weren’t just playing Puerto Rican folkloric music as a kid.

RUIZ: Well, I started with that. Then we did the Bach Inventions and the Handel and the Czerny and the Bartok.

TP: So you had a facility, obviously.

RUIZ: Well, at that time I had a facility, but it hadn’t come out yet. Because I had to learn the setup of the instrument and how to get over the keys. That was tedious. It was a very tedious time in my growing-up, because it was very difficult. You had to have in this place, play this soft, play this long, play this short, put the pedal down here, and then if you didn’t do it right, start again. The next week you’d start again. So you had to trudge through it just to get the next level. So I didn’t know anything about harmony or anything like that. I was just like reading and interpreting the Classical music. I did that for about four or five years.

TP: How old were you when the notion of improvising, when jazz started entering your picture?

RUIZ: When I was about 13-14 years old, I used to listen to a radio program, Ed Williams, “Maiden Voyage” [WLIB], and later on I listened to Ed Beach. I heard John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders, Rahsaan Roland Kirk…

TP: Who you later played with.

RUIZ: Yeah. Almost five years with Rahsaan. It was super-beautiful. One thing led to another, and here I am.

TP: Who were the jazz pianists who attracted you and who you tried to emulate? Was it that sort of process for you?

RUIZ: Yeah, it was. The first, strongest impression was Herbie Hancock. Of course, I had been dancing and going to see Eddie Palmieri a lot. I had been going to see Lee Morgan live quite a bit, and Woody Shaw and Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner, and of course, Rahsaan. So I got records like The Inflated Tear, and listened to Rahn Burton, who was an influence. But Herbie Hancock made a real deep impression on me because of the beauty of the ideas that were coming out. It seemed to be really just beautiful harmonies. Then I heard McCoy Tyner, and I said, “Wow!” I had never heard anything like that. I said, “there’s somebody else besides Herbie Hancock.” I heard McCoy Tyner on a record called African Village, and I heard that technique and that soloing and that fire. I was listening to Harold Mabern live, and I got a chance to study a little bit with Harold. Barry Harris. Chris Anderson. Roland Hanna. And my good friends were Cedar Walton, who I also studied with, and Hugh Lawson… I was with a lot of guys.

I heard Bill Evans and I liked that a lot, but the point where I heard Bill Evans was really with his trio. As I went back and started doing research, I heard some early things on Riverside with Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers, and it was like Bill Evans, the bebop pianist. I met him at the Vanguard, and he was a very-very nice cat. But what I liked about Bill Evans was the way that he could comp behind bass players. He was very sensitive to the more fragile elements of the music. He would lay out a constant carpet where you could just blend and do your thing without really being directed in any way. He would be directing, but at the same time he would leave it wide-open, and that really impressed me.

I was around Mary Lou Williams for quite a number of years, from when I was 18 years old until she passed, and she showed me a lot of things about what not to do. When you were doing it wrong, she’d just say, “No, that’s not good, that’s not right, that’s corny, that’s not happening. Do it like this. Move over. Let me show you how it’s done. Then I watched her play, and got a chance to see the real-real true feeling of a true original. She was effortless, but the things that were coming out were marvelous. The whole thing was about feeling. That was a great opportunity. I’ve had a lot of great people around me. The list goes on and on.

TP: I’d think for a curious, talented musician growing up in New York at that time, the opportunities for learning would have been endless.

RUIZ: Well, it wasn’t easy. I had a lot of fun while I was doing it, and I still do have a lot of fun — because I think that’s the whole idea, to have fun and let other people enjoy what you’re enjoying. But there were a lot of humbling moments, times when you had to get up there and didn’t know a song or maybe you weren’t ready to do a certain thing, and you were out there in front of everybody. I was lucky because I was given the encouragement to go out there and keep playing. If I was playing something that wasn’t cool, they would tell me to stroll, just cool out for a minute and listen, come in when it was appropriate. But it was always an atmosphere of encouragement. So I was very fortunate in that sense.

This band I have at Sweet Basil, we’re kickin’ it real hard in there. People are coming in, the place has been packed already a couple of nights. They’re dancing in the chairs and stuff and eating and drinking, and everybody’s smiling and having a good time.

[MUSIC: HR, “Shades of Thelonious,” “Round Midnight”]

TP: You mentioned a lot of pianists among your influence, but you didn’t mention Monk, who was close to Mary Lou Williams for many years.

RUIZ: Well, I never had the pleasure of meeting Thelonious Monk, but I did see him at a concert for one of George Wein’s festivals. He had been off for a little while, and he had come back on the scene, and I made I sure I got a chance to hear him — and it was fantastic. So the impression he made on me is in these songs, especially “Shades of Thelonious”… I tried to capture the feeling of how I feel about the flavors that Monk uses when he composes and when he plays. It’s a distinct flavor, and it doesn’t really make sense to try to analyze it too much, because it’s the sound that he produces… It’s so slick and yet it’s so correct at the same time. It’s a pleasure to play the compositions. That’s probably why I didn’t mention him. I can’t mention everybody at the same time, because there’s so many people. You have people like Carlos McKinney and Johnny O’Neal and Benny Green and Brad Mehldau. There are so many guys who have made an impression on me pianistically. Monty Alexander. Horace Parlan. But primarily it’s been Eddie Palmieri, Charlie Palmieri. Chick Corea, who is a genius. And anybody who can play. Anybody who can really play and make me want to go home and try it out. Because what I do is I hear something, and I go home and try it out and see if I can put it int my little tool chest, so when I go out to do my job, I can have more variations of different things I can do to try to get the job done..

TP: A contemporary of Monk’s was Tito Puente, who passed earlier this year and whom we heard playing mallets on “Round Midnight.” Hilton said at a certain point during his solo, “you’re never going to hear that again; not that way!

RUIZ: Because that’s the real way to play the vibes. Tito was a vibist in the sense that he played the vibes and got the full sound out of the instrument, not the approach that I would approach the vibes as a piano player. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, with guys playing like the piano on the vibes. But to get your own sound, a recognizable, beautiful sound, and to make it sound like bubbles… That calls for percussion, people who have studied the instrument and know to move around and get that particular sound.

Tito was so great as a person, so great as a musician. One of the greatest things about Tito Puente was that with all the things he had done — he had been there with Monk, he had been there with Charlie Parker, he had been there with John Coltrane, he had seen all of that live playing, back-to-back sets, all the guys respected him — he always was trying to keep everything real and keep the real flavor of what we call jazz music, and without losing the roots of his native Puerto Rico, and from New York and Spanish Harlem. The volumes and volumes and volumes of tunes, great dancing tunes, great arrangements, great vocalists, and that he would come out and get a band like these guys here, the Tito Puente Latin Jazz All-Stars. James Moody was in there for a while, Paquito d’Rivera, Mario Rivera, Dave Valentin, Charlie Sepulveda, Giovanni Hidalgo. He surrounded himself with only the very best musicians, and he knew what he wanted to do at all times. He was always prepared. He always had a bag of music with him. He was ready for any situation. But he allowed us to grow and flourish in our own way. He made a way for all of us to carry on, because all he wanted was for us to respect the music and keep playing the music. Anybody who ever saw him, or you just put on one of those records, and you can feel the flavor of the thing. It’s kicking. It’s hard. It’s coming hard. It’s really great. It’s a magnificent thing he’s left us.

Tito Puente and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, I must say, are the two individuals who really made me kind of look and say, “Entertainment, show business…”

TP: Is not incompatible with the art of music.

RUIZ: Right. Making people feel really good, and putting on a great show and still playing some valid, beautiful music — that’s what it’s all about.

TP: In the ’60s, you were playing with Ismail Rivera, in Latin Soul bands… There was a huge Latin movement in New York in the ’50s and ’60s, Latin bands playing all over. A lot of musicians paid their rent on gigs and dances with Latin bands.

RUIZ: Sure. It was great. I got a chance to see Barry Rogers and Jose Rodriguez and Lewis Kahn and Johnny Rodriguez and Ray Barretto. The St. George Hotel would have 14 bands going all night.

TP: The one in Brooklyn? Just take the 2, go up in the hotel…

RUIZ: You got it. You go in there, you can buy a ticket, and all of a sudden you’ve got the TNT, you got the Lebron(?) Brothers, you got the Meditations, you got Eddie Palmieri, you got Pete Aconda, Johnny Pacheco, there’s like constant dancing and constant grooving, constant partying. We’d all get back on the subway early in the morning, and go to school or whatever.

TP: Or not.

RUIZ: Well, I did. I went to school. I didn’t want to get up a lot or mornings. But I made it there. I didn’t even want to be there a lot of times.

TP: Where did you go to high school?

RUIZ: I went to Power Memorial. [Kareem was a senior when he got there] It’s not there any more. That was a tough school.

TP: So you to go Power Memorial, and you’re playing music the whole time and keeping up an academic course-load. It sounds like you grew up pretty young.

RUIZ: Well, academically… I’ve been around the world ten times. I’ve been almost everywhere by now, traveling constantly. I can thank the Creator for that. So I’ve been able to see things that in my education I saw in books, and actually touch things and be standing in the places of true history of this planet. So that’s basically my education, because when I got out of high school…

TP: You went right to work, didn’t you.

RUIZ: Yeah, I just went right to work. I started working with Clark Terry. That’s the first time I went on the road, was with the Clark Terry Quartet, with Major Holley on bass… No, it was Louis Smith that first time on bass, then Major Holley came in, and then Victor Sproles. Then with the big band, the quartet, the quintet and everything. Then in ’72, Jackie McLean took me to France, to a festival at Chateau Vallon, and that was really out of sight. Then Rahsaan took me out for a few times. I went out with George Coleman and with Tito. It’s been a great thing. I recommend everybody to really travel at least a little bit. Take a cruise, take a plane somewhere. Really get the flavor of other… But for people who haven’t extensively traveled that much, it’s really worth it to get out. Because you hear the music, you taste the food, you meet the people, you smell the air, you see the cars and vehicles, you see the architecture. You never know what you might run upon.

TP: As a kid and through your life, did jazz and Latin music seem like part of a big continuum to you? How was it alike? How was it different?

RUIZ: It was all mixed up. Because I listened to WABC radio in my early youth. That involved Four Seasons and the Beatles and Little Stevie Wonder, Beach Boys, like everything. That was the music that I listened too. I would listen to things like “A Summer Place,” which I still think is one of the most beautiful things that’s ever been written. Then I used to go to the Cheetah and I used to listen to the bands there — the first Cheetah, which was basically Rhythm-and-Blues, Rock-and-Roll. I listened to some Hard Rock from Jimi Hendrix, Canned Heat, Led Zeppelin, Traffic — a lot of that music. Classical Music. I listened to everything.

But when I started listening to Bebop music, ,I was captivated by the sound of it, and the way it made me feel. Because I’m coming from a Latin-Puerto Rican-New York, all the way in there background. When I heard the Bebop, I said, “Wow, this stuff really is swinging.” I could really feel it. Like I said before, I used to go to Slugs and listen to Lee Morgan. I heard a lot of the guys live, and a lot of the ladies, too.

The most important thing you can do is to go out and listen to everything. Listen to everything! And especially for young children… I as a parent make sure that my daughter has listened to everything. She likes rap music, she likes all kinds of stuff. But she heard the music. I allowed her to make that choice, and I exposed her to that. I didn’t try to hold her back from anything like that. I think that a lot of kids would like Bebop music and they would like a lot of the things that we enjoy as adults. But because it’s not given to them in the volume of other music that’s out there, constantly being pumped out, pumped out, the peer pressure and everything like that… I’m not saying that the Rap is not happening, because those guys really know what they’re doing, and they are masters of that style. But there’s a whole lot of other things that can incorporated into that, and a lot of times kids don’t really get a chance to hear bebop music and the jazz music. But that’s so very important that this music be exposed to everyone, so that everyone can make their own choice and their own decisions, say “I like this and I don’t like that.” I like Flamenco or I like Opera, I like Bebop and I like creative music. But if it feels good, I can’t knock it.

[MUSIC: HR-G. Coleman, “Strange”; HR-David Sanchez, “Sonny’s Mood”]

TP: I’ll repeat your comment about George Coleman, “he spells all the big words,” referring to his ability to make art out of polysyllabic harmonic language.

RUIZ: He cleaned that solo out. He got in all the corners of it. George Coleman, pound for pound… There are a lot of great saxophonists out there, but in terms of consistency, I don’t think I’ve ever played anyone who was more consistent than George Coleman. In that style. Because you have Jimmy Heath, who’s very consistent, James Moody, a lot of guys. But George has a certain polish, a certain flair that you can almost taste the music. I was listening to that solo, and I could almost see Amsterdam, the time we spent in Amsterdam, and in Paris and in London, and just the visual things of all our travels. We had so much fun. Billy Higgins was the drummer, and Herbie Lewis and Ray Drummond on two different tours. On one tour we did nine weeks in Europe, and we had fun all the way down the line. We never knew what we were going to play. Playing everything through all the keys, at different tempos. Billy Higgins is right there, knows just what to do and his volume was just perfect for a piano player, because he’s so intense but he keeps the dynamic level… I’m glad to see that George is doing good and he’s in good health. I’m looking in the future for people like that to get much more recognition for their artistic endeavors.

TP: Have you played much or at all with Craig Handy and Ryan Kisor before?

RUIZ: Well, I’ve never played with Ryan before. The first time was at rehearsal on opening night. But he came in and read the music and everything. He’s a very cool cat. We’re getting to know each other and he’s taking care of business. I’m very happy to have him there. I’ve never had the chance or enough work… I’ve been working almost constantly, thank God. I’ve been able to put my daughter through college and buy a home. But the bands are always different. I try to keep as many people together as I can. But since I can’t keep everybody on salary, it’s hard to maintain that one unit. The longest-lasting edition was probably the Andy Gonzalez-Steve Berrios-Giovanni Hidalgo rhythm section. We made a lot of records together. But these guys are great. Craig Handy is a great saxophonist, a great person. They come to play and they come to make the people feel good, and we don’t really have any attitude problems. Everyone gets a chance to write, everyone gets a chance to be featured. We’re out there making people feel good! That’s what we’re happy to do.

Renato is from Panama so he has that Latin flavor. He’s a very strong conguero. Then Marlon Simon. Every night I get up there, it’s good for me, because I’m used to playing at that level anyway. I’m used to pushing through the envelope into the next envelope, so to speak. I’ve never allowed anything to stop me — as long as, God willing, I can stay healthy — to just keep going for trying to make it better, and try to listen and be supportive, but just keep going for that music and try to make it better. It gets strenuous. At the level we play, it’s a very physical gig. We play ballads and we play a lot of pretty things. But I know people come out and they want to hear fire, and they want to hear something really to make them rock and feel really good. I have to look at the room, I have to see what kind of audience they are. If it seems like it’s a Count Basie type of audience, we have to play something for them. If you see an Ellingtonian… How can you tell if an audience is Ellingtonian or Basieites?

TP: You have an intuition after 35 years playing for people.

RUIZ: They’ve just got a look about them!

TP: What’s the difference between a Basieite audience and an Ellingtonian audience?

RUIZ: I would say that the Ellingtonian audience would be a sophisticated audience of people who really are digging the full classical picture, with the swing, with everything, with the spirituals… To me, that’s like the big picture. And then the Basie group of people are people who probably are into that and know about that, but it’s just straight swing, how hard can they swing you, how hard can they make you move, how good can you feel listening to an orchestra. I’ve heard the Basie band live. It’s just too much. Basie was more into constantly creating that swing for people to dance and to enjoy. Duke was doing that, but also recording different kinds… I haven’t heard as much music as you have. Probably very few people have heard as much music as you have. But we’re speaking hypothetical…

TP: Your sets are fluid from night to night. You might play anything on any given night, is what you’re saying.

RUIZ: Well, I have to look at the room. I have to see the age level. I might play the Flintstones.

TP: And you have to have a band that can handle that, and with these guys you do.

RUIZ: They have to handle all those kinds of things. Because the music that we call jazz is a whole lot of things. But basically, it’s to give somebody a good feeling that you know you’re contributing positive vibrations to your fellow neighbors. It’s an honest thing, where they really like it, or they may not like you, or maybe they’ll like you later… They don’t have to like you. But you’re making them feel good. So therefore, you’re accomplishing something, and you really can say that you’re doing something on this planet; you’re making people feel good.

TP: You were talking about your guiding imperative always being to push the envelope, push through into the next level, and that’s been a palpable part of what you do. You played in the ’70s and ’80s with Arthur Blythe, and Sam Rivers was part of your ensembles in the ’80s…

RUIZ: Marion Brown. I did a tour with Marion. Did a record in Paris called Back To Paris. Marion played “Body and Soul,” played all over “Body and Soul,” and he wrote some originals there. I made two albums with Marion Brown. I played a little bit with Archie Shepp. So many great musicians.

[HR-Sam, “Bluz”; HR (solo), “Soul Eyes”]

[-30-]

*_*_*_*_

Hilton Ruiz for Enchantment (7-30-01):
TP: Talk about selecting the arc of the CD, selecting the repertoire.

RUIZ: I just want it to be record that people can enjoy, and I want it to be accessible to listeners from all different walks of life. Not necessarily a specialized group of jazz listeners… If people want to use the record for just fun listening, that’s what I’m going for. The selections all have very pretty melodies. All I’m trying to do is get to the listeners so they can feel good and have it be accessible to a full range of musicians, from classical on.

TP: That said, you deal with a lot of different styles and approaches. I don’t think it’s so easy to pare down and make material that is as involved as some of these pieces sound as simple as it does.

RUIZ: Well, I think it’s the compositions themselves. They lend themselves to the ear. They’re pretty compositions, even though some of them might be a little complex or angular. But basically, you can hum all the melodies on the record. I didn’t want to make it complicated. I wanted to make it straightforward and honest as to what it is. I guess as the person listens to it, then they make their own decision.

TP: “Seven Steps To Heaven” must go back to Miles Davis. Your association?

RUIZ: I heard it when I was a teenager. The melody just stuck in my mind immediately. It’s very catchy. I tried to make the improvisation concise. I didn’t want to play a whole lot of choruses. I played two choruses and they took it out. It’s kind of an introduction to the album that gets you going and gets the juices flowing.

TP: How much do you pre-plan the arc of the arrangements? Do you carefully work out the whole structure beforehand? Is it more extemporaneous once you get in the studio? Talk about doing a record vis-a-vis a live performance.

RUIZ: It calls for more rehearsing and trying to put everything in a package that is concise and yet has the freedom to be expressive at the same time. Basically, when we get in the studio, I don’t have an idea of what kind of arrangement I want. But a lot of these songs, when they were written, were basically arranged at that time. So the only thing in terms of arranging would be the choice of instruments that you’re going to use in the performance, or to include an interlude here or a vamp there or a tag here. But going back to “Seven Steps To Heaven,” the arrangement is all laid out. It’s already there.

TP: There you play a Bud Powell, bebop style. You play in different styles in different tunes. Does that happen in the heat of the moment, or are you also thinking of your improvisational approach beforehand?

RUIZ: Not really. I practice every day and I try to work out different ways to enhance my improvisations. But it happens when it happens. That’s the nature of jazz. You really don’t know what’s going to happen in your solo. There are patterns and things that a lot of us use to the point across. But you really don’t know exactly what’s going to happen until you make that tape, then that’s what have to live with, or decide whether you want to try another one. But since it’s a group with quartet and a lot of percussion, it’s not overly arranged. I like to let the percussion be part of the harmonic structure because the drums have their own harmony, which adds overtones to the rest of the diatonic harmony that the keyboard and the regular 12-tone tuned instruments. So there’s a certain degree of space that has to be left there, so that the drums and conga and bongos will have an audible space in this particular quartet. Now, if I’m doing a big band arrangement, it’s a whole different story. That calls for putting the right horns in the right place and things like that. But basically we just have the one horn as a guest, who was Chico Freeman. I had the music written for him and he rehearsed it. Some of it he saw on the spot.

I like to leave a spontaneous element in recording. If you go in there and record something you’ve practiced a million times, and you know exactly how it’s going to go, that’s fine. But to me, that comes down under the heading of maybe… I wouldn’t put it in the category of being a jazz performance, because one of the main elements of jazz is the improvisation.

Basically, to break it all down, if you can play the melodies clearly and make them pretty so people can understand the melody and hear the song, then the improvisation is the other part of it. But the song is also very important that a person can recognize the melody of the song. And those beautiful melodies are what I wanted to emphasize.

TP: Is “Enchantment” your composition?

RUIZ: It’s an original, about five years old. It was recorded on an album called Primitive Passions by Dave Valentin, and it was featured on that album. I’ve never recorded it on any of my albums. It’s a very pretty song. That’s why we chose it to be the title. It’s kind of a Latin-Bossa Nova type thing, a cross between Brazilian and Caribbean flavors. It has the flavor of East Coast Latin Jazz and it also… This one wasn’t necessarily like a Cha-Cha or a Mambo, which is pretty strictly Caribbean. It has no parameters. It has an element of Brazilian music, of South America and Caribbean music.

“I’ll Call You Later” is a straight-up blues. It’s pretty straightforward. We play the melody, which is a bebop-flavored melody. Chico takes a great solo. It’s one of those tracks you listen to for enjoyment, just bounce. Chico got a very good sound here.

TP: All the tunes were just right for him. You’re on records of his going back to the ’70s?

RUIZ: I was on one of his first albums, called Beyond the Rain. Chico used to come listen to Rahsaan Roland Kirk. The last couple of years I was playing with Rahsaan, Chico got the gig with Elvin Jones, who had one of the groups I’d go listen to a lot since I was teenager. I always enjoyed listening to the Elvin Jones groups. Chico was in this particular group with Pat LaBarbera, and he had a certain spiritual quality about his playing that transcended the ordinary… As a listener, I was captivated, and he took me to a listening level that was spiritual. That’s how I felt. In a positive sense.

There was a band called the Leaders around ’84, in which I was the original pianist. Don Cherry was the original trumpeter on the first tour.

TP: You’ve played in so many situations. It’s hard to think of a musical environment you haven’t covered — from New York piano function things, which go from Latin Jazz, Boogaloo, Bebop, Blues, Avant-Garde. And you touch on everything in this record. It all seems very comfortable to you. Anything to say about the panorama of styles and approaches that you seem able to access very naturally.

RUIZ: I listened to a lot of records. I love the music very much, and the music was a really big part of my life in terms of enjoyment, and listening and buying records. I really got a good groove just putting on records and listening to different artists — Mongo Santamaria, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins. They played so good that to me it was an enjoyable thing. It was like a daily thing. I’d get up in the morning and I’d want to go buy a new record or try something out, play the piano along with the records. Then I started getting gigs with great musicians; a lot of them were on the records I had at home. All of a sudden, I found myself in the bands of these people who I used to listen to on record. Since I had the love for it, and I did a lot of research, I learned how to play the right voicings and how to be an accompanist. I was so proud and so happy to be there… It wasn’t about money or anything like that. It was about just being able to be up there and play that music, and to get the recognition that I was at a level where I was able to play with these great musicians. So day by day, the days added up and months and years; thirty years later I look back, and I’m on over a hundred albums. [May 29, 1952]

TP: You started gigging in ’70 or so? Or before that, in high school?

RUIZ: I started gigging in the late ’60s. The first gigs were with Joe Newman from the Basie band, Frank Foster, Clark Terry. The first time I went on the road was with Clark Terry. I was 18 years old. Then Jackie McLean was my first European tour. I was 20 then. Then I went with Rahsaan Roland Kirk for almost five years.

TP: Rahsaan had a huge impact on the way you think about music.

RUIZ: Definitely. Because all the different things that I enjoyed were part of his program, part of the show, part of the experience. He played music of Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. Real down-home blues, as they’re called. He was into the Classical music. He was into the Great composers. Music from all over the world — from the Orient, from Africa, from the Middle East. Every night we had to play all these different types of musical flavors. So I had to do more research. I used to go to the record store. He used to come to my apartment in New York, and we would go to the record store, and he would buy 15-20 records, and he would buy me one or two records every time. He’d say, “Hey, you need this one, and take this one, and listen to this song and listen to this song.” Next thing you know, I would either be playing those songs on the gig or I was able to play in the style that was required to get it to swing in its own style. In other words I had to learn how to play some boogie-woogie and stride piano and things like that.

TP: And make it breathe. Be idiomatic..

RUIZ: Yeah, and do it for real. Make it sound right. But that comes from within. If you love something a lot and you have the talent, then you get to it.

TP: “Sweet Cherry Pie” is a beautiful groove tune.

RUIZ: I wrote it about seven years ago. It became a hit on an album by the trombonist J.P. Torres. That tune kind of speaks for itself. You can dance to it, you can listen to it, you can drive your car to it, ride a bicycle, jog, whatever. It’s steady motion; it keeps moving and grooving.

TP: It seems like it would be hard for someone under 35 to write that. You don’t hear a lot of younger people dancing to it any more…

RUIZ: You should go to the Salsa clubs. You’ll find that beat danced to all the time. It’s basically a Cha-Cha.

TP: Are you still playing those clubs?

RUIZ: Yes, occasionally. I do a special here, a special there. I’m guest soloist with a band or a singer. Actually at this point, I’m getting much more to my own research again. I’m going back to sheet music and repertoire, and looking at music I’ve seen before for a second time to see if I’ve missed anything, just to take another reevaluation of what music is after playing it for thirty years. Now that I’ve gotten all this experience, reevaluating from how I looked at it when I didn’t know what a chord was, when I didn’t know what improvisation was, didn’t know what a vamp was, didn’t know what changes were. Music is so vast and so great that you need to always keep going forward but always research the past, too. You can find things that are very useful and devices that maybe aren’t used any more that are really hip! That’s the way I progress, by going back to the…

TP: How long have you been going back to it?

RUIZ: Well, I’ve studied the Schillinger System, I studied the George Russell system, and I’m classically trained. So I’ve always had that thing in terms of musical theory. But being trained as a classical pianist, I was basically taking pieces that took me three or four months to learn, and I learned them bar-by-bar, note-by-note, hands separated and put the hands together on the keyboard. That’s how I learned. But now that I’ve been into advanced harmony… I’ve always been doing it, but now I do it differently, because I have more vocabulary. I want to go back and take a look at things again, knowing… As an example: Given a piece of sheet music thirty years ago, I’d have looked at it and played it by the notes. But I wouldn’t necessarily know that there was a set of chord changes under it that could be used for improvisation. I didn’t know the possibilities that much. I would play the song and that was it. If I had an arrangement I had to play with a band, I would play what was called for on the arrangement, and that was it. Now I go back and take that same piece of music, and I can say, “Oh, look what he used here; he used a G7-flat IX, and look at this, and, oh, this is something we used…” So I can recognize things better now because of the experience and because of everything… You learn more about the terminology and the theoretical part. I’m involved in teaching. So when I do a clinic or a seminar or something like that, you have to find different ways to reach the student. The more you research things and the more you learn different ways to communicate, the better off you are.

“Gemini” is by Jimmy Heath. I played with him a couple of times. I went on a nice European tour with a band called New York All-Stars that Jimmy led, with Jimmy and Percy Heath, Jimmy Owens, Slide Hampton and Jimmy Cobb. We played at Nice, the Hague and Northsea Jazz Festival. And on and off throughout the years, I’ve played different gigs — club dates and things like that. I never was part of the Heath Brothers Band, because Stanley Cowell is the resident pianist there. Jimmy Heath is one of the guys I looked up to and who I could go to with questions and would straighten me out. Jimmy Heath is very knowledgeable, in addition to being a great player. I like the melody and the feeling. It also happens to be my sign. I guess if something appeals to me, I might play it differently. When you’re improvising and thinking about different things, that’s where the story comes out — how you’re feeling. He did the tune with the Cannonball Adderley Sextet and done big band arrangements of it. I’m playing it pretty much straight-up the way that he wrote it.

TP: “Black Narcissus” solo is an interesting choice.

RUIZ: Years and years ago, around 1970, I had a big with Joe Henderson. I only worked with Joe once, but it’s in a lot of places as part of my resume that I worked with him. Which I did, but it was just one gig. There was a period where I was a substitute pianist for a lot of great piano players like Stanley Cowell and Harold Mabern, so many great pianists who sometimes had two or three gigs at the same time and needed somebody to come in there. I was recommended to Joe Henderson, and I went to his house in Brooklyn to rehearse for the gig. We sat at the piano, and he played this tune for me and was showing me exactly how it goes and how it should be played. This was one of the tunes he was going to play on the gig; it was part of his repertoire at that time. He was playing it a lot at the time. I learned it directly from the composer, so I know I got it right. There are certain little parts that have to be played as he wrote them in order for it to be, if you will, authentic.

TP: You recorded “Shades of Thelonious” a few years ago on one of your RCA records.

RUIZ: Doin’ it Right, I think. I did a trio version. I just added the horn and basically played it straight up just like it was. That’s another one of those tunes that just goes straight down. But the melody itself gives my interpretation of a part of the Thelonious Monk flavor, using those flatted fifths and devices like that, that kind of identify with Monk and Ellington, guys who could use those intervals and yet make sense, make something very pretty out of it.

I heard Monk once at Avery Fisher Hall during the festival, when he played a piano solo. Hearing people like him or Miles Davis just once is like watching a great World Series game. If you were THERE, it’s something you can say to your kids!

TP: Growing up in New York, and particularly growing up where you did in Manhattan, put you in a position that not too many young musicians would have in being able to directly experience the music played by the greatest masters of the music. Or that music being in the air. Even Jazzmobile and things like that. You would have soaked up this sensibility. I don’t know too many people who project more of a New York attitude than you.

RUIZ: I grew up in Midtown Manhattan, right by the old Madison Square Garden. I was one block from Broadway, and the Musicians Union was two blocks down the street. I saw the guys going back and forth to the union, all the entertainers, and the vibe and the people and all this stuff that in general was going on right outside, looking out the window. There was always something going on.

I was lucky, because we grew up in the age of television. People say that television isn’t good for people, but it’s only the way you use it. For me, television was a great thing, because I got to see Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and people like this on TV. That was part of what influenced me, too. I was 7-8-9-10 years old, and I would see these great performers through the medium of television. Now that we have the Internet, it’s showing its value again; that cathode ray tube monitor is one of the greatest communication devices that can be used. If it’s used correctly, it’s marvelous, because you can see and hear.

TP: On the radio you asked me if I could guess the changes of “Shades of Thelonious,” and I couldn’t get it.

RUIZ: “Shades of Thelonious” is basically “You’ve Changed.” Not exactly, but you can play “You’ve Changed” to it, because the bridge goes to the same place that “You’ve Changed” goes to — to the fourth of the chord.

TP: I can say it references “You’ve Changed.”

RUIZ: It’s close enough that it won’t be arguable. Anybody who knows anything about “You’ve Changed” knows that if you play the melody of “You’ve Changed” on top of the chords as that tune is going by, you’ll pretty much have the melody. Although there are places where I use some alternate chords that might clash with the melody. But that happens all the time. That’s the nature of improvisation. You might put a slick chord in there, and it might not be directly associated with the melody note, but as you pass into the next chord it moves into the original tonality, so it’s okay.

TP: Then you do “My Little Brown Book” by Billy Strayhorn. Did you listen to a lot of Ellington when you were younger?

RUIZ: Yes. That’s one of the first things I heard. I heard “Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue” with that long solo by Paul Gonsalves, then I heard Charlie, Parker, and that was it for saxophones. I said, “Wow, I really like that.”

TP: Did saxophones influence the way you think as a pianist?

RUIZ: Yes. Because I was listening to saxophone players when I did my early jazz studies. I was into saxophone players. I have a collection of great saxophone players, and through those saxophone players I was introduced to the great pianists. One of the first records I had that was just piano, that really had the impact on me like a horn was those Oscar Peterson Trio records with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen. Then I could really focus on the piano. But through listening to John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, I got to hear Al Haig and Tommy Flanagan and McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Andrew Hill, Cedar Walton, Walter Davis, Jr., Walter Bishop, Bill Evans. These great pianists all appeared on these albums. That’s how I had a chance to relate to how the piano works with the horns. So when I started working, I had somewhat of a working knowledge of how to be an accompanist. I’ve always been able to be an accompanist for the last thirty years, in addition to having my own gigs as a leader. Because I’ve led bands for that long, too. but listening to these piano players really showed me conceptually what to do and what not to do. What not to do is just as important as what you do.

TP: That being said, you take “My Little Brown Book” as a solo.

RUIZ: In the sequencing we tried different combinations. We put all the tunes in different order and listened to it, and changed the order and listened to it again, and changed the order and listened to it again, and changed it again and listened again. The way I put it together is tonally logical. In other words, I put the two solo pieces together that kind of blended harmonically one into the other, so as you listen to the end of a track, you’re left with a certain feeling, then what comes next to it has to do with what you heard before.

TP: Each tune goes into the other goes into the other. It’s a smooth experience.

RUIZ: Exactly. So by putting two solo pieces together, and then another two… I didn’t want to put three or four together. Because there’s people who like the solos, but now they’re ready to hear some drums! I wanted everything to be just long enough that it would be satisfying, and then give you a little bit more satisfaction, and then go to the next take.

TP: Is “My Little Brown Book” a song that’s been part of your repertoire for a while?

RUIZ: Yes, I’ve played it for a while. I’ve played it with different bands. It’s played by some of the more knowledgeable musicians, people who are into the finer points of Ellingtonia. But it’s such a beautiful melody… I play tunes because I like them. I also play them because I’m required to on certain projects. Sometimes I’m exposed to tunes that I like more than others. So I tend to play the things that I enjoy the most, because that enjoyment comes out and is reflected into the audience. People can notice I’m enjoying it, and it seems to make them enjoy it more. I’ve always loved those beautiful melodies. I’ve listened to all kinds of advanced music and I’ve listened to today’s music. I watch the latest things that are coming out, and I watch what’s happening on the music channels. I keep abreast of everything. But a beautiful melody is everlasting.

TP: How about “Silhouette”?

RUIZ: “Silhouette” was done on the spot. That’s totally improvised. That’s something that came in my head and I composed it right there, on the spot, that take and that was it. It’s imagining a silhouette. You see children playing on a hill, jumping rope or whatever, and you see the sun behind it, and you get the beautiful silhouette of what’s going on against that orange sky.

TP: It’s an impressionistic improvisation. “Goodbye” you made a feature for Lisle Atkinson’s arco work.

RUIZ: Lisle is such a great virtuoso, I wanted to have a tune that would feature his artistry. So I listened to the tune and thought about letting the bass play the melody in the first part, and then I’d come in on the bridge. I listened to a version by Frank Sinatra on an album called Only The Lonely. I don’t remember the first time I heard the tune, but one of the times I was playing at a place called Defemio’s, and my friend Hugh Lawson came. It was after the gig, and the musicians were just hanging out, sitting up in the club, and Hugh went up to the piano and started playing the song. I fell in love with it right away. Then I heard it done by other artists. But the Frank Sinatra version was important because I was able to listen to the lyric. Guys tend to play tunes in their own style that they embellish and so on. Whenever I do something where I need to get the lyrics right, I’ll go to a Frank Sinatra album, because he had a great articulation with lyrics. He did it right! He’s so enjoyable to listen to, plus I love Frank Sinatra’s voice. Then I put the bass up front to give it another kind of interpretation.

A lot of times when you hear the trio, you’re hearing the piano primarily, but in a well-integrated trio the bass can play the melody sometimes, and even the drums can play the melodies if they lend themselves to the drums. The drums have only four or five tuned pitches, but they can get other kinds of. sounds. I’ve always been conscious of the drums and leaving space for the drums to be part of the tonality.

TP: Does that come from your background in Latin music?

RUIZ: Well, yeah. But also by playing a lot with people like Billy Higgins, and also Ed Blackwell, Roy Brooks, and all these great drummers. When they’re conscious of the tonalities, it can make it sound that much better. When you have a drummer who is conscious of the melody and conscious of chord changes, and plays accordingly, and uses the drums as another melodic instrument, as well as percussion, just like I use the piano as a melodic instrument with percussion, then you can get these beautiful overtones to happen. It can really enhance the whole performance with the right drummer who’s playing the right stuff.

TP: On this date with Marlon Simon on traps, how much leeway did you give him? Did you sketch out the tempos and beats you wanted him to play?

RUIZ: Yes. Any hits that had to be made or any figures that had to be played by everybody together, breaks and so on, I would write out for him. Otherwise, play time. Play your stuff. Play what you play. If we all have to come in somewhere, then I would write it out and make it easier for him. Because you can do them by ear, too. Simple arrangements, basically if the guy is on top of his game, he can pick it up right away.

TP: Have you been playing with Marlon for a while?

RUIZ: Four or five years now. Marlon has a couple of CDs out under his own name. He’s very knowledgeable about Latin rhythms, but he’s been around people like Mickey Roker, and he’s done the research. He has a natural swing. Of course, he’s not going to sound the same as a person who has grown up in the United States, because that has something to do with the way you play. But since I am basically dealing with the two idioms, the African and Latin American rhythms, they all come from the same place anyway; they’re all African rhythms to begin with, but went in different directions. He takes care of the business and he’s reliable. He’s growing. The more he plays, the better he gets. I think it’s important, in a sense, to try to have the same personnel — if it’s working — for as long as you can, because that’s where things really start grooving, when people get to know each other musically, and what we can do and things like that. It’s hard when you’ve got to change the drummer or bass player every six months or so. If you get somebody who’s really good it’s going to be okay, but that collaboration of the same people working together on the same thing for a while I think really is what catapults the music forward. If you can have a working band, the same people for a while… When you get to work, you know the repertoire, you know the repertoire, you know what you’re going to play, you know how everybody else plays basically, and you know the breaks and everything else, so now you can focus on creating something and trying to come up with something fresh.

TP: Is that the case with this group?

RUIZ: Yes. Well, Chico is always like that. It’s always forward motion with him. He’s always searching and looking. He’s a leader. Lisle Atkinson is one of those really swinging bass players. He’s played with just about everybody, with all the great singers and saxophone players, and he’s also played with symphonies, and he has a bass choir. He’s a virtuoso. What it is that you want, he can go after it.

TP: How about Renato Thoms? He’s from Panama.

RUIZ: He’s from Panama, and he has played with Eddie Palmieri. He’s on a few records now with notable artists. He came up one night to play as a replacement for Richie Flores, who got busy. He gave me his card and said, “I’ve got your records and I know some of your music.” He sounded real good when he sat in with us. So opportunity arose, and I gave him a call and he came in and he’s been there ever since. I don’t change anything, as long as everything is happening and it’s okay. If a guy doesn’t give me exactly what I want right away, I won’t make a change that fast, because I’ll see if an adjustment can be made. I went through the same thing. I went into places where everybody was more advanced than I was or had more experience, so I’m tolerant of those things. But if a guy really comes to play and it sounds good and the people enjoy it, that’s mainly what I’m concerned with. Little idiosyncracies and things like that will happen. But it all works out if we have time to play together long enough.

“Home Cooking” is one of my hits, if you want to call it that. It was on my first RCA-Novus record, Something Grand. That tune wound up in a movie when I did a cameo with the band in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanor. It’s a popular tune. Every time I play it, the audience really digs it. So it became a mainstay in the program.

“The Business Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues” is by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, from his flute album, I Talk With The Spirits. I wanted to end it with a blues. But it’s a happy blues. The idea of the blues is to play something happy that sounds good to take the blues away. Chico got some nice Chicago blues in there. So we just close out with the blues, but a happy blues, a taste of real life.

TP: Let’s talk about the here-and-now. Talk about your last six month and how you project the next six months.

RUIZ: The highlights of the last six months: I was a judge for the All-American Jazz Piano competition. I got to hear a lot of young players. that was very nice, very exciting. I went to Miami and the JVC Festival in Miami, out there on the beach in South Beach, Miami. Then I went to Brazil, and played a concert at the Festival Internationale in Londrina. I spent about five days there, and played two concerts. After I came back I played Saratoga, JVC, and I’m going to be up at Newport in August and at the Detroit Jazz Festival.

TP: At this stage of your career… You’ve been visible and well-known on the jazz landscape for 25 years. Are you equally well-received around the world? Do Latin audiences like you for certain things and other audiences for other things? Do you separate the two components of your personality or are they always converging and coming together?

RUIZ: They’re always converging and coming together. I’ve been blessed that the sound that comes out when I play the piano is really what people like. They like to watch me play, they like to listen to what I’m playing. I get the same response anywhere I go. I can be truthful about this. The audiences really enjoy it. They ask for encores…

TP: You communicate.

RUIZ: It doesn’t make any difference in the age group or the ethnic group.

TP: Well, you were growing up in two cultures, in Puerto Rican culture and the intense mixture of New York. How did growing up in New York affect your approach to music?

RUIZ: The beginning was in Carnegie Hall, studying with George Armstrong. But before that I had studied Puerto Rican folkloric piano music with Santiago Messorana. Then when I studied with Mr. Armstrong, that was Bartok and Bach and Haydn and Mozart. So my background, I’m playing in church for different ceremonies and I’m playing in the assembly room for the school. they did Oklahoma when I was 9 years old, and I played the piano for that. Then there singers who somehow heard that I could play piano, and I wound up making a couple of doowop records. Very simple but they wanted me to do it. I guess it was about the sound. It sounded good. People basically said, “this guy sounds good; I want this guy.” Some people who do certain things musically may not have the expertise in certain instrumental areas, so they rely only on the sound of the instrumentalist. “Oh, that guy is playing what I need. I don’t know what it is, but that’s what I want.” So I was always lucky that people liked what I play and they would call me up and give me work. I’ve been very fortunate and blessed that I’ve been able to work constantly. I’ve had two or three months off, but it never more than that. I was always right back to work again.

TP: You seem to have figured out how to be pragmatic and inspired at the same time.

RUIZ: I try to be realistic about it. The more things that I have to do, the more I realize that I have to do more work at home to be prepared, even now with the new technology. I’ve got my computer and my keyboard and my music-writing software, and reading manuals and things like that. It’s not affecting my performance, because I play the piano every day. I’ll take a tune every day and play it through all the keys. So I make sure that I’m prepared. I may know a song, but the singer might sing it in a different key. I don’t want to be on the spot and be scuffling. Playing it through all the keys might take half-an-hour or so to do it, but it’s a goal that I’ve set for myself. I used to practice tunes just in one key, but it’s been a while now that if I play a tune, I want to play it in all the keys. I’m doing my writing now on the computer. I just changed over from pencil and paper to now I can put my scores in the computer, and I can change things and print them out.

So technologically, I’ve moved up into the 21st century. But I still have feeling and flavor. I’ve just gotten into this in the last ten years, where musicians like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea and Joe Sample and George Duke and Joe Zawinul were doing these things very long ago. But for at least twenty years I didn’t play anything but acoustic piano. If I played an electric keyboard, it’s because there was no piano in the club. But now, I’m keeping myself up with the new technology in case I have to do something, like a movie score or if I have to do something on Broadway or have to do something that requires me to use this equipment. But I think it’s good that I spent all those years on the acoustic piano. And I won’t make the mistake of going to keyboards and leaving the acoustic piano, because then when you go back to play a gig on the acoustic piano, you find that you might not have the same edge you had when you were playing it every day. I’ve seen that happen to musicians. They were really burning, then they went to the electric keyboards, and when they went back it wasn’t quite as fiery . I think that has to do with just playing on wood without a speaker, when you have to produce the note. That physical thing, that energy is coming from the human body, and that’s all you’ve got. There’s no electricity and no nothing. But I’ve got my keyboard setup and I’m computer-literate now, so I’ve moved up into the 21st century.

Tito Puente was one of the greatest experiences I had musically. I played on about five albums, and I was able to arrange. He showed me a lot of stuff, how to open up my scope as far as arranging is concerned, and he also brought me back to my roots in playing the Latin music. We were very close and became very good friends . He really liked what I was doing and gave me the opportunity to expand. I owe him a lot, and I’m happy that I had a chance to be around such a great person. Hopefully, I’m going to keep growing and playing better and doing my thing.

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For Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s 54th Birthday, a Downbeat Feature From 2015

The singular pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba turns 54 today. I’ve been fortunate to have several opportunities to write about Gonzalo, most recently in 2015, when I spent some time with him and the members of his amazing group, Volcán, in Barcelona. I’ve pasted below that most recent piece (written for Downbeat), which also discusses the circumstances behind his epic CD Suite Caminos.

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On November 24th the quartet Volcán—pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez and percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo, all 52, and electric bassist Jose Armando Gola, 37—convened at Barcelona Conservatory’s L’Auditori for the opening installment of a fortnight of consecutive concerts across Europe. To conclude their 90-minute soundcheck-rehearsal, the drummers launched the dark, elemental rumba beats that bedrock Rubalcaba’s “Sin Punto,” documented on Volcán’s eponymous 2013 CD [5Passion]. Hernandez flowed through endless clave permutations; Hidalgo, unable to hand-strike his six-conga set because of an infected finger, deployed sticks in a way that made them sound like a new instrument; Rubalcaba goosed the dance with darting lines, stacking and signifying upon the rhythms.

“We travel through time,” Hidalgo said shortly thereafter in the dressing room. “Every night, we jump from 1910 to the present, differently every night. It’s one of the most avant-garde groups ever.” This was a spot-on description of the ensuing concert, in which the ensemble synchronously navigated seven Rubalcaba charts with kinetic grace and freewheeling discipline, switching on a dime between ideas suggested by the codes of danzon, son, mambo, guaguanco, rumba, songo and timba. Rubalcaba himself improvised with an orchestral conception, executing harmonically erudite, percolating lines and phantasmagoric shapes on piano and Korg, sometimes at levels of propulsion and metric complexity that transformed him into the ensemble’s third drummer, sometimes at levels of dynamic nuance that evoked conductor Simon Rattle’s encomium that he is “the world’s most gifted pianist.”

“Gonzalo makes even something very complicated very easy,” Hernandez had remarked the previous evening. “He writes transparently, logically, super-precise, putting on paper exactly what he hears in his head.” He observed that, whereas three decades ago in the pathbreaking, Havana-based ensemble Grupo Proyecto that they co-founded in 1984, Rubalcaba “sometimes experimented with a chord or a rhythm at a certain point, now there’s nothing to change. Then, Gonzalo was the centerpiece of everything—the arrangement, the improvisation. Now he shares more. He lets the others help.”

In 1992, Rubalcaba moved from Cuba to the Dominican Republic; in 1996 he moved to Miami. Concurrently, Hernandez migrated to Italy, then settled in New York. They next made music together in 2012, when guitarist Stefan Glass called Rubalcaba, Hernandez, Hidalgo and Gola—Rubalcaba’s frequent partner since 2001—for a Miami recording session.

On the second day, Hidalgo approached Rubalcaba—they first met in 1980, when the conguero came to Havana with the Puerto Rican group Batacumbele—with a proposition: “We need to do a quartet, and its name is going to be The Fourth Volcano.”

“That was it,” Hernandez confirmed. “We didn’t have to say it twice.”

“My response was, ‘Of course we should do that,’” Rubalcaba said. He immediately began to coalesce repertoire. “The idea is to propose a new music—to play original pieces but also versions of important compositions in the history of Latin music, whether Cuban, Brazilian, North American or Mexican, that contain both the past and the way we see it now. Everyone has a strong relationship with jazz vocabulary and a deep connection to Cuban and Afro-Cuban roots, not only musically but spiritually and as a religion. Everyone has space to expose what they can do individually, but at the same time the band works as a band. Our purpose is musical creation, not a commercial thing.”

Volcán was Rubalcaba’s third recording for 5Passion, which he co-founded in 2010 with Gary Galimidi, the CEO of Gables Engineering, a South Florida-based manufacturer of avionic controls. They met that March, after Rubalcaba played a concert in Homestead, Florida, supporting the 2008 CD Avatar, which featured a New York-based quintet comprising Yosvany Terry on alto saxophone, Michael Rodriguez on trumpet, Matt Brewer on bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums. It was his 14th album for Blue Note, concluding a relationship that began in 1990 with Discovery: Live in Montreux, a trio date with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian that introduced Rubalcaba’s pianistic and recompositional brilliance and abiding soulfulness to the international jazz community.

Circa 2008, Rubalcaba was looking for “people who provoke me to react differently. It’s better they use their own speech, even if they phrase differently than a Cuban musician. I become a reference, an example in some way that seduces them to trust what I am doing. I was thinking that New York is home to a new generation of players, many of them friends, even roommates, with a new voice that results from a new technology, a new way to listen to music, to get information, to dress, to live.”

For Terry, Rubalcaba’s musical production has consequentially influenced the contemporary New York sound. “I hear Gonzalo’s influence in many people, not just Cuban musicians or pianists,” he said. “Musicians I work with have Gonzalo’s CDs in their iPhones or iPads or iPods. Pianists are looking at the sound he produces, his choice of notes and rhythms, the musical decisions for his compositions. Drummers are fascinated because of the challenge he poses. He played the instrument, and all the parts make sense—he writes specifically for the exact register, color and timbre he’s looking for.”

“I did piano for a career, but the truth is that I have a percussionist inside,” Rubalcaba clarified. His father, pianist Guillermo Rubalcaba, ran rehearsals at home that included master percussionists Tata Güines and Changuito, from whom Gonzalo learned the Afro-diasporic codes by example. He “showed aptitude” for timbal, claves and bongos, and received a drum for his sixth birthday. “I saw the drum, sat down, took the stick, and played.” Soon thereafter, Hernandez recalls, his parents called him to the television to see Rubalcaba, in short pants, drumming in Guillermo Rubalcaba’s family band.

“I had many different simultaneous references,” Rubalcaba said. He soaked up folkloric chants, dances and rituals in his Centro Havana neighborhood, and heard his father’s LPs of jazz, Cuban music and the Euro-canon. His older brother, Jesus, practiced Liszt, Chopin and Beethoven on a daily basis. “But percussion had a special space. It wasn’t just for colors and flourishes. It was a first plane, a first voice. When I write music, I see myself playing the drum part and the percussion part. The percussion is essential in the musical speech I am trying to put together, so the percussionists in my band will be pushed to do a lot.”

Rubalcaba pushed hard to bring Avatar to fruition. Although Blue Note head Bruce Lundvall was a life-long friend, the label, itself circumscribed by sagging music industry economics, had long ceased to provide adequate infrastructural support for tours or album marketing, and was reluctant to provide Rubalcaba a budget sufficient to actualize the project to his exacting standards. Still, Rubalcaba decided, as the saying goes, to turn lemons into lemonade. “In Cuba we had nothing, not even instruments in good shape or places to rehearse, and were able to execute the music at a high level,” he said. “I realized I could spend my own money, or find an investor. The important thing was to connect with new musicians.”

When he met Galimidi, with Avatar concluded, Rubalcaba figured he had fulfilled his contractual obligations to Blue Note and was looking for a change. So was Galimidi, who “had been saving my money and was thinking about getting into some other business.” A long-standing fan of Rubalcaba and a self-described “frustrated musician” who “plays badly,” he’d purchased 20 tickets to the Homestead concert for his employees. One, who had known Rubalcaba in Cuba, asked the pianist to receive his boss backstage. Galimidi recalls that he shook Rubalcaba’s hand and received an autographed piano key; in Rubalcaba’s version, they didn’t meet. Whatever the case, the employee called Rubalcaba on the following day to extend Galimidi’s invitation for lunch. Himself an habitue of flight simulators and one-time owner of a high-octane Porsche, Rubalcaba accepted.

Their connection was immediate. Galimidi recalls Rubalcaba’s comment “that the money had dried up, which I understand—you put in a tremendous amount of money and don’t get much out.” He continued: “You need to be doing this for some reason other than return on investment. When I woke up the next day, I realized that I could fund his records, I’d learn about music and recording, and my wife, who is a graphic designer, could be involved. To me, it was a no-brainer, because Gonzalo can produce the shit out of anything. You just give him money, a studio, and help him call the people.

“I want people to know who he is, that what he does is divine. He plays, and he grabs your soul. You have no choice but to listen.”

Upon hearing Galimidi’s proposal to partner on a label that would allow him “to make music without restriction” and eventually to own his masters,” Rubalcaba recalled, “I thought I was dreaming.” After an offer of “very significant money” for Rubalcaba’s entire Blue Note catalog fell through, they spent $5,000 to release him from a provision that gave Blue Note a three-album option over a 56½-month span.

Then they discussed names. “Gonzalo suggested taking number-5, cinco, and putting the word ‘passion’ (which in Spanish has one ‘s’) behind it,” Galimidi said. “If you say it in Spanish, it’s ‘syncopation.’ Gonzalo was raised in santeria, and the number of his saint, Oshún, is 5. My wife developed the butterfly-like figure in the logo, which we trademarked, so that you can read it as either one ‘s’ or two.”

“It has been an amazing experience,” Rubalcaba said. “It’s so difficult to find someone who believes in the human being as a person, not in the numbers. I believe in Gary totally, and I know he believes in everything I do. We win together and we lose together.”

As if to signify on these sentiments, Rubalcaba launched 5Passion with (Faith), a solo meditation on the classical and folkloric canons of Cuba and the points at which they intersect with jazz. He plays with restraint and refined intention, honing in on lyric essences. He followed it with XXI Century, a double CD with Brewer and Gilmore, joined on various selections by guitarist Lionel Loueke, conguero Pedrito Rodriguez and drummer Ignacio Berroa, who played on all of Rubalcaba’s trio and quartet albums between 1998 (Inner Voyage) and 2006 (Paseo). Fortified by several days of immersive rehearsal and studio time, they stretch out on pieces by Rubalcaba, Loueke and Brewer, and find fresh paths into works by Bley, Bill Evans and Lennie Tristano.

On last year’s Suite Caminos, Rubalcaba unleashes the full measure of his powers on an eight-section recitative scored for alto saxophone (Will Vinson), tenor saxophone (Seamus Blake), trumpet (Alex Sipiagin), guitar (Adam Rogers), bass (Brewer) and drums (Ernesto Simpson), a coro of high-level Miami-based Yoruba practitioners, and himself on piano, synths, and church organ. He refracts the rhythms and melodies of specific Yoruba deities/orishas that, as author Ned Sublette writes in the program notes, “embody complex natural forces,” each “with its own gender and personality” and “its own set of multiple selves.” “The music was fearsomely difficult,” Vinson said, implying how Rubalcaba’s narrative represents the multi-dimensionality of his subjects. “We learned the parts over four or five days in the studio, but trying to feel your part, and fit it in with the rhythms, and navigate the sound and articulation in unison with Seamus and Alex made it 10 times more difficult.”

Suite Caminos gestated in 1995, after Rubalcaba completed Antigua, his first systematic exploration of Yoruban roots. During the ensuing 18 years, he worked not only with his own diverse bands, but performed Baroque, Impressionist and Spanish piano music and collaborated on tango projects with Richard Galliano and Al DiMiola, pan-Brazilian concerts with João Bosco and Ivan Lins, and on two albums of boleros—both instant classics—with Charlie Haden.

“I took risks to develop myself both as a piano player and a composer,” Rubalcaba said. “I put myself in contact with different spaces and musical visions, with people who wanted me to do things their way. Even when you are not totally comfortable with their ideas, you can always learn. Life is a palette with many tastes and flavors and colors and moments. If one moment is not sweet or illuminated, you try to be part of the darkness and force yourself to turn it into something bright. Even early in my career, when I had media exposure and Blue Note spent a lot to give me the privilege to play before large audiences at big venues around the world, I never was drunk with the applause. When I got home, I’d try to reset everything. I saw reviews or heard people say, perhaps with reason, ‘Well, he just played like that guy, he played fast,’ and so on. I considered every reaction, even when people didn’t express it in the best way. When you decide to live like that, the process is really long. You can feel really alone.

“So this work didn’t come to me like a revelation: ‘Ok, now I am in position to do this.’ It emerged from accumulating tools and reference and knowledge from a half-century of love, memory, and experience, so that I felt strong enough to do it as I did. In each tune, the chant talks about a specific issue of life for a human being.”

In Terry’s view, Suite Caminos “could only come from someone who immersed himself in the religious traditions that still exist in Cuba and prevail in the countryside. It contains a depth of spiritual understanding that speaks to a larger community than just musicians. I believe it’s the same spiritual feeling that was behind Mozart or Bach with the St. Matthew’s Passion or with the Requiem, and all of the great composers of sacred music.”

Rubalcaba explicates the opening selection, “Sendero De Aliento”—scored for vocals, Afro-Cuban percussion with batas, and church organ—as “talking about the very fine line between life and death,” he said. “The organ for me spiritually represents a lot of Christian and Catholic sound. When I visit cities like New York or Barcelona or Madrid, I try to visit churches, and often I’ve had the opportunity to see someone playing.” As an instance, he recalled being the only corporeal attendee at a female organist’s performance of a contemporary piece in St. Thomas Episcopal Church in midtown Manhattan. “I believe that the saints were also there, and the spirits that I know as part of my family tradition—exactly what we are not commonly able to see,” he said. “I try to connect with that.”

In the wake of his father’s death in September, Rubalcaba is the last surviving member of his immediate family, no longer in a position to glean counsel and friendship from Lundvall, who died in May, or Haden, who died in July 2014. “I felt alone, but it’s not true,” he said. This notion is the animating imperative driving Charlie, on which Rubalcaba joins Vinson, Rodgers, Brewer and Gilmore through melodic, inflamed-soul treatments of his reharmonized charts of eight Haden originals and his own “Transparence.” The latter piece appears on the concurrently issued Tokyo Adagio (Impulse!), documenting an inspired 2005 Rubalcaba-Haden duo performance at Tokyo’s Blue Note.

“We created an environment for Charlie’s spirit to be there, rather than duplicating anything Charlie did on some day,” Rubalcaba said. “When we were recording, I was touring, talking, laughing with Charlie. We have to learn to continue life without the people we love, at least without seeing them every day. You have to find strong convictions about other ideas. This is what keeps you working, dreaming, living, playing.”

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For Bunky Green’s 82nd Birthday, A Downbeat Feature From 2011 about Him and Rudresh Mahanthappa

In honor of the great alto saxophonist Bunky Green’s 82nd birthday today, here’s a feature piece that ran in DownBeat in 2011, profiling him and Rudresh Mahanthappa, Green’s one-time student with whom he was performing the previous behind the CD Apex, on the Pi label.

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Bunky Green-Rudresh Mahanthappa, Downbeat Article, 2011:

On the surface, they make an odd couple. Vernice “Bunky” Green, Jr., 75, Director of Jazz Studies at the University of North Florida, is African-American, born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to parents who migrated from Arkansas and Alabama during the Great Depression and settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Rudresh Mahanthappa, 39, of South Indian descent, is the first-generation son of a physics professor in Boulder, Colorado. But on Apex [Pi], their co-led 2010 release, comprising a suite of tunes that both contributed to the project, the two alto saxophonists play so synchronously that it’s a challenging proposition to tell who’s doing what.

Prodded by Jason Moran on piano, Francois Moutin on bass, and either Jack DeJohnette or Damion Reid on drums, Mahanthappa and Green blow like duelling brothers, each projecting a double-reed quality in their tones, Mahanthappa’s slightly “darker” and tenoristic, Green’s slightly more nasal and oboeish. Both work with complex note-groupings, flying over barlines while always landing on the one. Though the feeling is ‘free,” both work within strongly conceptualized structures, and are thoroughly grounded in “inside” playing and the art of tension-and-release, working with fluid harmonic structures that provide space to soar within the form. “It’s surprising what they came up with,” DeJohnette summed up. “They stimulated each other to the higher levels of creativity.”

Two days into a four-night CD-release run at the Jazz Standard in October, the collaborators convened at Green’s hotel. Green recalled their first meeting, in 1991 or 1992, when Mahanthappa—then a Berklee undergraduate to whom Joe Viola, his sax teacher, sensing an affinity, loaned a copy of Green’s 1979 recording Places We’ve Never Been—presented the elder saxman with a tape. “Sounds beautiful,” Green told him. “There’s only a few of us out here trying to think like this.’”

At the time, a short list of those “few” included M-Base movers and shakers Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, who had discovered Green independently as ‘70s teenagers, and subsequently bonded in New York over their shared enthusiasm for his approach, poring over Coleman’s extensive cassette archive of location performances. Many years before, in Chicago, where Green settled in 1960, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman and Henry Threadgill, then young aspirants, had also paid close attention.

“The level of expertise he displayed in his musicianship and expression were very clear from the moment I heard him,” said Threadgill, after witnessing the group’s final night at the Standard. He recalled a concert, perhaps in 1962, in which Green played pieces “structured in the way of free jazz, the so-called avant-garde category.” He continued: “Bunky was formidable, no one to fool with. I can’t think of another alto player at a comparable level in Chicago at the time.”

DeJohnette cited the “urgency, commanding presence and confidence” of Green’s early ‘60s playing. “Everybody would talk about Bunky,” he said, noting that Green had once brushed off his request to sit in during a gig at a South Side club. “He was legendary even then.”

For Osby, Green was less a stylistic influence than “a guru type figure who assured me I’m on the right track, gave me the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval that what I was doing was the right thing, not to let detractors sway me from my mission, that I was put here to establish new goals and force new paths.” Ten years later, Mahanthappa would respond similarly.

“I was around lots of tenor players who sounded like Coltrane and Brecker, and alto players wanting to sound like Kenny Garrett,” he recalled. “Bunky’s voice didn’t sound like anyone else. I needed that affirmation that it was ok to be an individual. I heard things—interesting intervallic approaches—that maybe I couldn’t play yet, but was thinking about. But I also heard the tradition in the music.”

Mahanthappa placed his hand at a 90 degree angle. “I often describe what I do as, ‘This is Charlie Parker,’” he said, then moved his hand to 105 degrees and continued, “and this is me. It’s all the same material, just rearranged a little bit—a different perspective. I heard Bunky doing that at the highest level.”

At the time, Mahanthappa, spurred by a trip to India with a Berklee student ensemble to begin exploring musical paths by which to express identity, was absorbing an album by Kadri Golpalnath, an alto saxophonist from Southern India who, like Green, had systematically worked out inflections, fingerings and embouchure techniques to elicit the idiomatic particulars of Carnatic classical music. As important, he took conceptual cues from such Coleman recordings as Dao of Mad Phat, Seasons of Renewal, and Strata Institute. “Steve extrapolated African rhythm as I aspired to do with Indian rhythm and melody, not playing West African music, but doing something new with well-established, ancient material from a different culture,” he said. “It was an amazing template. Steve doesn’t need a kora player or a Ghanaian drum line to play with him, and I don’t need a tabla or mridangam in my quartet. We’re playing modern American improvised music.”

[BREAK]

In 1996, the third of his four years in Chicago, Mahanthappa invited Green to guest with his quartet for a weekend at the Green Mill. Green declined. “It was more about trying to do something special than about the music,” Mahanthappa reflected. According to altoist Jeff Newell, a rehearsal partner who had studied formally with Green, Mahanthappa “had developed a lot of the things he’s doing now,” projecting them with a “bright, shave-your-head sound,” as though, a local peer-grouper quipped, “somebody threw lighter fluid on Bunky.”

An opportunity for collaboration arose thirteen years later, when the producers of “Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz” approached Mahanthappa—now leading several ensembles devoted to the application of Western harmony to South Indian melodies and beat cycles, each with highly structured, meticulously unfolding repertoire specific to their instrumentation and musical personalities—to present a concert at Millennium Park. In addition to his blistering sax and rhythm quartet with pianist Vijay Iyer, to whom Coleman had introduced him in 1996 (he reciprocally sidemanned for years in Iyer’s own quartet, and they continue to co-lead the duo Raw Materials), Mahanthappa had recently conceptualized Indo-Pak Coalition, an alto-tabla (Dan Weiss)-guitar (Rez Abbasi) trio, documented on Apti [Pi]; and a plugged-in, ragacentric quintet called Samdhi, with electric guitar (David Gilmore)-electric bass (Rich Brown)-drums (Damion Reid)-mridangam (Anand Ananthakrishnan). Then, too, he was involved in a pair of two-alto projects: the quintet Dual Identity, which he co-leads with Steve Lehman, a fellow Colemanite (The General [Clean Feed]), and the Dakshima Ensemble, a collaboration with Golparnath, in which Abassi, bassist Carlo DeRosa and drummer Royal Hartigan meld with Golparnath’s sax-violin-mridangam trio, to perform hybrid refractions of Carnatic music, documented on the widely publicized CD, Kinsmen [Pi].

“They wanted to present Dakshima and add some Chicago musicians, which sounded like a disaster and was budgetarily impossible,” Mahanthappa said. “But they thought Bunky was a great idea. Bunky made it clear that he didn’t want to play 7s and 11s and 13s—it was more about trying to find a comfortable place that would highlight what we both do. It was interesting to compose a blues (“Summit”) and a Rhythm changes tune (“Who”) that sounds like the same compositional voice I’ve done over the last decade. I’m trying to learn how to relinquish control of the situation and just say, ‘Whatever happens, happens.’”

Two of Green’s new tunes, “Eastern Echoes” and “Journey,” reflect his abiding interest in North African scales and tonalities, and another, “Rainier and Theresia,” is the latest addition to a consequential lexicon of searing ballad features. “I didn’t want to get involved in anything with a lot of changes,” Green said. “I don’t feel that music too much now. Our things kind of hover on the edge. There’s all kinds of room in what we write, and we both like that you can take it where you want to.

“Like Rudresh, I do a lot of analyzing. Maybe I play a phrase, and some experience comes up from my life or I see some beauty in it, and I decide to keep developing it, and it leads into a song, or pathways I can utilize on whatever I’m working on. To me, a tune can’t be just pretty. It has to fit into the way I feel about life, so I can express it. The blues, too. It’s not just a word, it’s a feeling. It’s something that you have, and right away, if you play the right notes, the feeling will be there. It’s bending notes. It’s moaning. How are you going to play about pain unless you’ve experienced pain? And how are you going to package it like Charlie Parker, who just cried over his horn? Those aren’t notes. It’s a man’s life.”

Green discovered Bird in his early teens, which coincided with the release of his studio sides for Dial and Savoy. He got them all. By the time he was 17, he said, “I could play everything Bird recorded in terms of imitating. I didn’t know what the hell I was playing. I was just stretching, trying to find the notes.”

Around this time, Green contracted viral pneumonia. “A doctor came to the house, and I overheard him telling my mother that he didn’t think I’d make it,” he recalled. “I decided that if I did live through it, all my friends would be ahead of me, so I should practice just in case—I could hear the ones in my head, so I didn’t need my instrument. I took the hardest songs I could think of—‘Cherokee,’ ‘All The Things You Are,’ ‘Just One Of Those Things’—and transposed them mentally through all 12 keys. The people my mother worked for brought in a famous doctor, who gave me new drugs, which knocked it out, but not until I experienced the white light at the end of the tunnel, the light closing, then fighting for air to come back, the light opening up again. When I was able to get back to my instrument, I was able to play everything I’d practiced.”

While attending Milwaukee Teachers College, Green worked locally with pianists Willie Pickens and Billy Wallace, walking the bar on rhythm-and-blues jobs, soaking up Gene Ammons’ spare, vocalistic approach to ballads like “These Foolish Things” and Lester Young’s poetic treatment of “I’m Confessin’.” He had New York on his radar, and first visited in 1957, staying in the Harlem Y across the street from Smalls Paradise, where Lou Donaldson held a steady gig. He sat in with Max Roach’s quintet with Sonny Rollins and Kenny Dorham on the sayso of Wallace, then Roach’s band pianist. “I was always able to play fast, especially at that time, so I was able to hang in and do it,” he said. That fall, Donaldson recommended him to Charles Mingus.

The audition produced a second transformative moment, after Mingus told him, “the first tune we’ll play is ‘Pithecanthropus Erectus.’” Green continued: “I sat there, ‘Hmm, pithecan…’ ‘You know what that means, man?’ That’s the way Mingus talked. ‘No, I really don’t know.’ ‘That means the first man to stand erect.’ He said, ‘Play this’ and played something like BINK-DINK-DOM-DEEENNGG. I said, ‘Have you got that written down so I can see it?’ Then he went off on me—if he wrote it down, I’d never play it right. I said, ‘Then play it again.’ I was able to hear it and play it back, and he smiled, and moved on.

“Mingus validated how I was starting to feel about the music—that there must be a systematic way to break free of the major-and-minor system. He’d have you do things like take the neck off your horn and blow into the bottom part to get a very low timbre on ‘Foggy Day’ because he wanted you to sound like a ship out in the harbor.”

Mingus drove Green cross-country to a run at San Francisco’s Black Hawk. On the return trip, he dropped him off in Chicago so that he could attend to family matters in Milwaukee, with the expectation that Green would make his way to New York for more club dates and a recording. But Green stayed home, imbued with notions of the freedom principle, with the late ‘50s innovations of John Coltrane as his lodestar. Green continued these explorations in Chicago, where—unable “to afford New York at the time”—he moved in 1960. He quickly made his presence felt on a scene that he describes as “very fast, but more laid back than New York, so you could do yourself in a less frantic environment.” He cut a straight-ahead sextet date for Exodus with Jimmy Heath, Donald Byrd, Wynton Kelly, Larry Ridley and Jimmy Cobb, and a quartet side for Vee-Jay with Wallace, bassist Donald Garrett, and drummer Bill Erskine. He frequently partnered with Garrett, on “out of the box” projects, including an exploratory trio that did a concert—Threadgill attended—on which they “just started playing and tried to interact—that was the whole gig.”

A third transformative moment occurred in 1964, when Green, in Morocco on a State Department tour after winning “Best Instrumentalist” and “All Around Musician” awards at that year’s Notre Dame Jazz Festival, traveled “through the back woods” to hear a performance. “We saw three musicians sitting on the floor in a circle,” he recalled. “One guy had a bagpipe, another had a small violin, and the third played a small drum that he put his hand into and played on top. I became mesmerized by the bagpipe player’s skill. It blew my mind, because he put together what I was hearing in my head. No chords. There was a drone of a fifth, and you played around that fifth and resolved it within yourself. Later, I started studying it and building from it, pretty much the way Rudresh visited his culture and started drawing on it. I’m not trying to copy the sound. I’m trying to get into the essence of their phrasing and how they circle the open fourth and fifth tonal centers that they use. I had to give up the standard jazz lines in order to do that.”

Ten years later, Steve Coleman, then 18, heard Green—at this point heading a newly-formed Jazz Studies department at Chicago State University—either at Ratso’s on the North Side or Cadillac Bob’s, around the corner from his South Side house. “Bunky worked out patterns that sounded calculated, like a deliberate effort to get to his own thing,” Coleman stated. “As a result, his playing is very clear, precise, direct, and I could dig into it, try to analyze it and find out what it was. I wanted him to show me what he was doing, so I asked for a lesson, but Bunky turned me down. He told me, ‘I only give lessons to cats who need lessons, and you don’t. You need to go to New York.’ So I decided I’d listen and grab what I could.

“Although I noticed the patterns early on, Bunky used certain devices that intrigued me. He developed a special fingering to get a hiccup quality that you hear in North African singers. He also picked up a lot of augmented second intervals, as well as quartile stuff and pentatonics, from that part of the world. Whereas in those countries, the pitches stay pretty much the same, Bunky moved the intervals around in different ways. To me the blues is basically a modal music, without a lot of progression. Bird managed to put sophisticated progressions in the blues that gave it motion, but let it sound like blues. Coltrane figured out a way to move the music that influenced him from Africa and India. Bunky figured out how to do this with the North African-Middle Eastern vibe.”

[BREAK]

Along with what he does on Apex, Mahanthappa’s recent sideman work in DeJohnette’s new group with David Fiuczynski, George Colligan and Jerome Harris, and in Danilo Perez’ 21st Century Dizzy project (there are several open-ended Perez-Mahanthappa duos on Providencia [Mack Avenue], from this year), may go some ways towards countering a critique that his musical production—particularly the 2006 release Codebook [Pi], comprising original pieces constructed intervals drawn from Fibonacci equations, and Mother Tongue [Pi], on which the compositions draw from melodic transcriptions of Indian-Americans responding, in their native dialect, to the question, “Do you speak Indian?”—is overly cerebral and insufficiently soulful.

“Everyone I look up to is simultaneously right brain and left brain, to use a dated term, or simultaneously intellectual and seat-of-the-pants instinctive,” Mahanthappa said. “Bartok played with Fibonacci equations. Bach played with Golden Section. Even Dufay’s motets, if you pick them apart, have a somewhat mathematical, formal approach. ‘Giant Steps’ and ‘Central Park West’ are math jazz. A lot of non-Western music has a foot in math as well. A lot of algorithmic thought goes into the way South Indian beat cycles are constructed and played; when the players solo, they know exactly where to start this polyrhythmic thing so it lands at a certain spot two minutes later.

Throughout the recording, and on the bonus video clips offered as value added with an Apex download, Moran prods the flow into unexpected, “right brain” directions. He first recorded with Green on the 2004 date Another Place [Label Bleu], produced by Coleman, who persuaded Green to use him instead of the esteemed master bebop master pianist Green had asked for. “I wanted to hear someone interact with Bunky who wouldn’t just lay down a carpet for him to play over,” Coleman said. “Jason was one of the few piano players I could think of who had enough of the stuff Bunky wanted to hear—the sensibility of how to play a ballad, and so on—but could throw him some curve balls, push him in his thing so the album would represent something like the way he plays live.

“There’s a wild element, an abandon in Bunky’s playing. He lets his feelings out. It was there early on—he’s one of those cats that got it young. He has a very strong embouchure, and his pitch is very centered, his alto tone is crystal-clear, nothing muscly about it. But he does false-fingerings to offset this, to get more rawness in his sound. He plays in the upper register without pressing the octave key, so he gets a throaty split tone quality, an overtone sound, holding the pitch right in between the upper and lower registers, which is how an ancient Greek instrument called the aulos is described.”

Moran described his strategies. “When Bunky gets into his own language, I comp behind him in a way that uses some of what I gleaned from McCoy Tyner, not the chords or voicings, but the power,” he said. “He gets to an angular sound that kind of free-floats up into the stratosphere, and what’s attractive is that just when you think he has no further to go, there’s like another mile and a half, whether way up into the top of the instrument, or into deeper levels of rawness.”

Discussing Mahanthappa’s qualities, Moran referenced an old video game called Punchout. “You’d press ‘Body Blow’ and it said, ‘Body blow! Body blow!” he laughed, swinging his arms back and forth like a pendulum. “Or like Neo punching in Matrix, where you saw these multiple arms hitting the same spot. Rudresh has that kind of rapid fire, and when I play with him, I punctuate and jab. It isn’t just that he plays really quick ideas, but his tone and attack is very different from Bunky’s—more direct, while Bunky slides more.”

Both of Mahanthappa’s recent employers note his open mind and fierce, unmediated execution as a selling point. “Rudresh does things that remind me of a little kid, like, ‘Let’s go and play,’” Perez said, cosigning Moran’s analogy. “When he develops a line, there’s much excitement and raw energy, but he also improvises with great clarity.”

“There was a lot of commotion about Rudresh,” DeJohnette remarked. “He gets a sort of Indian flute or Arabic nai sound on the saxophone, and I’ve been interested in Indian scales and ragas and rhythms since the ‘60s, so I thought his sensibility—and the rawness he brings—would work out for my music.”

“I’ve been dying to play with Danilo and Jack forever,” Mahanthappa said. “There’s a certain validation in working with them, as well as Bunky. At Berklee or when I lived in Chicago, I was inspired when people who I thought were authentic, regardless of jazz genre, would say, ‘Yeah, man, keep doing what you’re doing.’”

Green himself intends to devote a greater proportion of the second half of his eighth decade to performing than has been his custom since the ‘60s.

“I’ve never been desperate about getting ahead,” he said. “All I ever wanted was some recognition for my place in history. I believe in my heart that I’m responsible for a stylistic thing that spread all around the country, and nobody really knew the source. That’s the only thing I’ve regretted, but now I seem to be getting credit. It always took someone else to motivate and push me. I’m not an aggressive person, and unless you’re aggressive you become complacent and don’t move. Maybe it would have been better for me if I had been, because I would be quite established now. But I’m going to keep pushing in terms of playing more and getting more exposure—and we’ll see what happens.”

[—30—]

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For Bass Maestro Richard Davis’ 87th Birthday, A WKCR Interview From 1993

Richard Davis, one of the great virtuosos of the contrabass in jazz, turns 87 today. I had the privilege of hosting the maestro on WKCR in August 1993 — the transcript appears below. I wish we’d had a little more time, so we could have spoken more about the ’60s and ’70s, not to mention his years with Sarah Vaughan, but I’m glad to be able to share his testimony about the Chicago scene that formed him.

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Richard Davis, WKCR, August 18, 1993:

 

TP: Richard Davis is one of the many gifted musicians who emerged out of Chicago onto the national scene in the 1960s. You’re a musician who has covered both the jazz and the classical areas. Does your orientation toward both idioms go back to your early education on the instrument in Chicago?

RD: Definitely. Because my high school teacher, Walter Dyett, Walter Henry Dyett, had that type of background himself, and he caught on a universal way. His approach was total universal . . .

TP: He was a concert violinist, I believe.

RD: A concert violinist. Also he played banjo in Erskine Tate’s band. And he played also piano. So his background himself entailed, you know, music of all types, and he encouraged and taught his students to be that way.

TP: Now, he was the music teacher at DuSable High School.

RD: DuSable High School, right.

TP: And many, many professional musicians of note, jazz soloists and people in other areas came out of there.

RD: Oh yes.

TP: Who were some of the people you heard there in your years . . . ?

RD: Okay. When you went to that school, even as a freshman, you were in awe of the people who had gone there before you in music. They were very popular and very successful, so you knew that you had some kind of shoe to fit into. Amongst them was Dinah Washington. Milt Hinton had gone to the previous DuSable . . .

TP: Phillips High, I think.

RD: He went to Wendell Phillips. And DuSable, when it was built, was I think called the New Wendell Phillips, but then they changed it to DuSable, which was a very prominent name in Chicago . . .

TP: The founder of Chicago, Jean Baptiste DuSable.

RD: Yeah, he was the first one to settle.

TP: Milt Hinton, I think, came up under Major N. Clark Smith, who had been the bandmaster at Phillips High, I believe.

RD: See, that’s information that you’re giving me that’s something new. I don’t know. But that sounds very logical. And then there was Gene Ammons, there was Johnny Griffin, there was Clifford Jordan, Joseph Jarman, Leroy Jenkins — you name them. John Gilmore. I can go on and on, and not even remembering half of them who are very prominent today. But that was the kind of thing he built, was a pure professional attitude toward the music, and his approach to the music led you to believe that anything you wanted to do was up to you.

TP: He also organized, I think, bands outside of the school, and had kids join the union and actually work as professional musicians.

RD: Oh yeah. I worked in his band.

TP: Tell me about that. What kind of material were they doing?

RD: Well, mostly the band that I worked with for him was mostly for dance, ballroom dancing. But he would play Jazz charts, and the people would dance because it was a big band. I worked with another band around there, too. Eddie King had a band of that same type. But Walter Dyett’s band I worked in, and . . .

Walter Dyett never left the teaching podium. I mean, when you were around him, you just sat and listened, because you knew you were going to grab something that would be meaningful for the rest of your life. Even after I left high school, I mean for the next 20 years . . . Let’s see. He died, I think, in 1968; I graduated from high school in ’48. For the next 20 years I was learning things from him. He was visiting New York. You’d see him anywhere. And he was always telling you something that was directed toward a positive attitude toward what you what you were wanting to accomplish on your instrument. He would have us sit down in the band room for twenty minutes without even touching our instrument, and we would talk about things that we wanted to get accomplished. Mind power, he called it. It was fantastic.

TP: Did he select you to be a bass player, or were you playing bass when you entered as a freshman?

RD: No, no. I asked him could I study bass with him.

TP: What was the fascination for you? Why did you want to be a bass player?

RD: Well, my dearest friend at the time, Ernest Jones, was in the band. And every day we would walk home together, because he lived in the same direction that I lived in, and he’d tell me about all these things that he was doing in the band room, about counting bars and rests, and recognizing this . . . And I used to stand over him while he was practicing at home, just to watch what he was doing. And I said, “I’ve got to get into this.” And I was always fascinated by the bass anyway. So I just went up to the band room and asked could I get in.

TP: Did you have the opportunity to listen to records when you were a kid . . . ?

RD: Yeah!

TP: . . . or see bands around Chicago? I mean, there was so much music around Chicago in the 1930s or 1940s.

RD: Well, see, there wasn’t any television. You know, you couldn’t sit at home and get all this. So what you’d do, you’d go . . . In my case, it was only four blocks from me. I would go to the Regal Theatre. And every band you want to mention would come into the Regal Theatre, and you saw them live. And you could stay in there for as long as you could stay in there. Because you’d just pay one admission there, and you’d stay around the clock if you could afford the time.

TP: And did you sometimes?

RD: Oh yeah! And then you . . .

TP: Who did you go to see?

RD: Well, all the great bands. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jay McShann, Lucky Millinder — just any band that you could mention was in that theatre.

TP: Did you have a chance, say, to see Jimmy Blanton?

RD: Well, it’s funny you mention that. Because he died in 1942, and I was 12 years old at the time. Now, it’s possible I heard him, but I really can’t recall. There were some older friends I had at that time who would take me to their homes and listen to records. In particular there was Karl Byrom that I would hang out with. He was in school at an older age than the normal high school student, because he had TB and he could never finish the term, so he was delayed. Which was to my benefit, because he kind of took me under his wing, and played all these fantastic records he had at home with Oscar Pettiford, Milton Hinton, Jimmy Blanton, you know.

TP: And these were the people who initially inspired you as a bassist.

RD: Oh yeah. It was a congregation of good feelings. Because you’d just sit there and listen to these older musicians play. I remember . . . I was a freshman when Johnny Griffin was a senior, and I remember watching him on the football field playing a clarinet, you know, in the marching band and stuff like that. And I remember Lionel Hampton heard him at what we called a booster concert, you know, to start off with the football season, and the jazz band would play, the school jazz band — and Lionel Hampton was the guest artist. And he heard . . . Johnny Griffin stood up and took a solo, and that was it. He took him right out of there. “Hey, you’re the one.”

TP: Now, you’re the generation that came under the sway of bebop, and you were a teenager when those records were coming out. I remember Clifford Jordan telling me about hearing “Red Cross,” I think . . .

RD: Uh-huh.

TP: He didn’t know it was “Red Cross,” and then he found it out — but that really just took him all the way in that direction. Did records like that have a big impact on you?

RD: Yeah, well, I hated it when I first heard it. Because I was just beginning to learn how to play boogie-woogie bass lines, and things of the swing era, you know, learning tunes off of records, and here comes Charlie Parker — I said, “God!” But it was lucky for me that it came at that time, because it caused me to develop. I remember playing a 78 record over and over again of “My Old Flame,” trying to find out what Tommy Potter was doing with the bass line.

TP: Were you listening to the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band with Ray Brown . . . ?

RD: Yeah! And Charlie Mingus. Listened to the whole thing.

TP: Everything.

RD: I mean, it got so that once I got involved, knowing I wanted to do that, which was from day one, I started going back and reading all of the old jazz magazines, doing research on the roots of the music I was wanting to play. And I started listening to, you know, an enormous collection of music, go to everybody’s house and exchange records. And I remember those Jimmy Blanton records I took from my friend’s house and went to a recording studio and had them copied from one disk to another. I still have those.

TP: Now, I recollect reading a profile of you in Down Beat from maybe 25 years ago where you talked about playing the Calumet City circuit . . .

RD: Heh . . . Yeah!

TP: . . . and doing all these gigs in Chicago after high school . . . It’s just such a full range of experience you’d get in Chicago. It sounds like you were doing your classical training . . .

RD: Mmm-hmm.

TP: . . . and playing blues and boogie-woogie gigs, and bebop gigs, and jump bands and the whole thing.

RD: Mmm-hmm.

TP: Is that how it was in Chicago?

RD: Yeah. Chicago was wide-open. I mean, you could go to jam sessions, like, five or six o’clock in the morning. That’s when they started, breakfast jam sessions. That’s when I met the great Ike Day and Wilbur Ware, playing at these sessions. So you had all that music just flowing around you. It was just wide open.

I should go back and say that my mother also had brought in records from New Orleans. I had records made in 1904 of, you know, different people who had recorded on RCA-Victor. And she was, of course, a contemporary of Louis Armstrong. They were born the same year.

TP: Is she from New Orleans?

RD: Yes. She was from Homewood, Louisiana, which was right outside of New Orleans.

So then you’d have all this exposure! You’d go to the Club DeLisa and hear big bands, shows, everything. You’d hear vocalists, Joe Williams, everything. Then, of course, you would jam with your friends. You’d go to each other’s house, you know . . . I was just looking over some old pictures of mine, because I had to do that to send off for some promo, and I saw a picture (and I’d forgotten I had it) of Sun Ra, Jimmy Ellis, a guy named Charles Hines and myself, right in my house rehearsing.

TP: You’ve mentioned a few names in the last couple of minutes who I’d like you to comment on. The first is Wilbur Ware, who really held sway over all the bassists in Chicago at that particular time, I think.

RD: Yeah, he was the king. He was the king. But the guy I really admired, and thought that he was really the king, because I knew him personally and hung out with him a lot, was Karl Byrom. Now, he was the all-around bassist, very talented. It’s just that his health just didn’t allow him to emerge into, you know, the atmosphere of getting to New York. It reminded me . . . It was almost as if I had my own Jimmy Blanton right in my own high school.

TP: He was that strong.

RD: Oh, he was strong. And all the recordings that Jimmy Blanton made, he knew them note for note, Slam Stewart note for note — and he had his own particular way of doing things. And I just loved him.

TP: Another bassist who was in Chicago a lot at that time, and one of the great masters, was Israel Crosby.

RD: Israel Crosby was another one. Ooh! See, we had all these great bass players around to listen to. Like Eddie Calhoun. Eddie Calhoun was the first one to show me something about the middle part of a tune, that’s called a bridge, and the “Rhythm” changes. And I grasped it very fast, because I already knew triads and chords. And he told me that, and I said, “Man, it. . .” Eddie Calhoun was the first person to order a drink for me in a nightclub. He was with Ahmad Jamal. Because I had gotten to legal age. And he said, “You want a drink?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “What do you drink?” I said, “I don’t know what to drink.” I’ll never forget it, he ordered a burgundy with a ginger ale! [Laughs]

But Eddie Calhoun was a fantastic player. You had Israel Crosby, you had Wilbur Ware, and there was another bass player — I can’t think of his name at the moment. Oh, what was his name? A very short guy.

TP: Leroy Jackson?

RD: No. There was Wilbur Edmonson(?) there, too. He was phenomenal.

TP: We’ll call it to mind in a moment, I’m sure, probably when we’re doing something entirely different. You also mentioned the name of Ike Day, who has recorded I think one session, and you can hardly hear him, so any time I have someone up here who heard him in the flesh I ask them what he sounded like.

RD: Well, let’s see. At the time I heard him, I don’t think I was mature enough to analyze and say what it is that you want me to talk about. But I was fascinated, because I saw this very small, skinny guy approach the drums, while I was playing, and when he started to play it was like a football field. Every person in the audience started saying “Ike Day, Ike Day, Ike Day.” And I looked around, and I got very nervous, because then I knew who it was. And then Wilbur Ware came up with his bass, and we played together, two basses and Ike Day and whoever was in the front line. But I can only estimate that his contemporaries being Max Roach and any other drummer along that line of time. . . I heard that they all . . . when they came to Chicago, that’s where they made tracks to, was to hear Ike Day.

TP: You mentioned Sun Ra as well, and a picture of him in your house. That period of his career has been talked about and written about, but again we haven’t really heard it. Can you talk about what Sun Ra was doing in 1950, ’52 . . . ?

RD: Oh yeah! Well, thank the Lord that he was around. Because I learned a lot from him about not only just music, but about life. And at that time, his name was Sunny Blount. It all goes back to a period in my life where I needed to hear a concept of someone who was individualistic, as he was, who was dynamic in their resolve philosophies; you know, philosophies that I think had been tested by him already. And it was during this period where they wanted to take me into the Korean War and all that crap that I had never heard about. I had never heard the word “Korean” or “Korea” before the war started, and I didn’t think it was my business, heh-heh, to be involved. But Sun Ra was definitely the person to put a cap on that, to tell you philosophically what was happening in the world.

And I remember the first time I met him, the first thing he said to me . . . He said, “I don’t think you’re ready to go to the Moon yet.” That’s the first thing he said to me. And I listened . . . As a matter of fact, I’m going to have some tapes transcribed that I interviewed him when I worked with him in Paris, oh, maybe ten years ago. I have a lot of things that he talked on tape, maybe three hours of it, you know. But that’s one of the projects that I have in mind to get done for historical-archival things that just should be documented, you know. Because his thoughts were just dynamic.

And I had never heard a person talk like him before. My father also was a great talker and a spiritual guider. But then this was a contemporary in the sense of recent thoughts that he penetrated through. That’s why so many people stayed with him, because he was the man.

TP: But he was running rehearsal bands, even at that time, with many of the top young musicians in Chicago (yes?) in the late ’40s , early ’50s?

RD: Well, I don’t know. You can verify that yourself. But my association with him was that he would have meetings every Sunday at his house, talking. And then, if we had a gig, then we’d have a rehearsal for a gig. And I’ll never forget him saying . . . There was a tune I didn’t know that was a very popular standard, and he said, “You should have known that eons of years ago.” He said, “We have to advance towards some other aspect of tunes.” And when he said that to me, with the respect I had for him, I started learning more and more and more tunes as fast as I could, because I came to play with him — I knew I had to perform. It was him I worked with in Calumet City. You mentioned that word; I worked with him in Calumet City.

TP: What was the band? Do you recollect?

RD: I just remember Sun Ra and the drummer. See, a band . . . It was a burlesque house in Calumet City. The bumps and grinds of females, you know. They usually would hire a piano, trumpet and drums, just enough to make it a band. And of course, the musicians are used to playing with a bass player, so they would all chip in ten dollars of their fee, and hire a bass player. And I was a bass player in that particular group. I was going to college at that time, getting off at 4 o’clock in the morning and I had to be in school at 8, you know. But it was nothing, because I was with Sun Ra and, you know, learning a lot of things.

If you want to, I can tell you a beautiful story about my impressions of him at that time.

TP: Please.

RD: While . . . See, there was kind of a screen between us and the dancer. We could see her through a veiled curtain of some type, so that the drummer would catch the bumps and things like that. And we arrived back together back and forth to work from Chicago to Calumet City. And one of the waitresses used to ride in the car with us, and we met a couple of the dancers that way, too.

But the thing that impressed me about Sun Ra was that for the whole time . . . This was like you call a factory job. He would be reading a paperback book for the whole time he was playing, and he’d turn the pages, you know, and play and never missed a beat, turning the pages and reading. I said, “This guy is phenomenal.” I can do that now. I can do two or three things at once, and do them quite well.

But the thing is, he looked over at me and he said, “See the guy over there who’s drunk?” I said, “Yeah.” There was a guy laying on a booth, who had probably seen the show more than once or twice, but he was drunk — I mean, he was actually very drunk. As the expression goes, he was pissy drunk. And he said, “Watch me sober him up.” And I watched . . . And we were playing “Body and Soul.” Then Sun Ra started going further and further out with the chords, and I was watching his left hand to see what he was doing . . . He wasn’t playing any louder than he had been playing before, because it was all background music. And sure enough, this guy must have been about 50 feet away from us, and he stirred . . . and within three minutes he was standing straight up as if he was a soldier standing at attention. And then Sun Ra looked at me kind of with that little grin he had; he just looked at me and said, “See?” [Laughs] And I said, “What else do you do?”

TP: It sounds like a very impressive moment in the annals of music!

RD: Uh-huh.

TP: We’re speaking with Richard Davis on “Out To Lunch” on WKCR-FM, New York, 89.9, Ted Panken here, and Richard Davis and Friends are appearing at Sweet Basil this week, through Sunday. It seems to me we’ve been talking a while, and should get to some music. But since we’re talking about Chicago, maybe we can do the bridge this way and talk about . . .

RD: Bill Lee?

TP: Well, how you wound up . . . Well, Bill Lee, but also I guess the events that led to you coming to New York, and I guess leaving with Sarah Vaughan. . .

RD: That’s a funny one. Okay.

TP: . . . was your path away from Chicago.

RD: That’s a funny one. I can tell you about that.

TP: Well, Richard Davis, you worked with Sarah Vaughan’s group, I guess, for five years, was it . . . ?

RD: Right.

TP: From ’57 to ’62. And this really introduced you to the broader audience and to musicians all over.

RD: Mmm-hmm, yeah.

TP: So that’s the prologue to what Richard Davis will say, I guess.

RD: Do you want to play music first, or . . . Should we talk now?

TP: Well, let’s play some music. Tell us about the piece we’re about to hear, and then we’ll resume the interview.

RD: All right. It relates to Bill Lee. Bill Lee, in my estimation, formed the first two-bass combo group — to my knowledge. And I think this was 1969. I was playing the melody bass (it was my actual date; I was the leader on the date), and he played supporting bass. Bill had a . . . His melodic and harmonic concept was just powerful. He employed Chick Corea on the piano and Sam Brown on guitar, Sonny Brown on drums (where is he nowadays?), and Frankie Dunlop on percussion. I think I told Bill that I liked the melody to “Dear Old Stockholm.” That was all I said to him. And he came up with this arrangement on “Dear Old Stockholm.”

This session was reissued two or three times, as called With Understanding, and then it was released under another name with Chick Corea as a leader! I think that the company probably thought that his name would help them in the sales. I’m assuming this.

TP: In your group, usually everybody writes and you incorporate a number of your compositions, but the compositions from various members of the group as well. At least in the past that’s been the case.

RD: Right. I encourage that to happen. I think it’s a good idea to have people do their thing. I think it’s good for morale boosting, and the quality of the music has different attitudes because of different composers.

TP: We were speaking before, in a lengthy interview segment, about your formative years and coming to maturity as a musician in some sense in Chicago, playing at various joints in and around Chicago, with various policies, and you were in school studying the classical bass, and really covering a whole range of musical styles. You emerged from Chicago, I believe, with Sarah Vaughan — or perhaps it was before that. Were you in the ’50s traveling outside of Chicago with your contemporaries? If so, who were some of them?

RD: I did a lot of jobs with Harold Ousley around Chicago, playing cabaret parties, they called them, where you’d bring your own whiskey, and people would give you a set-up, or something similar to that. I didn’t understand exactly what it was, because I wasn’t into drinking, so I never, you know, found out what cabaret really meant in that sense.

But I gigged around with lots of people, John Neely and a lot of my peers in high school . . . But the first time I got which was more than local, in a sense, was a guy who lived in Chicago at the time, who had come from Pittsburgh — that was Ahmad Jamal. And that was the first job I got that had that kind of . . .

TP: When were you part of his group?

RD: This must have been 1952.

TP: So it was in the early group before he started using a drummer? Was that in the guitar-bass phase of the group?

RD: Yeah. He had Eddie Calhoun . . .

TP: He had Ray Crawford on guitar?

RD: Yeah. Ray Crawford on guitar, and then there was another guy on the guitar — I can’t remember his name now either! Then there was Ahmad, and I was playing bass, of course. Ahmad had a tune which required me to play maraca while I was playing the bass; I had to learn to do that with him, so he’d get this effect. And then Ray Crawford would thump on the strings and make it sound like a conga drum. It was a fantastic thing. And Ahmad had a sound and a concept that was just unbelievable. And of course, he attracted all of the guys coming in traveling to the club to hear him play, and it was always jam-packed. It was the first time I was with what you might call a consistent professional successful group.

TP: Was he working steadily with, like, several-week engagements at a time? And what clubs was he playing in Chicago?

RD: He would work at the Pershing Lounge, which was in the Pershing Hotel, oh, six weeks at a time, or more even.

TP: There were several levels to that club, weren’t there? There were like two or three different venues within that hotel . . .

RD: Well, the ballroom. See, the ballroom is where all the great traveling artists would come through. Like Lester Young; I remember seeing Lester Young. And several people would come. Charlie Parker . . . They’d all work in the ballroom. And the lounge was the place . . . I think that’s when first heard Eddie South, the violinist. I can’t remember all the groups that worked there, but I remember being there with Ahmad. And it was a classy kind of a joint. You know, there was a nice stage presentation, a lot of room on the stage, storage of the instruments — you know, it was very pleasant.

TP: Good piano.

RD: Good piano, yeah. And Ahmad . . . It was a good thing for me to be with Ahmad. The one thing I’ll never forget him telling me at a rehearsal, he said, “Who is your favorite piano player?” And I said, “Oscar Peterson.” You know, who else? And he said, “You want to know who my favorite bass player is?” I said, “Tell me.” I thought he was going to say Ray Brown or somebody. He said, “You are.” I said, “Me?” He said, “Yeah, because you’re here with me.” I said, “God, what a lesson!” I was the number-one bass player for him because he was confronted me being with him. That was a real booster.

But then after that, in 1952 . . . or was it ’54 . . . Yeah, in 1954, I was approached by this bass player, Johnny Pate, whose son is Don Pate. And I knew Johnny Pate; he was a helluva bass player, you know, and I used to hear him on different jobs around town, and Johnny Frigo was around, too . . . He said, “Do you want to go to New York with this guy I’m working with?” And I said, “New York? Yeah!” And he said, “Well, I’m getting ready to leave this guy because I don’t want to go to New York, and I told him about you, because I thought you were the one qualified to play what he wants out of a bass player. I said, “Well, thank you.” So I went and auditioned for the guy, and he liked it, and he said, “Okay, we’re leaving at such-and-such a time” and all that stuff, you know . . .

And man, I got the New York jitters after that! I said, “New York!” You hear about New York and all these great musicians there . . . And what happened is that we exchanged jobs. He went with Ahmad and I went with Don Shirley. But my job didn’t start until we got to New York, and I think we were going to exchange jobs at an appropriate time. But just before I supposed to leave for New York, I went to him and I said, “Look, man, I want my job back. I’m not going to New York. I was frightened half to death.” For some reason I was at the Blue Note; I can’t remember what for, but . . .

TP: The Chicago Blue Note on the North Side.

RD: Yes. I remember being there in the daytime, and Sarah Vaughan was beginning to rehearse there. But her bass player was there; Beverly Peer, I think was his name. And he was working with Sarah Vaughan, and I was asking him about New York, and I knew Sarah Vaughan was going to come to that club and rehearse, you know . . . That was frightening me to death, man.

So then, Johnny Pate said, “Look, man, you can’t have your job back. You belong in New York, and that’s where you’re going to go.” I don’t know what made him say that, but it was the best thing for me . . . heh-heh . . .

TP: But it seems to me that Chicago would be the ultimate preparation for going to New York and dealing with the music, just considering all the types of experiences you could have. I presume you were sitting in with the people when they were coming through town and doing these types of gigs . . .

RD: You’re right! You’re right. I mean, some of the experiences I had in Chicago, you wouldn’t believe. You know, I learned a lot from another saxophone player who taught me a lot of . . . You know, people would teach you in Chicago, as for your grounds. But still it’s frightening. Even leaving Chicago to go to New York is frightening. And I just didn’t want to go. I got nervous. And he said, “You’ve got to go.” And he wouldn’t give me my job back, so I had to go!

TP: What was it like working with Sarah Vaughan for those years? One thing that I think probably gets lost to the general audience is the level of her musicianship. I’ve heard a story that she was on a tour with a number of musicians, including Nat Cole in 1952 or so, and Nat Cole couldn’t make it, couldn’t make a night, or he was sick . . .

RD: Mmm-hmm.

TP: So she came out and sing his whole thing and played all of the piano parts.

RD: That sounds like her! Like Shirley Horn today. Boy, that sounds like her.

But the thing about . . . See, Roy Haynes used to come through Chicago, and I met him — and he was working with Sarah Vaughan at the time. And he and I kind of pal-ed off right away. And it’s possible that he was the one who recommended me. I never knew that for a fact, but looking back, I think that’s what happened. But I went to do the job with her, and man, I was too frightened to play. And the first two or three nights playing with Jimmy Jones and Roy Haynes and Sarah Vaughan on the stage . . . I just kind of just. . . I was tip-toein’ through the tulips, just making little announcements out of the bass and all that kind of stuff. And then I looked around and said, “Hey! They must have called me here for a reason.” And so I said, pardon the expression, but I said, “Hey! I’m gonna just play. What the . . . ” — you know. And then I started opening up, and started playing. And right away, I noticed they started looking back and saying, “Oh, he’s opening up now.” But it took me two or three nights before I could really relax and really begin to play.

TP: Were you based in New York while you were working with Sarah Vaughan?

RD: Yeah, I moved to New York, and they called me. I went to New York with Don Shirley. That’s the guy whose job took me to New York. And I stayed with him for two years, I guess to 1956, and between ’56 and ’57 I was just gigging around, taking any little gig I could get, and then I got a call from Sarah Vaughan’s office in 1957.

TP: I guess the series of recordings that really started to put your name internationally on the map, where you could begin to express your creativity as a musician and so forth begins in the early 1960s with a series of recordings for both Blue Note and Prestige . . .

RD: Right. Because after I decided to leave Sarah, after five years, the first person I ran into with a prominent gig was Eric Dolphy, heh-heh. . .right in the subway station. And he said, “What are you doing next week?” I said, “Nothing.” And he said, “Why don’t you go down to the Five Spot with me?

TP: 1961.

RD: Yeah. And that was it! I said, “Man, oh God, what a way to come into New York.

TP: You did some very famous duets with Eric Dolphy where he played bass clarinet and you on bass, the Douglas sessions.

RD: Mmm-hmm.

TP: A few words about him, and then we’ll get back to some more music by your current group.

RD: Well, I think that first session was supposed to have been under my name. I can’t remember whether it was or not. Not that it really matters. But [engineer/proucer Alan] Douglas, who I had done a lot of folk music with, I was playing a lot of folk music, folk singers and things . . . . He said, “If you were going in the studio to play a duet, who would you choose? Who would you want to play with?” I said “Eric Dolphy.” And that was the beginning.

TP: Where did you first meet him?

RD: On the subway!

TP: Oh, that was it? You hadn’t known him before?

RD: I don’t think so! [Laughs] Maybe he knew who I was. But when I saw him, to be honest with you, I couldn’t tell whether he was Eric Dolphy or Ornette Coleman. Because I think they both wore goatees at that time.

TP: Well, you and Eric Dolphy were part of a very famous date which is at the top of the stack right next to me, called Point of Departure by Andrew Hill, one of four or five recordings you did with Andrew Hill then . . .

RD: Yeah!

TP: This was such a creative period. You were on Bobby Hutcherson and Andrew Hill records, really extending the form, and there’s a real sense of speculation and searching in these records.

RD: Uh-huh.

TP: Can you talk a little bit about the attitude that was behind the making of them?

RD: You mean as far as my contribution as a bass player?

TP: Your contribution and the overall spirit of the groups and the musicians.

RD: Well, first of all, you had a company that really organized these sessions, like Alfred Lion and those guys. They really rehearsed, they paid you for a rehearsal, the rehearsal was set up in the studio, you went over what you were going to do, who was going to solo, and the tunes and all that. And I remember Alfred Lion always eating chocolates, and he always gave me some, because I liked that . . . ! But then his friend, Francis Woolf, he was always taking pictures. So it was a great organization of a type. These guys were dedicated to the music.

And on this date also was Kenny Dorham. Now, Kenny Dorham, I worked a lot with him in clubs in New York. And I just loved Kenny Dorham. He was slick. He used to call me the Fox, because he thought I was kind of extra. . .

TP: Well, then he wrote a tune after you, didn’t he, on Trompeta Toccata! That’s you!

RD: I don’t know whether he related it to me exactly on that tune, but he called me the Fox. And Eric called me the Iron Man, and he wrote a tune called “Iron Man.” Because he thought I had endless energy — which I do. And he said, “Man, one day I’m going to be like you; I’m going to be as busy as you are and be able to . . . ” A lot of people thought I was using dope to do all of the things I was doing!

Of course, that’s always applied to musicians anyway if they’re doing something that is beyond the ordinary. Even Eric Dolphy, with his performance ability . . . I remember a guy running backstage when we were at Birdland one night, and he said, “Where is he?! Where is he?!” He was all excited. And he says, “Does he use dope?” Man, Eric Dolphy was so far removed from dope. . . He was just high on the music, all the time. The music was so tremendous.

And Kenny Dorham had this very, very professional approach to his writing and to his sound. He was a guy who I had heard when I was just learning how to play the bass! And for me to be on the stage with him, it felt so good. And then there was Joe Henderson, with that unique sound and concept that he plays with . . . Man, I was in heaven. And there’s a young Tony Williams from that date.

TP: We don’t even have it cued up. Would you like me to put something on from it?

RD: Yeah.

TP: Which one?

RD: I wouldn’t know what to select, because I haven’t heard this in years. You probably have heard it more recently than I have.

TP: Maybe so. How about “New Monastery”?

RD: Okay. Whatever you say, doctor.

TP: You’re the doctor . . . By the way, are you a Doctor in Music. You do teach at Madison.

RD: Well, I do have a doctorate. I have what is called an honorary doctorate in music. I am a Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison camps.

TP: Your curriculum at University of Wisconsin and the band . . . Is there an enthusiastic turnout for the jazz history course that you teach? Is it well- received, well- attended? What’s your impression of the students at this point?

RD: Well, the class usually closes out in the first day of registration, which means there are four days when students are still trying to get in and wanting to be on a waiting list — which I don’t encourage. Because I want a nice, intimate, smaller group of people. And I try to limit it to 85, but it normally creeps up to about 110. And it’s an auditorium which seats 200, so it’s comfortable for everybody. And I see students all over the country who have been in that class, and they come to see me when I’m in their town. Like, I was in L.A. last week, and I saw about six or seven students who had been in the class, and here in New York I saw three or four last night, the first night.

But it’s been a good experience for me also to enhance my continued growth and knowledge about the traditional jazz heritage. It has given me lots of reasons to read more global things, because I relate them back to the situation with jazz and how it fits into our society — things like that.

TP: What’s your approach to the curriculum? Do you cover it chronologically from the beginnings up to the modern?

RD: The way I handle that, to keep from being bored (which I dread that feeling), is that . . . At first it was like 1920’s to present, general history. What I did, I broke it down into four categories. One semester you have saxophones, concentrated on that. Then the next semester, trumpet players. The next semester, vocalists, miscellaneous instruments and trombones. And the next semester you have rhythm sections and combos. I don’t do the big band, because another professor does that; he’s the band director, concert band and marching band — and he does big band things.

But what I do is concentrate on making the student know a particular personality who is innovative in the role of how the music developed between the 1920s and the present. I talk about the social stimuli, economic conditions, and other things related to the music being produced the way it is produced. One of my favorite subjects, generally speaking, in the music (and I just received a grant for that) is jazz protest songs and experience in the 20th Century.

TP: One last question before we get to the final piece of music is your sense of the way the music is being produced today and the conditions under which it’s being produced. Particularly the kind of repertory approach to jazz amongst many of the young musicians. Just generally, what’s your sense of the attitude to music by the younger musicians who will be the future of the music that you’re aware of?

RD: If I’m understanding your question correctly . . . This might be something that does not answer that question per se . . .

TP: It may not be a clear question, too.

RD: Yeah. I’ll just give you kind of a capsule conception of what I’m seeing today with the younger musicians. I see them as the next generation to what’s happened before them, and the ones that I’ve met . . . Javon Jackson, I just spent a week with him in the band in California. First of all, it was great to see the personality that he has, which is dynamic. I mean, he asked me if he was my son! And I was honored. Because he’s not my son, but when you see the next generation coming up, you look at it in the same sense of the Son of the Music — the next generation. And his talent, to my estimation, is very strong, and his attitude towards honoring the music is just tremendous.

I also have a godson, Eric McPherson, who plays with Jackie McLean on the drums. I was there in the hospital the day he was born, just taking his mother to the hospital. And to watch him come up and watch his attitude as a gentleman, first of all, and a kind person . . . You know, we used to just go out for McDonald’s hamburgers and go to movies, just to keep an association when I’d come to New York, and then he starts playing drums, and he’d come to the club every night, and he’d sit there and sip on that Coca-Cola, and he was listening to Freddie Waits and any drummer that I had with me at the time (Billy Hart), and he started studying drums . . . And now to see him actually playing professionally, it tells me that the music is honorable, because the next generation deems it necessary to want to play it — and the challenge of trying to play it is very demanding. He got a scholarship to go and study with Jackie McLean. And I can mention his friend, Abe, alto saxophone . . . He sat in with me once because our saxophonist didn’t show up, and he really roused the audience . . .

TP: There’s some amazing talent out there.

RD: Amazing, amazing talent out there. And I can name quite a few guys that I have heard and have heard of, you know, through recordings and whatever you want to talk about, that tells me that hopefully we’ve handed the baton, and we have handed it to the right person.

Plus, the other thing that is so phenomenal is that their business attitude is quite different than ours was. They have nice, prominent young lawyers representing them, like Terence Blanchard . . . I worked with him on that memorial thing for Eric Dolphy. He had a bright young lawyer right there talking in his behalf, and the guy was in his mid 20s, if that old, but he was very, very polished!

Whereas some of the older guys in our generation had all this talent and equipment with writing and playing, but never really quite handled the business well enough to escape the plantation. You see what I mean? Because it was almost like saying, “I’m glad to get what I can get.” But these guys now know that they have something that’s marketable, not in the sense of a Michael Jackson recording . . . But whatever it is that people are buying from them, they are selling it with more intelligent attitudes.

TP: I guess we can safely say that you feel good about the future of the music.

RD: Oh, I feel good about it.

TP: And you continue to be part of the future of the music.

RD: Oh yeah!

TP: As is evident to anyone who will go down to hear Richard Davis and Friends this week at Sweet Basil.

RD: Yeah!

TP: We’ll conclude with something from a recording from 1987 that’s a dedication to your daughter . . .

RD: “Persia.” That’s my heart right there . . 

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Filed under Bass, Chicago, Richard Davis

For Trombonist Steve Davis’ 50th Birthday, An Interview From 1998 for the Criss Cross Recording “Crossfire”

The exceptional trombonist Steve Davis turns 50 today. For the occasion, here’s an interview I did with Steve in 1998, when I was putting together the liner notes for his Criss Cross CD, Crossfire.  At the end is a brief conversation with Steve’s mentor, teacher and early employer, Jackie McLean.

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

TP: Birthday.

SD: 4-14-67.

TP: So you’re just turned 31. You’re from Binghamton?

SD: I was actually born in Worcester, Massachusetts, but I pretty much grew up in Binghamton, New York, from the age of 6 until 18.

TP: Music in the family?

SD: Yes. My Nana, or Grandmother on my mother’s side (I called her Nana), played piano by ear. She didn’t read any music. She was actually semi-professional. She used to do some gigs around Westchester and Connecticut actually, down in the Southbury area, Waterbury, Connecticut. She passed away when I was 19 and I had just started at Hartt; I finished a year there. She played in kind of the stride, maybe Teddy Wilson style. She really liked Oscar Peterson. She used to play “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Them There Eyes,” and sing it.

TP: And she performed?

SD: Yes. She played all types of tunes. “Embraceable You,” a lot of the great standards. She had like a hybrid sort of boogie-woogie, some of that in there. It’s funny, because I guess for her time, it was… She was of WASP heritage or whatever, and it just wasn’t really the thing for a woman to be a Jazz pianist…

TP: A Yankee woman.

SD: Yeah, exactly, a Yankee woman. It was kind of like a novelty. “Oh, Betty is going to play now,” and at parties and stuff like that. She played everything in C or F, but man, she could really play her ass off. I have some tapes that I’ve got to investigate further. She was really gifted, and I just wish she had lived a little longer, because I really could have learned a great deal from her.

TP: And she improvised.

SD: Oh, totally. She didn’t read a note.

TP: Like Eddie Higgins or Dave McKenna.

SD: Exactly. That kind of thing. I’d say she was probably, of course, compared to someone like Dave McKenna, very limited. But she really could play.

Then on my Dad’s side, my Grandsir, who is still alive, played a little trumpet. He’s a real swinger. He’s a big Ellington and Louis Armstrong fan, and Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra, that’s his stuff, and a little bit of Bix he talks about. But he would always tell me about hearing Ellington on the radio. He’s from Boston, and…

TP: The Southland Ballroom.

SD: Yeah, right, and in 1932 he was at the Roxbury Latin School, and he remembers hearing the shows from the Cotton Club and all that.

My old man didn’t play. He plays a little electric bass as more like a hobby. But he is the one who really exposed me. He had tons of records, man, when I was growing up in Binghamton. He had all kinds of Blue Note, Horace Silver, a couple of Messengers records, a lot of Miles Davis, Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder which was one of the first things I heard that grabbed me, and a lot of Blues, like Muddy Waters and B.B. King, Otis Rush and people like that.

TP: So you were listening to music all the time.

SD: Yeah, it was around all the time. I was going through the usual paces of the Rolling Stones, things like that, or the Beatles…

TP: But were you playing an instrument from…

SD: I picked up the trumpet in fourth grade, and I switched to euphonium, to baritone horn, when I got braces halfway through the fifth grade.

TP: Because the embouchure was bigger?

SD: Exactly. Because I almost was going to quit. I liked music, and I was about to quit, and I was encouraged not to by my band director and my old man. That’s how I got into bass clef, and I played tuba for a while in junior high school. The trombone came around last. I was hearing these jazz records with J.J. on them and Curtis, or Bob Brookmeyer…

TP: Where were you hearing those records?

SD: My Dad. Then I was told, “Well, if you want to be in the stage band and that kind of stuff, you really should learn the slide trombone as opposed to baritone horn.” My band director in junior high taught me the correlation between the valves and the slide. It’s pretty similar once you get the same correlation. Then I just kind of took it from there. I really didn’t start taking trombone lessons until the end of tenth grade.

TP: But you had a lot of musical background.

SD: Oh yeah.

TP: And you could read music by then?

SD: Yes. Although it was quite a switch from the treble clef baritone, like, B-flat trumpet treble clef music, to all of a sudden like sousaphone ledger lines bass clef. So for a while I was playing the tuba by ear, because I couldn’t make the cosmic leap into the bottom of the bass clef. But that was good, because my ear always gravitated to the bass, and my Dad used to talk about the bass in blues bands and the bass in Rock-and-Roll and certainly in Jazz, so I had an affinity for that.

TP: What were some of the outlets for improvising and such?

SD: Well, the director of our junior high school stage band was very encouraging, as was our high school stage band director, Mr. Mann. They really encouraged us to take little solos and improvise. There was a little kind of cadre or whatever of guys that were playing. There’s a trumpeter named Tony Kadleck, who is in New York now, does a lot of sessions, big band stuff — he was a great player. So that environment was encouraged. Then at SUNY-Binghamton, there was a guy named Al Hahm(?)…

TP: Did you go there because of the Music Department?

SD: Well, I didn’t attend. I used to go to workshops and play in their jazz ensemble when I was in high school. They had summer workshops, and I think 1982 when I was maybe 15, they brought in Bob Brookmeyer one year with his sextet. I think that was in ’82, and I was maybe like 15. I had already started listening, I had the bug, and I got to hear and spend a week with Bob Brookmeyer, who had Dick Oatts and Joe Lovano and Jim McNeely and I think Nussbaum and Michael Moore. But Dick Oatts and Joe Lovano took a particular interest in me and a friend of mine named Chris Jenson, a really good tenor player. Dick Oatts, I remember vividly, said, “J.J. Johnson.” I said, “yeah, I’ve heard a couple of records.” He said, “No, man, go really listen to J.J. Johnson.” And that stuck with me. They really were very encouraging. So kind of after that I started listening to “Giant Steps” and “Kind of Blue” and henceforth.

TP: Was it apparent to you at this time that you were going to be a musician?

SD: Of some kind, yeah. My Dad’s a journalist, a newspaperman, his parents, Grandsir and his mother, were both journalists, and my mother is very literate. So it was kind of encouraged. The humanities thing for college was pretty much a given; that I was going to go someplace that was a university as well as the music. I mean, the music was never discouraged; it was always encouraged. But my parents really wanted me to have a broad education as much as possible.

TP: And you did.

SD: yes. My mother took me to audition at the music schools, Manhattan, Rutgers, New England Conservatory, and then to Hartt at the University of Hartford. She liked the campus environment. And I met Jackie McLean when I auditioned, and he really charmed my mother. I’ll never forget the audition. I played “Summertime” just by myself for him, no rhythm, and then he played the piano, and he started playing this little vamp from D-minor to E-flat-minor, and he said, “Let’s see what you do with this, son,” and he started playing these little rhythms, and I played some little response, and he said, “Yeah, you got it, man; you got all the shit happening. Come on, where’s your Mom? Let’s…” [LAUGHS] It was hilarious, man. So he talked to my mother and really made her feel at ease about coming to school and not going right to New York first, but coming up there to the campus and getting a real education, and that he would… Especially at this time in the mid-’80s, his program was really taking off, and he was there a lot and he was overseeing all the students very much. So he kind of sold my Mom on that one.

TP: And at Hartford you pursued primarily music but also other things.

SD: Yeah, a little Shakespeare. I was close to a minor in Political Science. I think I had three credits left. But mostly music. By the time I got to my junior year, all I wanted to do was play and get to New York.

TP: Talk about some of the affiliations you made at Hartt.

SD: Well, besides the faculty, which of course, Jackie just for me and for so many others of us just turned our whole world around. Especially his history course was really important. You’d take that ideally as a freshman for two semesters. He used to call it “Man and Music,” and now he got politically correct — it’s called “People and Music” or something. He goes back to Africa and makes you realize… He gets into the origins of Man, and things that we take for granted and that you don’t get educated about in public schools generally. Maybe nowadays you do moreso than 1985. Then he takes you through the whole music of slavery and field hollers, and how that evolved into the blues and brass bands and all that kind of stuff. So by the time you get up the second semester, to Charlie Parker and what he can really first-hand tell you about him, it’s pretty exciting. It really gives you a tremendous concept for the history. So that was important.

Jaki Byard was still there, and being around him was great. Hotep Galeta was just coming into his band, and he was starting to teach there, and he was a very big role model for me, as was Nat Reeves. Hotep and Nat not only taught ensembles at the school, but they used to gig a lot around Hartford. There were several little clubs. So the two of them, they might play duo in a restaurant, or they’d grab a decent drummer from the area. And Hotep started hiring me eventually to play quartet. To me that was just the thrill of my life. It was such a privilege to be on the bandstand with those guys. This is leading up to and during the Dynasty record that they made, and Rites of Passage was after that. That band with Carl Allen and Rene would rehearse sometimes at the school, and it was very exciting to see that developing. They’d go out to L.A., or go on the road to Italy, and Jackie would send a postcard. It was just my dream to ever play in that band.

Also, when I first got to Hartt, Antoine Roney was still a student there. It was his last year. And he had a huge influence on me. I mean, he taught me so much. He was the first guy… Within my first week, we borrowed somebody’s car and drove down to New York together and went and heard Joe Henderson at the Vanguard, and he took me to the Blue Note session Ted Curson was running where you’d sign the list. Ted Curson was doing it. He showed me around Harlem a little bit, showed me where Bud Powell lived and all that stuff.

TP: Well, Antoine and Wallace are soaked up in the lore.

SD: Oh yeah, big-time. So meeting and hanging out with Antoine was a big…

TP: So that must have helped you when you made the transition to New York.

SD: Oh, it did. Because he moved down there within a year or two after that, so I used to go hang with him. We used to go to Rashied Ali’s house to play a little. Jackie recommended me to Charlie Persip when I was still a student at Hartt, and my first real New York gig was in the Superband, at Visiones in 1988. There was a club in Hartford, too, called the 880 Club. Nat was in the house band of that with Donnie De Palma, a pianist. They used to bring every Thursday night, like, you name it, man…Junior Cook, Tom Harrell, I got to play with Pepper Adams there… When Eddie Henderson first came back East he was coming up there all the time, and I met him there. Kenny Garrett. A whole lot of people. So that was also really exciting, and it gave you a taste of what the real Jazz world is like.

TP: So it doesn’t seem like New York seemed particularly overwhelming to you, that you were quite well prepared arriving here.

SD: Yes and no. I mean, I was, but it was still overwhelming, trust me. When I got there… And ’89 is when I really moved to New York… I had been kind of zipping in and out quite a bit, and I got there to live, and for six months I basically went through all the money I had saved gigging around Connecticut and living cheap up there. It was scary. That’s when Jesse Davis was doing Augie’s. He had Antoine in the band, and Eric McPherson, and that’s where I met Chris McBride, Ugonna Okegwo had just moved to town, Marc Cary went there. That was an exciting time, and I used to go sit in a lot up there. But I wasn’t working that much. The gig with Art Blakey came up right at the end of ’89, and it was right on time, boy, because I was starting to scuffle.

TP: What sort of gigs were you doing?

SD: Well, not a whole lot. I was coming back to Hartford to do a lot of gigs. I was doing a couple of little club date kind of gigs, because they paid good, and I wasn’t happy about, but… A few little big bands. I was rehearsing with Charlie Persip every Thursday, and what work he had I was doing. Just trying to make jam sessions and be around. That’s what was happening.

TP: How did you get to Art?

SD: Jackie had told him about me. I never stood in the same room as the two of them, which is ironic to me, because they’re both such big mentors.

TP: Frank Lacy preceded you with Art?

SD: Yeah.

TP: Was it a situation where someone suggested you go hear the band at Sweet Basil and linger around the bandstand, or were you just called to make it?

SD: No, Jackie had encouraged me… I was doing that anyway at Mikell’s and Sweet Basil for years, hearing all the different bands. But by the time it got to that, I was around a lot. I think I sat in in September of ’89, and Art knew about me. He said, “Oh, that’s you” or whatever; “bring your horn back Sunday.” I sat in on “Moanin'” or something with a bunch of other guys. Then at Christmas-time, I saw him again, and he told me, “Don’t go far.” I figured, well, okay, that must mean something. I went home literally for Christmas Day, and the next day, the 26th, I was coming back, and that’s when Jackie called me in Binghamton at my parents’ house, and said, “Steve, call Buhaina; he’s looking for you.” He gave me the number, and I called Art’s house, and he got on the phone. He said, “Well, can you make it tonight?” It was 4 in the afternoon, and I was three hours away — I said, “Sure!” It was hilarious. I left my keys in Binghamton. I didn’t have any dress clothes. I had to borrow a suit from a friend of mine. I barely made the gig on time. Frank Lacy was still on the band, too, so that was a very interesting week.

TP: A few words in general on Art Blakey’s impact on you in general musical terms, and maybe specifically on your style as a trombonist.

SD: Well, it’s hard to put into words, of course. Javon Jackson once said something that I really agree with, that I thought was great, that he had a way of showing you what to play, or how to play, without actually telling you anything. He just did it through the drums, and he guided you… One night we were in California, and Freddie Hubbard was there, and I was scared to death. We played “Minor’s Holiday” and some of the classic things. We came off the stand and he put his arm around me. He said, “Steve, listen. You make your statement, you build to a climax, and you get the fuck out. Right?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Simple, right? Okay. Well, do it.”

Art taught me, as has Jackie later, from a different vantage point, how to get to the point, how to get to the fire quick, and say what you’re going to say. That’s what they say about Charlie Parker. If you listen to Curtis Fuller, he never plays more than two or three choruses. So it was such a lesson in getting to the stuff, getting to the point quick.

The other thing is just that beat. Being around Art at time of my life, I was just turning 23, and it’s like he plants a seed in you that hasn’t even blossomed, hasn’t even grown yet, and it’s going to grow as you grow. He told me one time… He was singing all these Fletcher Henderson arrangements and doing the trombone parts, and he said, “You watch, that’s going to be your style; swinging, that’s going to be your style.” I was listening to and kind of captivated by Miles and Wallace Roney, and I wanted to be that on the trombone. Not obvious, but more subtle, mysterious, maybe cold, not cold like spiritually cold, but not the kind of warm breathy sound, but more icy or something, like slick…

TP: Or abstract.

SD: Abstract. I was really thinking about that stuff, and how J.J. and Miles had a certain no-vibrato, and I really liked that. But then being around Art put things in perspective, and then I started to really listen to how Curtis took the Lester Young-Miles-J.J. influence and brought a warmth to it. I’m still trying to find the balance, actually.

TP: So you’re trying to blend the older trombone approach of the big band, pre-J.J. trombonists with the harmony and authority of J.J. and… Do you feel that Curtis Fuller kind of embodies that?

SD: Oh yeah. He’s got the tradition… You can hear it. He comes after J.J., but he was born in 1934, so certainly the Swing Era…he grew up in it. He talks about people like Jack Teagarden and the Basie Band. The thing that I love about J.J., too, is that they came from that tradition so much, that it was such a feat for them, as with Bird and Miles, to break out of that, and to start defining this new approach, and maybe more stark melodies and playing harmonically, more daring, but also precise at the same time. That’s what I really like, is Miles and J.J. and the choice of notes. Curtis was very close to Trane, obviously, when he first came to New York. He talks a lot about that, being around Coltrane and Freddie Hubbard. Obviously Trane was a huge influence on Freddie in phrasing… To me, what Curtis has done with the phrasing, just playing groupings of notes, is like saxophone stuff. J.J. certainly opened that can of worms in a lot of ways for the trombone, and certainly guys even before him did. J.J. had the prowess and the focus to really start to think that way and approach the instrument that way, but Curtis took it another step, where he’s just daring, he’s going to throw it out there, and he doesn’t care if he gets his feet muddy.

[PAUSE]

TP: Anyway, you stayed with Art Blakey a year, and he dies at the end of ’90. The what happens between that and your joining Jackie McLean?

SD: Some tough times, actually.

TP: Do trombonists have a particularly tough time in the business right now.

SD: Well, I’ve been extremely lucky. A couple of good things happened. I did play with Lionel Hampton’s band for a period, and it was great just to be around him and be a part of that legacy for a minute. But that’s a tough gig. Everybody knows that’s a dues-paying kind of gig, but I’m very glad I did it. But the thing that blew me away, though, I did two concerts with Elvin Jones. I was subbing for Wallace Roney, actually. I’d met Elvin at Art’s house about a week prior to Art’s passing. He was very nice to me (I don’t think he’d ever heard me play), and he took my number. Keiko was there. I was just thrilled to meet Elvin. It was a terrible circumstance to meet him under, because Art was kind of laying on the couch, sleeping, he wasn’t well, and Elvin was sort of watching over him. At first he didn’t even know who I was. He kind of asked if he could help me, like he was protecting Art, then I told him I was the trombonist in the band. I just never imagined, ever, that he would call, but he did, and I did a couple of concerts with him. That was a great experience, and something I would love to have an opportunity to do again.

TP: Say a few words about drum styles, and playing with drummers, and the trombone as a rhythmic instrument.

SD: I know for a fact that Art loved the trombone. He used to play a certain way, and you can hear it particularly with Curtis on all those records. I think he inherently understood… The trombone is the underdog instrument, in a way, especially… I always refer to Curtis Fuller as such a role model. He stood next to people like Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter, and transcended those limitations that the horn might present. It’s the last thing you think of when you hear Curtis playing…

TP: That there are any limitations.

SD: Whatsoever. His velocity and authority was astounding. A lot of it is just the timbre of the horn. It’s where the voice is for a male, which to me is the greatest thing about the horn. But that can get lost in the density of the music; sonically, you can lose the sound a little bit. And you’ve got more to travel. There’s more horn. You’re moving a slide with your arm and your wrist, as opposed to valves, so it’s physically more demanding to get around in terms of speed and articulation. Art had a way of goosing… He kind of prodded you and rooted for you, and gave you some stuff to play off of. It’s like riding a tidal wave. All you’ve got to do is stay on the surfboard, and all of a sudden you’re up here where you never thought you’d play.

TP: Talk about Elvin Jones a little bit in this regard.

SD: Elvin was different. Eddie Henderson warned me. He said, “Oh yeah, you’re going to play with Elvin?” He said, “Don’t try to assert the beat the same way you did with Buhaina, because it will be like stepping in quicksand.” I didn’t really figure that out well enough, I don’t think, at that time. I noticed there was a great similarity in just the sound of the drums. To me it was a similar feeling between Art and Elvin, but at the same time vastly different. Elvin didn’t play as loud as often. He could play kind of soft and sort of exposed you in a different way, which I think about all the time now. I just hope to have a chance some day to play with him again, but even if I don’t, I learned a lot just in those two hits.

TP: Then there were various little gigs here and there, that sort of thing?

SD: Yes. There’s a trumpeter named Kenny Rampton. He was Geoff Keezer’s roommate, and I used to hang at their pad in Brooklyn a lot. Kenny had a nice sextet with Sam Newsome and myself and Keezer and Dwayne Burno (Benny Green and for a while Chris McBride did some gigs) and Greg Hutchinson. We did a little like demo tape that I thought sounds pretty good actually, with a lot of Kenny’s music. So that was important for me at the time. We did Birdland and Visiones.

But there wasn’t a whole lot happening. I actually took a little part-time day job handing out flyers for Manhattan Podiatry. [LAUGHS] That’s the only day job I ever had to do.

TP: You joined Jackie when? What happened?

SD: He called and said there was going to be a potential opening back at the school, conducting the big band.

TP: You had a degree in music at this point.

SD: Yes. And I had been out of the school maybe three years. So I certainly hadn’t fashioned myself going back to Hartford so soon. But Jackie sort of indicated…

Well, one thing I’m forgetting before this is that I did meet Leon Parker in ’91, and I formed a group with him, Brad Mehldau, Ugonna Okegwo and Mark Turner on tenor. That was a huge part of my development at that point, particularly with Leon — we had gotten real tight.

Then Jackie had kind of extended this offer for teaching. Mary and I had moved to Rhode Island for a while just to kind of get our stuff together — we had gotten engaged. And Leon was living up in Rhode Island, just because he liked it. He just wanted get away from New York for a minute. We were in Westerley, and Leon was up around Newport and Providence, and we’d kind of band together. We started getting some little gigs. It was like a collective led group, but then it eventually was under my name and most of my music.

TP: So you were writing a lot at this time.

SD: Oh yes.

TP: You mentioned in the interview for One For All hearing Tony Williams’ band and being very impressed by the openness of the material. Talk a bit about the evolution of your writing.

SD: Obviously, Jackie and Hotep and Rene McLean had a huge influence on my compositional influence. As I mentioned, I was around everything. The three of them together in that band (under Jackie’s auspices) had a real sound happening, a real vibe.

TP: Let’s describe that sound. I haven’t heard any music that really sounds like those records, Rites of Passage and Dynasty.

SD: It’s really something. To me, it’s got so much in there. There’s such a recipe. There’s a lot of South African kind of influence in Rene’s and Hotep’s music, but at the same time those guys were both long-time New York cats through the ’60s and ’70s. So there’s to me a real earthy, but hip kind of thing. It’s very rhythmic. It’s hard to explain. I think the vamps and the rhythms and then the way chords move laterally kind of, then coming up with some melodies or lines over that, is real interesting to me. Like, with Jackie you might find a vamp-sounding thing… I think the goal is always to have something just a little different about it. Jackie’s music is always accessible, it’s catchy, but there’s some different stuff in there, some notes you wouldn’t expect, and little jagged edges here and there that makes it what it is — identifiable.

TP: You mentioned the ‘big room’ concept, that he may want to have it sound distinct, but he wants to really express your personality or not be too confined within that structure.

SD: Exactly. Believe me, Jackie can run some changes, and Rene can too. Like that tune “Jay Mac’s Dynasty,” that’s like some “Giant Steps” stuff, but then boom, you’re out there again. So there’s a temperament of kind of hitting you with some density, and then opening it up at the same time, so you encompass a lot.

TP: And there’s also a sort of Monkish, very specific rhythmic quality to what Jackie does, too.

SD: Yeah, and Rene… I think Rene is a tremendously important composer. He’s left-handed, and Hotep and Alan Palmer and Nat Reeves, all of them have said, “Southpaw, Rene. I forget!” He writes these wicked bass lines, and these guys are always groaning, “Oh, man, what are you doing to us?” Rene is very important to me — and Jackie, of course. They bridge the kind of outside and inside so nicely and with such integrity and honesty. Then Hotep’s writing, too, is terrific.

Anyway, if you take all that… Then I was kind of on my own after the Art Blakey-Elvin time, so I had no choice. I had to start a band, because I really wasn’t doing very much playing. Leon was sort of in the same boat, and we’re roughly the same age. It was a drastic switch, and all of a sudden Leon’s got me practicing duos where he’s just playing one little ride cymbal. Then I got into the Miles thing, and the suspended chords and what I’d mentioned about Tony Williams’ writing as one good example. I knew Brad Mehldau from Hartford, and I always liked the way you could hold a note, and he would dress it up and do some things. So we kind of got into that, and I was starting to write with all these things in mind.

TP: So you were into some very open stuff the whole way through.

SD: Yeah, I really was.

TP: So you joined Jackie, a position opened up at Hartt…

SD: Right. We were doing some stuff with that little group. We did a week at the Village Gate in early ’92, and made a demo tape that we were shopping but never got anywhere with it. I wasn’t satisfied with my own playing, but we did all my music. Anyway, it was funny, because Jackie kind of grabbed me, Mark Turner went with Delfeayo Marsalis and moved down to New Orleans, Leon was starting to get work with Tom Harrell and a whole bunch of different people, and Brad went with Josh Redman. So it just kind of went poof. But see, in retrospect, it all made perfect sense, and I got to come back and really fulfill my destiny, in a way, with Jackie, to really play in his band.

TP: It was the first time he’d really… Well, that’s not true, because all through the ’60s he was taking young players in New York and creating his sound around what they were doing with his ideas in a lot of ways, so I guess this band was an extension of that. But in New York, they weren’t his college students; they were young cats on the scene, though some were out of Juilliard or something. Let’s talk about the arc of the band musically from when you joined it through your six years playing with it.

SD: Okay. Well, Alan Palmer and Eric McPherson had come in the group about six months before, replacing Hotep and Carl, and they had done maybe one week at the Vanguard and a couple of little gigs. I remember it was somewhat of a struggle for Jackie at first; he had two very young cats, people loved that other band and everything. But as with any transition, it took a little time, and those guys learned quick. I think both of them are very special players, particularly Eric McPherson as a drummer. I mean, he’s got something going on that is very rare and unique, and I think he is going to become known as a pivotal young drummer. I have no doubt about that.

TP: All he needed to do was smooth off a rough edge or two.

SD: Sure. So anyway, that was very exciting. I always call Nat Reeves “Uncle Nat,” because he was kind of like our big brother. Especially when Rene wasn’t there, Nat kind of pulled all the rest of us up to a certain level, and particularly in the rhythm section he really pulled the other guys along and kind of helped them get it together.

We did the Rhythm of the Earth record right at the beginning. I had been in the mind like a few weeks. Jackie brought in Steve Nelson and Roy Hargrove as guests, which was smart, because I think that helped kind of smooth everything over. But then I’d say within a year after that we did a lot of touring as the front line with Rene, myself and Jackie (there was no trumpet yet) for about a year-and-a-half, in Europe, South Africa, the States. For me to become a third voice with Jackie and Rene, whereas Jackie hadn’t had another horn besides Rene for maybe twenty years before that, was such an honor. We basically played the Dynasty and Rites of Passage book, adding new things all the time, and then the Rhythm of the Earth stuff and some other things that we brought in that we never even recorded. But they already had it together. They had a sound. It sounded great without me. So I just found my own third parts.

TP: Were you investigating Grachan Moncur?

SD: Very much. Grachan, who I also know and greatly admire, he… You know the records. I once asked Jackie what he dug about Grachan, and he said, “His nerve,” which I thought was quite an answer. He liked his sparse approach, but Jackie liked that he had the nerve to try to do something that different — and he liked his writing a lot. He was a big inspiration to me to not always try to keep up, or don’t feel like you’ve got to play a million notes, and go ahead and stick some big colors out there. Go ahead, man, as long as you’ve got the ceiling.

See, being next to Jackie always made you feel special and that nobody could mess with you. You’re always scared, you’re always daunted, because he’s playing so much stuff it’s just ridiculous. But he always rooted for you. Every solo, man, you could feel him over there rooting for you. Every little thing you played meant something to him. If you crack some notes, who cares about that? “Nobody knows but you, man,” he used to say. “All my favorites, man. Lee, that was my baby; he could crack notes. Miles, K.D.” He just gave you that spirit, to go ahead and try.

TP: Now, this raises a couple of points for me. The ’70s was a great decade for the trombone, because people like Ray Anderson and George Lewis, and then people like Watrous on this other end of incredible technical capacity. But in terms of the open approach to the trombone, did you ever check out the former approach, like what George Lewis and Ray Anderson did with Anthony Braxton, taking advantage of the huge sonic possibilities.

SD: Yeah, Craig Harris, and Joseph Bowie I’ve heard a little. Sure, I’ve listened to some of that. But that was never really it for me. It was nice, but I wanted to play like Bud Powell and like… I wanted to be able to do that like Jackie, and play the lines and play the slick stuff and get up in there with those guys, with Woody Shaw — that kind of playing. Certainly Miles and Curtis do that. I know what you’re driving at… I like the spirit, but I don’t… Just as with the plunger, I love to listen to it, I love the spirit of it, and I want to get all that in my sound without literally having to do it.

TP: So you don’t want to be Tricky Sam, but you’d like to have a reference.

SD: I think you have to. How can you play the horn and not know something about Dickie Wells and Lawrence Brown and Jack Teagarden, as much as they played, and with that feeling and lyricism. I love it.

TP: A second point. You’re talking about Jackie saying it’s okay to crack a note or “no one knows but you.” I think one characteristic that’s often been noted about the generation you’re roughly involved with is almost the fear of failure as like a reason not to stretch, because they’re not going to do it right.

SD: Oh yeah. I want to get to that point where I feel totally comfortable with just playing. Actually, going out with Chick is going to be a really great experience in that regard. We did that week at the Blue Note, and they recorded it, and they’re going to put out a CD, and all of us just couldn’t believe it — like, “No, you’re not recording already; we hardly played together; my God, a live record, the music’s so hard.” Chick said, “you know, one of the liabilities you have to take in being an improvising musician is you have to accept the fact that some nights, sometimes it’s going to go nowhere — to you. It’s going to feel like this is going nowhere. So let it go nowhere. Then the next night, the next set, the next tune, you try again.” I felt there was so much wisdom in that. He’s been through it, and he’s a guy that wants to take chances. You wouldn’t necessarily lump Jackie McLean and Chick Corea together, but that’s something that I see in common, that they’re artists, they’re going to be daring, they’re going to let the work show, they’re going to let the flaws be there and make it become part of the music. And you’re absolutely right that our generation… When you hear some of these recordings from the mid and late ’60s, you just say, there’s no way we would do that in this day and age if we’re in the studio, and say it’s some up-tempo thing and the time got kind of funny, and then it just kind of disintegrates into some free-sounding stuff — everyone would stop the take and say, “No, man, this sucks; this is unacceptable.”

I think there’s a lot of good values to that, to really trying to… I think we’ve all kind of slowly but surely raised the overall level of expectations in each other, what you’re supposed to be able to do and handle. But at the same time, there’s a spirit in the process that’s maybe lacking. I think you nailed something on the head. I’m still going through trying to really play good, just play good melodies and learn how to swing and play changes well. But eventually, I’d like to move to a point where I’m not so conscious of that, and thinking about more artistic kind of things, and let it be what it’s going to be.

But right now for me, particularly with the One For All guys and some of these Criss-Cross dates, it’s been a great experience just trying to make good, solid records that are going to stand the test of time, but still you’re trying to lay it out, with no baloney.

[ETC.]

I’ve yet to really flesh out my own original music, and especially the chance to record with Harold Mabern is a privilege right there… I keep thinking that no matter what I get to eventually, I’ll always like to play pretty melodies and try to swing too much to not do it. There’s something about it, that you like it too much to just abandon it or sacrifice it in the name of something else.

Jackie McLean on Steve Davis, 1998:

TP: What do you remember about Steve when he came to Hartt?

JM: He just came with his parents, like most students do, to go to school. That’s when he enrolled in my program, and that’s how I met him. I was very impressed with him. Mostly that I liked the background that he had in the music. He had a good concept and a good understanding of the music, and a great appreciation, plus he’s a very-very nice young man.

TP: He obviously developed a lot, because eventually he came into your band. Can you discuss his progress over the years?

JM: Well, he didn’t waste any time at school. We spent an awful lot of time together. He would come to my saxophone ensembles with his trombone and play, and he was there all the time. He was an A-student, he was great in his ensemble work, incredible in the large orchestra under Mr. Al Lepack’s(?) leadership, and he just took advantage of all the opportunities that the school offered him. Then when you link that with his natural talent, you see the result.

TP: Did you stay in touch with him between when he left Hartt and rejoined you in ’92?

JM: He never went anywhere. I got him a job immediately. He never left Hartt. The first thing I did for Steve is when Art Blakey needed a trombone player, I recommended him. But he never left Hartford, and he’s still teaching there.

TP: So you were always in touch with Steve.

JM: Yeah. From the time he walked in the door, we’ve been in touch with each other.

TP: Talk about the events that caused you to ask him to join your band.

JM: Ted, it’s very simple. When I hear somebody who plays at a particular level, and I like their concept and I like the way they write, the way Steve does… Steve writes wonderful, plays wonderful. There’s nothing other than that. Just “come on and let’s try to play some music together.”

TP: But it augmented your ensemble in a lot of ways. You were starting a new band. It was kind of a transitional time at that time?

JM: No, it just happened. He was up in Canada, and I told him to come play with me at a concert. I had our quartet, and he came and played. Then Rene and I had our quintet, and we added him to that, and he played there for a while. Then he just stayed with me all that time.

TP: He said that one of the great things he got from you that he thinks he’s brought to some of the contemporaries he’s worked with, is your idea of the “big room,” taking small cells of material, and then expanding on it. Did he always have that facility, to be very creative within the situations you present?

JM: He’s very talented in many-many ways. His ability to write music the way he does, his great feeling for harmony and colors… He’s another young great musician developing and playing very well.

TP: Was Grachan Moncur the last trombonist you worked with before Steve?

JM: Yes, he was the first trombonist after Grachan.

TP: How do you hear his playing evolving from when he began to work with the ensemble in 1992 to now?

JM: It’s very difficult to put into words how somebody grows. He’s playing better. He came to the school playing very well for a freshman, and over the four years he was there, his playing… It’s like he was always in my band, I felt like, because we were always playing together, not on the bandstand so much, but around the school, at my house, in different places. Yeah, he’s grown, just like everybody grows. He’s grown immensely. He’s a wonderful musician. He’s one of my favorite trombone players of all time, as far as I’m concerned. It doesn’t matter that he’s not my contemporary. I like his sound, I like the way he writes. He’s just a very special musician.

TP: Anything else you want to say about Steve?

JM: Well, I’m just very much in love with him, and his wife, Mary, who is also very talented. His wife is a wonderful musician, great piano player, and his little boy, Anthony… He’s part of my family. I feel like he’s part of my existence. He’s magnificent and wonderful. I feel great that I’ve had this relationship with him, first as a student and now as a colleague and a compatriot in the music. Just because right now we’re not playing together so much doesn’t mean that we’re not going to play together in the future. I’m looking forward to hearing Steve more at some future time.

 

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Filed under Interview, Jackie McLean, Steve Davis, Trombone

For Herbie Hancock’s 77th Birthday, A “Director’s Cut” DownBeat Feature from 2003 and an interview with the Barnes & Noble Review From 2014

Readers of this blog need no introduction to Herbie Hancock, who turns 77 today. For the occasion, I’m posting the “director’s cut” of a DownBeat cover piece I had the opportunity to write about HH in 2003, and the proceedings of an interview he did with me on the occasion of the publication of Breaking The Rules for the Barnes & Noble Review ‘zine, in which he states: “Jazz is really a foundational music. Jazz musicians have the flexibility to be able to move around freely in other genres. It doesn’t work the other way around. I would say that’s a badge of honor for jazz.”

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Herbie Hancock DB Cover Story, 2003

The opening sequence of Herbie Hancock’s new DVD, Future-2-Future, Live, follows Hancock, elegantly casual in a custom-tailored black suit, as he enters stage left at the Los Angeles Knitting Factory. Hancock bows, addresses a Korg Karma Roland MK-80 keyboard plugged into an Apple PowerBook computer, and triggers a series of ascending and descending swoops of varying duration. Against a backdrop of swirling rave images, bassist Matthew Garrison bows complementary tones, D.J. Disk interpolates whispery swatches of color, keyboardist Darrell Diaz plucks soft chords, drummer Teri Lyne Carrington elicits rubato, bell-like beats from her cymbals.

Then Hancock takes the microphone in his right hand. “Simply put, knowledge is the past,” he says in a calm, deliberate voice. “It is…” — he smiles, and sweeps his left hand across the keyboard — “…technology.” He pauses, cues an oscillating wash of sound, and continues, stretching out the words: “Wisdom is the future. It is philosophy. It is people’s hearts that move the age. While knowledge may provide a useful point of reference, it cannot become a force to guide the future. By contrast, wisdom captivates people’s hearts and has the power to open a new age. Wisdom is the key to understanding the age, creating the time.”

Concluding the invocation, from a text by his spiritual guide, Daiseku Ikeda, Hancock sustains the tone poem, setting up a Carrington chant, which is sampled polyphonically and to which she creates a complementary drumbeat on her electronic pads. Hancock shifts, sits at the acoustic piano, states the melody of “Kebero,” and launches a pithy, majestic solo, constantly developing the theme and sustaining a complex rhythmic dialogue with his drummer, deploying a precisely calibrated array of attacks to treat the piano simultaneously as both an orchestral harmonic instrument and a drum. Carrington’s sampled chant is a break chorus that paves the way for trumpeter Wallace Roney, who bobs and weaves through the rhythm with long combinations that sum up the harmonic material, not stopping until Hancock returns to the Korg with a declarative chord that winds up the piece.

Through the ebb and flow of the remaining 90 minutes of Future-2-Future Live, Hancock improvises through his entire timeline, bouncing off the ensemble to navigate seamlessly through electronic and acoustic environments with a holistic sensibility that he has not displayed on previous recordings. On “This Is D.J. Disk,” a call-and-response with the turntablist, Hancock uncorks a solo that evokes Inventions and Dimensions, his 1963 encounter with bassist Paul Chambers and two Afro-Latin percussionists. He creates a completely reconfigured 20-minute suite of “Dolphin Dance,” originally recorded in 1965 on Maiden Voyage, and one of several dozen Hancock compositions that stand among the sublime achievements of late 20th century jazz. He presents 21st century versions of “Hornets,” a Techno epic originally recorded in 1973 by the groove-based experimental coop Mwandishi on the aforementioned Sextant, and “Butterfly,” a soulful melody from Hancock’s late ’70s fusion period. On the encore, a balls-out “Chameleon,” he comps wickedly under an inspired Kurzweil solo by Darrell Diaz, then takes a thematic counterstatement on the Korg and an orchestral variation on acoustic piano.

Much of the repertoire comprises Hancock’s arrangements of material from his self-released studio CD, Future-2-Future [Transparent], refined over the band’s 50 or so dates during 2001-02. “We committed ourselves to Future-2-Future from an artist development point of view, going on the road and playing smaller clubs to younger audiences, almost as if Herbie was a new artist,” explains his manager, David Passick. On the CD, producer Bill Laswell situated Hancock in the Electro-Hiphop-Ambient-Techno dancefloor environment that he foreshadowed thirty years ago on such albums as Sextant — specifically the piece “Nobu,” built on scratch-like beats — and Dedication, and that he helped to launch in the ‘80s on Future Shock and Perfect Machine. Laswell collects beats from Detroit Techno producer Carl Craig, Afro-Brit drum-bass avatar Gerald Simpson, DJ Rob Swift, Grandmixer DXT, and tabla-percussionist Karsh Kale, deploys the resonant voices of Chaka Khan, Gigi, and Imani Uzuri, and calls on old master instrumentalists Wayne Shorter and Jack deJohnette – and a sampled drum track laid down by Tony Williams not long before his death – to impart gravitas and depth.

“Bill thought it would be interesting if I worked with people who are creating this kind of music who were influenced by records I did when I was their age,” Hancock says. “What would be the future-to-future end product? Bill likes to prepare fragments — some harmonic material or drums or drum-and-bass — before he meets me. Stimulating things. On our past albums, I would evaluate what he prepared, decide what to do, and then go back in the studio and shape it into my record by adding and changing things. The technology has evolved, and when I heard his material I was in the studio in front of a keyboard with a ‘Record’ light on. Bill wanted my immediate first reaction, my my gut-level, right-brain response. I’m listening to something; I don’t know where it’s going or where it starts, or anything.”

“When we talk about Electronica, we’re speaking about programming, not playing as a jazz musician would,” says Laswell, reinforcing the point. ” But Herbie thinks in terms of playing and programming simultaneously. He can imagine a sequence as a repetition, not something that’s reproduced electronically, but a spontaneously played musical part. He hears patterns, and he thinks in terms of structures — very advanced harmonic structures.”

“I’ve played with a lot of great musicians,” says Roney. “Sometimes with them, we’re playing, it’s great, we’re having a good time. But with Herbie, from the first chord, the first run, my jaw would drop. You never knew what you were going to hear next and it always took your breath away. Every time.”

“In a way, improvising is like composing,” Hancock says. “I am interested in making it more spontaneous and less intellectual, getting the thinking brain out of the way and letting the music flow through. The structure or balance will inherently reveal itself as a natural consequence. Now, the Mwandishi band played very spontaneous music, and the Future-2-Future band comes from a perspective very similar to when I did Crossings and Sextant. But in the early ’70s it was more raw, whereas now it’s reached some kind of maturity. The music was unrefined, like laying your guts out, letting it all hang out, which a young person may do. Today I’m letting it all hang out, but there’s a sense of the importance of responsibility and other things you learn as you get older.

“Except on rare occasions, I haven’t practiced scales and exercises, the way we normally think of practicing, in many years. What I want to draw from is not technique. I’m no longer interested in being a piano virtuoso in any way, shape or form. That’s not what I’m about. I’m interested in allowing the innermost person to express itself, to respond to whatever the musical environment may be, moment to moment, and to encourage others to have the courage to not be afraid to walk into that kind of darkness.”

Although Hancock has numerous plans for the remainder of 2003, none involve touring the Future-2-Future band. Hancock’s next project will piggyback on his eighth Grammy-winning album, Gershwin’s World [Verve], a critically acclaimed response to the Gershwin Centennial. Joining forces with arranger-conductor Robert Sadin, who conceptualized the album, he will play his own music as well as compositions by Gil Evans, Wayne Shorter, Duke Ellington and Gershwin with philharmonic orchestras in America and Europe. Nor is he neglecting his distinguished legacy in hardcore jazz, with engagements booked for his quartet (Carrington, saxophonist Gary Thomas, and bassist Scott Colley) and with Verve labelmates Michael Brecker and Roy Hargrove in the New Directions Band, which last year released a 2001 location date from Toronto’s Massey Hall, devoted primarily to the music of John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Massey Hall was the venue where, in 1953, bebop icons Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach convened to document the legendary “Greatest Jazz Concert Ever,” and Hancock will go there in May to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary with Roy Haynes, Dave Holland, Kenny Garrett and Nicholas Payton.

It will also be roughly fifty years from the time when the 13-year-old Hancock – a classical prodigy who at 11 had played Mozart’s D-Minor Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — heard a classmate play jazz trio at a variety show at Hyde Park High School. “I didn’t know anything about improvising then,” Hancock recalls. “I played Classical music and Rhythm-and-Blues. If it wasn’t on the page, I didn’t play it. I had no idea what this guy was doing, but it was organized and rhythmically it was cool. I became curious and decided to learn how to do it, and the more I investigated, the more I liked it. He was playing things that George Shearing had recorded, like ‘I’ll Remember April’ and ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,’ which we had at home. I found phrases I liked, and tried to find the notes on the piano or by singing the part. Then I’d write them down, continue until I got the whole phrase, and try to play the phrase by looking at the notes on the page. I noticed it sounded different from when George Shearing played it, and I looked more closely at what was happening. I noticed that some notes were louder than others, that he used accents, held some parts of the phrase longer — little nuances that made the difference. So when I was 14 and in high school, I was getting experience in ear training and sight-singing.”

Progressing rapidly, Hancock began to participate in the bustling Chicago scene towards the end of high school, going to jam sessions and picking up ideas from such reharmonization-oriented local pianists as Billy Wallace, Jodie Christian, Willie Pickens and Muhal Richard Abrams, young progressives like Eddie Harris, Ira Sullivan, and Wilbur Ware, and future bandmates like George Coleman, Julian Priester and James Spaulding, the latter two members of Sun Ra’s ’50s Arkestra. He matriculated at Grinnell College in Iowa, where he initially majored in electrical engineering. During summer vacations he took club gigs, including one for which he recalls hiring Jack DeJohnette to play bass. With increasing regularity he attended the jam sessions, including one produced by Joe Segal at the Gate of Horn on the North Side. There he heard the blind pianist Chris Anderson.

“Right after I heard him, and wiped the tears from my eyes, because what he played was so beautiful, I studied with him for a week,” Hancock recalls. “His harmonic thinking and the heart that went into his playing stunned me. When I looked at him – blind, bones brittle, using a crutch — I said, ‘Who is this mother?’ Then he got up and played, and he was playing some harmonic things that Bill Evans was not dealing with at the time. I said, ‘I want to learn what this stuff is!’ For anybody at that time, to have studied with Chris would be a great advantage.

“I also heard Sun Ra a couple of times. Once he was rehearsing in the basement of the Sutherland, I somehow found out about it and checked him out a bit. I didn’t really dig it, but it was interesting. It was a bit much for me at the time.”

In a sense, Hancock is a prototype Chicago musician of his era, sharing philosophical affinities with fellow South Side products like Eddie Harris, Muhal Richard Abrams, Jack DeJohnette, Andrew Hill, Charles Stepney and Maurice White. In his preoccupation with process, technology, collectivity and self-determination, in the risk-taking imperatives that drive him, in his iconoclastic temperament, in his desire to express himself in populist and highbrow forums, to crack the codes of multiple musical languages towards humanistic narrative ends, he embodies the ancient-to-the-future perspective postulated by the Art Ensemble of Chicago during the decade after he departed for New York and began his storied career.

“I describe the whole Chicago experience as school,” he says. “You learned all the basics and got exposure to elements coming from a wide variety of sources, from the total avant garde, which Sun Ra could be, to things from Gene Ammons, the blues, and the way different cats played bebop. The musicians and audiences always encouraged some form of experimentation. You didn’t have to have things perfect; Chicago’s jazz fans supported whatever you were into. Chicago was the best foundation I could think of for going to New York.”

Like his former employer Miles Davis, Hancock is a musician who actually has guided the future and changed the time. Personal modesty aside, he remains a virtuoso on his instrument, and his music has a novelistic scope. Pianists acknowledge his unsurpassed sensitivity of touch and nuance, and since his days with Miles Davis — think of “81” or “Stuff” — he’s known how to switch on a dime from the highest highbrow abstractions to the most soulful soul brother funk. He defined the modern Fender Rhodes electric piano sound on Filles de Kilmanjaro and Fat Albert Rotunda, and was a pioneer in establishing a vocabulary from early synthesizers. He led the curve in groove-based experimental music with Mwandishi, in rhythm-and-blues with Headhunters, and in blending hip-hop and Euro-Techno aesthetics, without ceding innovative status in the hardcore jazz pantheon.

“I think Herbie’s a genius to the point that when he chooses to go Pop, without sacrificing everything he is, he becomes authentic Pop,” says Roney. “When Headhunters came out, he changed the way pianists and keyboard players play R&B; now they all do that little tremolo and those comping riffs he does. Herbie listened to Sly Stone, and he and Stevie were friends, but he comes into the arena without offending it, and ups the ante. The jazz purists hate it, and the pure R&B people get mad. But you turn around, and everybody’s trying to play keyboards like Herbie Hancock.”

“Tell the members of a symphony orchestra, or a jazz musician, or a rapper or R&B guy, ‘You’re going to work with Herbie Hancock,’ and they’re thrilled,” Sadin says. “This is a person who goes into a room and is equally comfortable with the executives and the people who prepare the food. And it’s reflected in the scope of his music. He absorbs messages from a wide range of peoples and cultures, and then transforms and develops them into his own language. But not solely in a technical-analytical way, like being able to transcribe the beats and say they’re playing on the three or some such thing. He responds deeply to the emotional climate that brought those accents into being. He plays with a conviction and naturalness which is different from someone who studies a musical style and recreates it.”

As in the Mwandishi days, Hancock, who authored some of the most sensuous and evocative songs in all of jazz history before his thirtieth birthday, has turned primarily to collaboration and recomposition in constructing the sonic environments in which he operates. In most cases, like his old friends Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea, he works with younger musicians whose sensibilities coalesced in a climate that involved absorbing his music and forming their own conclusions from it, refreshing Hancock through their ability to interact with him on many levels.

“Writing was always a painful process for me,” he says. “It’s a lot of hard work; I have to practically beat myself into it. When I was much younger, my perspective was narrower. I had a lot of time on my hands, everything was kind of new, and I wrote a lot of things. The more material you put out and the deeper you dig in for that material, especially if you’re a guy like me who doesn’t like to do something he’s already done, it gets harder. Also, I’m getting older, which I think makes it harder to do. Collaborating is a great way to extend yourself.”

Now collecting Social Security, Hancock is thinking about a project on which he’ll respond to some of the brightest lights in progressive Hip-Hop/Urban. “The Future-2-Future record represented a more international and European look at music,” says Passick, who cites discussions with Amir from the Roots, and also the producers Rashad Smith and J.K. “I see a great correlation between the Roots and Herbie’s Electric Funk period. He had a major influence. When I talk to prominent people in Hip-Hop, the amount of Herbie’s music that is prominent in their life is astounding.”

For Hancock, it’s all part of a lifelong process of discovery. “To want to put something out there, I need new stuff,” he sums up. “Whether the new stuff is old stuff with a new hat, or old stuff treated in a whole new way, or whether it’s actually new material, that’s what I want. I need to feel I’m making a new perspective.”

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Interview for Barnes & Noble Review, 2014:

No living musician hews more closely to the notion of “Renaissance Man” than Herbie Hancock, whose artistic production over the past half century continues to stamp the twenty-first-century soundtrack.

Consider the range and depth of Hancock’s career markers. Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, he performed Mozart’s D Major Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at eleven. When he left the Miles Davis Quintet at twenty-eight to explore his own vision, Hancock was already a key figure in the jazz piano pantheon, had defined the modern Fender Rhodes electric piano sound, and had composed some of the most sensuous and evocative songs in jazz history, some of them for the soundtrack of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Two decades he would win an Oscar in that genre for Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight.

By the early ’70s, Hancock was pioneering in ways to incorporate synthesizers into real-time musical flow with Mwandishi, his first working band, which led the curve in groove-based experimental, improvised music, and would influence numerous practitioners of electronica and other turn-of-the-century beat musics. Mid-decade, he led the curve again with Headhunters, his enormously popular band, and yet again in 1984 with the hip-hop/techno hybrid put forth on the album Future Shock, his first of fourteen Grammy winners. He earned a twelfth Grammy, in 2008, for River: The Joni Letters—only the second jazz album ever to earn an Album of the Year designation—on which he framed reinterpretations of the Joni Mitchell songbook by Tina Turner, Leonard Cohen, and the composer herself. His fourteenth Grammy, in 2011, acknowledged The Imagine Project, a one world–oriented extravaganza on which Hancock traveled to various locations around the world to record pop repertoire with an international cast of characters.

What makes Hancock tick? Some answers appear in his memoir, Possibilities, released six months after the seventy-four-year-old UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, Professor of Music at UCLA, and Chairman of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz fulfilled his obligations to Harvard as the 2014 Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry with a half-dozen lectures on “The Ethics of Jazz.” It’s the latest step in an iconoclastic career driven by risk-taking imperatives; a preoccupation with process, technology and collective expression; an equal comfort zone in populist and highbrow forums; and a desire to crack the codes of multiple musical languages and refract them into his own argot. Hancock’s narrative—he collaborated with ghost-writer Lisa Dickey—vividly portrays these qualities. It’s as no-holds-barred as his jazz playing—intuitive and logical, refined and raw, pragmatic and utopian, real-world and spiritual. —Ted Panken

The Barnes & Noble Review: You were initially an engineering major at Grinnell College, and your relationship to technology is one of several through-lines that thread through the text. Another is your creative process.

Herbie Hancock: I’ve always been a very curious person. It’s in my DNA.  It’s in the book that I’d take apart watches and clocks and other things before I showed an interest in music. That curiosity led to my interest in jazz. When I was thirteen, I thought that to play jazz, you had to be older than I was, and I never paid attention to it because it didn’t make sense to me and didn’t move me.  Then I saw a kid my age playing jazz on piano, and got the sense that he knew what he was doing, that it wasn’t just a bunch of notes.  Rhythmically it was cool; there was a beat to it. I was a pretty good piano player at the time, and I decided then that I wanted to learn how to do it.  So that curiosity opened the door. Later, that curiosity led me to work musically in many different genres, to put things together that maybe hadn’t been put together before.

BNR: You describe how each of your encounters with various new technologies in beta phases—tablets, synthesizers, MIDI, musical software, the vocoder, drum machines, the mini-disc—stimulated an entirely new project, a new world of sound.

HH: That’s true. My curiosity enabled me to integrate the technology with music. Once I changed my major in college to music, I still would have been a geek and a gadget guy, but I didn’t think there would be a way to combine music and technology until synthesizers came along. That opened up new doors.

BNR: In actualizing your technological vision during the ’70s and ’80s you worked closely with Bryan Bell, who taught himself programming language and, in one vignette, from 1979, predicts, “We’ll be able to sell music on the computer.” Two years earlier, well before MIDI, he engineered a working synthesizer that powered and fully controlled all your keyboards.

HH: When I bought my Apple II+ computers in 1979, there were scarce examples of interfacing computers and music, but I was convinced computers would become a strong element in the music field. I could never have predicted how true that would be with iTunes and so forth today. Bryan always jokes that when something new arrived at my studio, the first thing I’d say was, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do this?” This would be something it couldn’t do, but Bryan would try to make it happen. That led to a lot of explorations that preceded commercial products made by someone else. We were just trying to make stuff that I could use.

BNR: How has your M.O. for research and development evolved? A different process than during the ’70s and ’80s?

HH: A new development in the way I look at my creative output, which is primarily due to my practice of Buddhism, is that I think about purpose when I make a record. In other words, what is it that you want to encourage in other people, not just share musically, but perhaps stimulate or point out or champion?

BNR: A passage in the second chapter portrays a moment in high school, when your parents punished you by not allowing you to attend a party. You assuaged disappointment and anger by thinking through the situation rationally. That theme of using logic to control your emotions—of detachment—is consistent.

HH: When I was young, I did that to avoid pain or punishment or whatever. Later on, I realized that in doing that I’m cutting off part of my own humanity. I didn’t realize how damaging it could be if carried to extremes. I also didn’t understand the concept of “no pain, no gain.” We know that applies to physical exercise. But suffering and challenges are part of life. Without them, you’d be bored to tears; if you let them control you, you are losing the battle. You can’t necessarily grow from nice things happening. So I don’t look at suffering as something I need to get away from, but can actually use to move forward.

Revealing my experience with crack was a difficult decision. My daughter and my wife felt that the book was the vehicle for talking about this. I had been trying to suppress this experience, as though it had never happened. But I should have known better. I thought I could accomplish a couple of things by discussing it. Most important is that someone struggling with addiction or whatever other challenge might benefit from seeing my path in winning this battle. Also, I wanted to acknowledge that my life hasn’t been all goody-two-shoes. So I freely pulled back the stuff I was trying to throw out of my life, to reconsider the reality of those things. In Buddhism, we talk about the phrase of “turning poison into medicine.” This is the way for me to do that.

BNR: You certainly do not paint yourself as a saint, particularly during the ’60s and early ’70s. Your depictions of several acid trips speak to your powers of description.

HH: That’s the way it was.

BNR: From beginning to end, Miles Davis is a constant presence. He was a mentor to you, a kind of father figure. Sometimes sons rebel against fathers, and I’m wondering if you expressed resistance to him in ways that inflected the course of your career.

HH: I was twenty-three when I joined Miles’s band. Tony Williams was seventeen. Now, Tony did have that kind of rebellion you’re talking about with Miles. But Miles wasn’t that kind of father figure for me, and I didn’t feel a need to be rebellious against him. I admired his music, and I admired many things about his ethics in music. He had so many aspects to his character that were valuable to the musicians who played with him. When people who played with Miles’s different bands have an opportunity to converse, we all have similar stories we can tell.

BNR: How do you denote a successful performance? What’s your metric for critique?

HH: That’s hard to describe. I’ve had the experience where I’ve thought something didn’t work so well when I was playing, but on the tour bus we’d listen to a recording from the mixing console, and, in fact, the stuff was killing!

BNR: You describe that dynamic in talking about the Plugged Nickel recordings by the Miles Davis Quintet in 1965.

HH: Yes, that was a surprise. I guess when I play, I experience a certain freedom from spontaneous connection. When the music is flowing, and the joy of discovery is happening, and there’s a very open space for a wide variety of approaches to transpire moment to moment, and all of us feel that joy—to me, that’s a successful performance. Not the applause that comes from the audience. Of course, it’s nice. I love it. Who doesn’t love that? I’ve had eggs thrown at me, too, in Germany. But I knew that we were hot and the music was smokin’, so it didn’t bother me. It was maybe the first time I experienced that. But it gave me the opportunity to feel courage and conviction about what I was doing.

BNR: Throughout the book, whenever you refer to jazz, which you don’t try to define, you are eloquent and passionate about your relationship to it, as, for example, in your acceptance speeches for receiving an Oscar and a Grammy. You’re one of the very few who has both attained eminence in jazz as a stylist, an improviser, and a composer, and been a highly successful practitioner in popular music. Do you see the idioms as related or separate? Do different components of your personality come into play when you address one or the other?

HH: I don’t think I could do what I did if I drew a fine line between the two. But jazz is really a foundational music. Jazz musicians have the flexibility to be able to move around freely in other genres. It doesn’t work the other way around. I would say that’s a badge of honor for jazz. I’m fortunate that jazz is my foundation. Yes, I started with classical music, and classical music is also foundational for me. It’s through classical music that I learned to read music, to sit and hold my hands and fingers properly at the instrument. That’s a big reason why I’ve never had any physical problems. Granted, I don’t curve my fingers exactly like I did when I first started off, but that’s the nature of the process. You find your own space. From what you’re taught, from what other people have done, you find what’s best for you. We’re all different, and you have to personalize these things.

BNR: The notion of individualism is a component of jazz culture, too, particularly in the period when you were coming up.

HH: Absolutely. The cool thing is, in the ’60s, at the time I joined Miles’s band, rock ‘n’ roll was hot. Ornette Coleman’s Shape of Jazz to Come had become a landmark recording, and avant-garde, even though it was still kind of underground, was influencing the post-bebop musicians who were more visible. Of course, there was John Coltrane and the group we had with Miles. It was a very fertile time for creativity on all levels. Look what the Beatles did. Sgt. Pepper. Whoever thought rock ‘n’ roll artists would do stuff like that? Joni Mitchell! A lot of stuff was going on.

BNR: You developed very sensitive antennae, to pick up and assimilate these diverse sounds. I guess you were also absorbing James Brown and Sly Stone during those years.

HH: Right. When I did Head Hunters, I was thinking about Sly Stone. That’s why I named one of the songs “Sly,” as an homage to his influence, even though the music had nothing to do with him.

In the book, I describe that Miles’s attitude made me decide it must be cool to be open. Even though I didn’t admit it then, I liked James Brown’s music. I liked the beat. When I was a kid, I didn’t just listen to classical music and jazz. I was listening to R&B, and I played R&B. Things like Head Hunters and “Rockit” connect to my background, as offshoots of R&B, in a sense. I was born in 1940, so I’m a little older than the rock ‘n’ roll generation. I didn’t really like rock ‘n’ roll, but I did like R&B. It’s funny that Jimi Hendrix was associated with rock ‘n’ roll, but he was basically a blues player. Of course, that’s what rock ‘n’ roll grew out of. What he played was perhaps . . . I was going to say more authentic, but that’s not what I mean. Maybe more connected with those roots.

BNR: Well, he had a direct and lineal connection to the real blues, the blues that was going on not far from your house on the South Side, not once-removed and studying records.

HH: Exactly. But the thing is, I wouldn’t even listen to Jimi Hendrix, because to me, his name was associated with rock ‘n’ roll. I didn’t start checking him out until later, when the rumor was getting around that Miles and Jimi might do something together, which would involve me and Tony Williams and Ron Carter. That aroused my curiosity, but then he died.

BNR: Although it happened too late to be discussed in Possibilities, you served as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard earlier this year, and presented six lectures on “The Ethics of Jazz.”

HH: I got a call from a representative of the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard who told me that they wanted to bestow upon me the Norton Professorship of Poetry, which I hadn’t heard of. I had no idea how heavy that was until I saw names like Igor Stravinsky and T. S. Eliot and Leonard Bernstein. Then I was told that I’d have to do lectures. To make things fit with my career, I gave three in February and three in March. I ordered Bernstein’s lectures from Barnes & Noble, but the tone was too pedantic for me to emulate. He could pull that off, but I wouldn’t want to. It wouldn’t be me.

One of the lectures is called “Breaking the Rules.” I wanted to share an important concept—that the people we study broke the rules, and created new ones. Whoever heard of the people that followed the rules? Of course, it’s important to learn the rules. I’m constantly in the process of doing that. But don’t confine me to those rules. It’s important to think outside the box, and not be stuck inside the comfort zone.

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